Should IQ and Race be studied and what is Lysenkoism anyway?

Dan MacArthur has started a big discussion on whether or not the relationship between IQ and race should be studied. Inspired by a pair of essays for and against the idea it has created a pretty healthy debate among the sciencebloggers including Razib with whom I will likely never agree on this issue. For the record, I'm on the side of those like Richard Nisbett (for a good review of his analysis of race and the black white divide see here PDF) that genetics are a poor explanation for the divide.

But this issue aside, why do I believe this is a still a bad idea to expend resources to evaluate the role of race and IQ? After all, that's just what Nisbett has done in the paper cited above.

For one, the history is that studies of IQ and race are usually used to disparage whatever group in the society is looked down upon. Whether it is women, minorities, foreigners, or the poor, historically, such efforts tend to be sloppy and biased and result in findings that confirm the researchers' biases. I think it takes a lot of hubris to assume we're past these things, as even within the last decade we see studies of populations confirming these biases. Frankly I think when the question is actually asked correctly (as in the studies Nisbett cites) you find that the supposedly racial differences result from economic and cultural factors. As summarized by Nisbett:

Suppose we simply look at all the available evidence -- the many different types of evidence and the dozens of different studies -- on their face. The Scarr and Weinberg evidence is consistent with a large genetic contribution to the B/W IQ gap. But all of the other evidence is most consistent with a zero or near-zero genetic contribution to the gap. The skin color, facial feature, and blood group studies, the European heritage study, the study of World War II children fathered by black vs. white soldiers, the study of mixed-race children born either to black or to white mothers, the experiment assigning black children to black vs. white adoptive families, and the study of the orphanage with an enriched environment all suggest genetic equality between the races or very small genetic differences.

Further, I'm disturbed by the arguments that Ceci and Williams make in the "for" argument. First of all, they start by mentioning Lysenkoism:

The Soviet Union lost a generation of genetics research to the politicization of science when Trofim Lysenko, director of biology under Joseph Stalin, parlayed his rejection of Mendelian genetics into a powerful political scientific movement. By the late 1920s, Lysenko had denounced academics embracing Mendelian genetics, which some said undermined tenets of Soviet society. His efforts to extinguish 'harmful' scientific ideas ruined opponents' careers and delayed scientific progress.

It is difficult to imagine this situation repeating today, when rival views feed the scientific process, and inquiry and debate trump orthodoxy. Yet the spectre of Lysenkoism lurks in current scientific discourse on gender, race and intelligence. Claims that sex- or race-based IQ gaps are partly genetic can offend entire groups, who feel that such work feeds hatred and discrimination. Pressure from professional organizations and university administrators can result in boycotting such research, and even in ending scientific careers.

Um, excuse me? Is anyone talking about anything remotely like the top-down dictation of scientific fact from a politburo as in Lysenkoism?

From 1934 to 1940, under Lysenko's admonitions and with Stalin's approval, many geneticists were executed (including Isaak Agol, Solomon Levit, Grigorii Levitskii, Georgii Karpechenko and Georgii Nadson) or sent to labor camps. The famous Soviet geneticist Nikolai Vavilov was arrested in 1940 and died in prison in 1943. Genetics was stigmatized as a 'bourgeois science' or 'fascist science' (because fascists -- particularly the Nazis in Germany -- embraced genetics and attempted to use it to justify their theories on eugenics and the master race, which culminated in Action T4). Some Soviet geneticists, however, survived and continued to work in genetics, dangerous as it was.

In 1948, genetics was officially declared "a bourgeois pseudoscience"; all geneticists were fired from work (some were also arrested), and all genetic research was discontinued. Nikita Khrushchev, who claimed to be an expert in agricultural science, also valued Lysenko as a great scientist, and the taboo on genetics continued (but all geneticists were released or rehabilitated posthumously). The ban was only waived in the mid 1960s.

Thus, Lysenkoism caused serious, long-term harm to Soviet biology. It represented a serious failure of the early Soviet leadership to find real solutions to agricultural problems, allowing their system to be hijacked by a charlatan -- at the expense of many human lives. Lysenkoism also spread to China, where it continued long after it was eventually denounced by the Soviets.

It's a little early in this argument to start screaming persecution and censorship. While you may get some heat for delving into such a heavily politicized field, that's because there is a rich history of these types of studies fueling racial hatred and policies directed against groups society viewed as inferior. Surely they have some great examples of how a scientific dictator is oppressing individual researchers to back this up?

Consider two recent high-profile cases. In 2005, Harvard's then-president Lawrence Summers suggested gender differences in intrinsic ability as one cause of the dearth of women in the top tier of science, rather than espousing the popular view that women's under-representation results from biased hiring, discriminatory tenure practices and negative stereotypes. Summers's insinuation of biologically-based sex differences in cognitive ability was radioactive, setting off debates on campuses and outpourings of editorials. Despite apologizing for reckless language -- which his supporters felt research supported -- he later resigned.

James Watson is the most illustrious scholar to have his career ended for reckless language. Watson's downfall was his assertion that "all our social policies are based on the fact that [African] intelligence is the same as ours -- whereas all the testing says not really". Although he hoped everybody was equal, "people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true". Watson instantly plunged from A-list Nobelist to outcast, and was suspended from his chancellorship of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Watson later clarified in a statement that he does not believe Africans to be genetically inferior, but this had little impact on the controversy.

Wow. The examples of the oppressed scientists are Summers and Watson. Summers clearly has been ostracized for his...wait, what? He's what now? Director of the National Economic Counsel? How terrible. By the way, even if you believe the differences in IQ between men and women are real, it's only been shown to be about 3-4 points difference. Knowing that most differences in achievement occur at the low end of the spectrum, and given this small difference, how does that account for the enormous disparity between men and women in the workforce? Could it be instead that women in this country couldn't even vote until 90 years ago? Or that they faced institutionalized sexism for decades? That they still have a pay disparity for the same work? Or that men continue to be sexist pricks? Using Summers as an example of Lysenkoism is ridiculous. There is a lot of very good reasons his statement was just an example of sexist stupidity. The authors even cite some of them:

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.

