The Richwine affair and advisory responsibility

Over at Anthropology Now, Elizabeth Chin has written a devastating essay, “What Jason Richwine Should Have Heard from His PhD Committee” that utterly demolishes the scholarly pretentions of Jason Richwine on the basis of his poorly researched and conceptually incoherent doctoral dissertation.  For those who may not have followed the story, Richwine was a fellow of the conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation who recently co-authored (with Robert Rector) a paper entitled “The Fiscal Cost of Unlawful Immigrants and Amnesty to the U.S. Taxpayer” arguing for an IQ-based selection system for immigration to the US, and arguing emphatically that there are substantial inter-group differences in intelligence that have public policy implications.  At which point, Garance Franke-Ruta investigated Dr. Richwine’s earlier work and found his 2009 doctoral dissertation, “IQ and Immigration Policy” which makes many of the same claims, and some that are substantially more egregious.  This has led to a serious look at the Harvard Kennedy School’s policies for approval of doctoral dissertations and forced a variety of parties to defend (or not) Richwine’s work.    Dr. Richwine resigned from the Heritage Foundation shortly thereafter.

Chin points out things that should be apparent to anyone with even the remotest familiarity with human genetics or biological anthropology: that this work systematically ignores decades of scholarship, makes spurious conceptual claims, engages in ad hominem reasoning, relies over-heavily on eugenicists and so-called ‘racial science’ as evidence.  She ultimately does what someone (anyone) should have done years ago on Dr. Richwine’s committee, noting simply that, “I am forced to conclude that your work is bad science.  Your conclusions are not objective but ideologically driven.   Your research is narrow and selective in the extreme and aligns rather dramatically with racist attempts to justify white superiority.”

What astonishes me most is not that such scholars exist, but rather, that a department or school would permit a student to form a committee where no member has expertise in the area of study. Richwine’s doctoral supervisor, George Borjas, has said explicitly that “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. 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.”  All of this is completely correct.   George Borjas is a smart man.   So why did no one, not his advisor, nor any commitee member or department chair, insist that someone on the committee should have some real expertise in the causes of human biological variation, genetic and otherwise, and that the dissertation ought to be vetted by someone with such expertise before it could be approved?   (I note that one of Richwine’s committee members is the sociologist Christopher Jencks, whose edited volume The Black-White Test Score Gap makes a profound, statistically rigorous case for environmental rather than genetic causes of known disparities in such tests.  What was going through Jencks’ mind when he approved Richwine’s dissertation?

None of this is to diminish Richwine’s responsibility for his own work, which is, after all, the point of writing a doctoral dissertation.  But departments and doctoral committees have a key role to play in vetting, and ultimately in improving, sub-par scholarship.  Ultimately I think this fiasco points to the ongoing importance of interdisciplinary social science including biological anthropology if public policy (and related disciplines) hope to have anything to say on what are obviously some key issues in contemporary policy debates.

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