Ad Policy

Rebecca Zwick

  • Politics August 29, 2002



    Princeton, NJ

    In an accurate review of Jonathan Marks's loosely argued What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee, Micaela di Leonardo passes on to readers the misleading impression that the Great Ape Project uses the genetic similarities between humans and apes to argue for "human rights" for apes, "frequently to the detriment of the impoverished African and Southeast Asian residents of ape homelands" ["Too Much Monkey Business," July 8].

    This is false from start to finish. First, the Great Ape Project is not based on the genetic similarities of humans and great apes but on the rich emotional and mental lives of the great apes, so well documented by supporters of the Great Ape Project like Jane Goodall and many others.

    Second, the Great Ape Project does not seek the full range of human rights for great apes, but only the basic rights to life, liberty and protection from torture, and even the rights to life and liberty that we seek are not absolute, for they allow euthanasia in the interests of the apes, and captivity where that is in the best interests of the apes or is required for the safety of others. Finally, the protection of the remaining, and rapidly dwindling, forests of Africa and Southeast Asia where the great apes live in their natural habitat is, surely, also in the best long-term interests of the human residents of those regions.

    Readers interested in finding out more about the project for themselves may go to



    Evanston, Ill.

    You've got to hand it to notorious headline-grabbing philosopher Peter Singer, who has endorsed infanticide for disabled human babies, claimed we can solve global poverty by just consuming a little less and donating as individuals to aid agencies (no need, apparently, to complicate matters by considering capitalist functioning and state and NGO actions) and called for a revision of taboos against bestiality since "sex with animals does not always involve cruelty." Now how exactly can he hold his mouth to call Jon Marks's 98% Chimpanzee loosely argued?

    What is so refreshing about Marks's work is that he is a hard scientist who really understands that we live and act within a shifting political economy. Animal and ecosystem conservation and human rights for the impoverished who live in surviving great ape territories in Africa and Southeast Asia need not be antithetical projects, but Marks quotes numerous Great Ape Project activists who believe they are, including the zoologist who chillingly said to him, "Think percentages, not numbers" in weighing Southeast Asian human vs. ape rights. Others frequently liken apes to human children or mentally retarded adults. And Singer is most disingenuous in claiming that the GAP does not argue on the basis of genetic similarity. The group's official website clearly argues for apes' inclusion with humans in a "community of equals" because they (and Singer co-wrote this statement) "are the closest relatives of our species."

    The issue, as Marks makes crystal clear, is not whether apes are adorable, interesting, endangered and in need of aid--of course they are--but how we use science to make political arguments. "Why should the mentality of apes have any bearing on their humanness (or lack thereof) or their rights (or lack thereof)? If you lose the ability to reason and communicate, do you...forfeit your humanity and rights? This is a scary moral place for apes and people to be.... Human rights should neither be forfeitable nor accessible by nonhumans.... Singling out particular classes of people in order to show how similar they are to apes is a troubling scientific strategy, not least of all when the humans rhetorically invoked are the very ones whose rights are most conspicuously in jeopardy."

    Disability groups and others quite rightly have weighed in en masse against Singer, but nonhuman primates, too, deserve a better, more rational advocate.



    Santa Barbara, Calif.

    Eighty years ago, journalist Walter Lippmann took on the standardized testing enterprise in The New Republic, addressing such broad issues as the effects of education, opportunity and heredity on test scores. For example, Lippmann dismissed the claim that IQ tests measure hereditary intelligence as having "no more scientific foundation than a hundred other fads, vitamins and glands and amateur psychoanalysis and correspondence courses in will power." His articles on testing continue to be valued today not merely because he could turn a phrase but because he had a firm grasp of the complex technical and political issues surrounding the use of test scores.

    Alas, Peter Sacks is no Walter Lippmann. To Sacks, who reviewed my book Fair Game? The Use of Standardized Admissions Tests in Higher Education ["Testing Times in Higher Ed," June 24], the issues are simple: Tests are evil; eliminating them is good. Sacks has undoubtedly been aware of my work because I have pointed out errors and omissions in his writings on testing; in fact, I do so in my book. He ignores large portions of the book in order to characterize it as "a defense of the hegemony of gatekeeping exams." A reader of the review might be surprised to find that my book proposes a new consumer agency to monitor admissions testing, discusses the perils of relying too heavily on test scores in admissions decisions and describes research, including some of my own, in which test scores did not do a good job of predicting subsequent grades.

