Race and I.Q. Debate Blanks Slate*


Slate's science and technology columnist, Will Saletan, is now stumbling back from the race/IQ buzz saw. Last week, Saletan ran a series of columns in which he attempted to assess the evidence for and against genetic differences in the average IQs of various ethnic groups. Among other evidence, Saletan cited:

On average, Asian-American kids have bigger brains than white American kids, who in turn have bigger brains than black American kids. This is true even though the order of body size and weight runs in the other direction. The pattern holds true throughout the world and persists at death, as measured by brain weight.

According to twin studies, 50 percent to 90 percent of variation in head size and brain volume is genetic. And when it comes to IQ, size matters. The old science of head measurements found a 20 percent correlation of head size with IQ. The new science of MRI finds at least a 40 percent correlation of brain size with IQ. One analysis calculates that brain size could easily account for five points of the black-white IQ gap.

I know, it sounds crazy. But if you approach the data from other directions, you get the same results.

Not surprisingly, the blogosphere went wild. Now Saletan has issued a statement of regret about his speculations. To wit:

Most of the reaction to what I wrote has been over whether the genetic hypothesis is true, with me as an expert witness.I don't want this role. I'm not an expert. I think it's misleading to dismiss the scenario, as some officials have done in response to Watson. But my attempts to characterize the evidence beyond that, even with caveats such as "partial," "preliminary," and "prima facie," have backfired. I outlined the evidence primarily to illustrate the limits of the genetic hypothesis. If it turns out to be true, it will be in a less threatening form than you might imagine.

I have long been puzzled about what public policy is supposed turn on evidence concerning average racial/ethnic IQ levels. If it turns out that Asians are the smartest group on average, does that mean that we should put Asians in charge of everything? Saletan is right when he says any such finding about average ethnic differences in IQ would be far "less threatening than you might imagine."

As I have argued in other contexts:

The modern ideals of democracy and political equality are sustained chiefly by the insight, developed by Enlightenment thinkers, that people are responsible moral agents who can distinguish right from wrong and therefore deserve equal consideration before the law and a respected place in our political community. The broad ability to distinguish right from wrong does not depend on the genetics of IQ, skin color, or gender. With respect to political equality, genetic differences are already differences that make no difference.

An interesting New York Time article on the kerfuffle here.

*just couldn't resist straining after (and admittedly missing) the blank slate metaphor.