We must study the real world, not our world view

September 2, 2005

Paul Irwing on ethical issues raised by his controversial research on gender and IQ reported in last week's Times Higher

As a small boy, I first became interested in what I later learnt to be the psychology of gender differences when I observed my own mother's frustrations with her life. She had always wanted children but had also aspired to be a successful writer. She never managed to reconcile these ambitions. In microcosm, this probably reflected many women's lives at that time.

My own passionate ambition, from the age of nine, was to become a research scientist. Gradually, I realised that while we knew a great deal about the physical world, we seemed less capable of running our own lives.

This was brought home to me in a compelling way in that my father's parents died in Auschwitz, a peculiarly nasty fact of personal history that I have never come to terms with. These factors, among others, motivated me to study psychology at university, and eventually to teach and research in the area of women and work.

There is considerable public interest in this topic, and rightly so. In earlier research on motivation, I noted that women's motivations with respect to work were highly similar to those of men in that both obtained considerable satisfaction in exercising valued skills to achieve worthwhile accomplishments. At least at that time, the major difference was that there were many more women than men doing jobs that they found dissatisfying.

Clearly, this situation was undesirable in two respects. First, it led to deleterious effects on women's mental health and, second, it meant that women's talents were being poorly used. When I began teaching on the topic of women and work in about 1980, the motivation was to understand the psychological factors underpinning this situation with a view to facilitating its change. Then, as now, the mainstream view was that gender roles are predominantly due to the differential socialisation of women.

However, there has been increasing evidence of biological factors influencing human behaviour, including gender differences.

I found myself in a peculiar situation in which I was teaching theory that fitted the world as I wished it to be, yet it seemed increasingly at odds with scientific evidence. It is my impression that much of academia, irrespective of discipline, is still in the grip of an ideology that is completely antithetical to the notion that biological factors influence human behaviour. Steven Pinker has reviewed the possible reasons for this in detail, but of course the association of eugenic theories with Nazi ideology is one of the major factors tainting any link between biology and human behaviour.

But this is clearly a ridiculous situation. No biochemist would ignore the study of chemistry on the basis that it is ideologically unsound and, as humans are clearly biological entities subject to the same evolutionary forces as all other species, to assume no association between biology and behaviour is irrational, in addition to being at odds with the evidence.

Personally, however, the most difficult ethical dilemma I have faced was not the conflict between biological and social explanations in psychology, but between suppressing or releasing data concerning sex differences in general cognitive ability, the subject of some press interest of late ( The Times Higher , August 26). It should be apparent from my personal background that the last thing I would wish to discover is that men have a net advantage over women of about five IQ points in general cognitive ability.

The precise implications of this are not clear cut, and are discussed at some length in a forthcoming article in the British Journal of Psychology .

But, in brief, general cognitive ability is the best single indicator of both academic and occupational achievement. A mean difference of five IQ points is small, but it has disproportionate effects at high IQs, resulting in a 5.5-to-1 ratio of men to women at IQs above 155, for example.

I was sent much of the relevant data by Richard Lynn in 2001, and the difference was readily apparent. Was I to refuse to analyse data on the grounds that their publication might have a discouraging effect on young women or should I go ahead?

After considerable deliberation I went ahead. After all, the consequences of scientists suppressing data because they do not fit in with their preferred ideological world view are disastrous. We build a totally inaccurate model of human beings. If we demonise scientists who study the politically contentious and have the misfortune to uncover unacceptable facts, will we ever have a mature scientific debate about sex differences or on other controversial issues we face?

Paul Irwing is senior lecturer in psychology at Manchester University.

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