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An interview with Noam Chomsky: IQ, Dysgenics, & Existential Risk
Why does Noam Chomsky think intelligence research has little scientific merit?
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Do you believe it's possible to accurately rank order the major risks facing humanity? Or are many of these risks sufficiently intertwined to render any such exercise futile?
It's possible to identify major ones — the Doomsday Clock does a creditable job on that — but I don't see how to rank these.
What do you make of the effective altruists’ attempts at prioritisation? I’m not talking about the objective fact that bed nets save more lives and are thus a better use of my money. Rather, I’m curious about your thoughts on whether this type of utilitarianism is a good public strategy — do you think it can ever scale beyond and escape the so-called "rationalist community”?
I wonder if you ever agreed with Peter Singer’s original drowning child thought experiment and the moral analogy? Or whether you think the real world is far too messy for this type of reasoning?
These may be interesting games for philosophy seminars, but they have little if anything to do with real life in the real world where even if we decide to play the games, the calculations involved are utterly outlandish.
What makes such moral calculations "outlandish"? Do you think they could be performed by some type of future AI eventually? A Laplace's demon?
Each individual judgment is complex, and their interaction raises incalculable difficulties. Like utilitarian arguments generally when they extend beyond narrow limits. To take a ludicrous example, how did the happiness of tens of millions of Germans at the elimination of the Jewish threat to the Aryan race compare with the suffering of a mere 6 million Jews.
Your example reminds me of Ursula Le Guin’s brilliant philosophical short story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, where a city's constant state of serenity and splendour requires that a single unfortunate child be kept in perpetual filth, darkness, and misery. Once citizens are old enough to know the truth, most, though initially shocked and disgusted, ultimately acquiesce to this one injustice that secures the happiness of the rest of the city. However, some citizens walk away from the city after seeing the child. Of course, the brilliance of Le Guin’s story is that, on a first reading, one feels glad not to live in such a world. Then you realise we live in a far worse world, where there are millions of such children.
Setting aside the question of whether human flourishing and organisation will one day be precisely calculable, it seems that many utilitarians tilt the board with their assumptions about the universal desire for certain goods. For example, western style freedom. Admittedly this is reductive, but generations of Chinese have seemed more than willing — for now, at least — to trade off western human rights for western standards of living.
So perhaps this hypothetical “Laplace AI” would reveal very different hedonic calculations than liberal-minded effective altruists think. Perhaps the balance sheet(s) would read very differently for different population groups and cultures.
Do you think we in the west tend to have a latent faith in a certain set of axioms or heuristics concerning human flourishing?
The actual desires of "we in the west" are barely known. The measure that is used is the market, but that of course reflects distribution of wealth if working perfectly, hence is ethically worthless, in fact grotesque. And there is enormous intervention to distort markets, e.g., the huge sums spent in advertising and marketing, radically anti-market operations by the owners of capital, designed to create uninformed consumers making irrational decisions — the opposite of what one is taught in econ 101.
To change subject, I was just rereading your 1972 essay, Psychology and Ideology in For Reasons of State. Specifically, the part critiquing the late Richard Herrnstein. I was wondering if your views on the matter had changed since the onslaught of evidence in the last 50 years? Not regarding Herrnstein’s “apologism” for state capitalist ideology, but rather his central thesis, that of the drift towards stable hereditary “meritocracy”.
We now know (I’m quoting Robert Plomin and Ian Deary, two leaders in the field): ‘assortative mating is far greater for intelligence than for most other traits’ at about 0.4. We also know, thanks to DNA analysis, that the average genetic factor for intelligence is around 58%. Finally, we know that IQ (contrary to your citation of Bowles and Gintis) is one of the most important elements in the lottery of birth.
This all makes for rather grim reading if we want to build a society which doesn’t consist of various gated communities, don’t you think? One in which people will not be dissuaded by the technology of the future which tells them at 5 years of age (perhaps from birth) that they need not bother trying to become the next Noam Chomsky because they don’t have the required cognitive abilities.
I haven't paid much attention to these studies, for a number of reasons. They plainly have no scientific interest. They also don't seem to have any human significance — policy or activist import; there's nothing to be done about assortative mating. And they have no detectable consequences. It also tells us nothing at all about wealth accumulation ("gated communities," etc.), except in the kind of rotten societies that we shouldn't tolerate. There's no justification for wealth to be concentrated among great scientists, probably the highest IQs, much more than their rich relatives who went into financial speculation.
That raises another point. I presume that if one carried out similar studies on musical talent you'd find a genetic component (probably much clearer than for the odd concept of IQ) and also high assortative mating. That might lead over time to more outstanding musicians — for the benefit of all.
There are studies of IQ that avoid some of these problems. One recent study found that one of the best predictors for IQ is early access to animal proteins. That has some scientific interest (what's the mechanism?) and a lot of social significance.
