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A response to Coleman Hughes on race and IQ
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The centrist intellectual Coleman Hughes recently had Charles Murray on his podcast to talk about Murray’s new book Facing Reality: Two Truths about Race in America. (For those who aren’t aware, the “two truths” in question are that violent crime rates and average cognitive ability vary across self-identified racial groups, with Asians having the lowest violent crime rates and the highest average cognitive ability, and blacks having the highest violent crime rates and the lowest average cognitive ability.)
Hughes’ conversation with Murray is a model of good-faith debate. To briefly summarise each man’s position: Murray argues that America has to “face reality” by acknowledging the two aforementioned truths, or else it risks being torn apart by race-based identity politics. By contrast, Hughes contends that racial disparities are by no means immutable, and that it’s possible to reject the tenets of Critical Race Theory without embracing a no-holds-barred discussion of race and IQ. To his credit, Hughes makes clear that his disagreement with Murray “has nothing to do with any belief that you are a racist”. And he goes on to say that “as a black person, I can imagine having a beer with you as friends”.
In the second half of the discussion, Hughes lays out his opposition to Murray’s vision of “facing reality”. And he does not mince words. According to Hughes, “if the choice is between a Kendi-style racially rigged society on the one hand … and a mainstream conversation about race and IQ, I think we are doomed in this country”. He fears that “this stuff becoming mainstreamed is absolutely the wrong reaction to the valid grievances that you were talking about”. He goes on to say that it’s important we “don’t add flames to the fire of tribalism, and I really worry that this is an unintended consequence of talking about race and IQ”. Later he admits that “it’s very difficult for me to imagine a worse catastrophe than kids and parents grappling with innate differences in intelligence between groups”. And he says that Murray’s proposal “seems like putting a match on a fire”.
In the remainder of this article, I want to explain why I disagree with Hughes’ position. I will argue not only that he is wrong to oppose “mainstreaming” race and IQ, but that his position could even end up doing harm. Nevertheless, he deserves credit for having Murray on his podcast, and for challenging him in good-faith.
There are several arguments against stifling debate around race and IQ, which I and others – including Murray – have made in print. If average differences in SES across racial groups are due to average differences in IQ, then denying those differences could foster resentment of more-successful groups; being systematically wrong about the causes of racial gaps might lead to misallocation of societal resources; the truth has value in and of itself, so we should want to find out what it is. However, the argument I wish to focus on here is that stifling debate around race and IQ – particularly via the sort of emotionally charged language that Hughes employed in his interview with Murray – effectively holds us hostage to fortune.
The debate over the causes of persistent group differences in cognitive ability is not yet settled. Some researchers believe these differences are entirely (or almost entirely) environmental in origin, whereas others believe that both genes and environment are involved. (For a good summary of the case for the latter view, I would recommend Russ Warne’s book In the Know: Debunking 35 Myths about Human Intelligence.) Hence there are two possibilities going forward. Either we will find out that group differences are entirely environmental, or we will find out that they are partly (or even largely) genetic.
Unless you believe there is almost no chance of the latter possibility coming true – and Hughes himself admits that “this is an area in which I’m not a specialist … and it would be dishonest of me to pretend I have a strong, confident conclusion” – arguing that we’d be “doomed” if forced to reckon with race and IQ could actually make things worse.
Suppose for the sake of argument that in, say, ten years there is undeniable evidence that genes contribute to group differences in cognitive ability. If everyone has spent the preceding ten years saying that we can’t possibly come to terms with race and IQ, and merely discussing it would be a “catastrophe” (which – incidentally – is more or less what they have been saying), then society will be in a much worse position when the evidence finally does come out. The predicted “catastrophe”, in other words, could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Bad actors might try to exploit the situation for nefarious purposes; for example, by arguing – wrongly – that race differences justify mistreatment. Others might become fatalistic, mistakenly assuming that one’s own trajectory is determined by the average characteristics of one’s group.
Now, I’m not saying that undeniable evidence for a genetic contribution definitely will emerge. But given the possibility that it might, surely it makes sense to take a more cautious approach now? Rather than sending out the message that discussing race and IQ portends almost certain disaster, shouldn’t we send out the message that discussing it is something that may prove unavoidable? And hence that it would be worth trying to preempt the various misunderstandings in advance?
Of course, Hughes might say that, in the grand scheme of things, his remarks in one 90-minute podcast are unlikely to have much impact on public perceptions. And this may well be true – I’m not suggesting that he is particularly culpable (in fact, his discussion with Murray is one of the most respectful I’ve seen). However, if every pundit makes the same argument – that his individual contribution won’t make much difference anyway – then public perceptions will never shift, and society will be propelled down the less cautious path.
As a matter of empirical eventuality, Hughes may sincerely believe that an open discussion of race and IQ portends disaster. And he may well be right (though I would personally disagree). But instead of resigning oneself to this highly unfavourable outcome, wouldn’t it make more sense to say, “Coming to terms with race and IQ will be a challenge if the evidence ends up supporting a genetic contribution, but we should prepare for that possibility now to ensure that any challenges we may face do not prove insurmountable”.
How can we prepare for that possibility? Emphasising the following points would seem like a good place to start.
First, there are no necessary implications of the finding that genes contribute to group differences in IQ; ‘ought’ does not follow from ‘is’. (Note: this was a point that even J. Philippe Rushton made.) Under the philosophical theory known as “luck egalitarianism” – which I discussed in my 2018 paper – finding a genetic contribution to group differences in IQ could even strengthen the case for social intervention. And genetically-based group differences certainly do not justify mistreatment.
Second, the finding that genes contribute to group differences in IQ would not imply that one group is “superior” to another in anything other than the purely statistical sense that one group has a higher mean. We already have overwhelming evidence that genes contribute to individual differences in IQ, but few people take this to imply that some individuals are metaphysically “superior” in virtue of their IQ scores. (My last newsletter was a parody.) Psychometric intelligence, as Murray notes, is not the same thing as moral worth.
Third, there is a moderate degree of overlap between the IQ distributions of different racial groups in the United States – at least for broad categories like ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’ (there may be less overlap for more fine-grained categories). This means that some whites are smarter than most blacks; and some some blacks are smarter than most whites. The differences, admittedly, do become more pronounced in the tails. But the finding that genes contribute to group differences would not imply that every white person is genetically smarter than every black person.
Fourth, an individual’s IQ score is an individual’s IQ score. The finding that genes contribute to group differences in IQ need not change anything for a particular individual. If your IQ score has been rigorously tested as 130, then that is your IQ. The fact that you may belong to a group with a lower average score is mostly irrelevant. One area where it could be relevant is statistical discrimination by employers (in the absence of additional information, an employer may assign you the average score for your group). But this is all the more reason to favour standardised testing.
While Hughes deserves credit for having Murray on his podcast, and for challenging him in good-faith, he’s wrong to oppose “mainstreaming” race and IQ. What’s more, his insistence that openly discussing race and IQ would be a “catastrophe” – that in such an eventuality we’d be “doomed” – could end up causing harm. The responsible approach, I would argue, is to prepare for the possibility that genes do contribute to group differences in IQ by emphasising the four points above.
Image: Ludolf Bakhuizen, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1695
I’ve written four more short posts since last time. The first summarises a New York Times article laying out some circumstantial evidence for the lab leak theory. The second notes that the Stringency Index is not associated with COVID-19 death rate across US states, but is associated with higher unemployment. The third examines the prevalence of long COVID in Britain. The fourth criticises a new missive by the authors of the Lancet letter from last February.
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