James Watson, Black Intelligence, and New Research by Fryer and Levitt

Nobel Laureate James Watson got into trouble recently for expressing the opinion that blacks are less intelligent than whites.

If you look at almost all existing data from standardized tests in the United States, there is indeed a sizable black-white test score gap. Whether the gap is due to genetic differences is a hotly debated academic question.

Roland Fryer and I have done some research on this topic which we think is potentially quite interesting and important — although we seem to be the only ones with this opinion at present. (The paper was rejected yesterday by the American Economic Review on the second round of review, and a search of Google Scholar reveals only two citations to the working paper version released in early 2006.)

In my work with Fryer, we analyzed a newly available nationally representative survey of children ages two and under, done by the Department of Education. Included in this study are tests of mental ability around a child’s first birthday. While you might think it would be impossible to capture anything meaningful at such a young age, it turns out that these measures of one-year-olds’ intelligence are somewhat highly correlated with IQ scores at later ages, as well as with parental IQ scores.

The striking result we find is that there are no racial differences in mental functioning at age one, although a racial gap begins to emerge over the next few years of life.

So what does this mean for the genetics vs. environment debate? Quoting from our abstract, “the observed patterns are broadly consistent with large racial differences in environmental factors that grow in importance as children age. Our findings are not consistent with the simplest models of large genetic differences across races in intelligence, although we cannot rule out the possibility that intelligence has multiple dimensions and racial differences are present only in those dimensions that emerge later in life.”

Like all research, our study has its flaws and limitations. I have to say, however, that I imagined a lot of reactions to this paper, none of which were utter indifference on the part of academics and the popular press. But that was the reaction we got.


Next question to study:

Was the perceived "indifference" due to genuine disinterest in your findings, or hesitance (fear) to speak out one way or the other?


At any given moment there is only one person on Earth who is smarter than everybody else. At the same time there are people who are the smartest among the social groups to which they belong. These are the only people who needn't learn the life lesson that there is always someone smarter than them. Except they too must face the matter eventually, when they age and begin to loose their faculties. A more interesting question than "Who's smarter?" might be: What economic purpose does a lumpy distribution of high intelligence serve?

John Ray



David Chowes

[Revised #135] 3rd paragraph: replace "do not" with "may have the potential"


Developmental Psychologists have been working on this for a long time. Leave it to a couple of economists to solve the nature v. nurture debate!


In a similar vein, allthough even more puzzling IMO, is the black/black achievement gap. Blacks born in other countries, such as haiti, africa etc, have a higher average income than do American born blacks.
I have often wondered why no economist has ever seriously studied this issue, (to the best of my knowledge)and would love to see you gentlemen tackle it.

Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

"Like all research, our study has its flaws and limitations."

Fortunately, whatever the flaws, your research does *not* have the potent and detrimental flaw of entrenched racism.

Doug G

Nice post. Often overlooked is the selection problem w/ African Americans. Uniquely, African Americans (most of them anyway) are the descendants of involuntary immigrants. You get the implications..


Isn't the hole in the paper caught in the very last paragraph, that you don't know what is being tested at various ages? The tests aren't and can't be the same for toddlers and older people, so no matter your position on IQ it's difficult to see how this work moves the debate in either direction. I can see why academics on both sides don't want to touch this: if you use the argument in your favor, you also raise an equally potent counter-argument.


mwm131: that might be down to one group being self-selecting. People who up and move from one country to another are likely to be driven, motivated, hard-working, etc.


I dunno...I think the information is good and results valid. I simply wonder if the conclusion simply doesn't fit into the current social agenda? The predominately white ruling class, while publicly pushing for advancements in rights and opportunities, probably secretly want to think that blacks are indeed inferior and therefore not worth that much effort. Yes, I'm a cynic, but I've observed much to advance my opinion.

Lergnom has some good points. IQ and IQ testing are, to this day, being debated and redefined.


Can someone clarify this point - you say that "...measures of one-year-olds' intelligence are somewhat highly correlated with IQ scores at later ages..." Then you state that "there are no racial differences in mental functioning at age one, although a racial gap begins to emerge over the next few years of life."

These statements are contradictory. If the two measures of IQ are highly correlated, then the racial gap would exist either in both places or in neither place. You would not see a gap develop over time - this would contradict your previous assertion of correlation.

Erik Hille

Racism and its consequences are alive and well in America! But no one wants to hear it, especially not the Supreme Court; they would probably like to shorten Sandra Day O'Connor's time line for the end of racism (well actually the end of affirmative action). No one in power wants to admit the extent of their bias privilege of power.

“No racial differences in mental functioning at age one…” “The observed patterns are broadly consistent with large racial differences in environmental factors that grow in importance as children age.”

I, a white upper upper middle class male, have held a similar opinion at least since college (Caltech), where the statistics class taught by the then dean of students regularly examined the statistics of the school population. Presuming that a students graduating GPA was the least bias statistic and the best measure of success we correlated all other know quantifiable statistics to graduating GPA. Women, then less than 20% of the student population, had a much higher GPA than men based on the “bias” statistic like SAT score, HS GPA, AP test scores or class rank. The other way of saying this was that if the target GPA of applicant for admissions was a B GPA; then when evaluating a female applicant the required SAT score (to predict a B GPA and thus be eligible for serious consideration for admission) was significantly lower (if I remember correctly 50 to 100 points on the 1600 scale) than the SAT score of a male applicant. Racial statistics were not available due to the small sample size, but the statistics that we did have would indicate that similar or larger bias was at play. In addition to their efforts to recruit women, the school did start also making a larger effort to identify and recruit applicants that were not white or Asian.

