what’s Jeet Heer afraid of?

Sadly necessary preamble: please, read this post to see what it actually does and doesn’t say

Long layovers make for good blogging time.

So Jeet Heer has a response to Andrew Sullivan’s response to Ta-Nehisi Coates, in the form of one of his long Twitter considerations. The topic, this time, is on the legitimacy of publishing portions of the Bell Curve (along with rebuttals) in a national magazine. Well, I bow to no one in my distaste for TNR, and I also have a long record of opposing race science. But I find it indicative of a very common kind of liberal incoherence on this issue that, ultimately, makes it harder to combat racism.

Heer is of the opinion, as many people are, that publishing portions of The Bell Curve is ipso facto a racist enterprise and something no publication should do. He seems even to find exploring the question to be off-limits. I find all of this strange. We investigate claims to rebut them as much as we do to confirm them. I am not afraid that we will discover a scientific basis for treating black people as inferior human beings. I’m confident that black people have perfectly equal rights to political equality, to economic opportunity and material security, to human dignity and respect. I don’t think black people are inherently genetically inferior in intelligence. And I think the arguments necessary for making that case are perfectly capable of being mustered in the dispassionate manner of social science. It isn’t necessary to become so defensive about the issue that you shut out perspectives that you find offensive. Those perspectives are perfectly subject to criticism, and to my mind comprehensive rejection, precisely by examining them closely. I’ve written a lot of that kind of criticism here and at my old blog. And because race science types constantly play to the perception that their opinions are harsh truths that liberal society cannot face, this only plays to their narrative. It’s a clear strategic failure, and not a necessary one.

Typically, there are two reasons to argue that we shouldn’t look at the arguments of those who advance race science. The first is the argument that I glossed above, which is that there are some ideas that are just too dangerous to look at. I wrote about that idea at some length here. It’s like I said: I’m not afraid to look, and I think telling people we shouldn’t look out of fear of what we might find is just disastrous from a political and strategic point of view.

The second reason is that the ideas are so self-evidently weak, so obviously false, that we needn’t bother to rebut them. To the degree that Jeer articulates any reasons for his stance, this is his take, tweeting “Reasons not to give Bell Curve TNR imprinteur: it wasn’t peer reviewed and Sullivan lacked scientific training to evaluate.”

True, there was no peer review. And the claim that you can “detox” with certain diets also does not have the benefit of peer review. Nor the claim that magnets have healing properties. Nor the notion that MSG causes long-term health problems. And yet all of these ideas, and many more that have never been peer reviewed, have received a full review from serious people. Why? Because they are prevalent ideas, and because things that are believed should be examined, and if necessary, rebutted — and all of these claims have been. I suspect that this is a line of argument that Heer doesn’t apply remotely consistently. The notion that only peer reviewed arguments require rebuttal simply doesn’t pass the smell test. And while Heer might respond that race science is not widely enough believed to be worth rebutting, I find this deeply naive. Precisely because I think our society is deeply racist, but now usually tacitly and secretly racist, I think the idea that black people are inherently intellectually inferior is prevalent. I think many more people believe that than would admit to it in polite society. That is reason enough to present the arguments for the opportunity to rebut them.

And while Sullivan may not have been qualified to interpret the evidence, many of TNR’s readers were. And indeed: many powerful rebuttals of the book emerged from academics.

