The Dangerous Resurgence in Race Science

Bret Stephens’s recent New York Times column on “Jewish genius” is another example of how pseudoscientific claims about race and intelligence extend the history of eugenics into the present day.

January 29, 2020

Macroscope Ethics

At first glance, columnist Bret Stephens’s last New York Times column of 2019, “The Secrets of Jewish Genius”* might seem like a welcome act of defiance following years of increased anti-Semitism in the United States and elsewhere. Jews, Stephens claims, particularly Ashkenazi Jews whose historical roots lay in northern and eastern Europe, have highly developed intelligence in part because it was a necessary survival strategy in the face of centuries of oppression. With Jews of various backgrounds targeted by a variety of hate crimes, and the violence of those acts increasing, a column about Jewish “genius” would seem to be an affirmation of Jewish worth and value to society. Perhaps that was the intention behind the column: to provide frightened Jews with a weird silver lining to the surge in anti-Semitism they are witnessing (It’ll make you smarter!) while also suggesting to non-Jews that anti-Semitism is wrong because countries benefit from their Jewish geniuses.

Wikimedia, from the 1915 book, Mental Defectives in Virginia.

But if that were Stephens’s intention, then it was thoroughly misguided. Anti-Semitism is rarely justified by a belief in Jewish intellectual inferiority—and so debunking such a claim does little to help the current climate. If anything, it serves to reinforce a variety of anti-Semitic tropes that portray Jews as cunning tricksters, using their intelligence to manipulate the media, accrue wealth, or exert outsized political influence. Attitudes toward Jews are not likely to be improved by claims that “Ashkenazi Jews might have a marginal advantage over their gentile peers when it comes to thinking better.”

Stephens argues for (white) Jewish inclusion within white supremacy.

But at worst, Stephens’s column is a cynical and disingenuous attempt to portray anti-Jewish hate acts as exceptional and unrelated to other acts of racism and ethnic violence that are also fueled by resurgent white nationalism and white supremacy movements. In so doing, it suggests that the antidote to anti-Semitism is not a broad coalition against the ideology of white supremacy that works across racial and religious lines, but instead proposes an alternative Jewish supremacy (justified by high IQ) that applies primarily to Jews most likely to pass as or identify as “white” (coded here as Ashkenazi, although not all Ashkenazi Jews are white). In short, Stephens argues for (white) Jewish inclusion within white supremacy.

Regardless of his intentions, Stephens’s line of argument displays a particularly problematic use of science (or at least an appeal to scientific authority) as a tool to justify specious claims. The original version of the column (now removed from the New York Times website and replaced with an edited version) made reference to a study published in 2006 that claimed that the disproportionate number of famous Jewish “geniuses”—Nobel laureates, chess champions, and others—was exemplary of the paper’s claim (quoted by Stephens) that “Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average IQ of any ethnic group for which there are reliable data.” Stephens fully embraces this apparently empirical claim, writing: “The common answer is that Jews are, or tend to be, smart. When it comes to Ashkenazi Jews, it’s true.”

The scientific methodology and conclusions reached by the article Stephens cited has been called into question repeatedly since its publication. At least one of that study’s authors has been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a white nationalist. Critics have observed that this isn’t the first time Stephens has been caught cherry-picking sources solely to back up his preconceived notions. The New York Times appended an Editors’ Note to the online column and removed both references to and quotations from that study as well as all references to the word Ashkenazi as a reference to a particular subset of Jews. The Note attempted to clarify:

Mr. Stephens was not endorsing the study or its authors’ views, but it was a mistake to cite it uncritically. The effect was to leave an impression with many readers that Mr. Stephens was arguing that Jews are genetically superior. That was not his intent. He went on instead to argue that culture and history are crucial factors in Jewish achievements…

But as a result of this effort to walk back the most overt racism, the resulting column no longer has anything to argue. Even in the redacted version of the column, Stephens writes: “These explanations for Jewish brilliance aren’t necessarily definitive. Nor are they exclusive to the Jews.” Stephens moderates the tone of his claim by acknowledging that non-Jewish people can also be smart, but his primary goal is still to consider “explanations for ‘Jewish brilliance.’” But without this discredited study, there’s no remaining evidence that there is exceptional “Jewish [Ashkenazi, white] brilliance” to be explained.

The problems with Stephens’s column go well beyond the questionable scientific merit of a cherry-picked article. Much more troubling is the invocation of science as a neutral arbiter of truths about race and intelligence.

