Why Wasn’t the Heritage Foundation’s Jason Richwine Smart Enough to Listen to His Friends?

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May 10 2013 2:03 PM

The IQ Test

Jason Richwine’s friends warned him about researching connections between race and intelligence years ago. The Heritage Foundation scholar should have listened.

Update, May 10, 2013: On Friday afternoon, after this story had already been published, Jason Richwine resigned from the Heritage Foundation.

The Heritage Foundation's Jason Richwine
The Heritage Foundation's Jason Richwine

Courtesy of David Hills/The Heritage Foundation

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Four years ago, long before he’d join the Heritage Foundation, before Marco Rubio was even in the Senate, Jason Richwine armed a time bomb. A three-member panel at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government accepted Richwine’s thesis, titled “IQ and Immigration Policy.” In it, Richwine provided statistical evidence that Hispanic immigrants, even after several generations, had lower IQs than non-Hispanic whites. Immigration reformers were fools if they didn’t grapple with that.

"Visceral opposition to IQ selection can sometimes generate sensationalistic claims—for example, that this is an attempt to revive social Darwinism, eugenics, racism, etc,” wrote Richwine. “Nothing of that sort is true. … an IQ selection system could utilize individual intelligence test scores without any resort to generalizations.”

This week, Heritage released a damning estimate of the immigration bill, co-authored by Richwine. The new study was all about cost, totally eliding the IQ issues that Richwine had mastered, but it didn’t matter after Washington Post reporter Dylan Matthews found the dissertation. Heritage hurried to denounce it—“its findings in no way reflect the positions of The Heritage Foundation”—and Richwine has ducked any more questions from the press.

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His friends and advisers saw this coming. Immigration reform’s political enemies know—and can’t stand—that racial theorists are cheering them on from the cheap seats. They know that the left wants to exploit that—why else do so many cameras sprout up whenever Minutemen appear on the border, or when Pat Buchanan comes out of post-post-post retirement to write another book about the “death of the West?”

Academics aren’t so concerned with the politics. But they know all too well the risks that come with research connecting IQ and race. At the start of his dissertation, Richwine thanked his three advisers—George Borjas, Christopher Jenks, and Richard Zeckhauser—for being so helpful and so bold. Borjas “helped me navigate the minefield of early graduate school,” he wrote. “Richard Zeckhauser, never someone to shy away from controversial ideas, immediately embraced my work.”

Yet they don’t embrace everything Richwine’s done since. “Jason’s empirical work was careful,” Zeckhauser told me over email. “Moreover, my view is that none of his advisors would have accepted his thesis had he thought that his empirical work was tilted or in error. However, Richwine was too eager to extrapolate his empirical results to inferences for policy.”

Borjas’ own work on immigration and inequality has led to a few two-minutes-hate moments in the press. He wasn’t entirely convinced by Richwine, either.

“I have never worked on anything even remotely related to IQ, so don't really know what to think about the relation between IQ, immigration, etc,” Borjas told me in an email. “In fact, as I know I told Jason early on since I've long believed this, I don't find the IQ academic work all that interesting. Economic outcomes and IQ are only weakly related, and IQ only measures one kind of ability. I've been lucky to have met many high-IQ people in academia who are total losers, and many smart, but not super-smart people, who are incredibly successful because of persistence, motivation, etc. So I just think that, on the whole, the focus on IQ is a bit misguided.”

But Richwine had been fascinated by it, and for a very long time, in an environment that never discouraged it. Anyone who works in Washington and wants to explore the dark arts of race and IQ research is in the right place. The city’s a bit like a college campus, where investigating “taboo” topics is rewarded, especially on the right. A liberal squeals “racism,” and they hear the political correctness cops (most often, the Southern Poverty Law Center) reporting a thinkcrime.

I saw this for the first time in 2006. During the backlash to the McCain–Graham immigration bill, the young paleo-conservatives Marcus Epstein and Richard Spencer founded the Robert Taft Club, a debating society that would welcome taboo ideas and speakers. They did so, and the SPLC then branded them “hateful”—it was the way of things. But I’d sometimes attend those events, as a reporter. In 2006, they invited American Renaissance founder Jared Taylor to a debate on race and conservatism. Years later, a few reporters condemned James O’Keefe because he’d been in the room. They botched the story, accusing O’Keefe of planning the event, when he’d merely shown up. The lesson everyone took away from this? Well, of course the left would blow up anything you said about race into a controversy. That was no reason to stop doing it.