There’s something to this kind of argument that, I think, fundamentally misrepresents the strongest objections to race science. You occasionally get people incredulously quoting claims that black people score lower on IQ tests or standardized tests of education, as if that claim itself were what’s racist. But we know that black students score well below white students on a whole swath of educational assessments and metrics. The argument isn’t that this racial achievement gap isn’t real; if it wasn’t, then essentially the entire fields of educational testing, assessment, cognitive and developmental psychology, sociology, and psychometrics would be a massive racist conspiracy. Instead, the argument opponents make — the argument I make — is that these differing outcomes are the result of massive and entrenched disadvantages that reflect this country’s legacy of hideous racism and its ongoing, massive racial inequality in economic and sociological factors that impact quality of life. Often, race science types will say that a particular piece of research “controlled for poverty.” But such controls are typically limited to income level or parent’s wealth. Because racism is such a pervasive and all-encompassing phenomenon, these controls are never remotely adequate. In order to really assess these differences, I’d have to feel comfortable accounting for cultural biases in the nature of the questions, parent’s income, parent’s wealth, parent’s level of education, family stability, exposure to crime, exposure to drug abuse and alcoholism, the psychological and social impact of explicit and implicit racism, the Matthew Effect…. Take exposure to lead. We know that black children have significantly higher exposure to lead than white children even after controlling for poverty level. This is what I mean when I say that saying “we controlled for social class” is so inadequate.

I reject the notion of inherent black genetic inferiority because I think that we have far stronger evidence of enormous social and educational factors that serve in aggregate to depress black student performance across the board. The fact that these factors are hard to isolate only demonstrates the degree to which racism is an ambient and diffuse phenomenon in our society. (For similar reasons, I don’t think we’ll ever find a smoking gun for the source of these gaps, but that they are an aggregate of copious types of racial inequality that must be combated with mass redistribution.) All of that objection is simple assessment theory. It’s statistics and empiricism. It doesn’t require a political, emotional, or social revulsion towards asking the question. It simply requires faith in the process and confidence that, well, that black people aren’t inferior.

Ultimately, I get from Heer’s many, many tweets not a lot in terms of why he thinks publishing those excerpts was necessarily racist, but a lot of emotive righteousness, which of course is very popular with is Twitter followers. But that doesn’t help combat a quiet but pernicious attitude about black inferiority in this country. I find liberals are often not very useful allies on this question; typically, they haven’t looked very closely at the arguments they are rebutting and haven’t thought through their objections. I have. I find the principle of racial equality remains as strong as ever. I think maybe more people should try thinking through these things more carefully, exactly because we need to give our objections the necessary juice.

Update: As I’ve said many times, believing in race science is ipso facto racist; it’s the belief that one race is inherently inferior to another. But then, supporting the drug war is ipso facto racist, and I think that’s worth debating too. Fundamentally, I don’t see how these two separate thoughts can both be true: one, that the race science argument is so inherently weak that it does not need to be refuted, and two, that the race science argument is pernicious and potentially destructive. Those both can’t be true. I think the race science argument is dangerous, and so it has to be refuted.

Update II: I’m working on something larger about this phenomenon, hopefully for another publication, but this is a very good example of a broad issue with the left. My critics on this piece believe, as I do, that racism is real and that its effects are pernicious. And yet they also seem to think that the theory that black people are unintelligent is so disreputable that no one needs to rebut it– that rebutting it serves only to legitimize it. But I don’t think that people need to have that view legitimized because far too many of them already believe it. Look at this poll from the American National Election Studies, a very reputable polling project. 44% of whites surveyed said they think white people are more intelligent than black people. How can it be that an idea that’s so prevalent doesn’t need to be fought, and in fact needs to be legitimized by our willingness to fight it? I don’t understand how people who are so confident (and so correct) that our society is deeply racist can also be so confident that the notion that black people are less intelligent than white is only believed by an uninfluential fringe.

48 Comments

  1. I agree with you and Andrew about the validity of publishing the Bell Curve issue with criticisms.

    From the original TNC

    When The Bell Curve excerpt was published, one of my professors handed out the issue to every interested student. This was not a compliment. This was knowing your enemy.

    I’m not sure how he can contend that this issue was important enough for every student to read, but not important enough to write.

    However, it’s true that Sullivan doesn’t really address any of the other points in TNC’s original article.

