Remembering a Scientific Pioneer—Arthur R. Jensen (1923–2012)

Cooper Sterling


Jen-sen-ism (jen’se niz’em), n. the theory that an individual’s IQ is largely due to heredity, including racial heritage. [1965-1970]; after Arthur R. Jensen (born 1923), U.S. educational psychologist, who proposed such a theory; see -ism]—Jen’sen-ist, Jen’sen-ite’, n., adj.

— The Random House and Webster’s Unabridged Dictionaries

Arthur Jensen’s death on October 22 is a pathetic reminder of the strangehold of political correctness on our society. To the extent that it has been mentioned at all, Professor Jensen’s death has been contextualized in such a manner that leaves little doubt among readers that Jensen was wrong about his ideas on race differences in IQ. Thus the New York Times obituary mentions Stephen Jay Gould’s critique of IQ testing, despite Gould’s well-established track record as a leftist activist who likely engaged in fraud to support his views (see also here). The obituary also gives far less prominence to Jensen than to one Sonja C. Grover, an educational psychologist at Lakehead University in Ontario who feels that “you cannot separate social science from human rights.”

However it also quotes Prof. James Flynn whose work has indicated rising intelligence over recent decades and has taken the rather cautious view that “The best we can say is that it is more probable that the I.Q. gap between black and white is entirely environmental in origin.”

“Jensen was a true scientist, and he was without racial bias,” Professor Flynn added. “It never occurred to Arthur Jensen that people would use his data to argue for racial supremacy. Now, to be fair to his critics, over time he became more and more convinced that the evidence did show a genetic component.”

I suppose we should be grateful for the statement that Jensen was a true scientist, but how in the world are his critics supported by the simple fact that Jensen continued to believe that racial differences were genetically influenced when his own views are hardly a ringing endorsement of environmentalism?

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The LA Times obituary managed to include an account of Margaret Mead’s blatantly political attempt to prevent him from being a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And there was the obligatory mention of Gould. However, it also included laudatory comments by Charles Murray (“an extremely important psychometrician who published very important work”) and from Flynn (Jensen made “‘landmark contributions’ to psychology, most of which had nothing to do with questions of race”). Flynn and Murray also credit Jensen, correctly, with resurrecting and successfully defending the concept of general intelligence.

It is unfortunate and deplorable that such a well-regarded educational psychologist hasn’t received the recognition he deserves. In 1973, Current Biography, not exactly a right-wing publication, described Jensen as “one of the foremost educational psychologists in the United States.” This interview of Jensen in an academic publication is a good introduction to his views, expressed in plain English.

Professor Jensen will likely be remembered for his 123-page paper in the Harvard Educational Review (HER), which comprised more than half of the Winter 1969 issue. The opening sentence, “Compensatory education has been tried and it apparently has failed” set the tone for an analysis of universal education reforms, which were intended to rectify what Jensen described as the “educational lag of disadvantaged children and thereby the achievement gap between ‘minority’ and ‘majority’ pupils.” Programs such as the $7 billion per year Head Start program have fallen far below their intended goal. Indeed, the most recent results for Head Start show no benefits at all, not only for IQ but also for academic achievement, social and emotional functioning, or health, even in the first grade. Even some liberals, such as Time magazine’s Joe Klein, have called for the program’s elimination. As Klein bluntly states, “Head Start simply does not work.”

More than 40 years and billions of dollars later, we’re right back to the issues Jensen carefully outlined in his HER article. His tightly argued paper examined several interconnected issues: the nature of intelligence, occupational correlates, the distribution and inheritance of intelligence, IQ gains and their magnitude, race and social class differences, the genetic and environmental causes of race differences in IQ, dysgenic IQ trends, the concept of heritability, and other aspects of intelligence and learning theories. Jensen explained the polygenic nature of intelligence, which involves the combination of multiple genes much like the inheritance of physical traits “whose effects are small, similar, and cumulative.” Jensen stressed the need for further evaluation of remedial programs that miraculously boosted test scores in order to understand what factors contributed to the gains. Are these actual increases in general intelligence or could they be related to the cultural loadings of the tests? Are specific learning abilities improved rather than the enhancement of general intelligence?

The uproar that pursued Jensen to the grave is partly the result of two of his overlapping characteristics, namely, Jensen’s commonsense view that educators who ignore IQ-related research trends ultimately place students and the nation at risk, and his steadfast determination to show with solid data that the 15-point Black-White gap in tested IQ levels is not entirely environmental and therefore unlikely to vanish with simplistic remedial intervention. Since 1969, our national education elites have pursued an entirely different trajectory, one that is radically egalitarian. Despite all the programs, student performance, relative to other advanced countries, shows that national comparisons rank the U.S. on a competitively descending arc. Our education elites have denied the legitimate reality of IQ testing and we’re continuing to pay the price.

