Selling Out And How To Do It—The Case Of Richard E. Nisbett
James D. Watson was driven from his post at the famous
Cold Spring Harbor medical research laboratory for making
politically incorrect remarks about IQ, Richard E.
psychologist at the University of Michigan [email
him], helped put the boot in, publishing an op-ed in the
December 9, 2007 New York Times under the memorable
All Brains Are the Same Color.
Now, Nisbett has a book out entitled Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count ,
which has greatly excited such intellectual luminaries as
New Yorker writer
Malcolm Gladwell, who
nominated Nisbett for Time`s Top 100 Most Influential
People in 2009, and NY Times columnist
Nicholas Kristof [Rising
Above I.Q. June 6, 2009].
Strikingly, however, Nisbett`s new book on the IQ
controversy never mentions Watson`s fate.
Indeed, Intelligence and How to Get It
seems to be set in some alternative universe in which
Watson`s heresies are the
almost-unchallenged orthodoxy and Gladwell is some
pixel-stained wretch barely scraping by, while I`m pulling
in the big bucks making speeches to national sales
conventions. Poor Nisbett is a just a lonely dissident
bravely speaking truth to power—in Nisbett`s book.
Nisbett never explains his bizarre
polemical strategy. But, I presume that after a few drinks,
he might justify it like this: “Well, sure, a
bunch of innumerate journalists and excited ideologues like
Stephen Jay Gould convinced themselves and a lot of
their more naïve readers that all this IQ stuff was hooey,
but you know and I know that the kind of thing you write in
VDARE.com about IQ is actually the
conventional wisdom among
those few who know what they are talking about!”
Nisbett`s book thus concedes vast swathes
normally disputed territory: according to Nisbett, 1] IQ
is real and important; 2] IQ tests measure it accurately; 3]
there are sizable racial gaps in average IQ; and 4] IQ tests
are not culturally biased (which will come as a big
surprise to Sonia Sotomayor). On many of the issues I
covered in my FAQs on the subjects of
race, we wouldn`t have much to disagree over.
however, tries to draw a line in the sand in two places by:
Denying absolutely that
heredity plays any role in the existing
black-white IQ gap
Asserting vociferously that IQ is
Nisbett`s first dogmatic decree, well, time will tell.
Soon—the DNA data is flooding in.
Nisbett`s second decree—the potential effectiveness
of social engineering—is particularly popular at the moment
because of the Obama Administration`s lavish
funding of education.
Unfortunately, despite his book`s self-help title, Nisbett
hasn`t figured out an actual plan for increasing IQ among
one`s own children, much less among the masses of black and
Depressingly, out of the countless
educational experiments tried over the last five decades, he
mostly cites the same handful of fabled preschool
intervention studies that I`ve been reading about for much
of my life: the
Perry Preschool Program of the mid-1960s, the
Milwaukee Project of the late 1960s, and the
of the late 1970s.
Even Nisbett laments, “a huge amount of
research needs to be done to establish whether something
like the Perry or Milwaukee or Abecedarian program would be
effective and feasible if scaled up to national
Yet, if these programs actually worked in
the past, why haven`t they been replicated in the last 30
years? The problem in Nisbett`s book is rather like the one
Herodotus, the Father of History, wrestled with in the
5th Century B.C.: the older the tale, the more miraculous it
For example, Nisbett devotes
pages 124-126 to recounting with a straight face the
successes at raising black test scores of Rick Heber`s
Milwaukee Project. This was an expensive late 1960s study
much like the Early Childhood Education endeavors that
Barack Obama is
Amusingly, Nisbett never mentions that
Heber turned out to be a con man who went to prison for
fraudulent misuse of Milwaukee Project funds! The
Concise Encyclopedia of Special Education says:
HEBER, RICK R.
best known for his work as principal investigator of the
Milwaukee Project and the subsequent controversies
surrounding the project. … Heber was a member of the
faculty of the University of Wisconsin at Madison when he
indicted on charges stemming from the misuse of federal
funds allocated to the project. He was subsequently
convicted and served time in the federal prison in Bastrop,
Texas. Previously a respected scholar in the field of mental
retardation, his academic work on the Milwaukee Project has
been called into serious question. It is now questionable
whether the project
ever actually existed as it had been described by Heber.
And here`s the
description of this Milwaukee Project that Nisbett takes so
The term Milwaukee
Project is the popular title of a widely publicized program
begun in the mid-1960s as one of many Great Society efforts
to improve the intellectual development of low-achieving
groups. It was headed by Rick Heber of the University of
Wisconsin (UW), Madison, who was also director of the
generously funded Waisman Institute in Madison. The
Milwaukee Project was a small study with some 20
experimental subjects and 20 control subjects. It was not
reported on by the investigators in any refereed scientific
journals, yet its cost was some $14 million, mostly in
federal funds, and its fame was international, since it
claimed to have moved the IQs of its subject children from
the dull-normal range of intelligence to the superior range
$14 million in 1960s dollars on 40 children over a half
dozen years is quite an accomplishment!
