There is no such thing as strength: a parody

post by ZoltanBerrigomo · 2015-07-05T23:44:34.228Z · score: 24 (40 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 70 comments

The concept of strength is ubiquitous in our culture. It is commonplace to hear one person described as "stronger" or "weaker" than another. And yet the notion of strength is a a pernicious myth which reinforces many our social ills and should be abandoned wholesale. 

 

1. Just what is strength, exactly? Few of the people who use the word can provide an exact definition. 

On first try, many people would say that  strength is the ability to lift heavy objects. But this completely ignores the strength necessary to push or pull on objects; to run long distances without exhausting oneself; to throw objects with great speed; to balance oneself on a tightrope, and so forth. 

When this is pointed out, people often try to incorporate all of these aspects into the definition of strength, with a result that is long, unwieldy, ad-hoc, and still missing some acts commonly considered to be manifestations of strength. 

 

Attempts to solve the problem by referring to the supposed cause of strength -- for example, by saying that strength is just a measure of  muscle mass -- do not help. A person with a large amount of muscle mass may be quite weak on any of the conventional measures of strength if, for example, they cannot lift objects due to injuries or illness. 

 

 

2. The concept of strength has an ugly history. Indeed, strength is implicated in both sexism and racism. Women have long been held to be the "weaker sex," consequently needing protection from the "stronger" males, resulting in centuries of structural oppression. Myths about racialist differences in strength have informed pernicious stereotypes and buttressed inequality.

 

3. There is no consistent way of grouping people into strong and weak. Indeed, what are we to make of the fact that some people are good at running but bad at lifting and vice versa? 

 

One might think that we can talk about different strengths - the strength in one's arms and one's legs for example. But what, then, should we make of the person who is good at arm-wrestling but poor at lifting? Arms can move in many ways; what will we make of someone who can move arms one way with great force, but not another? It is not hard to see that potential concepts such as "arm strength" or "leg strength" are problematic as well. 

 

4. When people are grouped into strong and weak according to any number of criteria, the amount of variation within each group is far larger than the amount of variation between groups. 

 

5. Strength is a social construct. Thus no one is inherently weak or strong. Scientifically, anthropologically, we are only human

 

6. Scientists are rapidly starting to understand the illusory nature of strength, and one needs only to glance at any of the popular scientific periodicals to encounter refutations of this notion. 

 

In on experiment, respondents from two different cultures were asked to lift a heavy object as much as they could. In one of the cultures, the respondents lifted the object higher. Furthermore, the manner in which the respondents attempted to lift the object depended on the culture. This shows that tests of strength cannot be considered culture-free and that there may be no such thing as a universal test of strength

 

7. Indeed, to even ask "what is strength?" is to assume that there is a quality, or essence, of humans with essential, immutable qualities. Asking the question begins the process of reifying strength... (see page 22 here).

 

---------------------------------------

 

For a serious statement of what the point of this was supposed to be, see this comment

 

70 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by eternal_neophyte · 2015-07-06T00:06:48.253Z · score: 11 (13 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think I've ever been blind-sided by Poe's law as hard as I have by your post.

comment by ZoltanBerrigomo · 2015-07-06T00:28:08.014Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Hmm, on second thought, I added a [/parody] tag at the end of my post - just in case...

comment by Furcas · 2015-07-06T02:12:38.769Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

My cursor was literally pixels away from the downvote button. :)

comment by Algon · 2015-07-06T08:59:26.810Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You know, I must applaud you. You really surprised me there. After reading that I could only say 'What?'

Was this made as a prank or just as a humorous piece? I'm quite curious to know your intentions here.

comment by ZoltanBerrigomo · 2015-07-06T18:46:51.585Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

See the reply I just wrote to gjm for an explanation of my motivations.

When I was writing this, I thought the intent to parody would be clear; surely no one could seriously suggest we have to strike strength from our dictionaries? I seem to have been way off on that. Perhaps that is a reflection on the internet culture at large, where these kinds of arguments are common enough not to raise any eyebrows.

Anyway, I went one step further and put "parody" in the title.

comment by Algon · 2015-07-06T20:11:09.582Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Ah, that makes sense.

I would probably put something like 'this is a parody of the arguments used for 'there is no such thing as intelligence etc'' as some people (AKA me) might not pick up what you're parodying.

Though perhaps I'm just in a small minority, and I don't read internet debates as often as others do.

Thanks for the clarification by the way.

comment by Elo · 2015-07-06T07:02:10.512Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

this addition was helpful. Although I do wonder if the concept can be steelmanned a bit.

comment by Wes_W · 2015-07-06T06:30:32.443Z · score: 10 (12 votes) · LW · GW

It is interesting, though, how non-general strength is.

There is indeed a widely (unwittingly) held idea that "strength" is a one-dimensional thing: consider, say, superhero comics where the Hulk is stronger than anybody else, which means he's stronger at everything. You never read a comic where the Hulk is stronger at lifting things but Thor is stronger at throwing; that would feel really weird to most people. If the Marvel universe had a comic about strength sports, the Hulk would be the best at every sport.

