Sunday, October 21, 2007

From The Lead: Race, Genetics, and the Environment

I usually save my best stuff for The Lead--I am the Sunday editor. I do so because the readership of that blog (even on Sunday's) is quite large, and the readership here is, well, more modest.

Today, I wrote on a matter very important to me as the fatehr of an African American child, and I will rpeat that post here:

James Watson, who won a Nobel Prize in medicine for his work in determining the structure of DNA, caused quite a furor when he said he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really.". He said he hoped that everyone was equal, but countered that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”.

Watson has since backtracked from these comments, but the furor continues. (And, as the father of an African-American child, this is an issue that I take quite personally). Steven Levitt, one of the authors of Freakonomics offers some interesting data that suggests that Watson is simply wrong in his conclusions:

Roland Fryer and I have done some research on this topic which we think is potentially quite interesting and important — although we seem to be the only ones with this opinion at present. (The paper was rejected yesterday by the American Economic Review on the second round of review, and a search of Google Scholar reveals only two citations to the working paper version released in early 2006.)

In my work with Fryer, we analyzed a newly available nationally representative survey of children ages two and under, done by the Department of Education. Included in this study are tests of mental ability around a child’s first birthday. While you might think it would be impossible to capture anything meaningful at such a young age, it turns out that these measures of one-year-olds’ intelligence are somewhat highly correlated with IQ scores at later ages, as well as with parental IQ scores.

The striking result we find is that there are no racial differences in mental functioning at age one, although a racial gap begins to emerge over the next few years of life.

So what does this mean for the genetics vs. environment debate? Quoting from our abstract, “the observed patterns are broadly consistent with large racial differences in environmental factors that grow in importance as children age. Our findings are not consistent with the simplest models of large genetic differences across races in intelligence, although we cannot rule out the possibility that intelligence has multiple dimensions and racial differences are present only in those dimensions that emerge later in life.”

Like all research, our study has its flaws and limitations. I have to say, however, that I imagined a lot of reactions to this paper, none of which were utter indifference on the part of academics and the popular press. But that was the reaction we got.

Read it all here. Read the entire paper here. My colleague John Chilton, a professor of economics has some very interesting comments on this post here.

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