Should Scientists Study Race and IQ?

Haim Watzman

The neurobiologist Steven Rose argues in an essay in the Feb. 12 issue of Nature that there are certain hunches scientists should not follow—namely, those which have to do with the relationship between race, gender, and intelligence. In a paired essay, developmental psychologists Stephen Ceci and Wendy M. Williams argue for the pursuit of such research, even if it threatens to have dangerous and socially divisive implications.

The essays are available on-line only to subscribers to the journal (although the opinion forum where the pieces are discussed by readers is publicly accessible). So I’ll briefly outline the two arguments and explain why I think Ceci and Williams make a stronger case—and why I suspect that Rose means more than he says.

Rose writes:

To meet the canons of scientific enquiry a research project must meet two criteria: first, are the questions that it asks well-founded?… And second, are they answerable with the theoretical and technical tools available?

Rose summarizes the sorry history of science that has sought to prove innate disparities in intelligence and abilities between men and women or between white Europeans and other races and ethnic groups. Such work has been used, over the past century, to justify oppression and deny equality to groups such scholars considered inferior. He also notes that such research has usually defined the groups under study using external characteristics (white, black) or socially-constructed labels (Aryan, African) that are largely meaningless in physiological and genetic terms. And he reminds his readers of the cultural biases of test-based measures of intelligence.

[T]he categories of intelligence, race, and gender are not definable within the framework required for natural scientific research.… They also fail the second criterion of being answerable: we lack the theoretical or technical tools to study them.

And he concludes:

In a society in which racism and sexism were absent, the questions of whether whites or men are more or less intelligent than blacks or women would not merely be meaningless—they would not even be asked The problem is not that knowledge of such group intelligence differences is too dangerous, but rather than there is no valid knowledge to be found in this area at all. It’s just ideology masquerading as science.

Ceci and Williams start off as one might expect—with Trofim Lysenko, the Stalinist scientist who set Soviet biology back by a generation, ruining many talented scientists in the process, in order ensure the ideological purity of his field. And they argue:

But hatred and discrimination do not result from allowing scientists to publish their findings, nor does censuring it stamp out hatred. Pernicious folk-theories of racial and gender inferiority predated scientific studies claiming genetic bases of racial differences in intelligence. Even if one does not support such work in the interests of free speech, it should be seen as supporting the scientific process of debate. Important scientific progress on these topics would never have been made without the incentive of disproving one’s critics.…

We think racial and gender differences in IQ are not innate but instead reflect environmental challenges. Although we endorse this view, plenty of scholars remain unpersuaded. Whereas our “politically correct” work garners us praise, speaking invitations, and book contracts, challengers are demeaned, ostracized, and occasionally threatened with tenure revocation.…

James Flynn, the foremost proponent of the environmental basis of intelligence, notes that when he first rebutted Jensen’s hereditarian claims 30 years ago, he never anticipated later breakthroughs that evolved from the debate. Without Jensen, he has written, “I would never have made any contribution to psychology.”…

In today’s world, subjective perceptions of scientists’ intent seem to determine a study’s acceptability—work is celebrated if perceived as elevating under-represented groups … but reviled if perceived as documenting sex and race differences in intelligence without a focus on interventions to eliminate them. Yet many future uses of knowledge cannot be anticipated: Flynn’s research has since been used to overturn death-row sentences for mentally-retarded, disproportionately black defendants, for example.

I’m instinctively sympathetic to Rose’s arguments. Science, both social and natural, has used to justify great crimes, and political, class, esthetic and social prejudices and perceptions inevitably color the work of all scholars. And like anyone who has tried to present cogent critiques of method and analysis of books like The Bell Curve to enthusiastic readers, I am sometimes frustrated by the ease with which even intelligent people rush to accept scholarly conclusions that appeal to their preconceptions, without bothering to read or consider opposing views.

But do we need to provide history with more examples of how preventing or discouraging research that goes against the scientific, cultural, religious, or political consensus in the end hampers society and prevents progress? By the same logic, funding should be denied to the skeptics of global warming because the scientific consensus runs overwhelmingly against them and the risks to humanity are so high.

