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How Useful Is IQ?

In response to:

What Can Biologists Solve? from the February 7, 1974 issue

To the Editors:

Mr. Luria has, in his recent article in The New York Review [NYR, February 7], protested against “the attempt to saddle science with the burden of tasks which have little or nothing to do with science.” He then rather inconsistently proceeds to speak ex cathedra as a scientist and to draw the following conclusions regarding the question of IQ:

  1. That the evidence attributing IQ to heredity is “probably meaningless.”

  2. That even if IQ is meaningful of predictive success in school it is almost irrelevant to economic success.

  3. That even if IQ is inheritable there is nothing socially significant one can do about it.

  4. That biologists should not be involved with the genetics of IQ.

Educators and psychologists who persist in being “IQ enthusiasts” are then blandly dismissed with the most outrageous and malicious slurs I have seen on the pages of your magazine. They are, it is hinted, leading us toward concentration camps. Their disciples, we are informed, “are stooges of racial bigotry.” Yet Mr. Luria’s premises are the very stuff of bigotry since they dismiss an entire field of measurement with the tyranny of an opinion.

It may be remembered that historically the “meaningless” IQ tests were invented by Binet to screen out the uneducables within the French public school system. This instrument was so effective that the tests have, for more than three generations, been refined, internationalized, translated and transliterated, and used by military and industry alike throughout the world. Its predictive success, while always imperfect, was sufficiently powerful to be employed under conditions requiring the greatest urgency and economic efficiency and, in the vast majority of cases, without any conceivable racial implication whatever. To this day, and without a murmur on the part of the most liberal social reformers, the entire subsidized state structure of special education for the retarded child is predicated upon these tests. It is, furthermore, totally consistent with everything we know about the parameters of physical, psychophysical, and psychometric deviations to assume that a greater or lesser part of the variance entailed in those deviations may be attributed to hereditary factors. This is not even an intrinsically racial issue. We lack any consistent biological definition of pervasive racial traits. Given the vast and growing numbers of interracial unions, there is a diminishing number of “pure” racial types by any definition. There continue to be, however, dramatic individual differences, often, it is true, skewed by groups momentarily (from the historical point of view) caught within the changing tides of socio-economic fortune. There is also, for all groups, as much deviation above the median as below it.

Mr. Luria’s assumptions about the high IQs is the more remarkable in this context. He dismisses them for not correlating with economic success. In the first place, this question is moot since it depends upon which other variables are regarded as constant. But of greater significance is the implicit value Mr. Luria is thereby placing on economic success. There is an uncontestably high correlation between IQ and those professions which are seminal in the intellectual, aesthetic, and scientific life of our society. Thus astrophysicists, journalists, composers, and conductors are consistently two to three standard deviations above the national IQ norms. That this is less correlated with dollar incomes is more a reflection on our society than on the predictive validity of the IQ test. Surely Mr. Luria is not suggesting that the value of a test is its ability to predict oil executives or Watergate politicians!

Mr. Luria’s assumption that there is nothing socially significant that one can do about IQ is still more unwarranted and outrageous than his others. Unless he is dismissing education as socially insignificant, then he must welcome the increasing attention being paid to the intellectually handicapped. Of perhaps still greater significance may be the discovery and nurture of high IQs. I happen to be in the business of doing this since I run a school for testably gifted children. I can assure Mr. Luria that Herrnstein, Shockley, and Company notwithstanding, there are, from the immediate neighborhoods surrounding our school, scores of “culture-based” Binet-tested gifted (135 or better) black children whom we have to reject for lack of funds. There are also more than a hundred such children whom we have been able to accept. Their achievements on objective tests are consistently above the ninety-ninth centile for black children on national norms. Their parents, while articulate and concerned, lack formal education or economic resources. They are often recommended sub rosa by public school counselors who see no other way to develop their exponential academic growth. That one small institution such as ours is surfeited by so many viable applicants and confirmed by their superb achievement is itself socially significant.

Too many white liberals as well as black militants have simply assumed that blacks cannot score well on IQ tests. They mask their assumptions by suggesting that psychometrics are the inventions of racist devils. Seek and ye shall find Mr. Luria! It turns out that Chinese coolies could do more than lay railroad ties. When fed properly the “little” orientals even grew taller (and some much taller than others for reasons you geneticists should understand). Open wide the fields of music and athletics and the blacks triumph in them even as the Jews became great money-changers when that was all that was available to them. Now open the sluice gates to the word and number symbol professions and the blacks will find their legitimate representation in them. It is only paternalistic doubts which have stifled the talent search for exceptional mental gifts amongst blacks. It is not the statisticians but the statisticians of despair who simply assume that they do not exist.

Yet Mr. Luria’s caveat that biologists should not be involved with the genetics of IQ is the most insidious of all. The spectacle of a scientist eschewing a fundamental area of research in individual differences is Lysenkoism at its worst. It is the more appalling in that we are first beginning to grope toward knowledge of how environment affects genetics, and how, through the parent’s health and nutrition as well as the developing child’s, genetic changes may be effected. We might just as well dismiss cancer as a plague of Lucifer. The very concept of science is menaced when scientists permit their normative preconceptions to serve as a diktat for future investigation.

Mr. Luria has, implicitly, suggested that educators and psychologists concerned with IQ are bigots, stooges, and racists. I would like to be more generous about Mr. Luria’s motivations and assume that he is vitally concerned with the inviolable right of all people to receive their just share of the amenities of life. His mistake is to advocate that this be achieved by medieval proscriptions of research and inconvenient facts. Ignorance and Billingsgate cannot illuminate, Mr. Luria. And isn’t investigation what science is all about?

Stanley Bosworth

Headmaster, Saint Ann’s Episcopal School

Brooklyn Heights, New York

S.E Luria replies:

Mr. Bosworth seems to have missed the essential points of my comments on the IQ question. To wit: 1. that the 15-point average difference in IQ between white and black Americans is of little or no relevance to our society because of the uncertainties about the heritability of IQ and because of the questionable significance of IQ for success in life; 2. that biologists should avoid “letting themselves be enticed into the quicksands of the genetics of IQ” (not the genetics of intellectual traits, which is a very different matter) because such work can be used to camouflage as a biological problem the social problem of equal educational opportunities.

I assure Mr. Bosworth that I do not consider “educators and psychologists concerned with IQ [as] bigots, stooges, and racists.” I warned the less sophisticated among them not to become the stooges of bigots and racists.

The last few lines in Mr. Bosworth’s letter, in which he implies that I advocate “medieval proscription of research,” deserve comment and give me an opportunity for making one more point.

In 1972 about fifty people, including some eminent and reputable biologists and psychologists, were coopted or “conned” into signing an apparently innocent letter to the editor of the American Psychologist. The letter querulously appealed for freedom of research for individuals concerned with genetics of intelligence, and implied that such freedom was threatened in various ways. That letter was, in my opinion, an insidious attempt to block criticism of what I consider a controversial field of research.

Scientists claim the freedom of doing research and of criticizing other people’s research—both the results and the subject matter—so long as others have the same freedoms. It is this process of criticism that keeps research reasonably honest and meaningful.

A common misunderstanding among the uninformed is to assume that all undertakings labeled as “research” are equally legitimate and that only their methodology should come under critical scrutiny. What about research on flying saucers? or on tranquilizing drugs for restless political prisoners? or on the relative survival time of Jewish vs. Ukrainian children in a gas oven?

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