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What Is the Alternative to Civil Discourse?

Our field is riddled with theoretical conundrums, but that is neither unique to our field nor does it imply that progress must await a total closing of the racial IQ gap. If research were to demonstrate that, for example, the racial gap in IQ has narrowed by .25 SD in the past few decades, and such narrowing coincided with hypothesized causal events (e.g., more per pupil spending in minority schools, reduction in single parent families, etc.), then this would be very suggestive of a nongenetic basis for the racial IQ gap. (And Flynn’s own research does show a racial gap closing of this magnitude since the 1970s.) Are we better off if race scientists never publicly made their arguments about the genetic basis of racial IQ gaps but kept their beliefs to themselves, perhaps sharing them with private audiences, thus never provoking disconfirmatory evidence? I think not.

Turkheimer states that race scientists “while entitled to their freedom of inquiry and expression, deserve the vigorous disapprobation they often receive.” Perhaps it is this phrase “vigorous disapprobation” that is hanging me up, for I know Turkheimer’s views on the substantive issues and my own are compatible. Suppose it is meant that race scientists deserve vigorous condemnation or disgrace for the freedom to express their ideas. If this is the intended meaning, then it is hardly worth saying they have freedom at all if the cost is personal disgrace. We can easily think of analogies that show that one is not truly free if the expression of that freedom carries with it condemnation or disgrace. Does Turkheimer really mean that race scientists should be disgraced for expressing their views? Isn’t it enough that their views be refuted? Why must they be condemned?

A similar argument can be made for “gender scientists”, who argue that the underrepresentation of women at the extreme right tail of the mathematics distribution (~ 5-to-1 in favor of males) is the result not of cultural factors such as stereotype threat and socialization but of biological differences between males and females—brain structure and volumetric capacity, both organizing and subsequent hormones, etc., perhaps the result of evolutionary pressures that favored males for spatial rotation ability. Those of us who have responded to such arguments, have done so civilly, on a point-by-point basis, providing what we deem to be reasonably compelling refutations to some, albeit not yet all, of the gender scientists’ assertions. (Interestingly, some of the same race scientists are also key gender scientists—e.g., Rushton, Ankney, Lynn; and some of the rivals are the same rivals, e.g., Flynn, Steele, myself). My female coauthors and I can understand why some women might feel that such assertions are inappropriate and deserve vigorous responses, but no one claims the gender scientists themselves merit opprobrium, at least not as I understand the term. To take that position is to tip-toe toward the one party state scientific platform. I know Turkheimer would not want this enforced orthodoxy any more than Flynn and I. We should let diverse views be expressed for that is the best way to challenge our positions and grow a body of knowledge.

One can always maintain that the knowledge we strive to grow is unknowable in the near term, or that we already do know it and the race scientists are absolutely and irredeemably wrong, so wrong that it smacks of a moral flaw in their character, thus warranting disgrace. None of us ought to have the hubris to imagine we have settled these issues definitively. We haven’t. Flynn and others have aimed their logic and data at the race scientists in debates and writings, and there is some evidence that they are making good progress. If race scientists were not permitted to publish their claims without engendering personal disgrace, that cost would have impeded the progress that Flynn and others have made. I don’t think that is a good situation, for they would secretly be relying on assumptions that were effectively refuted precisely because they were allowed to publish them in the first place without fear of being disgraced or condemned. It is telling that many of the strongest detractors of Flynn’s claims have come around to agreeing with him, at least on some of his points (see the names of the people who blurbed his latest book because they include many former rivals who although still at odds with him about some issues have seemingly backed off a number of issues he has refuted. This is progress!)

