Nisbett, Jensen and Rushton

Hunter High School is an extremely selective exam school in New York City, recently the subject of some attention because a student speaker at graduation, upset about the racial/ethnic mix of students there, said:

“If you truly believe that the demographics of Hunter represent the distribution of intelligence in this city, then you must believe that the Upper West Side, Bayside and Flushing are intrinsically more intelligent than the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Washington Heights, and I refuse to accept that.”

In a related thread on the blog KitchTableMath, commenter Crimson Wife said:

Richard Nisbett has a long discussion about race & IQ in his book Intelligence and How to Get It. He makes a convincing argument that the differences are mostly environmental (which can be changed) rather than genetic (which obviously can’t). If it were genetic, then IQ in blacks would be positively correlated the degree of white ancestry- and it isn’t.

Well, it is, but never mind. The broader point is that Nisbett is a spirited defender of the politically correct view that racial disparities in IQ result primarily from differences in children’s environments. The implication is that these disparities will mostly vanish if environments become more similar.

That’s more wishful thinking than argument, and it’s “convincing” only to those who already agree with Nisbett’s thesis. But it’s too vast a subject to settle here, so let me just offer a couple of links.

In a May 2009 working paper, J. Philippe Rushton and Arthur Jensen critique Nisbett’s book point by point. If you agree with Nisbett, you won’t agree with them, and vice versa, but if you’re going to write about these things you ought to be familiar with arguments on both sides.

About five years ago, Jensen and Rushton published a paper, “Thirty years of research on race differences in cognitive ability,” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 11, 235-294. They do not claim that environment plays no role in cognitive ability — indeed, no one has ever claimed that, as far as they know. Their much more modest claim, that the effect of heredity is greater than zero, is radioactive enough. Remember that Nobel laureate James Watson was hounded from his position for much milder comments, and he didn’t even mention heredity.

That’s one reason so few researchers risk working in this area. But both Rushton and Jensen have already survived that gantlet — Jensen more than 40 years ago — so they have nothing further to fear.

I should add the disclosure that I am slightly acquainted with both men, and admire them, their work, and their determination.

About linsee

Linda Seebach retired in 2007 from the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, where she was an editorial writer and columnist.
This entry was posted in Education, Politics, Science and technology. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Nisbett, Jensen and Rushton

  1. eh says:

    A couple of data points are worth bringing into any discussion on this topic:


    Black children from the wealthiest families have mean SAT scores lower than white children from families below the poverty line.

    Black children of parents with graduate degrees have lower SAT scores than white children of parents with a high-school diploma or less.

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