Monday, November 09, 2009

The reality of unequal abilities

One of the most important contributions that the Steveosphere can make is to demonstrate and promulgate the reality and durability of unequal abilities. Radical egalitarianism has been a deeply destructive force in the West, and it's based on the assumption that everyone is interchangeable and thus any observed inequalities are unfair.

The truth is that abilities vary widely, sometimes by an order of magnitude. Let's use a convenient example--vocabulary. Most years that the General Social Survey is conducted, respondents are given a vocabulary test of ten words. I have not been able to track down the actual questions, but I'm sure they ask about words that are beyond a basic vocabulary. I'm treating the test as a sample of the population of advanced vocabulary words. Prior analysis has shown that vocabulary increases through age 30, so I've listed the percent earning each score for those ages 30 and up:

So everybody included has had at least 30 years to develop an advanced vocabulary. Everyone in America--even smelly homeless people--has access to a library where every imaginable word can be found. You can buy a dictionary with 75,000 definitions for about six bucks. Yet with all this easy access, there are people who don't even have 10 percent of the the vocabulary of the folks in the smartest category. Over one-fifth of the sample doesn't even know half the words that the smart people do. 

This wide variation is largely genetic. This article cites studies that put the heritability of vocabulary at over 70 percent. Malcolm Gladwell assures us that anyone can have a mammoth vocabulary if he just puts in the hard work necessary to build it, but wishing it to be true doesn't make it so. In the world of actual people, some absorb difficult words like sponges while others can't get past the basics. Simple as that. I run up against a wall every time I try to teach people what standard deviation means. It is just beyond many of us. God knows I've got my limits as well. I feel like an adult admitting that. We need to help everyone else grow up too.    


  1. Anonymous11:09 PM

    If you think about it, if the elite believed their own rhetoric, they'd all be sending their own precious sons and daughters to public schools wouldn't they? But that of course doesn't happen.

    I think the lowest 20% of the demographic economically could, via a better cultural upbringing, indocrination to middle-class-values, and a better non-PC-educational system, perform much better than what they presently do in terms of how comprehensible their speech/how considerate their manners/how effective they financially manage their affairs.

    Then again, if they (the lowest 20%) had just been brought up to believe Jesus' first two instructions, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" and "love thy God with all thy heart", they'd be transformed human beings in a more non-reversible way. The poor were not always the tacky rabble they are now. There used to be "decent" working poor people. My father lived in the projects for a while growing up (grandfather had polio, and before he latched onto a job as a dispatcher for the police department, could only hold some very low paying jobs). My father told me that although he was a kid in the projects, almost everybody went to church, the projects were kept neat, they were practically all-white, people were not loitering about all day long, and most held employment. Everybody wanted to move up in the world to get out. The poor back then apparently were really trying to better themselves. They didn't "wallow" in it. The culture is so different now though.

  2. "Malcolm Gladwell assures us that anyone can have a mammoth vocabulary if he just puts in the hard work necessary to build it . . ."

    The difference is that for the intelligent, building up a large and sophisticated vocabulary isn't hard work; it isn't work at all. It occurs naturally and in a sense effortlessy from the kind of reading they do and the kind of conversations they have. Very few articulate people sit around in the evening memorizing word lists, and when less articulate people try through dint of hard work to assume a more sophisticated voice, it often comes out sounding stilted, awkward, and forced.

  3. Anonymous7:51 AM

    I totally agree with this article.

    With that said, I have my doubts about vocabulary tests. They test memory, which is correlated but is definitely not equal to intelligence. Is there any race bias with it? From my own personal experience I doubt I would even get a 9 on the word sum, but I scored well very high on LSAT (well higher than 99%), because of an intelligence/memory disconnect.

  4. Zack M. Davis8:56 AM

    "there are people who don't even have 10 percent of the the vocabulary of the folks in the smartest category."

