Arthur R. Jensen’s Courageous Career Choice

Arthur Jensen, who died on October 22 at the age of 89, was ranked in a respected survey as 47th out of the top 100 psychologists in the twentieth-century [Review of General Psychology, June 2002]. But none of his peers matched the stir he caused with his 123-page paper in the Harvard Educational Review, How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement? [Winter 1969]. Jensen once told me that–ironic in view of the subsequent furor—the paper was actually solicited by the editor of the Review.

Jared Taylor well described last night Jensen’s extraordinary essay, which basically reasserted the significance of intelligence and its systematically differing average distribution by race—and the even more extraordinary reaction to it, which might be taken to mark the start of a Reign of Terror now ten times longer, and vastly more serious, than the much-mythologized McCarthy Era.

Jensen’s essay is now one of the most cited in the history of the Science Citation Index (SCI) and Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI) and has been listed as a “citation classic”. Google Scholar says it has been cited by 3,403 other papers. (In total, Jensen had four “citation classics” to his name!)

But, paradoxically, it has had virtually no effect on public discourse or on the Education Establishment, which has continued to pursue one fad after another in the extreme egalitarian belief that “The Gap” can be closed with more teachers, smaller classes, charter schools, Ebonics, integrated classrooms etc.

The human cost has been enormous. It’s worth contrasting with Jensen’s wise and humane conclusion to his essay 43 years ago:

If diversity of mental abilities, as of most other human characteristics, is a basic fact of nature, as the evidence indicates, and if the ideal of universal education is to be successfully pursued, it seems a reasonable conclusion that schools and society must provide a range and diversity of educational methods, programs, and goals, and of occupational opportunities, just as wide as the range of human abilities. Accordingly, the ideal of equality of educational opportunity should not be interpreted as uniformity of facilities, instructional techniques, and educational aims for all children. Diversity rather than uniformity of approaches and aims would seem to be the key to making education rewarding for children of different patterns of ability. The reality of individual differences thus need not mean educational rewards for some children and frustration and defeat for others.

Jensen received enormous Main Stream Media coverage. It irritated him that the MSM would typically portray the “IQ controversy”, as Newsweek put it in March 1969 as a “debate”—“Is intelligence inherited or determined by the environment?” [Born Dumb?” Newsweek, March 31, 1969] It was as if the question was never settled and a consensus never reached. In fact both nature and nurture, in varying degrees, are accepted in the field as influential factors.

The MSM also obsessed on the racial aspects of the “controversy,” even though only eight pages of Jensen’s 123-page paper cover race differences. (Exactly the same happened with The Bell Curve 25 years later—two chapters sparked most of the book’s controversy).

One Newsweek article reported that Jensen favored integration, noting, “I think it can have social benefits. But I also believe in looking at all the relevant variables in conducting a study.” It also noted that Jensen voted for LBJ in 1964, for Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 primary, then for Richard Nixon in the general election; and quoted him as saying that he refused to think in “liberal or conservative terms”. [The New Rage at Berkeley, June 2, 1969]

However, this proof of moderation did Jensen no good: for his conclusion that genetics accounts for 50 percent of racial differences in intelligence, he was treated as a pariah.

In 1970, Jensen testified before Congress on pending school aid legislation. He was one of seven IQ experts, including Nobel Prize recipient William Shockley, who offered criticism of selected provisions of the Emergency School Aid Act of 1970. The experts offered testimony that various studies showed integrated classrooms had virtually no effect in closing the black-white IQ gap.

Jensen’s 1980 book, Bias in Mental Testing, which debunked the idea that IQ tests were inherently biased against minority groups, generated another round of publicity, with stories in the New York Times and Time magazine. Jensen once told me that the campus bookstore at his own University of California at Berkeley refused to stock the book, even though his publisher, The Free Press, had hosted a book launch event there.

Then, four years after the publication of the mega-bestselling The Bell Curve, the Free Press rejected Jensen’s 1998 magnum opus, The g Factor. Thereafter, some 50 publishers turned down what Charles Murray once described in National Review as “a book that an academic publisher should kill for”—before Praeger agreed to publish it.

