Race and Biology
Race Is Not Biology
How unthinking racial essentialism finds its way into scientific research
May 23 2013
During the past two weeks, much outrage has arisen over former Heritage Foundation staffer Jason Richwine's Harvard doctoral dissertation, which speculated that IQ differences between "Hispanic" and "non-Hispanic' populations were genetically rooted. The claims mirrored those of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's scurrilous The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, which made similar claims about the intelligence of blacks. (Murray receives thanks in Richwine's dissertation acknowledgments and wrote recently in National Review Online in defense of Richwine.)
The fury continues. In the past couple days, a group of scholars has circulated a petition excoriating Harvard for approving the dissertation and condoning scientific racism in the process. Their petition situates Richwine within an odious lineage stretching back to the era of eugenics and charges that his work rests on shoddy intellectual foundations. (These scholars are right: the late J. Phillipe Rushton, best known for claiming associations among race, brain size, and penis length, is cited by Richwine.) A group of 1,200 Harvard University students has also put together their own petition.
Medical literature (and uncritical reporting about it) is replete with other examples that perpetuate the notion of biological race as a key factor in disparate disease outcomes.
But the attacks on Richwine are missing something far more insidious than neo-eugenic claims about innately inferior intelligence between races. The backlash against Richwine and Murray, after all, gives some indication that their views are widely considered beyond the respectable pale in the post- Bell Curve era. Richwine and Murray are really extreme branches of a core assumption that is much more pervasive and dangerous because it isn't necessarily racist on the surface: the belief in biological "races." This first assumption is required to get to claims like Richwine's, which argue that between Race A and Race B, differences exist (in "intelligence" or whatever else) that are grounded in the biological characteristics of the races themselves. Public outcry always greets the second Richwine-Murray-esque claim. But the first assumption required to reach it is more common and based on as shaky an intellectual foundation, even as it continues to escape equal scorn.
Even so, the critique of biologically innate race is hardly new. In 1972, the Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin famously observed more genetic variation within populations than between them, undercutting the case for fixed and timeless genetic boundaries that demarcated "races." A basic grasp of American racial history shows that today's commonly accepted racial categories -- what the historian David Hollinger calls the "ethno-racial pentagon" - have hardly looked that way during the nation's history. As I wrote in a 2007 piece, "the numbers, names, and members of respective races are always in flux. Go somewhere else on the planet or step back a century, and you'll likely encounter a different racial schema all together," pointing to the Dillingham Commission of the United States Congress, which wrote a century ago: "Some writers have reduced the number of such basic races to 3, while others have proposed, 15, 29, or even 63." The Commission went with five."
But since that piece, the belief in the intellectual validity of racial biology has persisted, along with claims about specific outcomes allegedly associated with distinct "races," including disease rates, physiological abilities, or intelligence. ("Intelligence" is the only one of the outcomes, it seems, to land one in trouble, as Richwine learned.) Disease information sheets available online and in physicians' offices are one common means of reinforcing the notion of biological races. For example, the popular site WebMd.com notes that "Caucasian and Asian ancestry" is a risk factor for developing osteoporosis, which elides the enormous heterogeneity (genetic and otherwise) that actually exists within the "Caucasian" and "Asian" classifications. Another WebMD fact sheet on hypertension similarly declares that "high rates of high blood pressure in African-Americans may be due to the genetic make-up of people of African descent." Just last week, in a news story accompanying actress Angelina Jolie's op-ed detailing her preventive mastectomy, three New York Times reporters wrote: "Mutations in BRCA1 and another gene called BRCA2 are estimated to cause only 5 percent to 10 percent of breast cancers and 10 percent to 15 percent of ovarian cancers among white women in the United States.
The mutations are found in other racial and ethnic groups as well, but it is not known how common they are," unintentionally accepting the premise that traits and characteristics of bounded racial and ethnic groups might contribute to differences in disease incidence among them. The medical literature (and uncritical reporting about it) is replete with other examples that perpetuate the notion of biological race as a key factor in disparate disease outcomes. (Elsewhere, NYU sociologist Ann Morning, in her fascinating The Nature of Race: How Scientists Think and Teach about Human Difference, has documented other channels through which biological notions of race are disseminated.)
In the past decade, a small but growing sub-field, anchored in multiple disciplines, has begun criticizing the unthinking racial essentialism that finds its way into scientific research more frequently than one might think, especially in medicine and public health orbits. One exemplar is the article " "Racial Categories in Medical Practice: How Useful Are They?" which appeared in PLOS Medicine. Its authors first review the degree to which common conceptions of race have in fact historically shaped by administrative imperatives (not biological reality). They then issue a warning on the use of race as a proxy, writing that "once race is presumed, the ways in which multiple genetic inheritances interact with the environment within that individual seem to disappear. Clinical clues can become invisible."
