1. Selective intelligence (SMH, October 25, 1994)
2. Differing intellects (SMH, November 5, 1994)
Padraic P. McGuinness, “Selective intelligence,”
The Sydney Morning Herald, October 25, 1994, p. 14.
Are Australian Aborigines of lower average intelligence than Australians of European and Asian stock? If so, what could be the causes of such a difference, and what could we do about it? What implications would it have? Such questions immediately raise the hackles of everybody concerned with fairness and justice for Aborigines. Nevertheless, if there were any such differences they would have very important policy implications.
The subject of measurement of intelligence is a highly politicised one, especially so when comparisons of average intelligence are made between any defined group and, above all, between races. So the revival in the United States of the notion that there is such a thing as measurable intelligence (which most psychologists have never doubted), and that average intelligence might differ as between races, has produced a predictable furore. This is a pity, since whatever the motives of those who abhor “racist” distinctions, the measurement, causes and importance of differences in human intelligence should not be declared off acceptable political bounds. The latest row has been touched off by the publication by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein of a new book, The Bell Curve, which revives the argument about the importance of hereditary factors in the determination of intelligence, and argues that the overwhelming weight of evidence in the United States is that blacks, Afro-Americans, are on average about 15 points lower on IQ than whites. There is evidence also that the average intelligence of those of east Asian descent (including Native Americans) is a few points higher than Europeans. The weekly magazine The New Republic publishes an article by these two in its latest issue. (Murray is a sociologist who has published a book, Losing Ground, which argues that the poor have not benefited from the programs intended to benefit them; Herrnstein, who recently died, was a highly qualified psychologist at Harvard University.) This article caused so much protest among its staff that it felt compelled to publish along with it an editorial and no fewer than 19 articles denouncing the authors. None of these denunciations really comes to terms with the scientific issues. They are all about the possible political and social dangers of debating the issue, and varying degrees of abuse of the authors.
The argument about the degree to which intelligence is a matter of one’s genes, and the distribution of genes among racial groups, is a complex one. That there are genetic differences between races in terms of other characteristics is firmly established. The distribution of blood groups, for example, is clearly different in different races. Africans are prone to sickle cell anaemia, a benign mutation in Africa (it gives some resistance to malaria) but not in the United States. And so on. Why not in the distribution of intelligence or in some of the various factors which seem to go to make up intelligence (for example, verbal-logical facility versus visual-spatial grasp)? Of course, the IQ controversy covers such a complicated history and has had drawn from it such implications that it must be sensitive. The eugenics movement was considered perfectly respectable before it was taken over by the Nazis but no longer. (As Professor Peter Singer, the distinguished Australian philosopher of ethics, has found, it is still impossible to discuss any related issue freely in Germany because of the reaction to eugenics.) There is the recurring fear that IQ will be used as a form of racial or class oppression, and even that the assertion of racial differences will be used to justify slavery, perpetual inequality and social policies which will discourage mobility between socio-economic groups.
But even if that possibility did exist it would not excuse the kind of all-out attack on the scientific analysis of differences in IQ and its distribution among different groups which is once again being mounted in America. Scientists of the stature of the last Sir Peter Medawar, the Nobel-prize-winning immunologist, and Stephen Jay Gould, the biologist and palaeontologist, have denounced the attempt to sort out hereditary and other determinants of intelligence as pointless and impossible. But they would not say the same of any other measurable human characteristic.
How measurable is intelligence? Does any single measure exist? And what importance does it have, anyway? There is a lot of half-baked criticism of IQ measurement which calls it everything from unscientific to culturally biased. But the fact remains that IQ is a good predictor of many things, especially performance at university (unless the universities rig their results). It is, for example, a far better predictor of income at peak than is inherited wealth. It is a good predictor of socio-economic class at death. But does IQ lead to upwards social mobility or does high socio-economic status cause higher IQ? How important are things such as nutrition, social status, opportunities, past oppression and so on in determining IQ? What has upset so many Americans is that Murray and Herrnstein have looked at all these issues carefully and coolly, and concluded that there nevertheless remains an otherwise inexplicable residue which has to be attributed to heredity. They also point out that even if IQ were the result of socio-economic status, there is no reason to believe that the raising of the relative socio-economic status of a whole group is possible. Certainly, none of the social policies of the past 20 years have shown any great success, although they have not all been without useful fruits. But it seems many affirmative action, quota-based and reserved-place approaches to increasing the proportion of blacks in universities and top jobs are based on the presumption that if you put someone into such a job their IQ will increase correspondingly.
One factor they seem to have overlooked, and this is perhaps peculiar to the race debate in the US, is that the genetic make-up of those who are classified as blacks in America is far from uniform. To an outsider it seems ridiculous to classify a people as racially mixed as the Americans, whether they call themselves Afro-American or Caucasian, as easily divisible for statistical (or indeed any other) purposes. Blacks are simply not racially or genetically unmixed with European and other genes, except a tiny minority, and vice versa.
The point is really not whether racial groups are on average different in IQ. There always will be a substantial proportion of blacks who have higher IQs than most whites, so to discriminate between individuals on the basis that they are part of a defined group regardless of their individual characteristics is stupid. But that kind of racial stereotyping is not what racism is about.
