Science and racism

Published July 6, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

By calvin r petersen

A recent study from the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing "think tank," estimated that providing illegal immigrants with a path to citizenship will cost the nation trillions of dollars. The study says that immigrants, lacking the intelligence (as estimated from IQ scores) to assimilate into the American middle class, will consume far more in public services than they contribute in taxes.

The principal author of the study, a 2009 Harvard professor in public policy named Jason Richwine, was forced to resign because of the firestorm created by this and related comments. However, both Richwine and Heritage continue to stand by their contentions, although the Congressional Budget Office has estimated citizenship will actually be an economic boon.

This is but the latest chapter in a long history of misusing science for declaring minorities and others inferior and subjecting them to stereotyping, unequal treatment, lack of opportunity and other forms of abuse, sometimes including sterilization or extermination. Yet, human beings differ on a multitude of traits; might not some subgroups be inherently smarter or less capable than others?

This is not a simple question. Those who believe it to be true point to differences in IQ scores, with those of Jewish descent generally at the top, followed by Asians and northern Europeans, with Mexican-Americans, American Indians and African Americans at the bottom. However, group differences on measures of aptitude and intelligence can be very misleading.

For example, there is extensive evidence (including SAT scores) to support the common wisdom that men are superior to women in math and science; whereas, the genders are reversed on verbal skills.

I first encountered this "female handicap" years ago in an undergraduate physics course in which the professor announced that grades would be based on gender norms because many otherwise excellent female students would fail if they had to compete against the males.

In 2005, Harvard president and former Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers addressed the gender disparity in discussing the under-representation of women in tenured faculty positions at top science and engineering institutions, suggesting that it might be due to differences in "intrinsic aptitude."

His comments set off a heated national debate on the relative influences of nature and nurture, critics pointing out that gender differences in math performance largely disappear in Scandinavian countries, and girls actually do better than boys in Iceland (where their verbal advantage also increases).

These countries also top the world on measures of gender equality, strongly suggesting that possessing a Y-chromosome provides no intrinsic advantage.

What we see here is an illustration of why it makes so little sense to attribute gender, racial or ethnic population differences on IQ or aptitude measures to genetics.

Beginning prenatally, genes interact so pervasively with environment that population scientist Paul Ehrlich has described the problem of separating the influence of nature from nurture as akin to trying to decide whether height or width is more important in determining the area of a rectangle!

There is also now considerable debate as to whether "race" is even a useful scientific concept. As the human genome has become better understood, it is now apparent that the genetic basis for the differences by which we make racial distinctions are arbitrary and minor in comparison to all that we have in common.

It would seem that Thomas Jefferson — an Enlightenment thinker who was also a slaveholder — was more correct than he knew when he penned the phrase "all men are created equal."

Calvin R Petersen is a retired psychologist who directed the development of one of the standard aptitude batteries (DLAB) used throughout the American military and has published in the fields of psychology, linguistics, computer simulation and the history of ideas.