Generations of Debates

The Editors’ Note in the New York Times tries to wave away the question of whether such brilliance was due to genetics or culture. But this nature-versus-nurture argument has plagued intelligence science since its inception. The science of defining and understanding intelligence has always been fraught with debates about the effects of heredity, environment, and culture. In 1792, French physician François-Emmanuel Fodéré published an “Essay on Goiter and Cretinism” studying the development and persistence of “cretins” and their underdeveloped mental and physical attributes, including intelligence. The condition is now known to be shaped by iodine deficiency and persisted especially in parts of southern France and other “goiter belts” where low levels of iodine are present in groundwater. Fodéré argued that the causes of cretinism seemed to be environmental, but in the days before genes were understood as they are today, he also argued that these environmental effects could become internalized and over the course of about three generations become hereditary. Later critics claimed that Fodéré’s assertion that intervention could reduce cretinism was ideologically shaped by the egalitarianism of the French Revolution and its commitment to rapid and radical change.

Even as scientific theories of biological inheritance and the effects of the environment to influence offspring changed over the course of the 19th century, the idea remained that a trait that persisted through three generations was inheritable. Most famously, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1927 that the Commonwealth of Virginia had the right to forcibly sterilize Carrie Buck on the grounds that she, her mother, and her newborn child were all classified as “feeble-minded.” In his book about Buck, Three Generations No Imbeciles, legal historian Paul Lombardo demonstrates that the “feeble-minded” diagnosis was false and most probably deliberately fraudulent, and that her relatives used the claim of her mental deficiency to cover up her rape. But taking the scientific evidence at face value, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes infamously opined: “Three generations of imbeciles is enough."

Holmes may well have meant “enough” in the sense that three generations were sufficient to determine that Buck’s feeblemindedness was due to hereditary rather than some environmental or cultural factor, rather than the more common interpretation that Holmes was saying that three generations were enough of a drain on state resources. But either interpretation presumes the legitimacy of Buck’s diagnosis as “feeble-minded” and that in turn relied on the new scientific tool of the Intelligence Quotient (IQ). While today IQ and similar intelligence tests are most used for identifying the learning needs of individual children, when it was first developed, IQ was devised as a statistical tool used to implement eugenic programs. (The Lady Science podcast episode featuring Safiya Umoja Noble features an excellent extended discussion of the racist origins of IQ testing.)

“Imbecile” was a technical category used to describe someone with a measured IQ between 26 and 50. (In contrast to “idiots” [0–25] and “morons” [51–75].) The terms were introduced by the intelligence researcher and eugenicist Henry Goddard, who used his tests and the results they produced to institutionalize, deport and restrict the rights and freedoms of those deemed “feebleminded.” Goddard’s tests, taken to be the scientific standard of their day, overwhelmingly found higher proportions of feebleminded among immigrants from Southern Europe, Jews, and blacks. Goddard’s language and methods were also highly influenced by gendered views of intelligence and morality that tended to define the behavior of women as evidence of feeblemindedness while excusing or passing as normal the same or worse behavior in men. It’s not just the application of intelligence testing that has racist and sexist overtones. The content of questions and tasks, as well as the standards that have been used to calibrate such tests, have long been criticized for bias, sometimes invisible to those who develop the tests, sometimes intentional. The question of whether the scientific study of intelligence can ever be purged of its racist and sexist origins, is one that psychologists, educators, and social scientists continue to struggle with.

Is This Eugenics?

Over the course of the 20th century, with the advocacy of Goddard and other like-minded scientists, eugenic sterilization laws were passed by a number of U.S. states. Over time (especially but not exclusively in the South) these became increasingly racist in their application. Laws that were on paper in the 1910s and 1920s, meant to apply to the “feeble-minded” of any race, were by the 1940s and 1950s almost exclusively used on black women, Native Americans, and other people of color. “Intelligence” and the alleged objectivity and impartiality of its measurement became used as a proxy for race. The legacy is so recent that victims of racist and sexist eugenic sterilization are still alive today, and just a few years ago, North Carolina announced efforts to compensate surviving victims of its eugenics sterilizations.

It’s not just for historical reasons that readers of the Stephens column saw his claim about Jewish IQ as “eugenics.” The identification of intelligence as inherited (and perhaps acted upon by some sort of selection principle) and the association of intelligence with distinct racial groups is all part of the eugenic ideology. Defenders of Stephens’s column claim he can’t be advocating eugenics because it’s claiming Jews are superior not inferior. This argument ignores the fact that some eugenicists (including some German scientists before World War II) made similar arguments about superior Ashkenazi Jewish intelligence. Writing soon after the 2006 study was published, Sander Gilman pointed out that such apparently positive interpretations of Jewish traits had a long history of anti-Semitic undercurrents, and have particular appeal among people whose theology places Jews at the center of a Christian narrative about apocalypse and redemption. And with the State of Israel considering using genetics as a measure of Jewish identity (at least for Ashkenazi Jews), concerns about “Jewgenics” are perhaps more politically fraught than ever.

