Goodbye, Arthur Jensen


Arthur Jensen, the preeminent psychologist, has died at the age of 89. This is a great loss.

When I was a young sprite, I would from time to time come across the name "Arthur Jensen" in popular press commentaries and in textbooks. Had I never read further, I would have held to the impression that this tenured psychologist was an outlier among scholars, if not an outright racist crank. Jensen's research concerning racial differences in cognitive ability was invariably characterized as having been thoroughly "discredited," and the term "Jensenism" was invoked as a watchword to illustrate the dangers that must be taken seriously when the mantle of science — ahem, "pseudoscience" — is leveraged to justify inegalitarian social policies. This was back when the specter of Nazism was deployed with nary a wink, and if you had questions you were referred to that Stephen Jay Gould book.

It was only when I read Steven Goldberg's When Wish Replaces Thought that I began to nurse doubts about the received wisdom. I still assumed that Jensen guy was some kind of racist, but Goldberg's explication of the ad consequentiam fallacy and its role in the social sciences gave me pause. The possible consequences of an argument or conclusion, Goldberg emphasized, have absolutely no bearing on whether a given argument or conclusion is empirically sound. This is one of those points that seems so obvious when stated that it's almost shocking to look up and realize how frequently the fallacy is embraced and repeated, often by the very best people — by people, for example, who write magazine commentaries and who edit undergraduate textbooks.

So I wondered, cautiously enough, about the confident rejection of "Jensenism" that had resounded in popular discourse. Might it be that such heated denunciations were grounded not so much in the disinterested appraisal of flawed science as in the crude blur of wishful thinking? It seemed possible. All I knew at the time was that it — "Jensenism," or whatever — had been "discredited." But when I got around to reading The Mismeasure of Man as instructed I found very little in the way of such promised "discrediting." What I found instead was what one critic — a critic who was in fact a
distinguished scholar and not, as I would discover in time, a bigot or a
charlatan — astutely described as "The Debunking of Scientific Fossils and Straw Persons." I came to realize that a game was being played, and that truth was a pawn. 

So I shook off the bugaboos. I took the time to read a number of Arthur Jensen's books and articles. And I learned a lot. Straight Talk About Mental Tests remains unsurpassed as a layman's introduction to the field of psychometrics, and I think it's fair to say that Bias in Mental Testing still provides the most exhaustive and convincing refutation of the popular claim that IQ tests are instrumentally and culturally rigged against minorities. I never made it through Jensen's technically imposing magnum opus, The g Factor, but it's still there on my shelf, right next to The Cartoon Guide to Statistics. Maybe I'll try again one of these days.

If you are not familiar with Arthur Jensen's work (or if you are only familiar with
his work through the willfully distorted media caricature that remains so
despicably wrong), I recommend starting with Frank Miele's
superb book, Intelligence, Race, and Genetics: Conversations with Arthur R. Jensen. Through a series of in-depth interviews, Miele's book presents an exemplary survey of the arguments and data surrounding a perennially contentious subject, but it also leaves us with a nuanced biographical portrait of a man — a Gandhi scholar, as it turns out — who faced would-be inquisitors with unshakable courage and uncommon decency.

Memento mori. 

8 thoughts on “Goodbye, Arthur Jensen

  1. It would be interesting to see an update of Snyderman-Rothman survey results, since we now have decades of longitudinal behavior-genetic data. I suspect the support for moderate to strong hereditarianism would remain solid, with the same caveats regarding racial differences duly noted.
    To my knowledge, Jensen never argued that the Black-White IQ gap was “genetic”; rather, he argued that the contributory role of heredity could not be discounted in light of available evidence, that resilient differences could not be accounted for by “test bias,” and that a significant biological factor was consistent with extant research. This was not and is not an “extreme” position.
    Steve Sailer and others have noted that Jensen’s death has yet to be noted by mainstream news organizations. This actually surprises me.

  2. The NY Times obit is up:
    It’s reasonably fair, but the last bit quoting Sonja Grover feels tacked-on, and the closing quote is a complete non-sequitur.
    I would also take issue with the assertion that “Stephen Jay Gould … devoted much of his 1981 book, ‘The Mismeasure of Man,’ to criticizing Professor Jensen’s claims.” While it’s true that Gould criticized Jensen’s claims, he did so mainly by attacking the work of 19th century scientists, often dishonestly. The bait and switch was the main point of Jensen’s review of Mismeasure, linked above.

  3. Hi Chip,
    My G Factor collects dust, like yours. I skimmed through it, with a bad conscience, knowing I should have focused a bit more. But forgive the pop culture reference; he had me, as in that Tom Cruise movie I hope you never saw (Jerry McGuire), at hello.
    It’s all so depressing, this IQ business. I got more than I deserve; am appalling lazy, but good things seem to fall in my lap. My utterly useless talents reap rewards. I can’t bring myself to condemn welfare-collecting lowlifes on the brownstone steps, swilling malt liquor: there but for a few dozen iq points go I. The racial aspect: yes, that’s the worst part. It will divide the country, more than it already has.
    I appreciate your work. Thanks.

  4. It is an ubiquitous fallacy. However, though it may be stupid, you can’t really be surprised or blame people for deploying it; I’ve often come to the conclusion that “If I were thinking completely rationally I’d really just commit suicide”–but try saying that around anyone who cares about you without having them flip the fuck out. They don’t even want to think about whether it’s true or not, because of how my actual taking action would affect them, and they remain pissed off at me even when I explain that I’m not thinking completely rationally, so no need to go composing your funeral speech… nope, still pissed off. And that’s just a conclusion that would eliminate a single person. A conclusion that affects millions? Shew. Fireworks in 3…2…

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