Jason Richwine, Scientist?

“We destroy people with the inappropriate tools we use to study them” – Ray Birdwhistell

Jason Richwine has emerged to defend himself in a National Review editorial. As you might expect, Richwine contextualizes his dissertation as an exercise in scientific fortitude and paints himself as a heroic seeker of truth. For example, he sums up the past month this way:

The furor will soon pass. Mercifully, the media are starting to forget about me. But a certain amount of long-term damage to political discourse has been done. Every researcher who writes on public policy over the next few years will have a fresh and vivid memory of how easy it is to get in trouble with the media’s thought police, and how easy it is to become an instant pariah. Researchers will feel even more compelled to suppress unpopular evidence and arguments that should be part of an open discussion. This is certainly not the way science should be conducted, and it’s not the way our politics should be either.

That last sentence packs a wallop. Per Richwine, his persecution was due to political posturing by those who seek to block the truth about immigration, while his research was a heroic exercise in value-free science. Apparently at the Kennedy School, Max Weber is not on the reading list. Perhaps next year they can shoehorn him in between Murray and Herrnstein. Or, at the very least, screen the film version of Arrowsmith.

In any case, Richwine’s argument rests on his unexamined and mutable deployment of the category “hispanic.” Though often referring to it as a socially constructed ethnic category, Richwine never fails to deploy the category in his analysis, as biologically determined and determining. This sloppiness in Richwine’s use of his primary analytical term has not gone unnoticed.

There is a petition making the rounds, which opposes Richwine’s claims of  disinterest by arguing that Richwine’s dissertation is not science exactly because Richwine conflates his analytical categories in the interest of politics. They pull no punches:

Richwine’s dissertation is problematic for three reasons: 1) it is part of a tradition of scientific racism; 2) it is based on discredited ideas of intelligence testing; and 3) it relies on an unscientific relationship between racialized categories and genetic makeup. Ideas of racial inferiority have been used justify slavery, forced sterilizations, the Holocaust, and all forms of contemporary racism and sexism. These ideas have no place in 21st century social science because of their historical use to justify genocide and mass sterilization and their lack of scientific rigor.

Richwine makes a connection between the genetic makeup of Hispanics and their I.Q. However, there is no genetic basis for racialized differences. And, Hispanic is an ethnic category made up of people of every racialized category. A Hispanic is a person with roots in Latin America who lives in the United States. Their ancestry could include people from any continent. The claim that Hispanics share a genetic makeup that could differentiate them from white Americans is not debatable; it is untenable.

Further on they note:

As academics, we find it appalling that, in 2009, three professors at Harvard University were willing to guide and approve a dissertation in this academic tradition. There are three central problems with Richwine’s work that should not pass muster in any dissertation committee: 1) the argument that I.Q. scores are an indication of innate intelligence; and 2) the assertion that I.Q. is a genetic trait; and 3) the presumption that Hispanics, as a group, share a genetic makeup. All these ideas have been discredited and all are linked to an unfortunate history of scientific racism.

They end the letter with:

Dean Ellwood at Harvard Kennedy School takes the position that this dissertation is part of an academic debate. We are not against academic freedom. However, there is no academic debate on whether or not Hispanics as a group are less intelligent than native-born whites. There are debates on whether or not Hispanic is a pan-ethnic, ethnic, or racialized category. There are debates on how and whether or why we should measure intelligence. There are debates on the extent to which intelligence is a heritable trait. But, there are no debates on whether or not Latino immigrants have the intellectual caliber to be part of the United States. Those kinds of debates happen in nativist and white supremacist circles, which have no place in academia, which prizes arguments and debates based on valid constructs and scientific evidence.

One curious note about the letter (which is linked above as a Google Doc) is that it seems to have no author. The first time I saw the letter posted to a blog it read “we are a group of 76 scholars (and counting)”, the next time it read 287 scholars, then 1000 scholars and today it reads 1200 scholars.

“1 + 1”: More than an Equation

by Amina Tawasil

Schooling is supposed to either spark or augment IQ/cognitive ability which is then exhibited as ‘skills’. Thus, it only follows that schooling increases the chances of upward mobility for girls, women and people of color. And, for men and women in ‘small villages of ailing countries’, schooling is considered a pillar to a successful rural to urban labor migration. In short, schooling is supposed to guarantee financial security. If governments hold up the security and economic-progress end of the bargain, then its people are supposed to reap the benefits of having been schooled. It is as easy as 1+1 = 2.

These promises have the potential, though temporary, to deliver the rapture of the impossible made possible. The reality, of course, is much too complex. For instance in the United States, mainstream schooling is not only a space where a child is told that “1+1=2”, but also where a child puts into practice the idea that whoever gets to the correct answer “2” first is the winner (Pope 2003). Most importantly, it is a space where a child comes to find out that whoever certifies “2” as the correct answer matters.

Clearly, not everyone in school who wishes to can become a six year-old playwright. Not everyone can be on the robotics team. And much to one’s dismay, the smell of the strawberry-scented sticker teachers often give out eventually wear off. But, more importantly, not everyone buys into this set-up their entire lives, a point I will get back to later.

Let us first problematize the extraction of “1 + 1 = 2” from the world in which it is, to be or come about. What happens when how the worth of this equation is developed through social relations is ignored? When the race for first place becomes the focus of any sort of analysis, most of what takes place in life outside of that race is bound to be dismissed. Here is small scenario to draw out what I mean by that. A girl, at age six, decides to be a playwright for the moment by writing about how her neighborhood friends actually built a robot in their backyard out of paper clips and strawberry scented stickers. In the face of accomplishments by those who have been schooled according to standardized assessments of validating institutions, this playwright and her friends will go unnoticed or discounted as, “it is what children do” rather than what winners of math and science olympiads or the mini-Blackburn prize do.

