Jason Richwine Responds On Race, IQ, And His Dissertation

On Tuesday, ThinkProgress ran a story by Zack Beauchamp on Dr. Jason Richwine’s graduate dissertation on Hispanic IQ and immigration titled “The Inside Story Of The Harvard Dissertation That Became Too Racist For Heritage.” Thursday night, Dr. Richwine reached out to provide his side of the story. What follows is Richwine’s letter and Beauchamp’s response.

Jason Richwine writes:

This may disappoint some people, but there is no fascinating inside story of how I was awarded a PhD. The simple, boring explanation is that my dissertation is a solid piece of research. The “errors and omissions” that Zack Beauchamp claims to have uncovered exist only in a caricature of my dissertation. He knocks down a lot of straw men, but he doesn’t land any blows on my actual work.

Two factual corrections: First, my wife is not an immigrant. Second, I took the normal five years to complete my degree, not four, so readers can forget all that innuendo about sacrificing quality and depth for the sake of rushing.

Now for the substantive critiques. The extent to which self-identified Hispanics share a common genetic heritage is not important to my argument. As I explain on pages 76 and 77, the average IQ difference between Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites should be of concern because it is persistent over generations. Whether that persistence is due to genetics, environment, culture, or some other factor does not change the fact that the difference exists. It would be necessary to explore the biological basis for Hispanic identity only if my argument depended on a genetic transmission of IQ differences. It doesn’t.

I understand that Professor von Vacano has written extensively on the topic of Hispanic identity. And I also understand that scholars have a tendency to think their own specialty is hugely relevant to what everyone else studies. But, in reality, a long discussion of Professor von Vacano’s research interest would add little value to my dissertation.

I’m a bit bewildered by the rest of the critiques because they aren’t really critiques at all. The environment’s role in shaping IQ, the limits of IQ as a predictor of individual success, and the importance of non-cognitive abilities are all mentioned in my dissertation, sometimes in considerable detail. It’s difficult not to conclude that Beauchamp has intentionally ignored or downplayed my coverage of these issues in order to falsely portray my work as “sloppy.”

Take, for example, my conclusion regarding attempts to raise IQ. Beauchamp eventually acknowledges that I’m correct—that is, it is very difficult and perhaps impossible to permanently and substantially raise IQ through intervention programs. However, in what is supposed to be a devastating rebuttal of me, Beauchamp says these programs may still provide non-cognitive benefits. Strange—that sounds a lot like me! Page 70, footnote 20 of my dissertation:

This is not to say that Head Start or any other intervention inherently lacks value. Some programs may help children make non-cognitive gains in educational achievement and reduce their chances of committing crimes. These programs should be evaluated, using proper cost-benefit analysis, with all their strengths in mind, even if IQ enhancement is not one of them.

Or how about page 84:

When comparing individuals, the effect of IQ differences is often small. A large number of personality attributes, many of which are unrelated to IQ, affect a person’s ability to succeed in life. For that reason, an individual’s IQ score is merely a probability of future success, not a prediction from a crystal ball. For example, a person’s IQ affects his likelihood of completing college, but some college graduates are not very smart. Betting that an individual person with an IQ of 100 will complete more years of schooling than a person with an IQ of 95 is a risky gamble. The less intelligent person may be a very hard worker, while the smarter person could be lazy and unmotivated.

Does this look like the writing of, in Beauchamp’s words, an “IQ fundamentalist” who thinks IQ is “an almost-perfect guide to someone’s prospects for success in life”?

IQ is not the only important human trait—not by a long shot. Nevertheless, it remains an important predictor, on average, of many socioeconomic outcomes we care about. There can be no denying this. I continue:

However, if presented with two groups of 100 random Americans, one group with average IQ 95, the other group at 100, it is a virtual certainty that the smarter group will have higher educational attainment. In this way, IQ scores can be thought of as individual probabilities that aggregate into certainties in large groups.

That’s the crux of the issue.

The general claim that I ignored contrary evidence simply can’t be supported by a fair reading of the text. For example, much is made of my prominent citation of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve. But I also discussed two major critiques of that book. On pages 82 and 83 of the dissertation, I even draw this conclusion: “It appears that Herrnstein and Murray’s critics have succeeded in establishing a larger role for the environment, without proving a lesser role for [IQ].” Is that something that a blind follower of Charles Murray would write?

Beauchamp seems to have decided a priori that my dissertation is one-sided, then viewed the entire work through that mental filter. He says I was “forced to concede” that environmental deprivation can adversely affect IQ. I did include environmental influences in my long discussion of what factors impact IQ differences, as any careful scholar would. Why Beauchamp characterizes this as a forced concession is not clear.

Regarding the quality of the datasets, that’s discussed in depth in chapter 2. The samples vary in size, but they all yield results pointing in the same direction. Furthermore, Beauchamp seems to think I haven’t noticed the critiques of Lynn and Vanhanen’s national IQ data. See pages 27 and 28 for a full discussion, in which I cite eight different academic references on that topic.

I could go on, but I’m already getting repetitive. Beauchamp ignores what’s actually in my dissertation so that he can say it’s full of omissions.

Substantive issues aside, another disappointing element in the article is the treatment of the quote from Christopher Jencks, who was my third committee member. The article uses the quote to imply that I ignored important parts of Jencks’ critique of my dissertation.

