The Misinterpretation of the Black and Jewish IQ Testing Gap
Updated: Aug 31, 2019
I was attending Harvard College in the Fall of 1994, when Charles Murray and Richard Hernstein’s The Bell Curve hit the presses. There was a sort of frenzy on the University’s campus. Richard Hernstein had recently passed away, so he escaped the firestorm, but Charles Murray was very much alive and residing at Harvard. He was trashed. Excoriated. He was regarded as a modern day infidel.
I remember the whole affair pretty well. The public statements denouncing Murray by the faculty. My own professor Stephen J. Gould eviscerating Murray in the New Yorker. There was even an impromptu debate held at the Kennedy School of Government, featuring the presidents of the various Liberal and Conservative Student Journals and Political Organizations, including the Black Students Association. It was a memorable and emotional time in this regard.
Today, Charles Murray continues to ‘play the victim’, acting the part of a ‘martyr for scientific truth’, when this characterization is wholly spurious. Any doubts that one might have had regarding the merit of Murray’s public vilification have been erased by time.
In fact, recent scientific discoveries in the field of genetics have rendered Murray’s most controversial claims incoherent: that observed variations in social patterns between “white” and “black” Americans are linked to “inheritable traits”. Recent studies of the human genome from white and black Americans demonstrate that these two so-called American “races” are in fact arbitrarily defined social groups, with no basis in biology or genetics.
This essay is about the use and abuse of science. Human beings are peculiar animals. We have a tendency to weaponize our knowledge. If we look at firearms, explosives, and nuclear weapons, these were all based on scientific advances that were not originally intended to advance the arts of war, but instead for created to advance the arts of peace. This phenomenon is especially true in the US. If we look at the matter of standardized tests, we see a similar pattern.
The Proper Role of Standardized Testing
The proper role of standardized tests is to act as an efficient tool to sort talent, especially youth, for positions in school, government, or the private sector. At its best, standardized testing seeks to genuinely establish a merit system, such that it provides a forum by which all applicants from all backgrounds may be judged by the same yardstick. Not everyone has the opportunity to attend a prestigious preparatory Academy, but everyone takes the same SAT exam. In this way, a public school student can directly compete on the same playing field with the students from the most outstanding private schools in the world. This is a good thing for these young people and for society.
Standardized tests, whether we are speaking of “IQ Tests” or “SAT Tests”, by definition, primarily measure one’s test-taking skills. General test-taking involves not only various aspects of ratiocination, but also a skill for understanding the game or the model that the test itself represents. In a standardized test, the correct answers to all questions must be unambiguous, and consequently there must exist an unambiguous standard to establish right from wrong answer choices. It is my experience that many people who are not good test-makers, never quite understand the model or game that underlies the test itself.
It is not surprising that getting good grades in college has a significant correlation with higher SAT scores, because a more skilled test-taker has a clear advantage achieving higher marks in classes where grades are measured primarily by tests, than a less-skilled test-taker. Of course, correlation in no way guarantees causation. The growing American national debt is highly correlated to my increasing age, but there exists no causal relationship.
Test-taking skills help a public school student be admitted to a better magnet school, into a more prestigious University, and ultimately a good job placement after graduation. In fact, part of the function of standardized tests such as the SAT in the elite American Universities was to breakdown the ancestral “old boys network” that for too long characterized these institutions.
Standardized tests have an ancient origin, the earliest evidence of its use in Ancient China. The Chinese Imperial Examinations began to be administrated during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), but came into more regular use during the mid-Tang Dynasty (618 AD – 907 AD), and was actively in use until the early 20th century. These Exams were based on knowledge of the Chinese classics and literary style, not technical expertise, so successful candidates needed only ‘general knowledge’, and they tended to share a common language and culture. The Chinese exam system formed a pivotal role in the establishment of a professional merit system in Chinese Imperial society.
The Exams became increasingly widely utilized as the major path to Chinese office. The central role that the Imperial Exam played in sorting Chinese professional advancement, helped to shape China's intellectual, cultural, political, economic, and religious life. The increased reliance on the Exam system was in part responsible for the Chinese Imperial government shifting from its reliance on a primarily military-oriented aristocracy, to a gentry-class of scholar-bureaucrats. This is what we would today call a “cognitive elite”.
