Genetics, Science / Tech

No Voice at VOX: Sense and Nonsense about Discussing IQ and Race

Sam Harris, a noted commentator, recently had a podcast discussion with Charles Murray about the reaction to the publication of The Bell Curve in 1994. It is an informative, respectful discussion and I urge you to listen to itShortly after this podcast, the popular online news site VOX.com, ran a piece with the headline: “Charles Murray is once again peddling junk science about race and IQ—Podcaster and author Sam Harris is the latest to fall for it.”

The piece mostly restates old arguments that continue to misrepresent what The Bell Curve actually said about race and genetics. It is based on a selective reading of the research literature and the assertion of facts that are not supported by a weight-of-evidence. There is nothing new or original in the arguments and these arguments have been challenged many times by other experts in the field. Nonetheless, VOX gave new life to the false narrative that Murray is “peddling junk science” about average IQ score differences among racial/ethnic groups being genetic and therefore some groups are genetically inferior. The podcast makes clear this narrative is false and the subsequent discussion is important for anyone who cares about the pursuit of science into uncomfortable topics with social/political implications like climate change or education achievement gaps.

I wrote a short response to the junk science piece and asked VOX to publish it. I explained in a series of subsequent emails to the editors about the Default Hypothesis—whatever the factors are that influence individual differences in IQ, the same factors would influence average group differences. Since there is overwhelming evidence that genes influence the former, it would not be unreasonable to hypothesize that genes at least partially influence group differences. Within the context of understandable social justice sensitivity, however, this hypothesis is an anathema. In any case, Murray stated he was “agnostic” on this issue. I included the entire quote from The Bell Curve in my response. Nonetheless, in my view, a discussion of this hypothesis should not be out-of-bounds in 2017 given the latest compelling DNA data on individual differences in intelligence.

As you have guessed by now, and from the title of this piece, VOX declined to publish my response. Instead I understand that they have invited the authors of the junk science piece to respond to criticisms that others have posted in various online sites. I have not yet seen this response but, in my view, VOX has missed the point. Debate among researchers about the technical details of statistical analyses and how to interpret individual studies is best done in scientific outlets. Public debate about these issues requires a respectful context free of pejorative headlines that demonize one perspective before it can be presented fairly. The point is that VOX was front and center in perpetuating a false narrative about Charles Murray. Sam Harris did not “fall for it.” VOX did.

Finally, here is my piece that VOX declined to publish:  

Is it wrong to discuss IQ and Race? A Response to Critics

 

Long before the Trump Administration, alternative facts and misrepresentations have permeated attacks on the science of human intelligence. Even reasonable discussions are not immune. The recent piece posted on VOX (May 18, 2017) by Turkheimer, Harden & Nisbett (THN) excoriates Sam Harris about his recent podcast discussion with Charles Murray, author of the 1994 book, The Bell Curve (co-author Richard Herrnstein died before the book was published).

Sam Harris is not an expert in intelligence research but I am. After hearing the podcast, I emailed congratulations to him and Murray for conducting an informative discussion of complex and controversial issues. Every point they enumerated as having broad support among intelligence researchers is correct. There is an overwhelming weight of evidence to support the ideas that intelligence is something real, it can be reliably and validly measured without bias, and the measures predict many real world variables that are important to most human beings. There also is broad agreement that one component of intelligence is a general ability (the g-factor) to reason and problem-solve across a wide range of situations. There also is overwhelming evidence that genes play a significant role in explaining differences in intelligence among individuals.

These points were reasonably well established when The Bell Curve was published, as evidenced by a task force of prominent researchers constituted by the American Psychological Association in 1995 (report published in 1996), hardly a right-wing group. And, as Murray noted in the podcast, all these findings have been validated even further by subsequent research with much larger samples and more powerful research designs.

The main thrust of the THN post centers on whether average group differences in IQ and other cognitive test scores observed among some racial and ethnic groups have a partial genetic basis. There is not consensus on this because direct evidence from modern genetic studies of group differences is not yet available. Nonetheless, apparently THN view any possibility that this may be correct as inherently racist and malevolent. They attacked Harris and Murray for promoting this genetic view and the genetic inferiority of some groups it implies. It is a false charge. There is quite a difference between discussing and promoting.