Calling this Lysenkoism is not just crying persection (Help! Help! I'm being oppressed), but dismissive of the very real obstacles women still face in the workforce (wait for my article about interviewing for residency and sexist interview questions sometime after I match). So, a guy cites an antiquated view about the role of sex in mathematical acheivement by the author's own admission, and is roundly criticized, and this is...Lysenkoism?

And how about Watson? Was he just a simple academic caught blindsided in the spotlights of media attention making a simple statement of fact? Not freaking likely. Watson has a long reputation for sexism, and other curmudgeonly behaviors meant to elicit angry reactions in others. From the Nature editorial "Watson's Folly":

Watson certainly has a track record in making distasteful remarks. He has on many previous occasions voiced unpalatable views tinged with racism and sexism, ranging from a desire to see a world full of genetically engineered pretty girls to his belief that sex drive is related to skin colour. He has been largely indulged over the years, mostly in light of his towering achievement of 54 years ago in helping to deduce the structure of DNA, his ensuing Nobel prize, and his role in founding the Human Genome Project.

His latest outburst marks the point at which his views have finally been deemed beyond the pale. And rightly so -- for one of the world's most high-profile scientists to state such views demonstrates a sheer unacceptable offensiveness. Watson has apologized and retracted the outburst, claiming to have been "mortified" at the outcome of the interview although he did not deny its contents. He acknowledged that there is no evidence for what he claimed about racial differences in intelligence. But the damage has been done, lending succour and comfort to racists around the globe.

Even he realized this about his statement that Africans were inferior in IQ and he had finally crossed the line from barely tolerable old crank to screaming racist. I know of some other examples related from researchers who worked with him that would make your hair stand on end. But the "pro" authors think our angry reaction was just squelching a necessary debate:

Attacks on Watson and Summers extinguished discussion by making moral attributions about their presumed character flaws rather than debating facts. But character attacks lead to a one-party science that squelches divergent views.

Presumed character flaws? How about long standing ones? Based on multiple statements throughout time? I can't speak for Summers, but Watson is famous for this crap. Is it impossible for us to say that some views are just plain reprehensible? As Watson eventually did about his own statements? This is decidedly not Lysenkoism. Merely the world being sick of despicable racist nonsense that has no basis in fact and being unwilling to continue to tolerate it from a cranky old man, Nobel or not.

Their conclusion:

When scientists are silenced by colleagues, administrators, editors and funders who think that simply asking certain questions is inappropriate, the process begins to resemble religion rather than science. Under such a regime, we risk losing a generation of desperately needed research.

I get what they're saying. But, as one of the sciencebloggers writing about denialism and endless debates, there is an extreme of this generally good principle. That is endless debate and inaction from the tedious and unending input from cranks. There are views which are simply no longer valid, and you'll notice, we discuss those that continue to put these forward, again and again, no matter what the evidence, no matter how many times they are corrected, no matter how much they have to alter reality in order to keep believing them. I don't think crankery and denialism are involved in this argument, not close, but the appeal to endless discussion of settled scientific topics is not the way into my heart. Free speech goes both ways, and one of the things you get from free speech is the very understandable need for people to express to racists and sexists that their views are no longer tolerable in civilized society. This is not Lysenkoism, but a free society demonstrating it's disgust with views that are disgusting. If this results in pressure for these guys to resign or think twice before they condemn an entire continent as mentally defective, well, that's the whole point of complaining. Lysenkoism would be rounding up these guys and sending them to Siberia, or shooting them in the head. A note to the university president expressing dismay, or letters to the editor are not Lysenkoism. Further, it is not the issue here.

The issue is, as I think is nicely discussed in the con essay, that the history of these studies shows they are not particularly valuable, and usually, very harmful. The argument I would make is very similar to theirs:

Group comparisons of IQ are even more problematic. Attempts have been made to make 'culture-fair' or 'culture-free' tests, as if such a thing were possible, to allow comparisons of 'g' between people from very different societies. But IQ is clearly a flexible construct -- as amply demonstrated by decisions in the 1930s and 1940s in the United States and Britain to 'adjust' test questions to equalize the scores of boys and girls, because in previous versions of the tests girls had scored higher. When Lev Vygotsky tested Russian peasants back in the 1930s, he found that answers that seemed logical to an urbanite were responded to quite differently, but with parallel logic, by the peasants.

As for 'race', the problem is whether it is a biologically, as opposed to socially, meaningful category. Among geneticists interested in differences in gene frequencies between populations, there is increasing consensus that the word obscures more than it reveals, and should be replaced by the concept of biogeographic ancestry, which makes possible the study of subpopulations for relevant genetic and phenotypic characteristics. There are some well-recognized, meaningful genetic differences between groups, for instance between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews in terms of their risk to Tay-Sachs disease, and the study of such differences may reveal important clues with respect, for instance, to disease propensity. But such groups are not normally considered socially distinct races for the purposes of studies of group differences in intelligence. Broad divisions between 'white' or 'Caucasian' and 'black' or 'Asian', the groups generally discussed in the context of the IQ debate, especially in the United States, hide genetically important subpopulation differences within these groups.

We're not studying anything valuable when we do these studies as our assay is still too crude and our divisions somewhat pointless. And in the end, what would we do with the information, true or not, showing differences in racial intelligence? What good would it accomplish? And especially given the history of abuse, and the very real problem stereotype threat (as Ed Yong discussed recently) don't these studies create more problems than they're worth? Basically, we know when we tell people ahead of time they perform poorly, guess what they do? They perform worse! I have an idea, let's see if we can generate science to make people feel bad about themselves! That sounds like a good use of our time.

