23 March 2017

Middlebury Students and Professors Shame Themselves

Stephen Kershnar
Middlebury College Riots over Charles Murray
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 20, 2017

            On March 2, 2017, Charles Murray came to Middlebury College to discuss his book about the breakdown of the white working class. He was accompanied by Allison Stanger a leftist professor who was supposed to moderate discussion of his ideas. After being drowned out by protesters, Murray and Stanger moved to another part of the campus to live stream their talk. Protesters made it difficult by banging on the walls and pulling fire alarms.

When Murray and Stanger left the building, one protester grabbed Stanger’s hair and another protester shoved her. The upshot was whiplash and a concussion requiring a visit to the hospital. Were it not for security guards and other protectors, the mob likely would have ground Murray into the dirt.

With guards holding off the howling mob, Murray, Stanger, and a college vice president got into a car and locked the doors. The mob then surrounded the car, banged on its sides and windows, rocked it, and climbed onto the hood. The car had to inch forward to avoid hitting anyone. The three then drove to a dinner venue, but when the mob discovered them, they fled again.

Encouraged by several faculty members, the protests had been organized for about a week. The protesters’ reasoning was that because Murray is a racist, white nationalist, discredited pseudoscientist, eugenicist, anti-gay, and so on, his talk was hate speech. Because hate speech does not deserve to be heard, the protesters concluded, they should forcefully keep him from speaking.

This protest followed the violent mob that prevented libertarian commentator Milo Yiannapoulis from speaking at the University of California at Berkeley. The mob decided that he engaged in hate speech and, hence, other people did not have the right to hear him speak, even at a state-owned campus. His alleged hate speech consisted of such obvious points as criticizing Muslim countries that condemn gay people to death (Yiannapoulis is gay), challenging Facebook for censoring its customers, and arguing that mass third world immigration is bad for the hosts.
It is odd that protesters thought that Murray’s discussion on the white working class should not be accessible because of his prior work on intelligence and race. It is odd too that there was so little interest in hearing about the prior work, especially since his conclusions are likely true and relevant to today’s incessant discussions of race, class, and immigration. 
The first thing to notice about the protests against Murray is the degree to which his findings in the controversial part of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994) have held up. Leaving aside what most of the book was about (isolation of the cognitive elite), critics attacked Murray for claiming that (1) differences in intelligence are in part heritable and (2) races have different distributions of intelligence and the differences is in part heritable (more specifically, not known to be purely environmental). The first claim is widely accepted. The second is plausible.   

The claim that intelligence is heritable is supported by studies that attempt to isolate the relevant statistical factors. It is also supported by studies of identical twins. These studies show that identical twins have intelligence levels that are closer than are those of non-identical twins, normal siblings, and other pairings. Murray and his fellow author, Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein, estimate that for populations, 40-80% of cognitive ability, as measured by IQ tests (tests that measure general intelligence), is inherited and the role of inheritance increases as people go from infancy to adulthood. A 1996 American Psychological Association task force on intelligence drew a similar conclusion. For late adolescents and adults, they estimate heritability at 75%. In contrast, by late adolescence, the effects of family environment are surprisingly small.

As a side note, IQ scores have been validated. They correlate with grades, SAT scores, income, and performance ratings in many occupations. There is reason to believe that differences in intelligence cause the different performance levels. IQ scores also correlate with undesirable features such as out-of-wedlock births, criminality, welfare use, and so on, though the strength of correlation varies. Even if intelligence were not inherited, it still is relevant to understanding differences between populations.

Herrnstein and Murray also argued that we do not know that the sizable difference in the black-white distribution of IQ scores is purely environmental. The evidence here is mixed. Proponents of the genetic explanation, such as J. Philippe Rushton and Arthur Jensen, point to studies involving transracial adoption, IQ scores for mixed race populations, a worldwide pattern of race and IQ scores, greater IQ difference the more the test is focused on general intelligence, and so on. Critics challenge these findings. Herrnstein and Murray’s argument that the difference is in part genetic and in part environmental is plausible because they fit with a number of lines of evidence.   

Murray and Herrnstein never supported racism, eugenics, fascism, white nationalism, etc. These labels are as false as they are offensive. Murray’s mixed race children are not what one would expect from a racist.    

Even if Murray were racist, fascist, sexist, etc. that is still no reason to violently prevent people from listening to his ideas. As John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty, free speech is useful because the marketplace of ideas tends to separate true ideas from false ones in the same way that a marketplace tends to separate better goods from worse ones. Mill also argued that false ideas sometimes contain a kernel of truth, a kernel that is discoverable by discussing the ideas. In addition, Mill and others have pointed out that discussing ideas forces people to discover why they believe what they do. This makes them better thinkers and, Mill adds, more virtuous.

Middlebury protesters and their faculty cheerleaders were wrong on Murray’s ideas and don’t understand the value of free speech. Instead of discussing ideas with one of America’s most important intellectuals, Middlebury students engaged in thuggery. What a shame.