Simply put, the worth of “1+1 is 2” (in this case, writing a play) is more than about solving the equation. It is also about who solved it first, about who said it was solved, and where it was solved. In this paradigm, it becomes clear that this race to first place via 1+1 is where ‘life’ takes place, and they must first accept this race as a fact in order to begin the work of winners. It follows though that the scale is always tilted, certainly not in favor of the silent majority of broken hearts whose names are never called to come up on stage to receive a prize.

If the scale is always tilted to favor the winning-few, how is it possible that 1) we can make positive assumptions about schooling as stated in the beginning of this post and 2) schooling is the only way to spark ‘intelligence’, to gain mobility, or to level the playing field?

This unequal distribution of prizes has, now more than ever, emerged as the crisis of higher education; student debt is crushing the American Dream, the pay off to an investment in schooling is now less available, and people with doctoral degrees are on food stamps. The race for first place in academia, case in point, is not all that it is cracked up to be with only 25% of faculty across the United States on tenure. The very system of socioeconomic relations in which schooling is situated has and continues to privilege a specific kind of finish-first-place education that guarantees losing for most of its participants. Thus, it almost seems absurd not to have expected this crisis knowing that the system was rigged from the very start- to have a few winners, it must spawn losers.

One of the consequences of privileging the rubric of the 1+1 race (a guaranteed way to throw segments of the population into snake-pits via student loans) as a way to measure success is the tendency to overlook the enabling parts of life. By praising ‘who is first’ and then focusing on ‘what went wrong with those who did not make it’, a great deal more about life (theirs, ours), which may provide clues on how to help them better change their conditions, is taken for granted.

So, I ask, how are grown men and women generally mending their broken hearts after what feels like an empty return on investment on their higher education? Not surprisingly, pretty much the same way a self-made six year-old playwright does- though a formidable task, by self-making with the help of friends who are also self-making.

An ethnography of these specifics which essentially informs the universals makes for an excellent field of research since a movement away from investing in the empty promises of vying for first place is well on its way. From creating handbooks for contingent faculty, to unionizing like CalFac and ChicagoCoCal, to informing of rights from the Adjunct Faculty Caucus of New Jersey City University (AFC-NJCU), to creating on-line Cognitariat, to providing databases of opportunities- Versatile PhD, to pooling in skills and talents to contribute and benefit from the needs of the local community SkillShare, the Brooklyn Institute of Social Research, The Public School, and so on, men and women are working together to create and foster cooperative action.

A wave of organized defiance is emerging against the very ideology of survival of the fittest as the only practice of guaranteed survival. Human beings do not have to be perpetual competitors in the struggle for existence. Like the six year-old neighborhood playwright, men and women intent on mutual aid are coming up with viable ways to both contribute to and benefit from ways of ‘knowing and learning’ of communities in order to provide safety nets for each other.

There is yet, and finally, a problem- the tendency to relegate these said initiatives as ‘substandard’ alternatives to solutions produced out of the actual race, simply because these alternatives are produced out of the inherent dysfunction of its losing participants. Why is this substandard-izing a problem? It closes all doors to appreciating the human genius, except for one- the narrow doggie door of the who, what, when of 1+1, which millions of people are expected to move through. Impossible and unacceptable.

Fortunately, this misplaced attitude, too, is changing. By coming up with sustainable alternatives, the assumption about education as only and about schooling is constantly re-examined. Is it not that most of what we actually come to find out takes place off stage, without winners or losers? By watching and becoming aware of the efforts men and women are making together, instead of blindly following the process of elimination, one may well begin to embrace the better approach- ‘making it’ involves the cultivation of social networks. To end;

  • The natural and social calamities pass away. Whole populations are periodically reduced to misery or starvation; the very springs of life are crushed out of millions of men, reduced to city pauperism; the understanding and the feelings of the millions are vitiated by teachings worked out in the interest of the few. All this is certainly a part of our existence. But the nucleus of mutual-support institutions, habits, and customs remains alive with the millions; it keeps them together; and they prefer to cling to their customs, beliefs, and traditions rather than to accept the teachings of a war of each against all, which are offered to them under the title of science, but are no science at all” (Kropotkin 1902).

Kropotkin, Petr

1902 Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution

Pope, Denise

2003 Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students. New Haven: Yale University Press.

The All-Time Stupidest Question to Ask a Language Learner: Did You Understand what He/She said????!!!!” (Repeated loudly)


I’ve been living in Germany for the last nine months.  One of my goals is to improve my German skills, and guess what, I am getting better.  But still my German is still far from perfect.  Occasionally I will be in a conversation (ok more than occasionally) and I will try to guess about meaning.  Sometimes I guess kind of right, which means that I will make a kind of odd response to a question.  This situation tends to right itself in a normal conversation as your conversation partner realizes how stupid you are, and graciously guides you to what was meant.  Or, if that doesn’t work, you walk away thinking you understood when you really didn’t, and do if you were asking directions you get lost again as a result.  All normal language learning foibles.

Unless, of course, you have a spouse who is a true bilingual in German and English, and quickly catches on that the conversation puts her at risk for getting lost again on the way to the Post Office.  At which points, she turns to you and loudly asks (in English): “Did you understand????!!!!”  And the answer is of course I think I understand, even if I didn’t.  So the answer is always yes, I do understand, even if I didn’t understand, because I think I understood.  It is kind of like when former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said

There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.

There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.

But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.

Asking me whether I understand in German or not is asking me about unknown unknowns.  Unknown unknowns are really important in language learning—but please don’t ask me if I understand them or not—I don’t, or otherwise they would be known knowns, and I wouldn’t be in trouble in the first place.

Rumsfeld is not the only one to help me think about my German problem.  Two older blogs dealing with this same problem from Erving Goffman’s perspective are below.



Wow, that means both Donald Rumsfeld and Erving Goffman are mentioned in the same 400 words!  Who would have thought?