The dangers are not hard to see. Belief in innate racial predisposition to a disease may short-circuit examination of non-genetic factors behind a racially classified individual's condition, or in the population at large, health disparities between commonly understood racial groups. At its worst, it may lead to compromised patient care. The PLOS Medicine writers warn that for clinicians specifically, "rapid racial assessment is an attractive means to figure out what to do with a presenting patient. But we argue that even if there are short cuts for the medical interview, race is not a good one. There is, in the end (in addition to noting physical symptoms), no substitute for an inquiry into family history, an assessment of current circumstances, and knowledge about the biological and cultural histories of specific populations serviced by a particular treatment center."
The critique has not been easy to mount as biological notions of race are embedded in American thought. Drexel University's Michael Yudell and Brown University's Lundy Braun (one of the authors of the PLOS article) have completed two important forthcoming books showing just the extent. Yudell traces the notion throughout the twentieth century, demonstrating its remarkable resiliency even in the face of periodic challenges inside and outside formal scientific worlds. (A distilled article version of his book is here). Braun's work, meanwhile, examines a specific case: the history of lung function measurement and the entrenchment of different diagnostic criteria for different "races" - a practice called "race correction," in turn premised on the belief in biological race. In a recent disturbing review of almost a century's worth of pulmonary research, published in the European Journal of Respiratory Research, Braun and her colleagues found that biological-racial explanations for differences in lung faction are common, though they also found a fair share of articles with environmental explanations as well. The biological-racial strand of explanation, they note, is not just history:
While the view that races and ethnic groups differ in the capacity of their lungs is widely accepted in pulmonary medicine, the continued practice of explaining racial and ethnic difference in lung function as rooted in inherent and fixed anthropometric difference has important health policy implications. Importantly, it could divert attention from much-needed research into the physiological mechanisms by which specific social and physical environments influence lung function.
In the end, calling Jason Richwine a scientific racist may be morally satisfying and justifiable intellectually. But it doesn't begin to touch on the wider and much more common commitment to biological race that is necessary in the first place before one argues for "racial" superiority or inferiority. Scientific racism, in other words, requires scientific race.
In and of itself, the biological race concept does not necessarily lead to claims of racial superiority or inferiority. But it certainly can lead there, or less malevolently, can obfuscate a complex litany of explanations for explaining observable population differences. Those condemning Harvard over Richwine would do better to avoid low-hanging fruit and instead turn their attention to those around them who accept common assumptions about race and biology. The latter have much more in common with Jason Richwine than might appear at first glance. And given the pervasiveness of talking in terms of "race," we all may be more complicit than we think.
The Inside Story of a Harvard Dissertation Too Racist for the Heritage Foundation
How Jason Richwine finally found a place to explore his absurd theories linking IQ to race at the elite university.
May 22, 2013
The idea that some racial groups are, on average, smarter than others is without a doubt among the most discussed (and debunked) “taboos” in American intellectual history. It is an argument that has been advanced since the days of slavery, one that helped push through the draconian Immigration Act of 1924, and one that set off a scientific firestorm in the late 60s that’s hardly flagged since.
Yet every time the race and IQ hypothesis reclaims the public spotlight, we are caught slackjaw, always returning to the same basic debates on the same basic concepts.
The recent fracas sparked by Dr. Jason Richwine’s doctoral dissertation is a case in point. The paper is a dry thing, written for an academic audience, yet its core claim, that Latino immigrants to the United States are and will likely remain less intelligent than “native whites,” has proved proper tinder for a public firestorm. The Heritage Foundation’s Senior Policy Analyst in Empirical Studies is now a former Senior Policy Analyst — Heritage could not risk further tainting an immigration report it hoped would be influential by outright defending its scholar’s meditations on the possibly genetic intellectual inferiority of immigrants from Latin America.
It might seem like the book is closed on l’affaire Richwine: he’s left his job, Heritage is left with a black eye, and not a single mind has been changed about the value of research into race and IQ. But there’s still one major unanswered question.
If the dissertation was bad enough to get him fired from the Heritage Foundation, how did it earn him a degree from Harvard?
A popular answer among Richwine’s defenders is that, quite simply, it was exemplary work. Richwine’s dissertation committee was made up, by all accounts, of three eminent scholars, each widely respected in their respective fields. And it is Harvard.
But dozens of interviews with subject matter experts, Harvard graduates in Richwine’s program who overlapped with him, and members of the committee itself paint a somewhat more textured picture. Richwine’s dissertation was sloppy scholarship, relying on statistical sophistication to hide some serious conceptual errors. Yet internal accounts of Richwine’s time at Harvard suggests the august university, for the most part, let serious problems in Richwine’s research fall through the cracks.
