A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

reader comments: IQ and Race

(note: all comments below were received before the entry was revised on 12-2-00)

26 Nov 2000 
Greetings, I found your article on IQ and race to be contradictory. You dismiss the concepts of 'intelligence' and 'race' as "mythical entities", and yet you admit having being "cured" from being a racist to some degree in your young years by meeting "truly brilliant blacks and Hispanics". In other words, you are stating that you found sufficient evidence to convince yourself that "blacks, etc.[, just as whites,] can be brilliant or stupid or in-between". But how can it be possible to dismiss evidence because it uses (more or less) nonsensical concepts and at the same time use that evidence to support the opposite view?

Furthermore, even if we don't pay attention to the fact that your former strategy was to cast doubts on the significance of the notions of 'intelligence' etc, your approach can still be criticized: you dismiss the objective studies presented in The Bell Curve in favor of your own uncontrolled and subjective observations. If you were to be consistent with this new strategy, you should have had to go back to your former mild racism once you read the stats of Herrnstein and Murray, regardless of how intelligent your students appeared to be, as the evidence presented by these authors showed to be much more grounded than yours.

Needless to say, (beware of passage a la Chris Seibol) I sympathize with your critical attitude, but it is due to that same attitude that I felt compelled to write you, in the hope that I may contribute to the improvement of your site (jokes aside, this is true).
name withheld by request

reply: Though race and intelligence are mythical, 'race' and 'intelligence' are not meaningless terms. I write about intelligence that "the myth is in thinking that only one type or set of behaviors counts as 'intelligence,'" the kind measured by standardized I.Q. tests. In explaining both myths I write "There is no such thing as a racial gene or set of genes any more than there is such a thing as an intelligence gene or set of genes." You are creating a straw man out of my position by inferring that I claim that race and intelligence are "(more or less) nonsensical concepts." I never make such an obviously false claim.

Furthermore, I venture that most people came by their racism at home, and it wasn't because they were reading books like The Bell Curve. You are creating another straw man argument when you say "you dismiss the objective studies presented in The Bell Curve in favor of your own uncontrolled and subjective observations." You well know that I only mention my personal experiences in a reply to a letter and not in the SD entry itself. My arguments there do not depend upon trying to refute their work by my "uncontrolled and subjective observations."

I thank you for your comments, however, as there are probably others who are misreading this entry. Perhaps we have set them straight.

name withheld by request replies:

27 Nov 2000 
Thanks for your reply. I certainly had misinterpreted some essential parts of your argument. However, I think I still have something to say on this topic.

It seems to me that, like Howard Gardner et al., you are claiming that intelligence is determined by processes which take place in different parts of the brain and do not have a causal relation between them. Thus, if one part were to be removed, the person could score lower on a certain type of intelligence test, but keep his/her same score in the other(s). IQ tests demand the subject a set of cognitive tasks that ask for a reaction in only one of those areas, and therefore scientists, if they are to take this tests seriously, should only be entitled to claim a measurement in just *one type* of intelligence, and not intelligence "simpliciter". But I think this obstacle can be eluded: it is theoretically possible to develop a set of tests for each "intelligence" and calculate an overall score. And I see no reason why this test should not be called a IQ test. Of course, this is not what the authors of "The Bell Curve" did, but it is a valid strategy that can be adopted by other researchers.

I'm not so sure I understand your parallel argument on race being a mythical concept. "There is no such thing as a racial gene or set of genes any more than there is such a thing as an intelligence gene or set of genes." Maybe you are saying that races are groups of people that share certain geographical, linguistic, historical, physical, literary etc. common features and that any attempt to distinguish these races between one another solely on genetic factors is impossible? Therefore, any correlation between (one) intelligence (which is genetically determined) and race (which is not) is fruitless.