Does PCA Have Politics?

This morning, armchair scientist and noted fan of this blog, Razib Khan, decided it would be prudent to write about race. It comes by way of Khan issuing a corrective, of sorts, to Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The Coates article is wonderful. He takes a historical look at how race has been deployed over the last 150 years. Along the way, he makes all the good points that can be made with the census, and some others as well. It is a nice reminder that far from being fixed, race is a potently flexible concept which can and has been use to classify (or cluster) humans based on any number of arbitrary factors. That is, he gives the classically anthropological argument that arbitrary classifications are taken up as naturalized in the support of explicitly political designs.

Which brings me around to Khan.

After first giving a brief history of the world as told through the clustering of genes in patterns – a la Cavalli-Sforza – Khan turns to the power of his beloved PCA:

When you take multiple dimensions and transpose the data geometrically you quickly see population structure fall out of the data set.

As if by magic, unsullied by the subjective whims of human judgment, PCA objectively does the work of racial classification. Khan eventually draws the following conclusion about race:

So there you have it. An underlying biological reality which is a reflection of deep history. It may not be real or factual, but it is consistent and coherent. Then there are innate faculties which lead us toward categorization of humans into various kinds, for deeply adaptive purposes. Finally, there are historically contingent events which warp our perception of categories so as to fit into power relations in a straightforward sense.

And here I agree with Khan. What he does is neither real nor factual, but it is consistent and internally coherent. For Khan, race is a biological reality, but historically contingent events conspire to warp our perceptions of this uncomfortable fact.

Steve Hsu, for his part, offers this muddled attempt to use race as a fixed concept without coming off as using race as a fixed concept. Needless to say, it doesn’t add up:

Now plot the genome of each human as a point on our lattice. Not surprisingly, there are readily identifiable clusters of points, corresponding to traditional continental ethnic groups: Europeans, Africans, Asians, Native Americans, etc. (See, for example, Risch et al., Am. J. Hum. Genet. 76:268–275, 2005.) Of course, we can get into endless arguments about how we define European or Asian, and of course there is substructure within the clusters, but it is rather obvious that there are identifiable groupings, and as the Risch study shows, they correspond very well to self-identified notions of race. ….

This leads us to two very different possibilities in human genetic variation:

Hypothesis 1: (the PC mantra) The only group differences that exist between the clusters (races) are innocuous and superficial, for example related to skin color, hair color, body type, etc.
Hypothesis 2: (the dangerous one) Group differences exist which might affect important (let us say, deep rather than superficial) and measurable characteristics, such as cognitive abilities, personality, athletic prowess, etc. …

The predominant view among social scientists is that H1 is obviously correct and H2 obviously false. However, this is mainly wishful thinking. Official statements by the American Sociological Association and the American Anthropological Association even endorse the view that race is not a valid biological concept, which is clearly incorrect.

As scientists, we don’t know whether H1 or H2 is correct, but given the revolution in biotechnology, we will eventually. Let me reiterate, before someone labels me a racist: we don’t know with high confidence whether H1 or H2 is correct.

Finally, it is important to note that group differences are statistical in nature and do not imply anything definitive about a particular individual. Rather than rely on the scientifically unsupported claim that we are all equal, it would be better to emphasize that we all have inalienable human rights regardless of our abilities or genetic makeup.

Hsu’s logic is wrong on several counts here. But, I will discuss the two points which are particularly glaring.

The first is simply the conflation of clustering imposed by PCA (which I will get to later) with the reified category race. He constantly confuses this issue. This is particularly evident when he chides the AAA for noting that race is not a valid biological concept and then points to evidence from PCA as evidence that race is a biological reality.

Second, his attempt to assert legal equality is belied by his other attempts to police access to public institutions based on IQ scores. Hsu’s conceptions of inalienable rights would appear to be taken directly from Plato’s Republic.   

Hsu is also wrong in implying that work on race within anthropology has been stagnate. In a recent (2009) paper titled “How Race Becomes Biology: Embodiment of Social Inequality,” Gravlee puts forth a powerful and subtle account of how social inequalities become reified under the rubric race.

Of interest in the recent back and forth on this blog is Gravlee’s argument about the abuse of PCA in genetics:

Yet some researchers still defend race as a useful
framework for describing human genetic variation—and
for identifying genetic influences on racial differences in
disease (Risch et al., 2002; Gonzalez Burchard et al.,
2003; Bamshad et al., 2004). The defense of race relies
on two related lines of evidence: 1) studies of worldwide
genetic variation show that individuals from the same
continent reliably cluster together (Rosenberg et al.,
2002; Bamshad et al., 2003; Shriver et al., 2004;
Rosenberg et al., 2005), and 2) in the United States,
‘‘self-identified race/ethnicity’’ is a useful proxy for
genetic differentiation between groups that vary in conti-
nental ancestry (Tang et al., 2005)…..

First, the claim that recent genetic studies ‘‘have recapitulated the classical definition of races’’(Risch et al., 2002, p 3) misrepresents the purpose of cluster analysis, which is to detect pattern in a given dataset, not determine the essential number of subdivisions in our species. An example of this error is the common interpretation of Rosenberg et al. (2002) as evidence that humans are divided into five genetic clusters (e.g., Bamshad et al., 2004; Mountain and Risch, 2004; Leroi, 2005; Tang et al., 2005). Evidence that humans can be divided into five clusters does not mean they are naturally divided, as the classical definition of race would suggest. In fact, the number of clusters necessary to describe global genetic variation has been inconsistent; some studies report five (Rosenberg et al., 2002) and others seven (Corander et al., 2004; Li et al., 2008). Even when the number of clusters is consistent, their boundaries and composition are not [compare Corander et al., (2004) and Li et al., (2008)], and finer substructures are obscured.


