Friday, July 24, 2009

Thomas Bouchard against group think and political correctness

Psychologist Thomas Bouchard, a leader in the field of twin and adoption studies, is retiring from the University of Minnesota. (Some Bouchard papers from Google Scholar.) He gave this farewell interview to Science. (See also this 2004 video; I think the interviewer is David Lubinski.)

Important components of today's conventional wisdom will turn out to be completely wrong. Analyze any past period and you'll find that this statement turned out to be true.

Q: What got you into twin studies?

TB: I was teaching the psychology of individual differences, and in 1979, two different people put a copy in my mailbox of a story about twins reared apart and their similarities when they met. [These were the "Jim twins," Jim Springer and Jim Lewis, who had been separated at birth and reunited at age 39. Both married women named Linda, divorced, and remarried women named Betty. They named their sons James Allan and James Alan, respectively, and both had dogs named Toy.] They sounded interesting, so I asked a few of my colleagues to help me study them. We ended up studying twins reared apart—126 pairs including 74 pairs of identical twins—for 20 years. [The twin study wound down in 2000.] I found that I loved working with twins. They're still amazing and a major mystery to me.

Q: What were attitudes toward behavioral genetics in the early years of your career?

TB: In graduate school at UC [the University of California] Berkeley, I was reading a book edited by psychiatrist D. D. Jackson on the etiology of schizophrenia. The first chapter, by a geneticist, was on twin studies. Then Jackson refuted it all with just the kind of crap you hear now against twin studies. He said families are the cause of schizophrenia. I remember saying in a graduate seminar, "Most of this stuff [in Jackson's argument] is junk"—I crawled out of the seminar room a bloody pulp. The reaction [from seminar members] was my first absolutely clear-cut demonstration that psychologists believed correlation is causation, ... and many still do.

In the '70s, when I was teaching research by [IQ researcher Arthur] Jensen and [twin researcher Francis] Galton, people picketed me, called me a racist, tried to get me fired. The progressive student association sent members in to ask hostile questions. ... So I put a tape recorder on the podium and said: "I'm going to tape my lectures." I never heard from them again. They knew what they were saying was nonsense and I would be able to prove it.

Q: Do you think perceptions have changed dramatically since the '70s now that twin research has revealed genetic bases for many disorders, such as autism (which had been blamed on cold mothers) and ADHD (for which many blamed food dyes)?

TB: Within the university—at least at U. Minnesota—the cumulative impact of behavioral genetics findings has had a lot of effect. There's a lot more tolerance for the idea of genetic influences in individual differences.

But we still have whole domains we can't talk about. One of the great dangers in the psychology of individual differences is self-censorship. For example, when I was a student, it was widely accepted that black self-esteem was much lower than white self-esteem, and that was a cause of differences in achievement between the two groups. Now that's been completely overturned—there is virtually no racial difference in self-esteem. But people had enormous amounts of data [showing this] that they didn't publish because it did not fit the prevailing belief system. How much wasted effort was generated by the flawed self-esteem work as an explanation of the black-white IQ difference? Now a days, I'm sure there are people who are not publishing stuff on sex differences. Look what happened to Larry Summers [who resigned as president of Harvard University after suggesting that discrimina tion alone doesn't account for women's lower representation in math-based disciplines]. I talk about those things in my class all the time—that males and females have different interests; ... in a sense, females have a broader and richer view of life. There are a lot of people who simply won't talk about those things. Academics, like teenagers, sometimes don't have any sense regarding the degree to which they are conformists.

Nicholas Wade also writes about this in a guest post on the NYTimes TiernyLab blog:

... You’re an expert because all your peers recognize you as such. But if you start to get too far out of line with what your peers believe, they will look at you askance and start to withdraw the informal title of “expert” they have implicitly bestowed on you. Then you’ll bear the less comfortable label of “maverick,” which is only a few stops short of “scapegoat” or “pariah.”

A remarkable first-hand description of this phenomenon was provided a few months ago by the economist Robert Shiller, co-inventor of the Case-Shiller house price index. Dr. Shiller was concerned about what he saw as an impending house price bubble when he served as an adviser to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York up until 2004.

So why didn’t he burst his lungs warning about the impending collapse of the housing market? “In my position on the panel, I felt the need to use restraint,” he relates. “While I warned about the bubbles I believed were developing in the stock and housing markets, I did so very gently, and felt vulnerable expressing such quirky views. Deviating too far from consensus leaves one feeling potentially ostracized from the group, with the risk that one may be terminated.”

... If the brightest minds on Wall Street got suckered by group-think into believing house prices would never fall, what other policies founded on consensus wisdom could be waiting to come unraveled? Global warming, you say? You mean it might be harder to model climate change 20 years ahead than house prices 5 years ahead? Surely not – how could so many climatologists be wrong?

What’s wrong with consensuses is not the establishment of a majority view, which is necessary and legitimate, but the silencing of skeptics. “We still have whole domains we can’t talk about,” Dr. Bouchard said, referring to the psychology of differences between races and sexes.

Look for Wade to take a huge beating from climate conformists.


Jeff K. said...

The Tierney blog post was guest written by Nicholas Wade.

Steve Hsu said...

