Sunday, May 12, 2013

Science and Racism, Again

The story of Jason Richwine and his racist PhD thesis is fascinating on many levels.  To summarize the facts, Richwine was a co-author of a Heritage Foundation study that estimated the costs of immigration reform to be $6.3 trillion, so high that even many Republicans dismissed it as incredible. In the controversy over this report, someone noted that Richwine's 2009 Harvard PhD thesis (in Public Policy) was a racist argument that immigrants should not be allowed into the US because of their low IQ scores. You can find a Slate story here, a The Nation view here, and a shrill defense of Richwine by Michelle Malkin in the National Review here.  After a few days of controversy, Richwine resigned from the Heritage Foundation.

You can also read his thesis; it is here. It is only 134 pages of text, and here is its Conclusion:
As the previous six chapters have discussed, today's immigrants are not as intelligent on average as white natives. The IQ difference between the two groups is large enough to have substantial negative effects on the economy and on American society. The deficit cannot be dismissed as meaningless or transient. It is transferred across generations--whether via genes, environment, or both--in a manner that we do not yet know how to prevent. Although this is a depressing conclusion, it does help us focus on a new opportunity. In trying to reverse the cognitive decline of immigrants, we could begin to seek out underprivileged people  who have the raw mental ability to achieve personal success, while still helping ourselves at the same time.
For anthropologists, it is stunning that in 2009, one could graduate with such a thesis. To just touch on some of the problems, the IQ test claims to measure "intelligence" but we know that this concept is culturally constructed (i.e. each culture has a culturally specific definition of what it means to be intelligent). For the IQ test, people familiar with test-taking will do better. We therefore cannot say that, say, Mexican peasants with little schooling who score lower on the IQ test are necessarily less intelligent that Indiana residents. "Race" itself is also a social, not biological, fact. "Hispanics" is especially problematic, as members of that group come from many continents and exhibit many different phenotypes.

Right wing apologists like Matlin claim that this is a witch hunt, and that Richwine has just been "crucified" because race and intelligence is a taboo topic in the US. Many in Asia might be tempted to agree. Many East Asians believe that Asians are biologically more intelligent than other "races," and believe that liberal Americans are just in denial. (Eugenics has no negative connotations in China.) But they are just not aware of all the research that shows the problems of measuring intelligence, and the little or no correlation between "race" and almost everything else. Franz Boas, one of the founders of American anthropology, became famous for his studies showing that the smaller brains of immigrants (which was the basis of "scientific" racism in the early 20th century) was only the product of poor diet in the Old Country; he showed children of immigrants had brain sizes comparable to those of other Americans. The reason racism appears to be taboo is because there is so much evidence against it. One has to question the intelligence of people who continue to peddle these ideas.

The real issue is how one could graduate with such a thesis from Harvard in 2009. This is especially  surprising because one of Richwine's committee members, Christopher Jencks, is considered a liberal/leftist. The fact that he approved the thesis is being cited by Rush Limbaugh as evidence that Richwine is being treated unfairly. When Jon Wiener of The Nation asked Jencks for a comment, he declined.

I have a theory of how this could happen. Over the years, I've noticed that some committee members in some universities do not really read the theses they are asked to read. At least, they do not read it as closely as they should. Richwine's thesis was not that long, only 158 pages in all (134 of text, plus appendices and references). And several lines that have been quoted, including the very end of the thesis quoted above, should have raised red flags. But if Jencks had not read the thesis before it was submitted, and if Richwine had a job lined up after graduation, then it would have been very difficult to insist on changes. Criticism at that point could even have been taken as a criticism of the thesis supervisor.

To avoid this problem, our Anthro department requires students show a near final draft to all committee members before the student submits the copy for the oral defense and for the external examiner. That gives teachers a chance to flag major problems. Furthermore, we would never allow a student to begin such an unsound and unscientific project. But in a place like Harvard, everyone is too busy with their own research. Most students at Harvard are very smart and can do a good thesis on their own (which is good, because at most elite schools you are on your own). But "Public Policy" is not the elite part of Harvard; it is on the applied side, in the Kennedy School, not one of the traditional disciplines like economics, political science, or sociology.  Students should think of this when they choose where to study.

It is a bit discouraging that racist ideas are so powerful and seem so naturally correct to many people. It is surprising that these ideas need to be repeatedly and constantly addressed, and that despite all the science and all the research and teaching that anthropologists and other scholars do on race, they live on. It looks like the AAA's Race Project will need to be extended for many more years.

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