    There are people who don't even have ten percent of the words that were on the vocabulary test, which many smart people aced. That's not at all the same thing as saying that the low-scoring group knows one-tenth as many words as the high-scoring group, because as you yourself pointed out, the test is above the level of a basic vocabulary.

    (I'm also compelled to point out that you have to take into account regression to the mean when trying to evaluate the true ability of people with extreme scores, but this affect is probably rather small.)

  5. The political left _cannot_ ever believe in unequal ability, no matter what the evidence is, because their whole program is based on the assumption that abilities are equally distributed and therefore unequal outcomes are the result of injustice - which must be coercively overcome by left-wing government intervention.

    For instance we have more than a century of uncontradicted evidence that social classes differ in general intelligence - - this is also common sense and common observation, yet the fact is explicitly denied by the UK government who have taken-over the UK university admissions process on the excuse of enforcing social class quotas.

    For example, when I wrote about this in 2008 in a magazine article

    - -

    it created massive international coverage and I was condemned by a UK government minister for writing 'drivel'!

    There can never be enough evidence to change the mind of left wingers because it would involve root and branch destruction of the left wing political program.

  6. Here's a pretty easy way to make up a vocabulary test. See how far people can go before they can define no more than half the words on a table sorted by frequency of usage.

    Wiktionary has something like 100,000 words listed in order of frequency of usage in Project Gutenberg's over 1 billion words online:

    So, you test your vocabulary by figuring out where you start running into words you don't know. Dipping in just before the 50,000th most familiar word point, at 49,901 to 50,000, I didn't know "contemn" and had only the vaguest sense of "pied." (Many of the words by then are either foreign or proper nouns). At the 40,000th word mark, I knew most of the English words.

    Among the 99,901th-1,000,000th words, I didn't know awn and withes, but most of the words were foreign. I probably knew, at least vaguely, about 94% of the English words at the millionth mark.

  7. Here's a list of the 40,000 most common words by frequency of usage in TV and movie scripts:

  8. Sorry, the Wiktionary ranking of frequentcy in Project Gutenberg goes to 100,000, not 1,000,000.

  9. Inductivist; Black Sea—

    Malcolm Gladwell assures us that anyone can have a mammoth vocabulary if he just puts in the hard work necessary to build it, but wishing it to be true doesn't make it so.

    That’s actually an excellent starting point for explaining the ways in which nature and nurture interplay at a given level of intelligence, and it increasing IQ.

    To amplify on what Black Sea said, smart people tend to just absorb vocabulary, learning new words the first or second time they hear or see them, and groking their meaning themselves effortlessly from context. Other people really struggle to build more than a very basic vocabulary. Many people in the middle can expand their vocabulary by working hard to do so, both by reading more difficult material than they’re naturally drawn to, and by looking up lots and lots of words, and seeing examples of them used in context in their definitions. However at some point it takes more and more effort and people tend to find it not worth it. OR they put in the effort in a spate of self improving zeal, but then slip back to their natural inclinations.

    That’s rather how e.g. head start works on raising intelligence. It does a little, for anyone, black or white who is given it. But the results fade as the child ages. Their natural inclinations reassert themselves. Smart people naturally love to exercise their noggins. Athletes naturally love to exercise their bodies. May people are intermediate.

  10. Is a version of wordsum available to take for free on the net?

    I've tried to find out by googling, but a moderate amount of looking turned didn't turn anything up.

  11. Just Curious4:32 PM

    “Everyone in America--even smelly
    homeless people--has access to a
    library where every imaginable
    word can be found.”

    Is the derogatory adjective really
    necessary? Are we to assume
    malodorousness is an additional
    impediment to acquiring a
    prodigious vocabulary, or are you
    simply trying to add color to your

  12. Anonymous2:55 AM

    You could see how far you get in the FreeRice game:


The Inductivist admits that culture matters

A pure naturist would claim that the culture of East Asians would not change after moving to America. Let's test this with one question ...