Race and IQ: Should Scientists Even Study It?

Feb 12, 2009 7:52am

It is one of the most sensitive debates in modern society.  Arguments over whether race affects intelligence have gone on for generations, and today, in competing commentaries, scientists in the journal NATURE are debating whether the issue should even be studied. "No," writes Steven Rose, a professor emeritus of neuroscience at the Open University in England.  "Science and society do not benefit." Rose says race as a way of identifying people is badly-defined — a century ago they might have been separated by class — and, what’s more, the IQ test is a terribly inadequate way to sum up the breadth of human intelligence.  "The categories of intelligence, race and gender are not definable within the framework required for natural scientific research," he concludes.  "We lack the theoretical or technical tools to study them." The other side of the debate comes from Stephen Ceci and Wendy M. Williams of Cornell: "Yes," they write.  "The scientific truth must be pursued."  They say they don’t believe, themselves, that genetics will explain differences between groups — but they say discussion has too often descended into character assassination when prominent people brought up issues of intelligence. They cite the case in 2005 when Lawrence Summers (now the chair of President Obama’s National Economic Council) made comments about women and math, and ultimately had to resign as president of Harvard.  You may also recall the case of James Watson, who won the Nobel Prize for the structure of DNA — and had to leave the Chancellor’s office of his own laboratory after he talked about the intelligence of people in Africa. "When scientists are silenced by colleagues, administrators, editors and funders who think that simply asking certain questions if inappropriate, the process begins to resemble religion rather than science," write Ceci and Williams.  "Under such a regime, we risk losing a generation of desperately needed research." The commentaries, online HERE, are by subscription only.  But NATURE has invited people to debate the issue HERE, and comments are welcome below as well. So what is science to do?  Prof. Rose cites reasons to reject the research of race; Ceci and Williams reject his reasons.  But neither side says to ignore the subject because it is too hot to handle.

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