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.