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Why talk about race differences?
The time for noble lies and cautious caveats has passed. Race differences in intelligence are a recalcitrant fact with pervasive ramifications.
Written by Bo Winegard.
Scholars who write about race differences in intelligence are often asked, in tones less plaintive than accusatory, “Why would you openly discuss such an incendiary and possibly dangerous topic, one that can only cause harm, if not physically, then at least psychologically?” And although those who have received this (often rhetorical) inquiry tens, hundreds, even thousands of times may find the predictability and the condemnatory air of the question nettlesome, it is not, perhaps, unreasonable. For race differences in intelligence is one of the most combustible topics in modern intellectual discourse; and to many rational and ethically sensitive people it appears unseemly to discuss it dispassionately, as if it were just an empirical curiosity or a museum piece that one might inspect and criticize without moral consequence.
To many educated elites the topic is not only unseemly but also pernicious, redolent of the racism that has beset the United States since its founding. Indeed, a pervasive equalitarian mythos pervades elite discourse and assumptions; and the claim that races are different in more than a superficial way strikes many as inexplicable since, according to their accepted wisdom, race itself is socially constructed illusion.
This attitude, this abhorrence of the very idea of race differences in a trait as socially valued as intelligence, has led to an almost complete blackout of the topic in the mainstream press—and the rare piece that passes through the strenuous filtering process that contains the words “race” and “intelligence” in the same sentence without also including the word “pseudo-science” is attacked with such enthusiasm that the author often laments his momentary audacity and apologizes for broaching the subject.
Perhaps the most spectacular example of this came in 2019, when Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist at the New York Times, provoked controversy with an article about “the secrets” of Jewish success. In it, Stephens rejected the explanatory power of intelligence; but, citing a 2005 article by Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy, and Henry Harpending, he did accept that Jews are “smarter” than other ethnic groups. Alas, even this minor concession to reality was too much; and like vultures who sniff the faint odor of carrion from miles away, the guardians of décor and decency detected this vague transgression and swooped into action, Twitter talons ready to slash. They immediately denounced the New York Times for publishing a “bigoted” op-ed that might fuel anti-Semitism. Unsurprisingly, the New York Times quickly apologized.
And the Stephens kerfuffle was not, of course, unique. Charles Murray and Nicholas Wade and Noah Carl and many others have faced squadrons of abuse and invective for writing candidly about race differences.
This moral intimidation, this threat of severe reputational punishment (and perhaps even loss of employment), only sharpens the original question: Why write about the topic of race differences in intelligence?
To begin, it is true that in the United States (and elsewhere in the world), different races have different average levels of intelligence as measured by IQ tests. Although this might shock somebody who is unfamiliar with the literature and whose only exposure to discussion about this topic is in the pages of liberal outlets full of obstinate denials and fiery denunciations, the data are overwhelming; and in the scientific literature, there is no debate about the existence of group variation in IQ.
Among relevant experts the only serious dispute is the cause of race differences, with some contending that genes play a moderate to significant role and some averring that genes play almost no role. Below are some quotes from mainstream articles and textbooks:
The facts concerning racial and ethnic differences in IQ and similar test scores are clear. The causes and implications of these facts are not at all clear. (Hunt, p. 407)
It should be acknowledged, then, without further ado that there is a difference in average IQ between blacks and whites in the USA and Britain. (Mackintosh, p. 334).
The bell curve for whites is centered roughly around IQ 100; the bell curve for American blacks roughly around 85; and those for different subgroups of Hispanics roughly midway between those for whites and blacks. The evidence is less definitive for exactly where above IQ 100 the bell curves for Jews and Asians are centered. (Mainstream Science on Intelligence, p. 14)
When first encountering evidence of gaps in cognitive ability, many people point to socioeconomic disparities among groups as an obvious cause. Although this is not unreasonable, researchers know that socioeconomic disparities cannot explain all of the group variation in average IQ scores. Other obvious explanations such as systematic racism, which are certainly important to investigate, likely cannot explain all of the variation either. There is evidence that Ashkenazi Jewish people, for example, scored high on intelligence tests and thrived in many intellectually demanding domains at times and in countries that were rife with anti-Semitism.
Despite assiduous efforts to defend an almost exclusively environmental hypothesis of group variation — a hypothesis that suggests that genes play so small a role in such differences that researchers can safely ignore them, the environment-only research program has largely been a failure. Therefore, many experts believe that the most productive research program is one that posits that both genes and the environment play a causal role in group differences. The question of interest is not so much “is it genes or environment?” But rather “what combination of genes and environment?”
Thus, for those who value truth for its own sake, who believe that that only defense the truth needs is that it is indeed true, the question “Why write about race differences in intelligence?” has a simple and peremptory answer: “Because it is true.” But for most people, the fact that something is true is not necessarily reason to promulgate it to the wider public. Plenty of things, after all, are true that prudent people may find too offensive or too trivial to write about. Restraint is a necessary virtue for civilization, and refined, well-mannered people often refrain from uttering unpleasant truths in polite company.
However, even a pragmatist will admit that honesty is generally a virtue. And if the alternative is not silence, but mendaciousness, however nobly motivated, the case for restraint breaks down. And because racial disparities in socially valued outcomes are inevitable and demand explanation from curious citizens, silence is not a viable option.
