A Reply to John McWhorter

(Illustration: Sergey Khakimullin/Dreamstime)
We shouldn’t obsess about race and IQ, but we should openly discuss it.

In his provocative piece in the latest print edition of National Review, Professor John McWhorter considers and ultimately rejects the social value of having an open discussion about cognitive differences among population (i.e., racial) groups. McWhorter maintains that the evidence for such cognitive differences is not yet conclusive, but says that even if it were, the issue would not be worth openly discussing. We applaud McWhorter for being charitable toward those who have written about the issue over the past few years. While we respectfully disagree with him on several points, we wholeheartedly share his commitment to free speech and appreciate his effort to have a good-faith discussion about this topic.

Before addressing McWhorter’s specific arguments, we think it is worth emphasizing that one of the reasons this subject has reemerged in the last few years is that many journalists, politicians, and public intellectuals — almost exclusively on the political Left — have sounded a continual call for an “open dialogue about race” while simultaneously policing the boundaries of any such discussion. As Professor McWhorter has cogently observed in past writings, many of those demanding an “open dialogue” really want to see white men go through a ritual purification in which they atone for their “privilege.” Public discussions of race seem to go in one direction and focus almost exclusively on the pernicious effects of bias. Bias is the only variable permitted to account for racial differences in outcomes.

Professor McWhorter is right, however, that evidence of group differences in something like cognitive ability is distinct from evidence pertaining to variation in other measurable outcomes. (Some genes have been found that connect specific diseases to particular groups, for example, and these traits are less complicated to study than a highly polygenic trait like intelligence.) As McWhorter suggests, we value things like sports — where differences in performance across groups also emerge — but as a topic of discussion this is far less incendiary. Intelligence seems to carry additional moral baggage that makes discussions difficult, despite the fact that it predicts so many important outcomes. As a result, the possibility of discovering even small cognitive differences between groups (much less what their sources are) could upset our worldview dramatically.

But we think Professor McWhorter is wrong to conclude from this that the science of group differences should not be part of a public discussion. Here’s why.

First, a concern for the truth is not confined to the academy. While many people prefer to watch reality TV and read gossip magazines rather than reading the latest book on evolutionary biology, plenty of people outside of the scientific community strive to understand how the world works. The popularity of television programs such as Cosmos and Planet Earth or magazines such as Discover and Scientific American suggest that at least some non-academics really do want to get the answer right, if for no other reason than the intrinsic satisfaction of grounding their beliefs in the best available evidence. As a result, we in the academy have an obligation to promulgate the best evidence we have on a given subject.

Second, while McWhorter is right that some people might become complacent about helping members of a group they see as having, on average, less intelligence than some other group, this argument is not decisive. Our reactions to facts can change based on the values we internalize. Culture really does matter, and as Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer have argued, much of our recent moral progress has been driven by culture, not genes. Whatever we discover about group differences, we should promote a culture of tolerance and oppose racism as a matter of principle.

Finally, we think there are serious moral dangers associated with avoiding public discussions of group differences. Chief among these are that since people will always speculate about what creates differences between groups, the discussion will be left to racist cranks like David Duke and Kevin MacDonald if journalists, podcasters, and popular-science writers dutifully avoid the subject. Duke and MacDonald have gained popularity in part because scientists and public intellectuals have avoided openly engaging with the empirically testable claims that they make about the sources of group differences. One can (and should) lay waste to the vacuous and dubious moral proclamations of demagogues like Duke and MacDonald, while still engaging with actual empirical questions in an honest and scientifically rigorous manner. Our bona fides as impartial scientists demands it.

To not talk about this openly is to run the risk of damaging our credibility among the lay public. Think of the moves that have been made so far in this debate in years past. First, there was an attempt to dismiss intelligence tests as culturally and racially biased; they are not. Second, there have been attempts to dismiss the idea that intelligence tests measure “real” traits (qualities of neurological functioning); they do. Third, there have been efforts to deny that individual variation in intellectual ability can be partly explained by genetic differences between individuals; it can be, and it is. (We are pleased, however, that no one in the most recent debates of this topic denies any of these points. Nor do they deny that scores differ, on average, across groups.)

Let us be clear: While we believe that in some instances and for some traits (but most assuredly, not all them), group differences are not likely to be purely environmental in origin, we are willing to admit that we may be wrong. Let’s assume that within a decade, we have a rather definitive answer to the question, suggesting that genetic differences play zero role in creating group differences for this, or any other trait. We will admit publicly that we were wrong in our thinking, and life will move on. That is science, and that’s how it should be.

Now, presumably, we want the lay public to come along with us. We want to convince them that we have considered all sides of the debate, weighed all of the evidence, openly debated it, and arrived at a careful, empirically tested consensus. How can we do that if the public sees us trying to shroud this debate in secrecy? How can we hope to say, “Look, we shouldn’t talk about this,” and then, in five or ten years, say, “Look, that topic we didn’t want to talk about, well it turns out the debate is over”? They would rightly want to challenge us; they would want to be read in to the evidence on file.

Science is a public endeavor. We are not a private clergy dispensing wisdom as we see fit. If we want any hope of convincing well-meaning truth seekers, we have to talk about this openly.

Science is a public endeavor. We are not a private clergy dispensing wisdom as we see fit.

It is true that openly discussing evidence for group differences may give some comfort to racists who want to misuse the data as an excuse for persecuting others. Yet that comfort is illusory. There is no good excuse for persecuting others, and no empirical finding could offer cover for that.

Evidence that group differences arise from more than just cultural factors may even reduce animosity by providing us with a more satisfying explanation than the alternative hypothesis that a group’s success can be explained only by theft, privilege, or oppression. For example, there is some evidence that the exceptionally high IQ of Ashkenazi Jews might be influenced by more than just environmental factors. This may help explain how Jews have achieved so much success in cognitively demanding occupations. As Steven Pinker has argued, surely the argument from biology is better — from both a scientific and a social standpoint — than the argument from sorcery or covert conspiracy.

Ultimately, we can engage in multiple aims and missions. We can explore truth openly. And we can also embrace the classical-liberal values of the freedom and dignity of every human being, despite any average differences among the groups they are members of. With that in mind, we once again thank Professor McWhorter for pressing this debate forward, and prompting us to think carefully about our arguments. When a democratic republic and an open academy are working well, this is what it looks like.


John McWhorter: Stop Obsessing Over Race and IQ

Why I Write about Race and IQ