About That Dissertation
On being the media’s villain of the week

Jason Richwine


Jason Richwine

On Tuesday, May 7, I had one of my most productive days as an employee of the Heritage Foundation. Our big report on the fiscal cost of amnesty had just been released, and I packed in 18 radio interviews to promote it.

I expected more of the same on Wednesday. Instead, I found myself unplugging my office phone to avoid pesky reporters, trying in vain to do any real work, and watching helplessly as a public-relations crisis sprang up around me. Two days later I would resign.

I’m telling this story not because I want or expect pity for my personal situation. Rather, it’s important for people to understand how hostile the political class can be toward scientific facts that make them uncomfortable. That discomfort is what caused a mainstream policy analyst to be rebranded overnight as a bigoted extremist.

Although my Ph.D. dissertation was about immigration, I was hired by the Heritage Foundation in 2010 to be a jack-of-all-trades quantitative analyst. I worked a little bit on immigration during my time at Heritage, but I developed a specialty in public finance — fair-value accounting for student loans, public-pension reform, teacher compensation, etc.

My frequent co-author Andrew Biggs and I have gotten some press for demonstrating over and over that generous pensions push public-sector compensation above fair-market levels. A teachers’ union in Texas even put us on its “Top Ten Most Wanted” list. But even as we attracted this attention, I could still see people’s eyes glaze over when I told them it was based on accumulated benefit obligations using fair-value discount rates.

Given all my wonkery, it felt especially strange to be suddenly characterized as an extremist. That happened on Wednesday morning, when the media first reported on my 2009 Harvard dissertation. Entitled “IQ and Immigration Policy,” the dissertation obviously deals with some sensitive topics. Media reports grabbed short quotes from the text and presented them as shocking. Some bad words started getting tossed around: eugenics, racism, pseudoscience, and, of course, extremism.

So what is actually in the dissertation? The dissertation shows that recent immigrants score lower than U.S.-born whites on many different types of IQ tests. Using statistical analysis, it suggests that the test-score differential is due primarily to a real cognitive gap rather than to culture or language bias. It analyzes how this cognitive gap could affect socioeconomic assimilation, and it concludes by exploring how IQ selection might be incorporated, as one factor among many, into immigration policy.

I got into all of this because I found the science of mental ability to be fascinating. I wanted to learn more and think about what lessons it might hold for public policy. Doctoral students are told to pick a topic they’re sincerely interested in, since they’ll be stuck with whatever choice they make for three years or more.

I was not so naïve as to think my topic wouldn’t generate controversy. But individual quotes from my dissertation are much more understandable when placed in their full context. For example, this sentence on page 66 has been widely circulated: “No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.”

I don’t think someone reading my full dissertation would find this statement objectionable, for two reasons. First, as Chapter 1 makes clear, the simple existence of ethnic differences in IQ is scientifically uncontroversial. (Skeptical readers should consult the American Psychological Association for confirmation.) Such differences are revealed by tabulations of test scores and calculations of arithmetic means. Their existence is no more debatable than the widely publicized ethnic differences in SAT scores. What the differences mean and what causes them are the interesting issues, which I discuss at length.