The Cattell Affair: Do Hard Cases Make Poor Lessons?

Earl Hunt, University of Washington

First let me give my version of the facts. In 1997, the American Psychological Foundation (APF), an organization closely tied to the American Psychological Association (APA), announced that Raymond B. Cattell, who was then in his 90s, had been awarded the APF/APA Gold Medal Award for lifetime contributions to scientific psychology (Gold Medal, 1997). At the opening of the 1997 annual convention Joseph Matarazzo, the chair of the awards committee, announced that Cattell had been accused of racism and even sympathies with forced eugenics policies such as those practiced by the Nazi regime in the 1930s and 1940s. Matarazzo said that the committee was surprised by such accusations, and would suspend the granting of the award until the situation was clarified. Subsequently APA and APF announced the formation of a committee of experts (although the nature of the expertise was not specified), who were to look into the matter. Before the committee issued their report the Cattell family, acting for the now-terminally ill scientist, asked that his name be withdrawn from consideration for the award. Cattell died shortly thereafter, rending the issue, in the narrow, moot. However the whole incident clearly outraged a number of scientists. Electronic mail flew fast and furious. I have a Cattell file with over 80 entries, and I have no reason to think that I was party to all the messages. Indeed, the decision to publish the current special edition of this journal has been controversial. What is all the fuss about, and are there any lessons to be drawn from the unfortunate affair?

Some facts are undisputed. Cattell made major contributions to science, especially in the fields of psychometrics, theories of intelligence, and theories of personality. His scientific contributions, narrowly defined, are comparable to those of previous winners of Gold Medals from the APA/APF organizations. What is at issue is how he tried to have his scientific findings and beliefs turned into social policy.

Cattell believed that intelligence is largely genetically determined. In a speech given in 1994, and published some years later (Cattell, 1998) he stated that fluid intelligence was 80% genetically controlled, and crystallized intelligence 40% genetically controlled. While some people might think that Cattell’s estimates were on the high side, virtually every knowledgeable scientist believes that individual differences in mental competence are substantially determined by genetic inheritance. The APA itself has published numerous books and articles dealing with genetic contributions to intelligence, so the organization’s policy is clearly not to regard a scientific discussion of these issues as anathema.

From the outset of his career, Cattell believed that the scientific data on intelligence, and especially the genetic contribution, put severe constraints on desirable social policy. Before World War II, when he was in his 30s and thus well beyond the normal age for youthful indiscretion, Cattell observed the fact that intelligence test scores and fertility indices are negatively correlated, and concluded that unless corrective actions were taken the average intelligence in Western countries would drop. He persisted in this belief throughout his career. The 1998 article refers approvingly to data indicating a drop of 1 IQ point for every 10 years in the American population. It is worth noting that the negative IQ-fertility coefficient has not been seriously challenged but that Cattell was clearly wrong about the drop in intelligence over the population. Data which was widely known at the time of the conference shows that the mean intelligence score in industrialized countries is rising (Neisser, 1998). The rise is clearly due to environmental factors, but there is little agreement over the specific factors involved.

The observed rise in intelligence does not mean that Cattell was wrong. Genetic inheritance does not determine one’s intelligence test score, but it does determine the potential that one has for achieving intellectual competence. (Try to teach a chimpanzee to read! Given huge effort, you may get them to about the first grade level.) If environments become favorable mean IQ scores could go up while population intelligence potentials went down, or for that matter, in unfavorable environments the scores could go down as the potential went up. This could happen, for instance, if there were selective mortality during a famine. Given the range of uncertainties, arguing that one or the other effect, or both, is occurring in our society today seems pointless.

Efforts to improve intellectual competence, at a population level, are certainly not pointless. After all, this is what schools are supposed to do. We also have practices that are, technically, both voluntary and involuntary eugenics. (We do not use the term because of its association with Nazism, but the practice is there nonetheless.) People who are carriers of genetic defects are counseled concerning the probable effect on offspring, and certain classes of people, notably the institutionalized mentally retarded, are treated in a manner that makes it unlikely that they will have children. Note that this does not necessarily mean sterilization. Practices involving rigid control of living situations are far more common and, most of us believe, justified.