However, it is equally stupid to rule out certain lines of inquiry as to the determinants of performance at school and university, or in the workforce, just because they might possibly have uncomfortable implications. Of course there is much evil that has resulted from the attempt to define racial differences, and in particular to discover proof of racial inequality. Much greater evil has resulted from the attempt to suppress free discussion and unfettered scientific inquiry.
Padraic P. McGuinness, “Differing intellects,”
The Sydney Morning Herald, November 5, 1994, p. 38.
There is already an outcry gathering force in Australia, as well as in the United States, against the renewed debate as to possible differences in the average intelligence of different racial groups. While this is to be expected, there is no reason why the accumulated prejudice of the past 25 years should be any longer allowed to prevent, as it has, the serious study of human intelligence and measures of it.
The orthodoxy which took hold among the “caring professions”, including schoolteachers, other educationists, social workers, as well as those in the humanities and the “soft” social sciences, is that it is both impossible and invidious to try to compare human beings in terms of intelligence, and it is above all objectionable to suggest that on average members of one race may not be as “intelligent” on some measures as members of another.
There is an element of justice in this, since there is no doubt that, in the past, talk about racial differences has led to terrible discrimination and crimes.
But to suggest that recognition of differences in intelligence inevitably leads to bad effects is analogous to suggesting that the genocidal conflicts in Rwanda would be lessened in any respect simply by forbidding the measurement of height which shows the Tutsi to be considerably taller on average than the Hutu.
The real issue is that it should make no practical difference to the treatment of any individual that he or she comes from one racial group or another, nor is the fact relevant to the actual measurement of an individual’s height.
Human beings differ in many respects, and there is no reason why the fact that one person is more beautiful, more physically fit, more athletically able, more able to sing harmoniously and in tune, should be considered as due in any respect to that person’s intrinsic merit. But we do value people who have outstanding physical qualities or talents, and it is clear that society through the market values highly those individuals who are of sufficiently high intelligence to become scientists, engineers, surgeons, diagnosticians and curers, and so on — as well as to be successful stockbrokers, managers or whatever. Those who are not highly endowed with intelligence nevertheless may be respected members of the community, and should be valued for their common humanity just as much as the intellectual elite.
However, it is clear that education practice here and overseas for the last generation has been dominated by the kind of resentment and refusal to accept that the differences in intelligence between children should be valued and recognised, and should lead to differences in treatment. There is a terrible history of actual maltreatment or deliberate handicapping of intellectually gifted children — many schoolteachers pretend that such children do not exist or ought not to be given special help, and some even express hatred of the intellectually gifted.
Indeed, the use of intelligence testing in the schools has been all but abandoned as a result of the absurd social theories and doctrinal rigidity of the anti-IQ movement.
The issue has been confused by the debate as to whether intelligence is a matter of heredity or upbringing. It is obviously the case that height and beauty are largely inherited, though clearly nutrition and environment contribute. Intelligence is a much more elusive concept (particularly for those who are not over endowed with it), and can be influenced by health and cultural factors. It is also frequently claims that tests of intelligence are culturally biased.
The cultural bias of IQ tests is a largely exploded myth, as is demonstrated in the book which has started up the whole controversy again, The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein. (The bell curve is the description given to the way in which most human characteristics, from height to intelligence, are distributed around the average of a population.) While undoubtedly there have been tests that have had cultural bias, with sufficient care this can be eliminated. This is especially the case when the kind of intelligence that involved mathematical ability is measured. There is more than one kind of intelligence but the concept of general intelligence still has validity and, of course, there are many kinds of talents.
Usually the people who are most critical of intelligence testing are those who have little knowledge of or training in statistical theory and method. (Everybody proposing to go on to tertiary education, and especially those who write about subjects such as intelligence, ought to be compelled to watch the excellent survey of statistical theory and its uses which is recycled regularly by ABC-TV in its Open Learning programs.) These critics are part of the new movement of rejection of science and rationality which has been criticised recently by the eminent physicist Professor Paul Davies. There is an increasing number of people who think that scientific truth can be subordinated to political or other criteria.
The question of heredity versus nurture in intelligence is not a very important one for most practical purposes. But the measurement of actual intelligence, however determined, is. Unhappily, the politicisation of the universities and schools over the last 25 years has ensured that very little real research is being done on IQ as a predictor, say, of success at university in science courses. Yet it is a very important element, and especially so if we want scientists, doctors, engineers and so on who can be relied on to add to the total body of knowledge and the welfare of humanity.
It is a truism that Australians are much more admiring of sporting achievement than of intellectual or artistic achievement. Apparently it is not considered political incorrect to admit that some people can run faster than others, and to pick out in their youth those who will benefit from further intensive training.
Of course, how they actually perform in the end will have a lot to do with their motivation and application.
Why not do the same with the young who possess high intelligence? This, after all, is what the schools are in part meant to do, even more so the universities.
The fact that many of them have been falling down on their job because they have the vague and woolly notion that intelligence does not matter, or ought not to be encouraged, is really a criminal neglect of a national asset.
Can everybody be made more intelligent through cultural, nutritional and educational factors? Maybe, just as the population has grown in average height over the last 100 years. But the existence of people who are much taller than others, or much shorter, remains no less a fact. Why is it permissible to admit this, and yet some kind of terrible fascist-leaning error to point to the obvious fact that some people are more intelligent than others, though this makes them morally no better?
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