  2. Right, but arguments don’t help inequality either. If they they did, then this race science junk would have disappeared a long time ago. It hasn’t, and that’s because those who are proponents, or “just interested in asking questions”, have motives that have nothing to do with science or rational argumentation. Coats’ “reflect briefly” paragraphs I think speak to this in another way.

  3. “Two ideas that cannot both be true: race science is so weak as to not need refuting; so strong as to be destructive”

    I’m going to respond to one of your Twitter points, since it gets at the core of a dynamic you’re being unnecessarily obtuse about. If society is admittedly and inextricably racist and doesn’t require rigorous theories to express racism and convert it into powerful political/sociological/legislative displays, then political discussions – particularly with regard to race – have an obvious means of being simultaneously weak and destructive. When it comes to racism, what’s sought isn’t a high-minded, undisputed theory that lets them become persuaded by the strength of racist positions. All that’s sought is a pretext. Which, incidentally, is what well publicized and seriously engaged with pseudo-science aptly provides (and which is minimized by setting the boundaries of respectable discussion).

    Furthermore, the act of legitimization that comes from treating risible, dehumanizing questions as valid arguments which warrant high-minded, serious disproof magnifies a dynamic where the price of political engagement for politically disadvantaged parties (in this case, black people) is an implicit internalization that debating the most basic facets of your humanity is just a necessary price for political engagement and political prominence. Your argument works in a vacuum where the rational and the logical and the well supported is all that stands as significant, but it strikes me as alarmingly indifferent to the human impact of these discussions and how white supremacy is served even by your presumably well intended efforts to say “well, I know it’s wrong because I exhaustively studied the science and I’m convinced that it can’t be right.”

    To people more reasonable than I, that might seem like an impressively strong display of intellectual honesty and belief. To me, who falls far short of that standard, I have to wonder why weighing the science is the precondition that should be followed before I believe and argue resolutely that there’s no discussion to be had about the intellectual potential and capacity of black people. And if that’s not the precondition, I have to wonder why we’re having this discussion at all. Again.

    I think this is a much better rendering of, say, Jelani Cobb’s, Jamelle Bouie’s and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ – and potentially Jeet Heer’s, who I care less about because he’s not black – objections than most of what you posted. And I think if you want to have this argument against something other than largely nameless and easily strawmanned liberals, you have to address and seriously grapple with the political implications of living in a society organized around white supremacy, where exposure and plausible deniability (instead of intellectual rigor and concise argumentation) are the standards with which racism enters into the realm of acceptability (and therefore policy), and you have to grapple with the emotional toll imposed by the uncritical adherence to and defense of things like “principle” and “free speech” and “debate” when these are being used as tools to acceptably have fascinating, abstract discussions about whether or not black people are human in the same way white people are. And then maybe when we get there, we can discuss the primary concern, which is that if we’re having this discussion, then some parties amongst the ostensible left and right find the proposition usefully debatable. Which they can only do because they’re practically and/or emotionally insulated from the political loss that’s implicit in black people having to scrimp and scrape to reach levels of human consideration that you can take as axiomatic.

    Speaking personally, I have no use for a liberalism or a leftism that can’t understand and respond to this intuitively. You can have as many awesome anti-Bell Curve arguments as you want, but it’s not a useful pretext for an alliance if you can’t articulate and respond to black humanity on its own terms. When I got here, I just kind of blanched: “I reject the notion of inherent black genetic inferiority because I think that we have far stronger evidence of enormous social and educational factors that serve in aggregate to depress black student performance across the board.” as it’s precisely the kind of thing that reveals how conditional and inadequate our fickle post-Civil Rights alliance with white people is. Not only do you express your point in a way which opens the possibility that an “ipso facto racist” stance could be at least somewhat valid if the evidence were much stronger (which just leaves the door open for the next pseudo-scientific trend to get embraced), but you leave limited indications that you find “I reject this because black people are human, just like I am” persuasive and sufficient. Like…if that’s it, I’m cool with saying that’s nothing.

