Those inscrutable Italians

Do you see anything wrong with this title? If you do, you are a racist, a bigot, a xenophobe and quite a few other awful things I could mention. Please send me your name and address so I can report you to the police.

Then again, you just may be an observant, well-travelled person who has been to Italy. There you saw crowds of loud, wildly gesticulating, crestfallen or mirthful people, but never anyone who’d merit the adjective ‘inscrutable’.

Looking for a group to which you could attach that unwanted modifier, you then find yourself in Japan and heave a sigh of relief. That good word is no longer unemployed. You try in vain to decipher your hosts’ facial expressions, only to find that nothing short of a new Enigma project would suffice.

That doesn’t mean that all Italians are emotionally effusive and all Japanese impenetrably undemonstrative. If you search high and wide, I’m sure you’ll find exceptions here and there. But you won’t find enough of them to dispel your certainty that ethnic stereotypes exist – and they are sufficiently, well, stereotypical to be valid.

If I told you that my friend Abdul and I once drank two bottles of vodka between us, you’d be more surprised than you’d be if I replaced ‘Abdul’ with ‘Andrei’. The phrase ‘that great skater Miguel’ is more incongruous than ‘that great skater Leif’, ‘champion swimmer Clarence’ more unlikely than ‘Olympic sprinter Clarence’, ‘bagpiper Angus’ less implausible than ‘bagpiper Li’, ‘blond Norwegian’ more likely than ‘blond Mexican’, ‘7-foot Dutchman’ less surprising than ‘7-foot Timorese’ and so on.

Everywhere you look you find your ethnic stereotypes confirmed and hardly ever debunked. And this isn’t just a matter of ethnographic curiosity. It may also be a matter of life or death.

Some diseases are known to discriminate against certain groups, afflicting some more than others. Thus Armenian periodic disease may strike a chap who has never been to Armenia and may not even know he has Armenian blood. Sickle cell disease is widespread among blacks, cystic fibrosis among Jews, people from the Indian subcontinent are five times as likely as whites to develop diabetes.

I’m sure a doctor publishing results of a study on such bigoted diseases would escape censure. On the contrary, if his research added new touches to existing knowledge, he’d be widely acclaimed.

Now, staying within the realm of logic, it’s not inconceivable to suggest that, if different ethnic and racial groups vary in their emotional, behavioural, physical and physiological traits, they may also vary in intelligence.

However, even hinting at that possibility in our tolerant times is guaranteed to expose the author to a torrent of abuse and even death threats. Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray discovered that 30 years ago, when they published their book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.

The book elicited a hysterical reaction in the predominantly ‘liberal’ media, so hysterical in fact that one was justified in doubting that the critics had actually read the book.

Had they done so, they would have known that The Bell Curve wasn’t a racist harangue but a serious attempt to summarise and analyse empirical data gathered over several generations. The book’s principal finding was that IQ scores are the most reliable predictor of all sorts of social outcomes, from academic and economic success to infant mortality and life expectancy.

Counterintuitively, IQ scores even turned out more reliable than educational qualifications or socioeconomic family backgrounds. IQ predicts just about everything more accurately, from future incomes to divorce likelihood, from crime rates to out-of-wedlock births.

The first 12 chapters of the book dealt exclusively with research on all-white samples and didn’t even mention the word ‘race’. It’s only in Chapter 13, Ethnic Differences in Cognitive Ability, that the authors used reams of statistical data (the book has 300 pages of references and endnotes) to illustrate and explain the well-documented fact that the mean IQ scores of American blacks are 15 points lower than among whites.

The usual objection, that the tests are compiled by white middleclass people and hence biased towards that group, is unsound. Recent arrivals from South East Asia, such as Vietnamese refugees with less than perfect English, outperform American whites, scoring especially high on abstract questions that aren’t sensitive to culture. That, however, isn’t to say that The Bell Curve made an indisputable case.

The book did demonstrate a correlation between race and IQ, but, as Thomas Sowell showed persuasively, correlation doesn’t mean causation. Nevertheless he remarked that: “The Bell Curve is a very sober, very thorough, and very honest book – on a subject where sobriety, thoroughness, and honesty are only likely to provoke cries of outrage.”