Here is part of what Herrnstein and Murray actually said in The Bell Curve about genetics and group differences in IQ (pages 311-12):

If the reader is now convinced that either the genetic or environmental explanation has won out to the exclusion of the other, we have not done a sufficiently good job of presenting one side or the other. It seems highly likely to us that both genes and environment have something to do with racial differences. What might the mix be? We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not yet justify an estimate.

The podcast discussion of this issue, what the data mean and what they do not mean, is informative for any fair-minded person. It is nothing like what THN portrays and I encourage you to listen to the full podcast. Taking a bit from Bill Maher, I don’t know for a fact that many Murray critics, including the students who recently attacked him at Middlebury College, never read The Bell Curve, I just know it’s true.

As far as I can tell, THN support the general consensus concerning the existence, testing, importance, and heritability of intelligence and even the g-factor. A main point of the their post is to attack the “naïve assumption that heritable traits cannot be changed via environmental mechanisms.” Although you can cherry pick a few studies that suggest IQ scores are increased by adoption or other environmental factors (as suggested by the widely accepted Flynn Effect), there are two problems. First, claims about large, lasting IQ increases resulting from an intervention (like adoption) typically fail independent replication, the bedrock required to establish a compelling weight-of-evidence. Second, it is entirely possible that any actual increases in IQ scores are due to the non-g components of intelligence (this seems to be the case for the Flynn Effect).

Here is more from The Bell Curve (pages 314-15):

In sum: If tomorrow you knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that all the cognitive differences between the races were 100 percent genetic in origin, nothing of any significance should change. The knowledge would give you no reason to treat individuals differently than if ethic differences were 100 percent environmental. By the same token, knowing that the differences are 100 percent environmental in origin would not suggest a single program or policy that is not already being tried. It would justify no optimism about the time it will take to narrow the existing gaps. It would not even justify confidence that genetically based differences will not be upon us within a few generations. The impulse to think that environmental sources of difference are less threatening than genetic ones is natural but illusory.

But the real contention of THN is a moral one. They explicitly argue that scientific data about genetics, IQ, and race cannot be interpreted outside of a moral responsibility to prevent ugly consequences. But they neglect that racists do not depend on science nor do they respond to it. I am not a moral philosopher but I believe we as researchers have an obligation to collect data and offer interpretations that are testable empirically and logically in the market place of ideas. This is how we progress. If we can change environments or genes to increase IQ in individuals, we have a moral obligation to do so because more intelligence is better than less.

In the 21st century, we know that genes are not necessarily deterministic. They are probabilistic and we are learning how to change genes and their functional expression. This is a major worldwide goal in medicine. Neuroscience has powerful tools so it is well within the imagination that aspects of brain function, like intelligence, that are under at least partial genetic control, can be modified by tweaking gene expression. This is good news for people at the lowest end of the normal distribution of IQ. For example, about 51 million Americans, including 13 million children have IQs below 85 (16th percentile). Imagine a neuroscience-based way to increase their IQs. And imagine increasing IQ across the entire distribution. This is where modern intelligence research is headed and progress may well have profoundly positive impacts on education and social issues beyond anything tried in the last 50 years.  This progress does not depend at all on whether or not average group differences are due partially to genetic influences. Ironically, identifying any partial genetic influences may impact the design and implementation of environmental interventions to help maximize their benefits because one size likely does not fit all.

From my perspective, intelligence research is entering a Golden Age based on advanced DNA and neuroimaging technologies. This is hardly junk science, the term used by climate change deniers, supporters of smoking tobacco, and others to deride data for political or self-interest reasons. 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. 

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Richard Haier is Professor Emeritus, University of California, Irvine, editor-in-chief of Intelligence, a scientific journal, and author of The Neuroscience of Intelligence (Cambridge University Press, 2017) that includes hundreds of recent scientific references to support the arguments made here.