epistemological privilege

I have very mixed feelings about assigning epistemological privilege to social-economic groups or classes. Technically speaking, I simply disagree. In practice it has an element of truth. As a social scientist, I think it is theoretically possible -if sometimes tricky – to get at this “rational kernel” without adopting the essentialism.

In the wild…well things are wild. I’ve often encountered claims of epistemological privilege that make me nautious. These come in two varieties:

  1. Academics using the rhetoric of the “Ivory Tower” against other academics with little self-awareness that they share the same tower.
  2. Non-Academics using the rhetoric of the “Ivory Tower” against academics as an excuse not to consider an idea.

As an academic from a decidedly non-academic background, I do not hesitate to call bs on these things when I see them.

There are also times when privilege makes sense. We hear rich people say they aren’t rich because after they’ve spent all their money they don’t have any left. We hear upper middle class people say all poor people are lazy. Growing up in relatively white suburbs, I’ve heard people claim that inner city minorities don’t own houses because they spend their money on sneakers. Apparently many white people think they are oppressed by racial/ethnic minorities, gays, and lesbians. It is hard to take these things in, without thinking that the actually oppressed have an easier time understanding key elements of our world.

Add to this list, Mankiw. There is probably lots of Mankiw to choose from but today’s googlereader browse through really had me thinking:

“I’d bet $500 that 99 out of 100 poor people could figure out what Mankiw couldn’t.”

The basic idea is that Mankiw thinks that if high schools students from better economic backgrounds have an easier time on the SATs (tutoring, etc.), then controlling for SAT scores, college performance should be negatively related to income. There is some logic here. A poor student with a similar SAT score as a rich student, should do better in college since their similar score implies greater ability. If we run the same speed when I have ankle weights, I must be a better runner. If the negative relationship is not found, than the assumption about SAT scores and income/wealth seems less plausible. It all makes sense…except

You don’t stop being from a poor family when you turn 18! The ankle weights stay on! You don’t have to be poor to know that, but you probably have to be not-poor to either (1) not know it or (2) think it doesn’t matter.

Most amazingly, Mankiw received an email from an enlightened non-poor to set him straight, but he failed to understand 18 of the 21 one lines of commentary. While the comments are academic-casual, I’d once again bet the vast majority of poor people would understand what Mankiw couldn’t.

Let me quote this in full. I’m trying not to be unfair here:

Update:Todd Stinebrickner, an economist at The University of Western Ontario, emails me this comment:
“It does seem reasonable to believe that, if a low income student and a high income student have the same SAT scores at the time of college entrance, the low income student was probably born with higher “inherent” ability. At the same time, SAT scores may not capture all of the educational benefits of being from a high income family that may continue to matter in college. For example, a student’s score on the Math SAT may not capture whether the student had the opportunity to take a Calculus course in high school. This suggests that, from a theoretical standpoint, the effect of family income on college grades conditional on SAT scores is ambiguous. As part of an ongoing in-depth case study at one particular school (motivated particularly by an interest in college dropout), we discuss this issue and run the type of regression you suggest in Table 3 of a 2003 JHR paper “Understanding educational outcomes of students from low-income families.” It is worth noting that everyone in our sample is of moderate or low family income. Regardless, within the income groups we examine, students from higher income backgrounds have significantly higher grades throughout college conditional on college entrance exam (ACT) scores.”

The finding in the last sentence (which I put in bold) is the opposite of what the Leonhardt story suggests. What this means is that if you are a college admissions officer trying to identify the students who will do best in college, as measured by grades, you would give positive rather than negative weight on family income. I am not proposing that they should do this, as colleges have many goals when putting together a class. But it does seem that the hypothesis implicit in Leonhardt’s article in not supported by the data.

Stinebrickner’s point: the relationship between grades and income, controlling for entrance scores, is not negative but this doesn’t refute anything since “the effect of family income on college grades conditional on SAT scores is ambiguous.” Mankiw acts as if the final sentence, which he put in bold, makes his case without realizing the sentences prior explain why Mankiw’s framing is wrong.

To be super fair, there is one trivial sense in which Mankiw is not wrong here. If by the “data” we mean the regression Mankiw wants (grades = B2*(entrance exam) + B2*(family income)) it is true that the hypothesis about income and entrance exam performance is technically “not supported by the data,” but this is completely trivial since it is also “not not supported by the data.” Again, as Stinebrickner is quoted by Mankiw himself, the sign is ambiguous.

I can’t believe I just wrote a paragraph acknowledging that it is technically true, in some misleading sense, to say that something that can not be tested with particular data set is “not supported” by that data set. While I’m at it I should note that it is just as true that Mankiw’s worries about marginal tax rates are not supported by this data. Seriously!

I should stop here because my original point had little to do with education policy or empirics. It also isn’t that Mankiw is naive or doesn’t understand statistics. I’m fairly certain he is better than I at econometrics. He has also spent much more time working with empirical tests of economic theory. And so on and so on. Give him all that and more. If I assumed that a poor person without a high school degree would have an easier time understanding this issue than Mankiw, I might be a bit crude, but I’d also be correct.

p.s. moving from little internet to even less internet for about a week.

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