A Failure to Communicate: Bret Stephens, Human Variation, and Unproductive Outrage

And we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight/Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach

A few months ago, Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist at the New York Times, provoked controversy with an article about “the secrets” of Jewish success. Stephens noted that many people explain the astonishing and disproportionate achievements of Jewish people by pointing to their high average IQ. Although he found this explanation wanting, he did contend that it was true that Jews are “smarter” than other ethnic groups and cited a 2005 article by Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy, and Henry Harpending to defend the claim.* He went on to dismiss the explanatory power of IQ and suggested that the more potent cause of Jewish success was a culturally created style of cognition that was open, creative, and dialectical. Assailing him as a eugenicist, a phrenologist, and a white nationalist, critics immediately denounced the New York Times for publishing a “bigoted” op-ed that might fuel anti-Semitism. The day after publication, the New York Times edited the piece, removing the reference to Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending’s article and most of the paragraph about Jewish intelligence and issued an apologetic statement, noting that the author did not intend to suggest that “Jews are genetically superior.”

This kind of uproar is not, of course, unique. Others such as the political scientist Charles Murray and the former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade have faced angry choruses of complaints after writing openly about human variation. The suggestion that demographic groups might differ on socially valued traits such as intelligence at least partially because of genetics so offends the sensibilities of many people that they refuse to discuss the possibility. This taboo likely presents one of the greatest challenges to modern social science and free inquiry in the 21st century. Unless we learn to discuss this topic honestly, disputes such as the one Stephens’s article ignited will be ignorant, clamorous, and ultimately unenlightening.

I

That human demographic groups (i.e. “racial” groups or “ethnic” groups or “human populations”) currently differ in their average cognitive ability (as evinced by IQ and other high-stakes test scores) is not a matter of controversy among relevant experts. What does remain disputed are the causes of such differences. Below are some quotes from mainstream articles and textbooks:

“The facts concerning racial and ethnic differences in IQ and similar test scores are clear. The causes and implications of these facts are not at all clear.” (Hunt, p. 407)

“It should be acknowledged, then, without further ado that there is a difference in average IQ between blacks and whites in the USA and Britain.” (Mackintosh, p. 334).

“The bell curve for whites is centered roughly around IQ 100; the bell curve for American blacks roughly around 85; and those for different subgroups of Hispanics roughly midway between those for whites and blacks. The evidence is less definitive for exactly where above IQ 100 the bell curves for Jews and Asians are centered.” (Mainstream Science on Intelligence, p. 14)

When first encountering evidence of gaps in cognitive ability, many people point to socioeconomic disparities among groups as an obvious cause. Although this is not unreasonable, researchers know that socioeconomic disparities cannot explain all of the group variation in average IQ scores. Other obvious explanations such as systematic racism, which are certainly important to investigate, likely cannot explain all of the variation either. There is evidence that Ashkenazi Jewish people, for example, scored high on intelligence tests and thrived in many intellectually demanding domains at times and in countries that were rife with anti-Semitism.

Despite assiduous efforts to defend an almost exclusively environmental hypothesis of group variation — a hypothesis that suggests that genes play so small a role in such differences that researchers can safely ignore them, the environment-only research program has largely been a failure. Therefore, many experts believe that the most productive research program is one that posits that both genes and the environment play a causal role in group differences. The question of interest is not so much “is it genes or environment?” But rather “what combination of genes and environment?”

Ultimately, the only way to understand better the causes and consequences of both individual and group differences, and how genes and environments interact with each other, is to do more research and discuss hypotheses and findings openly, honestly, and judiciously. And right now any attempt to do so is greeted with accusations of moral treachery that ignore the significant scientific issues at stake.

II

The Stephens kerfuffle is a relatively faithful repetition of other recent controversies about human variation in average cognitive ability, such as those that attended the publication of The Bell Curve in 1994 or A Troublesome Inheritance 20 years later. Instead of addressing empirical claims, many of the critics of these and other authors who candidly discuss human variation use morally charged language and often associate the targets of their criticism with unsavory pseudoscience and immoral political programs such as phrenology, eugenics, or white nationalism. They also often point to a supposed nexus of connections between the author and other people who were openly racist or bigoted, suggesting that if the author does not disavow and denounce those people, then he or she should be tainted by the association.