08 March 2017

Parents may intentionally create gay children

Stephen Kershnar
Should parents prefer heterosexual children?
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 6, 2017

            With improving technology, it is only a matter of time before parents can (largely) determine their children’s sexual orientation. When they can do so, should they refrain from having gay children?
Depending on the theory, sexual orientation focuses on desire, behavior, or self-identification. There is a continuum of orientation from exclusively heterosexual to exclusively homosexual and all points in between. In his 1994 book, The Social Organization of Sexuality, sociologist Edward Laumann found that while 2.4% of men and 1.3% of women define themselves as gay or bisexual, have same-gender partners, and express homosexual desires, many other people have mixed desires and behaviors.  
There is evidence that sexual orientation has both genetic and environmental influences. Identical twins are more likely to have the same sexual orientation (if one is gay, so is the other) than fraternal twins and non-twin siblings. Still, genes account for less than 50% of the variation in sexual orientation. Thus, while there appears to be a genetic influence on whether someone is gay, it is not genetically determined. In addition, there are other factors that correlate with non-heterosexual orientation (for example, hormonal differences in utero and childhood sexual abuse and maltreatment). It is very controversial whether certain environmental effects (for example, abuse and maltreatment) influence sexual orientation at all or, if they do, their strength.  

            The environmental influence can also be in seen in that adolescent’s sexual patterns are surprisingly fluid. In particular, sexual desires in gay and bisexuals adolescents is more unstable than that of heterosexuals. Some studies indicate that large numbers of adolescents with same-sex attractions later become exclusively heterosexual. Even adult men have fluid orientations, University of Utah psychologist Lisa Diamond reports that 35% of gay men reported experiencing opposite-sex attractions in the preceding year and 10% reported opposite-sex behavior. Diamond earlier found that women’s sexuality was surprisingly unstable. For example, one study using Laumann’s data found that women who attended college were nine times more likely to identify as lesbians compared to those who did not.

            Arizona State professor Lawrence Mayer and Johns Hopkins professor Paul McHugh point out that gay, bisexual, and transgender people have higher rates of mental health problems and social problems. They have increased rates of anxiety disorders, depression, suicide attempts, and make greater use of mental health services. They also have increased social problems such as domestic violence (victimization and perpetration) and substance abuse. The suicide attempt rate for transgender people is alarmingly high even when compared to gays and bisexuals. Note that this is an increased rate of problems for a population, many non-heterosexual people do not have any of them.

The most common explanation for this is that most, if not all, of the mental health and social problems are due to social stressors such as discrimination, prejudice, stigmatization, and hiding one’s identity. We don’t know, though, whether social stressors account for all of the additional problems.

            In the future, and likely in the near future, we will have the ability to screen and, perhaps, control the genetics of our offspring. This might occur by screening sperm and egg, selective abortion, changing the in utero hormones, or changing the ways genes express themselves (epigenetics). With this ability, should parents choose heterosexual children?

            Other things being equal, people prefer to have happier, healthier, and smarter children. The above problems suggest that one way to have happier and healthier children is to avoid having gay ones. Also, even if the mental health and social problems of non-straight people go away, perhaps, due to decreased hostility to gays, heterosexual parents might still want children similar to themselves. This is unsurprising. This also explains why parents usually prefer to adopt children from their own racial or ethnic group. Also, because on average heterosexuals have more children than gays and parents often want more grandchildren, they often will prefer heterosexual children.

By the same token, gay parents might want gay children, again because they are similar to themselves. Even if their children were, on average, less happy than straight children, gay parents would not be harming anyone by selecting gay children. Gay children would not be better off had they not been created and the straight children who never existed have no ground for complaint. If there is nothing wrong with being gay or having gay sex, and I don’t think there is, then it is not wrong to select gay children. Still, in the absence of knowledge about what is causing greater mental health and social problems in gays, there is reason to hesitate creating gay children.

More controversial is whether parents may cause their children to be gay.

It might be argued that it is wrong to choose to create one type of person rather than another. Seven states ban abortions performed to select sex or race (Arizona, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota). Similarly, the World Health Organization tells governments to eliminate such abortions while at the same time endorsing a right to an abortion. 180 countries have signed on to its recommendations. However, this line of argument is confused. No one is wronged by sex- or race-selection abortion who is not also wronged by abortion in general. If the second does not wrong anyone, then neither does the first. This ban on sex selection is particularly bizarre in that the biologically normal sex ratio at birth is 2-6% more boys than girls. It is not as if there is equal or natural ratio of boys and girls that should be society’s target.

It might also be argued that selecting children based on sexual orientation will worsen gays’ and bisexuals’ social position or have fewer political allies. Even if this were true, this is not a strong enough reason to trample on women’s right to an abortion or parents’ right to control whom to create.

The days when parents can choose whether to have straight or gay children is rapidly approaching. There is nothing wrong with their choosing what they want and the law should stay out of it.

23 February 2017

Should the State University of New York at Fredonia raise or lower its admission standard?