So in brief, I see no point to this work, for much the same reasons as before.
Such work surely has several important points. Take our discussion of existential risk and prioritisation. One topic geneticists have been worried about is the dysgenic effect on intelligence in many developed countries, mainly caused, it seems, by intelligent women having fewer and fewer children. The problem was noticed by Darwin and his contemporaries, yet has mostly been ignored throughout the 20th century (though many eminent scientists recognised it, such as Hermann Muller, Joshua Lederberg and Francis Crick, all Nobel Prize winners).
One geneticist recently wrote:
With the large role intelligence plays in every aspect of civilization, this problem of dysgenics is always on my mind. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I think about it every day.
He then gave what I’m sure you’ll agree is a truly terrifying (and modest) calculation:
Let’s imagine the world is one country with an average IQ of 74 in 2100 and an average IQ of 85 as of 2020. The effect of this dysgenic decline will be to cut GDP in half! And of course, that doesn’t even begin to consider the intangible factors GDP doesn’t necessarily include - low crime, social trust, science, culture and the arts.
Climate change is currently predicted to cost us a whopping 4% of world GDP by 2050. My numbers imply dysgenics will cost us 30% of GDP by 2050. We should be willing to spend huge amounts of money to solve this problem. Dysgenics is truly an ‘unknown unknown’. Declining intelligence is a big problem, which will cost us half of the economy annually.
I’m wondering what your thoughts are? This might not be an existential risk, but it comes about as close as they get. It’s quite incredible to think that the mainstream media seem to have given zero attention to this. It’s clear some countries are trying to increase dire fertility rates, but even if they succeed (which is unlikely), it probably won’t do much for this specific problem.
The assumption is that intelligent women have fewer children. That assumption is based on many further ones about the distribution of intelligence — not a particularly clear notion, but put that aside.
Without proceeding, there are so many questionable assumptions involved in these conclusions that I doubt that any useful policy consequences can be drawn.
But I don't claim any expertise in these matters, so my thoughts on the topic don't matter much.
I agree, let’s put all assumptions aside, other than the major one: namely, geneticists and intelligence researchers have long noticed this worrying dysgenic trend. I realise you’re neither a geneticist nor an intelligence researcher, but neither are you a climate scientist. Assumptions always have to be made. However, you are someone who has written very thoughtfully about media and propaganda, as well as important risks to humanity. I’m surprised you’re not more interested in a threat that could cost humanity ten times more in world GDP by 2050 than climate change. It’s also interesting to note the lack of discussion about such a serious issue, no? Although I actually misspoke previously: there was one mention of recent research. The Daily Telegraph noted a study by two leading behavioural geneticists showing Britons are evolving to be "less well-educated”, a euphemism for “intelligent”, obviously. Here is the write up. A few points follow:
(1) Surely this has “useful policy consequences” — I can think of at least a few ways to incentivise highly intelligent women to have more children!
(2) An obvious point: we’re not going to come up with many good policy ideas if the problem isn’t spoken about or accurately diagnosed. Dysgenic effects on intelligence may actually be more intense in lower IQ groups. If so, that’s a crucial question to figure out from a social justice perspective. This brings me to perhaps the most distressing trend by far: researchers are being prevented from investigating such questions.
James Lee, one of the world’s leading geneticists, just penned an article on the National Institutes of Health's utterly insane decision to withhold access to important genetic databases (funded by the taxpayer, he adds) because research might wander into "forbidden territory". That is, the truth might offend some people. Here’s another prominent statistical geneticist Stuart Ritchie commenting on the absurdity:
NIH preventing scientists from using genetic data on Alzheimer’s to learn about the genetics of intelligence could easily slow down research into cognitive ageing - and into treatments for it.
That seems like another pretty important policy consideration to me. And if some climate scientists were being denied permission to a database, we would all — rightly — be apoplectic.
I don't see any evidence of a worrying dysgenic trend. Just lots of confusions about the result of many variables that are poorly understood. If there is some interest in improving average IQ's, then there are straightforward ways, like better nutrition for young children of the poor, many of whom might be potential Einstein's though they will never escape miserable slums.
After we have done the easy things that will have an enormous effect, we can worry about matters that are very poorly understood that may or may not mean anything.
My final question then: I agree that such matters are poorly understood. Part of the reason, as I detailed, is that research on intelligence is becoming harder to conduct. Journals (like Nature) and institutes (like the NIH) are becoming increasingly censorious. Do you have any thoughts on what can be done to fight back and ensure we get answers to these important questions? Bearing in mind that scientists aren’t exactly known for their level of social organisation!
Difficult for me to answer. As I tried to explain, I don't consider these questions, as posed, to be important questions.
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