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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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Nisbett believes the evidence amassed in recent years that IQ can be improved is overwhelming. “There are lots of interventions for very young children that increase IQ enormously,” he says. Though “the gains [in IQ test results] typically fade,” as Richwine suggests, “the very best interventions [to improve IQ] have colossal effects” for the rest of a child’s life.

He rattled off an impressive list of findings: these interventions “reduce by half the likelihood of being put back a grade in school…they increase the likelihood of graduating high school by about 20 percent, and they increase the likelihood of four year college by a factor of three. They increase the likelihood of making over two thousand dollars a month by a factor of four and they reduce by half the likelihood of being on welfare as an adult.” So even if the scores on IQ tests don’t change all that much down the line, the benefit of raising IQ scores at the right time in a child’s life appears to be enormous.

So a deep body of work since 1995 suggests IQ either is being raised permanently by these interventions in a way that isn’t showing up on tests, or IQ doesn’t matter nearly as much as Richwine thinks. But instead of grappling with this work, which obviously presents a serious challenge to his core thesis that “new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children,” Richwine is mostly content to outsource his conclusion to Charles Murray’s view circa 1994.

But what about Richwine’s dire warnings about an America plagued by an influx of low-IQ people? Richwine blames low IQ for everything from high crime rates among young “Hispanics” to increased rates of social distrust between Americans to labor market disruptions. In one particularly cringe inducing section, he posits that the reason for Hispanic “underclass” poverty is a combination of welfare-induced laziness (a point he takes as given, citing only Murray in support and no dissenting views) and low IQ.

Showing that that low IQ immigration would be likely to have any one of those consequences would be a difficult scholarly accomplishment, but Richwine’s seeming ambition to make a comprehensive case against mass immigration proved his undoing. In prioritizing breadth over depth, Richwine skated over a wealth of research throwing up a significant roadblock for his conclusions: the question of how much IQ matters for life outcomes.

On the basis of several relatively crude correlations, Richwine treats a person’s IQ as an almost-perfect guide to someone’s prospects for success in life, relying heavily, once again, on Murray’s work in The Bell Curve. While it’s clear that the sort of intelligence IQ measures matters, particularly when you’re comparing two people from similar backgrounds (the higher IQ sibling in a pair, for example, is likely to do better), there’s simply no reason to think IQ matters enough to provide the juice for sweeping theories about the life prospects of entire groups of immigrants.

“There was no excuse for saying that kind of thing in 2009,” Nisbett said.

James Heckman would likely agree. Professor Heckman, an eminent economist at the University of Chicago who worked with Borjas when he was a post-doctoral fellow there, is an expert on the role that intelligence and other traits play in helping people succeed. He wrote a paper with Tim Kautz last year called, “ Hard Evidence of Soft Skills,” reviewing the last several decades of research on the topic. As you might guess from the title, it’s not good for Richwine.

Experts generally think that, roughly, a “Big Five” set of psychological traits — Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism — are key predictors of how well someone will do in life in terms of income, college graduation and so on. These traits can matter as much or more than IQ on some measures: a  2006 paper by Heckman and others found that personality tests were, statistically speaking, better predictors of career choice, criminality, and teen pregnancy (among other important things) than “cognitive” metrics like IQ scores.

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