Posted on May 10, 2005

Philippe Rushton Haunts Us Still

CBC, May 4

In 1989, I was at a scientific conference in San Francisco trolling through reports of papers to be given, when I came across a press release describing how a University of Western Ontario professor was going to present evidence about the relationship of race to a whole range of human behaviour. Perhaps I should say a pandemonium of human behaviour.

The paper was going to report that Asians were, on average, bigger-headed, smarter, less promiscuous and more loving of their children, less criminally minded and better organized than Caucasians because Asians evolved later. Caucasians, Prof. Philippe Rushton would maintain, were in turn, on average, bigger-headed, smarter, more family-oriented, less criminally minded, less promiscuous and better organized than Africans because Caucasians evolved later.

Uh-oh, I said to myself, I do believe I see a ‘s_ _ _storm comin’. However, after I interviewed Rushton and wrote up something, I ran into a decidedly censorious desk person. “Can’t we just ignore this,” he said.

“Rushton’s giving the paper, lots of reporters will be there, what he says is going to become a social fact. We can’t ignore it,” I answered.

“I don’t know, space is tight,” said the clueless editor, and the Globe and Mail didn’t cover the event until a week later, when it had turned into the media circus and social controversy I had predicted. Eventually, there were protests on the UWO campus, the premier of the province called for Rushton’s firing, police looked into the possibility of charging him with hate crimes, and for a while he had to lecture students by video.

All this gives you some context for the latest round in the controversy over the relationship of race to behaviour — and most specifically, race to intelligence. Professor Rushton, along with equally contentious University of California professor of education Arthur Jensen, has published a data-stuffed 60-page paper in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Psychology, Public Policy and Law. It details minutely where we stand, at least in the authors’ opinions, when it comes to racial markers for intelligence.

The pair argue that the paradigm that Prof. Rushton proposed more than 16 years ago — Asians testing smarter than whites, whites testing smarter than blacks — continues to be true despite all efforts everywhere in the world — but particularly in the United States — to efface the differences.

The recalcitrance of what you might call the IQ gap leads them to the conclusion that 50 per cent of the IQ differences one sees between the races is due to genetics and 50 per cent is due to environmental causes.

Mindful of the societal atom bombs that this sort of statement released in the past, the journal has allowed five psychologists to respond to the big paper, and then allowed the two authors to respond to their responders.

There is so much to-ing and fro-ing that it is hard to encapsulate all the debate, but essentially the arguments boils down to Rushton and Jensen mounting an Alp of evidence that says: however you slice, define or classify it, race-based genetics has a discernable, non-erasable effect on intelligence.

Those who ignore it are not just unscientific but, in a way, undemocratic. “Denials of any genetic component in human variation, including between groups, is not only poor science, it is likely to be injurious both to unique individuals and to the complex structure of society,” Rushton and Jensen write.

Against this is the view that the race-based IQ data is nowhere near as clear as Rushton and Jensen say it is, but beyond that there is so much social garbage at play that anyone who argues for genetics-based racial mental superiority is at the very least naïve and at the most knavish.

“Rushton and Jensen’s entire article is based on race as having meaning in other than theirs or other people’s imagination,” writes Yale University psychologist Robert Sternberg dismissively.

What I find interesting about the race/intelligence debate is that it doesn’t seem to want to resolve itself. Every decade of the last 30 years it has re-emerged, with similar angry voices on both sides.

Clearly, the argument remains contentious in part because the political fallout of the hereditarian thesis — even if it just talks about racial averages — could well be a stereotyping that is repugnant to a fair-minded person. This once led Harvard sociology professor Nathan Glazer to ask “whether the untruth is not better for American society than the truth.”

But I have a solution, a view that in a way I never thought possible puts me in league with that clueless editor of yore. I think we should ignore this debate until the debaters actually have evidence that everyone must agree on.

The main reason the dispute goes on and on is simple: we don’t have any genes for intelligence. Not one. We don’t have actual correlations between variations of those genes and anyone’s performance in business, or school, or anywhere. We don’t know how those gene variations — in science talk, alleles — are distributed in races.

Everything is inferential.

We have dozens upon dozens of tests that claim to be able to measure “g” — the term psychologists use to describe a generalized intelligence — and hundreds of questions about what they are in fact measuring.

But the genetics of intelligence isn’t a wobbly psych test. It isn’t a statistical argument. It is something physically real.

And so I say to Philippe Rushton and Robert Sternberg, and everyone else in the debate, go away and don’t come back until you have genes to show us. Our mental space is tight, and we don’t have room to absorb anything else, until it is — as much as things ever are in science — irrefutable.