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Armageddon: James Flynn on Academic Freedom and Race
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In the great cultural war which surrounds race and intelligence, James Flynn is on the side of the angels. I know this because he told me so. Happily, I know him well enough to know he was joking: he was admitting that he was well aware that his mostly environmentalist perspective was far more acceptable and popular than the much maligned “genes and environment” view that I hold. His remark was merely an aside in a longer conversation, of the sort one has with notable academics, in that they range widely over many topics, with the easy pace born of a deep interest in a whole range of ideas.

Last night I saw a very good performance of “Uncle Vanya” at the Hampstead Theatre (runs till 12 January) and, enjoy it as I did, within the somber bounds of Russian gloom, I would prefer a minute with James Flynn to 3 hours of Chekhov. Indeed, I think I avoid theatre because the ideas-per-minute payoff is usually lower than normal conversation with interesting people.

I digress. Flynn is good company, and a great champion of academic freedom. Last year I came to the attention of hostile critics, seeking to hound researchers who were already having to meet without publicity in private conferences, fearful of losing research grants and university posts because of wanting to research race, sex and historical cohort differences, which may strengthen or weaken the hypothesis that genes account for about half of the variance in individual and possibly group differences.

The general climate of opinion in Western universities is so hostile to genetic hypotheses about race, sex and cohort differences in intellectual ability that my initial wish in 2011 to have public meetings on these matters was dismissed by potential speakers. They told me I was naïve to believe that they could discuss such matters in public without encountering considerable career damage. I thought they were exaggerating. I was wrong. So, I went for a compromise: invitation-only meetings, no audience and little publicity, and very few outside invitees: family members, a few readers of my blog, the occasional journalist for background only.

Even with those precautions, some researchers who wanted to attend sent me private emails saying why they felt they could not. They explained that at their universities they were already under threat for even considering these topics. One said, presciently, that critics would pick on the one attendee who could be shown to have said or written something reprehensible, and then all participants would be tarred with the same brush. Most researchers, understandably, said they were busy or simply did not reply to my invitation. No shame. There are too many conferences.

Anyway, once the ravening pack were piling in to attack the conference for, among other crimes, having been “secret”, I explained to all my colleagues that there was a hostile press campaign under way. The first to write back to me in support of academic freedom was James Flynn.

Now Flynn has written a paper about academic freedom and race. Here is a summary, and a critique of some points.

There should be no academic sanctions against those who believe that were environments equalized, genetic differences between black and white Americans would mean that blacks have an IQ deficit. Whether the evidence eventually dictates a genetically caused deficit of nil or 5 or 10 or 20 IQ points is irrelevant. The hypothesis is intelligible and subject to scientific investigation. If that is so, you must have already investigated it if you are to know what is true or false. To prohibit others from investigation or publication of their results is to designate certain truths as the property of an elite to be forbidden to anyone else. It is to insulate them from whatever new evidence the scientific method may provide that would modify belief. A word to those who seek respectability by banning race/gene research: how much respectability would you get if your position were stated without equivocation? What if you were to openly say genetic equality between the races may or may not be true; and that is exactly why I forbid it to be investigated. Or: “I do not know if genetic equality is true and do not want anyone else to know.

I wish to say that scholars who hold the genetic hypothesis are not thereby, guilty of racial bias. There is no doubt in my mind that Arthur Jensen was innocent of this (Flynn, 2013). Moreover, research into this question should not be forbidden.

You might think it odd that Flynn has to say this, but there have been so many foolish statements to that effect, such as saying that the only reason to study race differences is to perpetrate racism (as if the only reason to find out if something is true is to then perpetuate a lie) that he is wise to correct misapprehensions.

Flynn then looks at a few weak arguments which purport to show that you cannot study the hypothesis that races differ in intelligence for genetic reasons. For example, that because races are sociologically defined they cannot differ genetically. Tell that to the Pygmies and the Watusi, says Flynn.

Flynn also makes a very interesting point about race and culture: no test is culture free, but if you cannot manage the culture where you live, then you will understandably be at a disadvantage. If you are really tuned to another culture then you face a choice: travel to where that culture is prevalent, or hang on with the culture that does not match your preferences, but provides you with other benefits. Since Flynn’s perspective is largely cultural, he freely gives his opinion that black subculture is a barrier to scholastic achievement. I think it hardly helps, but it may be irrelevant, since what matters is why some African Americans are drawn to non-intellectual rebellion in the first place. Thomas Sowell argues that the current sub-culture is a relatively new phenomenon, and that formerly African Americans were far closer to American cultural norms, particularly as regards marriage and family life.

