Slips and Lies

One winter day in the midst of her husband’s 1980 presidential campaign, Nancy Reagan told a crowd at the Heritage Foundation that she was happy to see “all this beautiful white snow and all these beautiful white people” — which she instantly corrected to “all these beautiful people”. I happened to be standing no more than a few yards from her at the time, and it was crystal clear from her speech pattern, her demeanor, and her facial expression that her slip of the tongue conveyed no deeper meaning (conscious or otherwise). I am quite sure that if snow had been green, she’d have referred to “all this beautiful green snow and all these beautiful green people”.

Much of the press, of course, thought otherwise, or pretended to, leading to a brief contretemps that fortunately blew over.

I was not present at Joe Biden’s recent speech, and I have not seen the video, but I am essentially certain that the phrase “Poor kids are just as bright as white kids” — which Biden, like Mrs. Reagan, instantly corrected — was an equally innocent slip of the tongue. I have little patience for those who are attempting to profit by suggesting otherwise. What Mr. Biden meant to say was that “poor kids are just as bright as wealthy kids”. And therein lies the true outrage. Because that statement is a lie.

Poor kids are not just as bright as wealthy kids. The sources for this empirical fact are easy to find, so I won’t review them here. There are several plausible explanations. First, IQ is highly correlated with wealth and IQ is heritable. Next, poverty is stressful, and stress impedes cognitive development. Et cetera.

I’d like to see a lot less reporting on innocent slips of the tongue and a lot more reporting based on the principle that it’s not okay to just make stuff up, and it’s doubly not okay to make confident assertions that you know to be false. Arguably, the incumbent president has overstepped these bounds so often and so egregiously that we’ve become inured to it. But I’m pretty confident that if Trump, with his ususal bluster, had made an equally confident assertion, equally at odds with easily checkable facts, it would by now have been logged on innumerable media-curated lists of the president’s fabrications. As it should be. But where is the Biden-analogue to those lists?

The President is a habitual liar. That’s a good reason to dump him — but maybe not for someone equally dishonest.

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28 Responses to “Slips and Lies”


  1. 1 1 Henri Hein

    Yes, thanks for pointing that out. Trump is an habitual liar, and so are the former presidents. Obama stands out as well. He may not have been as bad as Trump, but that is about as low as a bar gets. As a highlight, here is the PolitiFact’s list of his “if you like your plan, you can keep it” claim:
    https://www.politifact.com/obama-like-health-care-keep/
    Now Biden is on the same path, making the exact same claim:
    https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2019/jul/18/if-you-your-plan-you-can-keep-it-bidens-healthcare/

  2. 2 2 AMTbuff

    The crucial fact is that, despite different averages, outstanding students exist among both poor and wealthy. Fairness requires that we consider each person as a person without making assumptions or changing our decision based on group membership. Focusing on group average results leads nowhere good.

  3. 3 3 Steve Landsburg

    AMTbuff: Are you asserting that your “crucial fact” makes it okay for Biden to invent “facts” of his own? If not, I don’t see the relevance.

  4. 4 4 Chris Lawnsby

    I think Biden’s slip is more substantive than Nancy Reagan’s.

    Reagan maybe had the word “white” in her mind because she had just said “white snow.” The probability that Reagan was secretly thinking to herself, “God it’s great to see white people here” is pretty low, in my opinion.

    My best guess for Biden that his brain chunks “rich kids” and “white kids” together somehow, and he accidentally said “white” instead of “rich.” The prior probability of Biden having this module in his head is pretty high, in my opinion.

    This isn’t super-surprising: I bet a huge % of the population has a similar association in their heads (you could prob test with one of those timed buzzer-hitting experiments). I wish I didn’t, but I probably have subconscious bias in this direction, too, so this isn’t a “How dare he!” type post.

    Anyway, I don’t have a really big point– just to say that I bet Reagan’s slip was just random noise and Biden’s wasn’t. Just one more thing to say I think there’s a ~0% chance Biden would’ve accidentally said, “Poor kids are just as bright as green kids.”

