Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Race and Intelligence: What Are the Issues?

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Race and Intelligence: What Are the Issues?

Article excerpt

What do we really know about race and intelligence? Are they closely related? Is our level of attainable intelligence fixed at birth? How much does intelligence determine our lot in life?

An understanding of the scientific and political issues underlying these questions is necessary if we are to avoid being buffeted by the winds of controversy that are inevitably stirred up every time this topic reappears on the national scene. Although the fundamental issues are not hard to understand, it is necessary to tread warily because of the many logical traps and fallacies that one can easily fall into. These fallacies are superficially plausible (hence their frequent reappearance); accepting them without question results in conclusions that tend to justify the present distribution of power, wealth, and privilege (hence their appeal to those who have these advantages). But they are ultimately insupportable.

In this article I explain many well-known and long-standing problems that are associated with trying to correlate measures of "intelligence" with measures of "race." These problems stem from the difficulty of getting high-quality, extensive data (the history of the subject is riddled with cases of unconscious bias as well as outright fraud) and from the methodological problems of extracting meaningful inferences from the data we do have. First, I outline the main issues that we must confront in trying to answer any questions about race and intelligence. Then, I examine how The Bell Curve, the highly publicized book by Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein, deals with these problems.

Intelligence and Reification

Intelligence is an elusive concept. While each person has his or her own intuitive methods for gauging the intelligence of others, there is no a priori definition of intelligence that we can use to design a device to measure it. Neither biology nor psychology nor sociology has provided any convincing evidence that human beings possess a single trait called intelligence.

Instead, what we have are I.Q. tests and their results. But this situation can lead to the fallacy of reification, in which we assume that, because we can measure something, that something must have an objective existence. In this case, the fallacy leads to the assertion that intelligence is what I.Q. tests measure and that what I.Q. tests measure is a property possessed by human beings.

By itself, this would not constitute a disqualification of the notion of intelligence. After all, it is perfectly reasonable to state that "length is what rulers measure" or that "time is what clocks measure." So why can't we say that "intelligence is what I.Q. tests measure"? The difference is that, in the case of length and time, our seemingly arbitrary definition provides us with a context-independent scheme for constructing measuring devices that can be used consistently - by anyone, anywhere - and that always result in a unitary measure of length or time. Thus, given any two objects, all rulers will agree on which is longer, and, given any two events, all clocks will tell the observer unambiguously which occurred first and the time interval between them.

Does the concept of intelligence also provide such a context-independent scheme for constructing a measuring device? Here lies the heart of a major disagreement. Ironically enough, Alfred Binet, the inventor of the I.Q. test, abhorred the notion that it was measuring any intrinsic (i.e., context-independent) and unchangeable property of an individual.(1) He devised the test for the simple purpose of trying to determine whether children were at the appropriate level of achievement in school for their age.

How did Binet do this? By having children of different ages and grade levels answer questions related to everyday problems of life. He classified the questions by the level of difficulty the students had in answering. Then he constructed tests for each age group made up of questions of increasing difficulty. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.