05/24/2013 10:05 am ET Updated Jul 24, 2013

In Sheep's Clothing: When Prejudice Hijacks Research to Justify Racist Policy

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As a Mexican immigrant studying at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, I was disappointed to learn that my school accepted Jason Richwine's Ph.D. dissertation arguing immigration policy should reject cognitively inferior Hispanics. However, what is most frustrating is not the racism itself. What exasperates me the most is invocations of "academic freedom" to defend racists who hijack academic research in pursuit of their own agendas.

Since I immigrated to the United States ten years ago, I had convinced myself that racism had been relegated to the fringes of society. The rude awakening came with the Washington Post article describing Richwine's dissertation:

The average IQ of immigrants in the United States is substantially lower than that of the white native population, and the difference is likely to persist over several generations. The consequences are a lack of socioeconomic assimilation among low-IQ immigrant groups, more underclass behavior, less social trust, and an increase in the proportion of unskilled workers in the American labor market. Selecting high-IQ immigrants would ameliorate these problems.

I approached Richwine's dissertation with sober patience, envisioning a point-by-point retort to its several vulnerabilities: The inability of IQ tests to wholly capture intelligence, inaccurately portraying Hispanics as a biological race, ignoring other factors that could account for IQ differences, etc.

But then I realized this approach only validated Richwine's work, which usurped a legitimate institution and used it as a vessel for a personal agenda. Just like creationists parading as scientists or bigots pantomiming as journalists, Richwine had taken academic research and used it to validate a widely discredited worldview.

Soon after the Washington Post article, Richwine sympathizers began making pleas for academic freedom, trying to place the burden on the critics of his research to demonstrate the flaws of his dissertation by engaging it as academic research.

However, the burden of proof is not ours. Rather, Richwine must demonstrate that his dissertation is more than just a quantitative rationalization, an academic-looking justification of an anti-immigrant crusade.

The impetus behind all serious scientific research is explaining why something happens, not just showing that it happens. Anyone can describe an apple falling from a tree, but what made Isaac Newtown a researcher was the idea of universal gravitation: his explanation of the phenomenon he observed.

Richwine's dissertation turns this logic on its head. He is not interested in gravity. He is interested in falling apples. His dissertation is essentially two premises and a conclusion. First, the genes that make you Hispanic also make you have a lower IQ. Second, low IQs are bad for society. The conclusion therefore, is that Hispanics are bad for society and our immigration policies should keep them out of the country.

My main concern is not some empirical debate about Richwine's facts. Rather, the problem in his thesis is that his logic is unsound. He spends the majority of his first chapter arguing that variations in IQ accurately reflect variations in intelligence. When discussing the reasons for such variation however, he readily admits that "IQ is a product of both genetic inheritance and early childhood environment."

He then spends two chapters describing, in exquisite detail, the existence of an IQ gap between Hispanics and white Americans. Unfortunately, he never actually attempts to explain why that gap exists. Instead he makes the perplexing statement that the reasons for the gap do not matter:

Although it is highly unlikely, imagine it were suddenly proven that there are no genetic differences between ethnic groups that could affect IQ, or that IQ deficits are entirely genetic in origin. Neither fact would raise anyone's intelligence, and the continuing immigrant IQ deficit would be no less of a problem in either case.

No. Determining the reason a problem exists is does not solve the problem, but it does inform the researcher about what constitutes an effective policy response, and policy is the main focus of Richwine's paper. I realized his dissertation was an elaborate problem description with a personally palatable solution, rather than a rigorous explanation of the problem's causes and ways to address them.

Richwine was not looking for the effects of IQ on the economy. Otherwise, he would not have ignored one of the two key determinants of IQ: environment. He was looking instead for a reason to discriminate against Hispanics that Hispanics could never learn or work their way out of, something inherent: something in their genes.

I believe the burden is on Richwine and his supporters to demonstrate otherwise.

Make no mistake. I believe academic discourse is vital to our success in navigating public policy. But credible academic discourse requires research that informs the outcomes of policy, not policy preferences that shape the outcome of research. Richwine's work is far more pernicious than sloppy research: it is prejudice dressed in objective clothing.

Richwine's dissertation should only be safeguarded by the principle of academic freedom if he can demonstrate that his newfound interest in cognitive science, the cherry-picked design of his hypothesis, and his all-to-convenient conclusions are the result of anything other than an attempt to smuggle anachronistic beliefs about racial hierarchy into immigration policy.