Defending the Study of Race and IQ

Cornell University psychologists Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams defend the study of group difference in IQ against Steven Rose in today's Nature. Ceci and Williams' view is pretty much my own. They argue that, as often as not, claims about group differences in innate cognitive ability can be proven to be untrue. Actually debating the issue, and discussing the best new research, does more to defuse harmful misconceptions than a censorious egalitarian refusal to even publicly contemplate natural inequalities. Moreover, an ethos of punishing political correctness is inconsistent with the norms of open inquiry upon which communities of scientific discovery depend to produce new knowledge. 

Of the James Watson imbroglio, Ceci and Williams write:

Watson's first assertion could be read as scientifically supported: black Africans' IQ scores are lower than those of white Europeans. But Watson's use of 'intelligence' was interpreted as meaning 'intrinsic cognitive ability', ignoring how unfamiliarity with testing format, low quality of schooling, or poor health might depress IQ scores. There have been analyses showing average national IQs for sub-Saharan Africa to be approximately 30 points lower than average IQs for predominantly white European nations, and drawing a racial conclusion from those results1, 2. A refutation of these analyses would provide an opportunity to advance understanding. Sadly, although these analyses can be refuted, as we and others have done3, most of those who scorned Watson never knew they existed.

They go on to discuss interesting new work that is blowing away old stereotypes about the mathematical abilities of women:

Regarding gender, no one now claims women are unable to excel at complex maths: 48% of US mathematics majors are female, and women earn higher maths grades than men throughout schooling5. The maths gender gap among the top 0.01% of students, which 30 years ago favoured males 13-to-1, now favours males only 2.8-to-1 (ref. 5). Some nation's women (including those in Singapore and Japan) outscore US males on maths tests by an amount far larger than the gender gap within the United States5.

So, vigorous debate has resulted in great progress in our understanding, and more breakthroughs will come — if we allow free speech in science. 

The fact that that the gap between males and females at the top .01% has narrowed so dramatically so quickly is extremely strong evidence for the claim that prior gaps were a reflection of widespread sexist assumptions about female capacities. The clear implication of this kind of rapid convergence is that it is mistaken to take today's snapshot of the distributions of various cognitive skills as indicative of innate or natural difference in capacities. Given a little more time, and little more erosion in sexist social expectations, we might find that females are as good or better than males at things like math — long thought to be a special male strengths. And the same argument applies just as well to preferences. One can't take current patterns of occupational self-selection as dispositive evidence of “natural” differences in men's and women's preferences given the rapid past and current shifts in the gender composition of many occupations.

Here's Cato Unbound's debate on the science and politics of IQ, featuring James Flynn, Stephen Ceci, Linda Gottfredson, and Eric Turkheimer.

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