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.