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Jason Richwine Dissertation Advisory

Jason Richwine. (Choice Media)

Jason Richwine, the former Heritage Foundation staffer whose PhD dissertation at Harvard caused an uproar after Wonkblog reported on it few months back, has written a piece at Politico both defending his record and arguing that the backlash to his dissertation suggests deep problems in our public discourse about IQ. This is how he describes what he wrote:

So what did I write that created such a fuss? In brief, my dissertation shows that recent immigrants score lower than U.S.-born whites on a variety of cognitive tests. Using statistical analysis, it suggests that the test-score differential is due primarily to a real cognitive deficit rather than to culture or language bias. It analyzes how that deficit could affect socioeconomic assimilation, and concludes by exploring how IQ selection might be incorporated, as one factor among many, into immigration policy.

Because a large number of recent immigrants are from Latin America, I reviewed the literature showing that Hispanic IQ scores fall between white and black scores in the United States. This fact isn’t controversial among experts, but citing it seems to have fueled much of the media backlash.

Let's leave aside the question of whether Richwine's thesis actually establishes what he claims it establishes, or whether the claims here are actually supported by the totality of research. What's troublesome here is that Richwine appears to not understand what it was about his dissertation that disturbed people. He argued for a clear and persistent genetic basis to IQ, used that to argue for an immigration system based on IQ tests, and then provided political advice on how to hide the intent of that system.

Here are a few things Richwine claimed in his dissertation but leaves out of this summary:

• Richwine does not merely claim that there is a "real cognitive deficit" among Hispanic immigrants. He claims that "the totality of the evidence suggests a genetic component to group differences in IQ." No one disputes that there are group differentials in IQ, and many of Richwine's critics concede there are differences in average cognitive ability between racial groups. The question is whether those differences are attributable to centuries of oppression and deprivation or due to immutable biological differences. What outraged people was not the mention of the score deficit, but his belief that it is biologically caused and irreversible.

• Richwine, to be fair, does not rest his argument on his belief in genetic determination of differences between the races. But his argument depends entirely on his belief that the differences are "persistent," a point that he leaves out of this summary. He writes, in perhaps the most quoted section of the dissertation, "No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against." He leaves this striking prediction out of his summary.

• Richwine says that he only embraced IQ selection as "one factor among many." This downplays the enthusiasm for the policy he espouses in the dissertation. He very clearly wants to integrate IQ into every facet of the immigration system. "Other commentators will offer various 'X' factors as alternative selection criteria," he writes. "These X's can range from increasing racial diversity, to filling labor shortages, to unifying extended families. Fortunately, considering IQ does not preclude the use of other factors. Highly intelligent people can be found all over the world, with all sorts of physical and cultural characteristics. If X is increasing racial diversity, then we should ensure our racially diverse immigrant class is also very smart. If X is filling the labor shortage in the construction industry, then we should find the most intelligent construction workers. Use of IQ as one selection factor is compatible with most any X." Emphasis ours.

• Richwine argues in the dissertation for using language of "skill-based" immigration as a Trojan Horse for adopting IQ-based immigration policy. "One way to at least blunt the negative reaction is to drop the use of the word IQ and to replace it with skill," he writes. "A new immigration policy could use 'skill tests' to find disadvantaged people with 'raw skill.' The tests would still be ordinary intelligence tests, but the emotional baggage that the term IQ sometimes carries with it would be much reduced."

This has obvious political relevance, as much of the debate over the immigration bill surrounds how much immigration should be allowed of "low-skilled" versus "high-skilled" laborers. RichwineandothersattheHeritage Foundation have argued for the latter at the expense of the former. Indeed, the report of Richwine's and Robert Rector's estimating the cost of the Senate immigration bill relied heavily on the so-called "cost" of low-skilled immigrants to reach its conclusions. Richwine's dissertation puts these views in context, and suggests his views on IQ, and on the IQ differentials between the races, may motivate his beliefs on actual immigration bills before Congress.

Richwine is obviously welcome to believe what he wants about the permanent intellectual inferiority of Hispanic immigrants to the United States, and about the relevance of that belief to practical immigration policymaking. But he should not sugar-coat his views.

Rarely does a Ph.D. dissertation provoke a media storm. Most of these scholarly productions, the culmination of years of course work, research and writing, gather dust on library shelves and are read, if anyone reads them at all, by a handful of academics in the author’s field of study. And with good reason: Most dissertations are dry, poorly written, deal with narrow topics, and contribute little, if anything, to the existing literature on the topic they address.

One Kennedy School dissertation, however, has not only drawn media attention over the past week, but also resulted last Friday in the resignation of its author, Jason Richwine, by his employer, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative and influential “think tank” in Washington, D.C. Richwine first drew critical scrutiny as the co-author of a Heritage Foundation paper that estimated the cost (over 50 years) of granting citizenship to “illegal” immigrants in the United States at $6.3 trillion dollars, as these newly minted citizens become eligible for government benefits such as welfare, health care, and higher education.

