Richwine Dissertation Committee Selection

~ Jason Richwine ~
Photo through the Heritage Foundation which has granted the right to reproduce this photograph in print and electronic formats, including reproduction by 3rd parties, excluding use in paid advertising space and book covers. Photograph © David Hills.

In one of the latest academic-cum-political dust ups, Jason Richwine, formerly of the Heritage Institute, co-authored a study estimating the “cost” of regularizing the immigration status of the undocumented.  Imagined by the Heritage Foundation as a high profile and hard-hitting attack on proposed immigration reform, the study was widely criticized by both liberals and conservatives for poor methodology and analysis.  When the Washington Post reported that Richwine’s 2009 Harvard PhD dissertation entitled IQ and Immigration argued that Hispanic immigrants have lower IQs than so-called “native whites” the Heritage Institute back-pedaled as speedily as it could.  Richwine resigned several days later.

Richwine’s dissertation committee, like the Heritage foundation itself, sought to distance itself from the content of the dissertation, though his committee chair commented that “the empirical work was sound.”  Charles Murray, a mentor to Richwine, and one of the co-authors of The Bell Curve, a 1994 book that sparked a controversy over IQ and race, defended Richwine’s work, accusing those who criticized Richwine of suppressing his right to freedom of speech.  Murray claims that Richwine is being treated for “crimethink” and that the situation is downright Orwellian.

Rather than relying on second-hand characterizations of Richwine’s dissertation, I decided to read it myself. I wasn’t surprised by the ideological content of the work, but I was quite startled by the lack of analytical rigor, the specious use of data, and the consistent use of gross generalization rather than disciplined scholarship.  Did Richwine’s committee even read his dissertation, I wondered?  Had a student submitted something like that to me, I would have covered it with questions, suggestions, proddings and requirements for more.  So I decided to put myself on his dissertation committee after the fact.

Here are some of the comments I would have provided to him:

Dear Jason:

I have read your dissertation and have several key areas where you need to devote serious attention to developing your work before it can rise to the level of PhD worthy work.

These are:

1. The framing and theoretical basis for the study itself lacks rigor, internal logic and consistency.  Your variables are poorly defined and your justification in particular for using “native whites” as your control group does not make sense.

Let’s look at your argument.  You state that you aim to show that immigrant IQ is, on average, lower than that of the “native white” population in the United States.  Remember that in good science, we work to prove our hypothesis WRONG, not to substantiate a pre-formed idea.  In choosing your control group as “native whites” you make a serious misstep.  According to you, natives are those who have been several generations in the United States.  Yet you show no evidence that white natives are different, IQ-wise, from other natives. This problem with your research design is compounded by the fact that your stated justification for choosing “native whites” as your control group is also that “for better or worse, most of America’s institutional, social, and political structure is the product of Euro Americans, which makes them the natural standard by which immigrants may be compared” (P. 33).  Remember that your thesis is about race and IQ and heredity, not culture and politics.  Choosing your control group based on elements utterly unrelated to what you propose to analyze makes the scientific validity of your work untenable from the start.  You just cannot forward a thesis about IQ and heredity and then use the supposed cultural dominance of “native whites” as justification for choosing them as your control group.

2.  Your literature review is consistently biased, incomplete, and cursory. The only work you cite that is openly critical of the IQ-race theory is that of Stephen Jay Gould.  For goodness sake, Wikipedia covers more literature than you do on the question of race and IQ.  You cannot convincingly argue for the validity or overall acceptability of your IQ-race thesis while refusing to substantially engage the large body of work that is highly critical of that idea.  As it is, you do not review even enough of the work that embraces this point of view.  Nobody in academia will take you seriously unless you deepen and widen your command of the relevant literature, the complexities of the arguments, and the substance upon which different positions are based.  In other words: you cannot only read the things you like and explain why you like them.  You have to read what you don’t like as well, and demonstrate the flaws. That’s what it means to be an intellectual and a scholar, rather than an ideologue.