But what would it happen if we were to focus only on those physical characteristics that are genetically determined and that are necessary conditions for a person to belong to a specific race. For example, an African American could not be such without a certain (to use your own examples) "skin color, shape of eyelid, color of eyes, texture of hair", and those features are genetically determined. If we couple this with the idea of the multiple intelligences test, it won't be necessarily illegitimate to speak of variations of intelligence in different races.

Now I ask, is your article about IQ and race in a restricted sense of 'IQ', or, more ambitiously, it purports to show that, however refined the notion of 'IQ', it is always fallacious to assume a causal relation between intelligence and race? My purpose was to show that there are no grounds to sustain the second alternative.

By the way, what is a straw man? (sorry, English is not my native language).


6 Jun 1999
While I found your article on IQ and race to be impassioned and insightful, I did not find it to be particularly skeptical. It is not unusual to hear about the latest medical study indicating things like "Asian men less susceptible to prostate cancer", or "black women more prone to heart disease". Yet you hear very little outcry about the racist motivations of these researches. Few extremists use these claims to fuel their claims of racial superiority. There isn't even a "Disease and Race" entry in the
Skeptic's Dictionary. Why is intelligence any different?

reply: The article is skeptical regarding using definitions of intelligence and race in terms of genetics. It is not skeptical about the utility of ethnic identities and hereditary disease. The difference is that many diseases are known to be linked to specific genes. Linking intelligence or race to a specific set of genes is quite different from linking, say, schizophrenia or sickle cell anemia to specific genes or sets or genes.

True, we don't have very good notions about what intelligence is, or how works, but the same could be said for any number of diseases, both physical and mental. What human beings do when they don't understand something is they study and examine it, under different circumstances, to see what might cause it and what conditions might affect it.

You have many excellent articles highlighting the dangers of using pseudoscience to "prove" forgone conclusions, and it is obvious how this kind of research could degenerate along those lines. But you also have a quite a few entries showing how social and political ideals, even noble ones, can prevent legitimate research, where I am afraid we find ourselves on this issue right now.

What really frightens me is this climate of political uneasiness might be delaying the day we find out some ethnic group has an increased susceptibility to some childhood disease, and is 20% more likely to suffer a mild but permanent form of brain damage...and that it can be easily averted. Far fetched, maybe...but we will never know the answer if we are not allowed the ask the question.
Tim Cuffel

reply: I guess I'm getting dense in my old age. I don't see a problem here. If minority groups are going to be shortchanged by medical research, I doubt if it will be because researchers thought it was politically incorrect to identify people as "African Americans" or "Eastern European," etc.

On the entry IQ and Race:

You say something along the lines that genes are not used for determining the race of an individual. While I admit that the question whether there are races at all is a legitimate one, the statement seems to be a bit too strong.

One can use genes (or better alleles) in order to classify a population. However, in practice it is usually easier to refer to phenotypic criteria (or what is thought to be one).

As far as I see, even Lewontin admits that there is a correlation between the traditional races and certain genes (like skin and hair pigmentation or face form), the question is whether these genes are a random sample of all human genes.

If you are interested, I could give you pointers to more recent papers on that issue, but basically message is: the question is not settled and the question is highly controversial. In direct consequence, books as the 'Bell Curve' become even more questionable.

I think the point is best described by:

" A subspecies is simply a race that has been honored with a formal name. As pointed out earlier, a species with recognized races is called "polytypic," while those without are "monotypic." Humans are obviously polytypic. [...]

Naming races is a purely subjective procedure based on two or more groups of populations attaining enough distinction to warrant recognition of the fact. However, there is no objective rule to follow in determining when enough distinction is found. Although the differences between races are objectively ascertainable facts, the number of races we choose to recognize is a matter of convenience, a cataloging device used to organize and record observed intraspecific diversity, which allows intelligible communication among students of taxonomy and evolution. " (Mettler et al.)