Critics of the study quickly pounced on its rather dubious assumptions and extrapolations, prompting a Washington Postreporter to dig out Richwine’s dissertation, completed in 2009 and titled “IQ and Immigration Policy.” The Postarticle, featuring quotes from the dissertation that focused on Hispanics, both undocumented immigrants and their American-born children, instantly convinced Heritage Foundation leaders to distance themselves from Richwine’s dissertation and push him out the door.

What was so disturbing in this dissertation that has created such a furor? After all, it was approved by a committee of three distinguished Harvard professors—George J. Borjas, Richard J. Zeckhauser, and Christopher Jencks—who attested to its scholarly competence as meriting a Harvard Ph.D. Presumably, they guided Richwine’s research on his pre-approved topic and were sufficiently knowledgeable to spot any flaws in Richwine’s work. None of these academics, however, possessed any expertise in the fields of biology, psychology, or neurology, from which Richwine drew the data on which he based his assertion that non-Caucasians are doomed by genetics to possess and pass on to their children significantly lower IQs (as measured by standardized tests of mental ability) than native-born American whites, and that “the low average IQ of Hispanics is effectively permanent.”

Richwine, who lacks any degrees in these fields himself, offered no data in his dissertation (or research of his own) to support this claim, relying instead on studies, most of them highly disputed, that purported to link below-average IQs to such “underclass” traits as criminality, out-of-wedlock births, welfare dependency, psychosis, alcoholism, and even obesity and smoking. Low-IQ immigrants have low-IQ children, live in neighborhoods (Richwine refers to Hispanic “barrios” as breeding grounds for these traits) populated largely by other low-IQ people, and create a “culture” that is inimical to the American economy, depressing the earnings of native-born whites. Additionally, “intractable cultural differences” are preventing Mexican assimilation into white society.

Turning to immigration policy in his final dissertation chapter, Richwine identified the “salient policy issue” as “the well-documented persistence of the IQ deficit” among non-Caucasians (excepting Asians, whose larger “brain size” gives them above-average IQs). Given the “strong case for IQ selection” in screening potential legal immigrants, Richwine proposed administering IQ tests to those seeking admission to the United States. However, undoubtedly aware that his proposal would never find a political sponsor, he suggested the euphemistic term “skills” as more palatable. “The tests would still be ordinary intelligence tests, but the emotional baggage that the term IQ sometimes carries with it would be much reduced.” Richwine suggested that such tests could be administered at American embassies or consulates, or perhaps even over the Internet, although he shrank from proposing a “passing” score on such a test.

How could any self-respecting Harvard professor, one might ask, approve a dissertation that contains such racist nonsense? Three did, as noted above. In doing so, they certified that Richwine’s work “represents a significant contribution to knowledge” in the field of public policy—which is, after all, the requirement for dissertations in that field as stated in Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Handbook. Doctoral candidates at the Kennedy School of Government, the Handbook adds, are required to “demonstrate his or her ability to perform original research in an area of public policy” in their dissertation.

Richwine’s dissertation, in fact, included no “original research” conducted by him. It was based solely on secondary sources, heavily weighted toward studies with a hereditarian bias, dismissing works such as The Mismeasure of Man, a scathing critique of IQ testing by the late Stephen Jay Gould, professor of biology, geology, and paleontology at Harvard. Whether the dissertation made a “significant contribution to knowledge” in public policy is a subjective matter of scholarly judgment, although I would argue that it did not. It might pass muster as a master’s thesis, for which reliance on secondary sources, or “a review of the literature,” is commonly allowed in most graduate schools, as a prelude to “original research” for a dissertation. The fact that Richwine addressed a controversial topic is not an issue; there should be no “taboo” topics in academic work. The issue, and the point of this Open Letter to the Kennedy School faculty, is that adherence to the standards of the graduate school’s official Handbook needs to be enforced more rigorously in the approval of dissertations. My own modest proposal is that the faculty consider appointing a “devil’s advocate” for each candidate, as the Catholic church does to examine and question the purported “miracles” required for candidates for sainthood. Such advocates could be anonymous, and perhaps from another school, to better allow for critical analysis, since dissertation committees like Richwine’s are normally composed of professors who have personal ties to the candidate. After all, Richwine cited favorably in his dissertation the work of Professors Borjas and Jencks, possibly giving them a stake in his work.

I’m not proposing that the graduate faculty revoke Richwine’s doctorate or publicly disavow his dissertation, although Professor Zeckhauser recently stated that “Richwine was too eager to extrapolate his empirical results to inferences for policy.” Good advice, but a tad late. And Professor Borjas, an economist, says, “I have never worked on anything even remotely related to IQ,” the main topic of Richwine’s dissertation, adding that “the focus on IQ is a bit misguided.” Again, a tad late to help Richwine rethink his dissertation proposal, which Borjas had approved.

The media storm over Jason Richwine’s dissertation will soon subside, as he looks for a new employer. But the issue for the Kennedy School faculty over this episode will remain until the standards for dissertations are more rigorously enforced.

Peter H. Irons is Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, at the University of California, San Diego. He earned a Ph.D. in that field from Boston University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.

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