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Why Did Harvard Give a PhD for a Discredited Approach to Race and IQ? | The Nation

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Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener

Politics and pop, past and present.

Why Did Harvard Give a PhD for a Discredited Approach to Race and IQ?


Harvard University. (Flickr/Kelly Delay)

He’s probably the first person ever to lose his job because of his Harvard PhD dissertation: Jason Richwine, let go by the Heritage Foundation on Friday. The problem: he co-authored their position paper opposing immigration reform; and then somebody discovered that his PhD thesis at Harvard’s Kennedy School was dedicated to the proposition that Hispanics have lower IQs than white people. Not even the Heritage Foundation wanted to go there—so after two days trying to answer embarrassing questions, he left quietly.

But how did he get a Harvard PhD for work that even the Heritage Foundation wouldn’t accept?

The dissertation, uncovered by Dylan Matthews of The Washington Post, titled “IQ and Immigration Policy,” was accepted in 2009 by the Kennedy School of Public Policy. In it, Richwine argued that there are genetic differences in intelligence between races, and that they will persist for generations to come. He’s a disciple of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, whose book The Bell Curve made a similar argument back in 1994.

The problems with all the work purporting to link “race” and “intelligence” have been well-known for decades. First, the concept of “race”: There is no “Hispanic race.” It’s a census category, not a biological one. What we call “Hispanics” in the United States includes Indian peasants from Yucatan and doctors from Mexico City (and Madrid). Second problem: the concept of “IQ.” The inventors of the IQ test claimed it measured “innate intelligence.” But of course what the test really measures is test-taking ability. Our peasant from Yucatan probably wouldn’t do as well as the kid from Beverly Hills High. Both “race” and “intelligence” are culturally constructed notions, not biological or genetic facts. None of this is hard to understand.

Nevertheless, Jason Richwine concluded his dissertation, “No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.” The question is: how did Harvard decide this discredited idea was worth a PhD? In other words, who at Harvard approved this travesty?

The dissertation was approved, as all dissertations are, by a committee of three. The chair was George Borjas, an conservative economist who writes about immigration for National Review and The Wall Street Journal. Borjas told Slate’s David Weigel, “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.… 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.” Not exactly an endorsement of the dissertation.

The second person on the committee was Richard Zeckhauser. He studies investing, not immigration, and his Harvard faculty website describes him as “a senior principal at Equity Resource Investments (ERI), a special situations real estate firm.” He told Wiegel that “Jason’s empirical work was careful,” but that he was “too eager to extrapolate his empirical results to inferences for policy.”

The third member of the committee is the big surprise, and the big problem: Christopher Jencks, for decades a leading figure among liberals who did serious research on inequality—a contributor to The New York Review of Books, the author of important books, including Inequality: Who Gets Ahead?, The Homeless and The Black White Test Score Gap. Christopher Jencks knows exactly what’s wrong with the studies purporting to link “race” with “IQ.”

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Richwine concluded his dissertation, “From the perspective of Americans alive today, the low average IQ of Hispanics is effectively permanent.” Why would Christopher Jencks decide that that dissertation was worth a Harvard PhD? I asked Jencks whether he would comment. He replied “Nope. But thanks for asking.”

No less than Rush Limbaugh has cited the approval of the dissertation by Christopher Jencks, “a renowned left-wing academic,” as proof that the young man is being railroaded.

The last word in this story goes to a study published in 2012 in the journal Psychological Science. “In an analysis of two large-scale, nationally representative United Kingdom data sets (N = 15,874),” the researchers wrote, “we found that lower general intelligence (g) in childhood predicts greater racism in adulthood.”

Across the country, students are rising up against racism and austerity. Read StudentNation for a rundown of first-person takes.

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