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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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But here’s what we do know. Jason Richwine received a PhD from Harvard University for sub-standard research, work that makes strong assertions on a charged topic based on poorly defined concepts, incomplete and misleading summaries of opposing arguments, and bald analytic overreaches.

Is this enough to say Harvard was wrong to award him his dissertation? While some, like von Vacano, say yes, others urge more caution. Professor Durlauf, for one, says “the dissertation committee members should be presumed to have acted in good faith.”

There’s no reason to believe they didn’t. Every independent expert who wanted to speak on the topic praised the program. “Harvard’s Kennedy School is a very serious place and has trained some outstanding scholars,” said Professor Dan Black at the University of Chicago. “I hold their Ph.D. program in very high regard.”

The same went for his committee members. Even those harshly critical of Richwine’s dissertation agreed they were kind people and highly-regarded scholars.

And as for Richwine, the overwhelming sense you get from reading his work and speaking to his acquaintances is that he was, as odd as this sounds, a well-intentioned naïf. We’ve all met the type: someone so airily focused on their own passions and interests (in Richwine’s case, Murray-style hereditarian work on race and IQ) that they miss the broader social forest for the trees.

“I think what happened was that he tried to make an academic argument but did not foresee this [racism] problem,” his friend, Professor Tran, told me.

Whatever one thinks about Harvard or Richwine, the real lesson here goes beyond both of them.

Even if Richwine’s dissertation, despite all of its errors and omissions, was “good enough” to earn a passing mark, it’s emphatically not “good enough” to make a real contribution to our knowledge about the intersection between race and IQ. The scholarly errors in his research are too pervasive and severe.

Beyond the failure of craft, however, is the serious harm that can result from quasi-eugenic works masquerading as serious research. Alleging that, as a group, an enormous percentage of Americans are and always will be dumber than their fellow citizens isn’t just normal academic inquiry. Richwine bemoans the lack of “social trust” purportedly created by American diversity, but few things could undermine the shared bonds of citizenship more than widespread belief among one “race” that others are so unintelligent that more of them can be let into the country.

This isn’t a theoretical point. Throughout American history, the so-called science of race and IQ has been used by the powerful to demarcate “good” citizens and separate them from the “dangerous” ones. Minorities and minority immigrants in particular have borne the brunt of these attacks, as Ta-Nehisi Coates  demonstrates by simply quoting the words of anti-immigrant advocates against themselves. Much as Richwine may sound like a disinterested scholar, his work does not occur in a political or social vacuum. His own policy recommendations to limit immigration to high-IQ individuals proves it.

It is the case that, on some tests of intelligence, there are demonstrated gaps between different groups of Americans, particularly ones identified as “black” and “white.” As we’ve seen, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests these broad groups have little do with “race” simpliciter and much more to do with the environments people of certain races find themselves in. These findings underscore that careful scholarship on the sources of this gap, like Richard Nisbett’s or Christopher Jencks’, is legitimate academic inquiry and should be vigorously protected as such.

But this field is no place for dilettantes. The costs of being wrong are too high, the fearful forces fueled too powerful for race and IQ research to be judged like normal work. There needs to be a premium on conceptual precision and empirical accuracy over and above standard operating procedure, even (or perhaps especially) at a place as esteemed as Harvard. Anyone who wants to work in this area should be set to a higher standard, asked to explain what “race” means and whether it’s really what matters when we talk about IQ. It’s a bar Jason Richwine’s simplistic research never would have cleared.

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