Thanks -- I'll fix that!

ppp said...

The assertion that group think overwhelmed the market is interesting but not likely correct.

An alternative explanation is that what gripped the market was a "tragedy of commons" like situation induced by market regulations. While many could see that continuing to play was potentially disastrous in the long run, stopping in the short run was also disastrous to profits.

Steve Hsu said...

It's true that the "brightest minds on Wall St." knew it was a bubble and that CDOs were a disaster waiting to happen.

But, for example, Robert Rubin (and lots of others at that level of seniority) didn't know until very late in the game.

Also, plenty of average people believed that house prices in 2005-2006 were reasonable.

Shiller is right that his was a lone voice in the woods. I wrote about the bubble and problems with CDOs, etc., on this blog as early as 2004-2005; very few people were of the same mind. It's always easy *after* a bubble to forget how many people were unaware beforehand.

gs said...

It's always easy *after* a bubble to forget how many people were unaware beforehand.

I plead guilty.

Otoh, bubbles enter history by bursting. In principle, a 'bubble' might deflate benignly. In principle, a 'bubble' might become the new status quo. I don't know if that's ever happened, but I don't see why not.

Ian Smith said...

"I wrote about the bubble and problems with CDOs, etc., on this blog as early as 2004-2005; very few people were of the same mind. It's always easy *after* a bubble to forget how many people were unaware beforehand."

Then you are now worth how many hundred million?

BobW said...

Thanks for the post. I first met Bouchard in 2004 at an ISIR conference. He was friendly, open, and very helpful to me. I had lots of questions and Tom answered each one without any hedging. He said exactly what he thought, which was most helpful in that no translation was needed. I enjoyed keeping up with him at the conferences until he finally stopped attending after he retired.

In 2004, Bouchard was the person who was interviewed for his distinguished career. Each year there is one interview and it is video taped. He explained how he got the twins study started and found funding in the dental department (not what most would guess). His work remains as among the few very significant accomplishments in the field of human intelligence research.

Steve Hsu said...

BobW: I found the 2004 video! Link above in the post.

BobW said...

The ISIR site has a good number of the past interviews posted for viewing. You are correct that the interviewer was David Lubinski, former student of Bouchard.

Seth said...

Academic group-think certainly is a real phenomenon. Pretty well described by Thomas Kuhn, I think.

Wade's comparison of "house prices 5 years out" versus "climate 20 years out" doesn't seem particularly useful, however. House prices are a function of human agents who respond (as ppp suggested above) to incentive structures. I don't think CO2 molecules decide to reflect or absorb more radiation based on anticipating a bonus ;)

Yes climate models are very complex, and there may be negative feedbacks we don't yet know about. But the FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) associated with "oooh, it's an UNPROVEN model" and "look how hopeless those econ models are" isn't much of an argument against the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis.

The global warming consensus has become "normal science" in Kuhn's sense, so the burden of proof on deniers has increased. That doesn't prove climate scientists are as corrupted as, say, mortgage brokers and ibankers.

BF POV Blog said...

It's funny, I resonated with the idea that we can't talk about certain things (as opposed to financial predictions and speaking about them). I think it may have something to do with the fact the we just aren't comfortable with challenging certain beliefs about how the world works. Galileo is the best example I can think of. How many years did it take before his ideas were accepted or people could even talk about them in the open?


Unknown said...

I wonder if Dr Bouchard has considered writing a book on Twins & what they tell us about human nature, how much of our personality is inherited, how much parents influence outcomes etc?

I only suggest this because I see this guy David Shenk is about to write a book called 'The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told about Genetics, Talent and IQ is Wrong'. Shenk isn't a scientist and his proposed book sounds like the standard Malcolm Gladwell feel good type stuff.

It would be great to get a book by a specialist who has been at the forefront of twin research & to hear his story.

jeem said...

One thing to keep in mind is that the brain forms patterns by IGNORING things. Sensory data is filled with noise. I realized this one day while reading a book or optical illusions; the kind where you turn it upside down and it becomes something else. We don't like naysayers because once we think we've got something figured out they threaten to open a can of worms and send us back to square one and rethink our ideas. All you geek types are probably thinking "isn't that the point?" but to most people it isn't the point. Knowing something boosts status+self esteem; not knowing diminishes it. On top of that, a group consensus takes time and effort to form and members of the group dislike the disorder that will ensue if it is disrupted. Endless arguments are caused by debating issues where nobody knows the answer well enough to quiet the many opinions masquerading as facts that waste time and energy and create dissension and conflict.

Regarding the housing bubble; am I the only one here cynical enough to assume Greenspan, Rubin, et al KNEW full well there was a bubble but wanted to appear "mistaken" in the eyes of the public? Didn't the housing bubble save us from a severe recession after the dot-com implosion until Dubya was out of office?

It's true that most participants in bubbles are deluded by their excessive reliance on extrapolation of current/local conditions, but we shouldn't let off the powers that be so easily. They know that all you have to do to cause a robbery is to unlock the doors and send the sheriff on vacation.

Unknown said...

Linda Gottfredson mentions Bouchard in this article about academic freedom.

Gottfredson, L. S. (in press). Lessons in academic freedom as lived experience. Personality and Individual Differences.

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