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Guess What? Racism Isn't Good Science

08/21/2013 02:30 pm 14:30:14 | Updated Oct 21, 2013

I had really hoped never to hear anything more from Jason Richwine. It does sometimes happen that a public figure, caught in an act of real viciousness, fails to find any further public forum.

But no. Richwine, you may recall, is a "scholar" and a co-author of a Heritage Foundation study that claimed that immigration reform as presently envisioned would cost the country $5.3 trillion. In the course of debunking that ridiculous claim, it came to light that Richwine's Harvard doctoral thesis was all about race, racial differences in IQ, the belief that "the totality of the evidence suggests a genetic component to group differences in IQ," and how to use IQ as a means to keep inferior individuals out of the U.S. (and how to pretend that this is not what we are doing.) The Heritage Foundation turned out to be capable of shame -- or at least shrewdness in public relations -- and let Richwine go.

Now he's back, sadly, with a piece in Politico. Here, he defends his previous work by saying that racial differences in intelligence are broadly accepted and noncontroversial among scientists. This claim is based on 1) his belief in the objective accuracy of IQ tests as a measure of innate intellectual capacity, 2) the existence of differences in IQ scores by race, 3) the understanding that intelligence has a genetic component, and 4) a link between genetics, race, and intelligence that explains those test scores. (While Richwine acknowledges that this last is unproven, he proceeds to argue as if it is proven, and to elide by a clever sleight of hand the difference between a genetic component of intelligence and genetic determination of intelligence.)

#1 is highly contentious, #2 and #3 are certainly true, and #4 is garbage.

The problem with IQ tests is not simply the question of cultural bias (which is the only issue with these tests that Richwine addresses -- and dismisses -- in Politico.) It is also that one's entire life history up to the point that one takes the test can sharpen or blunt the overall intellectual potential that is only partly defined by one's innate genetic map. Richwine's faith in the objectivity of IQ tests as a measure of innate capacity fails to take into account the disproportionality of opportunity for learning and intellectual stimulation between privileged and historically oppressed groups, and the effect that this has on IQ scores. It also neglects the psychological damage inflicted on lives lived within a racial caste system.

Richwine believes that good science is being undermined by ignorant and politically correct views about race in the press and among the public. His examples of solid sober objective scientists who were pilloried in the know-nothing media would be hilarious if they weren't so chilling. First up: Mark Snyderman and Stanley Rothman and their 1987 book The IQ Controversy. Richwine claims that Snyderman and Rothman documented a broad consensus among scientists that racial disparities in IQ test performance were due to innate genetic differences; but if you look at their methodology, two things are pretty clear: the scientists were simply choosing the response option that best fits the evidence (which is that both genetics and life experience play a role in intelligence); and that the questions were, consciously or unconsciously, crafted in such a way as to yield a reply that would fit a racialist theory.

Next, Richwine actually goes to those heroes of modern racialism, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, and their pseudoscientific 1994 book The Bell Curve. If you looked no further, you wouldn't know that much of the research cited in that book was primarily supported by The Pioneer Fund, a reportedly neo-Nazi organization devoted to eugenics, whose founder, Wickliff Draper, was an advocate for sending American blacks back to Africa. You wouldn't know that Charles Murray is revered only on the far-right fringe of social science; to many other scholars, he's a crackpot who's been blaming the poor, and egalitarian social policies towards the poor, for American social decline for decades. He also claims to have discovered a system for ranking innate creativity that is completely free of personal preference or cultural bias (a system that, according to him, proves that Beethoven was "objectively" more accomplished than Mozart; using this infallible system he found -- surprise! -- that virtually everything of importance in world history was accomplished by white European males). You wouldn't know that the "science" of The Bell Curve has been thoroughly debunked by real biologists and social scientists, most notably here and here and here and here, but in many other venues and publications as well.

Richwine's third example is that of James Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA molecule, who came out a while back with the notion that intelligence varies genetically across races -- with, of course, Africans having less of it. What this mainly goes to show is that someone who is a smart biologist is not necessarily any brighter than anyone else when it comes to social science, but Richwine is appalled at the subsequent fall of the Great Man. What he doesn't mention is that, soon after that controversy, an analysis of Watson's own DNA profile (which Watson had made publicly available) revealed that he had considerably more African ancestry than the average white European; about 16 times as much, actually, corresponding to having one African great-grandparent. Yes, yes, I know, Richwine is talking aggregate statistics, and wouldn't dispute that a particular African could be smart. But you see why he'd avoid this postscript.

So yes, I think it's fair to say that Richwine is making a fraudulent argument that, contrary to his claims of good science, is the product of his own personal and ideological needs rather than of any good data. The interesting question is why he needs to do this. Is he simply a racist? (If he were writing at a slightly different cultural moment, he'd claim to be a "racialist.") He's certainly a disingenuous bully who enjoys yelling "niggerniggernigger!" in the public square and then turning around with a hurt expression to say "It's just good science." But that's not the important story.

For the bigger picture, remember that Richwine worked, until recently, for the Heritage Foundation. This is an organization dedicated to advocating measures that favor the rich and powerful and disfavor the poor and powerless in every possible arena, from government to unions to education to the environment to immigration to taxation to healthcare to public services to criminal justice. The old-fashioned phrase is "class warfare."

I don't think the folks at Heritage really care that much about the skin color of the ruling class, so long as it is made up of a very small group of people who share the values of their founders and funders. They'd be perfectly comfortable with, say, a President Clarence Thomas. But making the argument about race ties things up very neatly for the Heritage agenda and those who share it: because social history and life experience related to race affect measures of intelligence, and because all of these things contribute to social class, one easy way to keep the poor and powerless poor and powerless is to focus on race as a fundamental quality rather than on class as an emergent one. If disproportionate measures of IQ are based on class, then policy can address group inequality. If they're based on race, things simply are the way they are, and group inequality is a fact of life. God grant me the patience to accept those things I cannot change.

Richwine laments that Herrnstein and Murray's "interesting policy proposals" were lost in an ignorant media firestorm over racism. What was the aim of those proposals? They were designed to bring about "a society that has a place for everyone" -- by which the authors meant a society in which everyone knows his place, in which the poor (that is, the stupid; that is, blacks and Hispanics) find satisfaction in those menial and familial tasks that Herrnstein and Murray believe modern government has usurped (brilliantly combining a racist argument with a small-government one, please note). How much happier we would all be, rich and poor, if we took a realistic view of human potential and stopped expecting (and investing in) anything more than servitude for the less genetically fortunate! "From each according to his ability," although I'm sure the irony escaped the authors and devotees of The Bell Curve.

It's the new Divine Right of Kings -- or Master Race Theory, really -- and while it comes dressed up in supposed modern empiricism, it's purely 19th-century pseudoscience. It's Louis Agassiz and Francis Galton, Arthur de Gobineau and Josiah Nott all over again. And however benign Richwine imagines his intentions to be, we know where that led.