24 May 2003
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Are whites cleverer than blacks?
Sean Thomas breaks a taboo on the subject of IQ tests, but believes there are grounds for hope In February this year, the Department for Education and Skills issued a report on the comparative achievements of various ethnic minorities in UK schools. The report found that Afro-Caribbean children in particular were notably underachieving, as compared with whites and East Asians; in this finding the report echoed all previous findings on the subject, going right back to the Swann Report of 1984. Responses to the report mentioned as a possible cause ‘institutional racism’ in schools; they did not offer any deeper explanations.

A few weeks later, in March, the National Curriculum Authority posted on its official website a new document, ‘Respect for All’. This was apparently a body of ‘best practice’ intended to help British teachers inculcate the values of diversity and racial tolerance. In the middle of the Science section of the document was the explicit phrase, presented as fact, that ‘the concept of race has no biological significance’.

Two minor points; two ripples on the placid surface of educational life. Yet two ripples that bespeak a great plesiosaur of an argument raging in the murkier depths of our political discourse.

The raging yet unmentionable argument is, of course, about genetic or ‘innate’ differences between the races; specifically, the possibility that there may be a significant difference between blacks and whites in terms of innate intelligence. This unsavoury question keeps coming up for air simply because, ever since IQ tests were first devised a century ago, they have revealed big differences between ethnic groups. Most notoriously of all, they have consistently revealed that blacks in Western countries score, on average, one standard deviation (15 IQ points) below the average white IQ of 100.

What is interesting about this otherwise depressing argument is the way the Left (for want of a better term) has responded to it — as demonstrated by the way the DfES has handled its own recent findings, and that little ‘fact’ slipped into the NCA’s website. Because the Left has had real difficulty in explaining all the uncomfortable IQ data, it has instead adopted a position of aggressive rejection of the whole argument and all that surrounds it. On the one hand, the Left denies that races even exist; on the other, it savagely attacks anybody who mentions IQ and race, or just race. In this way it apparently aims to close down the argument entirely.

To understand the tenor of the debate, you have, of course, to go back in history. The first intimation of the Left’s attempted closure of the race-and-intelligence question came in 1950. In that year a Unesco panel of social and natural scientists, understandably exercised by recent European history, attempted to write the coda to eugenics and Nazism by pronouncing race to be a ‘social construct’ that had ‘no biological meaning’. Majestically, almost ex cathedra, Unesco further asserted that, as race did not exist in biology, there could be no true genetic differences between races in terms of any specific faculty, particularly intelligence (even if IQ test results showed that there was a difference).

The statement had the desired effect. From 1950 onwards no self-respecting scientist would go near the area of eugenics — or race differences — let alone racial differences in intelligence. Indeed, in the following years the Left managed to load stones on the coffin lid of the race-differences-in-IQ argument by rubbishing all IQ tests, and by character-assassinating famous IQ testers such as Sir Cyril Burt. Burt, a British scientist, was ‘revealed’ to have faked his IQ tests on identical twins in 1976, although some now claim that he merely made honest mistakes. After that, no one wanted to share the fate of poor Sir Cyril.

Except Arthur Jensen. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s this valiant professor from the University of California, Berkeley, published articles and books which dared to suggest that IQ tests weren’t irretrievably culturally biased, and that the racial differences they consistently exposed (the one standard deviation difference between blacks and whites again) were real, genetic, and biologically significant. Jensen’s findings were supported by the psychologist Hans Eysenck in 1971.

How did the anti-IQ lobby respond? In two ways: some called Eysenck a Nazi; others were a bit more subtle, like the late Harvard palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould. Largely in response to Jensen and Eysenck, Gould published, in 1981, The Mismeasure of Man. Written in Gould’s characteristically deft and persuasive prose, the book used the ludicrous IQ tests of the 1930s US Immigration Services (which apparently labelled four-fifths of Jewish immigrants ‘feeble-minded morons’) as a stick with which to beat Jensen and Eysenck et al.

It was a very successful performance. In the eyes of many observers, the avowedly Marxist Gould had managed once more to show that all IQ testing was hopelessly compromised by environmental imponderables (diet, schooling, culture, height, etc.). And so the Left concluded that it had put the debate right back in the box.

But it hadn’t. In 1994 two US academics, Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, published their book on genes and intelligence, The Bell Curve. This caused a real stir, not because it published anything new about IQ results and race (the authors found the 15 IQ points’ difference, like everyone else), but because it was backed up by a remarkable wealth of data ‘proving’ that, firstly, IQ tests were a great predictor of a person’s future prosperity and success, and, secondly, that it was genes that had the largest role in creating the innate intelligence that led to that success. Herrnstein and Murray adduced much plausible evidence on this question by citing, for example, black children adopted by white parents, in which case the IQs of the black children were still supposedly lower than their white siblings.

Finally, as if to compound their sins, or their achievement, Herrnstein and Murray concluded that, given this immutable racial differential, advanced technological societies would increasingly come to be dominated by a ‘cognitive elite’ — that is to say, East Asians (average IQ 105), plus Ashkenazi Jews (average IQ 115), plus high-IQ whites.

At the time, this book seemed to be a watershed, even a break in the dyke. To back up Herrnstein and Murray, several other pro-IQ, pro-race-difference geneticists, psychologists and anthropologists started to publish their own theories: scientists such as J. Philippe Rushton, Chris Brand, Richard Lynn, and others. Some of this research was a bit rum; some quite telling.