Nature might also have sought out a better advocate for Rose’s position. Politically, Rose has, as a prominent advocate of an academic boycott against Israel, demonstrated his preference for sacrificing open academic discourse and debate on the altar of his political causes. While he’s done much fine scientific work, his record leads me to suspect that he favors political limitations on scientific research that go beyond the specific issue of race and intelligence.

Free inquiry, debate, and research at times leads to scientific and scholarly consensus on “facts” that are later disproved. And sometimes such “facts” can have deleterious social and political implications. But the same is true in every realm of human endeavor, and certainly in politics in a free society. I think that Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories is horribly dangerous to my country and I think the objective evidence weighs strongly in my favor. But that hardly gives me the right to squelch the opinions of those who disagree with me.

Good science is free science—even when it pursues lines of research that I find distasteful. The way to counter research that claims to prove that blacks or women are less intelligent than white men is to pursue research projects that seek to disprove those theories.

19 thoughts on “Should Scientists Study Race and IQ?”

  1. Is the debate moot in the face of practical inhibitions?

    Research depends on funding and funding normally will come from a source that wants the results of the research to bring in either bankable results or extra shine on an established name in funding (or both).

    The historical company that any researchers would find themselves in would not be comforting and, once it was known a particular individual or group was doing this research his/her/their name would be branded for life.

    Any results of such research that did show any difference in intelligence by race or gender would be put under white-hot scrutiny by the many who would be eager to have their names associated with its repudiation.

    I agree with you that it isn’t a good idea to rope off areas from science, but this particular question seems far so from pressing in comparison to the many others crying out for investigation that the practical inhibitions on it don’t bother me.

  2. You neglected to mention that “Professor” Rose is the originator of British academic boycotts against Israel. In fact, he is more known for these boycotts than any of his research. Thus, anything he says must be taken with a grain of salt.

  3. In the beginning, we all came from Africa . . . so what’s the big deal?

    Humans belong to the same species with different pedigrees that are the result of geographical isolation. Fortunately this butt-stupid argument about race will be over soon: opposites do attract, breed. Soon skin tone will be Cappucino with varying amounts of milk added . . . Sorry Haim no Turkish coffee allowed! (To the reader: if you don’t get it- read his book Company C.)

    What about Ashkenazi? Mormons? And the effects of breeding closely within your own bloodline? Interesting but this already has been examined at length and it is known that this will have a 10 percent effect on intelligence on both ends of the spectrum: thus the Ashkenazi are more likely to be affected by genetic diseases.

    Ashkenazi genetic studies fail, as far as I can tell, to account for the 50 per cent of Jews who eventually assimilate. Anyone curious, like me, to know whether their IQ demographics meet the 10/80/10 per cent rule? I suspect that due to the intellectual demands of Judaism, that this is not the case.

    What would be interesting to me is to find out if any of these harsh Ashkenazi rabbis are the decesendents of the four Ashkenazi patriarchs. I am speaking of the rabbis who ruled that some orthodox conversions are not valid. This is a disgrace. Would they be willing to rule so harshly against their own Gentile-turned-Jew grandmothers? Oh-vey!

    Or would they say “Oh-s**t!”

  4. The question is, what is science for? Is it merely a tool of society, to invent all those useful (and not so useful) things and theories we’ve come to take for granted, or is knowledge itself a value that should be pursued, independent of practical use? IMO it’s both, so I’d be wary to generalise. If research about genetics-IQ relationship (or stem-cell research) can be done, that is, funded, that doesn’t mean everything goes. The closer a field of research is to practical application, the more relevant the political question: “do we really want to know?” A most obvious example would be weapons technology.