Though I'd disagree with the 'purely subjective' claim. If one makes statements about races, one implies populations which are distinct (with regard to frequency of alleles) from other groups. The reason for this is that there was sufficiently little exchange with other social, geographical, whatever groups in order to establish this difference and that this difference can be traced back into the past. If not, every founder effect would build a new race. I have heard that new, so called network models, have been introduced which integrate aspects of the race and of the cline approach to human diversity. If these are more useful in biology and archeology, it might settle that question eventually.

--Benedikt Rosenau

Suggested reading:

[1] Masatoshi Nei, "Molecular evolutionary genetics", Columbia
University Press 1987.

[2] Cannings, Cavalli-Sforza, "Human Population Structure",
Advances in Human Genetics 4 (1973)

[3] Kidd, Sgaramella-Zonta, "Phylogenetic Analysis: Concepts and
Methods", American Jornal of Human Genetics 23 (1971)

[4] Balazs, Baird, Clyne, Meade, "Human Population Genetic
Studies of Five Hypervariable DNA Loci", American Jornal of Human
Genetics 44:182-190, 1989

[5] Chakraborty, Kamboh, Nwankwo, Ferrell, "Caucasian genes in
American Blacks: New Data", American Jornal of Human Genetics
50:145-155, 1992

[6] Mettler, Gregg, Schaffer, "Population Genetics and
Evolution", Prentice-Hall 1988

[7] Kenneth Weiss, "In search of times past: gene flow and human
migration in the generation of human diversity" in "Biological
aspects of Human Migration", Hrsg. Taylor und Lasker, Cambridge
University Press 1988

reply: It is assumed by many social scientists that genes are used to determine "races" and that "the black race" differs from "the white race" and "the yellow (Asian) race" in some profoundly genetic way. My view is that all these categories are profoundly political and basically mythological, providing symbolic support for a variety of metaphysical and sociological beliefs.

I am sure that there are times when there are biological reasons for defining races genetically, e.g., when certain diseases (such as sickle cell anemia) or significant physiological conditions (such as inability to process alcohol) occur significantly more frequently among members of a single racial group.

Your articles are wonderful. It is refreshing to encounter such clarity of thought on the Web.

reply: Thanks. Flattery will get you everywhere, but I have a feeling there is a catch.

I wanted to bring to your attention some flawed logic in the article "IQ and Race". Although I agree Herrnstein and Murray's conclusions are erroneous, I don't believe the article does an adequate job of treating the subject.

reply: I knew it. At least my flawed logic is clear! Anyway, I would be the first to admit that I do not do an adequate job of evaluating the massive work of Herrnsteing and Murray. As to topic itself, this is one of those that I think it would better for the reader to consult the references I list than to consider my dictionary entry a comprehensive account of the issue.

In short, the article states that both intelligence and race are a "myth" and due to the fact that they are myths, any correlation between the two is invalid. Simply declaring a human characteristic a myth to disprove a conclusion you personally dislike is inadequate and misplaced among the other collections of reason in the Skeptic's Dictionary.

reply: I would agree that to declare a human characteristic a myth to disprove conclusions one finds repulsive would be an indisputably egregious logical offense. I take it as a compliment that you think I don't do this very often. However, I must disagree with your assessment of my motives. I declare the concepts of race and IQ to be myths not because I am repulsed by the notion that some races are intellectually inferior to others, but because I do not believe there is any empirical basis for the notion either that there is a gene or set of genes which constitute a person's race or that there is a gene or set of genes which constitutes a person's intelligence. Of course, I am aware that the physical features which we associate with various races are determined by genetic factors and that intelligent behaviors are likewise so determined. There is no empirical data which supports the notion, however, that genetic factors which might affect skin color, shape of eyes, or diseases such as sickle cell anemia, etc., are significant causal factors in particular types of abilities we associate with intelligence, such as musical ability, ability to reason abstractly, etc.