Richwine Goes To Harvard
By his own account, Jason Richwine came to the Harvard Kennedy School deeply fascinated with the link between race and IQ. Richwine told The Washington Examiner’s Byron York that, as an undergraduate at American University, he fell in love with Charles Murray’s work on the topic. Murray, who will became an important player in Richwine’s story later on, is one of the authors of the infamous The Bell Curve, the 1994 book whose claims about the genetic roots of the black/white IQ gap set off the most famous public food fight over race and IQ. Richwine describes Murray as “my childhood hero.”
People that knew Richwine at Harvard describe him as an introverted, but kind, man. “He was a quiet and thoughtful person,” said Anh Ngoc Tran, a contemporary of Richwine’s at Harvard who now teaches at Indiana University. “[Richwine] was friendlier to international students,” Tran said. Another contemporary of Richwine’s echoed Tran, saying Richwine was “not really all that outgoing. Always a really nice guy.”
Tran took pain to distance Richwine from accusations of racism. “I don’t think he is racist,” Tran told me. “His wife is an immigrant.”
After the first two years of coursework, PhD candidates in Public Policy at the Kennedy School move away from group classes toward individual research. That means taking comprehensive exams (“comps,” in grad student lingo) to show you’ve mastered the course material. After comps, you start work on a dissertation, a piece of original scholarship that’s supposed to demonstrate the candidate’s ability to produce research at the level expected of an expert in the field. Dissertation topics are determined in conjunction with a primary advisor, who goes on to become the “chair” of a three-person committee that determines the candidate’s fate. The topic is finalized in a formal “prospectus” outlining the research agenda.
Richwine’s chair, as listed in his dissertation, was Professor George Borjas, a prominent, if controversial, economist. A Cuban immigrant himself, Borjas was a natural fit for Richwine’s dour assessment of mass Latino immigration: he’s the nation’s leading academic immigration skeptic, famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for arguing that immigrants to the United States are likely to be unskilled drags on the US economy. One of his most influential articles, a1987 paper called “Self-Selection and the Earnings of Immigrants,” argued that countries with more income inequality than the United States are likely to send over “low quality” immigrants— meaning people lacking the skills to march up the economic latter — as unskilled laborers lead a more prosperous life here than in their home countries.
However much Borjas emphasized the skills, or lack thereof, of Latino immigrants in his own work, he knew and cared little about their IQs. “I have never worked on anything even remotely related to IQ, so don’t really know what to think about the relation between IQ, immigration,” he toldSlate’s Dave Weigel. “In fact, as I know I told Jason early on since I’ve long believed this, I don’t find the IQ academic work all that interesting.”
It’s then perhaps odd that Borjas put up little resistance to Richwine’s proposed line of inquiry. “Jason had the topic fully formed in his mind before he talked to me,” he wrote via email. “I played no role in topic selection or forming the research agenda.”
This line raised eyebrows among some scholars familiar with social science dissertations. Dan Drezner is a Professor of International Politics at Tufts’ Fletcher School, an institution that’s somewhat similar to Harvard’s Kennedy School in character, who’s been following the Richwine case closely. “If I’m an advisor, and I have a student that comes to me,” Drezner said, “the last thing I would do is say ‘write this.’” They key issue is “how well formed was Richwine’s argument when he came to Borjas?” Students should come up with their own dissertation topics, Drezner said, but if an advisor didn’t sufficiently challenge them on whether it was a good, well-thought out program, that could be a problem.
What’s a “Hispanic?”
Some experts in the fields Richwine’s dissertation covered, judging from the final product, had harsh answers to Drezner’s question. “The committee was wrong to approve [Richwine's dissertation] and to accept the prospectus,” wrote Diego A. von Vacano. Von Vacano is a professor at Texas A&M University whose research focuses on Hispanic identity. After he wrote aharsh review of Richwine’s work on the academic blog The Monkey Cage, I got in touch with him to see if he could clarify the nature of his objections.
Von Vacano’s basic critique centers on Richwine’s definitions, or lack thereof, of the terms “Hispanic,” “white,” and “race.” The most grevious of Richwine’s errors lies in his account of the first: the lack of a meaningful definition of “Hispanic” dooms the dissertation’s ability to draw rigorous conclusions about the people he’s chosen to study.