    1. Let’s say that, simply soaking, as long as some are willing to use these arguments, even if only as a pretext, I have time enough to dispute them.

      1. But that’s just it. Scientific racists aren’t scientific racists because they have a deep and abiding knowledge and appreciation for science and the processes therein. Scientific racists are scientific racists because they’re racists. And scientific racism is a tool to indirectly interject and render questionable the idea of black humanity, which lets them attack the assumptions behind black inclusion and black rights. Arguing the premise on its own terms is, itself, a political victory because it’s respectable exposure – not truth – that anchors it to white political consciousness.

        By taking a pretext at face value and by debating and disproving it within the boundaries scientific racists provide, you’re giving a respectable podium for the background issues to be both addressed and amplified. Given the already insecure and contingent nature of both black citizenship and black humanity, the dangers here are both apparent and incredible. So too are people who court those dangers as though debating and arguing about the basic humanity of an ethnic group whose oppression is contingent on dehumanization is capable of being innocuous and beneficial.

  4. “Fundamentally, I don’t see how these two separate thoughts can both be true: one, that the race science argument is so inherently weak that it does not need to be refuted, and two, that the race science argument is pernicious and potentially destructive.” You are conflating the social power of ideas with their intellectual cogency. These are two separate things. An idea can be intellectually absurd and still very destructive. The idea that Jews are organizing a conspiracy to take over the world is intellectually absurd, yet it’s an idea that had a huge impact on history (google “the Holocaust”).
    Magazines are not some theoretical Millsian “marketplace of ideas”. They have a social role in giving their imprimatur to ideas and reporting, to staking their reputation on the validity of what they print. A good example is another article published in Sullivan’s tenure: Betsy McCaughey’s “No Exit.” Like the Bell Curve, the article claimed a spurious scientific expertise which was later refuted by experts (look up articles on “No Exit” by James Fallows, Andy Lamey and Ezra Klein). Like the Bell Curve, “No Exit” had outsized social impact because it was published in the New Republic and had it’s imprimatur (“Even the liberal New Republic says the Clinton’s Health Care Plan is absurd…” and “even the liberal New Republic says there is legitimate science showing blacks are genetically inferior….”).

    Your analysis ignores the sociology of ideas: ideas don’t just circulate because of their cogency but also, often enough, because their are powerful social forces who find those ideas useful. In the case of the Bell Curve, Murray’s race “science” couldn’t survive academic scrutiny, so he was subsidized for many years by right wing think tanks (to the tune of millions of dollars). These same think tanks also gave his book a massive marketing budget. And the New Republic published the excerpt not because the ideas had any cogency but because Martin Peretz, the owner, was a racist with a long history of making disparaging comments on various ethnic groups such as blacks, Arabs, and Mexicans (google: “Martin Peretz dossier”). Sullivan, as an ambitious editor, published the Bell Curve excerpt in part to please Peretz. Aside from Peretz and Sullivan, the entire New Republic staff was opposed to publishing the Bell Curve in the magazine (which is why all those refutations were published).
    So this isn’t some abstract intellectual debate or a college bull room session. There are real power dynamics at work, which your analysis ignores.
    I’ll add that both the New Republic and racial pseudo-science have a long history, yet in the 1910s and 1920s, the magazine did not print the precursors to Charles Murray (for example Madison Grant). Instead they published pieces challenging and refuting racial pseudo-science. Which is what they should have done with the Bell Curve: not legitimized the argument by excerpting the book (something that right-wing magazines like Commentary and National Review were eager to do in any case) but by refuting it.
    For the New Republic’s larger history of serving as a liberal front for reactionary ideas, see this interesting article (by someone who was a neo-conservative in the 1980s and was published in TNR): http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/no-tears-for-tnr/

    1. Magazines are not some theoretical Millsian “marketplace of ideas”. They have a social role in giving their imprimatur to ideas and reporting, to staking their reputation on the validity of what they print.