Stephen Kershnar
At the Crossroads: The State University of New York at Fredonia
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
February 19, 2017

            The State University of New York at Fredonia has declining enrollment and it faces a decision. It can emphasize student quality or quantity and shape its identity in so doing.

Fredonia has had at least 5,000 students per year and usually more than 5,300 students from 2000-2013 (roughly, 5,100 in 2000 and 5,800 in 2010). After that the student body has been getting smaller. It was down to roughly 4600 students in 2016 and will likely be noticeably below that in 2017.

The percentage of freshmen in the bottom half of their high school class has also increased over the years from 9% in 2000 and 12% in 2010 to 17% in 2015. On the other hand, there has been an increase in the strongest freshmen (top 10% of their high school class) from 15% in 2000 and 16% in 2010 to 19% in 2015. Thus, the average freshman appears to be losing ground in the sense that she is less likely to be in the top half of her class. Still, the school is attracting more of the strongest freshman, at least as a percentage. The freshmen numbers can mislead though because, at least until recently, they did not include disadvantaged students (Educational Development Program and Full Opportunity Program). If these students were included, the numbers would likely be worse.   

Along the way, the quality of Fredonia’s students relative to its competitors has declined. Its SAT range (25% and 75% percentiles) has its students tied with SUNY-Purchase for 8th. It ranks below competitor schools such as Brockport, Cortland, Geneseo, New Paltz, Oneonta, and Oswego. It is also behind the university centers (consider, for example, Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo, and Stony Brook). It does, however, rank ahead of competitor schools such as Buffalo State, Old Westbury, and Plattsburgh. The SAT is a moderately good predictor of grades and its predictive power increases when combined with high school grade point average.

Whether Fredonia is diverse depends on the type of diversity in which one is interested. On average, it is a school for students from New York’s upper middle class. More specifically, the undergraduate population is mostly from New York (96%), heavily white (75-80%), and majority female (57%).

Fredonia’s student body tends to come from the upper middle class with a median family income of $97,000 and with 4 out of 10 coming from the top 20% of family incomes (2013 numbers from The New York Times). Nearly, 1 out of 6 students comes from the top 10% of incomes, but almost none (less than 1%) come from very rich families (top 1%). These families do better than the average family in Western New York. In 2015, the median household income of Western New York was $57,000.  

Surprisingly few of Fredonia’s students come from poor families. Only 5% come from a poor family (income from the bottom 20%). So while 20-25% of its students are racially or ethnically diverse, far fewer are from poor families. 

In different ways, Fredonia’s elite competitors, Geneseo and Buffalo, have similar profiles. Geneseo is similar in being 60% female and 79% white. However, on average, its students come from richer families (median family income: $125,000). Buffalo’s undergraduate students on average come from families who make about the same as do the families of Fredonia students (median income $99,000), but it is majority male (56%) and much less white (50% white) than Fredonia or Geneseo.  

Faced with declining enrollment and a slight drop in the ability of the average student, Fredonia has to decide what to do. It could change its admissions standards. If the standards are lowered, then the school will have more students, which will allow it to offer more programs and hire more faculty and staff. On the other hand, the cost to the school’s reputation might be significant. This could be costly if this were to make it more difficult to attract students, especially better students, or if it were to lower faculty morale. Also, the caliber of education might worsen if the quality of students’ education is affected by their classmates’ ability. If the school were to raise standards, this could have the opposite effect on enrollment, number of programs, reputation, morale, and, perhaps, learning.

Before deciding what to do with admissions, it is worth considering what justifies Fredonia’s existence? Because it is a state school, Fredonia is in part funded by coercively obtained tax dollars, sometimes taken from taxpayers who make less than families who send their kids there. This makes it important that the school’s justification be made clear.

If what justifies Fredonia is that it provides equal opportunity, then the school should be focusing on increasing the number of students from poor or otherwise disadvantaged families. The idea here that students from upper middle class and richer families will have plenty of educational opportunity without Fredonia and its peers. Increasing the focus on disadvantaged students might be done, for example, by shifting resources to the programs for disadvantaged students. It also might be done by emphasizing programs that serve the disadvantaged. Consider, for example, education, social work, and criminal justice. Another way this might be done is by shifting merit-based scholarships to need-based ones.   

Alternatively, if the school is justified by its economic contribution to New Yorkers, then it is less clear that resources should be spent on disadvantaged students. Both a student’s SAT scores and her family’s socio-economic status affect her graduation rate. As Jason DeParle reported in The New York Times, among those college students whose families were in the bottom half of income distribution and who had below-average test scores, fewer than one in ten graduated from college. If the state wants a good return on its investment, those students should not be the focus of the state’s efforts.   

Fredonia’s mission will get even murkier if, as Governor Cuomo proposes, the state makes college tuition-free for most students. It is unclear whether spending even more taxpayer dollars should move the school in an equal-opportunity direction or economic direction.

Perhaps the first step then in deciding what to do with Fredonia’s admissions standards is to decide what justifies it.