Richwine either relished in the controversy or didn’t care. In 2008, while at the American Enterprise Institute, he joined a panel discussing a new book from Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “Decades of psychometric testing,” said Richwine, “has indicated that at least in America you have Jews with the highest average IQ, usually followed by East Asians, and then you have non-Jewish whites, Hispanics, and then blacks. These are real differences. They’re not going to go away tomorrow.”

Even in that room, conservatives tried to distance themselves from Richwine’s remark. “It's looking at America in 1965 and assuming that's what we always were,” said Krikorian. Even Richwine added some caveats. “I point out that Ayaan Hirsi Ali was given an IQ test in the Netherlands and did very poorly,” he said. “[It’s] hard to imagine someone brighter.”

But Richwine was winning fans on the nativist right. Marcus Epstein was in the audience, asking a question, then writing the event up favorably at the anti-immigration site VDare.com. Over the years, VDare’s Steve Sailer would point to Richwine’s work and charts to reveal cold truths about racial IQ differentials. In March 2009, he shared Richwine’s calculations “from the 2003 New Immigrant Survey of the backward digit span subtest from the Wechsler IQ test.” Immigrants from Mexico had IQs, on average, 18 points lower than those of white Americans.

Throughout 2009, Sailer pointed readers to Richwine’s research on IQ and crime rates. He doesn’t recall whether he talked to Richwine personally, but Richwine never really put up a wall between his work and the endorsements of nativists. While at AEI he got to know Richard Spencer, the other Taft Club founder, and another thinker who laughed at the constant denunciations of “hate watchers.” In 2010, as first noticed by Yahoo News’ Chris Moody, Richwine wrote a couple of pieces for Spencer’s new white nationalist magazine Alternative Right. His debut story demolished a piece by the pro-immigrant legalization conservative Ron Unz. “His reason is superficially plausible—the sole offense of some Hispanics in federal custody may be an illegal border crossing,” wrote Richwine. Alas, as numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics would prove, “Unz is wrong when he says that Hispanics are no more criminal than whites. Hispanics are, in fact, substantially more likely than whites to commit serious crimes, and U.S.-born Hispanics in particular are about two and a half times more likely.”

At his day jobs, on the mainstream right, Richwine wasn’t usually this blunt. He might cite the Bell Curve in an article for AEI’s magazine, but there was no thinkcrime there—he’d thanked Charles Murray in his dissertation. When he joined Heritage, Richwine wrote only rarely about immigration, applying his statistical acumen more often to public pension crises and student loans. “His mistake is that he wrote about a taboo subject,” Charles Murray told the New Republic yesterday. “And to write about IQ and race or ethnicity is to take a very good chance of destroying your career. And I really hope that doesn’t happen.”

It’s happening right now. According to Politico, Heritage is on the hunt for a PR guru who might spin away the Richwine story. On the paleo right, that’s being interpreted as a nolo contendere admission of thinkcrime. VDare’s writers have defended Richwine as a statistician whose work people prefer to hyperventilate about than to debunk, because they can’t debunk it. “The forces of orthodoxy have identified a heretic,” wrote John Derbyshire, who was laid off from National Review last year after writing that he’d educated his children about racial differences. “They’re marching on his hut with pitchforks and flaming brands. The cry echoes around the Internet: ‘Burn the witch!’ ”

Anyone could have predicted it. Richwine didn’t mind taking on taboos or talking to taboo people. That’s how immigration reform foes talk amongst themselves. That’s not how they’re going to stop the bill.

“In my estimation, our School gives too much emphasis on moving from findings to policy implications in scholarly work,” said Harvard’s Richard Zeckhauser. “In many cases, merely presenting the facts would be a preferable way to go. That makes it much harder for one’s opponents to dismiss what you say, or to accuse you of manipulating facts to reach policy conclusions. Moreover, I believe that policy conclusions usually rest on one’s underlying values. If one complements one’s empirical assessments with values issues, those assessments get questioned, particularly if one addresses a controversial realm of policy, as Richwine surely did in his dissertation. In many contexts, one’s work will have a long run greater influence on policy if the facts are left to speak for themselves.”

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