The wall of ideological taboo around frank discussion of race and intelligence is beginning to crack. So far we’re used to hearing about it mostly from beyond-the-pale HBD bloggers, or rare damn-the-torpedoes authors like Charles Murray — but truth, when buried, has a way of patiently seeking daylight. (Or, as Churchill put it, “you must look at the facts, because they look at you.”) In this case, the facts appear to be that a) general intelligence is reliably measurable in ways that are independent of cultural bias, b) that it is highly heritable, c) that it is strongly predictive of life outcomes, and d) that its distribution varies in persistent ways in different human populations.
Even though it is repeatedly stressed by everyone that the research behind all of this concerns itself only with statistical aggregates, and has absolutely nothing to say about the intelligence of any individual person, the subject is obviously Kryptonite for public figures, and discussion of it has been ruinous for more than a few. (Just ask James Watson, for example.) The widely read blogger Andrew Sullivan has now rather bravely taken up the topic in a series of posts; the latest of them is here. (HT: Dennis Mangan.)
Given what a lethally electrified topic this is, it’s fair to ask: even if this is all true, why bring it up? In a conversation I had a while back with a friend in Wellfleet who was a professor of sociology at Harvard, she actually went so far as to insist, when pressed, that this sort of research simply should not be conducted, as nothing good can come of it anyway. Here’s Mr. Sullivan’s response to that (my emphasis):
Two points: research is not about helping people; it’s about finding out stuff. And I have long opposed the political chilling of free inquiry into any area of legitimate curiosity or research. I’m not going to stop now. Secondly, I agree that there would be very little, if any, use for this data in our society, apart from the existence of affirmative action. But when public policy holds that all racial difference in, say, college degrees, are due to racism, a truth claim has already been made. So the p.c. egalitarians have made this a public and social issue by a statement of fact they subsequently do not want to see debated or challenged using the data. That’s an illiberal position, in my view.
I remain gob-smacked by the resilience of IQ differences between broad racial groups, controlling for much other data. Maybe if we understood what was going on – which particular and subtle combination of genetics, culture and generation makes this the result – we could help increase equality of opportunity. Maybe racial categories themselves have become so fluid and opaque the whole area is now moot. Maybe we should accept that differences in outcomes among racial groups have some element of irreducibility to them. Maybe the answer is to abolish racial affirmative action and replace it by class-based forms. Maybe the answer is to abolish affirmative action altogether (my preferred outcome). But all these questions depend on a thriving research culture which has been chilled by politics. That’s what saddens me.
Leaving aside Mr. Sullivan’s more general sentiment about stifling free inquiry, his highlighted point is exactly right: the reason we ought to be able to engage in this particular research, and to discuss its results without opprobrium, is that others have already used truth claims about the distribution of intelligence as the basis of a great deal of public policy, while at the same time declaring it off-limits for debate. But if we can come to accept, for example, that the prevalence of Ashkenazi Jews and East Asians in elite intellectual occupations, and the low representation of other groups in those areas, merely reflect actual differences in the distribution of innate intelligence rather than malevolent racism, perhaps we can finally stop making futile and polarizing gestures at terrible expense, stop falsely demonizing statistically more-successful groups as vile oppressors, and eventually learn to treat people as we should have been doing all along: as individuals.