      You don’t think “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants” applies well to this situation?

    2. [i]”Which is what they should have done with the Bell Curve: not legitimized the argument by excerpting the book (something that right-wing magazines like Commentary and National Review were eager to do in any case) but by refuting it.”[/i]

      I think you’re going a long, loud way to deduct style points from a 20-year-old issue of a magazine.

      Looking back, I find myself thankful that there were publications willing to excerpt sinister horseshit like “In Defense of Internment”. For a teenager who was never going to read that book, it was like political smelling salts. A thousand “socially responsible” responses wouldn’t have had the same effect.

  5. I think it’s quite reasonable and strategically coherent to expect The Bell Curve to be every bit as marginalized and ostracized in mainstream political discourse as is Holocaust denialism.

    Would The New Republic ever have dedicated an entire issue to a book by high-profile 90s denialist David Irving — who, like Murray and Hernstein, was an expert in camouflaging his prejudiced motivations in the language of scholarly rigor and “objective” measurement?

    Or, better yet: if TNR had published Irving, would anyone today be rushing to TNR’s defense? Would you, Fredrik DeBoer?

    1. Who is trudging to anyone’s defense? Why are you all acting as though I’m defending the book? I am asking for a remotely coherent principle on which to say that some arguments are so inherently, obviously wrong that we not only need not refute them, we must not refute them. I’m seeing nothing minimally clear on that point.

      You might think that the world is so convinced of the equal intelligence if black people that the idea must never be rebutted. I find that inaccurate and naive.

      1. Why does the world have to be convinced of black people’s equal intelligence before our ostensible allies decide that it’s not a proposition we should argue? Why is a “coherent principle” more necessary than a direct connection to a negative political impact against a politically marginalized group? Your priorities are strange.

        1. Who is taking about allies, ostensible or actual? The world is full of racism. I am committee to arguing against it. The racist notion of unintelligent black people doesn’t need to be “legitimized” by arguing against it, because in the eyes of many people, it’s already legitimate
          That’s what I’m fighting. The only way to make the arguments you guys are making is to believe that the world isn’t that racist.

          1. I’m talking about those things.

            I’m also wondering why you find convincing racists a more noble and necessary pursuit than adhering to an argumentative standard that posits black humanity as a necessary given.

          2. Actually, you aren’t interested, as per usual, but are rather interested in using the anonymity the internet affords you to play act a certain role that you couldn’t in real life. An anonymity that exists only because I continue to extend its privilege to you.

      2. As with holocaust denialism, what’s at issue is the motivations of the authors. I wouldn’t trust antisemites to do a responsible study of the holocaust. To the contrary, what I’d expect them to do is construct a recruiting tool for their own movement, and to dress up this recruiting tool as “objective scholarship.” If, on the other hand, the authors of a holocaust-revisionist study had good bonafides as being “definitely not antisemitic,” I’d be much more inclined to give that work a full hearing. (but I’ve yet to see that happen — because the mainstream history of the holocaust is basically correct. A non-antisemite examining the evidence immediately comes to this conclusion)

        This isn’t to say that works by people like Irving and Murray/Hernstein should be completely ignored, but rather that they should be handled with rubber gloves. There’s a way to debunk such works point by point, without adding to their power as recruiting tools. Books with titles like “Denialism Debunked” generally do the trick. The New Republic’s decision to publish several chapters of the The Bell Curve, as if the book were a very impressive work indeed, is not an example of this kind of power-negating, debunking strategy.

  6. Prove to me that you and all those like you are not sub human. Why are you mad? It’s all in the name of open debate.

    1. Who is making the “just asking questions here” argument? Who is calling that argument legitimate?

      Once again: liberals are more interested in demonstrating their superior righteousness to each other than in actually winning the argument and achieving change.