The response of the anti-IQ-ers was scarcely contained fury. A bunch of anti-IQ scientists published a compendium of essays rubbishing The Bell Curve. Then Gould updated The Mismeasure of Man, specifically in response to Herrnstein and Murray. But these ripostes didn’t necessarily work. And so the Left went back to its more successful tactic: it attempted to shut down the argument with ad hominem attacks.

Unfortunately for the pro-IQ guys, this was a lot more successful — because it wasn’t too difficult. J. Philippe Rushton might have been (may still be, he still lectures in London, Ontario) a clever psychometrician, but he also published extremely dodgy stuff about penile size and cranial capacities that positively reeked of Josef Goebbels. As a result, Rushton was threatened with being sacked by Ontario’s PM, and eventually prosecuted under Canada’s hate-crime laws. As for Chris Brand, a noted psychologist at Edinburgh University, he practically signed his own death warrant when he confessed himself a ‘scientific racist’ just before penning an apologia for paedophiles (Brand’s publishers, Wiley, were obliged to withdraw Brand’s book on race and intelligence; in 1996 Brand was given the boot by Edinburgh).

A victory for the Left? Yes and no. Publication of The Bell Curve did not, as it turns out, signal a thaw in the Establishment’s stern, Soviet-style attitude towards ‘race scientists’; but neither had the Left wholly succeeded in putting discussion of IQ and race off-limits. In fact the debate has proceeded since publication of The Bell Curve in pretty much the same way as it had done before. Every so often a brave, foolhardy or racist (take your pick) academic publishes a samizdat article suggesting that there are racial differences, especially in intelligence: just as soon as he does so, his argument is assiduously ignored, or dismissed as loopy racism, or crushed by more ex cathedra statements from the scientific liberal elite, such as that from the Association of American Anthropologists, which asseverated in 1998 that race was a ‘social mechanism’ with little or no biological meaning. (This statement was the basis of the National Curriculum Authority’s website factoid, even though the assertion is fiercely contested by many scientists. To the NCA’s credit, it has modified its website since the overstatement was pointed out.)

One recent example of a hugely ignored bit of ‘race-difference science’ is Professor Richard Lynn’s IQ and the Wealth of Nations (Greenwood Press, 2002). In this striking but wholly unreviewed work, Lynn, of Ulster University, correlated national-average IQs with GDP per capita. Lynn found that low national IQ is very strongly correlated with poor economic performance. To wit: right at the bottom of the heap are the impoverished sub-Saharan countries with average IQs of about 60 or 70 (15 or more points lower than the average for blacks in Western countries). Then come the slightly richer but still poor north African and Arab countries, with average IQs of about 80 or 90. Next are the European countries, the West in general, with Britain standing quite high up in that bunch (102). Finally, and predictably, come the top IQ countries: the high-tech or high-growth Asian countries: Japan, Korea, China. One of the few obvious anomalies is that Lynn gave Israel a bizarrely low national average IQ of 94.

If all this is true (and, of course, it may not be), it raises a large number of questions. Is the GDP/IQ relationship causal? If so, in what way? Does a causal link mean that we should rethink the way we direct Third World aid? And so on.

Granted, these are thorny and difficult issues. They are also enormously important ones. Yet these issues have stayed resolutely below the surface of intellectual life: Lynn’s book did not get a mention in any serious media; it was only published by a tiny imprint at £70 a pop; when Lynn gave a publication-day press conference in a room designed for 200 journalists (he was understandably expecting a deal of controversy and interest) only one journalist showed up, and she never wrote anything.

So, what is an open-minded non-racist to make of all this? Who is right and who is wrong? Is there a difference in average intelligence (at least as measured by IQ) between ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’?

The short answer is yes. In 1995 the American Psychological Association responded to The Bell Curve furore by conducting an authoritative and dispassionate investigation into the whole vexed issue of IQ and its relationship to ethnicity. Its considered conclusion was that the IQ gap between blacks and whites is a reality; it further concluded that we don’t yet know why the gap exists. As they succinctly put it in their press release:

The differential between the mean intelligence test scores of blacks and whites does not result from any obvious biases in test construction and administration, nor does it simply reflect differences in socio-economic status. Explanations based on factors of caste and culture may be appropriate, but so far there is little direct empirical support for them. There is certainly no such support for a genetic interpretation. At this time, no one knows what is responsible for the differential.
So that’s that; and somewhat depressing it is, too. But before we all throw up our hands in fear for our multiracial future, it should be remembered that just because things are as they are does not mean that they will stay this way. Indeed, there are —thanks to science — very good grounds for hoping that these IQ differences will eventually fade away into insignificance.

The main reason for optimism is the so-called ‘Flynn Effect’. Named after the New Zealand scientist who discovered it a few years ago, the Flynn Effect is the hitherto unremarked phenomenon that all IQs are rising over time. In some countries IQs have risen by 25 points in a single generation. No one is sure why the Flynn Effect obtains (better diet? more challenging technology?) but no one seriously disputes Flynn’s observation. The happy result of the Flynn Effect is that in about 100 years there won’t, in terms of IQ, be many notably less intelligent peoples at all. And then the Department for Education will have real cause for bien-pensant complacency.

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© 2003 The Spectator.co.uk