Racism and IQ (Again)

Someone really should sit Andrew Sullivan down and school him on racism and the roots of the IQ debate. He once again reveals his complete lack of depth on the subject in his re-hash of Watson’s comments about “race” and “IQ.” Henry Farrell over at Crooked Timber does an excellent (what’s the superlative above excellent?) job of explaining why Sullivan (and Watson’s, and Hernstein and Murray’s, and Rushton’s) take on “race and IQ” is flawed in a series of lengthy posts that you can find here. These are long posts, but well worth the time if you have an interest in this topic.

Part of what is so annoying about Sullivan’s insistence that the “data demand addressing” around IQ is that he, like so many others wedded to the notion of biological race, commits what Troy Duster refers to as the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” Here, Sullivan commits this fallacy in thinking that “IQ” is really an accurate measure of some sort of inherent, immutable intelligence. In fact, there’s lots of research that demonstrates what so-called IQ tests are best at measuring is class position, such as a French study by Capron and Duyme which found that children adopted by high-SES parents score higher than children adopted by low-SES parents. It seems appropriate that this is a French study, since the practice of testing for “intelligence” began in France, with Alfred Binet in 1905, specifically to find in which areas the French school children needed remedial education. Following that, it was imported to the U.S. and promoted as tool in the eugenics movement by people like Henry Herbert Goddard, America’s first intelligence tester and author of the famous American eugenics tract, The Kallikak Family. Goddard and others in the eugenics movement at the beginning of the 20th century, envisioned IQ-testing as an effective tool for addressing the social issues of their day, such as poverty, crime, prostitution, alcoholism, and immigration restriction (See, for example, Zenderland, Measuring Minds, Cambridge University Press, 1998). Indeed, if you take a look at the testimony by “social science experts” of the day who testified before Congress in the hearings prior to the widespread, and racist, 1924 immigration restrictions, many of these leading social scientists used the “evidence” from IQ tests. These tests were administered to new immigrants in English and then in a fallacy of misplaced concreteness (treating results of the IQ test “as if” it were a real, concrete thing), used the lower scores on IQ tests as evidence of their putatively lower intelligence which justified their exclusion as “worthy” immigrants and future citizens. Dr. Jonathan Plucker, Indiana University, offers this detail on Goddard’s work at Ellis Island:

In 1913 Goddard was invited to Ellis Island to help detect morons in the immigrant population. In his Intelligence Classification of Immigrants of Different Nationalities (1917) he asserted that most of the Ellis Island immigrants were mentally deficient. For example, he indicated that 83% of all Jews tested were feeble-minded, as were 80% of the Hungarians, 79% of the Italians, and 87% of the Russians. The result was that many immigrants were turned away and sent back to Europe.

I dare say that none of the contemporary anti-immigrant, anti-black (or more precisely anti-African) proponents of Watsonian-style IQ-mongering would dare to launch a convincing argument that 83% of the Jewish population is “feeble-minded.” And I hope they would  take issue with the notion of a Jewish “race.”

Let’s review: “race” as biology is a fiction, racism as a social problem is real.


  1. James T. Smith

    Plucker’s wrong, probably because he’s basing his statements on lies propagated by S.J. Gould. As Rushton pointed out in his review of Mismeasure of Man:

    “Goddard wanted to find out if the Binet test was as effective at identifying ‘high-grade defectives’ (the term then used for those with mental ages between eight and twelve) among immigrants as it was among native-born Americans. By 1913, Goddard had translated the Binet test into English and arranged, over a two-and-a-half-month period, for it to be given to a subset of Jewish, Hungarian, Italian, and Russian immigrants “preselected as being neither ‘obviously feeble-minded’ nor ‘obviously normal'” (Goddard, 1917, p. 244, emphasis added).

