Sunday, November 04, 2012

Malign malarky of racial essentialism persists

On Friday, the the New York Times printed an obituary for psychologist Arthur R. Jensen. Though the kerfuffle is little remembered these days, I knew that name. When I was an undergrad at Berkeley in the 1960s, Jensen advanced the theory that scores on IQ tests showed that African Americans were intellectually inferior to whites. Or at least many of us thought that was the implication of his work.

You didn't have to be a genius, then or now, to recognize what hooey that assertion is. The only thing IQ tests measure is the ability to score well on IQ tests. If a test yields consistently different results across different populations, the object of study should be the test, not the population.

I had thought that respectable scientists outside such intellectual backwaters as the Heritage Foundation had noticed this. The much mourned Stephen Jay Gould eloquently demolished such drivel in The Mismeasure of Man.

But apparently educational psychologists remain mesmerized by and convinced that their tests prove something. At the very end of a long obituary, the Times saw fit to include incisive criticism of the malign malarky Jensen came to stand for:

“Socioeconomic status turns out to be the best predictor of your I.Q. score,” Sonja C. Grover, an educational psychologist at Lakehead University in Ontario, said on Wednesday. “Socioeconomic status has to do with your quality of schooling, the quality of the teachers that you’re exposed to. Many people who do poorly on an I.Q. test have a very poor fund of general knowledge, but it doesn’t mean that they’re not intelligent.”

A 1981 book by Professor Grover, “The Cognitive Basis of the Intellect,” was written as a response to Professor Jensen’s book “Bias in Mental Testing” (1980). In that book, he argued that it is possible to construct tests of general intelligence that are free of cultural bias, which in turn makes it possible to isolate heredity as a wellspring of intellect.

But in focusing on the link between genetics and intellectual ability, Professor Grover said on Wednesday, Professor Jensen’s work has sweeping, and potentially grave, implications.

“It was irrelevant and not particularly useful to suggest, as those who endorse Jensen have, that Jensen was just holding a politically incorrect point of view and that’s why he was being criticized,” she said. “His studies and his influence would have a dramatic effect on the perception that people have about minority groups and their potential, and even their right to a quality education.”

She added: “In no way am I suggesting that he wasn’t completely well intentioned. But I would make the point that you cannot separate social science from human rights, regardless of what side of the fence you’re on.”

Hear, hear!

I'm sure Professor Jensen was a perfectly nice human being to people in his world. But his theories have supported vicious undermining of the educational struggles of disadvantaged people.

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