    Rather than attempt to address every inaccuracy, I will focus on a central feature of Sacks's review--his belief that the existence of score disparities among ethnic and economic groups proves that admissions tests are biased. In Fair Game? I point out that determining whether tests are biased is complex and requires a willingness to look beyond patterns of average test scores. In Change (March/April 2001), I commented on Sacks's earlier Change article, "Standardized Testing: Meritocracy's Crooked Yardstick": "[Sacks] cited several studies to prove that SAT scores and socioeconomic status are related, and alluded to [a study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics]. What he neglected to mention is that this study showed that socioeconomic status was also related to high school grades... [and to course background, teacher evaluations and extracurricular activities]. In particular, 24 percent of the high-SES group, compared to only 10 percent of the low-SES group, had high school [grade-point averages] of at least 3.5..."

    What the GPA and the SAT have in common is that they are indexes of previous achievement and therefore reflect past inequalities in educational opportunity. In The Nation (June 5, 2000), Pedro Noguera and Antwi Akom noted that "explaining why poor children of color perform comparatively less well in school is relatively easy: Consistently, such children are educated in schools that are woefully inadequate on most measures of quality and funding."

    Sacks omitted the findings on grades and other achievement measures from his book and from his Change article. Presenting the complete results would have undercut his position that some inherent property of tests causes the scores to be related to economic factors. (Including all the findings might have also required him to abandon his pet phrase, "the Volvo effect," which he uses to refer to the association between family income and standardized test scores.)

    In addition, Sacks is incorrect in implying that class-rank admission plans like the Texas 10 percent plan, which involve consideration of high school grades but not test scores, have uniformly led to greater campus diversity. The Dallas Morning News, for example, reported on June 19, 2002, that at Texas A&M, the percentages of black and Latino students have decreased since the initiation of the Texas plan. As I point out in my book, the plan is structured so that diversity benefits are likely to accrue to the state's flagship institution, UT Austin.

    Finally, in response to Sacks's criticism that my writing is textbookish, I readily concede that I lack his ability to generate catchy phrases like "Volvo effect" and "crooked yardstick." But clever labels are a poor substitute for thoughtful consideration of the controversies that surround the use of standardized tests.



    Boise, Idaho

    In response to my criticisms of her new book, Rebecca Zwick takes aim at the reviewer. She says I believe that "tests are evil; eliminating them is good." It's not surprising she'd make up this straw man, since attacking it also sums up the entire marketing strategy behind her book.

    Zwick--a former researcher at the Educational Testing Service, the firm that produces such standardized tests as the SAT--and her publisher have touted Fair Game? as a source of objective information about testing, positioned to clear up all this testing fuss with common sense and straight facts. If one chooses to look at a different or broader set of facts than she does, or to interpret them with a non-ETS spin, Zwick seems to imply that one must then be a simpleton and an ideologue.

    Zwick tries to make hay of the finding that high school or college grades, just like test scores, also correlate strongly to socioeconomic status. Not recognizing this, as Zwick takes pains to do in her book, is to unfairly single out standardized tests as punitive to poor and minority kids, Zwick claims.

    Like so much of her book, Zwick seems to miss the big picture. The thrust of my entire critique of the testing culture--and her book--is that gatekeeping tests give questionable weight to one-time performance on highly abstracted testing exercises, which by definition are mere approximations of genuine work. And mostly poor approximations, at that. Given this, it's no wonder that test scores are such feeble predictors of later success, whether in school or work.

    Just as Bates College and other institutions have done, with great success, in their efforts to reduce the importance of admissions tests, I'll take classroom performance--as measured by grades, portfolios of student work and other documentation of student accomplishments both in and out of school--any day over test performance as an indicator of how a student will perform in real life, not the tested life.

    Regarding the Texas 10-percent plan, Zwick says I'm incorrect in implying that de-emphasizing the SAT has led to greater diversity for all state institutions. In fact, I'm not implying any such claim in the context she quotes. I draw on data only from the University of Texas at Austin. Zwick speculates that the plan has merely reshuffled the deck in terms of statewide enrollments of minorities. If Zwick wants me or another reviewer to take her seriously on this point, she'd better offer up something of substance or do some real analysis. In her book, Zwick could only muster up this: "Data on the statewide effect of the Texas 10 percent plan are hard to come by."

    What can she possibly mean with such a vague statement? That university officials are trying to hide some dirty little secret? Does it mean that there are no campus-specific enrollment data broken out by race and ethnicity? Seems improbable. Or could it mean that Zwick could find no readily available studies by credible researchers that support her claim that enrollments have merely been redistributed from other state campuses to Austin? But even a boatload of data needs a theory, an explanation of what the data mean. Alas, Zwick offers readers no theoretically plausible explanation whatsoever as to why minority enrollments might be expected to decline across the state as a result of reducing the emphasis on SAT scores. In fact, there's every reason to expect just the opposite.

    As for textbookishness, that is certainly no major offense. Sign me up any day for a dry but forthright book about testing in America. Regarding Zwick's curious reference to me and Walter Lippmann, I won't touch that one with a ten-foot number-2 pencil.


    Micaela di Leonardo, Peter Sacks, Peter Singer and Rebecca Zwick