Should science study race and IQ?

| March 6, 2009 | 13 Replies

Should science study race and IQ?   A recent article in Nature (“Should scientists study race and IQ“)  says yes, as long as the research is done carefully and kept free of outside influence and premature application by social scientists and politicians.  Science did not give rise to bigotry.  After all, scientific studies of race and IQ began in relatively modern times,  only after long centuries of  “pernicious folk-theories of racial and gender inferiority predated scientific studies.” The authors believe that first-rate scientific research will, in the end, dispel much of the racial bigotry that still exists.

Some scientists hold more ‘acceptable’ views, ourselves included. 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.

© Herreid |

© Herreid |

Acts of censure edge close to Lysenkoism. They also do a disservice to science. When dissenters’ positions are prevented exposure in high-impact journals and excluded from conferences, the dominant side goes unchallenged, and eventually its rationale is forgotten, forestalling the evolution of crucial ideas.

I am sympathetic to the need to for scientists to carefully examine everything, no exceptions.   I’m concerned, though, that we need to look extra-closely at the concept of “race,” which I consider to be virtually useless in daily matters.   Nor should we allow the simplistic concept of “IQ” to serve as a variable, given much more expansive ways to measure intelligence (see, for example this post on Howard Gardner’s work). For more on the dangers of misusing “IQ,” see Steven J. Gould’s 1996 book,  “The Mismeasure of Man.”

In sum, we should do good science and I believe that good science would suffocate bigotry.  The article points out several examples of this.  Good science should be done on only after kicking out the clumsy, pernicious concepts of “race” and “IQ,” reframing the debate as the relationship between fine-grained genotypic variation and competence in each of the many ways in which humans display competence.   Because genotypic variation within “races” is at least as wide as genotypic variation among “races,” a meaningful scientific exploration would not amount to a simplistic survey of how people with different colors of skin do on standardized intelligence tests.   That would not be good science.  Good science will always take into account the convoluted ever-changing environment, and that is not easy to do when we are dealing with basic concepts that are vague.

I’m not convinced that we are prepared to begin the necessary research on this general topic, because too many of us, including many well-trained scientists, have not done their ontological homework (consider the incoherent and clumsy stumblings of DNA co-discoverer James Watson, described in the article).    Are “race” and “IQ” useful constructs with which to do this sort of research?  Time will tell if we are intelligent enough to sharpen our constructs before running off to demonstrate our “truths.”


Tags: , , , , ,

Category: Culture, Education, Science, snake oil

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (13)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. AnonaMiss says:

    You know, I figured from the start of this article that I would end up disagreeing with you on it. Boy was I wrong! Not only do I agree, I completely agree. A first, I think.

    The only merit in beginning a scientific study on race or IQ would come from analyzing the term "race" or "IQ" and declaring it so unacceptably vague as to compromise/nullify any results that might come from such experimentation. Unfortunately, social scientists are so used to dealing with vagaries and statistics about vagaries they'd be unlikely to see it that way…

    /slightly bitter that you can get a B.S. in psychology but not in linguistics, when linguistics tends to have actual definitions.

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Several years ago, I read an article concerning small differences in the behavior of men and women. The article focused on the little details that annoy women about men and vice-versa. The little things like which way to put the roll of toilet paper on the older, how to fill the ice tray, that sort of thing.

    Such research continues, not as science in the public interest, but in finding ways to target advertising to specifice markets.

    Focusing on race and IQ is a bad idea simply because both are artificial concepts.IQ tests suffer greatly for operant bias and race is affected by selective bias.

    IQ stands for Intellegence Quotient, which is simply a ration of how intellegent you are to how intellegent you should be at you particular age. The problem is that the tests can only measure proficiency in certain skill sets, and the standards are determined by your environment. A street smart teen from Brooklyn, would have a hard time in the wilderness, and a teen from a small town in Colorado would have problems in New York City.

    Similarly, race is defined arbitrarily by skin pigmentation, and particulary by culture. In the US, for interacial individuals, the choice to identify with a particular race is completely environmental. Our President has a white (caucasian) mother and a black (african) father. NOte thet he is considers black, not white or inbetween (possibly gray?).

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    Picking Nik nits:

    "Focusing on race and IQ is a bad idea simply because both are artificial concepts"

    Can you come up with an example of a non-artificial concept? Every idea is an artifice of the mind, based on preconceptions, environment, and learning. Any concept is the product of artifice with a range of disputable definitions, like "life" or "dirt".

