Race Difference in Intelligence (RDI) researchers have been trying to prove their case since World War I when psychologists administered intelligence tests to those entering the Army. It won’t surprise you to learn that one outcome of this mass testing was the blustery assurance among psychologists that at last we had definitive proof of differences in intelligence between the races. However, the case soon fell apart and RDI researchers, the honest ones at least, issued embarrassed recantations. Most famous of these was Carl Brigham who wrote in 1930:
This review has summarized some of the more recent test findings which show that comparative studies of various national and racial groups may not be made with existing tests, and which show, in particular, that one of the most pretentious of these comparative racial studies-the writer’s own-was without foundation.
Brigham was merely echoing many other researchers who realized that intelligence tests could never really prove that white people are smarter than black people and not much could be done about it. For the past century, however, a few RDI researchers always lumbered on, promising that, any day now, we are right on the brink, success is just around the corner, just fifteen more minutes!, and we will have proof that most of the racial gap in IQ owes to genetics.
The latest entry into the jam-tomorrow-never-jam-today of RDI researchers is this piece by philosopher Nathan Cofnas who assures us that “In a very short time” we will know that black people are just generally dumber than white people (I paraphrase here, but that is what he means) . It is never a good sign when an article comes with a warning label as this one did. The editors claimed their decision was “based on criteria of philosophical and scientific merit, rather than ideological conformity.” One wonders what merit the editors found in the article since it has none of these promised virtues.
Undoubtedly one reason the editors decided to publish an ideological objectionable piece is because the Pursuit of Truth is reason enough. Hard to object to Truth for its own sake, is it not? As uncomfortable as it might make us, Cofnas maintains, the Search for Truth is its Own Reward:
Truth was traditionally thought of – and is still often advertised – as the fundamental commitment of science…. Some of the great heroes of science – most famously Galileo – are celebrated for resisting moral and religious authorities who feared that free inquiry would bring disaster. (pp. 129-130)
If I had a nickel every time an RDI researcher compared themselves to Galileo I’d have about $5.65. According to them they are heroes standing up for Truth and their opponents are small-minded dogmatists afraid of the Truth! This stance is nonsense and not just because a fraud like J. Philippe Rushton was no Galileo.
In some of my undergraduate classes, I assign a wonderful little article from the nineteen-forties, “Umbrellaology, or, Methodology in Social Science.” In this thought experiment, we are asked if the science of “umbrellaology” is indeed science. The scientist has surveyed the residents of Manhattan for umbrella ownership as well as various characteristics of those umbrellas. He has posited several laws (e.g. women are more likely to own a colorful umbrella, men probably only own a black one). Why, the author asks, should umbrellology not be considered a science? The first reaction to umbrellaology from my students is: It shouldn’t be a science because it’s silly. But, the author of the piece rejoins, certainly science is the pursuit of Truth! My science has discovered Truths about the world! Are you not committed to Truth?
The problem with “Truth should be pursued for its own sake” is that it does not provide any criterion by which to choose which truths to investigate. Why do RDI researchers choose to pursue this Truth rather than some other Truth? This was the point Noam Chomsky made in an article Cofnas cites but does not seem to understand:
The possible correlation between partially heritable traits is of little scientific interest…and were someone interested in pursuing this matter as a scientist, he would certainly select traits more amenable to study except than race and IQ.
The Truth of umbrellas is perfectly equivalent to the Truth of RDI; it cannot distinguish between the two. Hence, the idea that RDI researchers are simply searching for the Truth does not help them justify why they research race and intelligence. Other Truths are out there, choose one of those.
Cofnas offers two reasons to justify RDI research. First, he claims “Proscribing the study of group differences undermines the integrity of huge swaths of work in biology, psychology, economics, sociology, history, and moral and political philosophy. If we accept that truth is intrinsically valuable, then this is a cause for concern” (p. 134) How it does this is left as an exercise to the reader as he does not elaborate. Nor does he explain how some of those thriving fields presently ignore RDI research according Cofnas himself just two pages earlier “In some academic fields such as sociology and history, virtually all mainstream scholars refuse to consider the implications of group differences in intelligence for the problems they address” (p. 132). According to Cofnas stopping RDI research undermines fields that already ignore RDI research. Maybe you need to be Galileo to resolve the contradiction. And, of course, such histories are already available, such as Madison Grant’s Passing of the Great Race or the Racial Basis of European History or U.B. Phillips’s history of U.S. slavery which was based on the idea of the stunted intellectual capacity of black people. Presumably Cofnas thinks that those histories are preferable to the kinds of history produced by today’s ignorant historians.