3.  Your writing consistently substitutes unsubstantiated generalizations for careful argument and presentation of evidence.  This is poor scholarship and again, unacceptable at an undergraduate level, much less in a PhD thesis.  On page 21 you write that “…[T]here is no racial or ethnic policy agenda here.  One can deal frankly and soberly with group IQ differences while still subscribing to the classical liberal tradition of individualism.” If there is not a race or ethnic agenda, why base the analysis on race and ethnic groups?  More to the point, if race and ethnicity are not the agenda, how do you justify making the “native white population” the control group in the analysis?  I also note that you justify excluding IQ data “black” native populations, because their IQ scores are historically “unstable.”  This so-called instability was evidenced in a marked closing of the IQ gap between blacks and whites over time.  It appears to me that you exclude this particular data because it is inconvenient for your theory.  Such selective practices are bad science and bad scholarship.

Another example.  On page 15 you write that, “IQ can be an uncomfortable topic in a liberal democracy. The reality of innate differences between individuals and groups is often difficult to accept for those with an aversion to inequality. For this reason, journalists and academics in other fields are naturally attracted to scholars who downplay the role of genes in determining IQ, even if these scholars are a distinct minority.”  Your wording implicitly argues that those who challenge the scientific validity of IQ science work from an emotional rather than rigorously scientific position.  This impression is magnified when you claim that those who disagree with the IQ material are “naturally attracted” to scholarship that challenges the point of view that you endorse.  It really is a cheap shot.  There are serious scientific debates out there, and it is incumbent upon you to address them.  Furthermore, your claim that those who reject the IQ and genes hypotheses are a “distinct minority” is patently untrue.

The American Anthropological Association, in its statement on race, specifically rejects the genetic validity of the idea of race, period.  Furthermore, a task force report from the American Psychological Association notes that “Several culturally-based explanations of the Black/White IQ differential have been proposed; some are plausible, but so far none has been conclusively supported. There is even less empirical support for a genetic interpretation. In short, no adequate explanation of the differential between the IQ means of Blacks and Whites is presently available” (Neisser et al. 1996, 97).  While you do selectively cite this report, you neglect to mention this key conclusion.  Authored by ten top academics and published in the discipline’s flagship journal, the report effectively stands as the discipline’s definitive statement on the matter and can hardly be characterized as representing the position of a “small minority.”

As an anthropologist I cannot sign off without seriously challenging the implicit ideas about race upon which your entire thesis is built.  Throughout the work, you strive to link IQ to genetics and heritability.  You further assert that inheritance of IQ is empirically reflected in the data you present, and that the patterns reflect accurately in racial and ethnic groups.  The massive underlying problem is that this model assumes that the ethnic and racial groups you discuss possess relatively homogeneous gene pools, and, moreover, that the gene variance and distribution of one group are substantially distinguishable from those of another:  “Hispanics,” in your formulation, are genetically different from “whites”  and this is seen in their differential IQ scores.  First of all, “Hispanics” have only existed for a little under 400 years, not nearly enough time evolutionarily to produce significant genetic distinctiveness.  Second, those in the contemporary “Hispanic” population include descendants of indigenous peoples, enslaved Africans, and European immigrants.

These are groups that you treat separately in your U.S. data.  On what scientific basis can populations be treated as genetically separate groups in one geographic location (the United States), then be grouped together genetically in another (Latin America)?   Your data would need to more finely parse these issues, separating “white descendant Hispanics” from both black and indigenous descendant Hispanics for the racial/IQ argument to remain convincing.   Even then, I fear your task will be fruitless, because the root of the problem is this: you are claiming that socially constituted category –that of race – is genetically identifiable.  That’s a bit like saying those who attend Harvard are genetically distinct and naturally superior.  One thing doesn’t have much to do with the other in terms of having a causal relationship.

