IQ and society

Mike Berger writes on the current debate on some of the most controversial issues in the field


In my last column I ended with alleged sex and racial differences in IQ (the 'g'- factor) on the table for discussion. Along the way I mentioned in passing a number of controversial issues in the field ranging from whether (1) a general intelligence, a so-called g-factor - or at least a limited number of sub-g factors - actually existed, (2) whether they were at least partially heritable, (3) whether educational, nutritional and similar interventions could affect 'g', (4) whether 'g' was important and, finally, (5) whether the heritable component of 'g' could be entirely eliminated by environmental interventions.

Research strongly suggests 'yes' to numbers 1-4 and a possible 'no' to number 5. Issue 4 definitely holds true at least in modern times and probably to a variable extent in all Homo sapiens societies from hunter-gatherer to complex democracies. I don't want to oversimplify these conclusions. Intelligence is a remarkably subtle and complex field and work is on-going on all aspects from various perspectives.

But the focus here is on how do these issues get played out in the context of two major ideological splits in Western society which, for convenience, we'll call 'progressive' and 'conservative' despite the fact that neither term is adequate. A finer-grained resolution would reveal significantly different flavours within each group and the extremes of each resemble each other more than the centrist or moderate opinions within each broad camp. To get some idea of the tone of the debate, even between experts I will draw upon 2 recent events.

In November 2007 The Cato Institute (Cato Unbound) invited a small panel of IQ experts to comment on the topic "The IQ Conundrum" which can be found here. The lead essay was by Flynn of the well-know and, often misunderstood, 'The Flynn Effect' referring to his demonstration of a steady improvement in IQ noted in many populations, especially those from developing countries, over a number of decades.

His conclusion was that it is impossible to know whether 'environmental/educational/cultural' influences do not underlie the apparently innate component of 'g' and thus to claim innate differences between 'races' is premature and prejudicial. That seems a perfectly legitimate position to take and so was the rebuttal by the well-known 'g' theorist, Linda Gottfredson who argued that the Flynn effect didn't, and couldn't, overcome the innate differences documented though the gap may lessen significantly with time and appropriate existential changes.

Eric Turkheimer, a Professor of Psychology, disagreed. In his own words: "Ceci and Flynn, while expressing their skepticism about the possibility of genetic differences between the races for IQ, agree that the question is a legitimate matter for scientific inquiry, to be settled by cool-headed evaluation of the empirical evidence. I disagree. I contend that:

1. The important questions about the role of genetics in the explanation of racial differences in ability are not empirical, but theoretical and philosophical, and,

2. When the theoretical questions are properly understood, proponents of race science, while entitled to their freedom of inquiry and expression, deserve the vigorous disapprobation they often receive."

In short, Turkheimer argued that questions regarding innate differences between races are inherently racist and should be shamed out of existence by decent society. Ceci believed only in the first proposition, that such questions are inherently offensive and potentially racist, but wouldn't go so far as to discriminate against those (he calls them the 'IQ mafia') with dissenting opinions. Gottfredson will have none of that and insists that work on innate differences, individual or racial, is neither racist nor offensive but potentially helpful. She argues that physical and behavioural differences between peoples may well be partly genetic (as well as cultural, historical and environmental etc) but that science can mitigate many of the negative effects.

If you skip forward a decade to 2017, the same set of reactions were encountered in the context of a podcast interview between Sam Harris, a noted philosopher-communicator, and Charles Murray, co-author with Herrnstein of the (in)famous book "The Bell-Curve" published in 1994. In the book these authors discussed the classical bell-curve of IQ scores in different populations, including the evidence for racial differences in scores. They were agnostic on whether such differences reflected innate or environmental-cultural differences.

Sam Harris in his wide-ranging interview with Charles Murray endorsed both the residual uncertainty of the current science but treated Murray as an authentic scholar and not as a closet bigot as Murray had been depicted by media and academic activists. That was too much for Turkheimer, Page and Nisbett, all ardent 'environmentalists', who published a response in Vox under the headline "Charles Murray is once again peddling junk science about race and IQ".

To complete the 3rd leg of the triangle, Richard Haier a noted neuroscientist specialising in intelligence responded in Quillette in which he took on the motivations and arguments of the TPN trio concluding with the words " Let’s be prepared to go where the data about intelligence take us in this exciting field and encourage more discussions like the Harris/Murray podcast along with informed and respectful disagreements." It is ironic in view of this plea, that Haier was forced to publish his dissenting view in Quillette and not in Vox because the latter refused to publish his reply to Turkheimer et al.

That closes this column but I'll try to take up some loose ends next week. I have provided references in the text for those who would enjoy following up some of the original work. For a broad readable review on evolution and human diversity see Winegard and co-authors here.

Mike Berger