So what do we gain from this research? Some nebulous "truth" according to the pro authors. But historically this has not been the case. Historically we get bigotry and bias. What do we stand to lose? Clearly, a great deal. There are more pressing priorities than sorting out which race or sex wins the IQ war.


More like this

MarkH, you seem to be under the assumption that the data used to try to answer this question will flow from some sort of dedicated 'Race and IQ' project.
Most of us working in the field of human genetics and complex phenotypes realize that many of these questions will only become answerable when we get large datasets from many individuals and do the number-crunching. The datasets we are talking about are those likely to be produced from whole genome sequencing in the next decade. This sort of data will be applied both to disease markers but also to complex traits such as height, weight and psychological features.
No one trait or feature is a target for this type of analysis. The question I would like to ask is whether particular questions should be impermissable when dealing with this dataset. Should we make sure that none of the participants is rated for intelligence? (tricky point, I know but how do you avoid all possibilities of something being used as a surrogate, be it educational level, economic status etc?)
I am of the opinion that while there might be some small component of intelligence that varies between different human populations there is sufficient variation within all populations that we have no excuse to treat individuals differently based on 'race'. I get a rather uncomforting feeling that many of the people who are vehemently against looking into the matter actually do so because they suspect the data will show exactly what the racists claim!
Back to the original point. Given that the dataset will be available there will be little or no extra expence involved in looking into the population allele frequency and 'intelligence' question. It's not a question of research funding priorities, rather it's a question of whether we decide that some questions are so dangerous that they should never be asked.

Sigmund has an interesting point -- there does seem to be an element of crypto-racism in some of the comments I've read that oppose this kind of research, one that stems from guilt and a feeling that other races need to be protected.

Given that race -- particularly in a melting-pot population such as we have in the US -- is pretty much a fiction, race-based studies are actually going to be background-based studies. (I suppose I'm stating the obvious.)

If I believed that some races were less intelligent than others, I'd investigate connections between specific genes and intelligence and then track those genes in the population. That way my results would be less subject to dispute. That's also what I'd do if I wanted to disprove racist assumptions.

Or if I was just interested in investigating the question of inheritance and intelligence and didn't have any axe to grind.

I can't speak for Summers, but Watson is famous for this crap.

There are other (than the Harvard incident) examples of Summers being racist or sexist.
Revere just mentioned one.

Gee, two meaningless terms, "IQ" and "race" put together. What meaningful conversation could one expect from that combination, other than about the fact that neither has any correspondence to actual humans in the real world?

I applaud Michael Paul Goldenberg's comment. I have come to the conclusion that IQ is a useless concept because it measures cognitive performance one-dimensionally, yet evolutionary psychology is advancing the concept of "mental modules" to suggest that cognitive performance is fundamentally and necessarily multi-dimensional. It's as if somebody came up with a single number for books that attempted to show which books are best. There are too many dimensions to make any such number meaningful. A linguistics book might be great for me today, but when I was seven years old, that same linguistics book would have been a great waste of time. Fiction is good only for those seeking good stories. And so on.

I therefore conclude that we should just drop the whole idea of IQ and move on to more sophisticated notions of cognitive performance.

By Erasmussimo (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink

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By Health Pain (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink

Why do they want to study race in particular? Why not some other phenotype? Let's look at IQ in correlation with height, weight, shoe size, handedness, hair color, eye color, etc etc etc. What's their reason for singling out race (beyond racISM, of course)?

I think genetically engineering a world full of pretty girls is not a half-bad idea... long as we get rid of ugly old lecherous goats, and the boys are genetically engineered to be equally pretty.

I somehow suspect that aspect wasn't in Watson's plans, however; entitled old bastards who think women exist to be gaze objects seldom think that way.

By Interrobang (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink

I would say to those that continue to say the increased sophistication of the genetic assays solve the problem, that they are focusing on the wrong variables. The issue is that combined with the genetic data will there be accurate economic data? Social data? Information about adoptive parents? Geographic data?

It matters a great deal for these assays how affluent the individuals were, where they grow up, where they are educated, the educational status of their parents etc. As Nisbett shows, when the genetic associations between intelligence and race are studied, the gap goes away. I think the question is largely answered, when race is studied carefully, the racial gaps in IQ disappear, however, that won't stop a bunch of sloppy crap from once again muddying the waters, and weak genetic associations with all the inherent flaws in looking for signal in that noise will just generate more crap as it has done historically. I spoke too soon about Razib, and now it sounds like, for very good reasons, he feels such studies present major problems. And I don't think those that are currently motivated to do these studies will address them. Based on what I've seen it's simply not a valuable use of research time and money. As Razib points out, maybe sometime in the future, but again I'd stress that such studies of such sensitive topics require extraordinary levels of care to make sure we're not once again putting down whichever group in the country is currently disadvantaged for other reasons.

since i've been references, i will state

1) IQ-gene associations do not seem to be easy. people have tried, and will keep trying. we are not at the same that we can say that gene X results in Y percent of the variation of IQ in population Z. therefore, the race & IQ question is not one that is even relevant today.

2) if the IQ-gene associations present a strong enough signal so that repeated studies yield large numbers of genetic variants within populations, it will be trivial to see if the alleles in question differ between populations. you would just check public databases. as an example, the gene SLC24A5 has two variants which are at disjoint frequencies between west africans and europeans. in animal models it seems to result in variation in pigmentation. ergo, one presumes in humans it might. well, it turns out that in an admixed population, african americans, it is responsible for 25-40% of the variation in complexion. around the same order of magnitude in south asians, which also has polymorphism.