There’s enormous debate about just what “Hispanic” means and who counts as one in any meaningful sense. Richwine’s third chapter, titled “Hispanic IQ,” treats this debate in the most cursory of fashions. This is the chapter’s full definition of the term Hispanic and defense of its use:
Over 56% of immigrants living in the U.S. in 2006 were Hispanic — that is, born in either Mexico (32% of total immigrants), Central American [sic] and the Caribbean (17%), or South America (7%)…Hispanics are not a monolithic group either ethnically or culturally, but the category still has real meaning. Hispanics can be of any race, but they are most often “Mestizo” — a mixture of European and Amerindian background. Mexico, for example, is 60% Mestizo (LV 2006, 241). Hispanics also share ethno-cultural tendencies that are different from the majority Anglo-Protestant culture of the United States (Huntington 2004, 253-255). Most come from Spanish-speaking nations with cultures heavily influence by Catholicism. And many Hispanics choose to identify themselves as such, as the existence of groups like the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the National Council of La Raza (“the race” or “the people”), and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus readily demonstrates.
Von Vacano sees this as fatally inadequate. “Any serious work at the doctoral level on these issues (even if mainly quantitative or policy-oriented),” he told me, “requires a substantive component of analysis from the qualitative, historical, cultural, normative, and theoretical perspectives (at least one or two dissertation chapters).”
These are not merely scholarly niceties: what Richwine means by “Hispanic” is critical to the success of both of his two core arguments. First, to prove that “from the perspective of Americans alive today, the low average IQ of Hispanics is effectively permanent,” he needs to show that one can speak meaningfully about“Hispanic” IQ. Richwine needs this claim to be true for the entire third section of his dissertation, the one that spells out the dangers of low IQ Hispanic immigration, to succeed. Establishing the negative consequences of Hispanic immigration means first establishing there’s such a thing as “Hispanic immigration” in a scientifically useful sense.
Because Hispanic identity is so hotly contested among scholars of race and ethnicity, that means both providing a clear account of why people from an arbitrary set of geographic locations are homogenous enough for generalizations about them are meaningful, controlled social science. Richwine fails to do so.
First, Richwine asserts Hispanics are mostly some “Mestizo” mix of Native American and European, making them genetically similar. But in the unnerving world of race and IQ research, what mix they are matters. Richwine believes that “socioeconomic hierarchies correlate consistently with race all across the world” because some races are biologically smarter; “there are no countries,” he writes, “in which ethnic Chinese are less successful than Amerindians.” It stands to reason, on his theory, that “mixed” Hispanics with more European or Asian DNA will be concomitantly smarter, on average, than more heavily Amerindian or African ones. But Richwine doesn’t attempt to show that the mix of racial DNA inside any one “Hispanic” subgroup is consistent enough for generalization, let alone the category as a whole.
That’s because it’s not. Even a cursory examination of research on Latin American genetics uncovers an impossibly complex genetic admixture, one that varies widely from country to country or even region to region. To take one simple example, the average percentage of identifiably African, Native American, and European DNA among Brazilians varies widely by region(although some definitions of “Hispanic” would exclude Portuguese-speaking Brazil, Richwine’s includes it). Hispanic immigrants to the United States come from a bewildering array of countries, each with its own particular internal diversity. As von Vacano puts it, “there is no literature that can meaningfully support the idea that ‘Hispanic’ is a genetic category,” let alone one that can be equated with the colonially-superimposed “Mestizo” identifier.
Second, Richwine asserts that Hispanics share a similar culture that’s distinct from so-called “Anglo” culture. Richwine’s only support for this claim is a citation of Samuel Huntington’s Who Are We?, a book that warns of a wave of Hispanic immigration irrevocably altering American culture for the worse. Huntington’s claims about Hispanic inability to assimilate have been subjected to serious quantitative challenge, but more to the point, citing a polemic tract about immigration does not constitute explaining what the purportedly unified Hispanic culture is and why the fact that it involves a lot of Spanish-speaking and Catholicism might be seen as allowing one to make generalized claims about the group.
This is especially egregious when the scholarly consensus is that there is no obvious unified Hispanic or Latino culture. As the introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Modern Latin American Culture puts it, “as all the chapters [in this book] reveal, any search for a communal ‘Latin American’ culture has remained an elusive, somewhat quixotic idea.” This, again, is because Latin American countries vary widely — compare Mexico to Brazil to Costa Rica to Argentina and find extraordinary differences in wealth, social norms, political systems, and ethnic backgrounds. Indeed, the vast diversity among “Hispanic” societies should be obvious even to someone whose only experience of these cultures involves dining out: Mexican chile rellenos are not Cubano sandwiches, which definitely are not Argentine steak platters.
Finally, Richwine notes that Hispanic immigrants to the United States have a sense of shared identity, but, again, it’s not explained why that allows one to make generalizations about group IQ, let alone the genetic component thereof. It’s just simply asserted, without any explanation of who shares the shared identity — Cuban-Americans, for example, have a different view of their American experience than Salvadoreans — and why that’s relevant.