Still, once people are in the workforce and school is behind them test-taking skills are not important for rising in the firm. If two people graduate from school at the same time and get the same job at a particular firm, there is no evidence of which I am aware that their rise within the firm is a function of how well they did on an IQ Test, SAT, LSAT, or GMAT.
The rise from associate to executive or partner is instead primarily a function of other social skills not measured by these tests. The major political, economic, and cultural institutions of American life are not generally headed by the people working at said institutions who scored the highest on their standardized tests, to my knowledge. These so-called “egg-heads” are often useful to their bosses for providing analysis, but they are not necessarily the firm’s primary decision-makers.
In the end, being good at test-taking is useful for young people to gain professional opportunities, particularly if they have not inherited prominent wealth, social status, or family connections, but its usefulness beyond this has not been empirically demonstrated to my knowledge. If an average test-taker could gain the exact same job opportunity as an excellent test-taker in another manner, such as through family connections, friendships, or College Fraternities, it’s not clear that his relatively lower IQ/SAT/LSAT/GMAT test scores correlate with negative professional advancement, compared to the better test-taker.
The IQ Test and the Noble Lie
In the US, what we call the “Intelligence Quotient” or IQ Test was the first widely used standardized test. Created in France by Alfred Binet with the narrowly defined purpose of sorting children with learning disabilities, the IQ Test was employed as an efficient tool by the US military during World War I to sort millions of new soldiers for military offices, particularly to identify potential Officer Candidates, or others “unfit for service”.
Alfred Binet never intended for his IQ Test to measure “biologically inherited intelligence”. In fact, Binet intentionally conceived of the Intelligence measured by his IQ Test in an extremely narrow and limited well-defined manner, strictly for the purposes of his well-defined task. This technical definition of Intelligence which Binet posited was never intended to be confused with the everyday usage of the word “intelligence”. This only came later as the Social Darwinists and Eugenicists began to weaponize the IQ Tests to advance their political ideology of “biological white superiority”.
The IQ score was never intended to reflect a child’s “innate intelligence” or “inherited intellectual capacity”, but to measure a certain set of academic skills that the child currently possessed or had acquired. Even within this context, Binet regarded the IQ metric as being only of limited value. He had disdain for the notion that the IQ test score could be used as a single metric to linearly measure a human being’s biologically inherited intelligence, or even that such a metric could be created.
Binet had been commissioned by the French government to develop a method to identify children with serious learning problems, so that they could get the special attention they needed. Consequently, the only scores that were well-defined and therefore had any practical application were especially low scores, and then only for the narrowly defined purpose. The meaning of higher IQ scores as one moved to the right of the bell curve were not well-defined, and high outlier scores were in no way intended to indicate “innate genius”.
Binet had spent many years in his early career trying to prove that whites had a superior biologically inherited intelligence on average than blacks, by measuring skulls and brains. Eventually, he came to believe that his tacit a priori assumption of white biological superiority had created bias in his experiments, not only in his interpretation of the data, but even in his measurements. Binet came to discover that he had in fact unconsciously ‘fudged the data’ to achieve the result that he believed a priori. When Binet created what came to be known as the IQ Test, his earlier misadventures in trying to establish a standard to judge biologically inherited intelligence informed his work, and he guarded against repeating his earlier mistakes.
Studies have shown that people analyze data much more accurately when the consequences of their analysis does not pertain to their personal beliefs or interests. They can be objective. What these studies also show is that people who are better at analyzing data objectively, end up being far more ‘off the mark’ when they interpret data whose consequences impact their interest or beliefs, than people who possess less analytical skill. As is turns out, the better people are at analyzing words and numbers, the more they tend to misinterpret and fudge data to fit their a priori beliefs, and the more skillful they are at convincing others and themselves of this deception.
IQ Tests quickly became weaponized by Social Darwinists and Eugenicists for political purposes, in order to provide a pseudo-scientific basis for defending the political ideology of biological white superiority. By pseudo-science, I mean the kind of practices engaged in by scientists hired by the Tobacco companies to support their knowingly disingenuous arguments that smoking had no significant ill effects on a person’s health.
