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The Inside Story of a Harvard Dissertation Too Racist for the Heritage Foundation

How Jason Richwine finally found a place to explore his absurd theories linking IQ to race at the elite university.

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“They’re extremely generous people, they’ve always been kind to me…they’re known internationally as academic scholars.”

But she thinks that, in this case, they missed some serious errors. “I can only imagine that they were so dazzled by the empirics that they overlooked many of the flaws in the text.” Essentially, the quality of mathematical and statistical analysis in Richwine’s work hid some major conceptual shortcomings in his treatment of IQ.

Bowman, now an Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service who specializes in African Science and Technology policy, is close to this debate. An attorney as well as a scholar, she worked on immigration law before becoming an academic. She’s also, in her words, “an African-American woman who’s the child of an immigrant of African descent.”

Her basic point is that Richwine’s treatment of his opponents, particularly critics of Murray’s work, is “selective, narrow, and cherry-picked.” For instance, she notes, Richwine cites a 1996 American Psychological Association (APA) report called Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns as representative of a “general consensus” about the “fundamentals” of IQ, but fails to cite or respond to subsequent criticism of the APA report by relevant experts.

This is a particularly troubling omission. Professor Diane F. Halpern is the only person to have coauthored both the 1996 report and a  2012 paper attempting to revise its conclusions to reflect the last 15 years of research on intelligence. Halpern isn’t a stranger to taking controversial positions on genes and intelligence: in her book “Sex Differences and Cognitive Abilities,” she wrote that there is “good evidence that biological sex differences play a role in establishing and maintaining cognitive sex differences.”

Yet recent research has swayed her in the opposite direction on the biology of intelligence. “It seems safe to conclude that low socioeconomic status limits genetic contributions to intelligence, which means that poor children do not develop their full genetic potential,”  she wrote, “a finding that took me some time to accept and understand.”

Some of the most persuasive research supporting this new consensus comes from Professor Eric Turkheimer. Turkheimer and his colleagues conducted several analyses of data on twins, perhaps most famously in a 2003 study that analyzed twin performance on IQ tests using a model that separated out genetic and environmental differences inside and between pairs and then mapped the results onto the soci-economic status of the children.  Turkheimer and company found that among poor twins, virtually no variation in IQ could be attributed to inherited traits, but among wealthier ones, a significant portion was. This suggests that poverty and material deprivation uniquely overwhelm any genetic component to IQ, artificially depressing IQ among disadvantaged children. Turkheimer’s research is supported by a  wealth of direct evidence about the way in which stress and pollution in early childhood can stunt brain development.

Richwine doesn’t cite Turkheimer’s research. Though he’s forced to concede that similar work has demonstrated “environmental factors significantly affect IQ development when the environment is dire,” he dismisses this potentially damning critique of his persistent IQ gap — after all, most Hispanic immigrants to the United States are from far poorer countries — by saying there’s nothing you can do to fix a damaged IQ. Citing Murray and several other “hereditarian scholars, he suggests that all interventions to raise IQ have been proven to have no meaningful long term effects.

“That’s mistaken,” says Professor Richard Nisbett.

Nisbett is one of the world’s leading experts on intelligence. A co-author of the “new consensus” paper with Halpern, he’s well positioned to comment on the academic appropriateness of Richwine’s omissions (Richwine wrote a strident, but genial,  critique of Nisbett’s 2009 book. Nisbett appeared unaware of this review until I mentioned it after our substantive conversation).

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