    Among this “unrepresentative” group (178 subjects in all), the tests successfully categorized 83% of the Jews, 80% of the Hungarians, 79% of the Italians, and 87% of the Russians. Goddard (1917) explicitly did not assert that 80% of Russians, Jews, or any immigrant group in general were feeble minded nor that the figures were representative of all immigrants from those nations. Nor did he claim that the feeblemindedness he was measuring was due to heredity. The vast majority of the many immigrants going through Ellis Island were never given mental tests. Nor was a random sample of any national group of immigrants ever tested. The only study by Goddard involving the testing of immigrants begins with the following sentence: ‘This is not a study of immigrants in general but of six small highly selected groups.

  2. Jessie Author

    While Goddard may have realized his was not a scientifically random sample, and thus not generalizable to a wider population, this seems a relatively small nit to pick in the broader scheme of so-called “IQ” testing (referred to as “mental testing” at the time) and racist, restrictive immigration policies. The fact is, Goddard and others engaged in “mental testing” in the U.S. in the 1920s framed their research through the conceptual lens of the eugenics movement. “The historical record clearly documents that mental testing played a part in the national immigration debate between 1921 and 1924…With the support of Terman, Goddard, Brigham, and Yerkes, as well as many other scientific authorities, the supposed biological, (including mental) inferiority of southern and eastern European immigrants came to be widely accepted as a scientific fact.” from: Steven A. Gelb, Garland E. Allen, Andrew Futterman and Barry A. Mehler, “Rewriting Mental Testing History: The View from the American Psychologist,” in Sage Race Relations Abstracts 11 #2 (May 1986) pp. 18-31.

  3. James T. Smith

    It’s not nit picking. Gould wilfully misrepresented Goddard’s work leading people, like you and Plucker, to draw incorrect conclusions. If intelligence testing really is bogus, then there’s no need to fabricate examples of that.

    Another thing you say “I hope they would take issue with the notion of a Jewish “race.” But Jews are a genetically distinct group. See also this:


  4. Jessie Author

    The article you link to here makes the case that “Ashkenazi Jews” are a “genetically distinct group,” which is a different thing than saying “Jews are a race.” Take as just one example the case of Ethiopian Jews. It seems clear that as a group, they would be “genetically distinct” from Ashkenazi Jews. Thus, the statement that “Jews” are “a race” is too broad to be accurate.

    If you read the original text of Goddard (not filtered through Gould or anyone else), it seems clear that he saw intelligence testing through the lens of the eugenics movement. It’s available here:

  5. James T. Smith

    Races are gentically distinct, which is why scientists can racially group DNA samples. Yes, calling Jews a race isn’t technically precise, because race is a broad term, but that doesn’t mean it’s something rational people should object to Whether Goddard was a eugenecist or not isn’t relevant. The fact is Plucker, Gould, etc. are misrepresenting what he did to discredit intelligence testing. If IQ tests were invalid they would not have to lie like that.

  6. Tripp

    Thank you, James T. Smith, for debunking the lies about Goddard (granted, Gould’s original misstatement may have been an honest mistake, but having been corrected on it and continuing to put it in subsequent versions of his manifesto, it has become a lie).

    And thank you, Jessie, for adding another name to the list of people who repeat Gould’s lies. The scary thing is how many sites on the web actually reference the 1917 Journal of Delinquency article as if they had read it. (Do a google search with that article citation, and see how many people claim that the Goddard study was about immigrants in general. It is appalling.) Presumably they prefer, like the rest of the American left, to read (and uncritically cite) the works of St. Stephen of Cambridge.

  7. Jessie Author

    And thank you, Tripp, for making me aware that Gould had been canonized, I hadn’t realized. 😉 More seriously, I don’t know what you object to in the writings of Stephen Gould, but I suspect that it’s actually his politics that you disagree with. As for Goddard, there’s ample evidence that he was part of a cultural milieu that used the pseudo-science of intelligence-testing to attribute lower intelligence to immigrants. If I can get an e-copy of the 1917 article (just requested from NYPL), I’ll post portions of it here.

  8. Phil

    I have researched the history of different sciences going back a couple of thousand years.
    All of the people I found who created the sciences, mathmatics and most all inventions were white.
    All major industries in the world today were created by white people.
    If all races are equally intelligent why is this true?
    What difference does it make if all
    people are declared to be equal
    if they aren’t.

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