Politics & Policy

Heritage Was Wrong

The think tank should have defended Jason Richwine.

As you no doubt have already heard, on Friday the Heritage Foundation accepted the resignation of one Jason Richwine, who in 2009 had completed a Harvard dissertation in which he probed the nexus between immigration and IQ.

The decision revealed a shocking unwillingness on the part of Heritage to stand up to bullying and protect the academic freedom of its researchers. Perhaps the only good thing to emerge from all this has been the wide-scale distribution of the dissertation itself, a worthy if highly debatable document. It’s a pity that none of Richwine’s detractors seem to have seriously engaged the paper, because an actual discussion of the ideas therein would be fruitful.

Conservative think tanks emerged as a parallel institution — they were intended to provide a safe haven for right-leaning academics in light of the fact that academia itself was hostile to politically incorrect thought. In this context Richwine’s dismissal seems like a scene out of Bizarro World: The dissertation earned its author a doctorate, and it bore the signatures of Harvard professors Christopher Jencks, a social-policy researcher who once sat on the board of The American Prospect; George Borjas, a labor economist; and Richard J. Zeckhauser, a political economist. And yet years after its publication it caused the resignation of its author from a conservative think tank.

Of course, regardless of its founding purpose, Heritage is a private organization and it can employ whomever it pleases. And as an ideological think tank, as opposed to a university, it arguably has less of an obligation to continue employing researchers whose past work it finds harmful to its cause. But it asks to be taken seriously in the public-policy arena as an “educational institution” — a designation that ought to imply at least a healthy respect for controversial arguments so long as they are competently executed. And Richwine’s dissertation is most certainly competently executed.

The dissertation makes two significant contributions to the immigration debate. One, it offers a detailed analysis of Hispanic assimilation as measured by IQ scores. And two, it offers a serious argument for using IQ testing in immigration policy. In addition, the dissertation takes a stance on the fraught question of whether racial IQ gaps are genetic in origin; on this Richwine’s position, that they are, is highly contestable, but it is also plausible given the current state of scientific knowledge.

This is not the place to lay out a full defense of intelligence testing — this article from 1995 remains a good starting point — but a few things are beyond dispute. One, regardless of what intelligence is, psychometricians have developed useful tests based on the idea of measuring it; a person’s IQ correlates strongly with everything from his grades in high school to his likelihood of going on welfare. Two, some groups of people perform better on these tests than others; these gaps can’t be explained by bias in the tests, they correspond to gaps in real-world outcomes, and one such gap is between Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites. And three, regardless of why these group differences exist, they do not always disappear — and sometimes they barely budge — when social conditions improve for underperforming groups.

It may be unseemly to ask what might happen with Hispanic IQ as Hispanics move from immigration to assimilation. But given the above facts, and given the reality of large-scale Hispanic immigration to the U.S., there is no denying that the answer is relevant to the future of this country.

Using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth — a massive government study whose participants take an intelligence test — Richwine compares the IQ scores of Hispanic immigrants with those of later-generation Hispanic Americans. He finds some improvement between immigrants and the second generation, but no additional improvement in the third. This finding is remarkably similar to that of Edward E. Telles and Vilma Ortiz, who studied educational achievement instead of IQ. Richwine also notes other widely known trends; for example, while Hispanic immigrants themselves commit few crimes, subsequent generations are more likely than the native population to wind up behind bars.

In short, though we are constantly assured that the current crop of immigrants will integrate into American society just as easily as previous waves did, much of the actual data on Hispanic assimilation provide reason for concern. The addition of IQ scores to this body of evidence is helpful.

Richwine also suggests using IQ tests in the immigration process. I was initially skeptical: We know we want immigrants with skills, immigrants with education, etc. — why not just base our policy on these factors directly, rather than using IQ as a proxy? With so many powerful groups clamoring for massive low-skill immigration, a policy favoring immigrants with high levels of skill and education will be difficult enough.

But Richwine makes a strong moral case for taking IQ into consideration rather than relying exclusively on skills and education. IQ would give the world’s poor a chance: Someone living in a Third World country may not have access to training or high-quality universities, but with an IQ test he can demonstrate his ability to become successful. This delicately balances two competing goals — the goal of bringing in immigrants who will be a net benefit to the U.S., and the goal of helping the world’s poor improve their lot in life.

Politically unlikely? Sure. But a better and more humane idea than it might initially seem. And the implications are not restricted to the U.S.; many countries already have immigration systems based on skill, and the incorporation of IQ testing would be an improvement.

Of course, none of this is what bothered Richwine’s critics. What they objected to was Richwine’s argument that “the totality of the evidence suggests a genetic component to group differences in IQ.”

To be sure, it’s arguable that Richwine should have avoided the subject, and not just for reasons of political correctness. He admits this argument isn’t crucial to his thesis — regarding immigration, what matters isn’t whether differences are genetic, but whether they improve over time, a related but not identical question. Further, research into group IQ differences has typically focused on the black–white gap, not the gap between immigrants and American natives — and “Hispanic” is an ethnic rather than a racial category, making any inquiry into the effect of genes incredibly difficult. As a result, Richwine presents evidence that has to do with whether racial gaps in general might be genetic, not whether the particular gap between Hispanic Americans and their native peers is.

But is the argument really outside the realm of legitimate academic discussion, and is it “racist”?

In my own view, we don’t yet have a good picture of how genes, intelligence, and race interact. We certainly know that genes and intelligence are related and that race and genes are related, but it’s hard to say more with confidence. On the one hand, IQ gaps are fairly consistent around the world, and they have proven stubborn in the face of dedicated efforts to erase them. On the other hand, IQ scores are clearly influenced by things such as culture, poverty, and so on, and groups’ scores sometimes change over time.

To make reaching firm conclusions even more difficult, much of the debate takes place at an incredibly technical level, with experts arguing back and forth about physiological differences between races and complex patterns in the IQ data. Even James Flynn, the scientist who documented the fact that IQs are increasing over time and who believes there is no genetic component to racial gaps, recently told the New York Times: “Take it from me, the evidence is highly complicated. . . . The best we can say is that it is more probable that the IQ gap between black and white is entirely environmental in origin.”

These sorts of debates are resolved by having scholars take different views, conduct research, and make their case, confident that their current and future “educational institutions” will not punish them for doing so. Indeed, today genome research is progressing at a rapid clip, with scientists worldwide making fascinating discoveries almost constantly. (Soon, I hope, this work will render the research Richwine cites, much of which is decades old, obsolete.) The Left would like to cut this process off, expelling from polite society — with the help of a conservative think tank in this case — any researcher who dares to defend the hereditarian view.

The Left’s labeling of Richwine’s argument as “racist” is especially dangerous. In modern America it is axiomatic that “racism,” whatever it is, is wrong — and this is a good thing. It therefore is a mistake to define racism to include falsifiable hypotheses in addition to racial hatred. If Richwine’s view is racist, what are we to do if it turns out to be correct?

I am doubtful that a serious discussion will emerge about any of this. But we have learned something important here: Harvard professors will go where the Heritage Foundation fears to tread.

— Robert VerBruggen is a deputy managing editor of National Review. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen.

Editor’s note: This piece has been corrected since its original posting. In fact, Christopher Jencks is no longer on the board of The American Prospect.


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