Gravlee goes on to offer three further points of rebuttal, all equally powerful. But, Gravlee’s argument about clustering points us towards another classic anthropological point; drawing boundaries, whether through language or mathematics, is political work. Further, what Gravlee argues about PCA holds true of all statistical techniques.

A cursory glance at the historic malleability of racial categories from any census, or a look at Ta-Nehisi Coates article will demonstrate this point. Race is undeniably a social category that carries real consequences for those caught on the wrong side of the classificatory scheme. How one chooses to classify is a political act and no amount of technical mediation can change that.


Gravlee, Clarence C. 2009 How Race Becomes Biology: Embodiment of Social Inequality. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 139(1): 47–57.

Test Scores, Inequality, and “Goodnight Moon Time”

Here is a recent article about test scores from the New York Times, “No Rich Child Left Behind.”  They got through the entire article without connecting cognitive abilities to inherited intelligence.  Instead, the connection is made to wealth, poverty, and early childhood development.  Do middle/upper class things for a child at night (“Goodnight Moon time”), and they are going to fit into the academic world created by the upper and middle classes in the schools.  Goodnight Moon time in turn is highly correlated with poverty.


Note too that widening gaps between test scores for the upper 10% and the lowest 10% in terms of income have widened over the last 50 years. This in large part is because economic inequality has increased, and could not plausibly have to do with shifts in the gene pool of the last two generations (i.e. 50 years).

Inter-disciplinary Work Sounds Exhausting

We have had a good week on Ethnography.com grappling with the diffrerences between the Social Sciences, and the Cognitive Sciences.  Last month it was the Social Sciences and Population Genetics.

I am of course a Social Scientist, and much more in tune with what Michael Scroggins and Max Holland write.  They are squarely in the traditions of the social sciences regarding the nature of culture, definitions, and interpretations of data.  They are also well-read in the natural sciences, and trying to tie the two fields together, a difficult task.  As several of Michael’s earlier posts point out, his dissertation work brings him into close contacts with biologists in DIY bio labs.  He does this on the general assumption (as I understand it) that biologists have culture too, and that the techniques and approaches Boas used to study Native Americans, and Malinowski used to study Trobriand Islanders in the early 20th century are relevant to studying scientists in 21st century California.  Max has written an engaging thesis (and book) about similar issues which I have so far only skimmed.  It is worth a closer look, as you can see from his blog from earlier this week.

Much of the discussion at Ethnograpy.com over the last few months frankly exhausts me.  It points out how little other people have read in my social sciences as they point to the psychometric, population, and other studies which they regard as more important than Boas, Malinowski, and their successors.  But it also points out how much I have to read in their fields.  Most important it points to different criteria for validity used between different disciplines.  Frankly, I don’t get what is so great about physics and mathematics.  Both sound like great disciplines, but why are SAT scores on the math portion of the SAT “better” than those on the English portion? How could anyone think that Physics is harder than Philosophy? Have they ever tried to read Hegel?

I guess the sum of this rumination is to say that while I continue to disagree with dad, Dailliard, Razib Khan, Randall Parker and others who posted here, I also appreciate their comments which both help me examine my own positions, and point me to the many many things that I have not read.  Inter-disciplinary work is difficult—more difficult I think than staying comfortably within our own disciplines where we can go to seminars of the converted, and perform the self-congratulatory rituals needed to preserve the status quo.  This is why I appreciate it that they take the time to write thoughtful comments.

And “dad” for what it is worth, I still don’t think it makes much difference whether the sperm donor for my putative child is a nuclear physicist or the ticket taker at the movie theater.  Still, you rhetorical question helped me frame my thoughts more precisely—it was a good question!


PS.  What do you think of the Dennett quote that Max posted?  “There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination” (Dennett 1995)?



Campbell’s Law and the Fallacies of Standardized Testing

Donald Campbell was one of the leading psychologists of the second half of the twentieth century.  His was a time of optimism for planners—there was a belief that the power of technology could be brought to bear on many of the world’s ills.  And indeed they were, often with positive effects.  As a result of central planning, more people receive water, more places are electrified, more children educated, and more diseases eradicated.  All good goals with which Campbell would not quibble.

But Campbell noticed something else to, the emergence of “corruption pressures,” based on the general principle that is now known as “Campbell’s Law.”

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

      In different ways, both Michael Scroggins and Max Holland have pointed at this basic problem in their recent blogs critiquing intelligence tests ranging from the standard tests, to the SAT and college entrance exams.  Such intelligence tests are indeed used to divide up the spoils of placement spots at elite schools, and not surprisingly, ambitious parents seek to corrupt it by means both fair or not. But for use in general analysis like that done by the evolutionary psychologists, the consequences are that their data source over time is corrupted.  The cheating scandals associated the No Child Left Behind Act are a byproduct of Campbell’s Law.  So is the fact that the SAT exam was recently cancelled in South Korea due to widespread cheating.  However most of the corruption does not come from cheating.  It also comes from the fact that such standardized tests are routinely gamed by testing companies which guarantee 100 extra points on the SAT through $1000 prep courses (I used one of these classes for my daughter—it worked!).

For what it is worth, tests like the internationally administered National Association of Educational Progress (NAEP) which do not have consequences attached to them are much less likely to be gamed.  They do not have consequences for funding, admissions, etc., attached to them because they sample across broad areas, and report results on large geographical areas rather than individuals.

Which brings up the BGI Cognitive Genetics Gene Trait Association Study of Intelligence that Michael Scroggins wrote about, and which Dr. Steve Hsu is promoting as a member of the Core Team of BGI.  The Chinese company is seeking people with “high cognitive abilities,” as defined by high scores on the SAT and other standardized tests, or PhDs in a limited number of fields (e.g. physics, computer science, electrical engineering) from “top” US universities.