In 1977, Jensen and Hans Eysenck traveled through Australia on an invited series of lectures (the Fink Memorial Seminars)—Jensen discussing intelligence and Eysenck elaborating on personality findings. They encountered widespread protests from militants who managed to disrupt several speaking engagements. It was the first time either Jensen or Eysenck had visited Australia. Demand often exceeded the number of places allotted for some of the lectures. In some instances, the talks were cancelled due to protests. Jensen and Eysenck dominated the headlines in several major Australian newspapers: “U.S. academic to give talks in secret,” “Setting the IQ time bomb,” “Minority trying to suppress ideas by force,” “Fascist? Racist?,” and “Campus row on ‘racist’ lecturers.”

Jensen responded to one of the student newspapers with a letter-to-the-editor; the following are excerpts:

Farrago’s two articles (Sept. 9, 1977, p.4 and p.11) about the so-called IQ controversy throw up a smokescreen of misinformation and highlight once again the fantasies that opponents of research on this topic seem to hope will pass for legitimate criticism. I have seen all of these same fantasies expressed in many other student newspapers, political leaflets, and the popular media, in so much the same form and phraseology as to almost suggest they were all written by the same person, or a small group of persons, without their showing any evidence of independent inquiry. It is a parroting of propaganda slogans rather than genuine open-minded inquiry into the actual issues.

The first popular fantasy is that the polygenic theory of intelligence (and the evidence for it) is a minority viewpoint held just by Jensen and Eysenck and perhaps a few others. As a matter of fact, no modern textbook of human genetics that deals at all with the inheritance of mental ability (as indexed by IQ tests) comes to a conclusion on this matter that differs in any essential way from the conclusions espoused by Eysenck and me…. The second popular fantasy is that the cause of racial differences in IQ (and all its correlates) is a scientifically closed issue and that the hypothesis that genetic factors are involved has already been ruled out by proper studies. On the contrary, the vast majority of geneticists today agree that this is an open question and that the hypothesis of genetic, as well as environmental, causation is a viable one warranting continued investigation….

All that our critics need to do, if they are to act in the scientific tradition and if they are to be taken seriously, is to carry out better studies of the genetics of intelligence than have yet been done and show data and analyses which will contradict the generally accepted conclusions based on now existing mass of evidence.

Ad hominem polemics designed for popular appeal can’t make the slightest dent in a scientific theory, which in the final analysis must stand or fall in terms of the weight of empirical evidence in relation to alternative theoretical models. So far, at least, the polygenic model of intelligence variation is way ahead, with virtually no serious competition.

In a career that spanned nearly 50 years, Jensen authored over 400 articles and book chapters, and seven books. His 1980 book Bias in Mental Testing exhaustively refuted the claim that minorities performed poorly on IQ tests as a result of cultural bias. Bias in Mental Testing catapulted Jensen back in the news with featured stories in the New York Times and Time magazine. A year later, the Free Press published Jensen’s Straight Talk about Mental Tests.

His 1998 The g Factor summarized a lifetime of painstaking research. Critics largely ignored the book primarily because of its scientifically irrefutable nature.

Jensen has been unfairly characterized as a “leading academic racist,” primarily for receiving substantial grants from the Pioneer Fund, a major source of funding over the years for studies on genetics, IQ, ethnic and race differences, and behavior genetic research. Ardent critics argue that Jensen’s decision to devote so much effort to studying the source of the Black-White IQ gap reveals “racist” leanings. In actual fact, Jensen exemplified an open-minded honesty that few scholars could match, pursuing the evidentiary findings wherever they led. He harbored no antipathy or animosity toward any group. He garnered a great deal of respect from leading psychologists, such as Sandra Scarr and Robert K. Sternberg, who didn’t share all of his views but expressed admiration for his integrity and commitment to scientific pursuits.

Linda Gottfredson, professor of psychology at the University of Delaware and a leading IQ researcher, argues in the New Scientist, “Jensen’s analyses [of g] transformed the study of intelligence.” His work over the years shifted toward Charles Spearman’s theory of general intelligence, what Jensen referred to as “Spearman’s Hypothesis.” Jensen found that basic chronometric information-processing tasks (i.e., cognitively simple tasks measuring speed of information processing) confirmed that the Black-White gap was not simply an artifact of written IQ tests, but demonstrated that underlying latent traits involving the brain’s processing speed in measured reaction times played a role in racial differences in IQ. Jensen’s meticulous and multifaceted work, including the analysis of biological and physical correlates of g in addition to information processing, the pioneering use of reaction and inspection time experiments, is meticulously reviewed in The g Factor and to some extent in his last book Clocking the Mind: Mental Chronometry and Individual Differences.

Jensen’s exceptional qualities as an educator and research scientist are marked by unique character traits that defined an intellectual pioneer comparable to Nobel Prize winners. It is an abomination that his passing, on the part of our society’s elites, is treated as yet another opportunity to regale the public with propaganda in support of politically motivated egalitarian assumptions about race.

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