    Anyway I truly love your blog posts and your books– they are always fascinating/

  5. 5 5 AMTbuff

    @SL: My point was that group averages should be irrelevant if we would stop keeping score by group membership as if life were a team competition with teams assigned by sex, race, etc. Biden was fundamentally wrong to feed the group competition monster at all. His factual error is secondary.

    The answer to group average differences is neither to pretend they don’t exist nor to apply offsetting preferences. Group competition is a strange game. The only wining move is not to play.

  6. 6 6 Steve Landsburg

    AMTbuff: Thank you for clarifying.

  7. 7 7 Roger Schlafly

    The Democrat Presidential primaries are all one big identity politics game. Besides health care, all the candidates want to talk about is racism and white supremacy.

    This Biden comment is trivial by itself, but he will be judged on his willingness to support policies that are perceived as anti-white, such as school busing, slavery reparations, open borders, blaming Ferguson cops, etc. His record is a mixed bag, and he has a lot of explaining to do.

  8. 8 8 JB

    A lie on Biden’s part would have required that his statement was false and that he was aware it was false. The statement is indeed false but he may be ignorant with regard to differences in average intelligence between rich and poor kids. The empirical facts may be easy to find, but as a politician I suspect he just didn’t bother to look. He may well have just been (profoundly) wrong and lazy, though not dishonest (in this case).

  9. 9 9 Steve Landsburg

    JB: I think that confidently asserting an empirical claim is tantamount to asserting that you’ve verified that claim, so that if you have not in fact verified it, it counts as a lie. This, at least, is the standard to which the current president is routinely (and in my opinion appropriately) held.

  10. 10 10 Harold

    #1 “. Trump is an habitual liar, and so are the former presidents. Obama stands out as well.”
    No. This is factually wrong and almost deranged to suggest. Trump lies far,far more often. This is simply a matter of record. To state an equivalence is so wrong it suggests an ulterior motive. Any reasonable person simply has to acknowledge that Trumps lies far more than almost anybody else, and certainly any previous politician. If they don’t they are deluded. There is so much evidence that it is pointless to try to point it out.

    SL. ” First, IQ is highly correlated with wealth and IQ is heritable.”

    Who said “bright” = IQ? You are comparing apples to oranges. Had Biden said “poor kids have the same IQ tests as rich kids” then yes, anyone could point out the facts. He said “bright”, which may well include other considerations than doing so well on IQ tests.

    “Next, poverty is stressful, and stress impedes cognitive development” Bollocks. All sorts of things are stressful. Having your parents expect that you will be a doctor or a lawyer is stressful. Pressure to achieve in exams is stressful. Does this negatively correlate with brightness? Absolutely not!

    The Flynn effect is that IQ has increased over time. This puts into question your assertion that IQ is heritable. If this were the only story this increase would be impossible. There is surely some genetic component, but given the Flynn effect it can not be safely declared that people that do poorly on IQ tests have less capacity to pass on high IQ to following generations. The Flynn effect disproves this.

    “poor kids are just as bright as wealthy kids” And therein lies the true outrage. Because that statement is a lie. The sources for this empirical fact are easy to find, so I won’t review them here.”

    Oh, how convenient not to review them here. Because they do not exist!

    You have provided no evidence to back this up. You are defining “bright” as doing well in IQ tests or achieving by normal metrics of success. You This is very poor by your standards. I hope you will reconsider this. There are other ways to think of “bright”.

    Roger: “The Democrat Presidential primaries are all one big identity politics game. Besides health care, all the candidates want to talk about is racism and white supremacy.”

    Jesus fucking Christ! Who is talking white supremacy and identity politics? It ain’t the bleeding democrats but the president!

    It cuts me up that a society that based itself on identity politics for 300 years (yeah, you have heard of “passing for white”) suddenly has an epiphany that previously persecuted groups are playing identity politics, when their whole lives revolved around their identity, imposed by white men. Want to sit at the front of the bus? You can’t because of the identity I impose on you. Hell, you don’t identify as black? Well I identify you as black, so get to the back of the bus!

