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.
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.”