July 6, 2011

Why, despite higher average IQs, aren't Jews and Asians world-class social scientists?

Compared to the European average IQ of 100, Ashkenazi Jews are about 1 standard deviation above, at 115, and Northeast Asians are at about 110. If we imagine IQ as a type of "height," and let's say that the average European male was 5'10, it would be as if Jews were on average 6'1 and Asians 6'0. This IQ advantage makes these two groups over-represented in the hard sciences, where braininess makes a big difference in who succeeds vs. who doesn't.

But what about the social sciences? They're not as "hard," but they still require an ability to look at a bunch of stuff and draw patterns out of it, to lock several of these basic patterns into a single more abstract pattern, and so on. So, groups with higher IQ should be over-represented in these fields as well, all else being equal.

And yet there's virtually no major thinker in the social sciences who was insightful, original, broadly visionary and who was also of Northeast Asian background.

Jews are certainly over-represented among major thinkers in the social sciences (see some of the lists of influential Jews in various fields at JINFO). But just about all of the big deals were either nutcases or frauds -- Marx and Freud being the most egregious examples. Slightly lower in overall influence but still joining those two are Boas in anthropology, Derrida in philosophy, and the leaders of neoliberal economic physics-envy.

The only major one who strikes me as insightful, original, and whose vision touched an incredibly broad array of topics was Durkheim in sociology and anthropology. I'm not counting those who did good original work in a limited field, but whose results weren't like a revelation, for example Asch and Milgram in social psychology. Chomsky hits all the marks too, but I don't see that work as part of social science, as he studies properties of an individual's brain or mind without attention to a larger social context. And his linguistics work is more like that of a molecular biologist than a zoologist. I can see how others would include him, though, so that makes one "for-sure" and one "possible" exception to the trend for major Jewish social science thinkers to have come straight from the loony bin.

A major confusion when talking about the disproportionate number of Jews in crazy circles is to think that they're just over-represented everywhere requiring high IQ -- including the sane and brilliant circles. Again I just don't see that when going through the lists at JINFO or thinking off the top of my head. I know there are exceptions at lower levels of accomplishment, but I'm talking really breakthrough figures.

Why do these brainy groups not dominate the social sciences like they do the harder sciences (intellectually, not numerically)? Clearly high IQ is not enough -- you also need a good intuition for how human beings work inside and among each other. I trace the underwhelming performance of these two groups to the ecological niches that they are adapted to, which have relaxed the selection pressures for keen social intelligence and thereby redirected selection to improve other traits.

Asians just seem not to get people at all, not that they have very clear and crazy views about people. For instance, they are poorer than Caucasians at reading faces for basic emotional expressions. They tend to blur "fear" and "disgust," as a result of focusing too much on the eyes and not taking in information from more of the face. This seems like a dialed-down social intelligence, one that sees more noise around the signal, not one that mixes up, say, "fear" and "joy." Since they don't perceive as much about people, they just don't get very interested in social sciences to begin with, or acting, stand-up comedy, rock music, and so on.

What relaxed selection for social intelligence in Asians, and redirected the body's resources into other traits, is the intensive agriculture that they have practiced for nearly 10,000 years. Really intensive agriculture brings hierarchical social structures along with it, to coordinate a highly complex system. For example, you might need to irrigate the land. Small-scale gardeners (horticulturalists), such as those in Sub-Saharan Africa, can just send a woman out with a spade to dig up the ground, plant stuff, and have it grow without needing to divert a river. To thrive in such a top-down society, you shouldn't try to figure out how people work -- you just need to do what you're told so that the whole big machine runs smoothly.

And in your hour-by-hour work, you're engaged mostly with a bunch of stuff that does not have a mind of its own -- your tools, the ground, seeds, plants, and so on. Smaller-scale gardeners, doing less intense work, have plenty of time to socialize. Hunter-gatherers ditto, plus they have to get inside the mind of the animals they're hunting. Pastoralists (animal herders) also have to be able to sympathize with the needs and feelings of their livestock in order to be the best shepherd. As for interactions with people, herders live in far less authoritarian groups, so there's a good deal of buddy-buddy among the in-group members. And even when they encounter someone from the out-group, the interaction takes the form of a showdown in a lawless borderland, where it pays to be able to get inside his head.