    Rose makes another point however, which is that scientists have to aware at all times of the limitations and scope of a) the questions they pose to nature (“experiments”) and b) the answers nature provides.
    If I want to know if my car horn works, the first experiment I’d conduct is to press the button (question). If the horn fails to honk (answer), I must avoid the pitfall of concluding that the horn is broken – it could as well be a blown fuse, a loose cable, a dead battery and so on – and to be able to avoid the trap I have to know more about car electrics than just the two parts “button” and “horn”. It’s the same pitfall with IQ tests – we tend to think we have reasonably complete information about both the test and the group of subjects, when in reality we don’t, which renders the outcome inconclusive.

  5. As much as it pains my extreme leftist heart to agree with the idea that race might have something to do with intelligence, I have to agree with Haim that avenues for scientific investigation should not be closed based on political motives.

    Also, it is important to remember that genetics do not determine everything. One group may have a gene that tends toward higher IQs and another may not, but education and open-minded inquiry are still necessary to reach one’s full potential. Despite racial tendencies, every individual’s potential is unique.

    So while I don’t LIKE the idea that race may be a factor in intelligence, my ideology is able to shrug it off and deal.

  6. I remain unconvinced that IQ has any meaning at all. Any test you give someone will have so many cultural and educational biases that it doesn’t really give us an answer. So if someone wants to do an experiment trying find IQ differences between races or cultures, I’ll ignore it just like I would ignore any other IQ study.

  7. It seems to me there has been an unlimited research budget devoted to disproving books/theories like The Bell Curve, with results that have been systematically buried. I consider myself a man of the left, and have no animus for any of the various races and cultures I deal with on the streets of New York, but I can’t deny every shred of empirical evidence I encounter that says there is a palpable difference in IQ between Africans and Europeans. All the palaver about ” meaningless socially constructed distinctions” meets the test of the real world every single day – who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes.

  8. loki, who says socially constructed distinctions are meaningless? Of course they’re not. But to some degree at least they’re self-fulfilling prophecies: if you believe that Africans or women are genetically less intelligent than white men then you’ll not want to “waste” too much higher education and other opportunities on them. In all-white societies peasants traditionally couldn’t afford to send their children to college or university, they were needed from a young age to do farm chores, and that in turn led to the prejudice that “peasants are dumb” (if cunning).
    So I think there’s hard evidence that observable intelligence is greatly influenced by the environment, especially in the crucial childhood years. Even identical twins grow the less identical the older they get.
    None of that means there can’t be some genetic factor, too, but to separate this from environmental factors may be the most difficult, if not impossible challenge for scientists.

  9. Loki:

    Put a New Yorker in the middle of the Australian Outback with an Aborigine and we will see who is smarter. You say intelligence; I say savoir faire in the context of culture and environment. My native New Yorker Bubbe would be more comfortable walking down the street in Brooklyn than I ever could plus she would interact more confidently. I personally call that cultural confidence. Take a native New Yorker (not my Bubbe) put him on a Coast Guard cutter and the first time that ship rolls 45 degrees in the Bering Sea – that previously confident New Yorker might want to go change his underwear and clean up his puke.

  10. “You say intelligence; I say savoir faire in the context of culture and environment.”

    There are physical correlates too:

    EEG studies show increased neural efficiency in the cortex of ‘brighter’ individuals:

    “In the field of physiological study of human intelligence, strong evidence of a more efficient operation (i.e., less activation) of the brain in brighter individuals (the neural efficiency hypothesis) can be found”

    Cognitive Brain Research Volume 25, Issue 1, September 2005, Pages 217-225

    See Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2007), 30:135-154 Cambridge University Press:

    “Overall, we conclude that modern neuroimaging techniques are beginning to articulate a biology of intelligence. We propose that the P-FIT provides a parsimonious account for many of the empirical observations, to date, which relate individual differences in intelligence test scores to variations in brain structure and function.”

    IQ, like all behavioural traits, is highly hereditable:

    “Heritability estimtes for intelligence quotient (IQ) range from 0.50 to 0.80. This makes IQ a suitable target for attempts to identify the specific genes involved.” Chorney et al, Role of the cholinergic muscarinic 2 receptor (CHRM@) gene in cognition. Molecular Psychiatry (2003) 8. 10-13.