But this isn't at all how strength works in the real world: there is a pretty large component of specificity. Very, very few athletes are competitive at high levels in even two strength sports, never mind all of them. Giant male powerlifters frequently have a snatch weaker than tiny female weightlifters, despite having dramatically more lean body mass, and naturally higher testosterone, and (usually) the benefit of performance-enhancing drugs. And if you put a powerlifter in the Highland Games - a contest of strength via various throwing events - well, they'd be hopeless!

To a strength athlete, this is obvious. Of course powerlifters have a lousy snatch! Most powerlifters don't even train the snatch! Strength isn't just about raw muscle mass; there is a very large component of skill, technique, and even neural adaptation to specific movement patterns.

But under the folk one-dimensional model of strength, this is a strange and surprising fact.

comment by SilentCal · 2015-07-10T23:00:58.985Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

http://lesswrong.com/lw/km6/why_the_tails_come_apart/

I can't find data, but I bet the one-dimensional folk model works quite well among the general population.

comment by Wes_W · 2015-07-11T03:55:15.602Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It does! It's pretty reasonable to say that I'm much stronger than the average non-athlete, and Dan Green is much stronger than me, and all the fiddly caveats don't really change that analysis.

Does this work better or worse than IQ? I'm not sure.

comment by RomeoStevens · 2015-07-06T07:18:50.537Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Sub-components of "strength" are each just skills. Some skills have broader applicability transfer than others. There is nothing universally upstream of every single other strength skill.

comment by Wes_W · 2015-07-07T00:39:59.732Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Some subcomponents aren't skills - or at least, it seems odd to label e.g. "unusually long arms" as a skill - but this is a nitpick.

comment by Capla · 2015-07-07T22:11:50.739Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'd think of the hulk's universal strength as something like the difference between species instead of between individuals. I don't know, but I imagine that a mountain gorilla is much stronger than me, at bench pressing, at deadlifting, at overheard pressing, at throwing, etc.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2015-07-06T17:35:37.052Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

There is Strength, I checked; it's the first attribute on my character sheet.

What, you've never got to see your character sheet? Poor souls, how are you going to ever know how to play yourself properly?

comment by shminux · 2015-07-06T04:22:54.052Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

There is no such thing as height, either.

comment by chaosmage · 2015-07-06T11:50:45.880Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

That post does everything this one does, and more, and does it better.

Maybe I'm just prejudiced against parody, but I really find it hard to think of any scenario where sober fact-based discussion doesn't do a better job. Except for ingroup circlejerks on the ridiculousness of the outgroup, of course.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2015-07-07T01:51:55.771Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I think the best parodies show that the arguments they parody prove too much.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2015-07-08T10:46:20.517Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'm taking the parody literally-- a hammer-thrower talks about the ways she is and isn't strong.

http://espn.go.com/olympics/story/_/page/bodyamandabingson/hammer-thrower-amanda-bingson-says-athletes-come-all-shapes-sizes-espn-magazine-body-issue

comment by cousin_it · 2015-07-08T15:02:53.457Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This part is interesting:

But my coach told me that unless I lost 30 pounds there was no room for me on the team. I couldn't lose the weight. I went with my mom to the doctor and we tried to learn all this stuff. I did everything I could and I could not lose it.

Coming from a professional athlete, "I did everything I could" means she tried harder to lose weight than most people can ever imagine. Genetics is so unfair.

comment by ahbwramc · 2015-07-06T02:07:39.604Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I've had similar thoughts before:

Now imagine you said this [that some people are funnier than others] to someone and they indignantly responded with the following:

“You can’t say that for sure – there are different types of humour! Everyone has different talents: some people are good at observational comedy, and some people are good at puns or slapstick. Also, most so-called “comedians” are only “stand-up funny” – they can’t make you laugh in real life. Plus, just because you’re funny doesn’t mean you’re fun to be around. I have a friend who’s not funny at all but he’s really nice, and I’d hang out with him over a comedian who’s a jerk any day. Besides, no one’s been able to define funniness anyway, or precisely measure it. Who’s to say it even exists?”

(/shameless blog plug)

comment by James_Miller · 2015-07-06T00:32:59.347Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It's a lot easier to evaluate strength than IQ.

comment by eternal_neophyte · 2015-07-06T00:43:32.584Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

How so?

comment by James_Miller · 2015-07-06T01:50:43.676Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

More objective units of measure and the obvious causal relationship between visible muscle size and strength. Also, you bias IQ tests if you repeatedly take them, but you don't do likewise with strength tests so it's much easier to track changes in an individual's strength over time and most anyone whose lifts weights can objectively verify that he has become stronger. Lifting weights makes you stronger, therefore strength measures something real--no analogous statement exists about IQ.

comment by Wes_W · 2015-07-09T09:28:10.797Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Also, you bias IQ tests if you repeatedly take them, but you don't do likewise with strength tests so it's much easier to track changes in an individual's strength over time and most anyone whose lifts weights can objectively verify that he has become stronger.

Strength tests are absolutely biased by taking them repeatedly. Athletes call this "specificity".

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2015-07-11T03:03:28.650Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The practice effect for IQ tests is about two orders of magnitude stronger than for strength tests. You could call this "specificity," but at that granularity, it's a bad thing.

comment by Wes_W · 2015-07-11T05:29:28.635Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Interesting. Can I ask you to unpack this statement? I'm curious what exactly you're comparing.

