Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 26, 2007

Relative Intelligence

A study published last Friday in the journal Science reopens the heated debate over environmental (as opposed to genetic) effects on intelligence. An enormous survey of sibling IQ scores in Norway found that firstborn sons had IQ scores about three points higher than second-born sons, and four points higher than the third-born (the study looked only at men, because it was based on IQ tests given to newly-drafted Norwegian soldiers in the 1960’s and 70’s.)

At first glance, this birth order effect would seem to suggest a biological cause—having to do perhaps with the higher levels of immune antibodies in the womb after a first pregnancy. But the study also looked at second-born siblings whose older brothers died in infancy, and found that in terms of IQ scores and relation to younger siblings, they belonged with the firstborns, not the second-borns. In other words, the cause seems more likely to have to do with how parents (or others) treat the oldest brother. (For Joseph Epstein’s meditations on birth-order theory, read his 1997 article O, Brother.)

But as large-scale as this study is (it examined almost a quarter million men), it still acts to highlight just how little we understand about intelligence and its relation to genetics and environment, and how prone we are to over-read and misread statistical data on intelligence.

Read More

A study published last Friday in the journal Science reopens the heated debate over environmental (as opposed to genetic) effects on intelligence. An enormous survey of sibling IQ scores in Norway found that firstborn sons had IQ scores about three points higher than second-born sons, and four points higher than the third-born (the study looked only at men, because it was based on IQ tests given to newly-drafted Norwegian soldiers in the 1960’s and 70’s.)

At first glance, this birth order effect would seem to suggest a biological cause—having to do perhaps with the higher levels of immune antibodies in the womb after a first pregnancy. But the study also looked at second-born siblings whose older brothers died in infancy, and found that in terms of IQ scores and relation to younger siblings, they belonged with the firstborns, not the second-borns. In other words, the cause seems more likely to have to do with how parents (or others) treat the oldest brother. (For Joseph Epstein’s meditations on birth-order theory, read his 1997 article O, Brother.)

But as large-scale as this study is (it examined almost a quarter million men), it still acts to highlight just how little we understand about intelligence and its relation to genetics and environment, and how prone we are to over-read and misread statistical data on intelligence.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, coverage of the study was rampant with speculation. The New York Times imagined all manner of possible reasons for the IQ difference—none of them supported by the newly published research. The story’s most developed conjecture ran as follows:

Firstborns have their parents’ undivided attention as infants, and even if that attention is later divided evenly with a sibling or more, it means that over time they will have more cumulative adult attention, in theory enriching their vocabulary and reasoning abilities.

But there’s a small problem. This explanation is flatly contradicted by an extensive literature (actually acknowledged in the same Times story) showing that before about the age of twelve, younger siblings actually score higher on IQ tests than older. This latest study strongly suggests that disparity is reversed by the time the siblings reach early adulthood, though it offers little sense of how or why.

Inconsistencies like these tell us less about the state of intelligence research than they do about our social sensitivity regarding this subject. Our egalitarian culture is implicitly committed to a blank-slate notion of intelligence, by which we are all born with the same capacities, and what matters is the chance we are given to hone them. Research that tends to support this view, as the Norwegian study does, is held to prove it utterly (the Times quotes one of the study’s authors as saying “This is quite firm evidence that the biological explanation is not true”), while every study suggesting otherwise is cut down by a thousand counter-explanations.

From all this speculation, though, there does emerge something like a general conclusion: much of the research on intelligence in recent decades has shown that genetics sets a general range above (and below) which particular individuals will not go. But that range is reasonably broad, and where an individual falls within it is affected by parenting, by culture and community, and by nutrition and health—factors, it seems, which tend to gang up against us younger siblings. (Don’t tell my brother.)

Read Less

What is MTHEL?

What should be done about the “the ignominy of Sderot”? That is Hillel Halkin’s term for the fact that a “reasonably prosperous city of some 20,000 inhabitants, an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv, [has been] reduced to a state of shell-shocked panic by scattershot Qassam attacks from the Gaza Strip, its life paralyzed . . . while the country’s government and army seem powerless to do anything about it.”

How can the Qassam rockets be countered?
Read More

What should be done about the “the ignominy of Sderot”? That is Hillel Halkin’s term for the fact that a “reasonably prosperous city of some 20,000 inhabitants, an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv, [has been] reduced to a state of shell-shocked panic by scattershot Qassam attacks from the Gaza Strip, its life paralyzed . . . while the country’s government and army seem powerless to do anything about it.”

How can the Qassam rockets be countered?

That is a vital question, requiring an urgent answer. Writing in the New York Sun, Halkin suggested three: none of them at all appealing.

The first is using air power to destroy rocket launchers as they are discovered and killing the organizers of such attacks with targeted assassinations. But Halkin is not convinced this will be successful: “the anarchy in Palestinian society has reached the point that not even the heads of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, were they to seek to stop the Qassam attacks because they feared for their own lives, would necessarily be able to do so.”

A second approach would be to reoccupy Gaza. But this has significant drawbacks: “the price Israel would pay for this in terms of military casualties would be high” and the last thing Israel needs “is once again to have to police this tiny, overpopulated strip of human misery that is an ideal place for urban guerrilla warfare.”

Another idea is for Israel to answer rocket attacks with artillery fire, leveling those portions of the Gaza strip from which the rocket-fire emanates. Halkin finds this solution to be “ugly,” but also the “best” of the three. It might, he suggests, “put an end to violence very quickly, once Palestinians in Gaza became as panicky as Israelis in Sderot and screamed at their leaders to put an end to it.”