These Tobacco industry scientists had legitimate scientific credentials and skills, and even employed traditional scientific methods, but they did so in a cynical and disingenuous manner. They did not work in the spirit of science: to find the real causes behind observed phenomena. Instead, they assumed a priori that smoking had no ill health effects, and fudged data and their interpretation of the data to make the numbers fit their predetermined result. In such an environment, when scientific methods and institutions are used for partisan political ends, and the scientists themselves are deeply invested in achieving a predetermined result, one tends even to fudge data and interpretation of data unconsciously, simply as a matter of habit. This was the type of pseudo-science practiced by the Social Darwinists/Eugencists who weaponized IQ scores in the battle to maintain the legal color-caste system and promote the political ideology of biological white superiority.
Any current attempt to link the IQ testing gap that exists between average black and white American test-takers to inherited biology is problematic for several reasons.
First, new discoveries in the history of our human genome verify that blacks and whites are not two distinct biological groups, from a genetic standpoint. but instead “black” and “white” is strictly a social construction. Black Americans, for example, have been historically defined by the “one drop rule”, which created extraordinary genetic variation within the legally defined social group. Not only are they heavily mixed with people of various European and Native American ancestry, but their African ancestry comes from many different parts of the continent. From an American perspective, two people from different parts of Africa may look the same, but these same two people likely have highly disparate genetic histories which belie this appearance. There in fact exists far more genetic variation between two average black Americans than there exists between the white and black populations as a whole.
Moreover, there has never been any real biological evidence that one’s IQ Test scores are at all correlated with the human genome that one inherits from one’s biological parents. Consequently, the assertion that IQ scores somehow reflect innate biological intelligence that is inherited inter-generationally is not based on any real biological evidence. It’s simply based on an arbitrary interpretation of test score data. Even if such a link could be found, it would be irrelevant as applied to black and white Americans, because these two social groups are defined arbitrarily from a genetic standpoint. For example, black Americans do not share sufficient genetic history on average with one another to be able to associate common black social patterns with any specific genetic traits. Such intra-racial social patterns do exist and reproduce themselves, but they exist within a black population that has highly disparate genetic histories across the board, with which no such general black social pattern could be easily associated, if it all.
Underlying this is the noble lie of the American color line. This color line implies that “blacks” and “whites” as legally defined are distinct “races”. But contemporary advances in genetic science and its ability to trace the histories of individual human genomes tells us different. The color line is simply how we have been conditioned to sort our citizens, but it has no biological nor genetic basis, but is instead strictly socially constructed.
This concept of the noble lie comes from Plato. It is in fact a somewhat inaccurate translation of the Greek phrase: gennaion pseudos, literally meaning “an origin lie”. The phrase arises in the midst of Socrates describing his vision of a perfectly just society to his friends.
According to Socrates, every political society has some sort of ancestral caste system, even the perfectly just society. Moreover, these ancestral caste systems can never be adequately defended on rational or what we might call “scientific grounds”. Yet Socrates believes that these caste systems must continue to exist in some fashion or society will not properly function.
Consequently, one must create an “origin lie” or “origin myth” to justify the caste system, and subsequently one must inculcate this lie or myth into children’s education from a very young age, from generation to generation. In this way, in a few generations, no one will question the “origin lie” on which the caste system is founded. In Socrates’ just society, the origin lie is that the biology of members of the ruling caste is mixed with gold, the auxiliary caste members are mixed with silver, and the artisans are mixed with bronze. The citizens are to be taught that this ‘biological difference’ which separates the castes justifies their respective social ranks, but in reality, these roles have been arbitrarily assigned to them.
Charles Murray’s Sin
Charles Murray’s public vilification was and continues to be justified. Not because Murray presented the data on the differences in standardized test scores between blacks, whites, Asians, and Jews. Finding out the actual numbers was interesting to me, but hardly surprising.
I had spent my entire secondary school education attending Philadelphia public schools. The ethnic demographics were roughly: 40% white, 40 % black, 10 % Asian, and 10 % Hispanic. Yet the Honors and Advanced Placement classes contained very few blacks, who were mostly female, and never in the Honors/AP math or science courses. The latter were principally occupied by East Asian and Jewish students, and a handful of non-Jewish whites.