Nobody uses genetic information to determine racial identity.  The closest instance might be Native American tribes who are obligated by the U.S. Government to use blood quanta to determine tribal membership.  But even here the so-called standards range so widely that genetics are not the determining factor.  Even you yourself use socially defined categories when you speak of race and in your analysis.  This is simply not scientifically justifiable.  You present no evidence at all as to the genetic distinctiveness of the populations you identify.  Without the genetic material, the main arguments of your thesis do not hold water.

I am forced to conclude that your work is bad science.  Your conclusions are not objective but ideologically driven.   Your research is narrow and selective in the extreme and aligns rather dramatically with racist attempts to justify white superiority.  Declaring that scholars who reject such racism are a minority and that the science you present in this work represents a mainstream position is both dishonest and disingenuous.  Did you know that the scholars you cite most often: Philippe Rushton, and Richard Lynn, were supported by the Pioneer Fund, which has long-standing affiliations with the movement to create a pure white race, that is, eugenics?   Richard Lynn, whom you cite copiously, is unapologetic in his support of eugenics; it is his data set—one generated with the same flawed notions of race I discussed earlier–that you use for the foundation of your empirical work the key studies from which you pull your data.

So, there it is.   If you are applying for membership in the Aryan nation, this work might be your ticket. But if you are claiming any kind of legitimacy as a scholar, I’m afraid the only thing I can suggest is for you to scrap the dissertation and start over.

Elizabeth Chin, PhD is an anthropologist whose work centers around issues of race and social inequality.   Her book Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture (Minnesota 2001) was a finalist for the C. Wright Mills Prize.  In 2007 she was awarded the American Anthropological Association prize for excellence in undergraduate teaching.  In 2011 she joined the Art Center College of Design as a founding faculty member of the MFA track Media Design Practices/Field.

Rarely does a Ph.D. dissertation provoke a media storm. Most of these scholarly productions, the culmination of years of course work, research and writing, gather dust on library shelves and are read, if anyone reads them at all, by a handful of academics in the author’s field of study. And with good reason: Most dissertations are dry, poorly written, deal with narrow topics, and contribute little, if anything, to the existing literature on the topic they address.

One Kennedy School dissertation, however, has not only drawn media attention over the past week, but also resulted last Friday in the resignation of its author, Jason Richwine, by his employer, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative and influential “think tank” in Washington, D.C. Richwine first drew critical scrutiny as the co-author of a Heritage Foundation paper that estimated the cost (over 50 years) of granting citizenship to “illegal” immigrants in the United States at $6.3 trillion dollars, as these newly minted citizens become eligible for government benefits such as welfare, health care, and higher education.

Critics of the study quickly pounced on its rather dubious assumptions and extrapolations, prompting a Washington Postreporter to dig out Richwine’s dissertation, completed in 2009 and titled “IQ and Immigration Policy.” The Postarticle, featuring quotes from the dissertation that focused on Hispanics, both undocumented immigrants and their American-born children, instantly convinced Heritage Foundation leaders to distance themselves from Richwine’s dissertation and push him out the door.

What was so disturbing in this dissertation that has created such a furor? After all, it was approved by a committee of three distinguished Harvard professors—George J. Borjas, Richard J. Zeckhauser, and Christopher Jencks—who attested to its scholarly competence as meriting a Harvard Ph.D. Presumably, they guided Richwine’s research on his pre-approved topic and were sufficiently knowledgeable to spot any flaws in Richwine’s work. None of these academics, however, possessed any expertise in the fields of biology, psychology, or neurology, from which Richwine drew the data on which he based his assertion that non-Caucasians are doomed by genetics to possess and pass on to their children significantly lower IQs (as measured by standardized tests of mental ability) than native-born American whites, and that “the low average IQ of Hispanics is effectively permanent.”