Flynn continues:

We no longer hear much from those who once proposed a fourth argument: that all races share so many genes in common that it would be absurd to look for genetic differences (note: even this argument assumes the question is subject to investigation; they just think the answer is as obvious as height differences between Watusi and pigmies). We share 99% of our genes with Bonobo Chimpanzees. That 1% makes a huge difference in cognitive capacity: one hundredth of 1% might make a huge difference between socially identified groups.

When I was under attack, I got some wry amusement from hearing my critics trot out that argument, which I thought had been dropped in 1975.

Flynn notes an interesting phenomenon in universities:

A few years ago I addressed scholars at one of America’s most distinguished universities who admitted that they had never approved a research grant that might clarify whether black and white had equivalent genes for IQ. I had some suggestions and said I knew that they might have reasons for ignoring them other than pessimism: they were just intimidated by the public furor that would ensue. That was not fair because they could not publicly admit that they curtailed scholarly research because of intimidation. They had to argue that the most trivial grant they had approved (something like whether chipmunks like Mozart) was more important than clarifying the causes of racial differences. This may seem to prejudice the outcome of a systematic investigation. I do not intend this. The research should be done no matter what the outcome, as I will show. I am merely asking those who would forbid research to be honest (at least to themselves) about their own beliefs.

I should add that, to my cost, I have discovered another motive that discourages research. Let us assume that it is not genes that cause the black IQ deficit. Then it must be environment and if it is environment, the most immediate environment, namely, black subculture, must be examined. If causes exist there, we will hear rhetoric about blaming the victim. For example, a relevant cause might be black child-rearing practices. However, to avoid criticism, I am not going to disempower blacks by keeping them ignorant. Note the penalty for ignoring reality: no knowledge of causes, hard to alter effects.

I know of no alternative to the scientific method to maximize accumulation of truth about the physical world and the causes of human behavior. If scholars are to debate this issue, do we not want the best evidence possible–and this can only come from science.

That final paragraph is important, particularly the first line, which should be cherished.

Those who believe in the relative equality of the races may choose not to research race and IQ, but they have not thereby discovered something that turns all beliefs into ones of which they approve. There has never been a time since World War II during which all Americans had more “progressive” views on race than Arthur Jensen. He always emphasized overlap between the races for genes for IQ and stated that the brightest person in America might well be a black male (no sexism: there is some evidence that black women have a higher mean IQ than black males).
There will be bad science on both sides of the debate. The only antidote I know for that is to use the scientific method as scrupulously as possible.
Everyone knows that universities apply sanctions to alter behaviour among academics that refuse to accept the advice given thus far. A stated intention of doing race/gene research on a vita will mean no job; doing that research may mean no tenure, no promotion, no research grants, or even a campaign for dismissal. Some like Jensen, who are at a prestige university such as Berkeley, survive.
The use of sanctions against those who do not confine their views on race and IQ to the common room dictates limiting debate to the faculty, and turns an environmentalist position into a dogma in the sense that no wider discussion is allowed. That includes your students; and, of course, no sign of dissent can be allowed to reach the public (no frank interviews given, no research pursued, etc.). There are almost no courses on intelligence in Psychology departments in America. When I ask staff why, they give the same answer: what if a student raised a hand and said, what do you think about the race and IQ debate? You either have a potted lying answer that makes the debate seem simpler than it is (every sophisticated environmentalist knows that Jensen has a case to answer), or you say, “well that goes beyond the scope of this course” (why?), or you admit heresy.

Flynn notes that banning consideration of genetic aspects of intelligence can lead to injustice:

We need not be fanciful to assess the price of ignorance. Assume that the entire IQ gap between school children today (10 points) is genetic. Take the principal of a high school in an affluent neighborhood where both black and white students all come from professional homes. The principal may be doing everything he or she can think of to give the best education to all. However, if black students get worse grades than white students, there will inevitably be suspicion of institutional racism.
The following is not always true, but the constituency that wants to ban race/genes research includes many who have a “shoot the messenger mentality”. They try to discredit IQ tests. I will not digress to show how mistaken they are but will only say that IQ tests provide priceless data about the cognitive development of parents and their children and the injustices the latter may suffer (Flynn, 2016).