All of that is a long way of saying that groups adapted to intensive agriculture will have an impaired social intelligence, such as among Central Americans and East Asians. It's not that their social sense is haywire or biased -- just out-of-focus. Hunter-gatherers would probably make good social scientists if they were smarter, but they tend to have the lowest average IQs, and small-scale gardeners are only somewhat smarter. The key group to have in your population in order to make good social science is pastoralists -- as a rule-of-thumb, you find them wherever at least a good-sized minority can drink milk, from the Northwestern Indian subcontinent through the Middle East and Levant, around the Mediterranean, and into Europe. Although animal herding is a more recent development in East Africa, I'll bet they'd make good social scientists too, compared to other Sub-Saharan Africans.

That's Asians. But what's the deal with Jewish social science? They were restricted to a white-collar occupational niche for close to 1000 years in Europe, serving as tax farmers, money lenders, and other financial and commercial roles. That removes them even further from normal chummy social interaction than does intensive agriculture, but unlike Asians they have produced very clearly articulated, very influential, and very nutty pictures of human nature. Where does this vision that is not fuzzy but clear and almost hallucinatory come from?

Well, if you were a tax farmer or money lender in Medieval Europe, you did not enjoy all the protection of the modern state and market economy. If you made a bad decision, you could have gotten wiped out -- no welfare state to bail you out (in fact, they would have cheered a banker going bankrupt). Some of these bad decisions could be asocial -- like you forget to carry the 1. But a good deal would have been social, for example if you gave the other party the benefit of the doubt and they ended up screwing you. Unlike Asians, then, Jews had fairly frequent interactions with other people, but they were mostly adversarial in nature.

Since even a small miscalculation in that case could prove disastrous, it is more advantageous to set a low threshold for the "nah, that person stinks" detector. In those occupations in those times and places, better to assume that everyone else was stupid, selfish, and treacherous. That way, you'll make sure to do the calculations yourself and to not get taken advantage of by deadbeats.

Imagine if a group of mostly endogamous people were only allowed to work as guards and wardens in the prison system -- would it pay in Darwinian terms for them to have a rosier or darker view of human nature? I would not expect accurate and insightful social science to come from such a group. When your social interactions with your fellow man are mostly adversarial and in the context of a power imbalance that favors you, you aren't going to see human sociality very clearly -- indeed, you will behold a distorted reality, seeing phantom selfishness where there is none, and having a blind spot to the common sense that makes your charges smarter than you think.

Only when you frequently relate to other people on equal terms, experiencing both their good and bad tendencies, will you have a clear basic picture to work with when kicking ideas for social science around your head.

26 comments:

  1. "Jews are certainly over-represented among major thinkers in the social sciences (see some of the lists of influential Jews in various fields at JINFO). But just about all of the big deals were either nutcases or frauds"

    But perhaps most "big deals" in social sciences are "nutcases or frauds" (jews or non-jews)?

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  2. No, there's a plenty of good work in the social sciences. I thought about compiling my own list, but thought it was outside the scope.

    I'm taking it as a given that there is good social science. Durkheim for instance.

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  3. your posts lately have been really great, thanks for them!

    i think ricardo was jewish (maybe sephardic?) and mises was jewish. milton friedman too.

    could we perhaps say that the best social scientist might be someone who is sort of average on the big five trait of agreeableness--not too cynical, not too trusting--his introspection about people's motives are more reliable than more agreeable or disagreeable types. the jewish experience has perhaps tended to encourage extraversion (go for big rewards, they can be had in the white collar fields jewish people were constrained to), neuroticism (look out for big losses too, as you say), and disagreeableness (arguably it's adaptive to be disagreeable when in business--CEOs tend to be IIRC).

    basically a good scientist should, to guess, be average in most big five traits, except openness--he should be able to abstract more--and he should be smart, but perhaps not too smart--you might go off the rails if you think average people can calculate like you can! jewish people i'm guessing tend generally more towards openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, disagreeableness, and neuroticism. total guess here.

    but then in parts of society where people tend to have all of those traits, you might expect more great contributions from jewish social scientists--maybe economics, which seems plausibly a more congenial social science for jewish intellectuals, due to the business world arguably being tilted towards openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, disagreeableness and neuroticism, and the business world being a major interest to economists.

