January 31, 2024
The race-IQ question remains the most controversial in all of American discourse. In this column, however, I’m going to step back from my hectic and hilarious week dismantling the tweets of outraged midwit Will Stancil, who has been inadvertently conducting a one-man marketing campaign for my new greatest-hits anthology Noticing: An Essential Steve Sailer Reader: 1973-2023 (the paperback is $29.95 with free domestic shipping if you enter the discount code STANCIL).
Instead, I’ll reflect upon some of the more difficult philosophy of science questions raised by the race-IQ conundrum. There are, it appears, good reasons not to be too confident that whichever side you come down on is definitely the right one.
I’m not going to run through all the data, but let’s start by reviewing a few basic facts.
There is no valid controversy today over whether racial differences in cognitive test scores exist. Although many Americans are shocked when they hear that whites outscore blacks on average (although they tend to be less shocked when they hear that Asians average higher than whites), this might be the most exhaustively documented finding in the history of the social sciences.
Nor is there much informed dispute anymore over whether or not IQ tests are measuring something real and fairly important.
Nor is there any evidence that IQ tests are biased against blacks in the sense that blacks perform better on average in real life than on the tests. They don’t.
Nor is there any evidence that a valid IQ test could be developed that makes the race gap disappear. There has been tremendous demand for one since the 1960s, but nobody has ever managed to come close to inventing it.
So what happens is that when somebody manages to make clear these truths, the discussion among smarter people immediately switches to whether The Gap is genetic or not.
In many ways, though, it’s not terribly important for practical purposes whether IQ disparities are due to nature or nurture, because after more than a half century of our society obsessing over how to close The Gap, we’ve made little progress and lately have more or less given up hope that some kind of educational reform will do the trick. We don’t have much of a clue how to get blacks to catch up, and we may well be making their performance worse by catering to their worst instincts, just as we’ve managed to raise their homicide and car crash rates during the Black Lives Matter era.
This then quickly becomes an argument over whose fault it is and who must therefore pay.
Old-fashioned liberals argue that it’s due to the environment—for instance, that poverty means that African Americans tend to drive more Nissans than Lexuses, which must be depressing their IQs—and surely can be rectified by spending more on social programs. Mr. President, we must close the Lexus Gap!
(There are indeed some historical examples of peoples raising their average IQs, often at the same time as they raised their average heights. Perhaps the two best documented are the Japanese in the postwar period and the South Koreans in the late 20th century. But did they succeed through welfare rather than through hard work?)
New-fashioned wokes argue that low black IQ scores must be due to white evilness, for which the only cure for this and for whatever else ails blacks is reparations, now and forever. For example, the official San Francisco reparations commission concluded that black San Franciscans should be guaranteed an income of $97,000 for the next 250 years.
Both explanations imply much higher taxes. At present, taxes are race-neutral, but in the future it might well be argued that only whites should have to pay taxes going to reparations. Equity requires your home equity be expropriated.
Because there is no money involved, the alternative explanation that blacks and whites evolved differently—as Harvard’s superstar geneticist David Reich informed the shocked, shocked Fleet Street hack Angela Saini: “Black Americans are mostly West African in ancestry and white Americans tend to be European, both correlating to genuine population groups that were once separated at least partially for seventy thousand years in human history….”—is considered unmentionable in polite society.
Note that the banned Bell Curve hereditarian hypothesis that one part of the race gap is due to nature and another part is due to nurture is much less extremist and much more plausible than the politically correct conventional wisdom’s theory that 100 percent of the gap must be due to nurture.
In contrast, my default assumption has long been that nature and nurture are probably divided up somewhere around fifty-fifty. That seems vastly more prudent than the orthodox dogma that all of the influence on intelligence is due to environment and none due to heredity.
Still, this doesn’t mean that the genetic theory is a slam dunk. One problem with the plausibility of the hereditarian hypothesis is that it’s extremely limited in its possible scope. We know, more or less, how genetic inheritance works, which means that the theory might be definitively falsified.
Under the Popperian philosophy of science, it’s admirable to formulate a hypothesis that can be falsified. On the other hand, that also means your idea could be debunked once and for all. In contrast, we are pretty much clueless about the limits of how social constructionism might possibly work. And that means that the 100 percent nurture theory can’t be finally falsified because somebody might always be able to concoct a new theory explaining away unfortunate empirical results. If you subscribe to a more woozy, hand-waving nurturist theory, you might be able to gin up a persuasive rationalization to slide out from unwanted data.
For example, consider a type of race-IQ study that has been undertaken for the last century: Does racial admixture correlate with IQ? If the hereditarian hypothesis is correct, then in mixed-race people, the more white ancestry they have, the higher should be their IQs on average. If that’s not true, then the idea that nature is important is in big trouble.
Jim Holt’s 2009 review in The New York Times of a book by Richard E. Nisbett arguing that the cause of the race gap was purely environmental asserted that admixture studies were this close to blowing up the Bell Curve theory.
Among his more direct evidence, Nisbett cites impressive studies in population genetics. African-Americans have on average about 20 percent European genes, largely as a legacy of slavery. But the proportion of European genes ranges widely among individuals, from near zero to more than 80 percent. If the racial gap is mostly genetic, then blacks with more European genes ought to have higher I.Q.’s on average. In fact, they don’t.
But, in reality, for the first 90 years of admixture studies, we didn’t have an accurate enough way to assess individuals’ ancestry. Looking at them didn’t do the trick, as anthropologist Margaret Mead pointed out in 1926. What we needed, Mead argued, was some way to accurately measure subjects’ racial genealogy.
Well, we finally have DNA tests of ancestry that are quite reliable. So, recently, our society has developed magnificent databases of around 10,000 young people for whom we have both DNA and IQ, such as the Philadelphia Neurodevelopment and Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development projects. Analyses of these databases could have falsified the theory that genes play a major role in IQ.
But they did not.
Instead, the results turned out in line with nature being more dominant than nurture in determining IQ.
Still, that’s hardly definitive because the social constructionists can always come up with some new explanation, such as that American whites are notably more racist (or “colorist”) toward blacks who are five percent white (the 16th percentile among self-identified African-Americans) than they are toward blacks who are 27 percent white (the 84th percentile).
I doubt that that’s terribly true because I don’t think most whites pay much attention to those kind of ancestral subtleties among blacks. This isn’t Brazil where colorism reigns supreme. Instead, America has always subscribed to a one-drop rule for the binary sorting of individuals into the big boxes of Black or Not Black.
For example, I no doubt pay more attention to race than most whites, and while I could tell you that quarterback Patrick Mahomes is pale and quarterback Lamar Jackson is dark, I really haven’t noticed color distinctions among most black celebrities. Who is darker? Will Smith or Snoop Dogg? Personally, I mentally categorize both as members of the black race and don’t worry much about how black they are.
But even if we could someday prove my critique of colorism, defenders of social constructionism would just then come up with another excuse rather than declare their theory falsified. In contrast, hereditarianism is more falsifiable, so even though it’s a more reasonable guess, it’s more at risk.