    Identity politics was imposed by the ruling class. It is churlish to now complain about it.

    On the specifics. Nancy was probably blameless. I have no problem with her statement. Biden, I think, was probably thinking on some level black = poor. Whether we should blame him for this is another question, because blacks are poorer than whites.

  11. 11 11 Harold

    “The statement is indeed false but he may be ignorant with regard to differences in average intelligence between rich and poor kids.”

    He did not say “intelligence.” He said “Bright”. What he said was not demonstrably false and therefore an not be a lie.

  12. 12 12 Josh H

    It’s obvious what he meant. He meant that, just because you are poor, it doesn’t mean you can’t be as bright as a rich kid.

    He didn’t say that but it’s obvious that’s what he meant.

  13. 13 13 Steve Landsburg

    Harold (#10 and #11): You make a good point — Biden might have been using the word “bright” to mean something other than what’s measured by IQ tests. But this, of course, raises the question of what (if anything) he did mean by it. For any plausible definition I can imagine, “brightness” is going to be positively correlated with IQ scores, and with wealth. If Biden has some other definition in mind, then it’s incumbent on him to tell us what that definition is, why it’s a definition we should care about, and where we can find the evidence that it’s not correlated with wealth.

  14. 14 14 Steve Landsburg

    Josh H (#12): This does not seem to me to be a remotely plausible interpretation. If I say that zebras are just as large as elephants, I’ve lied, whether or not it’s possible to find one overgrown zebra that is larger than one baby elephant.

    More to the point, Trump is frequently and widely criticized for making false statements that could be interpreted as true if you were willing to interpret him as charitably as you’ve just interpreted Biden. I think one could reasonably side with the critics and one could reasonably side with the more charitable interpreters. Personally, I’m in the former camp. But I think that whichever camp you’re in, you ought to be applying the same standards to Biden that you are to Trump.

  15. 15 15 Steve Landsburg

    Roger Schlafly (#7): Not for the first time, you’re straying pretty far off topic. This wasn’t meant to open a discussion about everything that is or isn’t wrong with the rhetoric of every Democratic politician.

  16. 16 16 Victor

    Two questions:

    1. Would you be as inclined to say Biden lied if Biden had said “black kids are as bright as white kids”? If my understanding of the IQ literature is correct, there is a racial gap in IQ, just as there is one between rich and poor.

    2. Are you familiar with the criticisms of the IQ literature by Nassim Taleb? He argues that the conclusions reached in the IQ literature do not survive robust statistical analysis.

    I think I should add he has made this argument in a rather vitriolic manner, making him somewhat notorious in some circles.

  17. 17 17 Harold

    ” where we can find the evidence that it’s not correlated with wealth.”

    Here is some. Apparently lower classes are wiser than higher classes.
    “Grossmann and Brienza crunched the data and assigned the participants both a “wise reasoning” score based on the conflict answers and a “social class” score, then plotted the two scores against one another. They found that people with the lowest social class scores…scored about twice as high on the wise reasoning scale as those in the highest social class.”

    So twice as bright in that regard.

    There are problems equating IQ with “bright”, as I mentioned. One factor of testing is always going to be motivation. If you don’t care much about testing because you don’t respect authority you will do worse on the test. But even with IQ there are problems with the blanket assertion.

    A.R. Jensen found that low SES children with low IQ scores performed much better at learning tasks than their IQ predicted, whereas higher SES children performed as predicted. They summarised their findings that lower SES children “appear in certain ways to be considerably brighter than their more advantaged middle-class counterparts of similar IQ.” This is a clear distinction between brightness and IQ.

    Another thing is we are talking about kids. von Stumm and Plomin found a small difference between IQ at 2 had tripled by age 16. They speculated “It is plausible that children from higher SES families experience greater opportunities for and support in cognitive engagement and learning than children from more disadvantaged homes (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002). Differences in the availability of learning opportunities, support and resources are thought to accentuate individual differences in cognitive ability.”

