The relative exposure of our respective arses

In 1980, the New York Review of Books published a heated exchange between psychologist and IQ researcher Hans Eysenck and biologist and IQ skeptic Stephen Jay Gould.

It remains a classic moment in the IQ debate, not least because of the entertaining mud slinging.

The exchange followed a review of Arthur Jensen’s book Bias in Mental Testing by Stephen Jay Gould in which he slams the concept of IQ and general intelligence – the idea that there is a core resource of psychological ability that most mental tasks draw upon.

In the first exchange, Hans Eysenck, one of the world’s most famous psychologists at the time, wrote to the magazine throwing doubt on pretty much everything Gould had to say.

Gould makes a valiant comeback, dismissing most the arguments as attacking him rather than his claims, but notes that one is “the only meat in a sandwich surrounded by too much very stale (if not moldy) bread”.

You can always tell a scientific argument has got interesting when it wanders off the original point and focuses on who can see whose arse.

Eysenck starts the second exchange with “It is always interesting to note the reactions of a critic who is caught with his pants down, and Stephen Jay Gould’s reply to my letter is no exception”.

Gould, unable to resist carrying the metaphor, replies: “I don’t wish to engage Mr. Eysenck in a protracted debate about the relative exposure of our respective arses; nonetheless, I can’t resist noting that his initial remark surprised me because I thought I had caught him in the same unenviable posture he ascribes to me.”

The debate was heated largely because of Eysenck’s controversial views on intelligence. He suggested that IQ was largely determined by genetics and that small but significant differences could be seen between races as a result.

He was accused of being racist, but he claimed he was simply reporting the data from his studies and noted, in his defence, that he found that Asian people typically came out with the highest IQ – hardly the views of a white supremacist.

Gould was shortly to publish The Mismeasure of Man, a book pouring scorn on the whole concept of IQ and arguing that the tests had serious cultural biases built into them so they were never going to be a fair comparison.

The exchange is worth reading in full both to get a flavour of the debate (essentially the same points are still being made today) and, of course, just for sheer entertainment value.

Link to original book review.
Link to round one.
Link to round two.

One thought on “The relative exposure of our respective arses”

  1. Very fun to read…but sad to see that we haven’t made that much progress in 27 years in popularizing a more neuropsychologically-sound view of intelligence

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