Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Racist E-Mail by the Harvard 3L

Stephanie Grace, a 3L at Harvard Law School, sent an e-mail to some 'friends' (one of whom subsequently leaked it), stating, among other things, the following:

I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent. I could also obviously be convinced that by controlling for the right variables, we would see that they are, in fact, as intelligent as white people under the same circumstances. The fact is, some things are genetic.

Given the magnitude of Ms. Grace's ignorance, and the fact that ignorance was skewed in favor of racist stereotypes, it is unsurprising that she has been pilloried for her views.  (To her credit, Ms. Grace did apologize for the offensive e-mail.) To be clear, as I understand it, all of the following is uncontroversial: 

1.  There is substantial evidence that IQ is heritable (which does not mean, contrary to what many blogs, as well as the HLS student, seem to think, that it has a genetic basis).

2.  IQ is, at best, a controversial measure of intelligence.

3.  There is no evidence--literally, none--that IQ differences between racial groups have a genetic basis.

Now the standard source in the know-nothing blogosphere for the contrary proposition to #3 is the 1994 book The Bell Curve by Hernnstein & Murray, which was published without peer review, for reasons made clear by Stephen Jay Gould, James Heckman, and the critical discussions collected in this book.  At least as far as actual scientific research goes, the Hernnstein & Murray book has as much credibility as the putatively 'scientific' evidence for Intelligent Design or that global warming is a hoax (the irony, of course, in each case is that the politically motivated purveyors of the pseudo-science invariably accuse the scientific skeptics about their work of having political motivations!)  (As a sidenote, though, social science enthusiasts would do well to look at the paper by Glymour in the aforementioned book, which makes the case that the pseudo-science of The Bell Curve is replicated throughout the social sciences.)

A very clear explanation of the main points is this essay by Ned Block (NYU).  It is useful, in particular, in explaining why the heritability of IQ is not evidence of its having a genetic basis.

The brouhaha over Ms. Grace's e-mail has not been a shining moment for the right-wing Volokh blog, though perhaps that is not surprising.  At one extreme, there is David Bernstein (George Mason) falling through the looking-glass as usual and deciding that universities are less tolerant of racism than they are of left-wing professors like Finkelstein and Churchill--professors who, in a great display of tolerance, were fired from their jobs for their political views.  

Less fully unhinged from reality is Eugene Volokh (UCLA), whose lengthy discourse on the case might have misled a casual reader into thinking that the e-mail in question had been sent by a social science researcher to a colleague doing research about IQ and heritability, as opposed to what it actually was:  an e-mail sent by a third-year law student at Harvard who was obviously in the dark about the evidence, but all-too-willing, despite that, to entertain the most vicious racist stereotypes as possibilities.  Since Professor Volokh appears to be as confused about heritability and genetics as the Harvard student, it is perhaps not wholly surprising that he should rise to her defense.

At the other end of the spectrum, not surprisingly, was Orin Kerr (George Washington) who notes fairly that one e-mail, even one reflecting sympathy with racist stereotypes like this one, is not a sound basis on which to assess someone's intelligence and character.  That, I think, is the most charitable thing to be said about this whole affair.  Or to paraphrase Ms. Grace:  "we should absolutely not rule out the possibility that Ms. Grace is not really a right-wing racist and neanderthal."

UPDATE:  More on IQ, race, evidence and possibilities here.

Law Professors Saying Dumb Things, Legal Profession, Of Academic Interest, Student Advice | Permalink

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