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 , 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.”


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

  1. Michael Scroggins

    @ nard

    To quote Spinal Tap, I am sure Feynman’s IQ goes to 11.

    @ Chuck

    It doesn’t matter how you slice the cake, there can be no proper understanding of such mush as the g-factor. The step of reducing human cognition to a set of variables is a step in the wrong direction. The logic is faulty.

    @ Roger

    With read-option concepts spreading so quickly it could becoming a running game once again. Or maybe you think today’s QBs are just too stupid to read coverages?

    As for Spearman, to continue with your football analogy, the style of the game may have changed, but the field of play has remained the same. And that is the problem

  2. Asher

    @ Michael

    Yeah, citing Gould on anything is … don’t do it. Gould is an intellectual fraud, through and through.

    Anyways, consider the two following statements:

    John is smarter than Sam
    Multivariate calculus is more difficult than arithmetic

    First, the observation that John is smarter than Sam could be made by almost any random person about an observation they make in comparing two people. Now, either this is a purely personal observation and means “I like what John says better than what Sam says” or it is an interpersonal one and means that there is some quantifiable measure that is mind independent that backs that up.

    Presumably, if “smarter” is nothing more than a subjective expression of personal taste then it would be difficult to see how knowledge could ever advance, for reasons I’ll explain next.

    First, let me start off by addressing the notion of cause and effect. It is always physical. Always. There is no such thing as a “social” or “mental” cause and effect because such a mechanism is either people just saying whatever they want to say or it is measurable and reducible to the physical. if it is measurable then it has a physical cause and if it is not then it is just subjective taste. Anyway, if all statements are simply nothing more than purely subjective taste then it doesn’t make sense that to even say that “knowledge advances” since the very notion of differing utility of ideas implies something beyond subjective taste.

    The bottom line is that something that is cause and effect always has a physical basis.

    But let’s go to the issue of the “environmental factors”. Yeah, this relates to the previous point: what caused environmental factors? Previous environmental factors? Then what caused those? See, the problem is that if you go far enough back into history what we call environmental factors, today, didn’t exist. So, what caused them?

    The only possible explanation is the physical evolution of the various evolutionary clusters. The creation of the social environment, itself, is a product of genetic evolution. So, while the inputs to IQ may have some, even significant, variation between individuals within an evolutionary cluster the inputs that result in differing averages between groups is 100 percent. If not, then you’ve moved out of the realm of cause and effect and into the realm of “just because I say so” if you want to measure human outcomes.

  3. Asher

    @ Michael

    The step of reducing human cognition to a set of variables is a step in the wrong direction. The logic is faulty.

    Then what you’re saying is that human behavior and cognition is completely unknowable, and even statements like “john is smarter than Sam” are either nonsense or purely a matter of taste.

    But even then leftist and blank-slaters want to say things like “a legacy of slavery and racism” cause African-American outcome. But that is a category mistake because cause and effect is solely a physical thing. All I would respond is “What caused a legacy of slavery and racism?” Usually, when I ask a leftist this question they simply don’t have an answer, but if you’re asserting a chain of causality then you *have* to show every cause as an effect of a prior cause.

    The leftists who even attempt an answer fall into two categories:

    a) Free will. In this scenario, the initial, freely willed act of “racism” was an ex nihilo cause with no prior causes. This is sort of like a secular version of the Biblical myth of the fall.

    B) Evolutionary causes. In this scenario, whites have genetically evolved to be evil and everyone else has evolved to be good.

    Each category has its problems. If the answer is free will then why doesn’t everyone have free will? Why can’t I just say that African-Americans choose to score lower in IQ tests out of free will, earn less money out of free will, etc? If the answer is whites are genetically evil then the problem with that is that nature is neither good nor evil.

    Anyways, you can’t have it both ways, if human behavior and cognition in some areas lie beyond rational analysis then ALL human outcomes must also lie beyond rational analysis. What you want to do is pick and choose what behaviors to analyze and this is going to be a function of politics, of the will to power.

  4. Michael Scroggins

    @ Asher

    First of all, Gould is not an intellectual fraud. He argued some points which are uncomfortable if you hold a purely gradualist view of evolution, which many readers appear to. Evolutionary pluralism isn’t fraud. It comes directly from reading Darwin and interrogating evidence in the fossil record.

    Second, I am not at all saying that human cognition is unknowable. I am saying that a priori reducing it to a set of variables without taking into account the situation in which it occurs is foolish. Do you know Bateson’s example of the blind man and his cane? Cognition is promiscuous.

  5. Steve

    “the SAT, which he uses as a proxy for the g factor 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.”

    There is a positive correlation between socioeconomic status and IQ. Maybe they make more money partly because they are more intelligent and maybe they are more intelligent partly because of their genes. So, therefore, maybe the children score higher on IQ tests because they have inherited their wealthy, intelligent parents genes. Parents with academic jobs have bright kids…shock, horror…could it be anything to do with their genes? Apparently these thoughts didn’t occur to you? So what have you proved?

  6. Steve

    Doesn’t it strike you as quite plausible that how well you can perform certain mental tasks and your reasoning abilities might have something to do with the structure and functioning of your brain and that could be something to do with your genes? Why is there a higher correlation between the iqs of identical twins raised apart than between ordinary siblings raised together?

  7. Tony

    No, it doesn’t strike me as particularly plausible. No brain ever developed in isolation from other brains, not even those of twins. Don’t know why this obvious fact shouldn’t be considered…

    On the other hand, I will grant that there is a bit of mystery in the research results…

  8. Tony

    I’ll give you your version of the i.q. test, if you will give me mine.

    Mine would include a skill once demonstrated by my mechanic in Dar Es Salaam. He arrived at my house on his bicycle with a small bag of tools. He dropped the transmission in my car, disassembled it, found the needed spare part in town, and then put the transmission back in, all in three days. By himself. He had a lot of “cultural capital” that made it possible to do this, in the same way that the upper class kid in the US has a lot of cultural capital in order to do well on the SAT exam.

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