The difference between "has practiced a movement to mastery" and "has never performed a movement before" can be very large, like my powerlifter/snatch example in the other comment. But this is comparing zero practice to a very large amount of practice over a very long period of time. I would find it easy to believe that IQ tests see much greater returns from small amounts of practice.

comment by eternal_neophyte · 2015-07-06T09:59:05.980Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

More objective units of measure

How do you define/determine this?

the obvious causal relationship between visible muscle size and strength

Isn't there an "obvious" causal relationship between brain mass and intelligence?

you bias IQ tests if you repeatedly take them, but you don't do likewise with strength tests

.Above someone remarked that a female weightlifters might have a much more powerful snatch than male powerlifters, due to several strength tests involving specialised skills auxiliary to "general strength". So it seems that you might indeed be able to "bias" (at least some) strength tests.

Lifting weights makes you stronger, therefore strength measures something real--no analogous statement exists about IQ

How about "solving puzzles makes you smarter, therefore IQ measures something real"?

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-07-10T09:15:56.267Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

How about "solving puzzles makes you smarter, therefore IQ measures something real"?

There no good research that suggests that solving puzzles makes you significantly smarter in the same way that lifting weights makes you significantly smarter.

Isn't there an "obvious" causal relationship between brain mass and intelligence?

The fact that women generally have smaller brains than men doesn't mean that they are generally less intelligent in the same way that the fact that women generally have less muscle means that they have less strength.

comment by Wes_W · 2015-07-09T09:28:08.536Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

How do you define/determine this?

The standard definition of strength, which the post cleverly avoided ever stating, is "the ability to produce force against external resistance" or some variant thereof. Force is a well-defined physics term, and can be measured pretty directly in a variety of ways.

Isn't there an "obvious" causal relationship between brain mass and intelligence?

No. Whales aren't smarter than humans.

If by "obvious" you mean "the sort of thing you might guess from first principles", then both are obvious. But the muscle-strength relationship is obvious in another sense: in actual data, it will leap out at you as a very large factor. For example, 97% of variance in strength between sexes is accounted for by muscle mass, and one of the strongest predictors of performance in powerlifters is muscle mass per unit height.

comment by eternal_neophyte · 2015-07-09T13:00:00.367Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The standard definition of strength, which the post cleverly avoided ever stating, is "the ability to produce force against external resistance" or some variant thereof.

Does this definition resolve the problem posed by the OP, that competence in one of various different specific activities requiring strength doesn't imply competence in the others? That is, after all, the basis on which IQ tests are attacked - competence on Raven's progressive matrices doesn't imply competence at the Piano. If we would answer their objection by saying that intelligence is the general capacity to solve problems, have we shed any light on what ties these capacities together?

If by "obvious" you mean "the sort of thing you might guess from first principles"

That's what I interpreted James Miller to mean, at least roughly.

the muscle-strength relationship is obvious in another sense: in actual data, it will leap out at you as a very large factor. For example, 97% of variance in strength between sexes is accounted for by muscle mass, and one of the strongest predictors of performance in powerlifters is muscle mass per unit height.

Seems to me to be merely a difference of degree. While not "leaping out", brain-mass and intelligence do seem to correlate non-trivially (at least when cranial volume is measured via MRI):

Among humans, in 28 samples using brain imaging techniques, the mean brain size/GMA correlation is 0.40 (N = 1,389; p < 10−10); in 59 samples using external head size measures it is 0.20 (N = 63,405; p < 10−10). In 6 samples using the method of correlated vectors to distill g, the general factor of mental ability, the mean r is 0.63.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2668913/

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-07-10T09:25:09.342Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Does this definition resolve the problem posed by the OP, that competence in one of various different specific activities requiring strength doesn't imply competence in the others? That is, after all, the basis on which IQ tests are attacked - competence on Raven's progressive matrices doesn't imply competence at the Piano.

"imply" is a word that suggests you think about whether it makes sense that there a causal relation between the two task. That's not central for IQ. g is a statistical construct that does things that aren't obvious.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-07-06T07:49:49.561Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I think this is the Fallacy of Gray. http://lesswrong.com/lw/mm/the_fallacy_of_gray/

You see an overused or incorrectly used concept, and instead of trying to improve it, you set out to try to deconstruct it completely. Mentioning sexism and racism makes it doubly suspect: especially the link between racism and strength is really weak and occasional at best (as stereotypes went both ways), and it looks a bit like guilt-tripping, guilt-by-association tripping which combined with too much deconstructionism looks like a classic "postmodern" failure mode.

From a rational, predictionist viewpoint, strength is a useful concept for the application of energy. It is a useful term when it is more about pedalling than steering. To hit a target with an arrow, both exact aiming needed and the energy to propel it to the target, and strength is from a family of concepts that have more to do with the propelling.

A good point can be made that one should clarify different kinds of energies and strengths better. When I talk with simple rural blue-collar folks they are often like, the body-builders are just fake-strong, they could not dig ditches 10 hours a day i.e. they focus more on muscle endurance, while the lifters usually focus on 1 rep max.

Besides strength is often used metaphorically - ability, willpower etc.