While the correlation between true intelligence and an IQ score has often been a subject of debate, the existence of the score cannot be argued. In addition, 'race' is a valid human characteristic which, much like language, originated from geographic isolation. The fact that "we all came from the same stock" (shared a common ancestor) is valid. This valid notion, however, does not negate the fact that there are currently many classes or kinds of individuals with common characteristics -- which is Webster's definition of race.

reply: I agree that race is a valid concept. I disagree that gives anyone carte blanche to do with that concept what they will. And I maintain that the primary use of the concept is political and philosophical, not empirical, when the issue of race and intelligence is the focus.

Given that IQ test scores exist, and that groups of individuals with common characteristics exist, it is reasonable to conclude that a correlation between the two can exist. The Bell Curve is a study of that correlation.

reply: I agree, though I think it is disingenuous and grossly misleading to blithely refer to The Bell Curve simply as "a study of that correlation."

Sadly enough, the data is valid. Black Americans, on average scored lower on the IQ test than Caucasians did, as seen by the inspection of the overlaid bell curves. What was invalid, was Herrnstein and Murray's racist conclusion that Afro-Americans scored lower due to their genetics. That is, Caucasians were purported to be smarter via superior genes.

reply: Data is neither valid nor invalid. It is either accurate or inaccurate. The use of data is valid or invalid. I am willing to accept Herrnstein and Murray's data as accurate. It is incomplete, however. When similar tests were done before World War II on black soldiers from the north and white soldiers from the south, the blacks scored higher on intelligence tests. [See Bergen Evans, The Natural History of Nonsense (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957), ch. 14, "The Skin Game."] I'm also not sure it is fair to dismiss Herrnstein and Murray as racists who claim whites are genetically superior to blacks. They seem to go out of their way in chapter after chapter to advocate improved education, training, child rearing, etc., as a way to improve the situation of blacks. The advocacy of such social action makes no sense if one believe blacks are genetically inferior; for, genetically caused inferiority is forever; socially caused inferiority can, at least in theory, be alleviated.

The error is in the assumption that the cause of the discrepancy between the scores is due to genetics. Another, and more probable reason offered by critics, is that the scores achieved on the IQ test are influenced by an individual's socio-economic status. That is, people, regardless of race, who live in poverty and lack education, won't perform as well as those who do not live in poverty. Given that a greater percentage of Black Americans live in poverty with respect to White Americans, it seems reasonable that the scores would be proportionally lower. In addition, it has been suggested that IQ tests are unintentionally biased towards Caucasians, as the authors are often Caucasian and the tests contain material unique to Caucasian culture.

reply: I agree with everything you say in this paragraph except the implication that the authors of the Bell Curve assume the discrepancy is due to genetics.

The flaw in Herrnstein and Murray's thesis is that the bell curves used to correlate IQ scores and race simply do not provide enough information to confirm or deny their theory (or the alternate theories stated above for that matter). A study to determine genetic and environmental influences on various races' intelligence would be a mighty undertaking indeed. If collected, the data would be an order of magnitude more complex than a simple pair of bell curves!

reply: What you keep calling "their theory" is what I think others have made of the work of Herrnstein and Murray, and it may even be what they believe in their hearts, but their advocacy of social programs to improve the status of blacks is inconsistent with the theory that blacks are genetically inferior and hence incapable of improvement. There are, however, many racists who pounce on stuff like The Bell Curve to promote their racist ideologies.

I believe that the "IQ and Race" entry needs to be rewritten (perhaps using the above as a template). Currently the article lacks sufficient reason to be convincing.

reply: Thanks for the suggestion. It has been revised slightly, but I am afraid you have not convinced me that the entry lacks sufficient reason to be convincing. I don't think my basic logic is flawed, though responding to your objections has allowed me to flesh out some details that might help clarify my position.

Updating the article will certainly make your excellent web site even better. I look forward to watching your site evolve.
Michael Forman

08 Jan 1997
I wrote you recently to praise your excellent Skeptic's Dictionary, I wanted then to offer a criticism of your Race and I.Q. entry, but decided against it.