      1. Actually, the sweeping marginalization of holocaust-denialist views has been incredibly effective in “winning the argument and achieving change” for jewish minorities throughout the West. It would have been reasonable and consistent to expect the same positive outcome from a similar marginalization of racial science. Instead, all through the 90s, racial science was permitted to worm its way into mainstream discourse.

          1. As I say above, peer-reviewed books with titles like “Bell Curve Debunked” would be the appropriate strategy.

            The wrong strategy would be to write books and articles with titles like “Debating The Bell Curve” and treating Murray

          2. As I say above, peer-reviewed books with titles like “Bell Curve Debunked” would be the appropriate strategy.

            The wrong strategy would be to write books and articles with titles like “Debating The Bell Curve” and treating Murray and Hernstein’s book as if it were “just another study” with some “flawed methodology.”

  7. The Bell Curve didn’t actually argue that average IQ differences between racial groups had biological causes — in fact, it was explicitly agnostic on the nature vs nurture question, calling the problem “intractable”.

    More importantly, does anyone actually believe that equality before the law should be or is contingent upon an empirical measurement of equal average IQ between racial groups? This would be an extreme minority position. Most of us recognize that such equality derives from our principles about the worth of the individual (whether derived from a religious conviction or humanist philosophy), not from any set of empirical facts. This is also a point that Charles Murray has made.

    There is also the even more basic fact that group averages do not determine anything about a given individual. People seem prone to conflate these two concepts. Even though average IQ of blacks as a group is lower than that of whites as a group, there are still plenty of blacks that are smarter than most whites. In other words, even assuming the worst-case scenario where IQ differences were genetically determined, there would still be no justification for acting on prejudice against a black individual on that basis.

    I think the massive freak-out over Murray’s book reflects less on the book itself, and more on the broader panic among liberals that their victories in the 60s, which they thought were permanent, were and are slipping away.

    1. Blizzard,

      I think you are correct in distinguishing KKK racism, which holds that blacks are inherently demonic or unclean, and Bell Curve racism, which holds that blacks are on average less intelligent than whites. Only KKK racism could justify banning blacks from restaurants and universities and making them drink from separate water fountains.

      The damage from Bell Curve racism is this. If people believe that blacks, on average, are less intelligent than whites, then the persistent poverty of black Americans (and for that matter, Haitians and Africans) becomes less of a moral challenge. Instead of changing the policies that keep poor blacks poor, we can throw up our hands and say that this how things are, because genetics. Lot’s of white people have that attitude, and they have to be argued against.

      1. If you are moderating this, can you please change “lot’s” in the last sentence to “lots”. Headsmack.

  8. As I’ve said many times, believing in race science is ipso facto racist; it’s the belief that one race is inherently inferior to another.

    This seems like a foolish thing to write. Or maybe it is just a reflection of how silly the term “racism” has become. Are you actually disputing that there are genetically-determined differences between racial groups? Physical differences such as lactose tolerance are well established. Is believing in genetically-determined lactose tolerance racist, because it is the believe that one race is inherently inferior to another?

    1. “Race science” in this context refers to claims that there are differences in IQ between racial groups. And yes, the idea is straightforwardly racist. “IQ”, unlike lactose intolerance, is an intangible, societal invention, describing mental worth. Lactose intolerance is a biochemical process observable under a microscope.

      1. Exactly right. And please note: this distinction stems from purely emotionless evaluation of realty and not from “political correctness” or any such shibboleth.

  9. I don’t think a priori it’s impossible that the same kind of processes that led to small phenotypic differences in appearance between people of different origin (“races” if you will) that evolved more or less separately over tens of thousands of years, would lead similarly to small differences in temperament, faculties, what have you. I think this is a separate question from the equality of every human being.

