Via Ta-Nehisi Coates, I see that Andrew Sullivan is lamenting a purported blackout of research regarding the race-IQ connection. This is not new territory for Andrew; he helped bring the issue into the public consciousness back during his tenure as editor at The New Republic.
Now: the first issue here is the claim that such a blackout exists. As Coates points out, the evidence for such a blackout that is presented amounts to the complaint of a single researcher, Dennis Garlick. The researcher is someone who could reasonably claim expertise on the issue, and he appears from my limited vantage to have an impressive resume. His claim, though, seems disturbingly unsupported. Whether or not research into IQ and heredity is being squashed is an empirical question. Coates links to a blogger who attempts to answer that question empirically, and while we couldn't call it scientific, I find it a sober and constructive attempt to find out the truth. The results seem to speak for themselves, but I can't know what goes on behind the scenes. I'm unqualified to say if Garlick is right, but as a consumer of research I also don't find his case compelling.
The fact that empirical inquiry cuts against the grain of what Sullivan and Garlick are claiming is resonant in the context of the race-IQ question. The "race realist" movement has always pushed a narrative where politics corrupts empiricism, but the movement's failures have primarily been empirical failures. When you strip away the endless paranoid conspiracy theorizing and the relentless flogging of the narrative, you get down to a robust set of data demonstrating differences in performance on IQ tests, then some fairly wild speculation about genetic causes. Over and over again, assertions about the genetic undesirability of black people involve making massive leaps from an observed phenomenon to a particular mechanism to explain that phenomenon, with dubious or nonexistent evidence to support those leaps.
It's true: a broad swath of research demonstrates that black Americans tend to perform less well on standardized tests of intelligence. This racial achievement gap is not adequately explained merely by controlling for socioeconomic status, as is commonly assumed, although adjusting for poverty does shrink it. There's no need to hide from that data, as those positing genetic determinism constantly accuse others of doing. If a connection between heredity and IQ can be discovered, it should be. (Measure what is measurable, etc.) But what empiricism requires-- not political correctness, not bleeding heart compassion, not even basic human decorum and civility, but cold-blooded rational inquiry-- is far more than the racial determinists have show us. The narrative they present is seductive, which is precisely why their insistence on narrative over the complicated and limited claims of science is disturbing. From my perspective, most people who assert racial genetic deficiencies seem remarkably disinterested in identifying specific mechanisms for the observed phenomenon. They instead seem primarily interested in flogging crude and reductive visions of our society and what ails it.
The rush to find genetic origins for any and all human phenomena has become so popular, particularly with the press, that the standards of evidence have eroded everywhere. Genetic or evolutionary speculation has become an obsession of our media, frequently undertaken without a shred of scientific credibility, and defined by faddishness and imprecision. Take homosexuality and genetics. I find it remarkable the number of educated people who I meet who assume, quite confidently, the homosexuality (in both men and women) is purely and straightforwardly the product of genetic predisposition. This is a politically palatable idea-- one might call it PC-- but it can't yet be proven, even conditionally. There are complications, such as the (controversial) older brothers hypothesis, which is important because it posits a mechanism that is non-genetic and yet nonetheless physiological in origin (and thus not "chosen"), as well as other evidence contrary to the assumed genetic origins of homosexuality.
But as it became politically important for people to insist that homosexuality is genetic, that insistence became more and more prevalent. Never mind that the dichotomy between "homosexuality is purely genetic" and "homosexuality is a choice" is flagrantly false, or that "they can't help it" is not a stirring cry for equality. Politics made the genetic origin necessary, so people believed in it. Indeed, it's hard for me to imagine a scenario where politics has more directly corrupted popular understandings of empirical questions than the widespread belief that we know for a fact that homosexuality is genetic. Yet curiously, I don't find Andrew railing against that assumption, or insisting on the supremacy of disinterested research, or leading the battle for more open-mindedness in the attempt to explain the origins of homosexuality. Perhaps we will identify specific alleles that determine sexual orientation; I wouldn't be remotely surprised. But jumping from observed phenomenon to the assumption of genetic origins of that phenomenon with limited direct evidence of a specific mechanism is unhelpful.
Compare these speculative genetic causes of low IQ or homosexuality to, say, genetics and sickle cell anemia. We don't have the presence of a human condition and vague talk such as "it's genetic." We have identified the particular gene, in a particular chromosome, that causes the condition. We know how the mutation changes protein structure, which leads directly to specific consequences in gestation that cause the negative health effects we see in people with sickle cell anemia. We identified the alleles responsible for specific phenotypic traits and demonstrated the connection scientifically. At every step, we have gone beyond "it's genetic," in regards to sickle cell anemia, specifically and constructively. We have identified the mechanism which causes the condition. That's the job of those who are dedicated to racial determinism: find the mechanism. Do your work. Show me the data. Nobody is going to feel sorry for you when you fail to prove your assertions.