This was about the rational stuff. Now for some uglier and more personal stuff - if you can go subjectivist so can I: the sexist part is largely because testosterone is real, and it seems to affect many kinds of strength - from 1RP to muscle endurance, and the more metaphorical willpower kind of stuff too. Obligatory article. besides, on a purely personal preference level, we are quickly approaching a world where women out-perform men in pretty much everything that matters. Recognizing the simple truth that men have an advantage in a not too important field helps keeping some kind of an anchor to tether male identity, masculine identity to, without that it would all too easily evaporate. While identities can be built around something else than gender, in practice it seems to me gendered identity is fairly big and important. This is why transgenderism is such a big deal these days - it would be difficult to explain to Jenner that gender does not matter much. Men today are feeling insecure about themselves, not really sure what being a man means in the 21st century when you are absolutely positively not going to be a conquistador or similar type of a heroic manly ideal. We need an ideal that embraces much of the historical aspects of masculinity to tether it all to, yet has the least amount of potential fallout / harm to women, gays etc. and this seems to be currently the solution. A bit of an obsession about one's own body, while narcissistic, is at least something that does not really have a lot of consequences for others.

EDIT: disregard this, I did not see it is a parody.

comment by EGI · 2015-07-09T03:15:59.389Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

While this post is meant as a parody / reductio, I think the idea that "there is no such thing as strength" is not entirely invalid. This has of course nothing to do with strength being culturally constructed or some such nonsense but with "strength" - as it is used colloquially- being highly multidimensional.

Thus there is no unambiguous way to say my strenght is [number] [unit]. You can of course devise a strenght test and define a strength quotient as the output of this test. And if the test is any good of course this strength quotient will corelate with different abilities and outcomes such as digging ditches or carrying stones or the probability of having back pain. But this does not mean that "your strenght" as measured by the strenght test behaves like a physical unit.

It may for example (depending on the exact nature of the test) not be meaningful to ask how a non human like an ant or a zebra or an excavator would rate on the test for example because the test may involve handling dumbbells (what neither ant nor zebra can) or involve endurance tests (what the excavator can do until the fuel tank is empty or not at all). I hope the parallel to AI is obvious. On the other hand if I do measure a dimension of strength this problem goes away. If muscle x at max tension applies a torque of y to joint z this does behave as a physical unit and can easily be applied to any system with joints, be it ant, zebra or excavator.

Furthermore the strength test is to a certain degree arbitrary. You could do a slightly different test with slightly different correlations and stil call it "strength". This is not the case with a single dimension of strength. That muscle x at max tension does apply a torque of y to joint z is an objective fact about the world which can be ascertatined with a host of different methods all of which will yield the same result (at least theoretically).

Concerning intelligence we unfortunately do not know the onedimensional subcomponents. I think this is the propper steelman for "there is no such thing as intelligence".

comment by gjm · 2015-07-06T08:56:06.571Z · score: 1 (7 votes) · LW · GW

(I got about one paragraph in and thought "this is an allegory for intelligence, right?".)

Thing is, I don't think it works the way it seems to be intended to work. That is, I basically agree with the surface-level claims it makes. (Until near the end, where the author seems to get a bit confused between mocking "intelligence isn't real" and mocking "race isn't real", which screws up the analogy because strength and intelligence are hugely more alike than strength and race, and which maybe gives the game away a bit about his underlying motivations.)

You really can be strong in some respects and weak in others. This really does mean that summarizing people's strength with a Strength Quotient would be throwing away information. This really does mean that comparing different groups of people for strength by measuring their SQs would risk mistaking a difference in balance for a difference in overall strength (whatever that might mean).

I wouldn't even bet heavily against the proposition that the use of "strength" as a very general ability ("So, what do you consider your greatest strength?") produces bias against people and groups with less physical strength (e.g., women). I'm not sure how one would go about testing this, though.

comment by ZoltanBerrigomo · 2015-07-06T18:31:11.611Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I was not trying to suggest that intelligence and strength are as alike as race and strength. Rather, I was motivated by the observation that there are a number of arguments floating around to the effect that,

A. Race doesn't exist

B. Intelligence doesn't exist.

and, actually, to a lesser extent,

C. Rationality doesn't exist (as a coherent notion).

The arguments for A,B,C are often dubious and tend to overlap heavily; I wanted to write something which would show how flawed those arguments are through a reductio ad absurdum.

To put it another way, even if strength (or intelligence or race) really was an incoherent notion, none of the arguments 1-7 in my post establish that it is so. It isn't that that these arguments are wholly wrong -- in fact, there is a measure of truth to each of them -- but that they don't suffice to establish the conclusion.

comment by Alejandro1 · 2015-07-06T21:12:33.038Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

When people say things like "intelligence doesn't exist" or "race doesn't exist", charitably, they don't mean that the folk concepts of "intelligence" or "race" are utterly meaningless. I'd bet they still use the words, or synonyms for it, in informal contexts, analogously to how we use informally "strength". (E.g. "He's very smart"; "They are an interrracial couple"; "She's stronger than she looks"). What they object to is to treating them as a scientifically precise concepts that denote intrinsic, context-independent characteristics. I agree with gjm that your parody arguments against "strength" seem at least superficially plausible if read in the same way than the opponents of "race" and "intelligence" intend theirs.

comment by Jiro · 2015-07-07T15:03:12.366Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

When people say things like "intelligence doesn't exist" or "race doesn't exist", they are often using what on SSC is referred to as "motte and bailey"--that is, their claims that they don't exist are true based on narrow definitions, but they then apply those claims when much broader definitions are not in use.

comment by Yosarian2 · 2015-07-19T06:01:28.302Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

When people say "race is a social construct", for the most part, what they mean is that racial categories are divided in ways that are ambiguous and that tend to change over time. Obviously people have different physical features and genetics, but what physical features make one a member of one race or another, where you draw those lines, and what racial distinctions are "important" and which aren't, are all social constructs.