The rubber really hits the road with Cofnas’s second reason: “if not all groups have identical distributions of potential, then it is unjust to assume that some people must be blamed for average differences in performance among groups” (p. 134). Let’s translate this out of the tender language of scholarship. When RDI researchers say “groups” they mean “races.” When they say “races” the mean “white people” and “black people” (and, sometimes “Asians”). When they say “some people must be blamed…” they mean racism. So, what Cofnas is saying here is: If black people really are, on average, stupider than white people, then racism is not a problem and white people are off the hook. This is where things get really interesting.
RDI research is a parochial concern of a group of social scientists, primarily psychologists and, within psychology, often relegated to an even smaller group of psychometricians. There are a handful of RDI researchers elsewhere but it is overwhelming “An American Thing.” This unhappy state of affairs belies the claim that RDI research is simply a disinterested, purely scientific endeavor; if it was it would not be largely confined to the U.S.
The reasons RDI research is centered here are not difficult to discern and owe to political racial dynamics specific to the United States. Historically RDI research was tied to American institutions and how they were to deal with, as it was known before World War II, “Negro Education.” RDI research was enrolled to justify a two-tiered educational system before World War II where white students were given access to a rigorous and scholarly education and African Americans relegated to “industrial education” because of their presumed intellectual inferiority. After World War II, when African Americans increasingly demanded full access to the entire range of educational opportunities RDI research was enrolled to try to stop them. Ex-president of the American Psychological Association, Henry E. Garrett, was tireless in his attempts to use IQ scores to prevent the equitable education of African Americans (see here, here, here, here, or here). Garrett was only the highest profile RDI researcher to try to beat back attempts for educational equality using intelligence tests. You could write a whole book about it (here and here). The situation did not change in the decades since battle over school segregation; RDI research has always been used to justify the inequitable distribution of educational resources.
Cofnas is advocating a research program that was never about pure science. It was always embedded in social policy. Cofnas, while not mentioning this ugly history, blithely endorses use of RDI research to establish a two-tiered educational system:
But the reason that these [educational] programs [tailored to different racial groups]…have never been created is not because of racism but because of the taboo on talking about genetic differences among policy makers. No mainstream politician can acknowledge that there are differences that might call for the creation of a program to “work with the strengths and work on the weaknesses of every [ethnic] group to help make them the very best they can be.” It is hereditarians who have advocated these programs and environmentalists who have resisted them….[In addition to Jensen in 1969], contemporary hereditarians have also called for tailored training programs (e.g., Gottfredson, 2005a, 2005b, p. 318; Lubinski & Humphreys, 1997). (pp. 135-6)
Cofnas urges us to truly consider this two-tiered educational system based on racial differences despite the possibility of things going awry:
It is impossible to know exactly what the consequences would be if race differences were proven to have a substantial genetic component and this finding became widely accepted. We ought to try to anticipate the potential harms and – keeping in mind the poor track record of even the most talented prognosticators of cultural trends – determine how seriously we should take them. (p. 136)
If the past is any indication, we have good evidence of the consequences of the hereditarian program: the creation of social institutions that block African-American advancement owing to their “proven” intellectual inferiority. Hereditarians write as if their recommendations for such things are a great leap into the unknown rather than a leap back to the age when the supposed intellectual inferiority of African Americans was “known” by the majority of white people. We know what that society looked like. Most of us do not think returning to it is a good thing. Hereditarians apparently think otherwise.
In 1991, one of the most severe critics of RDI research, geneticist Richard Lewontin wrote
The papers on the subject [of heritability] that appear in the journals of behavior genetics would never pass review for publication in the journals of agronomy and animal breeding… If the rigorous demands placed on swine breeders were applied to the geneticists of human behavior, no strong claim could be made for the heritability of IQ, and the empirical evidence on which the biological determinist argument is made would disappear. (p. 152)
The kind of RDI research that Cofnas champions works like this: To discover why IQ averages vary between white and black “races” they claim they can partition the variance into heredity and environment. If the environment is equal between the groups then the variance must owe to heredity. Now, there are very good reasons to think that partitioning variance in this way is wrong-headed because genes simply don’t work like that (see here or here) but even taking partitioning between heredity and environment on its own terms, we can see why the science triumphed by Cofnas is pretty shoddy when compared to people doing genetics in other fields.
