Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I see race and IQ nonsense is rearing its ugly head yet again

It seems like every few years some conservative pundit has to come along and makes some baseless assertion about race and IQ. About four years ago it was William Saletan. This year it is Andrew Sullivan. Others who have more time and patience than I have already done a pretty good job handling the latest nonsense, and I don't wish to merely parrot what they said. Ta-Nehisi Coates has a solid response:
With that said, Andrew's ahistorical approach to race and intelligence has always amazed. The contention, for instance, that "research is not about helping people; it's about finding out stuff," may well be true in some limited sense. But it's never been true, in any sense, of race and intelligence. In the 19th century helping out white people (however that is defined) was very much the point of intelligence research. Into the early 20th century, the rise of eugenics was equally linked the field to the advancement of "people." Even the intelligence theorists whom Andrew, himself, has advanced over the years are motivated by a desire to presumably help people, if only in the form of deciding how a society should expend its limited resources. 

Advocates of the "p.c. egalitarianism" theory, such as Andrew, evidently believe that the notion that black people are dumber than whites is a cutting edge theory, as opposed to a long-held tenet of slave-holders and white supremacists. They present themselves as bold-truth tellers who will not bow to "liberal creationists." In fact they are espousing firmly established views that date back to the very founding of this country. These views did not emerge after decades of failure of social policy. Indeed they picked up right where their old advocates left off; within five years of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Arthur Jensen was convinced that black people were intellectually addled.

Perhaps all of that is irrelevant. Perhaps there really is a genetic relationship between the darkness of skin and the potency of neurons. (Only for "Africans," mind you.) Maybe the sterilizers and the slave-traders were wise beyond their years. And perhaps James Watson really was at his scientific best when he countered the claims of Andrew's p.c. egalitarians by asserting that  "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true." It's certainly possible that the tendency of those who advance this theory to appear in proximity to modern racists is a coincidence, and that its invokers really are modern Galileos persecuted merely for "trying to find out stuff."

But I think if Andrew is going to advance a theory of conspiratorial political correctness he owes it to us to sketch its outlines and effects in some actual detail. He clearly believes the subject to be important. He should treat it with more care.
 I love a valid point offered along with a healthy dose of snark.

Dr. X goes on to point out that contra Sullivan, there is a ton of contemporary research on intelligence. The good Doctor also makes a point that bears repeating: if research proposals are going unfunded it's more due to a greater number of researchers competing for whatever grant dollars do exist. Insiders in the social and behavioral sciences will probably tell you that the competition for grants across the board has historically been competitive - in an age of budget cuts and austerity, the odds of obtaining grant funding for a proposed study have become ridiculously long. Finally, Dr. X seems to be making the point that the topic of intelligence is much more complex and subtle than simply taking a total IQ score and correlating it with some other factor. That is a point that, too, bears repeating.

My interest is perhaps more historical, and I've periodically discussed IQ research within the context of the eugenics movement. Arthur Jensen - the psychologist on whom Sullivan tends to be fixated - is notorious as much for being the recipient of grant funding from a pro-eugenics organization with neo-Nazi roots (The Pioneer Fund) as he is for his claims about IQ and race.

Going back to one of the earlier flare-ups about eugenics, here are some comments I made back in 2007:
Obviously there is racism in Britain too, but I find that there is also an intolerance for intolerance. And that is why I believe James Watson, despite years of espousing his eugenics mush in America, met his El Alamein in Britain. As you probably know, the American biologist and Nobel laureate recently stated that Africans are less intelligent than whites - it's in the genes - and, to its credit, the Science Museum in London cancelled a talk Watson was to give. By contrast, many Americans still defend the man.
nerdified link

As I mentioned earlier, there was something eerily eugenicist in Watson's remarks. It doesn't take much digging to find that Watson has plenty of academic kindred spirits. The differential reactions of British and US audiences to Watson's racist statements (as he does have a bit of a history) also didn't surprise me. One thing to note, if one looks at the history of the eugenics movement (Edwin Black's book, War Against the Weak is a good place to start), is that although the person who coined the term and founded the first society devoted to eugenics was British (Sir Francis Galton), the movement thrived primarily in the US and later Germany. The American eugenics movement was well-organized, well-funded, and its proponents possessed a missionary-like zeal that simply was lacking in the UK.