To someone without any that social context (say, an Australian aborigine living in the year 1500 who had never met anyone outside of his own ethnic group previously) it wouldn't immediately be obvious to him that someone from Norway and someone from Greece are both "the same race", but that someone from Greece and someone from northern Africa are "different races".

There was also an interesting study that demonstrated that people's perception of what race someone else was, or even what their own race is, sometimes tends to change over time based on social circumstances.

http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/02/11/275087586/study-stereotypes-drive-perceptions-of-race

comment by ZoltanBerrigomo · 2015-07-06T21:26:05.978Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

A. I think at least some people do mean that concepts of intelligence and race are, in some sense, inherently meaningless.

When people say

"race does not exist because it is a social construct"

or that race does not exist because

"amount of variation within races is much larger than the amount of variation between races,"

I think it is being overly charitable to read that as saying

"race is not a scientifically precise concept that denotes intrinsic, context-independent characteristics."

B. Along the same lines, I believe I am justified in taking people at their word. If people want to say "race is not a scientifically precise concept" then they should just say that. They should not say that race does not exist, and if they do say the latter, I think that opens them up to justifiable criticism.

comment by Alejandro1 · 2015-07-07T09:11:13.642Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

It is true that normally, taking people at their word is charitable. But if someone says that a concept is meaningless (when discussing it in a theoretical fashion), and then proceeds to use informally in ordinary conversation (as I conjectured that most people do with race and intelligence) then we cannot take them literally at their word. I think that something like my interpretation is the most charitable in this case.

comment by ZoltanBerrigomo · 2015-07-08T04:13:47.597Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

First, I'm not so sure: if someone is actually inconsistent, then pointing out the inconsistency may be the better (more charitable?) thing to do rather than pretending the person had made the closest consistent argument.

For example: there are a lot of academics who attack reason itself as fundamentally racist, imperialistic, etc. They back this up with something that looks like an argument. I think they are simply being inconsistent and contradictory, rather than meaning something deep not apparent at first glance.

More importantly, I think your conjecture is wrong.

On intelligence, I believe that many of the people who think intelligence does not exist would further object to a statement like "A is smarter than B," thinking it a form of ableism.

One example, just to show what I mean:

http://disabledfeminists.com/2009/10/23/ableist-word-profile-intelligence/

On race, the situation is more complicated: the "official line" is that race does not exist, but racism does. That is, people who say race does not exist also believe that people classify humans in terms of perceived race, even though the concept itself has no meaning (no "realness in a genetic sense" as one of the authors I cited in this thread puts it) . It is only in this sense that they would accept statements of the form "A and B are an interracial couple."

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2015-07-11T03:09:11.423Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Ableism is a lot more recent (or at least more recently popular) than the idea that intelligence does not exist. I don't think it's very relevant

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2015-07-10T19:34:30.908Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, I suppose that is true when people say such things charitably. But usually when they say such things, they are not being charitable.

comment by gjm · 2015-07-06T23:07:08.359Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

(Separate comment because I'm making an entirely separate point.)

I wonder whether any nontrivial proposition, however well supported, could survive the treatment you are meting out here. The procedure seems to be: (1) find a number of brief and sketchy attacks on something, (2) do a search-and-replace to turn them into attacks on something else, (3) quote maybe a sentence or two from each, and (4) protest that none of these one-or-two-sentence attacks suffices to establish that the thing they're attacking is bad or unreal.

I'm not sure how supportable the claims "race doesn't exist" and "intelligence doesn't exist" are (though clearly the answer will depend a lot on exactly how those claims are interpreted) but I'm quite certain that if either of them is true then a decent argument for it will take (let's say) at least a page or two. If someone says "race doesn't exist" or "intelligence doesn't exist" followed by a one-sentence soundbite, they probably aren't trying to "establish the conclusion" so much as gesturing towards how an argument for the conclusion might go. (Or maybe they really think their soundbite is enough, but in that case what we should conclude is that the person in question isn't thinking very clearly and that if we really want to evaluate their claims we need to find a better statement of them.)

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-07-07T10:16:04.367Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Generally, for any "football" topic that gets kicked back and forth, there

A) is a way of defining it so that it is almost trivially existent

B) a way of defining it so that it is almost trivially nonexistent

C) a failure if debate participants to realise that they are actually talking past each other.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-07-08T02:05:49.479Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If one scratches the situation a little bit one tends to find that one side frequently tries to equivocate between the two definitions so as to claim that definition (B) is non-existent.

comment by gjm · 2015-07-07T12:39:48.002Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

True. If you are saying that C is happening here, perhaps you could be more specific about what terms you think Zoltan and I are understanding differently without recognizing the fact?