Halkin might well be right in his ranking, but there is a fourth approach that should be considered—not just considered but made an urgent priority. It has implications not just for facing down the terrorists of Hamastan but also for pacifying the rocket-rich territory of Hizbollahland to the north and for contending with other dangers yet to emerge.

It is called MTHEL. Both the Pentagon and Israel were investing heavily in it up until 2005, when spending was abruptly cut. Although not much discussed, that decision seems to have been a far worse Israeli blunder than any committed in the course of last summer’s war. But what is MTHEL? It stands for Mobile Tactical High-Energy Laser. To watch it in action, click on the video below.

Read Less

Flawed Logic on Iran

Dissecting and analyzing what passes for news in the New York Times can be a full-time job. (The estimable Hilton Kramer used to do precisely that for the New York Post.) I generally try to steer clear of doing it, for fear of getting nothing else accomplished. But a longish piece that appeared this Sunday in the New York Times magazine cries out for a critical reading.

The article, “Hard Realities of Soft Power,” is by Negar Azimi, identified as an “editor at Bidoun, a cultural magazine based in New York City.” (Bidoun’s website provides further information: she is a 2001 Stanford graduate and a current Harvard grad student who spent a few years living in Cairo.) Its premise is summarized in a lengthy subtitle: “The United States has dedicated tens of millions of dollars to promoting democracy in Iran. But for Iranian democrats and America alike, the effort may be more trouble than it’s worth.”

This “may” is a bit coy: the article itself makes clear that, in the author’s opinion, American support for democracy promotion is counterproductive. Its only result, she implies, is to get Iranian reformers into trouble with a regime intensely suspicious of external subversion, and to undermine the reformers’ credibility.

Read More

Dissecting and analyzing what passes for news in the New York Times can be a full-time job. (The estimable Hilton Kramer used to do precisely that for the New York Post.) I generally try to steer clear of doing it, for fear of getting nothing else accomplished. But a longish piece that appeared this Sunday in the New York Times magazine cries out for a critical reading.

The article, “Hard Realities of Soft Power,” is by Negar Azimi, identified as an “editor at Bidoun, a cultural magazine based in New York City.” (Bidoun’s website provides further information: she is a 2001 Stanford graduate and a current Harvard grad student who spent a few years living in Cairo.) Its premise is summarized in a lengthy subtitle: “The United States has dedicated tens of millions of dollars to promoting democracy in Iran. But for Iranian democrats and America alike, the effort may be more trouble than it’s worth.”

This “may” is a bit coy: the article itself makes clear that, in the author’s opinion, American support for democracy promotion is counterproductive. Its only result, she implies, is to get Iranian reformers into trouble with a regime intensely suspicious of external subversion, and to undermine the reformers’ credibility.

In one of the article’s more dubious conceits, Azimi even links an increase in U.S. funding for democracy promotion in Iran—Congress budgeted $75 million for this fiscal year, up from just a few million in the past—to the increased repression of the regime, including the detention of four Iranian-Americans on risible charges of spying. Deep in the article, Azimi actually undercuts this argument when she notes that there is nothing exactly new about the Islamic Republic of Iran cracking down on perceived threats to its authority: “The postrevolutionary regime has been attacking its domestic opponents as Western lackeys for 27 years.”

Indeed. Even back in 1979, the Iranian hardliners were determined to believe that the U.S. was plotting against their revolution from our embassy, which they dubbed a “Den of Spies.” No such plot existed, but it didn’t stop the Islamofascists in Tehran then or now from using such suspicions as a convenient cudgel against anyone they don’t like. And if the recent arrests are linked to increased American efforts at democracy promotion, it may confirm that the U.S. program makes sense. If the Iranian regime is so afraid of such pressure, shouldn’t we keep the squeeze on?

But in truth we have no real idea why the Iranian-Americans—and many others, such as the fifteen British sailors seized in March and subsequently released—have been arrested recently. It may well be a show of Iranian muscle-flexing aimed at deterring the U.S. from pressing too hard not only on regime change, but on Iran’s nuclear weapons program and its support of terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The decision-making processes of the Iranian regime remain opaque, so it’s a bit of a stretch to blame the latest repression on the actions of the United States Congress or the State Department. The real culprit here is the odious nature of the Iranian regime.

And it’s absurd to complain, as Azimi does, that the American program hasn’t borne any fruit; it’s just getting started. (Only in the past year, for example, has the Voice of America increased its Farsi programming from one hour a night to five hours.) Democracy-promotion is a long-term enterprise and can’t be expected to reap overnight results.

There is no question that the obstacles to overthrowing the mullahs—obstacles that Azimi amply highlights—are such that we may never succeed. But what’s the alternative? Negar doesn’t explore that in her article. But the usual alternative cited in Washington circles is outreach to, and accommodation with, the Iranian regime—the essence of the Baker-Hamilton Commission’s thinking. And how likely is that to work?

Two of the Iranian-Americans now languishing in Iranian prison, ironically, are advocates of this approach. They were against regime change and received no money from the U.S. democracy promotion funds. According to Azimi, one of them (Haleh Esfandiari, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center) even “declined offers to appear on Voice of America, for fear of being tied to an American agenda.” Their shabby treatment indicates what the mullahs think of well-intentioned (if deeply naïve) attempts to find common ground between the Iranian government and the Great Satan.

This was, incidentally, precisely the point that Reuel Gerecht made a month ago in a New York Times op-ed. Perhaps Negar’s editors should have been paying closer attention to what their paper’s op-ed page has to say.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.