Razib Khan and Shoring Up Stereotypes With Statistics

Razib Khan and Shoring Up Stereotypes With Statistics

Promoting stereotypes through the careful application of "statistical" evidence.

Razib Khan’s treatment of vocabulary variance by region and ethnicity is, as many of his articles go, academic for academia’s sake. In other words, there’s little practical purpose or insight to be gained, other than to provide some conversational fodder to the statistically minded. That said, it’s also just a little insulting. These two characteristics seem to align closely with much of Khan’s work, who is a regular contributor to Discovery Magazine’s Gene Expression blog. If anything, these displays of attempting to quantify people, culture, and society (I envision a world of constantly scrolling numbers a la The Matrix) simply narrowly objectifies the human experience; a frontal lobe circle jerk for relationally disinclined.

Khan begins by referencing an article by Mike the Mad Biologist, in which “Mike” pokes fun at people that try to apply achievement on test scores to a region’s relative IQ, using the NAEP’s composite math scores. Khan points out that it’s “tongue in cheek”, and then delves into a serious exploration of the subject using 10-question vocabulary tests of white-only ethnicities across regions of the U.S. In other words, a study so narrowly focused and insignificant that it’s sure to be of no use to anyone, save the article’s commentors. The results simply point to whites from the west coast and the northeast having performed better on the vocabulary test (thus having better vocabularies) than whites in the south or midwest.

To explain the discrepancy in regional performances he goes back to the 19th century; New England was the epicenter of culture and learning in the U.S. while the South was battling a nasty hookworm epidemic that made everyone lazy. Oh, and let’s not forget genes.

What about current factors? What about the discrepancy in income between the south and the coasts? What about the conservative ideology that guides much of public education in the south and midwest that isn’t as present on the coasts? What about the fact that the majority of high-skill jobs, particularly within the private sector, exist primarily on the west coast and New England? Rather than looking at current, practical, and impactful variables, he looks at the migration habits of various white ethnicities.

Although Khan maintains plausible deniability by simply presenting his findings (the innocence of scientific objectivity, if only), his conclusions nonetheless favor a degrading or otherwise unfavorable outlook on, conveniently enough, what many would consider the “fly-over states”.

What’s the point of such a niche effort at assessing vocabulary ability, if not to simply pass judgement (or provide evidence to those who would) on whole regions of the country?