As I noted a few weeks ago:
Eugenics was defined as "the study of the agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally" (cited in Guthrie's Even the Rat Was White, 2004). The intellectual roots of Galton's eugenics goes back arguably to Plato's Republic. Galton eventually went on to establish the Eugenics Society of Great Britain in the early 1900s and shortly thereafter began publishing a journal called the Eugenics Review. Around the same time the American Eugenics Society was founded. A number of these eugenics advocates gravitated toward the early IQ tests - which were used and abused to support their thesis that those of Western European stock were superior to those of other races. By arguing that individuals of African descent (as well as those of American Indian and Mexican-American descent) were intellectually inferior, they could advocate various restrictive laws regarding marriage between races, as well as the legalization of involuntary sterilization of those deemed "unfit."

The eugenics movement was largely discredited over time, namely due to the shoddiness of much of the research purported to support its thesis, as well as legitimate questions regarding the definition and measurement of intelligence. On the former, it became quite apparent that individuals who didn't share the same educational and socioeconomic advantages and experiences of a predominantly white upper class and upper middle class would be at a disadvantage from the get-go. Also, it turns out, as Guthrie (2004) points out, that cultural factors could influence test results - for example kids from the Dakota tribe considered it impolite to answer questions in front of others who might not know the answer. The question of what actually composes intelligence is also rather thorny - Howard Gardner has perhaps come as close as anyone to developing a comprehensive theory of multiple intelligences; and his theory goes to underscore the limitations of standard IQ tests (which typically measure spacial and verbal ability and little else; see also research on intelligence by Robert Sternberg).

Virtually all eugenicists supported compulsory sterilization for the "unfit"; some supported castration. Indeed, compulsory sterilization laws became commonplace in the US during the first couple decades of the 20th century. The last prominent group to promote and practice eugenics was the Nazi regime in Germany. Their reign of genocidal terror is well-documented. It should be mentioned that US eugenicists during the 1930s looked at the Nazi approach to eugenics with a mixture of admiration and envy.
Indeed one US eugenicist organization that managed to survive the decline and fall of the Third Reich was the Pioneer Fund. I've mentioned the Pioneer Fund before. Its founder (Draper) and its first president (Harry Laughlin) were well-known for their racist views and advocacy on behalf of eugenics. The academicians who have received Pioneer Fund grants are, interesting, to say the least:
Nobel Laureate William Shockley (1910-89), a physicist at Stanford best known for his "voluntary sterilization plan," received $188,710 between 1971 and 1978. Arthur Jensen, an educational psychologist focusing on race since 1966, got more than $1 million in Pioneer grants over three decades.

In his famous 1969 attack on Head Start — the early education program that aims to help poor children — Jensen wrote in the prestigious Harvard Education Review that the problem with black children was that they had an average IQ of only 85. No amount of social engineering could improve that performance, he claimed, adding that "eugenic foresight" was the only solution.

Roger Pearson, whose Institute for the Study of Man has been one of the top Pioneer Fund beneficiaries over the past 20 years ($870,000 from 1981 to 1996), provides the clearest indication of the extremists supported by the Fund.

Pearson came to the United States in the mid-'60s to join Willis Carto, founder of the anti-Semitic Liberty Lobby. In 1965, he became editor of Western Destiny, a magazine established by Carto and dedicated to spreading far-right ideology.

Using the pseudonym Stephan Langton, he then became editor of The New Patriot, a short-lived magazine published in 1966 and 1967 to conduct "a responsible but penetrating inquiry into every aspect of the Jewish Question." Its articles carried such titles as "Zionists and the Plot Against South Africa," "Early Jews and the Rise of Jewish Money Power" and "Swindlers of the Crematoria."

Pioneer support for all the groups linked to Pearson between 1975 and 1996 amounted to more than $1 million — nearly 10% of total Pioneer grants in that period.

In more recent decades, University of Western Ontario psychology professor J. Philippe Rushton has replaced Jensen as the top individual beneficiary of Pioneer largesse, receiving more than $1 million since 1981. Rushton argues that behavioral differences among blacks, whites and Asians are the result of evolutionary variations in their reproductive strategies.

Blacks are at one extreme, he claims, because they produce large numbers of offspring but offer them little care; at the other extreme are Asians, who have fewer children but indulge them. Whites lie somewhere in between.

Despite Rushton's controversial theories — including positing an inverse relationship between brain and penis size — he has been embraced by the scientific mainstream. He has been made a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is a member of the American, British and Canadian psychological associations.
As the Southern Poverty Law Center has noted, the American academic climate is quite receptive to eugenicist viewpoints:
In much of academia, a pillar of the racist argument has become the accepted view. Polling a large sample of mainly academic experts anonymously for a 1988 book, Mark Snyderman and Stanley Rothman found that 53 percent believed IQ differences between blacks and whites have a genetic component.