Cattell pushed the argument for genetic intervention much further, arguing (in the 1930s) differences in intellectual competence between races and social groups were genetically determined. He later acknowledged social influences, but never said that genetic differences were unimportant. It should be noted that this view was more common among psychologists in the 1930s than it is today, and that the change in view is at least partly due to evidence of minority group accomplishments that was gathered after World War II. I think that modern scientists regard these questions as unanswerable until we have fine-grained knowledge of the relation between the genome and behaviour. We can imagine some time in the future when Cattell’s assertions could be evaluated, but at the present they are just speculation, and as such hardly adequate guides for social action. This was as true in the 1930s as it is today.

This is a point on which Cattell can be faulted. He did not hesitate to draw social conclusions based on his speculations, as opposed to conclusions based on a careful reading of the scientific evidence. Cattell also believed that within-group variation in intellectual and other abilities would lead to social unrest. Therefore he argued for social controls to ensure homogenous groups within national boundaries. This is perilously close to Hitler’s argument for a Master Race. It is also essentially an anti-diversity argument, and as such does not accord with many present-day beliefs. Whatever one’s stands on the desirability of the social outcomes, I know of no scientific findings that put constraints on, in modern terms, either diversity or anti-diversity policies. The argument for the social policies rests on value judgements, not conformity with inevitable scientific laws. Cattell did not present the issue this way, and some of his strongest supporters criticized his reasoning.

In order to keep some sense of proportion, it is also worth pointing out that Cattell’s social views had very little influence on actual politics or political philosophy, either in the 1930s or today. I doubt that Hitler ever heard of him. (In fact, I also think that Hitler launched his genocidal campaigns because he wanted to get rid of the Jews, regardless of genetic arguments. The genocide in modern Rwanda, which on a per-year basis was comparable to the Holocaust, was based on social conflicts.) As for modern influence, a literature search of journals devoted to social affairs and news articles found only three references to Beyondism, two reviews of Cattell’s book and a disparaging mention of Cattell in an article on eligibility requirements for college athletes! By contrast, a search of the terms Crystallized Intelligence or Fluid Intelligence turned up 465 references. The 465:3 ratio seems about correct. The debate about his social and philosophic ideas is pretty well encapsulated. This is important because our formalized moral system, the law, treats attempted proscribed actions less severely than completed ones, even when the failure to act is solely due to the incompetence of the actor.

So, the facts are that Cattell had major accomplishments within the field of science, and made some highly dubious attempts to apply science to public affairs. Do the questionable applications overrule his scientific accomplishments or are they irrelevant to our evaluation of him? To answer this question we have to look to the policies of the organization that awarded, then did not award, the prize. We are more interested in its policies as revealed by its actions than its rather vaguely stated formal policies.

The APA encourages its members to inject their scientific expertise into political affairs. The article in the American Psychologist immediately after the article on Cattell was an award to the developmental psychologist and sometime government official, Edward Ziegler, for doing just that. Therefore the APA/APF committees were on firm grounds when they, belatedly, decided to consider Cattell’s social applications of science along with his contributions to science. However, to the extent that APA/APF see themselves as scientific associations, they should not have considered the social values implicit in Cattell’s scientific conclusions. For instance, even if the committee members might want to believe that there is no genetic contribution to intelligence, I do not believe that they, as scientists, could fault Cattell’s conclusion that there is, for the evidence is overwhelming. As social activists, the committee members could decline to provide an award for a message that they did not want to hear. However, that is not one of the announced criterion for the Gold Medal award.

Note that there is no claim, by anyone, that Cattell falsified data to support a social conclusion. If he had done so then, whatever conclusion he might have reached and regardless of the amount of independent proof for that conclusion, he would have committed an irremediable breach of scientific ethics. The claim is that he recklessly went beyond the data in his interpretations. Since several of his friends and colleagues have dissociated themselves with his social conclusions, there is at least an arguable case that he did so. Therefore any award committee has to weigh the good with the bad. I suspect that this is what the APA/APF committee would say that the expert committee was going to do. However this is inadequate, as I argue below. Leaving aside for a moment the procedure that was followed, should Cattell have gotten the prize?

Cattell’s scientific actions, narrowly defined, were excellent. His applications of science to public policy were questionable both for his logic, which is relevant to science, his motivations, which are not, and the social consequences that would follow if his recommendations were followed. Considerations of the consequences are reasonable in evaluating his career, for the seriousness of the consequences speak to the need for carefulness in the logic. Lawyers say that "Hard cases make bad law." This means that if you are going to cite a precedent, cite one where the issues are clear. Cattell presented a hard case, and so we probably learn nothing at all concerning the assignment of honours by discussing him. We can, however, use the case to illustrate how complicated things can be.