3) i think both race & IQ are instrumentally useful terms, though i have no issues of being attached to those specific words, euphemisms are fine by me.

4) mr. jones' piece is totally irrelevant and nothing more than grandstanding. no one will ever fund research about race differences in IQ genes. rather, if the IQ-gene associations every pop up, what you saw with SLC24A5 will naturally ensue almost immediately. if mr. jones is seriously about blocking possible explorations of the hypothesis, then he should ban human genomics.

Fundamental problem is, what the hell does testing IQ even mean, even in context of genetics. If I was the sort of person that has, in the past, created such tests, and applied them to race, I could just as easily argue that the prevalence of religion and new age BS could be "correlated" to certain "races", "genders", "sub-groups", and that there where really two species on the planet, one sane, and the other brain damaged. I would be just as wrong, and not just because of the fact that the number of people giving up the BS, in all groups, is the same. Might there be some contributing factor that makes "some" people less prone to this stuff? Yeah, but is realizing, and or learning from an early age, that a lot of stuff sounds nice, but isn't supported by fact, evidence or logic, which determines who has the high "science" IQs.

Same is true with everything else. Its doesn't matter if gene X makes someone 3% better at math than everyone else without that trait, since they might have a 4% drop in the ability to handle language some place else, and even if you had all the "pegs" in the right genetic holes, you are still talking about a 3-4% across the board, not, "Oh my god, we discovered Vulcans living on earth!!" What is critical is the bottom end of the spectrum, and that is influenced far more by social factors, baring a serious genetic defect, than by genetics. Case in point, my uncle, who thought the company he owns was trying to sue him for tens of thousands, because his reading comprehension is nearly **0**. Seriously, I am surprised he manages to understand the captions in Playboy, and probably "doesn't" read the articles. But, he got that way by never graduating, ditching school all the time, and rarely ever opening a book to do "school work", never mind actually sitting down and reading one to just read it. He doesn't understand **anything** you tell him, barely pays attention to any explanations you do give him, so never remembers what you told him, etc. And, he doesn't have any "genetic" disorder to explain just how fracking stupid he is most of the time. The only disease he has is the same one that keeps churches in power, isolated communities (either by choice or being located in the zone of ignorance of the South), and anyone that barely passes (or didn't pass) their basic education, because they didn't think they needed it has. Its called "ignorance", and sadly, if you have been ignorant, starting well into the early years when you needed to "learn" how to fracking think in the first place, it eventually becomes pretty much incurable, like someone trying to use a microchip that somehow went through only half of the die process to place circuits on it. What's missing isn't replaceable, and it has exactly "nothing" to do with what the blueprint for the circuit said should have been there.

Anonymous, you feel that IQ is an instrumentally useful term. I will never forget the old line about "IQ is just a score on a test". Yes, IQ can be reliably measured if you use similar tests. And yes, there have been some clear correlations demonstrated between IQ test results and some gross measures of cognitive performance -- but it seems to me that those gross measures are themselves somewhat artificial. To oversimplify, it seems to me that all we have managed to prove is that "people who get high scores on IQ tests tend to get high scores on other tests". In other words, we don't have a truly reliable independent measure of cognitive performance. I'd be curious to know if we've found any correlations between IQ scores and total career income, or between IQ scores and number of published academic papers, or any other truly independent measure of cognitive performance. I'm not aware of any such correlations -- and even then, we still have problems isolating cultural factors from the results. Perhaps you would have some links here to educate me?

By Erasmussimo (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink

hey, i'm "anonymous" above. don't know why my name isn't showing up. erasmussimo, just start here in wikipedia. also, camille benbow's work with very young very smart kids shows that over the term, those who are 4 standard deviations above the norm in IQ have higher rates of phd attainments than those who are 3 standard deviations above the norm. i would put a link to her page, but google it, i don't want to get caught in a spam filter.

What races? How many? Stephen Gould in "Mismeesuring Man" and Jacques Barzun in 'Race" boast the truth that racist findings are absurd! Individula differences count. Case closed!
Our great Pres. Obama outranks most whites in intelligence,
One would think that with most whites with some African descent, others would find that racist findings are absurd.
Miscegenation, no matter how low, is ever making those findings absurd.
Yea, the poignant questions are how do we assure equal opportunity still and how do we get people to do better on tests?

By Morgan-LynnGri… (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink

Sorry for the typos. rationalist griggsy individual

By Morgan-LynnGri… (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink

Consider this folks,
my fill- in -the-blans academic and miitary IQ is ii5 and 120 [ college one- verbal 150; other -low total 120]
One on one tests with two psychologists and a brouchre and an on-line test show me with an averabe one. I assume that the ones with those two measure functionality. The other two did not require hard verbal work.
Could one explain all thaat?
And with my schizotypy, came cortical defects and double depression that affect the scores.
I know all the big words; however, I don't know automobile terms and buidling terms at Lowe's.

By Morgan-LynnGri… (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink

Again typos. brochure blanks average No edit here. Will take time to proof read.

By Morgan-LynnGri… (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink

Thanks for the links, razib. The evidence appears to be stronger than I had expected. It's pretty clear that IQ does not play a primary role, but it certainly does play a significant role. Nevertheless, I think we need to be very careful in attempting to treat intelligence as a one-dimensional trait. There are a number of different forms of intelligence, one of the most important of which (IMO) is social intelligence, which is not measured at all by IQ.

By Erasmussimo (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink

There are a number of different forms of intelligence, one of the most important of which (IMO) is social intelligence, which is not measured at all by IQ.

of course. in fact, i am willing to be money that we will find the genes for social intelligence before we find them for rational-abstraction intelligence. the reason being that there are more viable behavior genetic personality candidate loci than there are for I.Q. and also, the research in this area is currently much more fruitful.