It is true that some people interested in these topics harbor and even espouse abhorrent views about race. However, this does not affect the truth or falsity of empirical claims, which should be assessed on their own merits. Such tactics appear designed to deter scholars from conducting legitimate research and to disfigure discourse by denouncing any researcher or hypothesis that has been “morally polluted” by their association with contaminated ideas and scholars.

Writing in Psychology Today, Pamela Paresky observes that —

“Moral pollution operates in much the same way as physical contamination: Not only is the polluted author’s work contaminated, anyone who cites that author’s work becomes morally polluted, too. Moral pollution is the underlying mechanism of guilt by association.”

There are at least five supposed pollutants that have corrupted research into human variation in cognitive ability: phrenology, eugenics, racism, white nationalism and “fetishisation.”

The Phrenology Accusation

Phrenology was a nineteenth century pseudoscience which purportedly allowed practitioners to ascertain a person’s characteristics by measuring the topology of his skull. This has long been discredited and is dismissed by all serious modern scientists. Oddly, however, this hasn’t prevented some critics from accusing those who discuss human variation of promoting “phrenology.” It is not clear when this criticism became popular, but it has featured prominently in attacks against this magazine after a piece was published that discussed the undisputed fact that researchers can classify skulls by ancestry at levels significantly better than chance. These attacks were so misleading (craniometry has nothing to do with phrenology) that a journalist at the left-leaning Mother Jones felt compelled to issue a corrective.

No serious scholar who is currently studying human cognitive ability or human variation is interested in reviving phrenology and the accusation appears popular simply because it associates such scholars with a practice that is obviously scientifically farcical.

The Eugenics Accusation

Eugenics has a long, complicated, and disastrous history, leading to sterilization programs and contributing to some of the Nazis’ most inhumane and conscience-shocking atrocities. First forwarded in modern garb by Francis Galton, eugenics was supposed to be the science of good breeding, a way to increase genetic fitness by encouraging the most healthy and “desirable” people to reproduce and by discouraging the infirm and “least desirable” from having children, sometimes forcibly. Although it is certainly appropriate to criticize any eugenic ideas that advocate or require state coercion, it is important to understand that eugenics and the science of human variation are two completely separate things. And there is absolutely no necessary connection between the belief that some groups differ from each other in cognitive ability and the promotion of eugenics. Like the phrenology accusation, the eugenics accusation appears designed to inflict reputational damage by associating researchers with past atrocities and failed social policies. It is only a slightly more sophisticated way of saying, “Hitler would approve.”

The Racism Accusation

It is sometimes claimed that merely broaching the topic of group differences in cognitive ability is intrinsically racist. This fallacy should be rejected. Racism is an irrational hatred or bias against individuals from a particular group simply because they are members of that group. If one rejects all Asian applicants for a position because one thinks that they aren’t creative, then that is racist. If one says that Lebron James’s political opinions are irrelevant because “African Americans are not insightful,” then that is racist. But it is not racist to assert that one group, on average, is different from another — the validity of such a finding stands or falls on the available evidence. Of course, racists may exploit such a finding for incendiary purposes, but that does not make the empirical claim itself untrue. As Steven Pinker noted when discussing Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending’s article in 2005:

“Group differences, when they exist, pertain to averages, not to individual men and women. There are geniuses and dullards, saints and sinners, in every race, ethnicity, and gender. Political equality is a commitment to universal human rights, and to policies that treat people as individuals rather than as representatives of groups; it is not an empirical claim that people are indistinguishable. Many commentators seem unwilling to grasp these points.”

The White Nationalism Accusation

White nationalism is a separatist ideology which holds that white people should be granted self-determination in a country relatively or completely free of other ethnic groups. In many modern societies, which are already racially diverse, this is a particularly pernicious political goal because it would inevitably require the coercive removal of other citizens. While empirical claims should not be challenged on moral grounds, a political ideology such as white nationalism, should be. However, as with the other accusations we’ve addressed, this one is often forwarded without evidence simply to besmirch somebody’s reputation. For example, although many white nationalists are actively anti-Semitic, Bret Stephens (who is Jewish) was bizarrely accused of white nationalism for his column on Jewish genius. And although there are white nationalists keenly interested in the race and IQ literature, just as there are sexists keenly interested in the sex differences literature, there is no ineluctable connection between white nationalism and the science of human variation, which often deflates rather than inflates pretensions to “white supremacy.”