Most persons associated with the university (faculty, students, and parents of students) that were not in the Dean of Students statistics class were incredulous to the policy of admitting women with lower SAT scores than their male counterparts. Yet the best measure of success of a student (their graduating GPA) would indicate that test such as the SAT were bias against non white males, and that a major correction to the SAT scores was needed to put applicants on a level playing field. This was only a measure of the bias discrimination sexism and racism of the world that could be “corrected” late in life by a rigorous college education, it could not measure the irrevocable harm done by 18 years of exposure to our bias society.

I have never trusted a standardized test to be unbiased since. In general such bias has been quite personally favorable whenever I have been measured by such a test, but I also know and acknowledge how artificial and bias such measures are. People with lower scores on these tests are not necessarily any less accomplished in the skill or subject matter that is purported to be measured. In fact I have known several instances where people with much greater skills or abilities than me, have scored lower.

The power structure has no interest in examining or challenging the source of their power.



Very interesting, and to some extent, a cause for optimism. If the difference starts to expand between ages 1 and 2, would that not then mean that perhaps there is a difference in how children are raised and taught while they are just toddlers - how much attention is given to their learning, how people interact with those children, etc.? It would then just be a matter of showing parents techniques or ideas to help their own children.


There's a simple reason why you've been met with disinterest: Old news is not interesting.

That there is no fundamental (genetic) difference in predisposition to (modern standards of) intelligence across the races (which we should remember are arbitrary categories, not biological ones) is not news.

That there are vast and varied social phenomena which affect and interact differently with different demographics - including race - that therefore yield different trends in common traits, is also not news.

What are we missing?

What makes your work interesting, informative, new - in other words, worth knowing and reading?


I think that's an interesting finding, and am surprised it was rejected. I'd have published it... :)

With that said, though, I'm not convinced it's really as strong an argument against the genetic explanation for the IQ gap as you think it is.

Let's talk about the brain for a second, and its relationship to intelligence: Much of what it commonly called "intelligence" happens in the prefrontal cortex. This is where you'll find activity related to working memory, planning, rule maintenance, various types of inhibitory control, et cetera.

The interesting thing about the prefrontal cortex is that it's very slow in developing. Myelination of this area isn't complete until late adolescence or early adulthood, for example. (This finding has been correlated with the impulsivity seen in teenagers.)

There are certainly genetic influences on the rate of myelination, and on the patterns of prefrontal development in general. If the genetic role in the IQ gap is considered to be the influence on the rate and "completeness" of prefrontal development, it would predict exactly your findings: a gradually widening gap in IQs as development progresses.

Of course, that's exactly what a purely environmental influence would predict, as well. That's one big hurdle for this type of research.

The other big problem is that these types of questions are scientific third-rails. If there *are* truly genetically influenced intelligence differences between people, a better understanding of how those differences work could lead to better treatments for everyone "at risk", regardless of race. Do you have the "slow myelination" gene? Bad luck. Maybe you need to eat a boatload of Omega-3 fats to accommodate. It's much more complicated than this, of course, but it's a shame that that such an interesting and potentially helpful line of research is so inextricably entangled with accusations of racism.

And, in that regard, Watson isn't helping...




Could you respond to comment #9 from David as he has raised a very valid point. I agree with him that you contradict yourself in the post. Thanks.


I would be interested to know how black children adopted by white parents compare.

Julio P.(from Brazil)

I read the post, and scanned the paper (i'm not that mathematically inclined, so I might have missed a few important points), and the link, but from what I got both the paper and the black-white test score gap are based on IQ values. I did a little search on wikipedia (so if the data isn't reliable, that's as far as I got) and found that Stephen Jay Gould says "…the abstraction of intelligence as a single entity, its location within the brain, its quantification as one number for each individual, and the use of these numbers to rank people in a single series of worthiness, invariably to find that oppressed and disadvantaged groups—races, classes, or sexes—are innately inferior and deserve their status." (in Mismeasure of a man, pp.24-25)

I've never read the book, but I'm certainly intrigued (and thinking about buying it now). Does anybody know how the IQ tests were validated and standartized? Did they apply the tests to equally competent (and by that I mean intelligent in the broader sense of the word, not just what the IQ measures) people of different races to see if they scored the same? Is there any chance that the test, as Gould seems to imply, is biased?

Also, wikipedia has an article on Sex and intelligence (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex_and_intelligence), and it mentions different results for men and women in regards to verbal and spacial tests (women fare better on the first, men on the latter). And we know women are not less intelligent than men, but there are some differences as to which tasks they might do better at.

Another interesting thing I thought about is the fact that Brazil has a large number of mixed-race people. Maybe it'd be interesting to see if the offspring of black and white parents might score somewhere in the middle. I don't know if we have any available data, though...

Either way, I agree with Rita, your research is not racist in any way, it just presents data as it is.



"The striking result we find is that there are no racial differences in mental functioning at age one"

Wow- you find that "striking"? Like how O'reilly finds it striking that Blacks behave in restaurants?

I've only been reading the Freakonomics blog for a couple of months, but I've noticed some subtle (and not subtle) underlying white supremacist slant in Levitt's research and comments (not so much Dubner, who I find pretty cool).

Just off the top of my head:
- Lets abort black babies to reduce crime
- The KKK wasnt so bad
- Wow! Striking revelation: babies are born the same!

There's other little jabs I 've caught here and there, which I am not going to go through the effort to find in your numerous posts.

Suffice it to say, I don't think I will be reading this blog anymore and rewarding it with my mouse clicks. Market forces, baby! I don't think I am your target audience.

Good luck