Race and Intelligence: Politicizing the Findings

What is a good measure of intelligence? And when does the study of intelligence become political? Farai Chideya continues the conversation with Bill Tucker, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University. He's also the author of The Intelligence Controversy: A Guide to the Debates.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And now for a different perspective, I'm joined by Bill Tucker. He's a professor of psychology at Rutgers University, also the author of "The Intelligence Controversy: A Guide to the Debates." Welcome.

Dr. BILL TUCKER (Professor, Psychology, Rutgers University): Hi. Nice to be with you.

CHIDEYA: So we just discussed with Professor Rushton the issue of whether or not there should be a debate or even a consensus over race and intelligence. Frame this for us in terms of how race and intelligence became linked at what point in history and how that whole debate has unfolded politically.

Dr. TUCKER: Well, there's a lengthy history of research on race and intelligence, and, invariably, the scientists who work on this do not contribute anything of true scientific value. But these studies wind up then being used in the political arena to support particular points of view.

And so, for example, even the Pioneer Fund was begun by - that is, its founder and its first president were involved in an attempt to repatriate all blacks back to Africa. Both these men were also ardent supporters of the Third Reich. Then during the '60s, the members of the Pioneer board were particularly active in the campaign to stop the Civil Rights Movement, to overturn the Brown decision, to prevent passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and, generally, to argue against political equality for people of color.

And, in fact, one of the members of the board, R - who's still a member of the board, R. Travis Osbourne, was one of the persons who testified in the attempt to overturn the Brown decision that because blacks were putatively less intelligent than whites, integrated education was not possible.

CHIDEYA: So does the fact that there has been a political debate around this negate the research by different people, including Professor Rushton, who say there is a link?

Dr. TUCKER: Well, in evaluating this research, there are a number of things to keep in mind. First of all, we have no precise, biological definition of race. These are social constructions. And then it's becoming more and more true as time goes on and different populations are beginning to intermingle, we are approaching what demographers call the beginning of the blend which will essentially eliminate all the old racial categories that we're used to invoking.

The second thing is that although Professor Rushton says that, yes, we know what intelligence is, many people argue that there is no clear definition of intelligence, and that what are called intelligence tests tap at best a very small segment of cognitive abilities.

Is it possible there are differences between some of these socially constructed groups? Well, anything is possible. But the available evidence would not lead me to that conclusion.

CHIDEYA: Why don't you talk to us a little bit about this issue of brain size and intelligence? Do you see any link? Or what is the - he says that it's absolutely incontrovertible that there is a link. What's your research or what does research that you've looked at tell you?

Dr. TUCKER: Well, there are many criticisms of the studies on brain size and intelligence. But quite apart from the scientific issues, I think that there are some obvious practical facts that would suggest that this link is not as firm as Rushton claims it is.

For example, one of the individuals who is usually proclaimed as one of the most intelligent persons of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, left his brain to science. It was studied. It is slightly below average for his size. Now, actually, one has to adjust for body size in these studies, and it's slightly below average. So to suggest that brain size is linked to intelligence when one of the most intelligent persons ever had a below-average brain size would suggest that there are serious doubts about this work.

CHIDEYA: Overall, what's the importance of this right now? Why - this debate has been framed by some as beyond the pale, we shouldn't even discuss it. Do you think, first of all, that it is a distraction to discuss it, something that's really important for us to revisit?

Dr. TUCKER: In my opinion, it is a distraction to discuss it. If I could, just - let me tell you about an incident that occurred 38 years ago in 1969. Although an anecdote, of course, is not data, it, nevertheless, can be quite instructive. At that time, someone from the same point of view, that is who believed that blacks were genetically lesser intelligent that whites, was, nevertheless, looking for a black intellectual to serve on a particular editorial advisory board, and he wrote to certain individuals, again, who share that point of view, and he asked if they could suggest somebody.

Well, one person that he wrote to was Dwight J. Ingle, a well-known physiologist, who believed that blacks were less intelligent. And at that time, in 1969, Ingle replied that he did not know of a single, quote, "Negro," who deserved to be a full professor at a first-class university.

Another person who responded to that request was Jensen, who, of course, is still working with Rushton on this issue. And Jensen named someone that he found likeable, but not really intellectually trustworthy and implied that, really, there weren't any major black intellectuals who could fill such a position.

Well, today, 38 years later, there are numerous intellectuals who happen to be black. There are hundreds, if not thousands of them, who are full professors at major universities. And I think we need to concentrate more on increasing the kind of opportunity that allowed the emergence of these people rather than arguing that, in fact, they are genetically incapable of achieving such accomplishments.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, professor, thank you so much.

Dr. TUCKER: My pleasure.

CHIDEYA: Bill Tucker is a professor of psychology at Rutgers University. He's also the author of "The Intelligence Controversy: A Guide to the Debates."

And we should be clear that the foundation, the Pioneer foundation funded studies that went into the book. Bill Tucker joined us from Audio Post in Philadelphia.

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