Why do defintions matter if Richwine succeeds in showing a deep, persistent difference between so-called “Hispanics” and “whites?” Aside from the fact that it makes it impossible to figure out the scope of the dissertation (are Mexicans of largely European descent likely to have low IQs? What about African-descendent Brazilians?), consider a simple analogy. Suppose I test people who like to wear red hats and people who like to wear blue hats, and find the red-hatters have consistently higher IQ scores than blue-hatters. It’s highly unlikely that hat preference itself explains the gap; more likely, it’s something else that’s correlated with being a red-hatter or a blue-hatter or potentially a statistical artifact — a consequence of a few really smart red-hatters or some spectacularly dumb blue-hatters.
Substitute “white” and “Hispanic” and the point becomes clear. Without a proper definition of what he means when he says Hispanic, we have no way of evaluating the role that immigrants’ “Hispanicness” — whether that means shared genes, culture, or national background — plays in determining their IQ. Put differently, in order to know whether and how being Hispanic matters for IQ, we need to know what it means to be Hispanic. That, in turn, makes it impossible to evaluate how meaningful Richwine’s conclusions about the persistence of the IQ gap are or how they apply to any particular group of immigrants.
Someone may disagree with these arguments. But, according to von Vacano, they require a response. Richwine simply pretends they do not exist.
Harvard On The Potomac
After setting off down his research path, Richwine needed to assemble a committee to evaluate his work. Dissertation committees are best thought of as a sort of Venn diagram of expertise. A dissertation is supposed to be original scholarship, work that, once completed, makes its author a leading expert on a very specific topic. No one professor is likely to know as much about every subfield used to get to the candidate’s very specific conclusion, so committee members are supposed to fill in each others’ expertise gaps.
Borjas, as we’ve seen, filled the largest part of the Venn Diagram given his expertise on the economics of Latino immigration. The second committee member, Richard Zeckhauser, is an economic polymath who’s published on an impressively bewildering array of public policy topics. The thread that ties them together is his interest in sophisticated quantitative, economic analysis of public policy issues, making him ideally suited to check Richwine’s complex econometric and statistical work.
There was a consensus among academics I spoke to that the analysis of immigrant IQ test data and other aptitude metrics, as well as his economic model of the effects of low IQ immigration — the quantitative work, essentially — were the best parts of Richwine’s dissertation.
“Jason’s empirical work was careful,” Zeckhauser wrote. “Moreover, my view is that none of his advisors would have accepted his thesis had he thought that his empirical work was tilted or in error. However, Richwine was too eager to extrapolate his empirical results to inferences for policy.” Borjas has made similar remarks, suggesting “none of the members of the committee would have signed off on it if they thought that it was shoddy empirical work.”
With Borjas and Zeckhauser on board, at least one critical area of Richwine’s Venn diagram remained unfilled: race and IQ. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, that’s where the story gets complicated.
Richwine did not do his dissertation research at Harvard. That’s actually fairly common in the Public Policy PhD program. One source familiar with the program told me that students often only have university-provided stipends for the first two and a half years of the program; after that, they work as teaching assistants or find external grants or scholarships to make up the money gap.
That’s when Richwine went off to study at with his “childhood hero” Murray at the American Enterprise Institute. The mechanics of how Richwine ended up with a fellowship at the prestigious conservative think tank aren’t quite clear; Richwine remembers a meeting with Murray in Cambridge leading to his eventual post at AEI, but Murray told me he doesn’t quite recall the process by which Richwine made it to Washington. It doesn’t surprise him, though, that Richwine was thrilled to be at AEI. “I’m Charles Murray,” he said. “I’m sure that Jason wanted to work with me.”
“I mean, come on.”
Murray’s work, particularly The Bell Curve, features prominently in Richwine’s dissertation. Richwine calls Murray “my primary advisor,” noting that “no one was more influential than Charles Murray” on the final product. Steven Durlauf, an economic methodologist at the University of Wisconsin familiar with IQ research, reads this as an acknowledgement that Murray “was de factothe main advisor” in place of Borjas. But even then, Murray didn’t see Richwine in person all that frequently. “I don’t have an office [at AEI]. They pay my salary,” but he generally works remotely.
Murray certainly had more of an influence on Richwine than the student’s third formal advisor, Christopher “Sandy” Jencks. A longtime veteran of the race and IQ wars, Jencks’ position in the controversy is quite different from Murray’s. Unlike Murray, a “hereditarian” who believes genes explain a great deal of the demonstrated gap in IQ scores between black and white students, Jencks is an “environmentalist” who believes circumstances, not genetics, basically explain the score gap.
“My views about both test scores and politics are very different from [Richwine's],” Jencks told me archly.
