Richwine and the Inherent Goodness of Intelligence

[Content note: racism]

In news that should surprise absolutely no one, conservatives have once again embarrassed themselves by attempting to “prove” with “science” that people of color are stupider than white people. Yup, again.

You’ve probably read this story elsewhere so I’ll make my recap brief: It has come to light that Jason Richwine (I’m not making this name up, folks), the lead author of a study on immigration from the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote his 2009 PhD dissertation on…why Hispanics are genetically stupider than whites and will therefore continue to have children who are stupider than whites:

Richwine’s dissertation asserts that there are deep-set differentials in intelligence between races. While it’s clear he thinks it is partly due to genetics — ‘the totality of the evidence suggests a genetic component to group differences in IQ’ — he argues the most important thing is that the differences in group IQs are persistent, for whatever reason. He writes, ‘No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.

In case you’re wondering at which podunk school Richwine wrote such a dissertation, well, it was Harvard.

(Awkwardly, the very next day after WaPo broke this story, a Pew Research Center report was released that showed that Hispanic students’ rate of college enrollment is now greater than whites’. LOLZ. [However, note that Hispanic =/= Latino.])

Why are conservatives so goddamn obsessed with trying to “prove” that people of color are stupid? Zack Beauchamp at ThinkProgress has a great analysis:

These spats don’t generally endear conservatism to the general public, so it’s not like this is a political move. So why is it that the right-of-center intelligentsia keeps coming back to this topic? I’d suggest two reasons: first, a link between race and IQ moots the moral imperative for public policy aimed at addressing systemic poverty; second, it allows conservatives to take up the mantle of disinterested, dispassionate intellectual they so love.

One mistake that all of these people make–aside from the glaring one of being racist, that is–is that they treat the distinction between “IQ” and “intelligence” as completely irrelevant. Scrupulous research psychologists are quick to acknowledge that the measures they use are imperfect and can only provide an approximation of the actual abstractions they are trying to assess. So if you score higher on a scale of depression, we don’t say you are “more depressed”; we say that you “scored higher on the Such-and-Such Depression Scale.” If you score higher on a scale of extroversion, we don’t say that you are “more extroverted”; we say that you “scored higher on the Blah-Blah-Blah Extroversion-Introversion Scale.” At least, that’s what careful, conscientious psychologists do.

Many believe that intelligence is a much more concrete (and therefore measurable) quality than extroversion or how depressed you are. They may be right; I’m not a cognitive psychologist so this is not my specialty. However, serious criticism of IQ as a measure of intelligence has been made–and by “Real Scientists,” too, not just by Bleeding-Heart-Tree-Hugging-I’m-Mixing-Metaphors Liberals. And in terms of race, some researchers have suggested that IQ tests are biased against Mexican Americans because the tests contain “cultural influences” that reduce the validity of the test when assessing these students’ cognitive ability.

Back to Beauchamp’s analysis of conservatives and why they’re so obsessed with race and IQ:

This vein of argument was pioneered by Richwine’s mentor, Bell Curve author Charles Murray. Murray’s research focused more on the purported unintelligence of African-Americans, but his conclusions about its role in sustaining poverty were similar. Murray has taken this conclusion and used it to argue against everything from affirmative action to essentially all policy interventions aimed at reducing economic inequality. It’s easy to see how this argument works — if some people are less intelligent than others, as a consequence of either genetics or “underclass culture,” then government programs aren’t likely to help equalize society — creating an economically more level playing field will only cause the most talented to rise to the top again. Inequality is thus natural and ineradicable; poverty might be helped at the margins, but helping the unintelligent will be fraught with unintended consequences.

Moreover, this framing allows conservatives to explain the obviously racial character of American poverty without having to concede the continued relevance of racism to American public life. If it’s really the case that people with certain backgrounds simply aren’t as smart as others, then it makes sense that they’d be less successful as a group. What strikes progressives as offensively racial inequality thus becomes naturalized for conservatives in the same way that inequality and poverty writ large do.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? People of color are disproportionately likely to be poor compared to white people. People of color are stupider than white people. Ergo, there’s no need to try to alleviate poverty and economic inequality because it’s natural.

Hopefully you noticed the big honkin’ naturalistic fallacy in that argument. Even if it’s natural for people of color to be poor (because they’re stupid and therefore can’t get off the couch and get a job), that doesn’t mean that this is a good way for society to be. It does not follow that we should just allow things to continue this way.

The other big flaw is that these conservatives are also succumbing–as, to be fair, most people do–to the notion that people with higher IQs/more intelligence are inherently better than people with lower IQs/less intelligence. It is okay that people with little intelligence should struggle just to get by, should be unable to give their children a better life (whether those children have low IQs or not), should be unable to afford basic healthcare, should have to eat cheap, unhealthy food, should have to choose between dangerous, dehumanizing, low-pay work (or none at all) and breaking the law to make money, should have to live as second-class citizens. All because they are “less intelligent,” which is supposedly mostly genetic and therefore not something they chose.

I wish liberals talked about this more. I wish that when conservatives started trotting out these reprehensible arguments, that liberals would, rather than simply emphasizing that there is no proof that people of color are “naturally” dumber than white people and that this is a racist argument, also ask why it is that intelligence should determine whether or not you have access to food, shelter, and healthcare.

There are, of course, many other important things to discuss here. We could talk about how there are so many different types of intelligence and IQ tests only measure a certain type. We could talk about how growing up in poverty drastically reduces one’s opportunities for intellectual enrichment and growth. We could talk about how you don’t necessarily need to be “smart” to contribute to society; we do need service-sector workers and types of unskilled laborers and they should be able to live on what they make, too.

