Sex, Race and IQ: Off Limits?

By Begley, Sharon | Newsweek, April 20, 2009 | Go to article overview

Sex, Race and IQ: Off Limits?


Begley, Sharon, Newsweek


Byline: Sharon Begley

Scientists who study intelligence risk adopting a policy of 'unilateral disarmament.'

Granted, the study of racial and sex differences in intelligence has not exactly covered itself in glory. There was that unfortunate incident in the mid-20th century, when British psychologist Cyril Burt apparently made up data to "prove" that genes make blacks and the poor innately less intelligent than whites and the wealthy. Later studies reaching similar conclusions were based on statistics that would have done Mark Twain ("lies, damned lies --") proud. But does this sorry record warrant the scientific equivalent of the death penalty for such research? That's what some scientists are arguing. In a heated debate that began in the journal Nature and spread online, they are calling for an end to research on possible links between race, gender and intelligence. "Stupid science" and "evil science" are the more polite terms being hurled. But the arguments for and against the research are not what you'd expect.

Political correctness--as in, it's offensive and destructive to even ask if women as a group, say, are less intelligent than men--doesn't merit more than a brief nod, thank goodness. Instead, argues neuroscientist Steven Rose of Britain's Open University, the problem is that both race and IQ are slippery concepts. Standard measures of intelligence are ridiculously flexible. In the 1930s and 1940s, for instance, when girls kept outscoring boys, IQ tests were repeatedly adjusted to make the results turn out "right." That calls into question what studies of intelligence actually measure, and whether it's too easy to choose and massage data to produce desired results. Worse, "race" in the sense of Caucasian, Asian and African is too broad to capture anything biological, including genetic differences. Only smaller groupings based on geographic ancestry (Basque, !Kung, Inuit --) do. Since each "race" is a hodgepodge of ancestries, it's as hard to draw meaningful conclusions about how it relates to intelligence as it is to draw meaningful conclusions about food and allergies by studying a stew with 27 ingredients.

As for sex, there are indeed structural and biochemical differences between male and female brains. But since boys and girls, and men and women, live very different lives and are treated differently first by parents and then by society, it's impossible to attribute those differences to innate biology rather than experience. That is especially true now that discoveries in neuroplasticity have shown that brains of any age can change their structure and function in response to experience. Even the visual cortex, which you'd think is pretty hard-wired, can switch from processing sight to processing touch if you are blindfolded for just five days. …

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