I remember asking Susan Spilka, Wiley’s Manager of Corporate Communications, why Wiley decided to pass on The g Factor after reviewing it for ten months and despite the recommendation of their psychology editor. Her response: “I have no idea and we’ll probably never know. Chances are it wasn’t a quality factor.” She seemed surprised at having to answer this uncomfortable question.

Jensen stood out as an educator in that he valued the opportunity to assist anyone interested in finding out about the research endeavors that occupied much of his career. In May 1989, as a mere novice freelance writer, I contacted him with an idea for an article on how well his IQ research had held up over the intervening 20 years. Jensen replied with a lengthy letter and suggested further sources, one an edited volume by Sohan and Celia Modgil, Arthur Jensen: Consensus and Controversy provided a unique exchange between critics and supporters. (This is one of three published Festschrifts on Jensen: the others are The Scientific Study of General Intelligence by Helmuth Nyborg and a special edition of the journal Intelligence, edited by Douglas K. Detterman).

An on-again, off-again correspondence continued over several years. In 1991, I met Jensen for lunch at a local restaurant near his home and spent 2-3 hours discussing IQ-related topics. For someone of his stature, Jensen was incredibly hospitable. His vast range of knowledge on any number of subjects made him an engaging and incredibly fascinating conversationalist.

Jensen mentioned the problems that Daniel Seligman had in getting a publisher for his 1992 book, A Question of Intelligence: The IQ Debate in America. Jensen considered Seligman, a Fortune magazine columnist, one of the better general-interest writers who covered IQ research. He also told me, guardedly and without naming names, that two authors (Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray) were writing The Bell Curve and accurately predicted the subsequent controversy. We covered various topics, including eugenics (he thought it was feasible) and the work of Raymond Cattell.

Jensen never forgot a former student, or for that matter anyone who wrote to him. (This was pre-email, when people actually wrote letters). I remember that at the end of our lunch he went out of his way to mail a letter to Lee Edson, the science writer who had profiled Jensen in the New York Times Magazine some 22 years earlier ["Jensenism, n. The Theory That IQ Is Largely Determined by the Genes," August 31, 1969]. Edson had coined the term Jensenism—the belief that intelligence is highly heritable and that genes play a role in black-white differences—and Jensen, who regarded the profile as one of the more informative and objective in print, had remained in touch.

An outstanding educator will spark the curiosity of a student. My own contact with Jensen broadened my interest to other areas of psychology, notably the ever-expanding subfield of personality research. (Phillip Anthony Vernon’s final chapter in the Nyborg Festschrift, “Jensen as a Teacher and Mentor,” has more on Jensen’s helpfulness to graduate students and former teaching assistants.)

From its early days, intelligence research has had competing theories: a general factor of intelligence, “g” (Charles Spearman); multiple factors (for example, Louis Thurstone’s findings on primary abilities); or a hierarchical approach including both specialized abilities and a general factor (John B. Carroll).

Jensen’s work over the years shifted toward Spearman’s general intelligence concept. His last book,  Clocking the Mind: Mental Chronometry and Individual Differences   (2006) was an exhaustive review of the use of reaction and inspection time experiments in the speed of information processing. Reaction time experiments reach back to Francis Galton; Jensen contributed several new papers to the literature and explained in meticulous detail the relationship to general intelligence.

Jensen enjoyed classical music and opera. One of his favorite conductors was Arturo Toscanini. He played the clarinet and in his youth considered playing for an orchestra. Instead, he dedicated his life to the less harmonious pursuit of scientific truth.

My last, unexpected contact with Arthur Jensen: receiving an inscribed copy of Clocking the Mind in the mail.

I’ll be forever grateful for the generosity of this outstanding educator and psychology pioneer. As should be the nation.

Kevin Lamb (email him), managing editor of The Social Contract, is a former library assistant for Newsweek and managing editor of Human Events. He was also assistant editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.