I have been reading about this recently, partially because of the protests against Charles Murray. I was curious. Gender and race differences are socially acceptable when speaking about sports, but not when speaking about intelligence – as if to say we can be different visually and physically, but not in any other way. Why?

I understand that statistics can be abused by ignorant people with an agenda to promote sexist and racist views, but the reality is that test results show such a large overlap in all categories, that it impossible to generalise about any one individual. This means that in athletics, leadership positions, and specific technical fields there can be a higher representation of any given gender or race, but if you compare any two individuals and you cannot say anything for certain.

An extreme misunderstanding and exaggeration of these differences can lead to sexism and racism, but the extreme of trivialising and ignoring all these differences can lead to unfairness: not treating people as equals on an individual basis, but giving them an advantage or disadvantage based on whatever group we say they belong to. It fascinates me that some are so afraid of the first extreme, but not the second.

The second extreme is a genuine solution if you assume that we are actually unwilling or incapable of treating people as equals, and must be forced to do so. Interestingly, there is a chance that if you hold this view long enough and have enough influence, the “Pygmalion effect” can prove you right. Tested in the classroom, this effect showed that a strong expectation by the teacher regarding the good or bad potential performance of young students, when maintained over a sufficient period time, usually led to the expected results. It is scary to think that if this applies equally to social interactions, it means that if we forcefully “see” sexism and racism everywhere, and with enough conviction, we could actually create it.

But, if you think that people are generally good and give them the benefit of the doubt with regard to their intentions, here is another view: some differences can be accounted for by “nurture” (upbringing, social conditions and pressures, and education), and some by “nature” (inherited potential from genes, and/or extraordinary inherent potential, i.e. the “genius factor”). The specific ratio between the two is unknown, so intelligence or ability testing measures an unknown portion of both.

What I learned about testing:

  • results of testing depend on how you define “intelligence”, and what kind(s) of intelligence you are measuring
  • testing can be biased, and results can depend on who created the test
  • if you keep the test exactly the same, the results for any group can change every generation (usually going up about every 20-25 years)
  • the divides between gender and race in any field of expertise, from intellectual to manual labour, are partly determined by “nurture” (see above) and “nature” (see above), but also by personal preference (from a complex combination of life experiences).
  • entering any field or area of expertise, from athletic to intellectual to manual labour intensive, may require some minimum level of ability (mental and/or physical), but the most successful in a field do not necessarily have the highest ability scores; overall success is strongly connected to other factors like ambition, discipline, and determination.
  • because of the complicated nature of most professions, intelligence in one area can only indicate the probability of high performance in another (e.g. high mathematical intelligence and being a good architect); no one factor can predict overall success

Perhaps we should be fighting for a healthy form of capitalism, in which employers are looking to hire the best people to create the most successful teams, and must therefore look at people individually, case-by-case, because a good candidate is a complicated combination of ability, desire, will, resilience, etc. These qualities can be cultivated over time, so personal history matters, and they must be taken into account.

Testing can show small differences when we sample large enough numbers of people. Acknowledging this statistical fact is not sexist or racist, and does not determine individual outcomes – personal character is a much greater predictor. Making sweeping generalisations based on this information is ignorant.

There are still cases where sexism and racism create barriers, and even cases where intimidation is a factor (e.g. reluctance to enter an environment where you are the only representative of your “group”). I believed the percentage of all such cases were going down because of healthy market competition and growing social awareness, but recent media stories have me wondering whether we are taking a step backwards. I don’t know. In any case, we need to stay vigilant, especially in raising children to understand that the opportunities are there, but require hard work; that there will be personal challenges; and that all people must be treated fairly and with dignity.

There will always be differences in the way various groups (however you determine them) are represented in any area, and sometimes this shows how healthy a society is, not how sick.

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