Bruce Robinson reviews Race and Intelligence: Science's Last Taboo, 26 October, Channel 4. (Still viewable on Channel 4’s website).
Somali-born Rageh Omaar’s programme entered the “dangerous territory” of the purported relationship between race and intelligence. Every few years it reappears in the form of the assertion that IQ tests show black people to be less intelligent than whites and that this is caused by genetic differences.
It is pushed by a small group of academics and taken up by the far right but never, in Omaar’s (wrong) opinion, resolved because of a reluctance to confront and refute the evidence they produce.
Omaar sets out ”uncomfortably” to face its proponents — Richard Lynn, who talks of the dangers of immigration of low IQ people into Europe, and J. Philippe Rushton, who claims black people and women have smaller brains — and to examine their arguments critically.
He first demolishes IQ tests as a measure of intelligence. Rather a high IQ shows an aptitude for the type of abstract reasoning and highly culturally specific knowledge the tests test. The “Flynn effect” shows that over time, as societies become modernised and those forms of reasoning dominate, all scores rise and the “race gap” closes.
Later in the programme, the idea of race comes in for the same treatment. For Steve Jones, there are genetic differences between humans, but they are small, and heredity tells us nothing about race and IQ. Steven Rose states that the persistence of the debate, rather than being based on science, can only be explained by our living in a racist society.
Controversially, for Omaar there is more to it than that, as, even if one rejects any genetic or hereditary explanation and IQ as a measure of intelligence, there still has to be a reason why black kids score lower on the tests than white and East Asian ones do.
His explanation, given that ”the ‘race gap’ isn’t about race at all”, centre on cultural background and class.
That East Asians score well is put down to a Confucian work ethic, which slides into the explanation that what is necessary is the adoption of “middle class values” and more parental involvement in their kids’ education.
However as African-American psychologist Reema Reynolds points out the problem is rather that the whole US state education system is based on “a white, middle class paradigm” in which IQ tests serve as a better prediction of “whose Mother drives a Volvo” than of intelligence. According to Reynolds, poorer black parents often do not take such an active part in their child’s education because it would mean losing money at work or because they are inhibited by their own experience of education. Much is also down to the opportunities and support provided in schools, as Omaar shows in a highly academically successful school in the South Bronx with small classes where the students are involved and ambitious.
Some will argue that Omaar should have respected the taboo on discussing race and intelligence, as raising the question only gives publicity to non-scientific myths. However as long as there are people prepared to present those myths as scientific and they force their way into public debate, it is necessary to take them on and debunk them as this programme did.
He ends by saying that if the reasons for differences are economic and social rather than racial and genetic, that is not something that we as a society should be proud of. Rather for socialists they are another spur to creating a society where all forms of intelligence and creativity are recognised, and where there is real equality.