However, I've returned to your site several times, and after reading this particular entry again, I felt that it was important to inform you of my dislike for, not the entry itself, but your editorializing in the entry. Specifically, your attitude toward "professional victims". Could you be more specific about whom you are referring to here? Also, your statement that "life is hard for everyone", yes...very true, but it's harder for some more than others.

reply: By "professional victims" I am referring to those people, of any race or gender, who can find just about any remark or behavior "offensive". The PVs whine about everything: if a new building goes up, they demand "tests" to prove there are not environmental poisons in the atmosphere. After the tests are done, they complain that the agency who did the tests was biased. If a remark about being the "black sheep" of the family is made, they launch into a diatribe on the evils of racism that have kept black people oppressed for centuries. If they are passed over for promotion, it is never because they don't deserve it: it is because the boss doesn't like the Irish, or women, or Hispanics. If they do not get admitted to a school or get hired for a job, it is never because they are undeserving; it is because they are "white" and "male" and don't get preferential treatment like blacks and women do. You get the point, I hope.

I apologize for sounding combative, but can you agree that it is quite easy (all too easy, in my opinion) for "white" middle class types, like you and I, to have a so-called "detached", "objective" view on matters of race relations?

reply: I don't think you sound combative, but no, I don't think I have a "detached" or "objective" view of race relations. Do you think you do?

Considering the fact that you or I never have to fear that we will be harassed by police , or discriminated against when looking for a job, or looked upon with suspicion when we enter a store, because of our skin color, don't you think that we should, if we wish to be responsible, be careful not to casually bandy about phrases like "professional victims" unless we have actually taken the time to investigate the nature of racism in this country -- as opposed to simply acknowledging it's existence and pronouncing "ces't la vie, life's hard for everyone"? Isn't this something that a consistent skeptic would do?

reply: Lucky you. I was once told by a Dean of Instruction at a College I had applied for a position at that "I was the wrong race and the wrong sex." Now, I know that this discrimination against me was not the same as that experienced by blacks and women because there was no hint that being the wrong race or gender implied I was inferior in any way. Still, you and I and other white males have other things to fear. If we travel in certain foreign places, we too can experience the "joys" of being hated because of our skin color, religion or nationality. Blacks are not the only ones who have their professional victims....women have theirs, and so do white males. There are many white males who piss and moan about everything bad that happens and blame it on "blacks" or "women" or "affirmative action", etc. They use their racism as an excuse to blow up public buildings or commit hate crimes. There are women who think physicists studied solids before fluids because of gender bias! I don't use the term "professional victims" casually...I use it with vehemence. Nobody every improved their lot in life by blaming other individuals or groups for all their problems and difficulties. I find it pathological to blame racism, sexism, affirmative action, the government, etc., for all one's problems or for all that is wrong with the world. On the other hand, I don't deny that there are legitimate cases of injustice and that those cases have every right to be heard in court (or other appropriate government agencies). Those who harass or discriminate illegally should pay for, or otherwise be made to suffer, for their behavior. It is not those who have legitimate grievances who are keeping this country from achieving a more equitable society.

I hope that I don't sound too unfair here, you clearly aren't a racist, and I am not insinuating that you are being hypocritical in your editorial comments either.

reply: You don't sound unfair. Perhaps I have not written clearly enough. It wouldn't be the first time I wrote something which seemed to imply something I did not intend. I would like to think I am not a racist but I am not sure it is possible to grow up in this culture as a white person without being racist to some degree. I have been fortunate to have taught in a mixed-race, urban community college for the past 20 years. I have come in contact with thousands of African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and hundreds from foreign countries of every race and religion and ethnic group imaginable. I was shocked at my own racist reactions when I first started teaching. I thought I was not racist. I thought I truly believed that the color of a person's skin did not matter to my judgment of him or her. Yet, I found myself acting like a patronizing moron when I first came in contact with truly brilliant blacks and Hispanics. That was twenty years ago. I now take it for granted that blacks, etc. can be brilliant or stupid or in-between (like most of us), can be liberal or conservative or mixed politically (like most of us), etc. But even though I feel I have been fortunate enough to work with people of all races and know firsthand that race is not a good indicator of intelligence, kindness, sociability, insanity, or any other social or moral trait, I would hesitate to declare that I know I do not harbor any racist views. I just read of a disturbing study (at least it was disturbing to me) about tests for implicit racism. People who thought they had no racist views, nonetheless tested in ways that indicated racism and sexism were lurking beneath the surface of consciousness. (The study is mentioned in the book Searching for Memory by Daniel Schacter, pp. 189-190--the study was done by P.J. Devine in 1989.)