Jencks was a “late addition” to the committee, meaning, he clarified, that he didn’t start working on Richwine’s dissertation till after he left for Washington. “He was at AEI at the time,” Jencks said, “so I did not see much of him.” The professor’s role was also fairly limited: “I was asked to serve as a third reader, read a draft, and made extensive comments about what should be done to improve it.” But, as Jencks remembers it, Richwine didn’t heed all of his advice: “He made some of the changes but not others.”
Depending on the importance of these criticisms, this could be a serious problem. “If you’re on the dissertation committee, and you say ‘you’ve gotta change this, this, and this,’ and the student doesn’t do it,” Professor Drezner told me, “then that is a red flag.”
Jencks didn’t clarify exactly what his criticisms were. But independent review of the section on race and IQ suggested some serious problems with Richwine’s approach.
IQ Isn’t Everything (Or Even Close)
“No academic institution would hire him based on this,” said Professor Warigia Bowman.
Bowman graduated from the Kennedy School Public Policy PhD program in the same year that Richwine did. She knew all of his advisors, some quite well: she was Borjas’ teaching fellow in an introductory economics course, studied analytic methods with Zeckhauser, and had encountered Jencks in passing. Bowman has the utmost respect for all of them.
“They’re extremely generous people, they’ve always been kind to me…they’re known internationally as academic scholars.”
But she thinks that, in this case, they missed some serious errors. “I can only imagine that they were so dazzled by the empirics that they overlooked many of the flaws in the text.” Essentially, the quality of mathematical and statistical analysis in Richwine’s work hid some major conceptual shortcomings in his treatment of IQ.
Bowman, now an Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service who specializes in African Science and Technology policy, is close to this debate. An attorney as well as a scholar, she worked on immigration law before becoming an academic. She’s also, in her words, “an African-American woman who’s the child of an immigrant of African descent.”
Her basic point is that Richwine’s treatment of his opponents, particularly critics of Murray’s work, is “selective, narrow, and cherry-picked.” For instance, she notes, Richwine cites a 1996 American Psychological Association (APA) report called Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns as representative of a “general consensus” about the “fundamentals” of IQ, but fails to cite or respond to subsequent criticism of the APA report by relevant experts.
This is a particularly troubling omission. Professor Diane F. Halpern is the only person to have coauthored both the 1996 report and a 2012 paper attempting to revise its conclusions to reflect the last 15 years of research on intelligence. Halpern isn’t a stranger to taking controversial positions on genes and intelligence: in her book “Sex Differences and Cognitive Abilities,” shewrote that there is “good evidence that biological sex differences play a role in establishing and maintaining cognitive sex differences.”
Yet recent research has swayed her in the opposite direction on the biology of intelligence. “It seems safe to conclude that low socioeconomic status limits genetic contributions to intelligence, which means that poor children do not develop their full genetic potential,” she wrote, “a finding that took me some time to accept and understand.”
Some of the most persuasive research supporting this new consensus comes from Professor Eric Turkheimer. Turkheimer and his colleagues conducted several analyses of data on twins, perhaps most famously in a 2003 study that analyzed twin performance on IQ tests using a model that separated out genetic and environmental differences inside and between pairs and then mapped the results onto the soci-economic status of the children. Turkheimer and company found that among poor twins, virtually no variation in IQ could be attributed to inherited traits, but among wealthier ones, a significant portion was. This suggests that poverty and material deprivation uniquely overwhelm any genetic component to IQ, artificially depressing IQ among disadvantaged children. Turkheimer’s research is supported by a wealth of direct evidence about the way in which stress and pollution in early childhood can stunt brain development.
Richwine doesn’t cite Turkheimer’s research. Though he’s forced to concede that similar work has demonstrated “environmental factors significantly affect IQ development when the environment is dire,” he dismisses this potentially damning critique of his persistent IQ gap — after all, most Hispanic immigrants to the United States are from far poorer countries — by saying there’s nothing you can do to fix a damaged IQ. Citing Murray and several other “hereditarian scholars, he suggests that all interventions to raise IQ have been proven to have no meaningful long term effects.
“That’s mistaken,” says Professor Richard Nisbett.
Nisbett is one of the world’s leading experts on intelligence. A co-author of the “new consensus” paper with Halpern, he’s well positioned to comment on the academic appropriateness of Richwine’s omissions (Richwine wrote a strident, but genial, critique of Nisbett’s 2009 book. Nisbett appeared unaware of this review until I mentioned it after our substantive conversation).
Nisbett believes the evidence amassed in recent years that IQ can be improved is overwhelming. “There are lots of interventions for very young children that increase IQ enormously,” he says. Though “the gains [in IQ test results] typically fade,” as Richwine suggests, “the very best interventions [to improve IQ] have colossal effects” for the rest of a child’s life.
