Speaking the Unspeakable

by John Derbyshire

Race, I.Q., and the mainstream.

The flap over geneticist Jim Watson’s remarks about race differences in I.Q. has generated some interesting mainstream comment. Some highly respectable outlets — the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Slate.com — have stepped away from the traditional “Shocked! Scandalized!” template to actually look at the science and say interesting things about it.

This dawning realism is all very cautious and qualified, of course, but at least mainstream science editors are no longer jumping up on chairs, shrieking and clutching their skirts. Thoughtful commentary is showing up. Good grief!

I’ve touched on these issues myself, in National Review and elsewhere, so I am familiar with the kinds of questions that come up in conversations and emails afterwards. Here are a few of them, with my answers. This is the take of a well-informed layman with a decent math-science background and no particular ax to grind, unless being one half of a mixed-race marriage counts.

If you’re not satisfied with the links I’ve posted, I recommend you to Google for yourself — there’s masses of stuff out there. A good gateway is Jason Malloy’s withering piece on the Gene Expression website — that’s where Slate.com’s Will Saletan got half of HIS links!

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Q: Why study this stuff? What possible use could it be? Will it not, in fact — whatever results it delivers — will it not, just by being a subject of study, sow discord?

A: Why study it? Because free people want to understand the world, that’s why. Why should I not make free inquiry into this or that, if it interests me to do so? Why should my patron Billy Billionaire, who made a fortune from running a hedgefund, not finance my researches, if it’s something that interests him? And if you won’t let me do it here, how will you stop me doing it there — in Beijing, Bombay, or Buenos Aires? How exactly will you implement your worldwide ban?

To adapt a Second Amendment bumper slogan: Ideas don’t sow discord, people sow discord. A truth about the world, is a truth about the world. Why get worked up about it? Here’s a truth about the world: Several million Americans are smarter than I am. Am I worked up about this? No. Should I be?

Or take this: If the figure of 15 points usually given for the black-white gap in mean I.Q. scores is correct, then around six million — that’s 6,000,000 — black Americans have higher I.Q.s than the average white American. Should they be worked up? Or should the average white American be worked up? Who should be worked up about this?

The world is what it is. Make a life for yourself in it. Play the cards you’ve been dealt, as best you can play them. Get married, get a job. Don’t whine — it ticks people off. Don’t eat too much fried food. Take moderate exercise. Calm down.

Q: If scientists MUST study this stuff, why can’t they just study it among themselves? Does it really have any place in blogs and magazines dealing with politics, society, and culture? Do Bruce Blogger and Caroline Columnist really know enough about statistics, population genetics and psychometry to make it worth my while reading what they have to say?

A: That is a very peculiar view of citizenly responsibility, and one I strongly deplore.

Science is ethically empty. It dumps babies on society’s doorstep without offering any advice (any collective advice, as science: individual scientists, as citizens, should and do give us their opinions) about what to do with those babies. Hey, we’ve split the atom! Where d’ya wanna take this — nukes, power stations, radiation therapy, or what? When y’all have it figured out, let us know, y’hear? We’ll be out on the golf course.

Q: Isn’t I.Q. testing all culturally biased anyway? Remember that thing about “regatta”? Aren’t you really just testing the degree to which the testee shares a common cultural background with the tester?

A: [The reference is to an old SAT analogy item discussed in The Bell Curve (p.281) and at, according to Google, “about 500” places on the internet. The general idea is that the question is biased because white kids, whose fathers of course all own yachts and summer homes in Newport, Rhode Island, will know the meaning of “regatta,” while black kids, who all live in tarpaper shacks on the banks of the Yazoo, will not.]

Psychometrists tear their hair when someone brings up the old “regatta” chestnut. Cultural bias of that kind was ironed out of I.Q. tests long since. Even before that, as Herrnstein and Murray pointed out: “The reason the ‘oarsman:regatta’ example has been used so often in descriptions of cultural bias is that it is one of the few items in the SAT that looks so obviously guilty.” Note this is not even a standard I.Q. test, note, but the SAT.