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  4. Anonymous1:46 PM

    This description doesnt really capture another trait that many people who have live in China have noticed - extreme opportunism and manipulativeness. Yes China is agrarian, yes it is hierarchical, but that civilization was also chaotic, prone to civil war and dynastic strife, and selective for traits such as knowing when to take sides. Being successful in that society required putting up an outward appearance of obedience, but at the same time always angling and scheming to get ahead. These are certainly qualities which require social intelligence in the extreme. And when these people got into societies which didn't place so high a premium on these qualities (Southeast Asia), they took over economically.

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  5. Anonymous2:10 PM

    Asians just seem not to get people at all, not that they have very clear and crazy views about people. For instance, they are poorer than Caucasians at reading faces for basic emotional expressions. They tend to blur "fear" and "disgust," as a result of focusing too much on the eyes and not taking in information from more of the face.

    East Asian people do have more accurate fake smile detection - http://dienekes.blogspot.com/2011/05/accurate-fake-smile-detecting.html

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  6. I thought Jews were even more over-represented among social scientists than natural scientists. And of course they're well represented in "acting, stand-up comedy, rock music, and so on". If you don't think the top social scientists are Jewish, who do you think the top ones are?

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  7. "And of course they're well represented in "acting, stand-up comedy, rock music, and so on"."

    They're only well represented among those whose schtick is that they not only do *not* get normal human behavior, but that the normal soothing world seems stupid, irrational, and irritating to them.

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  8. "This description doesnt really capture another trait that many people who have live in China have noticed - extreme opportunism and manipulativeness."

    Heh, as someone with a Chinese landlord and who's lived with plenty of Chinese housemates over the years, I know exactly what you mean.

    I don't think that selects for social intelligence, though -- more like Machiavellian cunning. I wouldn't say a parasite is an expert on human physiology -- just that they know really well how to exploit some glitch in the system.

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  9. "and he should be smart, but perhaps not too smart--you might go off the rails if you think average people can calculate like you can!"

    The main trouble is not being super-smart yourself (though there could be something to that too), but being insulated in a group of smart people.

    If you're the only bright bulb in town, you don't get carried away with the assume-a-genius kind of thinking.

    But if everyone in your circle is smart, then you think, "Well why shouldn't the average person be able to figure out that complicated financial stuff -- my blind uncle Mort can do that, and he only ran a deli!"

    "you might expect more great contributions from jewish social scientists--maybe economics, which seems plausibly a more congenial social science for jewish intellectuals,"

    Most major Jewish economists seem off their rocker to me. Smith, Hayek, Coase, those guys seemed to get human social relations, especially Smith when you include his Theory of Moral Sentiments and Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres.

    Low agreeableness may make you better in the cut-throat business world, but if you're too lacking in empathy you won't make a good economist or other social scientist. Again I look to Smith's writings for an example of someone who was dispassionate, charitable, and fascinated by the range of human behavior.

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  10. I have to say, you're the first person I've heard play down jewish adeptness at standup comedy.

    I don't know if I'd describe him as charitable, but the sociologist Erving Goffman wrote a lot on how people act that fills gaps in what economists would write about (like Milton Friedman, many economists aren't interested in accurately modeling individuals if they can still predict economic outcomes). His acolyte Randall Collins' work on interaction rituals and being caught up in social rhythms may be more up your alley (I have only read Collins' "Violence: A Microsociological Theory" and Goffman's "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life").

    You used to cite the economist Stan Liebowitz a lot. Do you think he's fairly minor, or have you changed your mind about him?