    “A substantial body of literature from twin, family and adoption studies documents significant genetic effects on human intelligence. Heritability estimates range from 40 to 80% and meta-analyses suggest an overall heritability of around 50%” Dick et al, (2006) “Association of CHRM2 with IQ: Converging Evidence for Genes Influencing Intelligence.” Behavioral Genetics.

    “Multivariate genetic analyses indicate that general intelligence is highly heritable, and that the overlap in the cognitive processes is twice as great as the overall phenotypic overlap, with genetic correlations averaging around .80.”
    Plomin et al (2004) “A functional polymorphism in the succinate-semialdehyde dehydrogenase genes is associated with cognitive ability,” Molecular Psychology 9, 582-586.

  11. Ben:

    Thanks for the post. I learned a new phrase: “neural efficiency.” But the problem is that I’m not sure the information you present relates to matters of race except when you or your quotes mention genetics. O.K.

    When I googled the phrase “neural efficiency” I came across this document. No kidding: “When intelligence loses its impact: neural efficiency during reasoning in a familiar area.”

    Efficiency in the brain doesn’t neccessarily equate intelligence at least in my sloth-like mind. This is because I pair ethics and intelligence together. The smartest person in the room is not always the most ethical or kindest and thus NOT the most effective person.

    As a senior chief in the U.S.C.G. I specialize like many non-commisioned officers in assisting fellow Americans in realizing their true career and life potential. Intelligence is just one factor of success in life. Confidence, ability to deal with stress, physical ability, optimism, academics, learning skills, etc. are abilities that people can learn and are willing to learn provided one explains it to them and gives them a reason to care about that reason.

    You may be right but from my station in life I must consider your well-articulated point moot so as not to distract my people or myself from the real goal: living a full life. I pride myself on the fact that I help transpant that very American idea of looking up into the stars even though some of us have arduous duties to attend to.

  12. Loki,
    Maybe it’s a matter of CONTEXT too. Take my example, if you don’t mind: I live in the capital of Brazil. The highschool I attended was predominantly overrun by black students. The blond-haired/blue-eyed kids were constantly bullied and ostracized. When we took IQ tests, some government task I can barely remember showing up at our premises presented the results distribuited in two categories: race and gender. No surprise (due to the enviroment in question, I like to assume): the blondies were way below the average. That came to make things even more difficult to them, as most of the bullies would have this efficient piece of information to help on their activities. Their scores on our version of your S.A.T test, years later, were just naturally AWFUL!Talking about empiric wisdom, huh? Apparenttly I experienced the same ‘James Watson’ type of evidence you are claming, with a brazilian suburban twist: BACKWARDS! 😮

    James Flynn, Simon Sowell and that Ugbu fella (I can’t remember his first name) have stated that the african-american subculture is ‘dumbfying’ in its approaches to youths. In many cases around brazilian shores, as I may add, it turns out to be true (it has to do with urban violence and racial confrontation at least, since large amounts of black people tend to feel corned and respond to that by joining criminal ranks and part far away from books and academical knowledge).

  13. Recent papers also have shown that experiencie can shape brain on its structure and function, so I guess the that EEG studies Ben showed us can be confronted by that piece of trivia itself.

    Ben, let me get ahead of you:
    THERE ARE INDEED genes that have a direct impact on IQ scores. Thing is, the data shows that these particular snippets are not really powerful and can are only responsable – put altoghether, I stress – to less than 1% of the IQ points of a individual. We don’t know if more genes will show up in the future (hell, we don’t know even if research in this field will survive – I must admitt), but a crescent number of researchers seem to don’t believe they will, as studies from 2008 don’t acknowledge traces of its existence.

    The moral of the story is: let these guys do their research. They won’t find anything useful to sustain charles murray and bell curve beliefs. The naturalists will have to come up with other explanations to their brain scans, twin studies and everything else they sustain.

    p.s.: sorry ’bout my lame english, I’m probably one of those poor bastards from the jungle who scored below 90 on IQ tests, as ‘Global Inequity’ has so beautifully stressed 😀

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