“IQ is a metric of such dubiousness that almost no serious educational researcher uses it anymore,” the Guardian’s Ana Marie Cox wrote back in May. It was a breathtakingly ignorant statement. Psychologist Jelte Wicherts noted in response that a search for “IQ test” in Google’s academic database yielded more than 10,000 hits — just for the year 2013.
But Cox’s assertion is all too common. There is a large discrepancy between what educated laypeople believe about cognitive science and what experts actually know. Journalists are steeped in the lay wisdom, so they are repeatedly surprised when someone forthrightly discusses the real science of mental ability.
If that science happens to deal with group differences in average IQ, the journalists’ surprise turns into shock and disdain. Experts who speak publicly about IQ differences end up portrayed as weird contrarians at best, and peddlers of racist pseudoscience at worst.
I’m speaking from experience. My Harvard Ph.D. dissertation contains some scientifically unremarkable statements about ethnic differences in average IQ, including the IQ difference between Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites. For four years, the dissertation did what almost every other dissertation does — collected dust in the university library. But when it was unearthed in the midst of the immigration debate, I experienced the vilification firsthand.
For people who have studied mental ability, what’s truly frustrating is the déjà vu they feel each time a media firestorm like this one erupts. Attempts by experts in the field to defend the embattled messenger inevitably fall on deaf ears. When the firestorm is over, the media’s mindset always resets to a state of comfortable ignorance, ready to be shocked all over again when the next messenger comes along.
At stake here, incidentally, is not just knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but also how science informs public policy. The U.S. education system, for example, is suffused with mental testing, yet few in the political classes understand cognitive ability research. Angry and repeated condemnations of the science will not help.
THE PLAIN TRUTH? BOTH PARTIES AND THEIR LACKEYS WILL ONLY SUPPORT SCIENCE IF IT SUPPORTS THEIR ALREADY FORMED NOTIONS