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The Sullivan-TNC race/IQ debate

Two of my favorite bloggers, Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nehisi Coates, have been going at it over race and IQ. Links here, in chronological order: AS: The Study of Intelligence, in which Sullivan says that science proves that there is a correlation between race and IQ, but we can’t talk about it because of “p.c. egalitarianism”. […]

Two of my favorite bloggers, Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nehisi Coates, have been going at it over race and IQ. Links here, in chronological order:

AS: The Study of Intelligence, in which Sullivan says that science proves that there is a correlation between race and IQ, but we can’t talk about it because of “p.c. egalitarianism”. Excerpt:

The right response to unsettling data is to probe, experiment and attempt to disprove them – not to run away in racial panic. But the deeper problem is that the racial aspects of IQ have prevented non-racial research into intelligence, and how best to encourage, study and understand it.

TNC: The Race-IQ Blackout. A response to this. Excerpt:

Advocates of the “p.c. egalitarianism” theory, such as Andrew, evidently believe that the notion that black people are dumber than whites is a cutting edge theory, as opposed to a long-held tenet of slave-holders and white supremacists. They present themselves as bold-truth tellers who will not bow to “liberal creationists.” In fact they are espousing firmly established views that date back to the very founding of this country. These views did not emerge after decades of failure of social policy. Indeed they picked up right where their old advocates left off; within five years of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Arthur Jensen was convinced that black people were intellectually addled.

Back to AS: The Study of Intelligence, Ctd. Excerpt:

The differential between Caucasians and Asians – or between Ashkenazi and Sephardim Jews – is also striking in the data. And notice that my sole interest in this is either to counter what would be an injustice (affirmative action) or pure curiosity. I don’t think any serious critic of my work could conjure up a defense of compulsory sterilization or slavery within it. And the notion that I have an “obsession” with this is bizarre. I thought it worth airing the discussion a decade and a half ago and I think it’s worth airing today.

Then TNC: “The Bell Curve Through the Veil”. Excerpt:

On the broad question — Should researchers be free to explore the nexus of race, IQ and intelligence? — Andrew and I are in harmony. Onward, indeed. Where we differ is the following: Andrew, like most conservatives who write about race, is more concerned with a vague p.c. egalitarianism than the forces that birthed such things. (Unlike “political correctness” those forces can actually be quantified, and their impact demonstrated.)
That his contention has long been linked to one of the ugliest strains of American thought, that it continues to be linked to actual white supremacists, is not particularly troublesome to Andrew. But that others might find it troublesome is deeply distressing. I don’t charge Andrew with defending slavery or sterilization. I charge him with bumbling through the ICU, tinkering with machinery, and wondering why everyone is so uptight and stuff.

Then AS: The Study of Intelligence, Ctd. Excerpt:

Well, yes, I do tend to get concerned when politics cramps research and when certain facts are suppressed. And the subtle but clear differences in IQ between broad racial groups are a reality – across country and continent and world. They do not only persist when controlling for economic class, on some measures, they increase. Now, this is only the first baby step in the discussion, but it strikes me as the most important one. And it is this finding – staring right out at us from vast amounts of data that no one disputes – that prompts the question: why? At least that’s what I can say for myself. I had no interest in this subject until I saw the data in Murray’s and Herrnstein’s book. I was, frankly, astounded by it. As a highly educated person, I had never been exposed to this data. And yet, it turned out it was undisputed. Merely the interpretation of it was open to real and important debate.

I hope I’ve got these in proper chronological order. It’s hard to do when Sullivan posts so many entries daily. But you get the gist of the debate.

I find that I’m divided, but tend to lean more toward TNC’s viewpoint. To be sure, you should read the commenter who e-mailed Andrew to say this:

Many of the scholars who open study IQ differences amongst races are racist and shoddy in their scholarship. But that’s because there’s a selection effect: only they have the motivation to continue this research. Respectable and normal scholars avoid it. Who wants to be rude? How many people noticed that James Watson endorsed Obama and is a conventional liberal otherwise? E. O. Wilson has the same views as Watson on IQ and race, but keeps quiet about it, and is greeted with acclaim in his dotage because he does keep quiet (his views are clear if you go to Google Books and look up “E. O. Wilson” and “Rushton”).

More broadly the silence of scholars due to social norms means that most educated people are totally ignorant of the 1 standard deviation IQ difference between blacks an whites, and that the average black American scores at the 15th percentile in relation to the average white American. Perhaps these facts should be suppressed, I don’t know. But they sure have been.

And yet, I am more sympathetic to TNC’s viewpoint because I can’t get around the uses to which the study of racial differences and intelligence was put in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the eugenics movement. The eugenicists weren’t all racists in the way we understand the term. Eugenics was thoroughly mainstream science, embraced by progressives (Teddy Roosevelt, Margaret Mead, et alia) who thought this science would help us improve humanity. Christine Rosen’s fascinating work on the relationship between religion and eugenics in that era shows that all the progressive religionists embraced eugenics as morally good, but the “backwards” fundamentalist Protestants and the Catholics opposed it. It was only when the Nazis showed what the focus on race and intelligence could lead to that the study of these things was discredited.

Sullivan understands that just because the Nazis made bad use of this stuff doesn’t make it untrue, or unimportant. I get that. But I keep coming back to a point that seems to be the one TNC is making: of what use is this field of study, anyway? Where do we propose to go with it? Andrew’s view is that it’s worth knowing for the reason all truth is worth knowing, and pursuing. In an abstract world, that makes sense. But we don’t live in a world of pure disinterestedness. If I were a geneticist, I doubt I would want to work in this field, only because the experience of the 20th century, especially the Holocaust, makes me deeply mistrustful of what human beings will do with the scientific knowledge that this race is intellectually inferior to that race, and we can prove it genetically.

The only possible good I can see coming out of it is to knock down affirmative action programs as unjust — but you don’t need genetics to do that. The possible evils coming out of it? Legion.

Then again, I believe there is a such thing as forbidden knowledge — that is, knowledge that ought to be suppressed, for the greater good of all. Read Roger Shattuck’s brilliant study of this topic for more.




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