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-07-07T16:18:54.937Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't see much point in commenting on the parody, but this characterises arguments about the I word and the R word.

comment by ZoltanBerrigomo · 2015-07-07T00:36:15.080Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

First, only some of the attacks I cited were brief and sketchy; others were lengthier. Second, I have cited a few such attacks due to time and space constraints, but in fact they exist in great profusion. My personal impression is that the popular discourse on intelligence and race is drowning in confused rhetoric along the lines of what I parodied.

Finally, I think the last possibility you cite is on point -- there are many, many people who are not thinking very clearly here. As I said, I think these people also have come to dominate the debate on this subject (at least in terms of what one is likely to read about in the newspaper rather than a scientific venue). Instead of ignoring them and focusing on people who make more thoughtful and defensible variations of these points, I think some kind of attempt at refutation is called for.

comment by gjm · 2015-07-06T22:53:43.794Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

This sort of analogical reductio ad absurdum only succeeds in so far as whatever makes the parody arguments visibly bad applies to the original arguments too.

This is more or less true for your arguments when they are parodying "no such thing as intelligence" (though I don't think the conclusion "there is no such thing as strength" is particularly absurd, if it's understood in a way parallel to what people mean when they say there's no such thing as intelligence).

But it's clearly not true, e.g., for #4. If you divide the human species up into races and look at almost any characteristic we have actual cause to be interested in, then the within-group differences do come out larger than the between-group differences. Whereas, e.g., if you divide people up into those who can and those who can't lift a 60kg weight above their heads, I bet the between-group differences for many measures of strength will be bigger than the within-group differences.

#5 is interesting because what Toni Morrison actually calls "a social construct" at the other end of the link is racism, not race. It's true, though, that some people say race is a social construct. But so far as I can see the things they mean by this don't have much in common with anything anyone would seriously claim about strength.

#6 takes a not-very-convincing argument from authority against belief in race and turns it into a completely absurd argument from authority against belief in strength, because in fact there are good scientists saying that race is an illusion or a social construct or something of the sort, and there aren't good scientists saying the same thing about strength.

It seems to me that your parodies of arguments in class A are consistently less successful than those of arguments in class B -- which is entirely unsurprising because intelligence and strength are similar things, whereas race and strength are much less so.

[EDITED to fix a weird formatting problem. I think start-of-line octothorpes must signify headings to Markdown.]

comment by ZoltanBerrigomo · 2015-07-07T00:50:56.344Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I would bet the opposite on #4, but that is beside the point. On #4 and #6, the point is that even if everything I wrote was completely correct -- e.g., if the scientific journals were actually full of papers to the effect that there is no such thing as a universal test of strength because people from different cultures lift things differently -- it would not imply there is no such thing as strength.

On #5, the statement that race is a social construct is implicit. Anyway, as I said in the comment above, there are a million similar statements that are being made in the media all the time, and I could have easily chosen to cite one that would have explicitly said race is a social construct. For example:

http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/06/16/how-fluid-is-racial-identity/race-and-racial-identity-are-social-constructs

The writer is a law professor, writing in the NY times; she tells us that "race is a social construct" as "there is no gene or cluster of genes common to all blacks or all whites" and explicitly draws the conclusion that race "is not real in a genetic sense."

...which is a synthesis of arguments 1 & 3 & 5 in my post. I know I could read the author's statement as true but trivial (she is, of course, right - race, strength, height, and all other concepts in our vocabulary are social constructs) but that does not seem to be the intended reading. I could also explicate her position beginning with the words "But what she really meant by that is..." but that also strikes me the wrong response to a fundamentally confused argument.

comment by gjm · 2015-07-07T16:16:43.034Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

On #4 and #6, the point is that even if everything I wrote was completely correct [...] it would not imply there is no such thing as strength.

Certainly true, but the most conspicuous problem with the parody argument in this case isn't that, it's that the statements about scientific journals etc. are spectacularly false. (Much less so for intelligence.) So someone reading your parody sees the parody argument, correctly says "wow, that's really stupid" -- but what they're probably noticing is stupid is something that doesn't carry across to the original.

And (I'm repeating things that have been said already in this discussion) while indeed any quantity of scientific papers finding problems with universal strength test wouldn't imply that there is no such thing as strength, they would give good reason to avoid treating strength as a single simple thing that can be easily compared across cultures -- and that is the version of the "no universal test, so no such thing as intelligence" argument that's actually worth engaging in, if you are interested in making intellectual progress rather than just mocking people who say silly oversimplified and overstated things.

I could have easily chosen to cite one that would have explicitly said race is a social construct.

Yes, I know; that's why I said "It's true, though, that some people say race is a social construct".

comment by ZoltanBerrigomo · 2015-07-08T04:40:14.079Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure I understand your criticism. I don't mean this in a passive aggressive sense, I really do not understand it. It seems to me that "the stupid," so to speak, perfectly carries over between the parody and the "original."


A. Imagine I visit country X, where everyone seems to be very buff. Gyms are everywhere, the parks are full of people practicing weight-lifting, and I notice people carrying heavy objects with little visible effort. When I return home, I remark to a friend that people in X seem to be very strong.

My friend gives me a glare. "What is strength, anyway? How would you define it? By the way, don't you know the concept has an ugly history? Also, have you seen this article about the impossibility of a culture-free measure of strength? Furthermore, don't you know that there is more variation between strong and weak people than among them?"

I listen to this and think to myself that I need to find some new friends.