The Race/IQ “Fetish” Accusation

Many intellectuals, even those who are sympathetic to free speech and inquiry such as Sam Harris, argue that studying and discussing this topic openly might be a manifestation of a “race and IQ fetish.” Such a line of speculation strikes us as odd. Scientists study and discuss all sorts of things that they happen to find interesting. Some social psychologists, for example, study something called implicit attitudes and there’s no reason to describe this as an fetish. Others study social dominance orientation or political bias. And still others study romantic relationships and jealousy.This is how social science works: by specialization. Furthermore, IQ has social significance that is hard to ignore. It predicts a variety of outcomes, and it may help to explain certain disparities in the United States and elsewhere. That makes it important, because the best way to address social concerns and problems is to understand them first. Self-imposed ignorance is rarely a virtue and robs the future of knowledge it could have possessed.

III

Because of how incendiary this topic has become, many academics and intellectuals have argued that we should refrain from studying or discussing variation in cognitive ability. Many more, although vaguely supportive, appear to find the whole topic a bit unsavory. Even the prominent and flamboyantly heterodox scholar, Lee Jussim, has called for a temporary self-imposed moratorium on research into the causes of group differences in IQ. We believe this is a severe though well-intentioned mistake and that such silence and abstinence are worse than the honest pursuit of the truth for at least five reasons.

Extremists Will Continue to Discuss the Topic

In the United States, the government cannot compel people to remain silent about certain topics; therefore, people are at least legally free to discuss openly and loudly whatever they desire. Racists, white nationalists, and other extremists are, of course, attracted to conversations about racial differences that, they believe, buttress their worldviews. They also have nothing to lose from violating social taboos. Therefore, a self-imposed moratorium would do nothing to stop them from discussing these issues — in fact, it would likely embolden them because the moderate voices would have left the conversation, leaving a vacuum for political race baiters and demagogues to fill.

It Will Foreclose Our Ability to Understand and Solve Problems

How do different environments affect intelligence? Scientists cannot know the extent of an environment’s impact until they control for genes. So if scientists did stop researching this topic altogether, it would severely injure their capacity to understand the causes of social and educational disparities and foreclose any ability to formulate effective interventions. It’s difficult to gauge the costs and benefits of research, but knowledge is cumulative; knowledge that researchers forswear today, like money that a person refuses to save, can prevent huge potential gains in the future. And, because knowledge allows better control of the world, researchers should err on the side of pursuing it and only refrain if there are overwhelmingly persuasive arguments to the contrary.

It Would Implicitly Endorse An Environmental-Causes-Only (ECO) Research Program

Intelligence tests of one variety or another are ubiquitous in modern society; therefore, it is impossible to escape evidence that points to disparities between demographic groups. In practice, a moratorium on investigating the causes of disparities is unlikely to hold across the board. Too many researchers — in the quest to find solutions to important social problems — would promulgate environmental-only hypotheses to explain disparities. This may not benefit environmentalists as much as they may think, since every time an environmental hypothesis is refuted, it lends implicit weight to an untested and undiscussed genetic alternative. It seems scientifically dubious, to say the least, to approach a problem with one’s hands tied. It is almost certain that in practice this self-imposed moratorium would simply be an endorsement for a self-restricted research program, one that dismisses genetic hypotheses for reasons extraneous to the evidence. And this, in the long run, is a pathway to misunderstanding, bias, and ignorance.