    Wikipedia has a list of jewish economists which reminded me that Kahneman & Tversky have to be important (though I would consider them psychologists engaging in helpful imperialism into economics). Surprisingly enough, Krugman & Lucas aren't on that list. Among contemporary economists, I have to give Al Roth a lot of credit for introducing new mechanisms and achieving things in the real world.

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  11. Also, would Steve Pinker qualify?

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  12. Jews are highly adept at stand-up, but again only in the style where exaggerate how little they get normal people and find soothing things irritating.

    Over TV shows, movies, and stand-up, the funniest time was the mid-'70s through the early '90s (also the peak for just about everything else cultural).

    It's remarkable how few Jews played a big role in that, especially the more true-to-form Jews. Rob Reiner, Woody Allen somewhat, Harold Ramis... that's about it. Eugene Levy too, but he wasn't in a whole lot.

    The only funny movie from that time that has a palpable Jewish feel is When Harry Met Sally. That one worked because it wasn't just Billy Crystal neuroticizing about normal life. In fact, it's more about Meg Ryan's character trying to cope as best as a normal person can with his nutcase behavior.

    That's what's funny -- normal people dealing with bizarre circumstances, like Clark Griswold in Vacation, Venkman the non-believer in Ghostbusters, or Neil Page in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

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  13. I thought about putting Goffman in there, but I don't see his work getting lots of praise outside sociology, unlike Durkheim or Smith (or Marx or Freud on the bad side). From what I read, nothing struck me as "Holy shit, how did they ever think of that? And it looks true!"

    It's not just the date either: the British social anthropologists Victor Turner, Mary Douglas, and Ioan Lewis blew my mind, and that's from the '60s and '70s.

    I think behavioral economics is too young to say how revolutionary and broad it is, vs. correcting the autistic tendencies of their colleagues.

    Heh, Stan Liebowitz himself would say he's not up at the level of Smith or Coase or Hayek. I do really like what he does, and wish more people would stop trying to impress each other with physics models, but I wouldn't say he's a major thinker.

    Same for Steven Pinker. He's not "just" a popularizer, that's a pot-shot, but again he's not up there with Ibn Khaldun or Chomsky in terms of originality, broad influence, etc.

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  14. Add Gene Wilder to funny Jews.

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  15. Chris7:50 AM

    Marx was actually an astute observer of economic conditions.Yes his theory of value is wrong but not 100% wrong.Still he's way above snakeoil men Freud and Boas.

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  16. You got the Asian IQ way too high, the highest Ive seen is 107, but most put it at 105.

    Whats important to note though is that the Asian IQ has a very lopsided distribution - much higher than whites on spatial, slightly higher than whites at math, and lower than whites at verbal. Comparing simply the IQ numbers without breaking it down into the subcategories is highly misleading in that it suggests that one ability is being measured, when in fact the single number representing IQ is simply an aggregate of many different mental abilities. Yes, there is a common factor in all mental abilities, called g, but the specific factors of verbal, mathematical, spatial, etc, are hugely important in determining wether a person will do well in work requiring these skills. In other words, g doesnt say all that much when a person can be great in verbal and terrible at math.

    The low Asian IQ in verbal is almost enough on its own to explain why they produce so few social scientists or why they produce so few great thinkers in general outside the hard scientists, but if you look at IQ as one number youre going to miss this.

    Im Jewish myself, and I lived my whole life amongst Jews. I can definitively confirm a very high incidence amongst Jews of socially autistic people, people who simply lack normal social intuition and just dont get other people. These people can be great friends and fun to be around, intelligent and insightful talkers, but theyre just off in some important way socially. They can be embarrassing in public if you dont have their handicap. Lots of Jews are aware of this and make fun of it too - they see whites as normal, bland, vanilla, lacking in character and piquancy, but they also know there are tons of *colorful* weirdos amongst their own kind.

    As a side-note, it seems a bit odd to define great social scientists as those who you happen to agree with. Thats a poor criteria. Those who craft a powerful, highly explanatory and original vision that appeals to many are surely worthy of being called great, however much you disagree with them, and in this sense Jews have excelled all others as social scientists.

