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'The Cattell Controversy'

March 20, 2009

In 1997, the American Psychological Association announced that it would give a "life achievement" award to Raymond Cattell, to honor his work at a number of universities on behavioral psychology and testing -- and then a furor broke out over honoring Cattell, who was accused of advancing racist and pro-eugenics views. While the association was studying what to do about the controversy, Cattell asked that he not receive the award, but also said that he was not a racist and that critics had distorted his ideas. William H. Tucker, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University at Camden, examines this dispute in The Cattell Controversy: Race, Science and Ideology (University of Illinois Press). Tucker responded to e-mail questions about the book.

Q: What attracted you to this topic for your book?

A: My research has focused on the misuse of science to support oppressive social policies, and Cattell’s work is a clear and interesting example of this phenomenon. But there is also a personal dimension to the book. When Cattell was named the 1997 recipient of the Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement in Psychological Science, I was one of a handful of persons who wrote to American Psychological Association to express concern over the choice. Three years earlier I had published The Science and Politics of Racial Research, a small portion of which discussed Cattell’s views, and I forwarded to APA a copy of those pages, noting that it was not my intent to tell the awards committee what decision it should make but only to ensure that the group was fully informed. When my name was later associated with the objections to Cattell’s nomination, there was a number of claims in print that I had engaged in quotation out of context, distorted Cattell’s meaning, and generally engaged in what one of his defenders called “lousy scholarship.” Thus, in addition to my long-time intellectual interests, one of the reasons for writing this book was the opportunity to set the record straight.

Q: When the controversy broke, Cattell claimed that his views had been distorted. Do you think he had any legitimate complaints about how his views were described?

A: At the time that Cattell withdrew his name from consideration for the award, he circulated an “Open Letter to the APA” maintaining that his beliefs had been grossly misrepresented, that he abhorred “racism and discrimination based on race,” believed in “equal opportunity” for all, and supported only “voluntary eugenics as a means to contribute to evolution.” In fact, these statements were a repudiation of the beliefs to which he had been dedicated for the previous two thirds of a century. Only five years earlier he had published an article in a journal founded as an outlet for scientific opponents of civil rights and adherents to Nazi racial theory, arguing that social scientists had to recognize “racism” as an “evolutionary force” that in most cases was “a virtuous gift.” In his 1987 book Cattell denounced what he called “racial and cultural slumping” — i.e., the notion that individuals of different racial backgrounds deserved equal treatment. And more than once he wrote of the need to disenfranchise a substantial portion of the electorate by establishing intellectual criteria that would affect blacks disproportionately. It strikes me as disingenuous to suggest that Cattell’s intent in such an observation was for persons of putatively low intelligence to relinquish their right as citizens only voluntarily.

Q: Critics of Cattell argue that he was a racist, while defenders then (and in similar debates since) argue that political correctness governs disputes about research on race and intelligence. Is there a p.c. issue involved here, or is this a smokescreen to cover up horrible views?

A: I try to focus on the content of someone’s beliefs rather than whether or not the person should be labeled a “racist,” which doesn’t seem to me to advance the discussion. The substantive issue in this case is far beyond some petty transgression of a politically correct boundary. In Cattell’s scientifically derived religious system the morality of an act was to be determined by the degree to which it facilitated evolutionary progress. The role of scientists in his view — indeed the motivation for Cattell’s interest in trait measurement — was to provide the data necessary to determine which “racio-cultural” groups were best suited for evolutionary advance and which should be left behind. Such “scientific” judgments were then to be translated into action: “Successful groups” were to expand and increase their power and influence, while “failing groups should … be allowed to go to the wall.” Nor would Cattell’s system allow such a failing group to enjoy any charitable assistance from others, which in his view would only reinforce the strength of the faulty culture and postpone the reduction of genetic defect. To ensure the appropriate result in such cases, Cattell encouraged what he called “genthanasia” — a process of “phasing out” a “moribund” group, not by violent means but through “educational and birth control measures.”

Q: Some in the dispute argued that, regardless of his views on race, Cattell should not have been denied an honor for a career over one part of that career. What do you make of that argument?

A: I am generally sympathetic to the position that a researcher’s social or political views should play no role in deciding on the conferral of a scientific honor, but in Cattell’s case there are reasons to make an exception to this practice. First, the two domains are not easily separable for a scientist who insisted throughout his career that morality should be indistinguishable from science and that scientists should be granted the right to make decisions about the most fundamental rights of individuals and groups. In addition, the stated purpose of the award was not only to recognize outstanding researchers but also “to advance psychology and its impact on improving the human condition,” a goal that included such priorities as “comprehending and eliminating prejudice.” Cattell opposed the very concept of racial prejudice as itself “bigotry,” believing it scientifically necessary to keep races rigidly separated from each other; indeed, in the newsletter established to promote his views he even supported a plan proposed by a neo-Nazi theorist for racial balkanization of the United States. The selection of a Gold Medal recipient who thus offered scientific justification for the violation of constitutionally based, universally accepted ethical principles would seem antithetical to the spirit of the award.

Q: Scholars continue to debate the way schools and colleges measure intelligence and how those measures affect people of different racial or ethnic groups. Do you see elements of the debate over Cattell in today's debates?

A: Cattell never gathered any data on racial or ethnic differences in intelligence, though he certainly believed that they existed — in his blunter, earlier writing he declared that, because of “lower mental capacity,” the “negro” was an example of a failed racial group that should be “scrap[ped].” However, his interest in evolutionary progress as the ultimate goal led Cattell to focus less on the exploration of racial differences and more on the importance of racially homogeneous societies, which he thought would make it easier not only to demonstrate the existence of such differences but also to enable the appropriate actions for those racial groups judged to be unfit for the long haul. In this regard, rather than being involved in the Bell Curve kind of debate over race, intelligence, and college admission, he had more in common with hard core segregationists, regularly publishing in one of their journals and contributing a lengthy and supportive personal interview to a magazine founded on the belief at the core of his own thinking: that citizenship should be defined in racial terms. From Cattell’s point of view, only then could scientists collect the data necessary to implement his ultimate agenda.

 

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