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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