(i speak as a mild social retard)


You seem to be afraid of the results of this proposed research. White guilt much?

Being married to a blazingly intelligent African woman I doubt that much of any thing interesting would be revealed by such inquiries other than the obvious fact that variations among individuals in the subjective and amorphous groupings we call "race" would be far more extreme than any aggregate difference between the "races".

You of course have no problem with ostracizing scientists for merely suggesting research that you find politically offensive. What a surprise that "Mr. Denialism" would wink and nod at any retribution against people studying or even suggesting ideas that he finds objectionable.

Were you in charge of a Stalinist politburo I'm sure you'd have a long list of "denialists" and "cranks" that you would imprison or worse. Maybe you should give John Holdren a ring, Guantanamo may be available in a year or so.

"Gee, what a long post. I wonder if I should read it? Nah, I'll just flail limply at a crude strawman, the way I beat my imaginary wife."

By minimalist (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink

Sigmund: I get a rather uncomforting feeling that many of the people who are vehemently against looking into the matter actually do so because they suspect the data will show exactly what the racists claim!

Lance: I doubt that much of any thing interesting would be revealed by such inquiries other than the obvious fact that variations among individuals in the subjective and amorphous groupings we call "race" would be far more extreme than any aggregate difference between the "races".

I would also expect to find more individual variance than between-group variance. And yet I don't doubt that there are many researchers who would expect otherwise, and thus would come to a different conclusion, through conscious or unconscious bias. So, yes, I am afraid of the possible conclusions, because I am not sure that they would fairly represent reality.

Statistical modeling is an art, and thus highly susceptible to all manner of shenanigans. With something as nebulous as race, I am fairly certain people could find models that gave varying results using the same underlying data, without actually resorting to fraud or something that was likely to get flagged during peer review.

Statistical modeling is an art, and thus highly susceptible to all manner of shenanigans. With something as nebulous as race, I am fairly certain people could find models that gave varying results using the same underlying data, without actually resorting to fraud or something that was likely to get flagged during peer review.

a minority of genes exhibit more between group variance than within group. if you want to talk about between group variation you talk about those genes. e.g., slc24a5, LCT, etc.


Your argument could be applied to any scientific topic that was controversial and statistically challenging. This covers a lot of important and interesting ground.

You sound a bit like my aunt Grace that stifles any dinner time discussion that she fears will lead to an argument.

Science aint about being polite Jen. In fact historically some of the most powerful and important scientific research really pissed people off and caused a great deal of upheaval.

If you can't handle uncomfortable truth maybe science isnât for you.

Also I notice that MarkH and others are implying that science needs to be justifiable for practical or social reasons. That is more the purview of Engineering or its cousin Applied Science. This implies a basic misunderstanding of what science is about.

Public funding often comes with strings attached but funding should never should be the primary motivation of scientific endeavor.

Science is motivated by the simple curiosity of the unknown. When you start telling people what they "should" and "shouldn't" be curious about you have shown that you don't give a shit about science.

I believe the point MarkH was trying to make was simple enough: The studies have *been* done, and show that individual variance within a "race" is greater than that between "races". The only point in flogging this dead horse any further is for racist assholes to pretend to have "actual scientificized evidentiary stuff" to back up their being assholes.

The term "race" is meaningless as applied here, as well. There is less genetic difference between "races" than most people would believe. (geneticists? Do I have that correct?) Most often, any perceived difference stems from social/economic/educational differences. But when Rush Limpball or Bill O'Really get a hold of those minor differences they exaggerate them to back up their bogus claims of superiority.

Science is "the simple curiosity of the unknown", true. But when the unknown becomes known, and certain people still bleat that we don't know, then we have denialism.

By LanceR, JSG (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink


You're correct that my argument could be applied to any controversial topic. This is a reason to be very careful about your statistics so that you don't just get back what you want (perhaps subconsciously), especially when your conclusions might have detrimental results.

However, I didn't say this topic shouldn't be studied. I just wanted to point out that it is unfair to accuse people of racism when they are concerned about the conclusions that such studies might come to. It is possible to simultaneously think that there is little or no actual difference in intelligence between races but that some studies might find differences anyway.

Lance (and not LanceR) you never fail to bring the love.

As others have pointed out, I made three points. The assays for IQ are poor, and further, Razib has pointed out the genetic allele association studies need a great deal of work. Two, a great deal of care needs to be taken to prevent the accidental study of socioeconomic class or culture. Three, history has shown such studies to be worthless or harmful.

You seem to be pre-persecuting the issue. I've attacked no one but the problem and said it's both difficult and uninteresting. If I were in charge of a study section to devote money that would be the answer. How is this yet another example of my censorious and villainous abuse of the heretics of science?

[W]hy do I believe this is a still a bad idea to expend resources to evaluate the role of race and IQ...?

For one, the history is that studies of IQ and race are usually used to disparage whatever group in the society is looked down upon.

There will always be some in society that are in power and others that are "looked down upon" (and kept down). That is part of the nature of being human. We are all in competition with each other so there is no getting around it. Any and all knowledge gained from scientific research will be used as a weapon in this competition if and when it can be (along with any other tools available).

But the absence of knowledge can also be (is also) used as a weapon.

Consider this race and IQ debate. In denying that there are any innate differences in the average IQs of different human populations, one rules out the possibility that some groups just might need more help in this world than others. Denialism in this case keeps the costs, as well as any potential competitors, down.

As an example, my husband went to a grade school and a high school in a society (not the U.S.) where innate differences between individuals is simply not recognized. All children are believed to have the same innate abilities and qualities and so there are no honors classes for clever students and no remedial classes for not-so-clever students. Needless to say, most of the clever students have done well later in life, despite the lack of a stimulating school environment, while the not-so-clever students have not done very well. And, as my husband always says, it was very apparent from early on who was not going to do very well, but they got no extra help from society at large. Because there are no innate differences between individuals, see? Those people that have failed must have just not worked hard enough....