That never happened. In reality, my interaction with Professor Jencks was as normal as the rest of the process I followed in producing my dissertation. Like my other advisors, he gave me extensive written comments and suggestions. I revised the dissertation accordingly. I then sent Professor Jencks a 33-page document that detailed exactly how I revised the text in response to every single concern that he had expressed. In no case did I ignore a comment or fail to make revisions as I thought appropriate.

In response, Professor Jencks wrote to me in an email: “I think you have done a thorough and conscientious job of dealing with my comments, criticisms, and suggestions, and I am happy to approve it as it stands.” This didn’t mean he agreed with everything. He went on to say that he continued to be concerned with my use of ethnic categories like “Asian” and “Hispanic,” which he believes are inappropriately broad when talking about culture, and he felt that I left too little room for the differential effects of IQ on culture within ethnic groups. “That said,” he concluded, “I’m not asking for more revisions, just making suggestions for you to think about in the future.”

May I suggest that this is a completely normal situation in PhD programs? It would be a rare committee indeed if every member agreed with every data interpretation and policy judgment in the dissertation that they approved. My interactions with all my dissertation advisors, including Professor Jencks as the third reader, followed normal protocol from beginning to end.

Here is the truth about my dissertation: It’s a careful empirical analysis, firmly grounded in the mainstream of psychological science, vetted by a team of respected scholars, well researched, fully sourced, and a valuable contribution to policy discussions. I know, I know—what a boring reason to be awarded a PhD!

Beauchamp responds:

My thanks to Dr. Richwine for the factual clarifications. If only his treatment of my article, and his own dissertation, had been so forthright.

On the issue of his incomplete definition of the term “Hispanic,” Richwine suggests the only thing that matters is that the persistence of low Hispanic IQ on tests over generations. As it happens, I addressed this potential rebuttal at length in my original piece. The reason the definition matters, even if some pattern can be shown inside a group, is that it’s impossible to identify what that pattern means about the group and whether that pattern will continue unless you know what makes that group unique. As I put it:

Why do definitions matter if Richwine succeeds in showing a deep, persistent difference between so-called “Hispanics” and “whites?” Aside from the fact that it makes it impossible to figure out the scope of the dissertation (are Mexicans of largely European descent likely to have low IQs? What about African-descendent Brazilians?)…Without a proper definition of what he means when he says Hispanic, we have no way of evaluating the role that immigrants’ “Hispanicness” — whether that means shared genes, culture, or national background — plays in determining their IQ. Put differently, in order to know whether and how being Hispanic matters for IQ, we need to know what it means to be Hispanic. That, in turn, makes it impossible to evaluate how meaningful Richwine’s conclusions about the persistence of the IQ gap are or how they apply to any particular group of immigrants.

The purportedly exculpatory email from Professor Jencks he provides makes this point for me. In Richwine’s own summary, Jencks “continued to be concerned with my use of ethnic categories like ‘Asian’ and ‘Hispanic,’ which he believes are inappropriately broad when talking about culture.” This inappropriate broadness is precisely the point — they are so broad, I argue, as to make generalization about them meaningless without ample defense of why such a generalization is appropriate in this case. Richwine provides none, choosing to ignore the overwhelming literature on the social construction of race.

Similarly, Richwine misses my point on early childhood interventions and non-cognitive skills. The argument does not depend on whether Richwine mentions these factors occasionally in his dissertation — as Richwine points out above, I address his arguments on interventions specifically. Rather, my point was that he ignores the way in which such factors fatally frustrate his attempt to make broad predictions about immigrants based on their IQ. As I put it, “there’s simply no reason to think IQ matters enough to provide the juice for sweeping theories about the life prospects of entire groups of immigrants.” The proof of IQ fundamentalism is in the pudding.

For instance, on the issue of early childhood interventions, he does not attempt to explain whether or not the non-IQ related gains they produce (gains he consigns to a footnote) might be able to make up for any of the costs he associates with low-IQ immigration. For instance, on page 93, he argues that “Hispanics become less willing to play by the rules of the middle class when their low average IQ prevents them from joining it,” thus explaining why Hispanic immigration will produce more “underclass” behavior like dropping out of school and criminality. However, early childhood interventions can improve educational attainment and reduce criminality down the line — as he notes in his own footnote! Richwine pays lip service to factors other than IQ scores being important, yet edits them out of his substantive analysis.

This pattern repeats itself on the broader issue of non-cognitive traits. Richwine argues that (p. 100) “IQ has been linked to possessing middle class values, having a future time orientation, and cooperating in competitive games” in order to make his argument that Hispanic immigration will further lower social capital and “trust” inside the United States. These qualities bear intimate resemblance to non-cognitive traits like Conscientiousness or Agreeableness that either aren’t all that closely linked to IQ or, on some accounts, actually explain certain levels of performance on IQ tests. Yet Richwine never attempts to explore the connection between social trust and non-cognitive traits, or even establish that Hispanics lack the relevant non-cognitive qualities.

Essentially, Richwine suggests the supposedly lower Hispanic IQ will predict bad behavior without bothering to establish whether the immigrant populations might have or be able (with education) to get to higher levels of other traits that would counterbalance any IQ deficit. That sounds pretty “one-sided” to me.

I could go point-by-point on the other, lesser charges — for instance, his discussion of the flaws in the Lynn and Vanhanen data is hardly “full,” and he doesn’t consider criticisms of The Bell Curve in each case where it might be warranted. But, in Richwine’s words, “I’m already getting repetitive.”