That subtler kinds of meta-cultural bias might influence I.Q. test results is still an open question. James Flynn — the “Flynn Effect” man — discusses this at length in his new book. We’re talking “influence,” though. Not even Flynn thinks these factors, if present, negate key results of modern psychometry.

And if low-level “regatta”-style cultural bias explains group differences, it leaves a lot of things un-explained. East Asian cultures are quite radically different from American culture: yet immigrant kids from East Asia do well on I.Q. tests — better than American whites! Perhaps these tests are actually created by a secret cabal of Chinese and Korean infiltrators.

A hardy perennial of American news reporting is the story about the police or fire department getting sued because its entrance tests flunk disproportionately large numbers of black and Hispanic test takers. My own county got into a lawsuit over this a few years back.

If the discrepancies are due to cultural bias in the tests, then my county — or any other authority being sued on these grounds — ought to be able to get itself off the hook very easily, and save itself millions in legal fees. All they have to do is hire in a bunch of psychometricians to devise a new test that will be culturally biased in favor of blacks and Hispanics. If you can bias a test one way, it shouldn’t be hard to bias it another way. Of course, the test must still have some relevance to the work being tested for, but I don’t see why that should complicate things. There isn’t “black firefighting” and “white firefighting,” is there?

Why hasn’t some police or fire authority somewhere saved themselves trouble and expense by doing this? Because it can’t be done, that’s why. (If you think you know how to do it, please contact Suffolk County Police Authority, not me.)

Q: Is this stuff interesting to anyone but white supremacists?

A: I bet it is interesting to white supremacists, though it should — see above — be even more interesting to yellow supremacists. I know a lot of people who find it interesting, though, and I don’t think any of them is a white supremacist. (Which I take to mean: A person who desires special legal/constitutional privileges for white people.) I’m not one myself.

Who this is mainly interesting to is, science geeks. I am one of those, and have been since childhood. The people I know who are interested in the race-I.Q. discussion would all, I believe, make the same claim. They all seem to have been keen readers of science fiction at some point. One of them writes sci-fi for a living.

I came late to biology and the human sciences myself, finding physics, astronomy, and information sciences more interesting. The human sciences have fundamentally the same appeal, though. Here are phenomena, features of the world, that I see with my eyes every day. Some people are smart, some are dumb. There are different races, accounted for — pretty obviously — by having their deep ancestry in different parts of the world. Different races seem to have different patterns of capabilities. What’s it all about? Here are some accredited researchers, applying the tools of scientific inquiry — measurement, classification, comparison — to try to find the underlying facts. What’s not to be interested in?

What’s that you say? It’s wrong to be interested in these things? I’m supposed to pretend not to notice those things I’m noticing? Those aren’t scientists: they are bad people with dark motives only pretending to do objective research? That’s what you’re saying? Okay, let me put this as politely as it deserves to be put: Bite me, pal.

To be sure, not many people are science geeks, possessed of this kind of promiscuous curiosity. Far, far more people, picking up their daily newspaper, turn first to the Sports or Business section, than to the Science section (if their paper even has one). It’s a minority interest. Very few of the minority are white-supremacist, though — I speak as a lifelong science geek, extensively acquainted with the species. Most of us just like science. I would argue in fact — and do argue, see way below — that a science geek is less likely to be a white supremacist, or any other kind of strong-group-identifying type, than your average citizen.

As Jane Austen observed, “One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.” Same with interests. Here is a snippet from the Letters column of my favorite papo-paleo-con magazine, Chronicles:

The Catholic Church teaches that, by and through the hypostatic union, Christ’s soul possessed immediate knowledge of God from the very moment of His conception; and that, from this, He could not possess the theological virtues of faith and hope. In his book Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Dr. Ludwig Ott explains, “Christ as the Originator and Completer of Faith (Hebr. 12, 2), could not Himself walk in the darkness of faith. The perfection of the self-consciousness of the man Jesus can be explained only on the understanding that He possessed immediate knowledge of the Godhead with which He was united.” In other words, our Lord Jesus Christ knew he was the Son of God.