    [IQ] "is simply a ration of how intelligent you are to how intelligent you should be at you particular age."

    "Should"? It is a measure of how well one does on a test compared to others in the same age group. There is no preset "should" value.

    Ask any Asian about race. It is not about skin color, but about the height of the bridge of the nose and the set of the eyes. An Asian newly in America has trouble telling blacks from whites, but no problem distinguishing a Han from a Manchu from a Mongol from a Hui from a Zhuang from …

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Niklaus put a twist on my post with which I would disagree. Yes, the concepts of "race" and "intelligence" are indeed artificial. That's not what concerns me. If we are to discuss anything complicated, we must resort to "artificial" constructs.

    My concern is that these two constructs, as used in most scientific research, are hopelessly vague.

    On the streets people use all kinds of heuristics to make use of "race," none of it meaningfully scientific. In my recent post on the East St. Louis race riot, for example, I freely referred to "race," "whites" and "blacks." I didn't mean to suggest anything scientific–I do not believe that it is any more meaningful to group people by skin color than by hair color or eye color. In the context of social strife, however, many people take skin color as indicative of an underlying reality. The appearance becomes reality through ignorance.

  5. Lola26 says:

    Nit picking Picking Nik nits:

    {“Should”? It is a measure of how well one does on a test compared to others in the same age group. There is no preset “should” value.}

    Depends on your definition of "should" doesn't it? Should water freeze at 32 degrees? Or would that just be comparing a particular molecule of H2O to others which have frozen in the past?

    • Dan Klarmann says:

      Lola, IQ scales according to the average of the test values in a group. There is no absolute definition of an IQ of 100. It is the current average for a demographic on a given test. If next year, the average 20 year old answers one less question correctly, then the definition of an IQ of 100 shifts to need one less correct answer in that demographic. The quintessential "grade on a curve".

      32°F was originally defined as that temperature at which pure Water at Standard Pressure would freeze. There are more accurate means of determining that temperature point now, so that if the universal constants that govern molecular interactions changed, we would see the freezing point change on the modern Fahrenheit scale. That is, if we could survive in the new environment.

  6. Lola26 says:

    Dan, sounds like you don't feel that water "should" freeze at 32 degrees F given the possibility that the universal constants that govern molecular interactions may change. I suppose that we have been grading the point at which water freezes on a curve (albeit a very tight one)based upon our emperical knowledge. However, just because we can't know what the future holds, does this render the word "should" useless?

    I don't think Niklaus was attempting to set a "value", but rather merely referring to the average.

  7. John Maxwell says:

    I disagree; I think science should avoid studying race and IQ. First of all, scientists should be prepared to come to any conclusion, and concluding that some races are better than others would be bad. Second of all, even if all of science unites on one perspective, it will be easy for outsiders to accuse them of being racist/politically correct, so a firm scientific conclusion won't necessarily translate into significant change in the public discourse.

    Also, I don't quite see your problems with "race" and "IQ". Different folks' ancestors lived in different parts of the world with different tribal setups, resulting in different selection pressures. And the idea of general intelligence, which IQ is supposed to measure, is fairly well supported. Really, it'd be a miracle if ancestral origin had 0 correlation with intellectual capacity.

    The important thing right now is to 1) not talk about race and IQ and 2) if the subject comes up, tell them we're not sure if they're related, but that their actions as individuals will affect their future a hell of a lot more than whether people with their racial characteristics tend to do slightly better or slightly worse on average.

  8. grumpypilgrim says:

    Niklaus' comment points us in the correct direction. Going another step in that same direction, let's remember that scientists have identified at least half a dozen different kinds of "intelligence," including visual/spatial, musical, mathematical, linguistic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, kinesthetic, etc. The issue isn't whether or not science should study race and IQ, it's that the traditional concept of "IQ" has become obsolete and we are only beginning to understand what "intelligence" is actually about.

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    The introduction of IQ tests has always seemed to be one of the best examples of the great political and social harm that can be done by the mind-boggling arrogance of scientists who think that they can sum up human abilities in a single number.

    From a Letter to Nature (3/12/09 issue) by David Colquoun, Department of Pharmacology, University College London

Leave a Reply

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.