This is an obvious (although probably not conscious) strategy by those in power in that society: deny any differences between individuals in terms of intelligence and you don't have to invest any extra in trying to educate those in the low IQ range. Why would they want to do that anyway? Those in power would be spending extra money on people not related to them; in other words, their competitors (or their children's potential competitors). (Not my position in these matters, btw. Just describing the strategy here.)

This pretend-there-are-no-innate-differences-between-anybody (again, largely unconscious) strategy is writ large in the world today. It is being used by those that run society (higher IQ, politically correct people) in situations of between-group competition to great effect. It does nothing to benefit those groups with lower average IQs. It only helps to keep them "in their place".

To extend Zoe's point somewhat, forget about group differences for a second and ask whether individual genotypic differences associated with intelligence would be useful to define (or more specifically, markers of individuals who would greatly benefit from extra educational resources).
In other words is there any benefit to society as a whole in defining 'intelligence' alleles (or probably more accurately, combinations of alleles that produce individuals with differential academic or other abilities).
If defining 'intelligence' alleles is seen as a useful endeavour and one likely to be done in the short to medium term then the argument is over - the race angle WILL be examined sooner or later since the necessary data will have been produced to answer the individual question.
Is this the only scientific question where significant number of scientists are suggesting that what is required is less rather than more empirical data? In all other cases of denialism (creationism, holocaust deniers, global warming deniers, 911 truthers, anti-vaccinationers, alt-med proponents) more empirical data is always seen as as useful tool by scientists in falsifying pseudo-scientific claims yet the opposite seems to be the case here, something that should be worrying to all those of a skeptical mind. To me the question is only of minor interest but I have no problem imagining a scenario where a scientist who disagrees with the hypothesis that a particular race is inherently of lower intelligence than others wants to falsify this hypothesis. There seems to be a worrying assumption that the only people interested in the question are racists who want to confirm their pre-existing prejudices.

I see all this "intelligent " conversation of how much we all think we know and assume we are "so intelligent" because we can write all these words on a page.
Can you dig a hole , start fire without matches , throw a rope , lift a 'heavy' weight get along with your neighbor, plant crops , find water , be healthy ?
It seems all this intelligence does not appear to be to intelligent in how we keep our environment , water quality , on and on , so keep pounding away on our little key board and believe what you want , be smug , in the end it all means nothing as we all do go back to the earth from where we came.

I think John D needs a hug.

By minimalist (not verified) on 19 Feb 2009 #permalink

Is Razib the original Gene Expression guy? Because there was such a guy floating around years ago (GNXP?), who believed in the book 'The Bell Curve'. A genetics student who believes that book certainly doesn't have ignorance as an excuse, so flat-out racism is the only explanation.

Given that we don't have a definition of race with any rigor and we barely have the foggiest idea of what IQ is, maybe the first question should be Can we study IQ and race? The answer, as far as I can tell, being no. So time to stop wasting resources on trying.


This pretend-there-are-no-innate-differences-between-anybody (again, largely unconscious) strategy is writ large in the world today. It is being used by those that run society (higher IQ, politically correct people) in situations of between-group competition to great effect. It does nothing to benefit those groups with lower average IQs. It only helps to keep them "in their place".

You're making a big assumption that any evidence of genetic linkage to IQ would have any effect on this society. From what you're saying, it seems to be a deeply-ingrained cultural assumption that ignores the data at the "ground level" of the individual. If the no-hopers really can be readily separated from those who excel, and yet this immediately-observable data is still ignored for the sake of "not recognizing individual differences," what hope genetics? Ingrained cultural assumptions are really, really goddamn tough to shake. You can't reason an entire society out of a position it didn't reason itself into.

And furthermore, these justifications are so pernicious that I'd bet anything that they'd simply change the external justification to maintain the status quo: What if they did take the genetic data on board, but then used that to justify continuing to treat all students the same? After all, why waste effort on those we know to be genetically hopeless? Why lavish extra attention on the ones who are genetically predestined to excel anyway?


But this is all kind of getting beside the point; we're way ahead of ourselves here. The main point Mark and others are trying to make is that we don't even have a proper handle on how to frame the questions here!

What, exactly, is intelligence?

Can an IQ test reasonably measure it?

What is the real-world effect of IQ?

What good would it do to know that?

These questions, and many more, are far from settled, and highly subject to individual biases. The answers are likely to be inaccurate -- perhaps disastrously so -- and furthermore used for political ends.

Sigmund asks whether there is any utility to knowing what, if any, specific "intelligence alleles" exist. Well, that's the million-dollar question, isn't it? Even if we could find, with reasonable accuracy, a specific locus tied to intelligence, what would we do with it? Separate classes for allele-A's and allele-B's? How would you even tailor classes for each allele? How would you take environmental factors into account? Considering what we know about biology, especially the confluence of many complex factors, the distribution of "intelligence" for each allele is itself guaranteed to be a bell curve itself -- meaning that functionally-dumb people could have the "smart" allele while functionally-smart people might have the "dumb" allele. So again I would ask, what good would categorization like this do?

Most of all, how would this system be superior to what we have (or ought to have) now, which is "find out who's flunking or excelling, and give extra attention?" You want to talk about individualism? That right there is a far more individualistic approach than defining them by their goddamn gene.

By minimalist (not verified) on 19 Feb 2009 #permalink

Minimalist @ Feb 19, 12:44 -- You're making a big assumption that any evidence of genetic linkage to IQ would have any effect on this society.

