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Aren't black people on the whole the best athletes in the world? They clearly dominate so many sports. It seems absurd to say there's no correlation between race and athletic ability.

Jonathan Marks
 

The way the question is phrased really embodies the key issue of scientific discourse: What's the relationship between a body of data and the conclusions one can draw from the data? I think we have to start off first by asking exactly what do we mean by athleticism. Because obviously a lot of diverse characteristics go into that - strength, flexibility, coordination, eyesight, endurance, just to name a few. But, obviously, very different kinds of talents are required in athletes. I happen to have seen a lot of white guys who jump quite well. They're all in ballet, not in basketball. But, one of the questions is what kinds of commonsense ideas are inflecting the way that the question is being asked. As opposed to a rigorous approach to it.

If we take the sort of commonsense idea that black people are faster than white people, what does that actually mean in a rigorous test? Does it mean that all blacks are faster than all whites? Well, that's demonstrably false. Does it mean a hypothetical average black person is faster than a hypothetical black person? Well, that's meaningless because I don't know how you'd find the hypothetical average person. Does it mean the ten fastest black people are faster than the ten fastest black people? This is, I think, close to what people mean when they say something like that. But the problem with that, is it's statistically nonsensical to characterize a group of a couple of billion people by its most extreme members.

What we're looking at here in the best athletes is essentially occupational overrepresentation. There are a lot of reasons why people are attracted to sports as a vocation. For example, in boxing, there's an overrepresentation of blacks. There's also an overrepresentation of Hispanics in boxing. It's a consequence of the opportunities open to the particular group in question. And where most avenues to upward mobility are closed to you, you're going to gravitate to something that seems just as low a probability of success as anything else. If other venues are open to you, that don't involve getting beaten up on a regular basis, you're probably more likely to take those.

When we look at the general issue of occupational overrepresentation, as evidence of genetic superiority, we're kind of left with the promise of Irish policeman yielding Irish police genes, and Jewish comedians being the result of Jewish comedy genes, and Chinese laundry genes, which, of course, is ridiculous. The point of all this is that there are a lot of reasons why people are attracted to certain professions and certain occupations and certain things to do with their lives. Only one of which is that they have some sort of natural ability for it.

Another important point is that while we like to talk about ability, we have no real way of measuring it. It's a metaphysical, abstract quality. Ability is something you're born with that is independent of the development you will incur during your life. But the fact is, the only thing that we can measure is what you actually do, how you actually perform. The score you get on a pencil and paper test, or whether you actually shoot ten freethrows in a row. And that is not independent of the life history that you have. Any IQ test, for example, has a vocabulary component. And there's no way that you can talk about vocabulary that is independent of the words you've been exposed to during the course of your life!

Alan Goodman
 

I'd love to do a count of, for instance, the proportion of Norwegians that won medals in the winter Olympics versus people from the Congo. Or even the number of Finns that have won middle distance races compared to the population size of Finns. My guess is, if we were focused on looking at, say, Scandinavian excellence in athletics, you could come up with the same set of questions being asked. What is it genetically about people in those cold countries and that Norwegian success in the winter Olympics? Well, gosh, maybe it's because they have a lot of snow up there or something like that.

 

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