Turkheimer raises many forms of stereotypical claims that all of us have recognized from childhood and none of us find compelling. Like Flynn, I welcome the opportunity to tackle such claims head on, raising counter evidence. This is superior to having stereotypical beliefs closeted, immune to disconfirmation. Yes, they can be hurtful, and surely it is possible to calculate a heritability for eating pasta, for example, or for being lazy, or getting divorced, etc.. There are real costs to freedom of expression and we should insist that it always be done in the most respectful manner. The alternative is to muzzle scholars whose beliefs we find distasteful. As Saletan notes, depending on your stance, the beliefs can be those of race scientists, evolutionary theorists, etc. I’d hate to think of a world where those in charge had the hubris to think they validated creationism and evolutionary critics were free to express their beliefs as long as they endured personal disgrace for doing so. For me, that is what it comes down to—engaging in civil discourse with my rivals and expecting civility in return. I have not always gotten the latter, and so I know how hurtful that can be. But at least I have not been made to endure disgrace or condemnation for my beliefs, replete with attributions about my moral flaws. Watson engaged in reckless language, as I noted in my posting. But his recklessness was in the second part of his statement where he lapsed into undocumented hearsay and impressions rather than in an evidentiary statement he made in the first part of his statement to the effect that there was research showing racial gaps in African IQ. Research exists to support the latter claim, it is published in journals and in a book, and it can be refuted (and it is being refuted).

I return to my position: It is better to have exchanges such as this Cato Unbound between oppositely held beliefs in public with both sides accorded access to journals and conferences than to have only one side present its story. Today that one side is the one that Turkheimer, Flynn, and I are on (the non-genetic basis of the racial gap in IQ), but tomorrow it could be another side and I’d want to be able to argue my case without being humiliated and made the object of personal attributions.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Shattering Intelligence: Implications for Education and Interventions by James R. Flynn

    In this month’s lead essay, famed intelligence researcher James R. Flynn draws on his new book, What Is Intelligence? Beyond the Flynn Effect, to help answer some of the puzzles surrounding the controversial issue of IQ. Flynn, who first discovered that IQ scores were rising generation after generation, notes that this improvement has been more dramatic on some parts of IQ tests than on others, challenging ideas of a unified general intelligence or “g.” Flynn argues that the fact cognitive abilities do not develop together has important implications for education. Additionally, Flynn contends that the evidence for the co-determining reciprocal influence of brain and environment should lead us to set aside simple ideas about the primacy of nurture and nature in intelligence. Once we grasp that “the brain is much more like our muscles than we had thought,” we can do more to improve cognitive performance by doing more to exercise the brain.

Response Essays

  • Shattering Logic to Explain the Flynn Effect by Linda S. Gottfredson

    Linda Gottfredson, co-director of the Delaware-Johns Hopkins Project for the Study of Intelligence and Society, defends the unity of general intelligence, or g, against Flynn’s attempt to “unravel g into its component parts” by charging that “his core argument rests on logical fallacies that profoundly misinterpret the evidence.”

  • The Fundamental Intuition by Eric Turkheimer

    University of Virginia psychologist Eric Turkheimer contests even James Flynn’s modest accommodation with the construct of g, or general intelligence. Turkheimer argues that the “fundamental intuition” of g is that “universal positive relations among mental tests compels a single dominant explanatory construct,” but that “the fundamental intuition is wrong.” According to Turkheimer, g is not “discovered,” but is simply posited as a convenience, like the Prime Meridian. g may be useful for some purposes, but a multidimensional explanation of ability may still be correct. “The trick is not to get hooked on any particular way of dividing up the pie,” Turkheimer writes, “because it is a short step from there to trying to find the Greenwich Meridian at the bottom of the North Atlantic.”

  • The Significance of the Flynn Effect by Stephen J. Ceci

    Stephen J. Ceci, the Helen L. Carr Professor of Developmental Psychology at Cornell University, explains why Flynn’s work has been so important. According to Ceci, the received wisdom about the nature and effects of g, or general intelligence, led “some to argue that inequality in the distribution of wealth, prestige, and educational attainment is, in part, a consequence of unequal distribution of the intellectual capacity needed for high levels of functioning.” However, Ceci says, “[Flynn] has shown beyond doubt that general intelligence fluctuates systematically over time and this cannot be due to our having better genes than our grandparents,” and he goes on to explore the puzzles raised by this discovery.

The Conversation