Politico Revives Junk Science Suggesting Hispanics Are Dumber Than Whites


Jason Richwine. (Credit: Media Matters)

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Earlier this year, Jason Richwine lost his job writing about immigration policy for the conservative Heritage Foundation after it came to light that he suggested Hispanics and blacks were genetically less intelligent than whites and Asians in his graduate dissertation. I conducted a lengthy review of Richwine’s research, finding that it was grounded in poor conceptual analysis and wildly outdated research.

Friday morning, Politico published an op-ed by Richwine misrepresenting his research, the controversy surrounding it, and the facts about race and intelligence in some really basic ways.

There are two central arguments in Richwine’s op-ed: first, that his views about race and IQ are “uncontroversial” among scientists; and second, that the media shuts down reasonable scientific debate about IQ by calling people “racists.” I’ll take them in turn.

It is true, as Richwine says, both that some IQ tests accurately measure a particular kind of intelligence and that there are demonstrated gaps in average scores between some racial and demographic groups. That’s likely caused, according to the most recent research, by environmental differences like poverty.

Richwine’s dissertation goes far beyond these relatively banal claims: he argued that “from the perspective of Americans alive today, the low average IQ of Hispanics is effectively permanent” and, moreover, that a massive influx of low-IQ Hispanic immigrants would so damage the United States as to justify selecting immigrants for entry by their IQ scores. This amounts to a call for restricting mass Hispanic immigration on grounds of an “effectively permanent” racial inferiority — that, not the restatements of basic research on IQ, is what got Richwine into trouble.

There’s no real scientific support for Richwine’s conclusions. He cites four pieces of research — The IQ Controversy (published in 1988), The Bell Curve (1994), a statement by a subset of psychologists (also 1994), and a 1996 American Psychological Association (APA) report — in his Politico piece to support his claim of a clean bill of scientific health. If you noticed that all of these things were published well before anyone had heard of Monica Lewinsky, you get a prize. Even if those sources supported his claims about Hispanic immigration (which none of them really do), there’s been almost two decades of research on intelligence since their publication. What might the new science say?

Nothing good for Richwine, as it turns out. A 2012 review by seven leading scholars of intelligence summarized research since the 1996 report. “Few of the findings we report,” they write “have been widely contradicted” by recent research. These findings include multiple lines of research suggesting poverty and other environmental factors explain racial differences in IQ, that better schooling and other early childhood interventions can improve children’s life chances, and that factors other than IQ are really important in determining whether someone will be successful in life.

This work presents insuperable barriers for Richwine’s attack on Hispanics. If factors like poverty and early childhood stress explain why Hispanics from poor countries do worse on IQ tests than whites, and interventions of the sort available in wealthy countries can boost IQ, why should we believe low Hispanic IQ is “effectively permanent?” If non-IQ related skills explain a lot about whether someone’s likely to be successful, why should we think that, solely on the basis of IQ scores, Hispanic immigration will do damage to the United States.

I get into all of this, as well as the question of whether it makes conceptual sense to talk about “Hispanic IQ” at all, in much greater detail in my piece on Richwine’s dissertation. Richwine responded to that piece, unpersuasively to my mind, and ThinkProgress published both his response and my reply to his response. So you can judge for yourself whether my reply presents a more accurate view of the state of scientific research than Richwine’s citations to outdated sources. Politico, by contrast, simply lets Richwine ignore all of the recent research, and make assertions about media bias on the basis of discredited academic dreck.

That brings us to the media bias question. Richwine’s Politico piece is replete with castigations of journalists; he compares the media coverage of IQ issues to “convening a scientific conference on the causes of autism, only to have the participants drowned out by anti-vaccine protesters.” Some of this reads like pure sour grapes. He cites an accusation of “repugnant prejudice” from The Economist‘s Will Wilkinson as evidence of media irrationality, while the full context of Wilkinson’s quote (“having been sunk by the repugnant prejudice exposed by the shoddiness of his work”) suggests Wilkinson, who also wrote “I don’t think the subject or conclusion of Mr Richwine’s dissertation is out of the bounds of reasonable discourse,” was actually incensed by the demonstrably-poor quality of Richwine’s work rather than the so-called “taboo” surrounding race and IQ.

And that’s really the broader point here. Richwine and his ilk abuse social science to argue for racially suspect conclusions. When journalists call them out for not only doing bad research, but for doing bad research that could be used to defend unadorned racism, they claim media “name-calling” is shutting down science.

The point about supporting racists isn’t theoretical. Richwine wrote two articles about a purported Hispanic tendency to commit crime for the white nationalist site Alternative Right. His explanation of why he chose to contribute to such an institution struck even sympathetic Washington Examiner columnist Byron York as strained.

Historically, “scientific” theories about inherent racial differences have long been the handmaidens of racial discrimination. That’s particularly true with immigrants: the push for the hugely restrictive 1924 Immigration Act was fueled by claims of low immigrant intelligence.

So accusations of racism are not at all out of place when shoddy social science is being used to question the relative intelligence of different racial groups. It would be a dereliction of the media’s duty if it didn’t consider the social role of such sub-standard research in a pluralistic, diverse society. What’s truly baffling is that Politico gave Jason Richwine such prominent real estate to suggest otherwise on such flimsy grounds.