The Chilling Effect of IQ Taboos

William Saletan aptly summarizes the research on the genetic and environmental sources of variability in IQ scores. It’s refreshing to read someone so balanced on a topic where no one feels neutrally, and no one is dispassionate. Having said this, one can quibble with his take on some of the evidence. For example, the claim that the average sub-Saharan IQ is only 70 is based on two reviews that have been criticized. Everything in this field gets criticized, of course, but this particular criticism is quite compelling. I think the true sub-Saharan IQ is much closer to 85, and one can begin to see that is not a bad IQ score for children living in austere rural conditions, with poor or nonexistent schools, heavy parasite infestation, and malnutrition. I am not blaming Saletan, because his synopsis accurately reflects what those two reviews claim and what many intelligence researchers have parroted. I am pointing out that the reviews are wrong. My best guess is that the black-white gap in IQ has been converging in the U.S. by around 3-4 points and African IQs will show much larger gains as sub-Saharan countries experience modernization and the things that go with it (e.g., higher quality mandatory schooling).

James Watson may be the most illustrious scholar to have his career ended because of his reckless language on this topic, but he is far from alone, as proponents of racial differences in underlying intelligence have been physically threatened, censured and in a number of cases had their appointments revoked (for examples, see Gottfredson, 2005; Ellis, 2001; Hunt, 1999). Watson opined that “all our policies are based on the fact that their [African] intelligence is the same as ours whereas all the testing says not really,” going on to state that although he hoped that everybody was equal, “people who had to deal with black employees find this is not true.” He instantly plummeted from the A-list Nobelist to the outcast who was removed from his post as the Chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. In the aftermath he was excoriated roundly in the media as well as in the corridors of the academy.

Saletan defends Watson on the grounds that the research supports his claim. I have a very different worry: Namely, the fear of being labeled racist, the enmity of colleagues and students, and occasional reprimands that threaten advancement and tenure revocation, can be sufficient to muzzle those who do not accept racial equivalence in intelligence. As Gottfredson (2005) remarked:

… the farther one goes into forbidden territory, the more numerous and more severe the sanctions become: first the looks of disapproval and occasional accusations of racism, then greater difficulty getting promoted, funding, or papers published, and eventually being shunned, persecuted, or fired. (p. 159)

I personally believe that IQ scores do not reflect the range of cognitive complexity captured by the label “intelligence”, and that any racial differences in IQ scores are due to differing ecological challenges faced by white and black Americans, not to genetic or other biological differences. I also believe that current racial gaps in IQ scores can close over time (and have been closing over time).

I am fortunate that these are my views because they are politically correct and garner me praise, speaking and writing invitations, and book adoptions at the same time those who disagree with me are demeaned, ostracized, and in some cases threatened with tenure revocation even though their science is as reasonable as mine. Don’t get me wrong, I think their positions are incorrect and I have relished aiming my pen at what I regard to be their leaps of logic and flawed analysis. But they deeply believe that I am wrong. The problem is that I can tell my side far more easily than they are permitted to tell theirs, through invitations to speak at meetings, to contribute chapters and articles, etc.. This offends my sense of fairness and cannot be good for science. I think Saletan would agree with me on this.


Ellis, F. (2001), ‘Race and IQ’, in Derek Jones, ed., Censorship: A World Encyclopedia, vol 3, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2008-2010).

Gottfredson, L. S. (2005) Suppressing intelligence research. In Destructive trends in mental health: the well-intentioned path to harm, ed. R. H. Wright & N. A. Cummings, pp. 155–86. Routledge.

Hunt, M. (1999) The new know-nothings: The political foes of the scientific study of human nature. Transaction Press.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.”

  • 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.”

  • 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.