The implicit assumption is that these people must have DNA which makes them higher functioning than the rest of us.  There are a number of flaws with this approach, starting with those pointed to by Donald Campbell—particularly the fact that the measures they are using long ago lost the validity and reliability due to corruption pressures.  There is also the problem that Michael, Max, and I have been hammering home here at Ethnography.com, which is that “intelligence” is always culturally defined, typically by those who have the power to define people like themselves as, well, “intelligent.”  (Perhaps this is why BGI does not want people with PhD degrees in fields they have not studied, or from universities outside the US–this is who they are).

There are of course other reasons why BGI are off on a fool’s errand, some of which is described in Chapter 5 of my recent (2012) book Schooling, Childhood, and Bureaucracy: Bureaucratizing the Child.  Chapter 5 is called “The Sorting Function of Schools: Institutionalized Privilege and Why Harvard is a Social Problem for Both the Middle Class and Public School 65 in the Bronx.”  For that matter Chapter 8 “Seeing Like a State: Efficiency, Calculability, Predictivity, Control Testing Regimes, and School Administration” is also relevant.  (Sorry the book is still only out in hardcover at $90, and Kindle for $72—check your library for a copy, or wait for the paperback version).  To summarize the findings in my book:  Success on tests are inevitably associated with reproducing the status quo, whatever status quo the elites of the day might be promoting.

As for Campbell’s Law, I hope that the people organizing such projects as the Gene Trait Association Study of Intelligence read Donald Campbell’s article carefully, even if he is not an electrical engineer or physicist with a PhD from a top US University, or an 800 on the math portion of the SAT.

A note to Evolutionary Psychologists: Culture and science are two sides of the same coin

by Maximilian Holland

There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination (Dennett 1995)

 An inherent feature of the practice of observation in empirical science is its dependence upon how  perception is ordered into description via language and communicated to others. This is true for social, physical, behavioral and other sciences; all are inextricably dependent upon language and pre-existing concepts.  This understanding, relevant to all of modern science, goes back at least to the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt in the nineteenth century.

Von Humboldt expressed the idea that there is a close relationship between social groups, languages, and cultures and their representations of reality. This condition has since been reiterated by Wittgenstein and Kuhn in the context of philosophical and scientific methodology. Further, the very choice of what is considered a valuable field of enquiry to engage upon will reflect the culture, representations and values of the society that makes that choice. Is it any surprise that 4th century BCE Indian investigations of economics (as ‘the science of wealth’) were expounded upon in a work that also discussed ‘the science of government’ and statecraft more generally (Trautmann 2012)? For all these reasons, science must continuously disentangle its observations and proposed models from inherited linguistic, perceptual, conceptual and value-based biases. This is necessary as part of the broader bootstrapping that science carries out via methodological criticism, new observations, and counter-evidence. As Dennett puts it: “There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination” (Dennett 1995).

The baggage of inherited language and representations, though inherent in all science, has particular implications for the behavioural and social sciences. Observations we make about ourselves and  fellow humans are readily perceived via familiar categories and described by familiar language, concepts and behavioral models (folk-psychological models if you will) that accompany our everyday social interactions. Social and behavioural observations thus make more use of what Geertz 1976, following Kohut, calls ‘experience-near’ concepts, compared to the typically more ‘experience-distant’ concepts that are employed when describing physical phenomena. Since our models and working theories are inevitably heavily encumbered by our linguistic and cultural milieu; they are consequently particularly vulnerable to constraint and bias via the particular culture that generates them.

An example of a discipline that is acutely aware of this fundamental problem is anthropology. This is partly because anthropologists deliberately attempt to explore the linguistic, conceptual, behavioural and social variations between cultural groups, and routinely face the concomitant problem of considering how to ‘translate’ these between languages and cultures. Ethnographic methods of fieldwork, pioneered by anthropologists such Boas and Malinowski are an example of an attempt to mitigate cultural bias in the observer/scientist.

Given that Boas’ cautions were first outlined over 100 years ago, one would expect most behavioural and social sciences to be well aware of these pitfalls, and to at least attempt to account for them. However, although there has been some progress in these areas (ethnographic and participant-observer methods, reflexivity) there is still much work to be done. In psychology for example, significant debate only arose around the need to address these issues in the 1980s and 1990s (e.g. Katz 1985), and methodologies to compensate are still being debated. Mainstream economics with its inherently limited analysis of various kinds of value has barely begun to address these issues (see e.g. Tony Waters’ piece http://www.ethnography.com/2010/12/).

A concrete example which both illustrates the cultural bias problem, and illustrates how incorporating criticism is integral to bootstrapping in science is described in Schneider’s critical work about the anthropological use of ‘kinship’ concepts.  He demonstrated in the 1960s-1980s that, even in anthropology, cultural bias existed long after Boas’ work. To highlight the bias, Schneider noted a distinction between the traditional anthropological conception of kinship relationships as intrinsically ‘given’ and inalienable (‘from birth’), and an alternative view of kinship relationships as created, constituted and maintained by a process of interaction, or ‘doing’. Schneider boldly included his own earlier work in his critique. He revisited his own analysis of the citamangen / fak relationship in Yap Island society, which he had formerly treated as a ‘father / son’ relationship.  Two alternative conceptions are offered:

The crucial point is this: in the relationship between citamangen and fak the stress in the definition of the relationship is more on doing than on being. That is, it is more what the citamangen does for fak and what fak does for citamangen that makes or constitutes the relationship. This is demonstrated, first, in the ability to terminate absolutely the relationship where there is a failure in the doing, when the fak fails to do what he is supposed to do; and second, in the reversal of terms so that the old, dependent man becomes fak, to the young man, tam. 