B. Imagine I visit country X, where almost everyone seems to be of race Y. Being somewhat uneducated, I was unaware of this. When I return home, I ask a friend whether he knew that people from X tend to be of race Y.

My friend gives me a glare. "How do you define race anyway? Don't you know the concept has an ugly history? You know, it is a fact that there is more variation between races than among them."

I listen to this and think to myself that I need to find some new friends.

C. Imagine I visit country X, where intellectual pursuits seem highly valued. People play chess on the sidewalks and the coffee shops seem full of people reading the classics. The front pages of news papers are full of announcements of the latest mathematical breakthroughs. Nobel/Abel prize announcements draw the same audience on the television as the Oscars in my own country. Everyone I converse with is extremely well-informed and offers interesting opinions that I had not thought of before.

When I return home, I remark to a friend that people in X seem to be very smart.

My friend gives me a glare. "How would you define intelligence anyway? Don't you know the concept has an ugly history? Have you seen this article about the impossibility of a universal, culture-free intelligence test?"

I listen to this and...


It seems to me the three situations are exactly analogous. Am I wrong?

comment by gjm · 2015-07-09T13:46:00.299Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There are multiple things that could be wrong with your friend's response.

  • It could draw a wrong inference given its premises.
  • It could have wrong premises.
  • It could, even if its conclusion is technically correct in some sense, be misleading.
  • It could, even if its conclusion is correct, be a just plain weird response.

As regards the first of these, the three situations are indeed very closely analogous. (Not exactly -- you chose different arguments in the different cases. A: ill-defined, ugly-history, no-good-measure, within-versus-between. B: ill-defined, ugly-history, within-versus-between. C: ill-defined, ugly-history, no-good-measure.)

As regards the second, I think not so closely. For instance, so far as I know the notion of strength doesn't have at all the sort of ugly history that the notion of race does, nor the (less ugly) sort that the notion of intelligence does. (Maybe it has a different sort of ugly history, something to do with metaphorical use of "strength" by warmongering politicians perhaps.) And I bet you can get something nearer to a usable culture-independent test of strength than to a usable culture-independent test of intelligence. And, as I said earlier, I greatly doubt that there's more variation in anything anyone expects to be a matter of strength within strong/weak than between those groups. (Incidentally, you wrote "more variation between ... than among" which is the wrong way around for that argument.)

I'm not sure how much we should care about the third and fourth of those points since I think we agree that the conclusion is dubious at best in each case. But for sure the context is different (e.g., one reason why people who think there's no such thing as race or intelligence bother to say so is that there are other people saying: oh yes there are, and look, it turns out that this traditionally disadvantaged race to which I happen not to belong is less intelligent than this traditionally advantaged race to which I happen to belong; nothing like this is true for strength) and it seems like that makes a relevant difference. (E.g., your friend's response to the comment about strength seems weirdly aggressive for no reason; in the case of a comment about race or intelligence, there's at least an understandable reason why an otherwise reasonable person might be touchy about them.)


So no, I don't think the situations are perfectly analogous, though they're close. If we consider only the first kind of error, then the analogy is pretty good. And if you were making an explicit argument then that would be OK. But you aren't; you're presenting your parody arguments, and inviting readers to point and laugh and draw their own conclusions. And if one of the parody arguments is laughable for reasons that don't correspond to defects in the arguments you're parodying (e.g., because it depends on saying that there are lots of scientific articles out there saying that strength is purely a cultural construct) then you're inviting readers to conclude that claims like "race isn't real" and "intelligence isn't real" for terrible reasons. It's like dressing someone up in a clown costume, getting them to present an argument, and saying "wasn't that silly?". The argument may well be silly, but it will feel sillier than it is because of the clown suit.

comment by ZoltanBerrigomo · 2015-07-11T03:42:27.402Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with 99.999% of what you say in this comment. In particular, you are right that the parody only works in the sense of the first of your bulleted points.

My only counterpoint is that I think this is how almost every reader will understand it. My whole post is an invitation to to consider a hypothetical in which people say about strength what they now say about intelligence and race.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2015-07-11T03:24:48.456Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If the context is so important, why did you wait until four comments deep in the nesting to bring it up?

comment by gjm · 2015-07-11T09:20:11.796Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Because that's when something was said to which it was particularly relevant. (It's not like anyone reading is likely to be unaware of that difference in context.)

comment by gjm · 2015-07-06T23:26:23.701Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Er, I realise that I am confused about #6. Its first paragraph seems like exactly the sort of thing someone might say about race, but then the second paragraph is pointing at a study concerned more with intelligence than with race (though it might have implications for inter-racial IQ comparisons).

Actually, it seems like an interesting study (though the press-release description at the other end of the link is a bit rubbish). What they did was to give (nonverbal) IQ tests to two culturally and racially different groups of people, along with lower-level and perhaps more objective tests of neurological functioning. Then they ran regressions to try to figure out what lower-level characteristics predict IQ scores in the two groups, and found that the results were quite different -- suggesting that people in the two groups are attacking the IQ test problems in fundamentally different ways. I think this is the actual published study.

Of course, the state of psychology research being what it is, they did it with a total of 54 people, and if they did any actual statistical analysis of the difference in regression results between the Spanish and Moroccan subgroups beyond displaying some of the numbers and saying "look, they're different!" then I haven't found it. So I wouldn't bet too heavily on it. But it's suggestive, at least.