But I think we need to talk about this idea that having a lot of “intelligence” (whatever that even means) makes you better than those who do not have a lot of it. So much better, in fact, those without sufficient “intelligence” do not deserve to live above the poverty line.


Edit: Not quite related to the main point of this article, but the conservative response to this controversy and Richwine’s subsequent firing/resignation from the Heritage Foundation is veeery interesting. I won’t link to any because you can Google it yourself, but it’s all about Richwine’s “crucifixion” and how liberals are trying to “destroy” him and so on.

Conservatives have this interesting theory in which, when someone does something wrong, it is the fault of the person who calls attention to it that the wrong-doer experiences negative consequences. It’s not that Richwine did something wrong, it’s that the meanie liberals are trying to destroy him. Similarly, when someone accuses someone–say, up-and-coming football players–of sexual assault, many conservatives accuse the victims of “ruining” their rapists’ lives by bringing what they did to light.

The fact that people’s reputation suffers when they do something terrifically stupid or harmful is not a bad thing. That is, indeed, society working as it should. It is a feature, not a bug.

Richwine and the Inherent Goodness of Intelligence

16 thoughts on “Richwine and the Inherent Goodness of Intelligence

  1. 1

    I wish liberals talked about this more. I wish that when conservatives started trotting out these reprehensible arguments, that liberals would, rather than simply emphasizing that there is no proof that people of color are “naturally” dumber than white people and that this is a racist argument

    I think there’s two things going on with that, although they’re kind of related. The first is that class is something Americans don’t like to talk about at all, and right wing propaganda over the last several decades has successfully pulled the Overton window way over into social concerns (Many of which amount to economic concerns in the end, although by no means all), and two, that because of that, racism is perceived as a Very Bad Thing, and all right thinking people agree, while predatory capitalism is considered the baseline of the political discourse that no-one can question, because then they’ll be called *gasp* COMMUNISTS!!!! And as we all know, there’s nothing worse than a communist. /sarcasm

  2. 2

    I wonder how these people would react if a study demonstrated higher IQs among liberals than among conservatives.

    And on IQ, it isn’t really a very good measure of ‘intelligence’ since intelligence is a tough thing to define in the first place, and when you look at any sort of test, preparation and previous exposure to similar materials is going to have a huge impact. Cognitive development is pretty heavily influenced by early childhood, and the brain *is a physical organ* that grows and develops a lot during this time, and there are critical and sensitive phases for all sorts of mental abilities.

    I think if intelligence was shown to be mostly genetic, it actually provides less rationale that people should be penalized for having low intelligence; if it’s not someone’s fault they have low IQ, they should be accommodated the same way a person in a wheelchair or a person who is blind gets accommodated. Of course, there’s no shortage of conservatives who would pretty much throw the disabled out on the streets.

    Also, if this Richwine is really a pro-market type, he should realize that nobody is obliged to pay him a salary to express his opinions, no matter how clever he thinks they are – he isn’t entitled to a job by what is likely his own philosophy… odd how pro-capitalism types turn against the market once they’re out of a job.

    1. 2.1

      I wonder how these people would react if a study demonstrated higher IQs among liberals than among conservatives.

      They would whine about how we’re such elitists.

    2. 2.2

      I wonder how these people would react if a study demonstrated higher IQs among liberals than among conservatives.

      There was one, and they did, IME. The study in question was pretty crap, though, and the author is known for producing bad (and often racist) results through shitty methodology.

      1. @Gretchen & Dalillama

        I’ll have to look up the study, perhaps one with better methodology is out there.

        There is something strange in the conservative movement using IQ tests to prove that white people are superior, who then turn against ‘educated elites’ as soon is the opinions of educated or intelligent people contradict their agenda.

  3. Pen

    What is absolutely astonishing about this guy Richwine’s thesis is that ‘Hispanic’ is an incredibly difficult racial category to explain to people who’re not American. I suppose someone will enlighten me if I’m wrong but he’s talking about a nebulous category of people whose ancestry might be European, African, America and any combination thereof? And what they have in common is moving to the US from south of the border? What is he even talking about?

  4. 5

    Didn’t this racist crap die out 50 years ago?! Oops, no, wishful thinking.
    Exactly – even if someone is not very intelligent, so…does that mean they’re not entitled to a basic standard of living? NO. Basic humanity says no.

  5. 8

    If you want to know how much IQ tests reflect genetics, first take one in your native language. Then take similar tests in Spanish, German, Greek and Chinese. If all five scores are close to identical, then IQ is sure enough mostly genetic.

  6. 9

    I don’t understand why people still take IQ that seriously anymore. I thought major, devastating criticisms of it were made like twenty years ago or something. Why do people still try to use it like this?

  7. 10

    Racial pseudoscience like Jason Richwine’s has been around for decades. Transistor designer William Shockley got rather infamous in the 1960’s for some of that sort of thing.

    As Isaac Asimov had noted, being ahead in IQ won’t make you loved either. He noted that a favorite nasty stereotype about Jews is that they are supersmart and dangerous connivers without moral scruples.

  8. 11

    What I want to know is how these ideologue lunatics have managed to claim the term “conservative”. As the bumper sticker says, “What are conservatives conserving?”

    I dislike change. That makes me conservative, by the dictionary. I want nothing to do with these ideologue lunatics. How can we reclaim the term “conservative” for people who want to conserve?

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