It Risks Increasing Group Tensions

Demographic groups do not have equal outcomes in the United States or in any other country. Some perform exceptionally well; and some perform worse than other groups. These unequal outcomes understandably lead to feverish causal speculation which can be divisive. For example, outstanding Jewish success has led to extravagant conspiracy theories about Jewish global nepotism and innate avarice. And the relatively lower success of some groups has led to accusations of ubiquitous racism and systematic oppression. Of course, if bigotry is a chief cause of social disparities, then politicians and all decent citizens should battle it indefatigably. But if it is not, then the narrative is not only erroneous but also racially and politically polarizing, predominantly blaming those in power for social ills and inequalities by asserting that a fundamental unfairness afflicts all modern societies. This divisiveness is potentially consequential and costly and is, of course, unjust to the wrongly accused. The best way to discuss and deal with demographic disparities is to attempt to understand the actual causes of them and then to deal with or accept them as the natural outgrowth of freedom. These political decisions, of course, should be a matter of informed debate, but such debate cannot occur in the absence of an honest assessments.

It Suggests that a Genetic Cause Would Be “Tragic”

Critics of human variability research often contend that there is something pernicious or unpleasant about the possibility that IQ differences among groups could be caused by genetics. And some explicitly worry that such a claim would contribute to a recrudescence of anti-black or anti-Jewish racism. A moratorium on such research is exactly the wrong way to address a valid concern. It suggests that there is something immoral about a lower than average IQ, which is absurd. Intelligence is, of course, related to important social outcomes and there is nothing noble about distorting or lying about this fact. Nevertheless, there is nothing less valuable about a person who scores lower than another on a standardized intelligence test. As Richard Haier has told Quillette in the past:

Lower intelligence is a limiting factor when it comes to education, employment, and economic success but IQ has nothing to do with dignity, friendliness, compassion, honesty and a host of other positive human attributes. Access to all the opportunities imaginable will not be effectively used by individuals with low IQ through no fault of their own. There is no rational reason to stigmatize people and every reason to provide support in everyway possible.

We cannot — and therefore should not — infer value judgments about “inferiority” and “superiority” from the fact of human variation. Plenty of other traits are important in modern societies such as self-control and empathy. All humans deserve ethical consideration because they are sentient creatures who desire happiness and detest sadness and pain. IQ scores are simply not a relevant variable when assessing moral dignity. What concerned people should argue is that racism and prejudice are wrong — not because groups are exactly the same — but because modern conceptions of ethics strongly condemn treating people as tokens of one group or another. We should strongly emphasize anti-racism, the transcendental nature of human dignity, and refuse to tie such concepts to dubious empirical claims about literal sameness.

IV

The controversy that Bret Stephens’s article on Jewish success ignited is nothing new and has repeated, with only small differences, earlier controversies sparked by Charles Murray, Nicholas Wade, and others. A chasm of understanding presently separates the mainstream media’s portrayal of these issues from mainstream scholarship. Among relevant experts, there is little dispute that demographic groups have different levels of average cognitive ability. The only dispute is about the causes of such differences, and the majority of surveyed experts favor some combination of genes and environment. Many of the most common and inflammatory accusations made against those engaged in researching this topic are erroneous and slanderous, and they are used to distort and suppress discourse, rather than to illuminate pressing moral concerns.

Given the consequential nature of the topic, it is essential that we defend the integrity of reasonable scholars who study and discuss it, rebutting unfair and slanderous accusations that function more to silence debate than to promote the truth. Any self-imposed moratorium on the science of group differences in cognitive ability would almost certainly do more harm than honest, judicious, and open dialogue. And if one considers knowledge a good in itself, then the moratorium proposal fails because it asks modern scholars to sacrifice knowledge to assuage temporary moral concerns.

We are not naive. We have been writing about this topic since 2014, and the debate has only become more fraught. Social media amplifies ignorant and defamatory accusations and facilitates their rapid dissemination. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to try to promote a healthier discourse and to encourage scientists to study these issues. As the tireless environmentalist James Flynn has stated, “I know of no alternative to the scientific method to maximize accumulation of truth about the physical world and the causes of human behavior. If scholars are to debate this issue, do we not want the best evidence possible[?] — and this can only come from science.”

The cost of indulging the worst instincts of modern intellectuals and retreating into darkness on this topic is impossible to calculate, but is likely to be large. If we allow the clamoring crowd to dissuade us from the values of free inquiry and evidence-based discourse, our descendants will lament our cowardice because it will have robbed them of one of the most crucial commodities in modern society: knowledge.

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Bo Winegard

I’m interested in evolutionary psychology, history, baseball, and poetry. Wayward graduate student of Florida State University.