(I am not claiming that if it were correct it would demonstrate that either race or intelligence is unreal. It could be, e.g., that there are racial differences in how well people's brains "choose" how to attack problems, and that this leads to systematic racial differences in cognitive ability. But prima facie it seems more likely that, as the researchers conjecture, these differences are a matter of culture and education more than of brain structure. If they're real at all, of course.)

comment by OrphanWilde · 2015-07-07T18:53:07.525Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You really can be strong in some respects and weak in others. This really does mean that summarizing people's strength with a Strength Quotient would be throwing away information. This really does mean that comparing different groups of people for strength by measuring their SQs would risk mistaking a difference in balance for a difference in overall strength (whatever that might mean).

The loss is the same in -any- quantization effort, and inherent in any manipulation of quantized values. That doesn't render quantization irrelevant, however.

This rug is 1 2/3 cubic feet. Is it five feet wide and four feet long, and one inch thick? Is it ten feet long and two feet wide, and still one inch thick? You've lost information. But if you're primarily concerned with the weight of the rug, and happen to have its density as well, the volume could be useful information.

comment by gjm · 2015-07-07T23:38:39.738Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I completely agree: the fact that something isn't simple and one-dimensional and perfectly unambiguous doesn't make it completely unreal or completely useless. So, for the avoidance of doubt, if anyone says "intelligence is multidimensional and hard to measure and culturally loaded; therefore there is no such thing as intelligence" and means the Stupidest Possible Thing by that last bit rather than something subtler, then I think they're wrong.

Incidentally, so far I think everything I have posted in this discussion has been downvoted exactly twice. I guess one is Eugine/Azathoth/VoiceOfRa; would anyone like to lay claim to the second lot? I'm curious in particular, about whether there's any information in the downvotes beyond what I already have from Zoltan's disagreement with me plus the fact that, duh, I'm posting non-neoreactionary opinions in a discussion of race and intelligence, so of course VoiceOfRa is going to downvote me. So: if you're reading this and downvoted me for a reason other than seeing me as a sociopolitical enemy, you can probably improve the effectiveness of your downvote by telling me why you gave it. Thank you.

comment by Alejandro1 · 2015-07-08T14:41:56.455Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I guess one is Eugine/Azathoth/VoiceOfRa

I had suddenly the same suspicion about VoR today, in a spontaneous way; has there been previous discussion of this conjecture that I missed?

comment by gjm · 2015-07-08T16:20:26.106Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

A little. At this point I'm at least 99% confident VoR is the same person flouting the ban again. I've not had a lot of downvotes on ancient comments lately, though, so I think he's being a bit better behaved than in the past. (Though I find the downvote-for-political-disagreement strategy rude, and I don't think it's just because the practitioners I've noticed all have politics quite different from mine.)

comment by ZoltanBerrigomo · 2015-07-08T02:32:55.620Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

For what its worth, I have not downvoted any of your posts. Although we seem to be on opposite sides of this debate, I appreciate the thoughtful disagreement my post has received..

comment by gjm · 2015-07-08T09:34:35.290Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

And for what it's worth, I thought you probably hadn't. (Indiscriminate downvoting doesn't tend to go hand in hand with reasoned and reasonable disagreement.)

comment by Jiro · 2015-07-08T15:40:15.256Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I am skeptical that you would be more likely to leave if someone told you "I am downvoting you to get you to leave". So if someone wants to drive you out for holding the wrong opinions, telling you why he gave it to you will not, in fact, improve its effectiveness.

comment by gjm · 2015-07-08T16:13:37.786Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, that's true. I was thinking of people who were downvoting in the hope of improving the content they see on LW rather than to get rid of me personally. But I would expect people aiming for the latter to be in the "seeing me as a sociopolitical enemy" category, and those weren't the people I was addressing.

comment by advancedatheist · 2015-07-06T02:36:38.136Z · score: -3 (15 votes) · LW · GW

Indeed, strength is implicated in both sexism and racism. Women have long been held to be the "weaker sex," consequently needing protection from the "stronger" males, resulting in centuries of structural oppression.

Uh, reality check. Despite all the propaganda about "warrior women" who can kick men's asses, in the real world even an out of shape man can overpower most women - indeed, the hysteria about rape culture implicitly assumes that.

And again in the real world, women can't pass U.S. Army Ranger training. Men just have more upper body strength than women on average.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2015-07-06T18:49:37.813Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

And again in the real world, women can't pass U.S. Army Ranger training. Men just have more upper body strength than women on average.

They will very shortly.

I watched some news story on how they've opened up Ranger training to women, those women who tried, failed, and how they needed to "reevaluate the test" to more properly match requirements.

While that makes sense in the abstract, I'm sure that one unstated requirement will be "some women will pass the test".

comment by shminux · 2015-07-06T04:21:01.304Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

OP added the parody tag after you posted this...

comment by buybuydandavis · 2015-07-06T18:43:12.632Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

He added the closing tag, but not the begin tag.

Given that so many people would seriously post such nonsense, the post was destined for misunderstanding and time wasting for many involved.

Whatever point the OP was attempting to make, there must have been a more effective way of making it.