Overall, my impression from attending Philadelphia public schools was that Jewish and East Asian students on average came to school from home noticeably more prepared to be academically successful than their average black, white or Hispanic counterparts. The average black student appeared to me to come from home somewhat less prepared for academic success than the average white student. The empirical evidence that Murray presented that blacks scored on average less than whites on standardized tests, and that Jewish and East Asian students scored higher on average than non-Jewish whites, was entirely consistent with my anecdotal observations.
The problem with the Bell Curve was not the data sets it presented, nor the regression analysis it performed (although some of the empirical work of the book has itself been called into question since its publication), but the arbitrary and reckless interpretation of the data, to propagate the political ideology of black biological inferiority, reminiscent of 19th century racialist pseudo-science. In fact, judging by Murray’s more recent interviews and talks, the Bell Curve was in fact what its harshest critics claimed it to be: a sugar-coated resurrection of 19th century Eugenics and Social Darwinism, with newer methods, but subject to the same problem. That there is no biological evidence to support its claims.
What are these claims?
First, that one’s IQ score (or a subset of the IQ score called G) reflects biologically inherited intelligence, which can be linearly measured in human beings by a single metric. There is no biological evidence to sustain such a grandiose claim, and Murray has never defended this claim with a substantial argument, but has simply asserted its alleged “truth” a priori.
Second, that the difference between the average black American and the average white American IQ score is primarily caused by different averages in inherited biological intelligence, which Murray claims without evidence to reflect said IQ score. As stated, even if one could prove that IQ scores were a linear metric that measured genetically inherited intelligence, that they reflected some subset of human genes, black Americans do not represent a biological group with a common human genome or genetic history.
The social group of Americans called “black” is an arbitrarily defined entity from the standpoint of biological science. Average black Americans have very different genomes and genetic histories from one another. Whatever pattern of low test scores or any other distinctly black social patterns one observes, exist across an arbitrarily defined social group, whose individuals on average have very little in common from a genetic standpoint. Blacks only appear to other Americans to have anything biologically in common, because we habitually and inaccurately describe blacks as a “race”, and have been trained to employ indicators that we use to sort our citizens into “races”. But these arbitrary indicators do not reflect a common genetic history or biological identity from a scientific standpoint. Whatever distinct social patterns that black Americans tend to reproduce inter-generationally have nothing to do with biological inheritance, but instead they are traits passed down by custom.
The good news is that the standardized testing gap is in fact narrowing between white and black Americans. As blacks take advantage of increased educational and professional opportunities, their intellectual and social capital is increasing on average compared to their white countrymen.
Growing Up Black and Jewish
Growing up with a black family and a Jewish family is an interesting experience.
By the age of five years old, I was already well-aware of significant differences in how these two families operated. In fact, if I recall accurately, I think the very first difference of which I was fully aware was how differently these two families ate and prepared their chicken. I won’t go into specifics.
But there were other much more important differences, which basically reduce to two distinct but related phenomenon: the differences in their respective value-systems on the one hand, and the differences in their oral traditions on the other.
My personal experience is that Jewish families on average place an unusually high value on formal academic achievement, particularly as regards Jewish men. In fact, I came to realize that the Jewish-American conception of manliness was partially a function of a Jewish man’s relative intellectual brilliance. Moreover, that while success in business was certainly celebrated, success in the field of academic scholarship was no less honored.
My impression was that on average black families had a different value-set. In my black family, academic achievement was respected but not viewed as a sign of manliness, as it was in the Jewish family. In fact, the more ‘bookish’ and academically oriented members of the family tended to be female. Manliness was more associated with physical toughness, courage, capacity to provide for one’s family, and so on.
Because of the unusually high value that my Jewish family placed on academic achievement, they had an emphatic approach to ‘home schooling’. I had a Jewish grandmother, who as a younger woman had been very politically active. She had been a card carrying member of the American Communist Party, a committed Socialist, and an early Zionist, getting involved before the State of Israel was even founded. My father, her son, told me long after she passed that she had in fact visited Israel several times in the 1970s. Long after she died, he was embarrassed to tell me that she spoke very negatively about the people she called “dirty Arabs”.
