Channel 4’s Race and Intelligence: Science’s Last Taboo programme missed an opportunity to educate a new generation about the sham ‘scientific’ claims behind this controversy.
Rageh Omaar opened his programme on the connections between race and intelligence, part of a five-part series, with the kind of doom-laden voice-over we’ve come to expect from his investigative work (see Immigration: An Inconvenient Truth). Labelling the debate about the connections between race and IQ levels as ‘so radioactive that it’s only ever mentioned by political extremists’, he poses the question: ‘Are Black people less intelligent than White people?’
As he says, ‘it seems unbelievable to be asking [the question] in the twenty-first century’ and sets out on a course to discover ‘the truth’ about race and intelligence and why, despite the question repeatedly appearing to be settled every time it’s raised, it returns to haunt us in a different era.
He runs through a history of the IQ testing controversy, referencing the IQ testers and eugenics movement of the pre-World War 2 era before going on to mention the likes of William Shockley in the 1970s, the furore around the publication of the Bell Curve in 1994 and, in 2007, the geneticist James Watson’s highly controversial comment that he felt ‘gloomy’ about Africa’s prospects, because he believed in the inferiority of African intelligence.
To outline the case for the pro-IQ/race connection, Rageh Omaar interviews two of the most influential, and most controversial, contemporary academics on the subject: Richard Lynn and J Phillipe Rushton. Both are psychologists and both have connections with a small but unsavoury cohort of race scientists, many funded by the Pioneer Fund in the US, on the board of which they both sit.
They wheel out the same kind of tired arguments. Lynn elaborates on the differences in IQ tests between what he labels the most intelligent races (North East Asian and European) and the least intelligent (sub-Saharan African and Aboriginal Australian). Rushton blithely outlines his arguments about the existence of biological races (identifiable in the very marrow of our bones), the differences in brain sizes between races and thus his scientific basis for differing intelligence levels between races.
Rageh Omaar has two eminent scientists to provide the counter-argument: geneticist Steve Jones and neuroscientist Steve Rose. Jones debunks the idea of distinct biological races (again) and labels us all genetically ‘boring’ in our lack of variety. And as for the question of why the controversy keeps rearing its head? As outlined by Rose: ‘Because we live in a racist society, it’s very simple. The questions about differences in intelligence between Black and White people wouldn’t make any sense unless you lived in a racist society.’
And it is about halfway through that the programme comes to the main thrust of its argument. Rageh Omaar questions the age-old orthodoxy that IQ tests measure an innate intelligence and poses the counter-argument: that these tests actually measure class differences. This is about class not race, and these tests measure the degree to which an individual has been assimilated into the middle class.
Or as Rageh Omaar says, in conversation with Professor Rema Reynolds (an African-American educationalist) when discussing the fact that Black families are disproportionately poor: ‘It’s impossible to have a standardised test which measures children who are the products of an unequal system’. To which Rema Reynolds replies: ‘Yes, I can better test whether your mother drives a Volvo, than what your intelligence is, based on these tests.’
As to whether Race and Intelligence: Science’s Last Taboo fully succeeded in its stated mandate to discover the ‘truth’ about race and intelligence, I’m unconvinced. It may be too much to ask of a programme of this length but it fails to reach its goal in two key respects. Firstly, Rose’s point about a racist society is dangled and then dropped. Surely this provides an explanation not only for the durability of this repeatedly-discredited argument, but is fundamental, alongside a class analysis, for an explanation of the differential racial outcomes in IQ testing.
The secondary reason that these arguments re-invent themselves in new times is that scientific arguments can be used to bamboozle a lay audience. Who are we to question the validity of these claims? Often camouflaged in complex statistical data and scientific jargon, which allows extraordinary conclusions to be drawn from assumptions about and inferences from the data, we need a programme like this to tackle these ideas head-on and expose the scientific racists, and their myth-making, for what they really are. Unfortunately both Richard Lynn and J Phillipe Rushton’s statements are left un-dissected and unchallenged – perfect fodder for the very racist arguments this programme sought to dispel.
We have entered an era where asylum seekers will be genetically profiled and innocent people’s DNA stored in vast databases, whilst election-minded politicians wheel out their tired stalls to grandstand about ‘the immigration problem’, the far Right gleefully gains ground and the media willingly fans the flames. In these dangerous times, if Channel 4 wants to raise the hoary issue of race and intelligence in the spirit of debate, it better be sure to deflate it sharpish and with surgical precision. The danger with a programme like this, and it’s heart-warming, liberal-satisfying closing pictures of a hopeful young Black boy from the Bronx interchanged with images of Obama, is that it might make us feel good, but it fails to fully demolish the racists’ ‘scientific’ argument.