Decades ago, Arthur Jensen became a target of critics and a pariah in his field by publishing a controversial study that indicated that differences in racial performance on intelligence tests probably had a genetic component. He was, and is, called a racist, though Jensen has continued to produce respected research. Since the publication of the 1969 Harvard Educational Review article that made him infamous, Jensen has won the prestigious Kistler Prize in 2003 for original contributions to the understanding of the connection between the human genome and human society.
The problem with Jensen’s research results, whatever the legitimacy of the data and his methods, was this: What do you do with it? Like other studies that show women, as a group, with less aptitude for the sciences, or those that show superior traits in other races and ethnic groups, this information just serves as a catalyst for bigotry. Whatever the trends within a large group may be, they tells us nothing about any individual in that group. Yet the existence of a study creates a natural tendency to apply the claimed group characteristics to every group member. Most people think like that, always have and always will. This is similar to the problem with stereotypes. Many, perhaps most, stereotypes have some truth in them. I was raised in a Greek family, and Greeks are reputed to be clannish, cheap, bigoted, and gifted in the kitchen. Well, that would describe a large proportion of my relatives, too, but not all of them. My Aunt Bea is fanatically liberal. My Mom couldn’t cook a lick. All right, they all were cheap, but the point is that it would be foolish and unfair to assume what any of them would be like without knowing them.
Knowledge is an absolute good, but perversely, some knowledge also guarantees abuse, and thus results in more bad than good. Jensen’s study, as far as I can see, has no good use in a democracy where every individual has the right to be assessed according to his or her conduct and character. Nor do any studies that “prove” character or ability differences in broadly defined groups.
This is all a prelude to my conclusion that the now widely publicized National Academy of Science study that has this conclusion-— “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior”—is just throwing gasoline on a fire, and has no useful or benign purpose at all. The heading is a veritable call to bigotry and bias: it says to most laymen that if someone has money, they are scum. It is irresponsible and overstated. “Predicts” suggests “predicts accurately,” which in turn means that all members of the “higher social classes”—I can’t find out how the researchers defined that, but it doesn’t matter; people will assume it means what they want it to mean. The Democrats can be counted on to say it “proves” Mitt Romney can’t be trusted, for example—are unethical. Well, that’s impossible, and untrue. Whatever the statement means to researchers, to everyone else it’s a confirmation of bias.
On to the guillotine! Kill ’em all.
I’ve read as much of the study as is currently available without laying out serious cash. I find the sample sizes small in many cases, but over-all the results aren’t surprising. As I discovered when I had to deal with Amway members, people who care about money more than anything else tend to end up with more money than the rest of us. So, as a group, it isn’t surprising to learn that many people who regard financial wealth as a primary value will subjugate other values to the quest for money, including ethical ones. But I also went to school with many individuals who were undeniably in the “higher social classes”—higher than mine, anyway—and they were some of the most kind, honest, fair and trustworthy people I have ever had the pleasure to know.
It’s a conundrum. We crave knowledge, and we certainly can’t repress it, but studies like this just validate bigotry with no compensating benefits. I think the responsible and fair response is to take note of them, and forget them.