I simply think you are just not taking into account that one's view of race relations (and other social issues) can be distorted by one's economic status and the social circles one dwells in, as well as other factors. Your complaint that there are too many demands for rights and not enough acceptance of responsibilities also illustrates my point; it's easy to hold forth about responsibility when your responsibilities do not include feeding your children with a pittance income.

reply: I see. What you would like is a different editorial.

Another example of this distorted view I'm trying to describe is evident in your praise of President Clinton's campaign to reduce teenage pregnancy. On the surface this campaign seems all well and good, but if one were to review the facts on this issue one would see that teenagers are hardly the problem:

-The overwhelming majority of teenage pregnancies are caused by sexual predators aged twenty-one and over. -People aged twenty-five and under are the lowest risk group for unplanned pregnancies in America, the highest risk group is thirty year olds. -Teenagers are the lowest risk group for HIV, the highest risk group is thirty year olds.
(Source: The Dept. of Health and Human Services, Planned Parenthood, and The Nation magazine's Alexander Cockburn, if I remember correctly)

This whole anti-teen pregnancy campaign is nothing but a piece of red meat for Christians to chew on, it's an empty political slogan (sorry for the hyperbole, couldn't help myself).

reply: You are probably right about Clinton, but I still think reduction of teen pregnancy would be a step in the right direction. Teen pregnancy more often than not probably means impoverishment for the infant. I am sure you are aware that there is a serious social problem with teen-age pregnancy among blacks. Who is getting the girls pregnant is part of the problem, but it seems a bit blind and misleading to say that "teenagers are hardly the problem." Like it or not, this is a moral issue as much as it is a social and economic issue.

But it's easy to hear an issue like this and accept it without question, it happens to the best of us, in absence of the facts, it's all too easy to accept the word of someone whose done the work for you, like a reporter. But the problem is that many reporters are quite content to accept the official line on an issue, because they're too lazy to check facts. And it's even easier to accept these stories when you have even less to go on in terms of one's knowledge of, or experience with, lower income youth.

reply: You certainly have read a great deal into a single phrase!

I hope I have made it clear that my problem with your editorial comments are that not only are they inappropriate because they are uninformed, but they are also inappropriate because you make use of racial issues to hold forth on class oriented opinions.

reply: No, you hadn't made that clear. I had taken your meaning so far to be that I implied things that you disagreed with. I did not realize that you thought I was uninformed and part of the class struggle, spouting off the opinions of my class. I now see why the expression "professional victims" had such arousal power with you. In the class struggle, there are no professional victims. I haven't heard this call for a classless analysis since I hung around with Marxists in graduate school.

In closing, I ask you to please remove these opinions from the entry.

reply: You know, I can stomach almost any kind of criticism and request, but asking me to remove my opinions is so arrogant as to make me wonder why I am even bothering to answer your letter.

I think it is far more important that people who visit your site learn that race is a myth, than that they become informed of your opinions on race relations.

In presenting the facts about race, you are doing a great service, in my opinion. The overwhelming majority of Americans are ignorant of these facts, and I think that a clear and simple presentation of this information would only make the excellent service you are providing even better.
Shawn Ewald

reply: Well, you are entitled to your opinion, of course, and if you ever get to be editor of the internet, you can make sure that only "informed" and "appropriate" opinions get published. Until then, criticize at will. If you are persuasive, you may change a few opinions.


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