No. Like I said in my opening paragraph, there will always be some individuals (typically intelligent) in any human society that control/influence most of what's going on in their society and others (typically not-so-intelligent) who will not be able to exercise much control/influence. I agree with you that any and all evidence that geneticists may find that relates to IQ and differences in IQ in different human populations may not wind up benefiting people who are not so bright.

The only point I wanted to make was that denialism in this case (denying that there may be some connection between genetics and average IQs of different human populations to the point of not wanting to investigate it at all) is *also* a strategy to keep control/influence out of some people's hands. In this case, it's a strategy employed by high or relatively high IQ, politically correct people.

Mark made the point that "the history is that studies of IQ and race are usually used to disparage whatever group in the society is looked down upon". Why would anyone want to disparage certain groups in a society? To keep them from having much control or influence in that society.

IQ-denialists do the same thing. They just employ a different strategy.

Thanks for your comment, M.

But I'm not (nor is Mark) denying there's a genetic component to intelligence at all, or that it shouldn't be studied -- we're just saying that the basic principles involved are nowhere near mature enough to tell us anything definitive. And the whole issue is so charged that the potential for political abuse is very real.

Basing policy on extremely incomplete science could be disastrous, even if accurate to some extent. Natural selection had a profound impact on science and was undeniably true -- but it was misappropriated by eugenicists and Nazis. They claimed the authority of science, but that interpretation preceded a lot of work (and ignored the work that did exist) about other reproductive strategies such as altruism and cooperativity, as well as predating a more mature understanding of how genetic diversity (rather than uniform "racial purity") benefits a population.

It needs much more groundwork, and that groundwork is being laid -- in neuropsych, in genetics, in sociology and population studies and educational studies -- and nobody's objecting to that at all. We're just getting way, way, way, ahead of ourselves by presuming we can say that we can ever find a definitive connection, and separate it out from a host of other factors (upbringing, nutrition, other genetic interactions, etc.)

It's not "political correctness", it's a justifiable caution and a complete mistrust of genetic reductionism, regardless of your political biases. You won't find a more strident atheist than PZ Myers, but even he scoffed at the supposed "god gene", because it, like any current "genetic-IQ connection" studies, completely disregards environmental factors and even the interplay with other genetic and neurological factors.

By minimalist (not verified) on 20 Feb 2009 #permalink

Steven Pinker recently had his genome sequenced and found out that, statistically, based on his genes, he had an 80% chance of having early onset baldness. Now obviously Pinker has a full, and very famous, head of hair. For me, someone who works with human genetics, this is not a failure of genetic reductionism but simply another reasonable likely and perfectly understandable result. Further research will probably throw light on the mitigating genetic factors that mean he and his fellow 20%ers remain hirsute while the 80% go bald.
I view genes and intelligence in a similar fashion. I've no doubt that environmental reasons play a huge role but I see no reason to assume that genes play none and just how significant or insignificant a role they do play can only be defined by research.

I've no doubt that environmental reasons play a huge role but I see no reason to assume that genes play none and just how significant or insignificant a role they do play can only be defined by research.

See above, and the last couple paragraphs of Mark's original post. We don't disagree with you here, we just think it's absurd to think that we can get a reasonable answer now; and where there's ambiguity, there's plenty of room for personal bias and political abuse.

Personally I think there's at least a decade of work involved, and probably more -- anyone presuming to know an answer now, or even to presume that the current debate itself can be in any way meaningful or have tangible real-world applications, is just pissing in the wind.

You understand the ambiguities in genetic research -- most people don't. Hence the media circuses that result when someone isolates the "god gene" and other such. Better education can help, but many people just don't deal well with subtlety; and some misconceptions about biology can be very tough to unseat, especially if they resonate with our own biases or notions of how the world "should be" (did you know we only use 10% of our brains? OMG!!).

By minimalist (not verified) on 20 Feb 2009 #permalink

minimalis, I'm not exactly sure what you are suggesting we should do. As far as I am concerned we are just about there as far as genetic screening methodologies are concerned (we're not going to significantly improve upon full genomic sequencing). We should easily be able to generate data on thousands of individuals in the next few years. I don't see where your figure of ten years comes from. The 'race' question is a side issue of little interest for me but the individual intelligence genetics question overall is much more interesting. Unless we actively exclude any form of psychometric correlation with the genetic data in out genome sequencing then I fail to see how we are going to avoid some of the things you are worried about.

@ Minimalist, February 20, 2009 12:01 PM: But I'm not (nor is Mark) denying there's a genetic component to intelligence at all, or that it shouldn't be studied....

MarkH said: "I believe this is a still a bad idea to expend resources to evaluate the role of race and IQ." He didn't qualify that statement with "now" or "for the meantime until our assays are better", so I took him to mean he never wants to see the race and IQ question examined.

Also, in your first reply to my comment, you made the point that even if evidence were to be found for innate differences in IQs between different human populations, that might not change the denialists' opinions anyway (I agree). I thought that was one of your primary objections to studies examining the genetics/race/IQ question (along with the fact that any findings might be used to disparage certain groups); not that you thought science just wasn't up to the task at this point in time.

I understand that the science is not yet in place to completely sort out the answers to questions related to genetics and intelligence - yet. (From what I gather as a non-scientist, though, the study of genetics is moving forward very rapidly.) That in itself, though, is not a good reason to stop asking questions about genetics/race/IQ (& gender for that matter). Shouldn't questions be raised in science even while developments in whatever field are progressing? How else are hypothesis and research plans to be made without the asking of questions?

Also, the very asking of questions in science spurs developments of techniques/technology in science, does it not? There would be no Hadron Collider today if someone hadn't at one time asked what are atoms composed of.

You guys are all missing the point, and talking past each other with topics that ought not to be conflated.

Whether scientists should be punished for supporting unpopular and controversial issues is completely unrelated to the question of whether researching those issues is a worthwhile use of resources.