The “heredity” side of the partition is obviously whatever is generated by genes themselves. The “environment” side is literally everything else in the world. In the agricultural sciences a geneticist can control the environment in an experimental design or even in a field test. So you know the variance among your corn owes to heredity because you’ve made sure the environment is as close to identical as you can make it. In the human sciences, control over the environment in this manner is simply impossible. Do we really know all the factors in the environment (i.e. everything that is not genetic) that could account for a gap in average IQ between white and black people? Cofnas apparently thinks that black Americans and white Americans now live in the same world:
Environmentalists never predicted that the Black–White IQ gap would, after reaching one standard deviation, remain impervious to early education, adoption, massive improvements in the socioeconomic status of Blacks, and the (apparent) waning of overt racism and discrimination. (p. 129)
The only way to make his case is for Cofnas to assume the environment is the same for both races. But this is not the case. Philosopher Mark Alfano has already brought Cofnas to task for ignoring environmental racism, specifically the higher amounts of lead exposure faced by African-American communities. Lead is a pollutant with no known biological benefits but well-known to impair cognitive function. Cofnas simply ignored that entire body of research and more critiques of Cofnas along those lines will doubtlessly emerge in coming weeks and months.
Professor Alfano has started a petition for those scholars concerned about a reputable journal publishing such an irresponsible article. The petition asks that the editors of Philosophical Psychology “respond” to concerns about the shabby and dangerous research in the article.
The response from the RDI researchers to this petition is very predictable. Every criticism of RDI research is met with cries of: Censorship! Political Correctness! Help! Help, I’m being repressed! For decades they have responded to every bit of criticism of their research as if they were victims of the Inquisition. It is all nonsense.
Cofnas tries to peddle this shopworn repression narrative:
“Prominent researchers who publicly endorse hereditarianism about group differences in intelligence have been condemned as immoral, fired from their positions, and physically threatened (examples are documented in Ceci & Williams, 2009; Cofnas, 2016; Gottfredson, 2010; Sesardic, 2005).(pp. 126-7)
Cofnas’s cited sources do not support this claim. Cofnas’s cited sources do show a lot of moral condemnation of claims of racial inferiority and, I think, rightly so. None of them document anyone fired from their positions and there is only one example of a physical threat and that from the early nineteen-seventies, You want to know who faces physical threats these days? Professors who discuss the reality of racism and white supremacy, the very people Cofnas claims are a danger to RDI researchers. Like many claims RDI researchers make, the evidence we have points to the opposite conclusions they reach.
Of such documentation is the danger of the so-called equalitarian dogma made. No wonder then that just a few pages later Cofnas is forced to admit that these “attacks” on hereditarianism are meaningless:
Research on this topic has been done and the results are widely available. Major psychology journals continue to publish work that deals openly with group differences (though researchers still debate about the relative contribution of genes and environment, and the question has not been settled definitively). (p. 141)
If RDI researcher need nurturing and praise for their research, they can always turn to the racist right. Cofnas acknowledges that:
Some contemporary neo-Nazis claim to find support for their Nazi-inspired views in Darwinism and IQ research, but their ideology tends to dictate their interpretation of the science – which is usually grossly uninformed. (p. 137)
If the racist right is grossly uninformed, don’t blame patron-saint of RDI research, Arthur Jensen. He provided an introduction to William Shockley’s pro-eugenics text edited by a neo-Nazi. He cited a neo-Nazi in his famous 1969 article to prove that folk races were genetic populations (here). He also served on the editorial board of Neue Anthropologie, a fascist journal of scientific racism. One thing is for sure: if the neo-Nazis were uninformed about RDI research, Jensen did his best to keep them up to date. Not that Cofnas mentions any of this in his article.
Why does Cofnas not object when American Renaissance reprints his work (here)? Or when he wins praise from Steve Sailer for the very article I am criticizing (here)? Cofnas’s stock has fallen at the antisemitic Unz Review (named for founder Ronald Unz) since Cofnas debunked antisemitic “evolutionary” theories, but they’ve recommended his work in the past. Cofnas sounds no warnings about racists appropriating his work or the work of other RDI researchers. Instead we get warnings of a non-existent threat that somehow fuzzy-minded do-gooders will prohibit RDI research, a stance that is identical to the extreme end of the racist right. Which may be why Cofnas and other RDI researchers never mention the extreme end of the racist right.
Cofnas admits that “Heritability studies cannot show definitively that race differences in intelligence have a genetic cause. It is always possible that there is some hidden environmental factor(s) – a so-called “X factor”…that explains differences between – but not within – races” but we are nonetheless on the brink of proving that the IQ gap owes to our genes. On that day RDI researchers will come to us and say: : “We now know enough about everything in the world that could cause this IQ gap and can say with certainty that black people are generally stupider than white people. Please treat them that way.” Should we believe them? Given what we know about our own past, the idea that we should trust hereditarian scientists to tell us when we know that racism is truly and finally gone would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous.
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