The cancellation of John Sherman
Another week, another person cancelled for saying something true about race and IQ. Professor John Sherman, who teaches Chemistry at the University of British Columbia, has been placed on “indefinite leave” while he is “investigated” for comments made during a class discussion about the meaning of ‘racist’. Here’s what Sherman said:
Well, I’ll give you a fact. Black people do poorer on IQ tests than white people. Is that racist? That’s a fact. Is it racist to say it? I don’t know. Asians do better than white people on IQ tests, and that’s a fact. Now, you can make judgements from that. Does that mean Asians are smarter than whites, and whites are smarter than blacks? I don’t know. And is that racist to even ask that question? I don’t think it’s racist. But that’s just a historical fact. For however many decades, six decades, that’s a historical fact. We could get into all kinds of reasons for that. It is a fact that Asians do better than white people on IQ tests, and white people do better than black people. That is a fact. You can get into all kinds of reasons for that – it’s just totally environment, it’s nothing to do with genetics at all; it has to do with genetics; etc. You can get into a long debate.
Everything in that paragraph is true. In fact, I would characterise it as a qualified summary of the state of our knowledge. Sherman didn’t even say that white people are “more intelligent” than black people; he merely said they do better on IQ tests. He also mentioned that Asians do better than white people. And he was careful to state that these differences could be due to genes or the environment. No serious intelligence researcher would dispute any of this.
But of course, in the Current Year, you can’t simply state certain facts about race and expect to keep your job. How naive of Sherman to assume that you could discuss such things at a university, especially after everything that’s happened over the past two years. In August of 2020, Professor Greg Patton was suspended for pronouncing a Chinese word that sounds like a racial slur. If Sherman wanted to broach the subject of race and IQ, he should have picked a location more conducive to free inquiry – like a warehouse or a bus stop.
Media coverage of the incident has been predictably daft and one-sided. An article in The Ubyssey – the university’s student newspaper – claims: “The reliability of IQ tests to measure intelligence is also questionable. A 2012 study in American Psychologist found that IQ tests cannot measure other forms of intelligence such as emotional or social intelligence.” One 2012 study said so? Well, I guess that’s case closed.
In fact, other studies have found that IQ is correlated with emotional intelligence. As the researcher Stuart Ritchie told Vox in 2016, emotional intelligence is just “a re-description of psychological traits that we already knew about”. But even if IQ wasn’t correlated with emotional intelligence, so what? It’s more predictive of the things we care about, and better captures what most people think of as “intelligence”.
However, all of that is irrelevant. Why? Sherman didn’t even use the word ‘intelligence’. He simply said that white people do better than black people on IQ tests – which is undeniable (see below). Sherman took no firm position on whether some groups are actually smarter than others. In answer to the question, “Does that mean Asians are smarter than white, and white is smarter than black?” he said, “I don’t know.”
Another shoddy article – this time in the Daily Hive – claims: “The history of the test itself is steeped in racism.” I don’t even know what this means. IQ testing, as Adrian Wooldridge notes, has been used to identify talented working-class children, who might otherwise have been denied an education. Does this mean that IQ testing is also “steeped in liberalism”? In general, the claim that psychological tests are “steeped” in something strikes me as too vague to be taken seriously.
What the author may have been getting at is that IQ tests are biased against certain groups, and that’s why those groups score lower. Unfortunately, however, this simply isn’t true. In 1980, the psychologist Arthur Jensen published his 800-page book Bias in Mental Testing, which laid out the evidence that IQ tests are not biased against blacks. Subsequent research has largely reinforced his conclusions.
One argument was that IQ tests were biased against blacks because they’d been designed by white psychologists. But Jensen pointed out that East Asians scored even higher than whites. Another line of attack was that IQ tests simply tested one’s knowledge of middle-class culture. However, Jensen noted that black-white differences were larger on less culturally loaded items. For example, they were smaller on vocabulary and larger on matrix reasoning.
Furthermore, Jensen showed that scores were equally predictive for the two groups. If IQ tests were biased, then blacks with a score of 100 should have done better than whites with score of 100 on outcomes like educational attainment and job performance, since they were smarter than their IQ scores suggested. Yet this is not what was found. Individuals from different races with the same IQ scores did about equally well in other domains.
As Reynolds and Suzuki note, numerous subsequent reports have concurred with Jensen on the issue of test bias. In 1982, a panel commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that “ability tests have not been proved to be biased against blacks”. In 1994, a task force established by the American Psychological Association concluded that “the tests do not seem to be biased against African Americans”. In 1999, three psychologists reviewed the literature, and concluded that “standardized cognitive tests are not biased in terms of predictive and construct validity”.
So, black people do score lower on IQ tests than white people, and this isn’t because the tests are biased or “racist”. (If the tests are “racist”, then they’re racist against white people too, since they score lower than East Asians.) The fact that an academic at a “top” Canadian university has been relieved of his teaching duties for mentioning this well-evidenced scientific finding is a scandal. One hopes he’ll be reinstated once the “investigation” is complete, but I wouldn’t be sure.
Image: The Irving K. Barber Learning Centre of the University of British Columbia, 2013
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