    Deckers et al studied parental investment in children related to SES. they concluded “The overall pattern of results suggests that childhood circumstances cumulate, given that low parental education and low parental income a fortiori affect the formation of references and IQ if both are present in a single family” It is reasonable to say that kids who do not develop fully due to circumstance are just as bright as luckier children, although they end up with a lower IQ.

    So kids from poorer families are born with much more similar IQ and this IQ may not be a good predictor of “brightness.” The Flynn effect proves that changes or differences in measured IQ between groups is not all due to genetic factors. The rapid change in IQ cannot be due to genetic change. We know that the IQ of populations can shift in unexplained ways. It is therefore plausible that genetic explanations for the small difference in IQ between young children of different SES is just as evanescent as the apparent difference between people in 1950 and people in 1990.

    We could say brightess is the potential kids are born with. It is not a stretch to say that poor kids are as bright as rich kids, but their life opportunities prevent them developing the same IQ as rich kids.

    You may not agree with the argument, but it is incorrect to say it is “just made up” and it is an assertion he “knows to be false.”

    I have not been following all the Democratic race, but from what I have seen, Biden does appear to be losing his sharpness a bit. Beto is not getting anywhere this time, but he could be one to watch for the future.

  18. 18 18 iceman

    Harold – to Steve’s point in #14, one can only hope you work this hard to charitably interpret people on all sides.
    Your response to Roger in #10 does not seem promising in this regard…but we mustn’t stray off topic.

  19. 19 19 Harold

    #14 and #18
    SL: “Trump is frequently and widely criticized for making false statements that could be interpreted as true if you were willing to interpret him as charitably as you’ve just interpreted Biden…You ought to be applying the same standards to Biden that you are to Trump.”

    This was not addressed to me, but I apply the same standards to both. I give them one or two charitable interpretations, but as the numbers rack up, the charity starts to get overwhelmed.

    Trump is also widely criticized for making false statements for which there is no charitable interpretation.

    In giving the benefit if the doubt, one cannot reasonably always give the benefit in one direction. After a while, there is no longer any doubt.

    Iceman. “one can only hope you work this hard to charitably interpret people on all sides.”
    You will note that I was charitable about Nancy’s comment: “Nancy was probably blameless. I have no problem with her statement.”

    Had she gone on to say similar things over and over I may have reconsidered.

    Some things have no reasonable charitable interpretation and I think we should call them out.

    Some arguments are complex and take a bit of work. I showed that one could reasonably hold the opinion that poor kids are as bright as rich kids, so Biden’s statement was not necessarily a lie.

  20. 20 20 Steve Landsburg

    Victor (#16):

    Would you be as inclined to say Biden lied if Biden had said “black kids are as bright as white kids”?

    I’d be inclined to say that Biden had made a specific empirical claim, and that empirical claims ought to be based on empirical evidence. If he’s made such a claim with the sort of boldness that suggests he’s investigated that evidence, when in fact he had not, then I’d say he’s being dishonest. I’d also say that this is exactly the sort of thing that gets Trump called dishonest all the time, and I’m on board with that.

    2. Are you familiar with the criticisms of the IQ literature by Nassim Taleb? He argues that the conclusions reached in the IQ literature do not survive robust statistical analysis.

    I am only vaguely familiar with these claims. From what I know of them, even if they are entirely correct, they might justify a certain agnosticism, but certainly not anything like Biden’s bold certainty.

  21. 21 21 Harold

    There is a discrepancy between “confident assertions that you know to be false. ” and “justify a certain agnosticism.” If the agnosticism is justified you cannot be said to know the statement is false.

    Sure, we can’t know anything, except that we in some form exist, but agnosticism is more justified for some things than others.