I would disagree Lemming. I think that question is not what is being debated at all, or at least I hope not. The idea of "punishment" other than maybe public mockery and letters of complaint has not been suggested. To the question of "should it be studied?" I think the answer is "no", but if you've got your own revenue stream and the inclination to do it, go ahead, waste your time. And chances are you'll generate crap that I'll have to spend time debunking.

The question you're answering is "should these studies be allowed". The answer is probably yes - it would have to be decided case-by-case as always by your IRB. And we should be allowed to criticize them, and write our congressman if they are wasting our tax dollars funding them. I think you'd have a great deal of difficulty saying that any study of race and IQ would be unethical. Certainly bad studies of race and IQ designed to disparage a race would be unethical, and should be rejected by IRBs if they don't have adequate controls to prevent harm done from sloppy research. But I'm sure it's possible to design a good study of this problem that would pass an IRB, and may even get good results. I just think it's unlikely, uninteresting, and usually of interest only to bigots.

So, wait, faulty research has been done on this subject in the past, therefore we shouldn't do any new research in case more faulty research gets done? Huh?

Also, not only is the IQ difference between men and women very real, it's actually greater than IQ tests show. When they were putting the IQ test together, they purposely threw out any question on which men did significantly better than women. If they had to throw out any because women did better than men, no one's ever mentioned it. The IQ test is rigged to make women seem intellectually equal to men.

Oh, and you might want to look up the "three or four points" thing. A lot of us learned in seventh or eighth grade about a fun thing called averages. You might be able to get someone to explain to you how they work. It's three or four degrees higher if you average it out, but in practice, most women are of "average" intelligence, while there are far more male geniuses and male morons.

And by the way, I'm a woman. Who unlike Nancy Hopkins doesn't swoon when people mention facts I don't like.

The IQ test is rigged to make women seem intellectually equal to men.

Thus demonstrating why bigots are the only people with any real interest in studying these questions.

One of these years I'm going to wire a circuit breaker into my irony meter... these things ain't cheap!

By LanceR, JSG (not verified) on 22 Feb 2009 #permalink

I the early seventies a student working on his doctoral dissertation at the University of Texas researched and reported on this subject thoroughly, not from the perspective of a racial issue, but on the evolution of math (the only pure logic known to man). In essence it showed that the African race (in African early history) never developed mathematics beyond the count of âthreeâ which greatly limited their ability to develop a modern society. Mathematics is required to build any modern structure, road or to even conduct simple commerce beyond elementary barter. It is human logic in its purest form. Unlike Africans, the Europeans, Mayans, Asians, and certain other races developed highly sophisticated math capabilities that led to far more complex societies.

Though he did not spend much time on answering why certain races excelled and are now counted as the most progressive and modern civilizations, he did establish that math development was the only reasonable method of studying races and their historical progressions.

Because of the sensitivity of the issue I will not reveal his name, but can state he is one of the most prominent Doctors in âpure mathematiciansâ in the world today.

Sadly, Richard, that appears to not be the case. See here and here for more information. In short, you do realize that Egypt is in Africa, right? Pyramids? Ring a bell? Not to mention the African roots of Grecian civilization. Please read factual material before repeating that particular bit of bullsh*t.

And thank you for once again demonstrating that only racists and bigots are interested in studying this issue.

By LanceR, JSg (not verified) on 23 Feb 2009 #permalink

"IQ" and "Race", no matter the context it seems that the two words having to relate together are irrelevant. Give the appropriate education your IQ should have nothing to do with your Race.

Fred Smilek is the acting president of the Society to Save Endangered Species. It was founded two years ago by Fred Smilek along with his two best friends Charles and Jonathan.

No one seems to be mentioning the case where environment and genetic influences actually become the same thing -- epigenetics. The methylation of genes influences their (non)expression, and it is both passed down and influenced by environmental causes, as with the effects on grandchildren of people exposed to starvation (see: Dutch Hunger Study). So not only do the economic circumstances, childhood education, and other factors influence a child's IQ/test scores/ability to play Tetris, but so does the nutrition of the parents (especially shortly before conception, and during pregnancy), and the grandparents, and possibly earlier generations. And of course, there's a feedback web between nutrition and other biological factors, and the "cultural" ones (such as economics), further complicated by a time lag factor caused by the influence of historical factors on current methylation status. So it's even harder to speak in terms of discrete factors than some people have described, and harder to tease out particular influences.

And of course, methylation status can be positively influenced by nutrition as well (and yes, folic acid, the pyridoxal-5-phosphate form of Vitamin B6, and other supplements can be used to boost methylation as well, though no one even knows yet what a proper level of overall methylation is, so I'm going put that aside). Which means that the people who speak of "fundamental differences" may be surprised by what changes two generations brings to some countries, assuming they live long enough to see themselves so dramatically proven wrong. (And assuming that next year a study doesn't come out proving that it takes at least four generations to reverse major damage, even with supplementation, in which case I'll live long enough to see James Watson snicker at me.)

By Ben Delfin (not verified) on 23 Feb 2009 #permalink

"Denialism is the employment of rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none."

Your position on race and IQ is a perfect example of denialism.

Bottom line:

There are differences in IQ among races. Genes play some role in IQ differences among the races (minimal or substantial we will probably never know for centuries or ever). The inconvenient truth is DNA plays a role in IQ. It would've been better for society if DNA does not. Evolution is unkind. Sad but true.

Moral utilitarianism.
Science and facts have no room for feelings. I would rather have people learn the truth and act like idiots then be lied to on account people will think I will act like an idiot if I'm not lied to. If there is no evidence to support differences in race and IQ then testing shouldn't be opposed as we will find nothing negative If there is, we have the right as human being to know the truth. Thats what science is for, knowing the truth, not making things better.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 27 Mar 2012 #permalink