What’s Wrong With Jason Richwine?

Jason RichwineIt is logical to ask what is wrong with Jason Richwine because in a column today in Politico he asks what is wrong with the reporting on intelligence testing. It is disappointing, but no more so than the reaction, if I can judge based upon Steve Benen. Benen dismisses Richwine out of hand and I think that’s very dangerous. Richwine needs to be addressed. Sadly, I am not the person to do that, but I do (as usual) have a few thoughts.

The first issue is that Richwine tries to have it both ways. He complains that mainstream, popular news outlets just dismiss his work as racist rather than getting into what the science of intelligence testing is all about. But then he goes to those very same news outlets and publishes his own simplistic overview of the state of the science. I’m no expert on intelligence testing, but for the last couple of decades, I’ve been fascinated with it and I continue to read actual papers in the field. (This is one of the few advantages of a physics education.) And what I see is a field that is in chaos—one that is still very confused about the basis of what they do. There are, for example, lots of ways to measure intelligence. Listening to Richwine, you would think that whatever happens to be trendy right now must be what’s right. Even more, there is some kind of weird glitch in IQ tests that causes later generations to test unreasonably higher (Flynn Effect). It is simply the case that there remain big questions that people like Richwine and Murray brush aside.

The second issue is that those pushing this whole line about race and intelligence in the public square do not seem primarily interested in the issue of intelligence. People don’t generally remember that Murray’s The Bell Curve was pushing a political point: we shouldn’t worry about inequality because it is just a reflection of the fact that the brown-skinned people are generally stupider.

Similarly, we only know of Richwine because of his hopelessly sloppy work purporting to show that comprehensive immigration reform would cost the country a fortune. It turned out that it would actually save the country money. Is it any wonder that people would be skeptical about either man’s work on intelligence? It certainly seems that they both have preferred policies and they are using intelligence testing as a way to justify those policies. And that isn’t the way science is supposed to work.

What this all comes down to is that these scientists who put themselves forward as honest truth tellers seem like con artists. Yes, there is actual science that these men certainly know. But their presentation of it is far too tidy and is finessed to make their political points. Meanwhile, the science of intelligence tests trudges on as these men publicly pontificate about the moral decline of the upper class and the cost of immigration reform. If these men were real psychologists, they wouldn’t be working at conservative political think tanks (more known for propaganda than actual policy, anyway). So the answer to my original question is that what’s the matter with Jason Richwine is that he’s a political operative who wants to be taken seriously as a scientist. And I understand that desire. But I haven’t seen anything that makes me think I ought to pay attention to yet another conservative who will say or do anything to push his preferred policies. When it comes to intelligence testing, I think I’ll stick with Jim Flynn.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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