    But as for the specific question of race and IQ in the United States, I think you are correct that racism has become so entrenched that it’s pretty much impossible to fully account for confounding variables. A definite answer is unlikely to ever going to be put forward (then again, isn’t that true of much of social science?). There’s the question of whether a dispassionate, neutral view debate can even be had. Everyone has their opinions pretty much locked down by now. If Americans can’t even agree on climate change…

    Then there’s the purpose of the whole endeavor. I feel very uncomfortable with declaring some areas of interest “off limits” to scientists. But shouldn’t science offer something of value, rather than divisiveness? Rushton & co. would counter that their research will better help inform policy decisions with the best interest of disadvantaged groups in mind. That just seems laughable, to be honest. It’s also very hard to divorce this tradition from the faulty and ethically disastrous racial science of the past.

    I’m really conflicted about this. On the one hand, science should be about learning the truth. But science doesn’t happen in a societal vacuum. The choice for a certain research question is not a neutral one, not in social science at least.

  10. This is a superb piece. Thank you for it. I’m completely on-board with your perspective, but I do believe Jeet Heer has a strong and valid point with his “sociology of ideas” rebuttal above. There is just a natural tension between a deliberation scheme optimized for broad enlightenment and a deliberation scheme optimized for political action. The risk of “too much” deliberation is that it saps the momentum required to achieve political goals. The risk of “too little” deliberation is that it may yield faulty epistemology or fragile conviction — either of which could be fatal to long-term political success. My personal bias is that political coalitions typically err on the side of insufficient deliberation in their rush to enshrine their orthodoxy and secure their policy victories.

  11. I like Sullivan’s site, and I agree with much of what he says and appreciate his (albeit selective) airing of dissents but, like he does Freddie, he exasperates me on this issue. My father subscribed to TNR before and during the Peretz years and it repeatedly infuriated me growing up by providing pseudo-intellectual cover for dehumanizing attacks on blacks and Palestinians — I’m sure there were other groups targeted but those seemed to be the favorites. While I understand the impulse behind Freddie’s argument to engage and refute, I sincerely doubt engaging and refuting racist arguments will alter the beliefs and attitudes of that 44%.

    I think Q’s arguments here in the comments are quite strong. I’m enjoying the debate because, despite my doubts about changing the minds of the 44%, I think there is value in engaging those who have their own doubts about race and intellect and who might otherwise join them. My question is how to do that in a way that frames the race science argument on intellect as being grounded in the ongoing history of the reproduction of white supremacy, to not treat is as a scientifically objective hypothesis that’s being tested.

  12. Racial IQ science’s whole trick is that it begins with a very non-scientific, fuzzy term: “intelligence.” We can compare racial groups according to hair color, height, or allergies, sure — these are all physical , observable phenomena. You can see them under a microscope. Whereas “intelligence” is just a fuzzy societal idea, like “justice” or “envy.” And this fuzzy societal idea, “intelligence”, is the non-scientific term from which the entirety of racial IQ science proceeds. That’s what makes racial IQ science a pseudo-science from the get-go. That’s why it’s not particularly necessary to dive too deeply into Murray and Hernstein’s methodology to know that this is a pseudo-science.

    I agree with FBD that racial IQ science should be rebutted and debunked. But those doing the debunking need to go in with the understanding that they are not debating a scientific claim; they’re debunking a pseudo-scientific one. The same argumentative strategies used for debunking other pseudo-sciences are appropriate for debunking racial IQ science.

    1. I have to respectfully disagree here. IQ is probably the best studied and validated construct there is in social science. It’s strongly correlated with tons of relevant outcomes such as job performance or salary.

      You are right that “intelligence” is fuzzy and non-observable. But the entire premise of much of social science is that there are things that are fuzzy and non-observable but that still can be validly and reliably measured. I would argue that psychometry is one of the most rigorous and statistically grounded disciplines in all of social science.

      1. But you haven’t responded to my core objection to the idea of “IQ science.” If we’re to take seriously the idea that “intelligence” can manifest itself as something reliably and scientifically measurable, why not suppose the same thing about other fuzzily-defined mental qualities? Why do we never hear about “competitiveness quotient” or “honorableness quotient” or “treacherousness quotient”?

