A leading article appeared in Nature last week in defence of intelligence research. It lamented the fact that it is not included on the undergraduate psychology curricula of many leading US universities, and attributed this to its association in the minds of students and faculties with elitism and racism. That, in turn, is due to the misuse of intelligence research in the past by eugenicists and ‘race scientists’ to justify their poisonous beliefs. The article expressed the hope that this toxic baggage can be discarded and intelligence rehabilitated as an important strand of psychology.
This optimism is often shared by academics who study the genetic basis of human differences; not just variations in intelligence but in other personality traits too. Among evolutionary psychologists, sociobiologists, neurobiologists, biosocial criminologists, and so on, there is a widely held belief that the only reason their disciplines are looked on with suspicion is due to ignorance and prejudice. Clearing up these misunderstandings simply involves them mastering some elementary PR skills, after which they will be welcomed into the bosom of the academy.
It would be nice if that were true, because in today’s academic climate many of the leading researchers in these fields are finding it difficult to pursue their careers. Earlier this year the sociologist Charles Murray was shouted down by student activists as he tried to give a talk at Middlebury College. His sin was to have co-authored a 1994 book on intelligence called The Bell Curve that includes a section on ethnic variations in average IQ. The book doesn’t claim this is partly due to genetic differences, but it does include a measured discussion of the evidence for and against that point of view. For this, and this alone, Murray was branded a ‘white supremacist’ by the protestors.