Got that? I quoted that because it is as far from being of interest to me as anything I have encountered in, oh, at least ten years: farther than the text of the 300-page booklet my life insurance company sends me every year to explain their policies; farther than that report from the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development that I found waiting for me at the NR office one morning; farther than the collected speeches of Kim Il Sung. Yet it’s of interest to — is absolutely fascinating to — a lot of people. I know some of them. I bet the letter writer (Jerry C. Meng of Imlay City, Mich. — Hi there, Jerry!) thinks about that stuff for hours at a time. I bet he could give you an impromptu lecture on it. I bet he knows the difference between homousion and homoiousion. (Please do not email in to tell me! I don’t want to know! For pity’s sake, please!) That’s his interest, that’s his pleasure. Jolly good luck to him.

Science is just as far away from most people’s interest as hypostatic union and Dr. Ludwig Ott’s lucubrations are from mine. And that’s fine. It’s a free country. Chacun à son goût. But don’t call me a white supremacist just because I’m curious about human nature.

Q: Isn’t all the so-called race-I.Q. research funded by outfits like the Pioneer Fund, which have racist agendas?

A: Some of it is, but so what? This is a free society we live in here. Anyone can get rich and endow research. If George Soros or Bill Gates or Teddy Kennedy or Oprah Winfrey or John Kerry or Tiger Woods, or you, want to fund some serious, peer-reviewed psychometry research, nobody is stopping them, or you. Perhaps their-/your-funded research will show a black-white gap going the other way, with black Americans 15 I.Q. points above whites. Perhaps this work has already been done on Oprah Winfrey’s dollar, and I am ignorant of the results. In this case, I should be very much obliged to anyone who can point me to them.

Look: The controversy here is not between research group A, resourced by fund X with bias M, saying this is so; while research group B, resourced by fund Y with bias N, insists no, that is not so — THIS is so!

That’s not the structure of the controversy. The structure of the controversy is: research group A, resourced by fund X with bias M, saying this is so, while a mighty host of journo-school grads, law-school grads, and liberal-arts department heads — yes, and even a few careerist, tenure- or office-seeking biologists and money-seeking, PC-compliant pop-science authors — shriek YOU MUSTN’T TALK ABOUT THAT! YOU ARE BAD PEOPLE! That’s the structure of the controversy.

It’s not as if the underlying data here, which now goes back for decades, was all assembled by twitching clubfooted racists with collections of SS memorabilia and slave manacles in their closets. The biggest single lumps of it were collected by sober establishment outfits like, for example, the U.S. armed forces.

And this whole story about researchers being lap-dogs of their funders doesn’t bear close scrutiny anyway. A couple of years ago, for example, I reported in National Review about the discoveries of human-geneticist Bruce Lahn. Lahn had turned up some variants of genes known to be involved somehow — we didn’t (and still don’t) know exactly how — in infant brain development. These variants showed strikingly different frequencies when tallied by race. Could these variants help explain race-I.Q. differences?

Not hard to find out. Assemble two groups, equalized by age, sex, income, race, and anything else you can think of, one group with variant P, the other without it, this being the only detectable difference between the groups. Give ‘em I.Q. tests. See if there is any statistically-significant group difference.

That follow-up experiment was done. The result was negative. No, these gene variants seem not to be an explanatory factor for race-I.Q. differences.

The lead researcher on that follow-up experiment that got the negative result is J. Philippe Rushton of the University of Ontario. Prof. Rushton has been a major recipient of Pioneer Fund grants, and currently heads the fund. I guess he momentarily forgot he’s supposed to be a lap-dog.

Tomorrow
, Part II: Does any of this mean anything?