        Here’s why: because generally we can see from the get-go that reducing these sorts of fuzzily-defined qualities to scientifically quantifiable phenomena would be absurd. Some people — i.e., racists — make an exception for “intelligence” because such people are seduced by the notion that “science” can show that blacks are dumb.

        1. Of course such measures exist. Psychology has studied them in great detail. Have you ever heard of the Big 5 traits of personality, for instance? Through careful (statististical) factor analysis psychologists deduced that the traits we attribute to other people (“agreeableness”, “dependency”, etc.) could largely be boiled down to only 5 factors.

          It’s only that IQ is one of the oldest, best studied and socially most important (in terms of outcome correlates) that it’s so well-known whereas other measures are not. But of course they exist.

          The vast majority of psychologists believe intelligence and other traits and faculties exist and can be measured. That doesn’t make all of them racist, come on now.

    2. “Whereas ‘intelligence’ is just a fuzzy societal idea, like ‘justice’ or ‘envy.’ And this fuzzy societal idea, ‘intelligence’, is the non-scientific term from which the entirety of racial IQ science proceeds.”

      This is silly. Are you really going to argue that only a “fuzzy societal idea” distinguishes the neurological function of a kid with Down’s Syndrome from an average kid. Furthermore, how far do you want to follow the logical implications of your argument? So should we abolish special ed programs that are geared toward kids with low IQs? Should we cease to consider mental retardation as a mitigating factor in the criminal justice system? It’s one thing to say that IQ is an imperfect measure of intelligence, it’s another to say that any attempt to measure human intelligence is automatically pseudoscience.

      1. As any reputable medical scientist will tell you, what distinguishes a kid with Down’s syndrome from an average kid is a wide array of physically observable, biochemical phenomena.

        Please read up on what the scientific method is and is not.

  13. I appreciate the arguments of those who don’t want to lend legitimacy to Murray’s thesis. After all, it’s true no mainstream magazine would give any space to Murray if his book were, say, “The Genetic Basis of Jewish Greed,” or “Why Asians Are So
    Crafty” or something. At the same time, it seems to me, the basis of intelligence is a legitimate field of study, as is race and racial differences (can we not just call it “population” instead of “race” and be done with it), and the persistence of disparities along racial (population) lines in the good old USA. Whatever you think of Murray’s theory, it seems to me the topic is itself legitimate and not ipso facto racist. It certainly would be racist if we knew for a fact what accounts for IQ — but we don’t. Unlike the Holocaust, for which evidence is overwhelming and abundant, and therefore not meriting a discussion of deniers’ belief, the evidence about what accounts for IQ differences is still vague and merits discussion. There are lots of arguments against Murray’s thesis (not even addressing his use of “evidence”) but it seems to me the topic is big enough, relevant enough to the American experience, that it ought to be discussed in the light of day and not stuck away in a corner.

    1. @ S.J. Wangsness

      If “the basis of intelligence is a legitimate field of study” (and I assume you mean biological basis), then is the basis of honorableness a legitimate field of such study as well? Is the basis of treacherousness? Is the basis of miserliness? Is the basis of sneakiness? Is the basis of pigheadedness? Is the basis of friendliness? Is the basis of fickleness? Are these all legitimate fields of study?

      If not, then why are you making an exception for “intelligence”? Intelligence — just like all the qualities I mentioned above — is a fuzzily defined mental quality, which says more about how a society understands itself than it does about anyone’s biology.

      1. All those listed are of course studied in psychology and psychiatry.

        IQ tests are ubiquitous in so many fields and has a correlation factor to outcomes such as income that is relatively high in the social sciences

  14. Do you think there is *any* position, concept or theory that is so dangerous that it should simply be shunned altogether (in the way Jet Heer seems to be suggesting for TBC) ?

Comments are closed.