Pretending that this isn’t eugenics is also a byproduct of a fallacy of letting Nazi eugenics stand as the basis by which all eugenics are judged. The history of eugenics is rife with less extreme examples of coordinated efforts to change the demographics of a society, often aligned with racist and ableist standards of fitness, beauty, and social value. Eugenic ideas about improving the genome were behind the popularity of child beauty pageants in the 20th century. The advent of new genetic techniques and technologies of childbirth raise a variety of ethical questions. These kinds of eugenic actions don’t directly result in the kind of individual violations of human rights comparable to what happened to Carrie Buck or to victims of Nazis. But what makes something eugenics isn’t the invasion of individual human dignity but the intention to impact the genome of an entire population. Abuses of individuals that include sterilization or worse—or which reward them for beauty standards or other talents—are eugenics when they are intended to be part of a cumulative effect.

If It's Scientific, Can It Be Racist?

As Angela Saini argues in Superior, the use of science to justify racism has a long history and has adapted its rhetoric over time to suit the political currents of the day. To the contemporary eye, these claims may appear less overtly racist, precisely because they are couched in the languages of scientific authority. Appeals to the curse of Ham as a biblical explanation for the difference between races and examples of biblical slavery as justification of the subjugation of blacks in America may seem like absurd theology to readers today. It was also considered poor theology by some people at the time, but they agreed that biblical language and biblical argumentation was the proper language in which to have this debate. So racist ideas from the past that make use of such language may seem more self-serving or easy to ridicule.

The rise and resurgence of race science is a consequence of science being seen as the more respectable and valued way to justify racism.

Today, the language of science is considered impartial, truth seeking, and authoritative. Claims, even fallacious ones, couched in such language are more easily accepted. The ability to use scientific language to spread doubt and misinformation is the very basis for pseudoscience. In effect, the rise and resurgence of race science is a consequence of science being seen as the more respectable and valued way to justify racism. What’s changed is the type of language and arguments we value, not the conclusions.

These most recent efforts to reassert biological or scientific justifications for racism, have been aligned with rhetoric of science’s moral purity—that scientific facts are objective and shouldn’t be rejected because they are politically unfashionable. This rhetoric suggests that science can be separated from its politics—even though what it’s really doing is framing some scientific practices as “political” while obscuring its own politics by presenting them as tacit and normal rather than ideological. Posturing as bold contrarians rebelling against established norms and asserting that pure science compels hard truths are standard fare in the pseudoscience playbook. These scientific racists invoke claims of scientific “objectivity” that ignore the (objective empirical evidence that) political and historical forces, including racial and gendered biases that made objectivity into the most esteemed scientific virtue.

But just because some racist claims are pseudoscience does not mean that science can’t also be racist. From using racist justifications to justify the use of people’s bodies or lands to obtain scientific knowledge to the attempt to use scientific methods to define and impose categories of race and identity, science has frequently benefited from and been used to justify racist power structures. Efforts to dismiss this connection by claiming that all racism is a misapplication or abuse of science (as, for example, Stephen Jay Gould attempted to do in his Mismeasure of Man) is the flip side of the same science-purity arguments that are used elsewhere to justify scientific racism.

One of the hallmarks of pseudoscience is the way that its advocates respond to refutation and new scientific discoveries. When one hypothesis is shown to be incompatible with reality, a new theory may be seized on to justify claims that are functionally similar to what came before. Perhaps the most notable example of this pattern is the early history of the intelligent design movement in the 1990s, which despite its historical roots in older forms of antievolutionism claimed that it was distinct because it was a “science.” Advocates of intelligent design also claimed that new discoveries about genes justified their conclusion of an intelligent designer who was more scientific than the theological arguments for divine design of previous centuries. In a very similar way, scientific racists have abandoned some of their other exploded theories about climate or geography accounting for alleged race differences in intelligence and turned to genetics.

When the New York Times stripped away the problematic claim that the “Jewish brilliance” that Stephens claims to explain has a genetic basis, it left an expurgated column that is largely incoherent. But even more incoherent are the defenses of race-realist apologists, who claim that they are following norms of scientific objectivity and that nature doesn’t care about the racial, ethnic, or gender identity of the scientist, that it doesn’t matter how people of different backgrounds think—all to justify an apparently scientific claim that because of their culture, history, and background, Jewish genius is “about thinking different.”

The views and opinions expressed in this post are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of American Scientist or its publisher, Sigma Xi.



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