The European and the anthropological notion of consanguinity, of blood relationship and descent, rest on precisely the opposite kind of value. It rests more on the state of being, on the sharing of certain inherent and therefore inalienable attributes, on the biogenetic relationship which is represented by one or another variant of the symbol of “blood” (consanguinity), or on “birth,” on qualities rather than on performance. We have tried to impose this definition of a kind of relation on all peoples, insisting that kinship consists in relations of consanguinity and that kinship as consanguinity is a universal condition. (Schneider 1984)

Schneider also included sociobiology in his critique:

Finally, the most recent, explicit, detailed, and developed commitment to the premise that Blood Is Thicker Than Water is made by the socio-biologists. They do this in numerous publications that need not be quoted here since they are so well known. (Schneider 1984)

Anthropologists responded quickly by engaging in debate about Schneider’s critique, and in many cases, adjusted methodology and models, and as a result most observe the distinction between ‘being’/blood vs. ‘doing’/performance is a central orientation of kinship studies today. A decent display of bootstrapping. One might think that the sociobiologists too might have usefully responded to this critique of their cultural bias by showing that they understood such problems that the work of not only Schneider, but Humboldt, Boas, Wittgenstein and many others had demonstrated, and introduce some reflexivity and caution into their analyses and models.

Instead, human sociobiologists responded to such critiques by retrenching and rebranding themselves as ‘Evolutionary Psychologists’, and derogating all perspectives that attempt to account for culture (which they refer to as the ‘Standard Social Science Model’ e.g. Pinker 1999). They continue to boldly promote particular models of ‘human nature’, sometimes arguing for these via experimenting on small groups of US college students, and more importantly by closing their ears to the rest of science and philosophy. Unsurprisingly, the observations made and models advanced often bear striking resemblance to particular behaviours, practices, and folk-theories common in Euro-American cultures.

That Evolutionary Psychologists have not taken Schneider’s critique seriously is seen in how they continue to conceptualize social relationships, kinship and cooperation. Both earlier human sociobiologists and current Evolutionary Psychologists typically claim that biological theories about the evolution of social behaviour can be used to make predictions about how behaviour is mediated in both humans and other animals. For example, a recent experiment conducted on humans by Robin Dunbar and colleagues (Madsen et al. 2007) was, as they understood it, designed “to test the prediction that altruistic behaviour is mediated by Hamilton’s rule” and more specifically “If participants follow Hamilton’s rule, investment (time for which the position was held) should increase with the recipient’s relatedness to the participant. In effect, we tested whether investment flows differentially down channels of relatedness.” From their results, they concluded that “human altruistic behaviour is mediated by Hamilton’s rule… humans behave in such a way as to maximize inclusive fitness: they are more willing to benefit closer relatives than more distantly related individuals.” (Madsen et al. 2007). As well as ignoring the counter-evidence advanced by Schneider, Sahlins and others, the fundamental problem with this position is that the biological theory does not make the prediction that organisms behave in such a way as to maximize inclusive fitness. Their position thus achieves the rare feat of being simultaneously; empirically disproven; logically fallacious; and still frequently employed.

The evolutionary biology theory they refer to (inclusive fitness theory), necessarily takes the form of an ‘ultimate’ explanation; it is a model specifying a covariance criterion that is considered relevant to the evolution of certain social traits. What is misunderstood by claims such as those made by Dunbar and colleagues is that evolutionary explanations and proximate explanations are distinct in biological analysis and should not be conflated (Tinbergen 1963). Inclusive fitness theory is explicitly an evolutionary explanation, and not a proximate one. Confusing these distinct forms of explanation amounts to claiming that behaviour is goal-driven to achieve certain outcomes; it is fallacious and a type of reductionism.  Even a cursory review of findings about the proximate expression of social behaviours in mammals and primates should make it clear that these are not contingent upon genetic relatedness per se, but are instead mediated by context-based and proximity-based cues. Social traits that have taken this proximate form in evolutionarily typical environments are nevertheless compatible with the covariance criterion suggested by inclusive fitness theory.

Furthermore a more careful and less deterministic interpretation of the biological theory (Holland 2012) reveals that there is in fact compatibility between biological and social science disciplines regarding social bonding and kinship.  This comptibility includes the position in attachment psychology (which has recently begun incorporating cultural diversity), and the themes that emerge come from many ethnographic accounts. Why have Evolutionary Psychology accounts not taken on board the kinds of critiques that Schneider (and others) have outlined, and instead stuck to their previous unsupported and incorrect models of behaviour? It seems likely that these incorrect models remain prevalent precisely because they reflect the cultural biases that Schneider outlined.

A constructive treatment of biology that minimizes cultural bias thus actually reinforces the scientific value of the ethnographic accounts that cultural anthropologists have carefully produced over several decades. Constructing an essentialized model of ‘human nature’ from narrow cultural particulars (Euro-American or otherwise) does not constitute science; rather it is closer to cultural colonialism. In any analysis intended to shed light on proposed universals of the human condition, reflexivity and a culture-aware approach are essential.



Wittgenstein, 1953 Philosophical Investigations

Lackey, 1999 What are the Modern Classics?

Kuhn, 1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

von Humboldt, 1836 On the Diversity of Human Language

Dennett, 1995 Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

Geertz, 1976 From the Native’s point of view

Trauttman, 2012 Arthashastra: The Science of Wealth

Boas, 1920 The Methods of Ethnology

Malinowski, 1922 Argonauts of the Western Pacific

Katz 1985 The sociopolitical nature of counseling

Schneider, 1984 A critique of the study of kinship

Sahlins, 1976 The use and abuse of biology

Kitcher, 1985 Vaulting ambition

Pinker, 1999 The blank slate

Madsen et al., 2007 Kinship and altruism a cross-cultural experimental study

Hamilton, 1964 The genetic evolution of social behaviour

Tinbergen, 1963 On Aims and Methods in Ethology

Holland, 2012 Social Bonding and Nurture Kinship


Maximilian Holland is an Assistant Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a guest blogger at ethnography.com.  This blog is based on his PhD. dissertation and book Social Bonding and Nurture Kinship (2012).

