Whitewashing Scientific Racism: Revisiting the Equalitarian Myth

Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence

“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”

It is one of the most famous scenes in literature: Aunt Polly commands Tom Sawyer to whitewash the front fence in punishment for some misdeed. Clever Tom pretends it is a joy to whitewash the fence and soon has tricked all his friends into whitewashing the fence for him, indeed, they pay him for the privilege. Similarly, Race Differences in Intelligence (RDI) researchers as well as outright racists often trick mainstream scholars into whitewashing the ugly history of their activities.

A perfect example is this article in the psychology journal, Intelligence where we are presented with an analysis of “controversies in the field of intelligence research.” It is a scientometric analysis meaning it is a quantitative account of such controversies as reported in the scientific literature. There is nothing wrong with that in principle but often such work needs supplementation by a detailed account of specific incidents in the database. As Lorraine Daston recently explained:

if you are looking for causal mechanisms, often only a detailed ethnography will reveal what exactly is the cause of some observed pattern in behavior. And it can work in the other direction — a hypothesis developed from ethnographic work may require statistical testing. These two modes of inquiry, so often opposed to each other, seem to me to work hand-in-glove, at least from the standpoint of the goals of scientific explanation.

Following Daston’s advice, it behooves us to look as some of the incidents in the article in order to get the clearest picture of the listed “controversies in the field of intelligence research” and what is missing from that picture.

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Race and IQ. Again.

Drawn figures with newspapers with headlines reading

Reading the Latest Article on Race Differences in Intelligence

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.

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The Racist Right and “Equalitarianism”

A picture of scales perfectly balanced

Equality

Here’s a word you don’t see every day: “Equalitarianism.” What is it? According to Quillette:

According to the equalitarian model, progressives are dedicated egalitarians. They think that all individuals, all groups, all sexualities, and all sexes should be treated fairly*. They are also especially sensitive to potential threats to egalitarianism, so they adhere to the belief that all demographic groups are roughly equal on all socially valued traits, a belief we call cosmic egalitarianism. Perhaps the most common form of cosmic egalitarianism is blank slate-ism, or the belief that humans are nearly infinitely malleable, and that all important differences among them are caused by the environment, not genes. Cosmic egalitarianism serves as a protective buffer to egalitarianism because it contends two things: 1) Group disparities are caused by prejudice and discrimination (unfairness), not group differences; and 2) We absolutely should treat all groups the same because they are basically the same. Equalitarians fear that if we accept that some demographic differences are genetically caused, we might start treating groups differently from each other. For example, maybe we would encourage men to pursue STEM careers more often than women. (It is worth noting that most people who believe that there are genetically-caused demographic differences would not forward such a bad argument and are committed to treating people as individuals. However, equalitarians, as noted, are very sensitive to potential threats to egalitarianism, and they view this as a potential threat.)

Whatever you may think of this definition, you must admit that the word “equalitarianism” isn’t one you hear every day.  The Quillette article maintains that the equalitarian/progressive bias in social psychology has prevented a clear view of racial and sex differences in cognitive capacity. It is a very old and tired argument. What is noteworthy is the use of the curious term “equalitarianism” which has a sordid history that reveals the unsavory politics of Quillette when it comes to race and science.

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Is Quillette Right? Are Scientists Afraid to Discuss Race? (Spoiler: No)

Child huddling under blankets in bed.

Are scientists really hiding from the truth of racial differences?

Quillette, the online magazine, bills itself as a space where academics are free to explore “dangerous ideas.” They crow about their “commitment to the search for objective truth.” The implication is, of course, that academics have few venues to explore these “dangerous ideas” because of a smothering orthodoxy about what can and cannot be studied or said. This is a creaky trope among the American right wing who have been complaining about liberal/leftist domination of the universities at least since World War II if not before.

One of these “dangerous ideas” is race science.  In layman’s terms Quillette provides a forum for the idea that black people are just stupider than white people, evolution made them that way, and to reject this idea is to be against Darwin. It is nonsense, of course, but my question today is: is it true that this scientific truth has not been discussed in mainstream scientific literature? Has this stupid dangerous idea been suppressed by our lefty universities? Because they are committed to “objective truth” you would expect them to supply evidence for this suppression but they never do. Let’s look at the record, shall we?

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Arthur Jensen and His Nazi Friends

Drawing of a human brain.

Brains! Brains! Brains!

Arthur Jensen (1923-2012) was one of the most prolific psychologists of the twentieth-century. He’s so famous that there is a word named after him: “jensenism.” Jensen is remembered for arguing that black people are stupider than white people and there wasn’t much you could do about it. What distinguished Jensen from your racist uncle was that Jensen dressed up his argument in statistics and published it in psychological journals. Another thing that might distinguish Jensen from your racist uncle (unless your racist uncle is much worse than he’s ever let on at Thanksgiving) is that Jensen palled around with neo-Nazis and admirers of Nazi racial thought. People who’s views were basically recapitulations of Nazi race theorist Hans F.K. Günther.  The recent awful Quillette article cites Jensen as a reliable source as do many other “race realist” writers nonetheless.

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Undead Race Science

Drawing of a human skull

“Brain measurement and its sister art, head measurement, have no doubt had more to do with our distinctions of races than have their modes of thought or of life” Jacques Finot, 1911. “In fact, researchers can classify human variation by continent quite accurately using only data from the human skull.” Quillette, 2019.

I have better things to do with my time. I have other writing to do. I have laundry that needs to be folded. The catbox hasn’t been scooped today. There’s a hammer out in the garage I could be hitting my head with. Any of these things would be preferable to responding to this awful Quillette article on race science. Yet here I am.

I’m not the only one to find this article troublesome or to see that it is while it poses as a book review of Angela Saini’s new book Superior: The Return of Race Science it is really no such thing. Nor am I the first to make the argument that race science is the vampire science. Pronounced dead over and over and over it rises from the grave to shamble a while mumbling incoherently about “open questions” and “IQ scores” and “heritability” and “climate” despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that we have moved beyond race science. The Quillette article notes this consensus: “This contention is a common one, officially endorsed by a number of professional organizations and espoused by many celebrated intellectuals” but then dismisses it. The article then trots out a series of tired arguments as if they were new and novel and the professionals and intellectuals had never heard them before and found them wanting. Let’s look at some of these threadbare arguments, shall we?

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