My analysis makes it appear that all sides — Cattell, his supporters, and the APA/APF committees — behaved honorably. So why all the fuss? There is another aspect of the affair in which there is a lesson to be drawn. In debates about complicated issues, as opposed to political campaigns, we should concentrate on generating light, not heat. This is where a great many people failed.

In the 1930s Cattell used terms like eugenics, that were in fairly common currency. Over time eugenics acquired connotations of blatant racism and even genocide. Cattell obstinately clung to an archaic vocabulary that was bound to incite passions. His 1998 chapter discusses eugenics and refers to Asians as Mongolians! I am sure that he would say that he was merely using a "scientific" term, and meant no derogatory interpretation. Well, Humpty-Dumpty said that words meant what he wanted them to mean, and we know what happened to Humpty-Dumpty. This lesson applies far beyond Cattell. Several current authors (names withheld to protect the guilty) who take strong positions on the biological determinants of intelligence, also use words that they must know are bound to be offensive. That is a bad idea. If it is absolutely necessary, the author should be extremely careful to define just how he or she is using the word. The same thing applies to the tenor of arguments. I am firmly of the opinion that much (but not all) of the acrimony in the debate over intelligence, genetics, and ethnicity could be avoided if people would be very careful about how they say things. I am not calling for any blunting of the logic, I am calling for politeness and sensitivity. I did not know Cattell personally at all, I only met him three times. I do know that he wrote on very sensitive manners in a way that could lead him to be perceived as arrogant, insensitive, and uncaring.

The APA committee was similarly insensitive. Matarazzo claimed that the committee had no knowledge of Cattell’s philosophical and political writings. They had no right to plead ignorance. I have seen excerpts from two of the letters written in support of Cattell’s nomination for the APA/APF award. In both cases the writers mention Cattell’s philosophical positions, and one gave citations. The writers dissociated themselves from this aspect of Cattell’s work, but recommended the award on balance. If the award committee did not know of Cattell’s philosophy it was their own fault. At the time that the objections were made they could, honorably, have either gone ahead with the award and apologized to the objectors for a poor reviewing job or could have delayed (which they did do) and apologized to Cattell and his family for doing a poor job. Instead they disdained to apologize and urged that another committee of ‘experts’ be appointed to review the un-reviewed material. The need for an expert committee has never been made clear, for no technical issues were involved. What the appointing of an outside committee did was (a) further politicize the discussion, because the new committee now had to be politically balanced and (b) offered APA a chance for delay. The delay was useful politically but, I believe, unjustifiable morally. If you have made a mistake, acknowledge it, apologize for it, and get right on to fixing the situation. The APA and APF did neither, and the result was shoddy treatment of a man who, whatever his imperfections, certainly had contributed enough to be legitimately considered for high scientific honors.

So what is the bottom line? There are clear cases of unethical science. Scientists, as social groups, should discipline these individuals. There are cases of people who do good, even great, science and are unethical, even evil, in totally unrelated activities. I think that they should be honored as scientists, and prosecuted for their other actions. There are cases in between — Cattell was one of them — and those cases are always going to be hard to judge. The in-between cases will almost always arise when scientific findings are applied to social action. The act of applying science to society is, in the abstract, a thing to be encouraged. In the concrete, policy recommendations lead to debates that mix issues of scientific evaluation with issues of moral values. Such debates can easily degenerate into shouting matches. As much as is humanly possible, we must speak with sensitivity, be careful, concentrate on the issues, and apologize when mistakes are made. Both Cattell and the APA can be faulted for not realizing how important these seemingly inane principles are.


Cattell, R. B. (1998). Where is intelligence? Some answers from the triadic theory. In J. J. McArdle & R.W. Woodcock (Eds.), Human cognitive abilities in theory and practice (pp. 29-38). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement in Psychological Science: Raymond B. Cattell. (1997). American Psychologist, 52, 797-799.

Neisser, U. (Ed.) (1998). The rising curve: Long-term gains in IQ and related measures. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

EARL B. HUNT is Professor of Psychology and Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at the University of Washington. His research interests include individual differences in human cognition, mathematical models in social sciences, artificial intelligence, and applying technology and psychology in science instruction. Recent publications include:

Hunt, E. (1996). When should we shoot the messenger? Issues involving cognitive testing, public policy, and the law. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 2, 386-505.

Source: Hunt, E. (1998). The Cattell affair: Do hard cases make poor lessons. History and Philosophy of Psychology Bulletin, 10, 26–9.