Website: maximillianholland.com

The Political Economy of IQ, Or Tilting At Windmills with Steve Hsu (and Jason Richwine)

Steve Hsu has been on a tear lately. Giving talks about IQ, here and here, and partnering with BGI to sequence the genomes of “high cognition” individuals in a quest to solve the giant “problem” of IQ. This effort has hit Vice magazine, Slate, and, more recently, NPR. To give you the CliffsNotes version of Hsu’s argument: IQ is a quantitative trait, just like height and can therefore be selected for improvement.

If you don’t know Hsu, he is the vice president for graduate admissions and research at Michigan State University. He has input into the direction of MSU’s research efforts and whom MSU admits to its graduate programs. .

Obviously, Hsu isn’t the first to claim a method of ranking humans according to cognitive endowment, nor will he be the last. The first attempt was Spearman’s 1904 paper in which he noted a positive correlation in schoolchildren across seemingly unrelated subjects. He called this construction “General Intelligence.” Hsu’s attempt is one of the latest and in keeping with intellectual fashion, he has substituted “Genetic Architecture” and a series of quantitative trait loci for Spearman’s construction, but otherwise their respective projects follow the same intellectual current.

I will raise three lines of objection to Hsu’s claim to have found the “genetic architecture” of high IQ. The first objection is that the tests Hsu uses to determine IQ are culture bound. That is, they reward some types of test takers more than others. Second, Hsu’s model assumes that certain types of knowledge require more cognitive ability to master than other forms do. Third, Hsu falls victim to the utilitarian fallacy. I’ll briefly discuss the first two before turning to the third.

First, a well-worn criticism of Hsu’s work on the genetics of “higher cognition” is that the SAT, which he uses as a proxy for the g factor (see Gould for a thorough debunking) is slanted towards rewarding wealthy test takers. This is a well understood phenomena. The more money one’s parents make (or the more academic their jobs are!), the better one’s chances of succeeding on the SAT.

Hsu, for his part, has acknowledged the culture bound nature of his quest, but seems to believe he can get around the unfortunate fact of the SAT with a “culture-neutral” test, though he does not actually have any concrete plans to administer it and his work uses the SAT extensively. Unfortunately for Hsu, people who think in “culturally neutral” categories are about as common as Giants on the plains of La Mancha.


Second, in this paper, Hsu attempts to link certain majors (physics and mathematics) to “cognitive thresholds.” In doing so, he assumes a natural order of cognition running from fields requiring advanced mathematics to those do not. There is no need to do too much here work tying this up with Victorian conceptions of the savage and the civilized. Suffice to say there is a long body of work within anthropology (and cross-cultural psychology) which explodes this assumption. What is important is context. Some skills are more important, and hence likely to receive more development in certain contexts as opposed to others. Hsu is simply mistaking an epiphenomena of formal schooling in the early 21st century for an eternal human truth.

For example, in 1904, Spearman concluded that the most powerful correlation for “General Intelligence” was excellence in Classics, followed by Common Sense, Pitch Discrimination and French. Mathematics is on the list and and correlated positively, but the highest correlations were dominated by language. It is unsurprising that among English schoolchildren in the first half of the 20th century, language and music would be highly valued within formal schooling while among American college applicants in the early 21st century, mathematical ability would be highly valued.

In each case, the sample subjects are cultivating historically and socially contingent subjects taught within a powerfully hegemonic institution. What makes Spearman and Hsu irresponsible social scientists is i), their unreflective assumptions of these categories as eternal and unchanging and ii), their use of these categories to rank and sort humans in a manner that closes off their possible futures. In this way, both hew closely to deficit models of school failure.

Third, the utilitarian gambit is a staple of quantitative approaches to human action, and as with any mathematical model, must make some assumption about motivation as a start. Hsu simply assumes everyone who takes the test tries to get the best score. He uses the brute fact of admissions based on the SAT to model a market for IQ, which sorts test takers according to their potential with the underlying assumption that test takers do their best to gain high scores. Thus, a political economy is formed whereby high scoring test takers are slotted into the most competitive majors (Hsu thinks some majors require more cognitive ability than others) at the most competitive universities.

However, we know from a wide and deep body of literature within the Anthropology of Education that not all test takers apply themselves equally or are motivated to do well on tests they know are of little use to them. Hsu knows this as well, but he chooses to ignore it with his work on genetics and IQ. However, in an interview with Psychology Today, Hsu gave the following answer to a question about Richard Feyman’s allegedly low IQ score:

3.  Is it true Feynman’s IQ score was only 125?

Feynman was universally regarded as one of the fastest thinking and most creative theorists in his generation. Yet it has been reported-including by Feynman himself-that he only obtained a score of 125 on a school IQ test. I suspect that this test emphasized verbal, as opposed to mathematical, ability. Feynman received the highest score in the country by a large margin on the notoriously difficult Putnam mathematics competition exam, although he joined the MIT team on short notice and did not prepare for the test. He also reportedly had the highest scores on record on the math/physics graduate admission exams at Princeton. It seems quite possible to me that Feynman’s cognitive abilities might have been a bit lopsided-his vocabulary and verbal ability were well above average, but perhaps not as great as his mathematical abilities. I recall looking at excerpts from a notebook Feynman kept while an undergraduate. While the notes covered very advanced topics for an undergraduate-including general relativity and the Dirac equation-it also contained a number of misspellings and grammatical errors. I doubt Feynman cared very much about such things.

How the world has changed since 1904!

Hsu is more than eager to judge you based on your SAT, ACT, GRE,  IQ, or Wonderlic score, but for his personal hero, an excuse must be made. And the excuse he makes for Feynman exposes the assumptions underlying his theory. Feynman, of course, is gambling that he can afford not to care about some things. But, he isn’t alone. Everyone gambles on what they can and cannot afford to care about.