He rattled off an impressive list of findings: these interventions “reduce by half the likelihood of being put back a grade in school…they increase the likelihood of graduating high school by about 20 percent, and they increase the likelihood of four year college by a factor of three. They increase the likelihood of making over two thousand dollars a month by a factor of four and they reduce by half the likelihood of being on welfare as an adult.” So even if the scores on IQ tests don’t change all that much down the line, the benefit of raising IQ scores at the right time in a child’s life appears to be enormous.
So a deep body of work since 1995 suggests IQ either is being raised permanently by these interventions in a way that isn’t showing up on tests, or IQ doesn’t matter nearly as much as Richwine thinks. But instead of grappling with this work, which obviously presents a serious challenge to his core thesis that “new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children,” Richwine is mostly content to outsource his conclusion to Charles Murray’s view circa 1994.
But what about Richwine’s dire warnings about an America plagued by an influx of low-IQ people? Richwine blames low IQ for everything from high crime rates among young “Hispanics” to increased rates of social distrust between Americans to labor market disruptions. In one particularly cringe inducing section, he posits that the reason for Hispanic “underclass” poverty is a combination of welfare-induced laziness (a point he takes as given, citing only Murray in support and no dissenting views) and low IQ.
Showing that that low IQ immigration would be likely to have any one of those consequences would be a difficult scholarly accomplishment, but Richwine’s seeming ambition to make a comprehensive case against mass immigration proved his undoing. In prioritizing breadth over depth, Richwine skated over a wealth of research throwing up a significant roadblock for his conclusions: the question of how much IQ matters for life outcomes.
On the basis of several relatively crude correlations, Richwine treats a person’s IQ as an almost-perfect guide to someone’s prospects for success in life, relying heavily, once again, on Murray’s work in The Bell Curve. While it’s clear that the sort of intelligence IQ measures matters, particularly when you’re comparing two people from similar backgrounds (the higher IQ sibling in a pair, for example, is likely to do better), there’s simply no reason to think IQ matters enough to provide the juice for sweeping theories about the life prospects of entire groups of immigrants.
“There was no excuse for saying that kind of thing in 2009,” Nisbett said.
James Heckman would likely agree. Professor Heckman, an eminent economist at the University of Chicago who worked with Borjas when he was a post-doctoral fellow there, is an expert on the role that intelligence and other traits play in helping people succeed. He wrote a paper with Tim Kautz last year called, “Hard Evidence of Soft Skills,” reviewing the last several decades of research on the topic. As you might guess from the title, it’s not good for Richwine.
Experts generally think that, roughly, a “Big Five” set of psychological traits — Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism — are key predictors of how well someone will do in life in terms of income, college graduation and so on. These traits can matter as much or more than IQ on some measures: a 2006 paper by Heckman and others found that personality tests were, statistically speaking, better predictors of career choice, criminality, and teen pregnancy (among other important things) than “cognitive” metrics like IQ scores.
These findings make intuitive sense. No matter how good your brain is at crunching numbers, you can still make bad choices if you’re lazy, anti-social, or overly neurotic. Conversely, people who work hard and well with others don’t have to be cognitive geniuses to succeed. As Nisbett told me, “there are prominent people with IQs in the 90s.”
The research on personality helps explain a puzzle I raised earlier: why do early childhood interventions, as Nisbett says, appear to improve children’s chances in life over the long term while only providing a temporary boost in IQ scores? As it turns out, you can teach kids to work harder or get along better with others. Heckman summarizes a number of studies to make this point, but perhaps the clearest were two studies where children were tasked with accomplishing a series of attention-heavy computer tests. They found higher conscientiousness scores among the kids who were given these tasks than a control group. Once again, more advantaged, better educated kids have a huge leg up.
On the basis of this research, Heckman finds Richwine’s attempt to use IQ to predict the consequences of Hispanic immigration beyond outdated. “Hispanics have an amazing work ethic…and they are achievement oriented,” Heckman wrote, in a statement that admittedly smacks of some stereotyping of its own. Richwine’s argument “sounds like a worn out restatement of eugenics from 100 years ago.”
Heckman’s view is and has been the dominant one for quite some time. “IQ fundamentalists,” a term Nisbett steals from Malcolm Gladwell, just are “not well informed” about what most economists and psychologists think about habits of mind and personality that make people succeed. They operate out of “a silo,” the same one from which Jason Richwine took the grain he used to make his meal.
These critiques hardly exhaust the criticisms one could level at Richwine’s treatment of Hispanics and IQ. We could get into the fact that Richwine posits a partially-genetically lower Hispanic IQ despite the fact that there’s not a single study of the role genes play in “Hispanic” IQ scores, let alone one that supports Richwine’s theory. We could get into the fact that his samples of Hispanic immigrants are rather small, leading him to supplement with national-level estimations of Hispanic IQ — principally from Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen — that rely on small, outdated, andculturally biased datasets that oftentimes aren’t even from the relevant country, divined instead from the “known IQs” of a country’s “racial groups.” And even that terrible data, according to The American Conservative publisher Ron Unz, doesn’t itself support the idea that Hispanics have lower IQs.
