To deny that people differ from each other is patently ridiculous. We are all unique and our uniqueness is endlessly fascinating. Our physical differences are readily apparent; some of us are taller, heavier, stronger, paler, hairier and more appealing to look upon than others. No one denies these differences; to do so would be to deny the evidence of our own eyes.
We also know that people’s personality and character vary enormously – some people we are drawn to, others we instinctively dislike. We know too that not everyone has the same intellectual capability. Schools divide children into ability groups and teacher these groups differently. (This, I think, is part of the problem.)
When it comes to discussing physical characteristics, few people are so entrenched in their worldview as to argue that these qualities are, at least to some extent, inherited. Tall parents tend, on average, to have tall children. If parents exhibiting a particular phenotype – such as eyes with an epicanthic fold – were to have a child who lacked this distinguishing feature, their communities might be forgiven for drawing their own conclusions. Obviously, parents’ genes cannot be the complete story. We often think of a trait like height as completely inherited and yet, undernourishment during our formative years can make us shorter. Conversely, we’re prone to blame people for their weight, seeing it as entirely within our control and whilst of course food and exercise make a difference to our weights, it seems pretty certain that within a controlled environment, if two people eat and exercise in exactly the same ways, they will not necessarily put on the same amount of weight. At least some of the variance in our weights will be dependent on our genes.
But as soon as it comes to discussing cognitive differences, some people want to deny the differences between individuals could be in any way attributable to their genetic makeup. We want to believe that any such differences are the result of social inequality and that, if only society was just, all such difference would fade away. This strikes me not only as naïve, but as being in opposition to a great deal of scientific evidence.
Now, I’m the first person to accept that the kind of epidemiological studies that have produced this evidence are not the same thing as proof, but when so much data points in a single way, it’s bafflingly wrongheaded to ignore in favour of believing what we prefer to be true. As I reported here, there seems to be a correlation between the tendency to down play the role of heritability in human difference and a mistrust of the ability of science to answer empirical questions. An alarming number of academics appear to prefer identity politics and postmodernism to empirical data. As such, they are particularly prone to committing the moralistic fallacy and asserting that what ought to be is in fact true. What ought to be only ever exists in our minds and cannot be observed in the physical world. Wanting a thing to be true does not make it so.
Recently, various commentators have seen fit to describe me as a racist because of the following exchange in the comments on this blog:
As you can see, I acknowledge that these findings are unpopular – I have to admit to being far from happy about them myself – but they do represent a mainstream view of the research. The link I provided was to a paper by Linda Gottfredson and colleagues entitled “Mainstream science on intelligence: An editorial with 52 signatories, history, and bibliography“. This was first published as a public statement intended to represent a scientific consensus to confront the misconceptions surrounding the concept of intelligence. Gottfredson lists 25 different points, some of which make for very uncomfortable reading. Here’s a taste:
7. Members of all racial-ethnic groups can be found at every IQ level. The bell curves of different groups overlap considerably, but groups often differ in where their members tend to cluster along the IQ line. The bell curves for some groups (Jews and East Asians) are centered somewhat higher than for whites in general. Other groups (blacks and Hispanics) are centered somewhat lower than non-Hispanic whites.
8. The bell curve for whites is centered roughly around IQ 100; the bell curve for American blacks roughly around 85; and those for different subgroups of Hispanics roughly midway between those for whites and blacks. The evidence is less definitive for exactly where above IQ 100 the bell curves for Jews and Asians are centered.
Source and Stability of Between Group Differences
19. There is no persuasive evidence that the IQ bell curves for different racial-ethnic groups are converging. Surveys in some years show that gaps in academic achievement have narrowed a bit for some races, ages, school subjects and skill levels, but this picture seems too mixed to reflect a general shift in IQ levels themselves.
20. Racial-ethnic differences in IQ bell curves are essentially the same when youngsters leave high school as when they enter first grade. However, because bright youngsters learn faster than slow learners, these same IQ differences lead to growing disparities in amount learned as youngsters progress from grades one to 12. As large national surveys continue to show, black 17-year olds perform, on the average, more like white 13-year-olds in reading, math, and science, with Hispanics in between.
21. The reasons that blacks differ among themselves in intelligence appear to be basically the same as those for why whites (or Asians or Hispanics) differ among themselves. Both environment and genetic heredity are involved.
I can aware that bringing these comments to light is to open a can of worms. I also know that despite having been signed by 52 leading intelligence researchers, there are other academics who disagree with some of the 25 statements made. The IQ gap between different groups is a matter of fact. To deny that this is the case does no one any favours. The cause is. however, complicated and, as we’ll see, there’s reason to doubt that “[b]oth environment and genetic heredity are involved” in these differences.
So, is it racist to talk about race? Surely that must depend on one’s purpose. As I understand it, racism lies in promoting the superiority of one racial/ethnic group over another for prejudicial, discriminatory or aggressive ends. I abhor racism and see any attempt to discriminate against groups of people based on real or supposed racial differences as wrong. I know that race is, in large part, a social construct and that different groups’ experiences differ depending on all sorts of environmental factors.
And, most importantly, I believe that the differences between us pale into insignificance next to our similarities. What makes education possible is that despite our differences we all learn and think in broadly similar ways. But, as some groups of people seem to get a worse deal than other groups, I don’t think equality is great idea. Much better, I think, to treat everyone fairly.
In a truly equitable system – no one would be discriminated against in any way and the differences between students’ outcomes would be completely due to heritability. Although the goal of universal education is to create a totally fair environment for all, we’re a long way from achieving that aim.
That being the case, knowing that a) IQ apparently distributes disproportionately along racial grounds and b) IQ is a very strong predictor for social mobility and wealth, should make us more determined to ensure the least privileged children enjoy the same benefits as the most privileged. There’s good reason to believe that the IQ gap between different racial/ethnic groups is likely to be environmental rather than genetic in origin (and some reason to think this is exaggerated in the US where such environmental differences may be more stark) but there’s no reason for supposing the gap doesn’t exist.
From about 57 minutes into this video, Stephen Hsu talks about how IQ is a much better predictor than race as to whether children increase their socio-economic status (H/T Mario Lopez)
Simply denying that there are differences in the IQ scores of different groups won’t help anyone, acknowledging that this may be the case and seeking to alter what is to be more in line with what ought to be seems to be the fairest possible approach. I fail to understand by what twisted definition this could be considered racist. On the contrary, those who seek to deny the existence of racial differences are, whatever their intentions adding to the problem and getting in the way of the solution. As James Flynn, discoverer of the Flynn Effect, argues is this interview:
“It’s whites, not blacks, who complain,” he says. “Blacks know the score. Facts are facts.” On recorded IQ tests, he says, African Americans have persistently lagged behind [pdf] most other ethnicities in America [pdf] (including, according to some commentators, black immigrants from, for example, the Caribbean) and this cannot be explained by the Flynn effect since, as he puts it, “blacks don’t live in a time warp”.
As such, perhaps it’s more reasonable to describe the position of those who deny the existence of these issues as racist?
- At least some of the differences between different racial/ethnic groups is genetic, some of the differences are environmental in origin.
- Some racial/ethnic groups score lower, on average, than other groups.
- Our similarities are far more pronounced than our differences.
- IQ is one of the best predictors for social mobility.
- The aim of education ought to be to increase the intellectual capability of all children
- Some children will need more help than others.
- Ignoring racial/ethnic differences is only in the interest of privileged groups and acts to discriminate against the most disadvantaged.
If you’re interested, my manifesto for a fairer approach to education is outlined here.