Richwine, who lacks any degrees in these fields himself, offered no data in his dissertation (or research of his own) to support this claim, relying instead on studies, most of them highly disputed, that purported to link below-average IQs to such “underclass” traits as criminality, out-of-wedlock births, welfare dependency, psychosis, alcoholism, and even obesity and smoking. Low-IQ immigrants have low-IQ children, live in neighborhoods (Richwine refers to Hispanic “barrios” as breeding grounds for these traits) populated largely by other low-IQ people, and create a “culture” that is inimical to the American economy, depressing the earnings of native-born whites. Additionally, “intractable cultural differences” are preventing Mexican assimilation into white society.

Turning to immigration policy in his final dissertation chapter, Richwine identified the “salient policy issue” as “the well-documented persistence of the IQ deficit” among non-Caucasians (excepting Asians, whose larger “brain size” gives them above-average IQs). Given the “strong case for IQ selection” in screening potential legal immigrants, Richwine proposed administering IQ tests to those seeking admission to the United States. However, undoubtedly aware that his proposal would never find a political sponsor, he suggested the euphemistic term “skills” as more palatable. “The tests would still be ordinary intelligence tests, but the emotional baggage that the term IQ sometimes carries with it would be much reduced.” Richwine suggested that such tests could be administered at American embassies or consulates, or perhaps even over the Internet, although he shrank from proposing a “passing” score on such a test.

How could any self-respecting Harvard professor, one might ask, approve a dissertation that contains such racist nonsense? Three did, as noted above. In doing so, they certified that Richwine’s work “represents a significant contribution to knowledge” in the field of public policy—which is, after all, the requirement for dissertations in that field as stated in Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Handbook. Doctoral candidates at the Kennedy School of Government, the Handbook adds, are required to “demonstrate his or her ability to perform original research in an area of public policy” in their dissertation.

Richwine’s dissertation, in fact, included no “original research” conducted by him. It was based solely on secondary sources, heavily weighted toward studies with a hereditarian bias, dismissing works such as The Mismeasure of Man, a scathing critique of IQ testing by the late Stephen Jay Gould, professor of biology, geology, and paleontology at Harvard. Whether the dissertation made a “significant contribution to knowledge” in public policy is a subjective matter of scholarly judgment, although I would argue that it did not. It might pass muster as a master’s thesis, for which reliance on secondary sources, or “a review of the literature,” is commonly allowed in most graduate schools, as a prelude to “original research” for a dissertation. The fact that Richwine addressed a controversial topic is not an issue; there should be no “taboo” topics in academic work. The issue, and the point of this Open Letter to the Kennedy School faculty, is that adherence to the standards of the graduate school’s official Handbook needs to be enforced more rigorously in the approval of dissertations. My own modest proposal is that the faculty consider appointing a “devil’s advocate” for each candidate, as the Catholic church does to examine and question the purported “miracles” required for candidates for sainthood. Such advocates could be anonymous, and perhaps from another school, to better allow for critical analysis, since dissertation committees like Richwine’s are normally composed of professors who have personal ties to the candidate. After all, Richwine cited favorably in his dissertation the work of Professors Borjas and Jencks, possibly giving them a stake in his work.

I’m not proposing that the graduate faculty revoke Richwine’s doctorate or publicly disavow his dissertation, although Professor Zeckhauser recently stated that “Richwine was too eager to extrapolate his empirical results to inferences for policy.” Good advice, but a tad late. And Professor Borjas, an economist, says, “I have never worked on anything even remotely related to IQ,” the main topic of Richwine’s dissertation, adding that “the focus on IQ is a bit misguided.” Again, a tad late to help Richwine rethink his dissertation proposal, which Borjas had approved.

The media storm over Jason Richwine’s dissertation will soon subside, as he looks for a new employer. But the issue for the Kennedy School faculty over this episode will remain until the standards for dissertations are more rigorously enforced.

Peter H. Irons is Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, at the University of California, San Diego. He earned a Ph.D. in that field from Boston University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.

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