But the point is clear enough. Whether or not you think Richwine’s conclusions about Hispanics and IQ are defensible — and the relevant research suggests that they are not — it’s clear that he didn’t defend them well enough.
Richwine finished his dissertation in his fourth year at Harvard, while he was working out of AEI. That’s not unheard of, but it’s faster than the Kennedy School average. “It can be done with some sacrifice to quality or depth,” one Kennedy School alum told me.
There were ample opportunities to revise his conclusions, beyond the normal give-and-take advising process Borjas described when we corresponded about Richwine. All Kennedy School Public Policy PhD students are given a chance to revise a full draft of the dissertation before final approval; in some instances, one source familiar with the process told me, they get “sent back to the drawing board.”
It’s unclear what happened at this stage. Richwine could not be reached for comment, and his professors won’t say. “I feel extremely uncomfortable disclosing personal and critical advice that I gave Jason or any other student in the privacy of my office,” Borjas said.
But here’s what we do know. Jason Richwine received a PhD from Harvard University for sub-standard research, work that makes strong assertions on a charged topic based on poorly defined concepts, incomplete and misleading summaries of opposing arguments, and bald analytic overreaches.
Is this enough to say Harvard was wrong to award him his dissertation? While some, like von Vacano, say yes, others urge more caution. Professor Durlauf, for one, says “the dissertation committee members should be presumed to have acted in good faith.”
There’s no reason to believe they didn’t. Every independent expert who wanted to speak on the topic praised the program. “Harvard’s Kennedy School is a very serious place and has trained some outstanding scholars,” said Professor Dan Black at the University of Chicago. “I hold their Ph.D. program in very high regard.”
The same went for his committee members. Even those harshly critical of Richwine’s dissertation agreed they were kind people and highly-regarded scholars.
And as for Richwine, the overwhelming sense you get from reading his work and speaking to his acquaintances is that he was, as odd as this sounds, a well-intentioned naïf. We’ve all met the type: someone so airily focused on their own passions and interests (in Richwine’s case, Murray-style hereditarian work on race and IQ) that they miss the broader social forest for the trees.
“I think what happened was that he tried to make an academic argument but did not foresee this [racism] problem,” his friend, Professor Tran, told me.
Whatever one thinks about Harvard or Richwine, the real lesson here goes beyond both of them.
Even if Richwine’s dissertation, despite all of its errors and omissions, was “good enough” to earn a passing mark, it’s emphatically not “good enough” to make a real contribution to our knowledge about the intersection between race and IQ. The scholarly errors in his research are too pervasive and severe.
Beyond the failure of craft, however, is the serious harm that can result from quasi-eugenic works masquerading as serious research. Alleging that, as a group, an enormous percentage of Americans are and always will be dumber than their fellow citizens isn’t just normal academic inquiry. Richwine bemoans the lack of “social trust” purportedly created by American diversity, but few things could undermine the shared bonds of citizenship more than widespread belief among one “race” that others are so unintelligent that more of them can be let into the country.
This isn’t a theoretical point. Throughout American history, the so-called science of race and IQ has been used by the powerful to demarcate “good” citizens and separate them from the “dangerous” ones. Minorities and minority immigrants in particular have borne the brunt of these attacks, as Ta-Nehisi Coates demonstrates by simply quoting the words of anti-immigrant advocates against themselves. Much as Richwine may sound like a disinterested scholar, his work does not occur in a political or social vacuum. His own policy recommendations to limit immigration to high-IQ individuals proves it.
It is the case that, on some tests of intelligence, there are demonstrated gaps between different groups of Americans, particularly ones identified as “black” and “white.” As we’ve seen, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests these broad groups have little do with “race” simpliciter and much more to do with the environments people of certain races find themselves in. These findings underscore that careful scholarship on the sources of this gap, like Richard Nisbett’s or Christopher Jencks’, is legitimate academic inquiry and should be vigorously protected as such.
But this field is no place for dilettantes. The costs of being wrong are too high, the fearful forces fueled too powerful for race and IQ research to be judged like normal work. There needs to be a premium on conceptual precision and empirical accuracy over and above standard operating procedure, even (or perhaps especially) at a place as esteemed as Harvard. Anyone who wants to work in this area should be set to a higher standard, asked to explain what “race” means and whether it’s really what matters when we talk about IQ. It’s a bar Jason Richwine’s simplistic research never would have cleared.
Sometimes, “good enough” isn’t good enough.