One of Hsu’s examples of an acceptable SAT substitute is the Wonderlic. The Wonderlic is perhaps most famous for its use in the NFL scouting process. Morris Claiborne, a cornerback from LSU, infamously scored a 6 on the Wonderlic. What does he say about the IQ test?

“That test don’t tell me who I am and what time of guy I am and what kind of ability I have. That test can’t drop me.

“They say it’s an IQ test. I came to the combine for football. I looked at the test, and wasn’t any questions about football. I didn’t see no point in the test. I’m not in school anymore. I didn’t complete it. I only finished 15 or 18 questions.”

Claiborne was selected number 6 in the NFL draft and signed to a contract worth several million dollars. Obviously, Claiborne plays football and does not teach theoretical physics, but his comments are illuminating for a powerful reason.

Claiborne is just like Feynman in that he has the good sense to know what not to care about, and where to focus his attention. In fact, the logical justification Claiborne uses in blowing off the test and the logical justification Hsu uses in explaining away Feynman’s relatively low IQ score are almost identical.

Hsu on Feynman:

I doubt Feynman cared very much about such things.

Claiborne on Claiborne:

I’m not in school anymore. I didn’t complete it.

What Feynman and Claiborne are doing is deeply playing with the boundaries of their respective fields. As Geertz observed in a Balinese cockpit deep play is two things. It is 1) instructive work and 2) metasocial commentary. That is, it is a set of instructions about how to do the thing we are now doing and what the consequences might be (or might not be) for doing it wrong.

Though these two examples are playful in the sense that the stakes are low and nothing much is to be lost or gained by a CB who refuses formal logic or a physicist who takes an eccentric approach to spelling, they both point to the metacognitive nature of intelligence and the difficulty of pinning down something like the “g-factor” without recourse to the messy details of context or taking into account the inevitability of self-reflection. Such as: Why am I writing this post?


I sat on this post for a long time. I thought perhaps it would be better to take another direction. But this morning’s news carried the tale of Jason Richwine and a reminder of why I might write about IQ and not something else. Richwine is the co-author of the Heritage Foundation’s new report on immigration and the author of a Harvard dissertation titled “IQ and Immigration Policy.” Here is the abstract:

The statistical construct known as IQ can reliably estimate general mental ability, or intelligence. The average IQ of immigrants in the United States is substantially lower than that of the white native population, and the difference is likely to persist over several generations. The consequences are a lack of socioeconomic assimilation among low-IQ immigrant groups, more underclass behavior, less social trust, and an increase in the proportion of unskilled workers in the American labor market. Selecting high-IQ immigrants would ameliorate these problems in the U.S., while at the same time benefiting smart potential immigrants who lack educational access in their home countries.

In a few days, I will set Richwine (and Hsu) in the context of the Culture of Poverty debates. Suffice to say, they offer nothing new to debates over IQ, or poverty or immigration. Their innovation lies in the naked, unreflective application of a naïve sociobiology to policy debates over access to democratic institutions – citizenship and public education.


Richwine is out at the Heritage Foundation. Meanwhile, Richwine’s advisor has been distancing himself at a rapid clip:

“I have never worked on anything even remotely related to IQ, so don’t really know what to think about the relation between IQ, immigration, etc,” Borjas told me in an email. “In fact, as I know I told Jason early on since I’ve long believed this, I don’t find the IQ academic work all that interesting. Economic outcomes and IQ are only weakly related, and IQ only measures one kind of ability. I’ve been lucky to have met many high-IQ people in academia who are total losers, and many smart, but not super-smart people, who are incredibly successful because of persistence, motivation, etc. So I just think that, on the whole, the focus on IQ is a bit misguided.”

A Rumination on Hillary Clinton, DNA, Cognition, and Culture in Just One Blog

Michael in the last pot here, is pointing to a book review “No Big Deal, but This Researchers’ Theory Explains Everything about How Americans Parent” in Slate.org that describes something that is self-evident to anthropologists, i.e. that whatever is defined as “cognitively advanced” is in fact culturally determined.  This is a point which I tried to make, apparently unsuccessfully, to commenters on this article, which was posted in Ethnography.com in March.  What can I say, I just don’t get it how a culturally determined characteristic like “cognitive ability” which is specific to a time and place is determined by DNA.    I also don’t trust the tools of the psychometricians when they are used indiscriminately across national, temporal, and cultural boundaries. (Note the operative word: “indiscriminate.”)


Along these same lines, though on an unrelated subject, there was another pair of articles about DNA I read today, one by the conservative columnist George Will in today’s Washington Post, “Obama is Right on Syria “.  In an outbreak of comity, the conservative Will is complementing the prudence of President Obama for not taking military action in Syria.  In making this argument, Will is in effect pointing out that there is not always an American solution for every foreign policy problem.   He contrasts this with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s claim in a 2010 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations that “Throughout our history, through hot wars and cold, through economic struggles, and the long march to a more perfect union, Americans have always risen to the challenges we have faced. That is who we are. It is in our DNA. We do believe there are no limits on what is possible or what can be achieved.”  So up pops yet another biological metaphor: DNA determines that Americans always rise to challenges, and makes us believe that all can be achieved.


Now for my major stretch in logic.  Science, testing, DNA, and the genetic revolution have become a metaphor which stretches way beyond where, from a scientific perspective, it should be.  Scientists are not at fault, as Rajiv Khan seems to be pointing out to me in his comments.  However, as the book review in Slate points out, cognitive ability is perceived by American culture as being ever manipulable by parents, foreign policy by Secretarys of State, and so forth.  This is why such metaphor is so appealing—there is indeed a culturally grounded belief that “there are no limits on what is possible or what can be achieved” by Americans.  Geneticists and others have of course taken advantage of this cultural bias toward explanation via DNA, and pumped the federal government for ever-larger grants in ways that anthropology can only dream of.