    At the end of the day, what you are saying is that you dont ultimately agree with the various visions of the Jewish social scientists, but that doesnt mean they have failed to show ability in this field. A common mistake, to make agreeing with a thinker a measure of his greatness.

    My two cents anyways.

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  17. "The low Asian IQ in verbal is almost enough on its own to explain why they produce so few social scientists or why they produce so few great thinkers in general outside the hard scientists, but if you look at IQ as one number youre going to miss this."

    I'm skeptical of that because the recognition of emotion from facial expressions is purely visual, and Asians aren't so hot at even basic distinctions like fear vs. disgust, let alone subtler ones.

    Maybe verbal IQ affects how well you can craft a theory, but they don't seem interested in people in the first place.

    "As a side-note, it seems a bit odd to define great social scientists as those who you happen to agree with."

    Not who I agree with, but whose vision has proven useful or true. Marx, Freud, and Boas were just dead wrong about a lot that they were sincere about, and plain old make stuff up on top of it (Freud's case studies, Boas' measurements of immigrant skulls, etc.).

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  18. RE chinese, check out this paper:

    http://www.toddkshackelford.com/downloads/Schmitt-JCCP-2007.pdf

    it compares big five traits of people across world regions. it's...it's like crack to read.

    east asians seem to be weirdly low in all big five traits except neuroticism--i was surprised they're low in conscientiousness generally, and agreeableness too.

    RE jewish people:

    in the same paper, israel appears to be slightly low in extraversion and agreeableness, slightly high in conscientiousness, slightly low in neuroticism and kind of average in openness.

    so that runs contrary to my guess jewish people tend towards openness, extraversion and neuroticism, but corroborates my guess that jewish people tend towards conscientiousness and disagreeableness.

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  19. Anonymous10:12 PM

    If you want the brutal truth, its because social science is for academics with lower IQs.

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  20. My first bet will be that jews will be high in introversion and neuroticism, but perhaps it is much Woody Allen movies.

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  21. "in the same paper, israel appears to be..."

    Perhaps Israel is not a good proxy for "jews":

    a) When, in the West, we talk about "jews", in most of time we are really talking of askenazi jews; I think today Israel is sephardit-majority

    b) Jews in Israel are not "rootless cosmopolitans" but the majority of the population; then, even if they have the ame "nature", they will have a different "nurture" than western jews

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  22. quite possible miguel--sephardic jews iirc are more normal in their IQ on average, whereas ashkenazi blow everyone else out of the water.

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  23. Interesting. I'll note that one unusual manifestation of empathy is that people unconsciously mimic each other's speech patterns when they talk to one another. A recent article noted that script writers often incoroporate this into their dialogue, even though they (presumably) are unaware that people do this. One notable exception was Woody Allen.

    If this was a pattern in Jewish scriptwriting or even in real world Jewish dialogue it could be evidence of population differences in empathy related traits.

    I believe that more intelligent populations are also more autistic. There is a pleiotropic aspect to this and an assortative mating aspect. If intelligent people often come from families with less empathizing ability, then better character fiction and social science might come from highly intelligent people from normal intelligence families.

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  24. Wonder if Malloy's onto something big: social scientists don't tend to come from these hyper-academic families.

    Also, I am pleased to say that Agnostic's theory nicely explains Sacha Baron Cohen. Booyakasha!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeUtCxe-xDg

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  25. I agree with JPG that it does not make sense to define as great social scientists only those you happen to agree with. Instead, you should look for people who are highly regarded by their peers, and who have lots of scholarly progeny. I believe the majority of economics Nobel laureates are Jewish, for example--a much higher proportion than in the natural science prizes.

    Who would you consider as great social scientists?

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  26. When I think back to all the Ashkenazi Jews I've known, none of them seemed to have any real curiosity about people.

    This also applies to all the Asian and Asian type peoples I know of.

    I know lack of curiosity doesn't seem to go hand in hand with achievements in physics or screenwriting, but that's what I thought.

    I had Jewish professors from my freshman humanities courses, and none of them seemed to really get any of the cultures they surveyed.

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