Race realists may contend, therefore, that the case for writing about race differences is obvious and unassailable. But this is likely unpersuasive to most liberals and progressives (and even to many centrists and conservatives). Even a lie, they might argue, is better than candor about a topic so ruinous to social harmony. And since the point here is not to convince those who are already convinced that we should write openly about this topic, but to persuade those who are skeptical but persuadable, I have forwarded five more reasons to study and discuss race differences in intelligence, reasons which should appeal to (if not persuade) conservatives, liberals, and progressives alike.
Extremists Will Continue to Discuss the Topic
In the United States, governments cannot compel people to remain silent about certain topics; therefore, people are at least legally free to discuss openly and loudly whatever they desire. Race extremists are, of course, attracted to conversations about racial differences that, they believe, buttress their worldview. And they also have nothing to lose from violating social taboos. Therefore, a regime of silence and moral intimidation does nothing to stop them from discussing these issues — in fact, it likely emboldens them because the moderate voices are left out of the conversation, leaving a vacuum for political race baiters and demagogues to fill.
It is Useful to Know Causes
How do different environments affect intelligence? Scientists cannot know the extent of an environment’s impact until they control for genes. So if scientists did stop researching this topic altogether and if intellectuals never discussed it publicly, it would severely injure their capacity to understand the causes of social and educational disparities and foreclose any ability to formulate effective interventions. It’s difficult to gauge the costs and benefits of research, but knowledge is cumulative; knowledge that researchers forswear today, like money that a person refuses to save, can lose huge potential gains in the future. And, because knowledge allows better control of the world, researchers should err on the side of pursuing it and only refrain if there are overwhelmingly persuasive arguments to the contrary.
Silence or Dishonesty Endorses an Environmental-Causes-Only (ECO) Research Program
Intelligence tests of one variety or another are ubiquitous in modern society; therefore, it is impossible to escape evidence that points to disparities between demographic groups. In practice, a moratorium on investigating the causes of disparities is unlikely to hold across the board. Too many researchers — in the quest to find solutions to important social problems — would promulgate environmental-only hypotheses to explain disparities. This may not benefit environmentalists as much as they may think, since every time an environmental hypothesis is refuted, it lends implicit weight to an untested and undiscussed genetic alternative. It seems scientifically dubious, to say the least, to approach a problem with one’s hands tied. It is almost certain that in practice this self-imposed moratorium would simply be an endorsement for a self-restricted research program, one that dismisses genetic hypotheses for reasons extraneous to the evidence. And this, in the long run, is a pathway to misunderstanding, bias, and ignorance.
It Risks Increasing Group Tensions
Races do not have equal outcomes in the United States or in any other country. Some perform exceptionally well; and some perform worse than other groups. These unequal outcomes understandably lead to feverish causal speculation which can be divisive. For example, outstanding Jewish success has led to extravagant conspiracy theories about Jewish global nepotism and innate avarice. And the relatively lower success of some groups has led to accusations of ubiquitous racism and systematic oppression.
Of course, if bigotry is a chief cause of social disparities, then politicians and all decent citizens should battle it indefatigably. But if it is not, then the narrative is not only erroneous but also racially and politically polarizing, predominantly blaming those in power for social ills and inequalities by asserting that a fundamental unfairness afflicts all modern societies. This divisiveness is potentially consequential and costly and is, of course, unjust to the wrongly accused. The best way to discuss and deal with race disparities is to attempt to understand the actual causes of them and then to deal with or accept them as the natural outgrowth of freedom. These political decisions, of course, should be a matter of informed debate, but such debate cannot occur in the absence of an honest assessments.
It Suggests that a Genetic Cause Would Be “Tragic”
Critics of candid discussion of race differences in intelligence often contend that there is something pernicious or unpleasant about the existence of such differences and especially about the notion that such differences might be substantially caused by genes. And some explicitly worry that such claims would contribute to a recrudescence of anti-black or anti-Jewish racism. Silence is exactly the wrong way to address a valid concern. It suggests that there is something immoral about a lower-than-average IQ, which is absurd.
Intelligence is, of course, related to important social outcomes and there is nothing noble about distorting or lying about this fact. Nevertheless, there is nothing less valuable about a person who scores lower than another on a standardized intelligence test.
We cannot — and therefore should not — infer value judgments about “inferiority” and “superiority” from the fact of human variation. Plenty of other traits are important in modern societies such as self-control and empathy. All humans deserve ethical consideration because they are sentient creatures who desire happiness and detest sadness and pain. IQ scores, like beauty or charisma, are simply not a relevant variable when assessing moral dignity.
A chasm of understanding presently separates the mainstream media’s portrayal of the issue of race differences in intelligence from mainstream scholarship. Among relevant experts, there is little dispute that races have different levels of average cognitive ability. The only dispute is about the causes of such differences, and the majority of surveyed experts favor some combination of genes and environment.
This is almost certainly not a stable compromise. Many of those who advocate respectful silence are decent, ethically sensitive people who fear the tempestuous consequences of being honest about race. But although they might be right, silence about this topic is likely to lead to even greater tumult, as progressives continue to insist that race disparities are caused almost exclusively by ubiquitous racism, while other, more conservative whites, vexed by constantly being blamed for the failures of other groups, lash out. The time for noble lies and cautious caveats has passed. Race differences in intelligence are a recalcitrant fact with pervasive ramifications. And although grappling with these IQ disparities honestly does not guarantee wisdom, not grappling with them does guarantee continued ignorance.
Bo Winegard is the Executive Editor of Aporia.