Race And IQ. Again.

May 14 2013 @ 9:19pm

[Re-posted from earlier today]

I should know better than to bring this up again. But the effective firing of a researcher, Heritage’s Jason Richwine, because of his Harvard dissertation should immediately send up red flags about intellectual freedom. I am not defending the Heritage report on immigration because I think it’s a loaded piece of agitprop. And I am emphatically not defending everything that Richwine has said and done (not least his disturbing willingness to be published in white supremacist magazines).

What I do want to insist is that the premise behind almost all the attacks – that there is no empirical evidence of IQ differences between broad racial categories – is not true. It is true (pdf), if you accept the broad racial categories Americans use as shorthand for a bewilderingly complex DNA salad (a big if, of course). There’s no serious debate about that. The serious debate is about what importance to assign to the concept of “IQ” and about the possible reasons for the enduring discrepancies: environment, nurture, culture, or genes – or some variation of them all?

For my part, I’ve come to doubt the existence of something called “g” or general intelligence, as the research has gathered over the years. I believe IQ is an artificial construct created to predict how well a random person is likely to do in an advanced post-industrial society. And that’s all it is. It certainly shouldn’t be conflated with some Platonic idea of “intelligence.” I don’t think it carries any moral weight at all, either, and I don’t think it should be used in any way in immigration policy. In fact, any public policy that rests on this kind of data is anathema to me. It’s far too close to eugenics, and to the morally repugnant idea that smarter people are somehow better in any meaningful sense.

But Richwine’s dissertation was mainly a quant-job. He comes across in this Byron York interview as a bit clueless – suspiciously so, I’d say – in extrapolating policy conclusions from IQ data in the context of immigration. But the core point about any dissertation is a simple one: does it hold up under scholarly scrutiny? Richard Zeckhauser, the Frank P. Ramsey Professor of Political Economy at Harvard, is on record as saying that “Jason’s empirical work was careful. Moreover, my view is that none of his advisors would have accepted his thesis had he thought that his empirical work was tilted or in error.” One of those advisors was the very serious and very liberal scholar Christopher Jencks.

I haven’t had time to read the thing, and some have cast aspersions on it after a browse. But it is abhorrent to tar someone researching data as a racist and hound him out of a job simply because of his results, honestly discovered and analyzed. One particularly disturbing statement came from 23 separate student groups at Harvard:

Central to his claim is the idea that certain groups are genetically predisposed to be more intelligent than others. In his troubling worldview Asians are generally at the top, with whites in the middle, Hispanics follow, and African Americans at the bottom. To justify his assertions he cites largely discredited sources such as J. Philippe Rushton whose work enshrines the idea that there are genetically-rooted differences in cognitive ability between racial groups.

We condemn in unequivocal terms these racist claims as unfit for Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard University as a whole. Granting permission for such a dissertation to be published debases all of our degrees and hurts the University’s reputation … Even if such claims had merit, the Kennedy School cannot ethically stand by this dissertation whose end result can only be furthering discrimination under the guise of academic discourse.

My italics. They are, of course, caricaturing the argument – I know of no scholar who believes that genes are entirely responsible for the racial differences. Here’s another caricature of it:

Human beings have not existed long enough to be divided into separate and distinct racial “species.”

Of course not. We remain the same species, just as a poodle and a beagle are of the same species. But poodles, in general, are smarter than beagles, and beagles have a much better sense of smell. We bred those traits into them, of course, fast-forwarding evolution. But the idea that natural selection and environmental adaptation stopped among human beings the minute we emerged in the planet 200,000 years ago – and that there are no genetic markers for geographical origin or destination – is bizarre. It would be deeply strange if Homo sapiens were the only species on earth that did not adapt to different climates, diseases, landscapes, and experiences over hundreds of millennia. We see such adaptation happening very quickly in the animal kingdom. Our skin color alone – clearly a genetic adaptation to climate – is, well, right in front of one’s nose.

But what the Harvard students are saying is worse than creating a straw man. They are saying that even if it is true that there are resilient differences in IQ in broad racial groupings, such things should not be studied at Harvard because their “end result can only be furthering discrimination.” You can’t have a more explicit attack on intellectual freedom than that. They even seem to want the PhD to be withdrawn.

Freddie deBoer and Reihan Salam have two good posts about this. Freddie:

Racism thrives on conspiratorial thinking and the self-definition of racists as an oppressed group. When you say things that are true aren’t, and especially when you do so in a way that treats the other point of view as forbidden, you play directly into their hands. I cannot imagine an easier way to give them fuel for their argument than to say that certain test results don’t exist when they do.

That’s my view in a nutshell. What on earth are these “liberals” so terrified of, if not the truth? Instead of going on racist witch-hunts, why don’t they question what IQ means, how great the cultural and environmental impact can be (very considerable), whether such tests should guide public policy at all, or examine how “race” as a social construct does not always correlate to specific variations in human DNA. Note how the terms “race” and “historical ethnicity” are not the same things, as Reihan does. Or do what the scholar Dana Goldstein has done – criticize Richwine’s dismissal of education and poverty as factors affecting IQ in his dissertation.

But please don’t say truly stupid things like race has no biological element to it or that there is no data on racial differences in IQ (even though those differences are mild compared with overwhelming similarity). Denying empirical reality is not a good thing in any circumstance. In a university context, it is an embrace of illiberalism at its most pernicious and seductive: because its motives are good.

(Thumbnail image: DNA molecule display at the Oxford University Natural History Museum. By Flickr user net_efekt)