THE BLOG

Call it the Bigfoot Stumble

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

No, it's not the latest dance craze. It's what happens when a prominent person comes out with a remark that disparages a certain group of people, usually on the basis of race or gender.

The Bigfoot often pays a price for the mistake -- losing a a TV talk show (Don Imus), a job, or a or a position on a prestigious board. The incident is allegedly then soon forgotten.

But is it really? Often, the answer is no. The statement lives on both in "Factoid Eternity" via the internet and in the "PC Gallery of Paranoia," both thriving places.

Take the comment by Nobel laureate James Watson, who said recently that blacks aren't as smart as whites. Oh sure, he did the ritual apology and was dismissed from the board of Cold Spring Harbor, but how many people will remember the statement and not the apology?

Quite a few, actually, thanks to cognitive dissonance. Research shows that people tend to accept and remember ideas and information that agrees with what they basically believe, and dismiss and forget information that conflicts with those core beliefs.

We journalists believe that all we have to do is speak the truth, and people will believe it. Actually, we have to speak the truth over and over and over again until it can pierce the veil of cognitive dissonance. That's why bigoted or misinformed statements by people that society holds in high esteem are so problematic. If James Watson thinks blacks are dumb, well, that's what many whites believe, deep down, so they are far more likely to listen to Watson than to, say, some peer-reviewed study someplace.

And even when the stumbler apologizes and says he didn't mean what he said, there's a huge group of people out there who believe the apology is due to political correctness, shutting up someone who is delivering an uncomfortable truth.

Take the case of former Harvard president Larry Summers, who lost his job after suggesting that women are absent from senior faculty positions at universities -- especially in math and science -- because of innate gender differences.

To his credit, Summers admitted he botched the science and even said that he really was wrong, not merely apologizing because he was pressured. . But the idea that Summers was simply a victim of the PC police continues to be made in op-eds and on blogs and on radio and TV talk shows. Most recently, in a column syndicated in September of 2007 by The Washington Post, Kathleen Parker said flatly that "scientific evidence"proved Summers was right.

Today, we are already hearing on the Internet that James Watson was right when he said he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours -- whereas all the testing says not really." He said he hoped that everyone was equal, but noted that "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true."

Immediately, one blogger on Yedda.com posted this response. "This is not some rednecked hick who says this, but a bona fide scientist with the highest credentials possible. Why is everybody so upset? I am sure this is not one man's opinion and a anyway, why shouldn't he say what he (and so many others) know for a fact."

What prompted Watson's remarks? Probably a consistent gap of about 15 IQ points between whites and blacks, and the belief that IQ is strongly inherited and that it is unaffected by education or social class.

But nature and nurture intertwine in complex ways, about which we yet know very little. Many critics dismiss the idea that the IQ test is culture-neutral. As London Times health editor Nigel Hawkes notes, class and economics do matter.

"The neatest example of this is a study of identical twins by Eric Turkheimer of the University of Virginia. Previous studies of identical twins have tended to show they have very similar IQ levels, reinforcing the idea that IQ is strongly heritable. But most twins share the same environment, and most studies have been on middle-class twins. Professor Turkheimer searched for identical twins among poor families and found their IQs varied quite a lot. A French study found that when identical twins were separated for adoption, those adopted by poor families had IQs fully 10 points lower than those adopted by well-off familes."

Well, what about the Summers suggestion that women inherently lack the capacity to do top level math? The evidence says otherwise.

The classic 1990 meta-analysis of data on SAT math scores of 4 million students, by the University of Wisconsin's Janet Hyde. found sex differences were tiny- less than 1 percent between girls and boys. In 2006 Hyde reported a new analysis of seven million students that found things hadn't changed.

Some people argue that because boys typically score at the high end of the math ability curve more often than girls, this means the best mathematicians will always be men. True? Unlikely.

A major 2007 paper published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest by six noted scientists examined more than 380 studies. It.found that male-female ratios among precocious kids scoring 700 or more before age 13 used to be seven to one, boys to girls. But now the ratio is less than four to one. Possibly because more girls are taking math seriously at earlier ages, they are getting much better.

But when such facts hit the invisible wall of cognitive dissonance (or ideological agendas), they can simply melt away. The Bigfoot Stumble feeds fantasies about the PC police, a cadre of shrouded elites who are keeping THE REAL TRUTH from the rest of us.

After all, could a Nobel laureate and the president of Harvard really be wrong?

Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety,: How the News Media Scare Women (University Press of New England.)

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