Only 17 percent thought the differences between the racial groups' scores on intelligence tests were strictly environmental in origin. Another 28 percent thought that there was insufficient data available to make a judgment.
Going back to Farley:
What's more alarming is that, in America as opposed to Britain, it is more likely that the academic who criticises racism will be dealt the punishing blow and not the academic who promotes it.

For instance, in 2002, I criticised the erection of a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in the city where I then lived, Nashville, Tennessee. Forrest was not only a Confederate general who, according to Harper's Weekly and other contemporaneous sources, massacred black prisoners at Fort Pillow during the American Civil War, he was a former slave trader and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

I pointed out in an essay in the local newspaper that Forrest and his fellow night-riders, had they performed these same actions today, would have been convicted of treason and crimes against humanity, and hence would have faced the same penalty as their ideological descendants at Nuremberg. Neo-Confederate organisations with over 30,000 members, and local and national media, said I was advocating genocide against whites.

I received a few dozen death threats, but that didn't stop my employer, Vanderbilt University, from calling me the extremist. As Vanderbilt Chancellor Gordon Gee admits in the book University Presidents As Moral Leaders, "[a]rdent devotees of the Confederate cause demanded Farley's job ..." and, "[e]ventually I had to write an editorial piece ... covering Professor Farley's hellraising" and "clean up in his wake".

Vanderbilt spokesman Michael Schoenfeld wrote that my criticism of the Klan leader was "rightly offensive to, and rejected by, most people" without, however, specifying whether he had found even one black person who was offended by my statements, and without specifying what statements in my essay, if any, were factually incorrect. Vanderbilt and the media, from the Washington Times to Fox News with Brit Hume, with the sole exception of The Nation's John Nichols, failed to criticise in any way Nathan Forrest, slave-owners, the Confederacy, or the groups that had targeted me. (A typical one of the threats sent to me read: "Hey, communist nigger monkey!!! Another worthless jigaboo hasn't killed your worthless ass yet? Too bad. I hope someone rapes and kills your white, race-traitor wife and/or girlfriend as well ... Heil Hitler!!! Hail the Reich!!! Death to all niggers and all other nonwhites!!!")

I learned later through The Chronicle of Higher Education that Princeton historian James McPherson had received similar treatment in 1999 for discussing what he called the "thinly-veiled support for white supremacy" of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. But the point is that, in the United States, this kind of persecution is possible, and can be career-killing when the "offender" is African-American. In contrast to what just happened to James Watson in Britain, the losers in America are generally not the racists, but the anti-racists.
White supremacy is very much alive and well in the US - both inside and outside the academy.
Finally, I just want to reiterate my skepticism regarding the validity of claims made by the likes of Sullivan and his apparent hero Jensen regarding race and intelligence:
But...what if the methods used to "prove" the eugenicist hypothesis are dodgy? What if it turns out that it is far from clear as to what IQ tests actually measure? That brings me to the third item: the so-called inherited group differences in IQ are far from cut-and-dried. There has been a great deal of debate regarding how to measure intelligence, and just how applicable standard IQ tests are to everyday existence. In psychology, research on everyday cognition has been something of a cottage industry since the 1980s. That body of research, much of which is cross-cultural in nature, consistently suggests that the relationship between IQ scores and a wide variety of abilities is fairly minimal at best. I would suggest that one look into the work of psychologists such as Robert Sternberg and Howard Gardner to get a feel for what some of this research is about. For a better discussion of the methodological problems regarding IQ and endeavors to link IQ to hereditary race-based differences, I'd suggest one check out statistician Cosma Shalizi's blog, which has several excellent (albeit hardly easy reading) posts: Yet More on the Heritability and Malleability of IQ; g, a Statistical Myth; and In Which I Demand That Slate Refund My Subscription.

The bottom line: contrary to whatever eugenics apologists would have us believe, our understanding of human intelligence is anything but cut-and-dried.

Responsible journalists and columnists understand that eugenics-based "research" should have been swept into the dustbin of history ages ago. Sometimes an assertion is unpopular because it has been examined and found to be wrong. Further, an assertion based on shoddy research that has provided intellectual cover for incredible amounts of human suffering (just one example here - not to mention other forced sterilization programs, the Nazi Holocaust, etc.) deserves to be ridiculed.