Flynn concludes:

My most important point is this. The race and IQ debate has taken on the role of Armageddon, a war between the forces of righteousness (the environmentalists) and the armies of the night (those who posit genetic differences). This fixation has overshadowed the fact that there are real people out there. When they try to improve the prospects of their children, they will not be attempting to score one more point for the environmental side of the race and IQ debate. Enormously helpful things have come to light without regard as to which side of the debate was being argued. Jensen’s point that equating for SES does not close the black/white IQ or educational achievement gap was a step forward. Moore’s point that factors more subtle than SES seemed to count was another step forward. Scholars should stop playing games and let science do its job. Those of us who have turned their research into a contest rather than a diagnosis should be ashamed. I am not exempt from this censure.

Comment: all of us find it hard not to be partisan. It may be due to political leanings, deep personality characteristics, quasi-religious convictions, or simply effort justification: one takes up a position based on what one was taught at school or university, does the necessary selective reading and gets a good mark, and is then reluctant to be told that one’s efforts were wasted, and that much more reading is required.

Flynn continues:

Perhaps someday we will conclude that a portion of the present gap will prove to be genetic in origin. I do not want to sugar the pill but will only say I am not too alarmed. Unless you believe black and white environments are today equivalent, genes will count for less than 10 points among school children. But even that would mean that the group socially-classified as black will on average have somewhat worse social statistics for unemployment, crime, and so forth. And the free market will always penalize black individuals to some degree by making it rational to classify them as members of their group rather than incur the cost of getting to know them as individuals. A landlady with a room to rent is confronted with a female Korean American and a black male youth. She will not hire a private detective to check them out. She is likely to play the statistical odds: an almost sure thing versus someone from a group one-third of whom are convicted felons.

Comment: it is good to see this point made. Ideally, everyone should be judged on their merits. Absent that possibility on grounds of time or cost, it is rational to be guided by group averages, imperfect as they are in individual cases. For example, in choosing someone for childcare, applicants without a criminal record will be preferred to those with one, even though many of the convicted felons may now be going straight.

A group difference is sometime characterized as having nothing to say about individuals. That is wrong. A correlation picks up a general tendency which applies to all constituent parts. The statistic may be a weak predictor, but its power in the individual case is not zero.

Here is Flynn’s final question:

A final word to those who seek respectability by banning race/gene research: how much respectability would you get if your position were stated without equivocation? After all, those who refuse to investigate genetic equality between the races cannot label it true; yet if you openly say it may not be true would you not reap the whirlwind? Honesty dictates this assertion: “I do not know if genetic equality is true and do not want to know.” Say that, and see if your views are deemed innocent rather than pernicious.

Flynn has written a fine and trenchant essay. I hope it will be widely read, particularly by those who see academic debates as essentially a cultural battle, and expect him to be against any consideration of genetic factors in racial differences just as a matter of tribal loyalty. Flynn has not resiled from his environmentalist position. This is not about his religious conversion. As always, Flynn is standing up for the view that questions of fact should be determined by facts, and that arguments should be evaluated on their merits. Those who want Flynn to be against any mention of genetics will be discomfited. I hope they will not accuse him of having abandoned a sacred crusade. He never sought priestly status, and never called his central finding “the Flynn effect”. That was done by Charles Murray, who also coined “the Woodley effect” thus correctly and succinctly naming the two competing views of historical trends in intelligence test scores.

I would go further than James Flynn, and say that those who wish to prevent research into race and intelligence imagine that they are excused dishonesty because they are lying for a good cause. Not only have they brow-beaten many into silence, but they have generated a climate of self-censorship in which the suppression of inconvenient findings is accepted. They seem to believe that if the truth were known that there is a genetic component in racial differences in intelligence, no-one would be judged on their merits and pogroms would ensue. They, it seems, are the self-appointed high priests who decide what the common folk may know, and damn the unfairness which may result.

Will Flynn’s essay make them reconsider their hostility? Flynn doubts it, and so do I. They might be more likely to reject his argument without having fully considered it. It may be effort justification, or it may be divine inspiration, but the rejection of the possibility of genetic explanations for human differences appears to be implacable. Perhaps I am being too gloomy about this, and the mob is at its most ferocious when they sense the tide of discovery is flowing against them.

Once again, my thanks to James Flynn for being the first to support me when I was under attack.

The Race/IQ Series
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