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January 25, 2005

Andrew Sullivan: Is Truth "Too Hot To Handle"?

I know I've focused a lot on the Larry Summers controversy, but this Andrew Sullivan piece is truly first-rate. I particularly loved this passage:

Scientists are finding out more and more about the differences between the male and female brains. One thing that endures across cultures and populations is a male edge at the very top of the bell curve for spatial and mathematical reasoning. Ever wonder why boys are more likely to suffer from autism? Some researchers are investigating whether autism isn’t an extreme case of this specialisation.

Scientists have also discovered correlations between certain behavioural traits and levels of testosterone. Testosterone exists in both men and women but it is far more plentiful in men. Among testosterone-related characteristics are aggression, lack of focus and edginess.

No big surprise then that 95% of all hyperactive kids are boys; or that four times as many boys are dyslexic and learning-disabled as girls. There is a greater distinction between the right and left brains among boys than girls, and worse linguistic skills. These are generalisations, of course. There are many boys who are great linguists and model students, and vice versa. Some boys even prefer, when left to their own devices, to play with dolls as well as trucks. But we are talking of generalities.

All this is the subject of cutting-edge scientific debate. It cannot be illegitimate to conduct it. In a university it shouldn’t be illegitimate to have any debate that is rooted in evidence, reason and argument. That’s what universities are for.

Of course, discussion of human natural inequality will always be sensitive. It’s a hard fact to absorb that some people will never be as intelligent as some others, or as musically gifted, or as mathematically skilled. Americans in particular hate the notion that there is some natural limit on what people can and cannot achieve.

But there is a distinction between moral and political equality for all — the bedrock of a liberal society — and unavoidable natural inequalities between human beings and, in a few narrow areas, between social groups. This cannot and should not mean that any individual should be prejudged or denied opportunity. But it does mean that some imbalances in certain professions may not be entirely a function of prejudice or bigotry.

We see it over and over again in the United States: this mystifying overemphasis on the individual at the expense of the group.

But laws, social mores, and even the dreaded stereotype (viewed with fear and loathing by the supposedly liberated, but often the result of observing real characteristics, consistently demonstrated by distinctly identifiable groups) are all attempts to deal with people in the aggregate: to form rules that work in the majority of cases.

For some reason, Americans have come to despise the common weal. "But this law is making Jane Q. Public miserable!", shreiks Maureen Dowd! "I lunched with two girlfriends (Tilapia with Mango/Tequila Salsa at Elaine's) and they say the Bushies are out of control!" Nevermind that the law in question has been around since 1993.

Wow. A super-majority of three - this is obviously a crisis of national proportions. I'll get my Congresswoman on the line. I wonder what SpongeBob thinks?

Only a simpleton assumes there will never be exceptions to a general rule, but then only a simpleton refuses to acknowledge that Bell curves are so shaped because the observed traits of large groups of people cluster towards the center. When making broad social policy, how much sense does it make to discard observations that describe almost 70% of the population?

Every culture has its biases. America loves to misinterpret "all men are created equal" to mean equality of outcome or an equal place at the starting line, rather than equality of opportunity. And we can't even get equality of opportunity right.

In a world where people show up on race day with unequal educations, socio-economic backgrounds, looks, intelligence, ambition, skin color, and aptitudes, no rational law can assure they will all be able to run at the same speed.

How, therefore, can a just legal system assure equality of outcome? The only rational goal is that, if the race is run fairly, the winners' circle should be filled with those who demonstrated the best mix of ability and desire to win.

And, perhaps, that elusive factor that sometimes trumps all: luck.

Posted by Cassandra at January 25, 2005 07:03 AM

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Notwithstanding its shortcomings, the United States is the most efficient meritocracy that ever was, and it is more efficient today than it was in the past. I will brook no argument to the contrary!:)

Posted by: Jack at January 25, 2005 09:15 AM

Well good, you'll like my next post (I hope).

Posted by: Cassandra at January 25, 2005 09:25 AM

Well, on a more visceral level, to go with the Mo Do crowd, we need to MEDICATE those little boys!

Nothing doing.

I have a well thought out well reasoned response:

Posted by: Cricket at January 25, 2005 09:27 AM

You know . . . it will be really interesting to see the reactions when Laura Bush gets going on one of the goals, to advocate for the boys.

Posted by: Lola [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 25, 2005 09:31 AM

The best mix of ability and desire to win is what creates luck. The left uses the term luck to make achievement seem dirty. Luck is rare. "Luck" is most often made by repeatedly using your skills and desire in the right way.

If Michael Jordon throws a basketball in the basket from the opposite baseline (about 94 feet), it is luck -- that is not a shot within anyone's consistent range. But if Michael Jordon and some schmuck off the street were to have a contest to see who would first make a 94 foot shot, I would put my money on Jordon every time. His luck is going to be more consistent because of his skill set and desire.

Posted by: KJ at January 25, 2005 10:13 AM

Did'ja hear about the dyslexic insomniac agnostic who stayed awake all night pondering the existence of Dog?

I'm sorry--testosterone rush. Doesn't happen often at my age...

Posted by: cw4billt at January 25, 2005 01:47 PM

I wish there was SOME emphasis on the individual in our society; all I see is collectivism and groupfeel (you can't really call it groupTHINK).

I don't have much patience with any generality. Boys are this; girls are that--well, so what? That still doesn't tell you anything about the person with whom you're dealing. The real problem is that we're all too lazy to take the time to find out about individuals. We'd rather sit around and try to figure "men" out than try to figure a man out.
And yes, that is a generalization, too, and just as flawed as the rest of them.

Posted by: MrsPurpleRaider at January 25, 2005 06:08 PM

I think part of what you're observing is a function of crowding, Mrs. Purple.

But there's plenty of emphasis on individual over group rights:

1. No one can bring a peanut butter sandwich to school anymore because little Mary is allergic. It used to be that Mary's mom had to teach her little darling not to touch other people's lunches. Now the whole class is penalized for one person's allergy.

2. We're removing entire classes of words from school books because a person might subjectively be offended. Get over it. It's history - Communists did kill millions of people - I don't care if that "offends" you. It happened. Your subjective offense doesn't overrule the collective right of the entire school system to learn what really happened. But God forbid one person should sue over hurt feelings...

3. The way that female academician behaved was a demand for her individual, subjective "feelings" to be valued above the scientific community's search for objective truth.

That's all crap, yet what won out in the end?

The individual whiner. Summers had to apologize.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 25, 2005 06:45 PM

Cassandra - Bad news. Not only are the whiners suing, they're getting exhorbitant awards. I'll provide you the winners of this year's "Stella" awards tomorrow.
Prepare to cringe, at both the unmitigated gall of the litigants and the unmitigated stupidity of the jurors...

Posted by: cw4billt at January 25, 2005 08:57 PM

I too am tired of the focus on the individual. I am tired of being a group of one.

Posted by: Lonely Man at January 25, 2005 09:22 PM

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