The inequality dogma

Thomas Sowell
Posted: Feb 18, 2004 12:00 AM

This is truly the age of dogma when it comes to differences between groups. Some will blindly deny that intergroup differences in performances are anything other than "stereotypes," "perceptions," or discrimination.

At the other end of the spectrum, the dogma is that mental differences especially, whether among individuals or groups, are innate in the genes. Reaction against this view is so strong in some places that it can literally be a federal case to give IQ tests to black children.

Both these opposing views go back for centuries. Back in the 18th century, Adam Smith said that the difference between porters and philosophers were due to education and suggested that there are fewer innate differences among human beings than among dogs.

On the other side, an Islamic scholar of the 10th century noted that Europeans grow more pale the farther north you go and also that the "farther they are to the north the more stupid, gross, and brutish they are."

This correlation between skin color and mental ability would of course be anathema to the politically correct today -- and the question as to whether it was true or false would never get off the ground. But what were the facts, as of the 10th century?

Since antiquity, Mediterranean Europe -- especially at the eastern end -- had been far more advanced than northern Europe in technology, organization, literacy and all the things that make for a more advanced society. The fact that this has all changed in the centuries since then does not mean that this 10th century scholar was not correct in what he said when he said it.

At the very least, he was there and we were not.

Unfortunately, facts have played a very subordinate role in much discussion of differences among groups, races, nations, and civilizations -- whether among those arguing for innate equality or for innate inequality.

In the early 20th century, many believers in innate inequality presented what may have seemed like a logically airtight argument that our national IQ was in danger of declining over time, because people with low IQs usually had more children than people with high IQs. The eugenics movement and the birth control movement sought to counter this trend by reducing the number of children born to low IQ people.

The logical airtightness of this argument turned out to be its greatest vulnerability when confronted with hard facts. Extensive research by Professor James R. Flynn, an American expatriate in New Zealand, has shown that in fact whole nations have had their performances on mental tests rise by substantial amounts over the years.

This should never have happened if IQ tests measured innate ability, predetermined by genes. Yet Professor Flynn's work, widely recognized among scholars, showed more than a dozen countries where whole generations answered more IQ questions correctly than their parents or grandparents had.

Because IQ tests by definition have an average score of 100, the standards keep getting changed. In other words, if the average person answers 42 questions correctly on a given IQ test at a given time, then 42 correct answers will be counted as an IQ of 100.

A generation later, if the average person answers 53 questions correctly on that same test, then 53 correct answers will be defined as an IQ of 100. What this means is that there was nothing to indicate how much IQ test results were improving until Professor Flynn went all the way back to the original raw scores and discovered how much they had risen over the generations.

The time is long overdue to let facts be acknowledged as facts, whatever our differing philosophies or hopes may be. The preponderance of evidence is that northern Europeans were not nearly as advanced as southern Europeans in the 10th century. If there had been IQ tests given then, the northerners would undoubtedly have come in a poor second.

By the time real IQ tests had been developed and given in early 20th century America, immigrants from northern Europe scored higher than immigrants from southern Europe, many of the latter having IQs similar to those of American blacks. We don't need to fight the tests. We need to change the reality that tests measure.