Enthusiasm, controversy, and scandal subsequently surrounded
the history of the project. Its claimed success was hailed
by famous psychologists and by the popular media. Later in
the project, Heber, the principal investigator, was
discharged from UW, Madison and convicted and imprisoned for
large-scale abuse of federal funding for private gain. Two
of his colleagues were also convicted of violations of
federal laws in connection with misuse of project funds. ….
However, the project received uncritical acceptance in many
college textbooks in psychology and education.
To be fair to Nisbett, perhaps he never
heard of Heber`s imprisonment 28 years ago. After all, it
didn`t get much coverage from the media outlets who had
earlier trumpeted his press releases. On the other hand,
imagine how you would never hear the end of it if, say,
Charles Murray wound up in the slammer …
Moreover, it never quite dawns on Nisbett
that educational projects aren`t exactly like chemistry
experiments, which should be perfectly reproducible.
Unusually successful schooling experiments are more like hit
movies, which notoriously depend upon the temporary and
highly unstable commingling of charismatic individuals. For
example, the original
Manchurian Candidate is famous for being a daring
movie where everything clicks. It shouldn`t work. But it
does. In contrast, The Manchurian Candidate was
remade in 2004 at a cost of $80 million by a team of
Streep, and Jonathan Demme), but the
was instantly forgotten.
As an even closer analogy, consider merely
all the movies about dedicated teachers who overcome
societal prejudices to make a difference in the lives of
their students. (IMDB lists
A few of them triumphed (for example, Maggie Smith`s
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie),
fizzled (Michelle Pfeiffer`s
Minds). You might think that Hollywood would have a
formula for reliably churning this genre of films out by
now, but each new one remains a gamble.
Ironically, Nisbett`s best advice for
lifting your IQ is to choose your parents wisely—i.e., get
adopted as an infant by rich parents.
Nisbett is impressed by a 1989
study by two psychologists Christiane Capron and Michael
Duyme. They attempted to overcome the usual “restriction
of range” problem with adoption studies (agencies don`t
let people who are likely to be lousy parents adopt
children) by spending years searching for 40 adoptees whose
biological parents were from the top 15 percent or bottom 15
percent of French society and had been adopted by parents at
the top or bottom. They only found eight highborn adoptees
who had followed the Oliver Twist path in being
brought up in poverty, but they managed to fill out their
other three cells for a sample size of 38. (Assessment
of effects of socio-economic status on IQ in a full
cross-fostering Nature, August 17, 1989.) On
average, those children lucky enough to be placed among the
rich averaged 12-point higher IQ scores at age 14 than those
placed among the poor. That`s a bigger nurture effect than
typically seen in American adoption studies, but it sounds
plausible to me. (Note, however, it`s not clear that this IQ
boost extended past puberty. It appears that, while children
can be molded to some extent, adults tend to choose their
own environments, with levels of intellectual stimulation
best suited for their genetic endowments.)
consider the cost to reproduce the benefits of having
wealthy parents for millions of poor children. It`s not just
the additional out-of-pocket expenditures, but the tens of
thousands of hours of time spent by well-educated people
talking individually to their children: likely seven-figures
And yet, in this most pro-nurture of all
the many adoption and twin studies yet done, the nature
effect was still larger than the nurture effect. Highborn
16 points higher in IQ than lowborn children compared to
the 12-point advantage seen among those raised rich.
Therefore, assuming this tiny study is correct, society
could eliminate roughly 75 percent of the IQ gaps caused by
genetic differences. All it would take is for the government
to make parents in the upper and lower sectors of society
exchange their children.
I had some hopes for Nisbett. His 2004
book The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why
was an intriguing exploration of how Northeast Asians tend
to think in terms of context and harmony while Americans are
more object-oriented and innovative.
Unfortunately, however, Nisbett`s handling
of the evidence in Intelligence and How to Get It
gravely undermines his own reputation. Terms like
“cherry-picking,” “scattershot,” and
“disingenuous” come to mind.
Rushton have already
pointed out many of the ethical shortcuts Nisbett has
taken in order to appeal to the
Still, there`s no doubt that the
intellectual establishment, and very large numbers of
well-meaning ordinary people, desperately want to buy what
Nisbett is selling.
sell-out, but a successful sell-out.
the worse for America.