    We could argue that one is not lying if one believes the thing is true. Thus some climate change deniers are not lying when they say the greenhouse effect does not exist and it is all due to heat capacities and lapse rate (yes, a genuine belief, known as Sky Dragon Slaying).

    Yet we must consider wilful ignorance. To have an unreasonable certainty does not get you off the hook. If you believe something to be true because you have made a determined effort to reinforce your confirmation bias by deliberately avoiding sources of contradictory information then you are wilfully ignorant, which I consider a form of lying. This is the case for the specifically aforementioned climate change deniers (Sky Dragon slayers).

    Taleb is one voice. See here to get the tone of his commentry:
    https://medium.com/incerto/iq-is-largely-a-pseudoscientific-swindle-f131c101ba39

    Now, I don’t know enough about the field, but some of what he says reminds me of the tone employed by said climate change deniers. Dismissing an entire field as populated by charlatans and ignoramuses suggests to me that he might have missed something.

    But Taleb is not the only voice. I think the field of IQ has enough genuine fuzziness to be less than confident about bold generalisations concerning specific groups.

    So I reckon the agnosticism is justified, particularly as we are not talking about IQ per se. Hence making bold and confident assertions that he is lying is not justified.

    An aside: “I’d also say that this is exactly the sort of thing that gets Trump called dishonest all the time” That “all the time” is significant. The high frequency with which Trump indulges in this sort of shenanigans is far higher than for anyone else and is apparent to all. To dismiss with “well, all politicians lie” is wilful ignorance.

  22. 22 22 Josh H

    Steve (#14),

    Upon further reflection, I suppose you’re probably, at least on a technical and perhaps even practical level, correct.

    However, I do think a more charitable and reasonable interpretation is that, yes, while wealth is correlated with better measures of “brightness”, if you switched the average “poorer” (say, the average child whose family income is between the 20 and 30th percentiles) person at birth with the average richer kid (say, between the 60th and 70th percentile), you may be surprised at how little difference you’d see in certain brightness measures over the span of an entire life.

    Sure, there’s a genetic component, but on average it’s not as big as the environmental components, at least from different studies I’ve read over the years. Granted, I’m no expert so perhaps I’ve misinterpreted or misremembered what I’ve read. But _if_ it’s true the environmental effects are largely responsible (on average) for the brightness differences, then what he’s really saying is that their _potential_ brightness is roughly the same… which is plausible, right? And in this case, only one word is missing: “potential.”

  23. 23 23 Steve Landsburg

    Josh H (#12 and #32): I was about to post the following in response to #12:

    Some women are taller than some men. Would it be reasonable to express this truth by saying “Women are just as tall as men are”?

    But #32 might render this response unnecessary. Thanks for returning with it.

  24. 24 24 Harold

    #23 I am wondering how SL knows what Josh is going to say when we get to comment 32 :)

  25. 25 25 Khodge

    After reading it many times over, I have no idea what he meant. Especially true after the correction.

    Reading something racist into this is entirely plausible. This is why his campaigns never go anywhere.

  26. 26 26 James P Kirby

    “Generalizations are always wrong.”

    I long ago figured out that a scientist or philosopher basically can’t think without generalizing. I would love to see a discussion of this topic by Steve.

  27. 27 27 Harold

    #26. It is also said that models are always wrong, but some are useful (generally attributed to George Box). A generalisation is a form of model.

  28. 28 28 Thaomas

    @ Henry Hein:

    Any change to the way the health insurance is financed will result in some people (really everyone) not being able to keep the “same” plan as they had before the change. So this is an untruth. But it is an untruth that no one is expected to believe literally.

    Some changes in the means of finance will mean larger changes for more people than others. Biden like most other pre-candidates (but not Warren and Sanders) wants to retain the feature of the current system in which most people have insurance purchased for them by their employers using part of their compensation. [I think this is a poor way for taxpayers to subsidize health insurance, but that's a separate problem]

    As a one sentence way of describing the difference between Biden’s position and that of Warren’s and Sanders’s, “You can keep your plan.” is not bad.

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