But I didn’t know anything about this as a child. I loved my grandmother, and she would come and see me as much as she could, travelling from the home where she retired at the Jersey Shore to visit us in Philadelphia. She came with us on vacations. She in effect spent every possible moment that she could with me while she was alive. And even though my grandmother died when I was six years old, going on seven, she had a tremendous impact on my life, and literally shaped how my mind functions.
Grandmother was the first person to really take charge of my education. She potty trained me, when my parents were unable to do so. She taught me how to read and count. She taught me so early that I don’t remember a time that I couldn’t read or do math. I never counted on my fingers. By the time I was four years old, she had taught me to play solitaire with a deck of cards, Monopoly, and Chess. In fact, that’s really all that we did: play games. I don’t remember ever having a personal conversation with her. I don’t remember her ever telling me anything personal about herself. But I never thought about any of that. I was having too much fun playing games and eating the oatmeal raisin cookies that she baked for me.
Consequently, when I entered Kindergarten at five years old, I was light years ahead of most of my classmates. Moreover, academically speaking, I was far ahead of my black cousins. Frankly, I don’t exactly know how they were schooled at home, even though I did spend a lot of time with them, but they clearly were not doing what I was doing to prepare them for school.
After my grandmother died, I met her eldest sister, Aunt Esther. Esther had recently moved down the block from my grandmother in Ventnor City, and she came to fill at least some of the role that my grandmother had. I didn’t spend nearly as much time with Esther, but her children and grandchildren lived far away, in California and Israel, so she sort of schooled me like a grandchild, since she hardly saw her own. My relationship with her was analogous to my relationship with my grandmother: we played games all day, especially chess.
She even taught me the classic Chinese strategic game of ‘Go’.
My home schooling experience was not at all exceptional in my Jewish family. In fact, some of my Jewish family were even more intense with regards to home schooling and intellectual/academic development, especially those whose fathers were prominent scientists or mathematicians. Some in fact became unbalanced in the overwhelming focus on academic achievement in their home education, at the expense of more common children’s pursuits, such as playing sports or even playing outside with the other children. These strands of the family developed unusually high instances of bipolar disorder.
It wasn’t until I was in college, and began to read about Jewish history and the Rabbinical tradition, that I started to realize that what my grandmother and Aunt Esther were passing on to me was a kind of ancestral Jewish oral tradition. My black family also had an ancestral oral tradition, but of a different sort. The Jewish oral tradition was much more focused on effectively cultivating academic skills at a very young age. In this specific sense, it was more sophisticated and effective than the black oral tradition in preparing children for academic success in school and on standardized tests.
In my opinion, these are the primary causes of the differences between Jewish and Black test scores: 1) value-systems and 2) oral traditions.
White American Baby Boomers will leave their children approximately $13 trillion dollars in wealth overall when they die. Black Boomers will leave their children debts. Black folks on a macro-level are not demonstrating the skills of passing on capital inter-generationally. Moreover, the problem is not limited to passing on financial capital to the next generations, but also human capital.
In his fascinating biography of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington speaks of how for the purposes of exploitation, during slavery, most of the skilled tradesman in the South were slaves. Moreover, that there was an established structure of passing on these skills across generations, within the plantation system. At the time of emancipation, the freedmen were the most skilled laborers in the South, both with respect to the industrial trades and agriculture, particularly the highly profitable cash crops. But many of these skills were never passed on to the next generation after emancipation. A lot of human capital was lost.
Washington gives an example of how during slavery, most of the best tailors in the South were slaves. Yet, twenty years after emancipation, he had great difficulty finding one educated black tailor to teach at Tuskegee. His observations about the failure of the freedmen to pass on their industrial skills inter-generationally seems to have been part of Washington’s inspiration for his famous program of “Industrial Education”.
In my opinion, the problem of passing on capital inter-generationally, both human and financial, is the major obstacle to black social progress, which can be genuinely said to be more or less wholly within black people’s control to improve. We have to better educate our children at home, and do so from a very young age, before they even enter school. We cannot rely on the schools to do the job for us.