Provoke cries of outrage it did and still does 30 years on, with the general tone suggesting that the subject is taboo, and anyone broaching it is no better than a Ku-Klux-Klan lyncher. Lost in the din were serious arguments against the proposition that a racial bias in IQ scores is permanent and immutable.

If it’s neither, then a multitude of other factors come into play, making racial bias either irrelevant or even nonexistent.

For example, Sowell’s own research showed that black females are several times more likely than black males to have an IQ of 120 or higher. One plausible explanation is that girls are more resistant than boys to negative environmental factors, which makes any claims of racial IQ bias rather suspect. After all, black boys and girls draw from the same genetic pool.

Sowell also cites research by the US Army during the First World War that showed that the predominantly Jewish sons of Russian refugees had such low IQ scores that Carl Brigham, creator of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, was moved to declare that those results “disprove the popular belief that the Jew is highly intelligent.”

“Within a decade, however, Jews in the United States were scoring above the national average on mental tests,” writes Prof. Sowell, “and the data in The Bell Curve indicate that they are now far above the national average in IQ.” Since at that time intermarriage was rare, this shows that mean IQ scores can change within the same group from one generation to the next, and even from one sex to the other. Hence the ethnic component is minor if at all existent.

As neither a sociologist nor a racist, I’m not especially interested to know whether blacks are more or less intelligent than whites. Mean IQ scores among various racial, ethnic or sexual groups don’t skew my presumptions one jot when I find myself in conversation with members of such groups.

However, I treat with utter contempt those who contort their features in exaggerated opprobrium whenever ethnic stereotypes are mentioned. Loosen up, chaps. Social tranquillity will survive claims that Italians are seldom inscrutable.

5 thoughts on “Those inscrutable Italians”

  1. “I’m sure a doctor publishing results of a study on such bigoted diseases would escape censure.” Seriously? I think he would be run out of town on a rail. Scientific fields no longer allow for the intrusion of science-based facts.

    In addition, my paternal grandfather, Clarence, was neither a ‘champion swimmer’ nor an ‘Olympic sprinter’. He was a skilled craftsman, fearless, and as quick with a witticism as any grandson could ask. For his sake, and his great grandson’s (my own Nicholas Clarence) I take solemn offense at this article and vow never to return. Well, maybe to check for other comments and new posts – but that’s it! (I’m new to the modern trick of taking offense in proxy.)

    Finally, I assumed that your friend Abdul had at most the smallest sip from those two bottles, the lion’s share being consumed by the author. (Much like Al Attles declaring, “Wilt Chamberlain and I once combined to score 117 points in a game.”)

    1. It’s just that Clarence is a quintessential balck name in Britain, a bit like Leroy in the US. Two nations divided by a common language, to quote that famous xenophobe. But you are right to take offence – I should have known about the special significance of that name in your family.

      1. You have used the name ‘Clarence’ as an example a few times, but I do not think I commented on it. I suppose those examples were not as egregious. (Tongue firmly in cheek, of course. But now I feel the need to double check our ancestry; Edward Crondall from Tewkesbury might not be who we thought he was.)

  2. I guess too you must be able to differentiate between the northern Italian and the southern Italian. That great period of the renaissance mostly if not almost exclusively a northern Italian “thing”.

  3. Speaking as a Scot, and therefore a member of a nation whose average IQ would be 150 if the English hadn’t stolen 33% of it, I know all about racial stereotypes. Living in England as an entirely beneficial immigrant, I often wander the streets at dawn, playing Rod Stewart’s greatest hits on my bagpipes, brandishing a sign representing a bloody claymore, shouting “Nicola Sturgeon for Pope!” and defacing War Memorials in a culturally enriching way that only the most hardened racist could dislike.

    But (alas!) I don’t really do that kind of thing. It isn’t we Scots who (mutatis mutandis) do that kind of thing – at least not when we’re sober (which, contrary to stereotype, some of us sometimes are). The people who do that kind of thing are of many races and many levels of intellect. The only thing they have in common is evil.

    (Speaking again as a Scot, I’d like to mention that yon Boot laddie kens a thing or twa.)

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