Rational Discussion of the Offensive is Okay

Reviewing the contributions of Ceci and Turkheimer, I still agree with Ceci. For these reasons:

(1) What is offensive should not be discouraged as a subject for rational discussion. I do not doubt that discussion of group differences is offensive particularly to groups where the hypotheses reflect unfavorable stereotypes. Until recently anything that contradicted scripture was offensive: “do you mean to say these people were lying about Christ?”

(2) Scientists have no veto power over what most people say about groups. Group stereotypes existed in simplistic form prior to the rise of science. Does anyone believe they would be less vicious today if Turkheimer’s view had always inhibited rational discussion of the abilities of different races? What about his discussion of the fallacies of talking about “innate”? Was that in bad taste? He may call it a philosophical point but he brings a galaxy of scientific findings to bear to debunk it.

(3) Or are we just to discourage discussions about race that various groups dislike rather than like? As for my group, Irish-Americans, I welcome a no-holds-barred discussion of the roots of our high rates of alcoholism.

(4) When we do not like a discussion, there is always a temptation to raise the bar as to what would count as evidence to a height no social science can meet. Turkheimer should not ask what would convince the race scientists they were wrong, rather he should ask what would convince good scientists that their hypotheses were wrong. His question introduces an ad hominem element in that it implies that his opponents are biased in some way that a good scientist is not. Otherwise there is no reason to single them out as particularly recalcitrant.

(5) I have little doubt as to what would make me conclude they were wrong with finality (as distinct from my present position that they are probably wrong). Evidence of the sort we got from Eyferth’s study of black and white occupation children in Germany from a number of nations, with larger numbers, ages going to maturity, and fewer ambiguities.

(6) Is it not legitimate to ask exactly what would convince people like me and Turkheimer that we were wrong? If we are to ask this of others, a prerequisite would be to first answer it ourselves. I have done so by implication (negative results from a series of studies like Eyferth’s but better), but I can imagine data from progressive knowledge of the human genome. Can Turkheimer not imagine evidence that would settle the issue for any fair-minded person? And if not, what a peculiar exception to all the questions posed by the sciences of man.

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.