My question for Andrew and others is whether my dissatisfaction with the assumption of genetic origins for the racial achievement gap is necessarily "PC," particularly when placed in context with our knowledge about genetic phenomena like sickle cell. Is the narrative so powerful that we couldn't merely be unpersuaded by the evidence?
Speaking as someone who is involved, for 14+ hours out of a typical day, in reading, researching, and learning about education and pedagogy, let me engage in understatement and point out that education and intelligence are remarkably mulitivariate phenomena. My continuing frustration with the ed reform crowd is how relentlessly reductive they are in discussing the origins of poor educational performance. Saying "it's those damned unions!" and accusing any dissenters of obstruction isn't just politically unfair. It's an incredible failure to soberly assess the depth of our problems and the complexities of their origins. Trying to isolate specific variables in education and intelligence research is incredibly hard. That's not politics. It's reality. To ascribe genetic origins without greater explanation of mechanism or the exploration of environmental factors which shape IQ is to engage in wild-ass speculation.
My own wild-ass speculation? The question of race and IQ will be answered in a way that is complex, rather dull, and totally useless for providing headline fodder for sensationalist publications like The New Republic or Slate. I wouldn't be surprised if a whole slew of factors, including poverty, exposure to lead, poor diets, parent educational background, the idiom tests are written in, neonatal health care, learning disorders, dyslexia and dyscalculia, lack of exposure to educational toys and games, low childhood reading loads, the persistence of syntactic immaturity due to parental modeling (my own academic obsession), and other environmental factors played a role. That doesn't even begin to untangle the web of what "black" means in terms of specific linear heritage, particularly since we are talking about a truly unique genetic history that has been conditioned by the rape and forced breeding programs that are common to chattel slavery. If I'm right and the origins of the racial achievement gap are revealed to be a stew of competing factors, it will make our job of closing the gap harder, but it will also hopefully blunt the words of those who ascribe vast social problems to the supposed inherent inferiority of our most oppressed group.
I chose the example of sickle cell anemia purposefully, of course. It's a condition that is generally found in those with sub-Saharan African lineage. What does that mean for American blackness? Is sickle cell anemia "inherent" in black people? Is there something essential about the disorder in black people? They're absurd questions. Yet they are of exactly the same character as claims routinely made about black people and intelligence. As I said, my unsupported speculation is that a large number of factors contribute to the racial achievement gap. It's possible that one of them is a genetic predisposition. If so, we'll need to know what genes are actually producing this trait, and how. Then what? If we find such a predisposition, does that make low intelligence "inherent" to blackness? Does it mean we send black people off on a barge? Is this somehow an insurmountable challenge to liberalism, or to our social policies?
Racial determinists say that they want rationality and then engage in hysteria. The first step in assessing these issues is getting to the truth of the matter, and their dogged insistence about what we know exceeds their evidence and thus hinders that pursuit of truth. They then dig deeper, insisting on a slew of negative social conditions that stem from these supposed genetic deficiencies. It isn't surprising where the conversation next turns, although those who embrace these ideas continue to feign shock when they find racists involved in race science. (I want to loathe Stephen Metcalf, but his prudence, intelligence, and fairness in this piece makes it impossible, I'm afraid. Seriously, read it.)
I find the case for racial determinism currently unpersuasive. I find the notion of a research blackout unsupported. I find the discussion of racial lineage and genetic diversity reductive. I find the description of a specific genetic mechanism nonexistent. I find the idea of essentialized blackness offensive. I find the suggested consequences unsupportable and the supposed policy responses laughable. And I find the case for egalitarianism, equal protection before the law, and the assumption of equivalent human dignity totally unchallenged, whatever the reality about the racial achievement gap.
Of course, I'm not without considerable biases, and I couldn't tell you that I have inhabited a space of pure rationality when confronting this question. But this narrative of a refusal to learn the truth due to political correctness, so self-aggrandizing to those who push it, is not credible and does not serve the cause of empiricism. The pursuit of the controversial for its own ends is as distorting as the avoidance of it, and nowhere is that more true than here. Many people have attempted to marshal the evidence for the race-IQ connection for quite some time. Rather than evidence, they keep bringing us the narrative. Remember that.