Science Friction


By Michael Depp
Gambit Weekly
(OCLC: 34980091 ISSN: 1089-3520; LCCN: sn 96-4184)
May 11, 1999

NEW ORLEANS -- In the Department of Economics and Finance at the University of New Orleans, Edward Miller's office door is not particularly conspicuous. No posters adorn it, and there are no notices of upcoming lectures or conferences, no articles or comic strips, no recent book reviews. Only a dot matrix printout of his undergraduate students' most recent test scores is posted under his nameplate.

Edward Miller Miller's profile hasn't always been this understated. The research professor of economics and finance, one of the highest paid faculty members at UNO, stunned the university community in July 1996 when he brought his studies on race and intelligence to mainstream attention in a letter to Gambit Weekly. The letter, in which Miller defended politician David Duke's claims of consistently higher intelligence in whites than blacks, caused an instant furor. UNO's associate dean of multicultural affairs, Janet Caldwell, blasted Miller for violating the university's administrative policy by identifying himself as a UNO professor in the letter (an identification actually affixed by Gambit editors). Chancellor Gregory O'Brien blanketed the local media with a condemnation of Miller's work, calling his conclusions "personally repugnant," and emphasizing that "there has been no university support for his research."

Outraged black students at UNO and beyond demanded conciliatory meetings with university officials, UNO faculty members circulated petitions against Miller's research, and voices in the community cried out both for and against him.

But amid the controversy, the pain, and the questions Miller's comments left in their wake, the full story behind the economist and his forays into science never was unearthed. UNO unambiguously distanced itself from the professor and his inflammatory ideas, rapidly doing damage control after being caught unawares by what many were calling a racist in its faculty ranks. But its administrators never offered the community a context for Miller's racially obsessed brand of science and the historical trajectory that helped to produce it. Nor did they offer insight into the scholarly niche in which his ideas were incubated.

Today, Miller continues to research and publish on issues of race and intelligence, disseminating his ideas through a network of scholars who believe themselves to be victims of academic censorship and a liberal media. They publish prolifically in self-produced journals, endure periodic controversies when their work garners outside attention, and continue to amass the data that they feel confirms what they have been asserting for decades: all races are not created equal.

Attacking Motives

The low buzz of fluorescent lights is the loudest noise heard in the hallway of the UNO economics department. Conversations between passing faculty members are brief, and most doors are closed, preventing any intrusion of sunlight. It is the kind of place where a person might do a lifetime's scholarly work in relative seclusion.

When Miller promptly arrives at his office for an interview, it is hard to imagine him having any kind of clamorous effect on these quiet halls. The portly, 55-year-old man peers through thick bifocals at the jangling cluster of keys in his hand. His visibly pregnant and much younger wife, Viola, a recent emigre from China, stands behind him. She also enters the office, but leaves after a moment for an empty room across the hall. She will sit there silently for the next two hours.

"She's not very comfortable with this," Miller drawls, his voice punctuated by a sudden, frequent laugh.

Miller perches at the edge of his chair and clasps his hands; he has no such hesitancy. He is eager to have his positions clarified. In fact, he believes that if one looks objectively at his data, his conclusions cannot be refuted.

"I've found that people who don't have a strong position prefer to attack people's motives rather than refute them," he says.

The bulk of Miller's incendiary publications cross over into psychology and anthropology, disciplines far afield of his own training as an economist. Nonetheless, he considers himself qualified to speak and publish on issues of race and intelligence.

"The problems that deal with intelligence and group differences are basically statistical, and economics uses statistics heavily," he says. "The economist is usually very well-trained in statistical analysis. We take data from other people and then basically just manipulate it."

As an economist, Miller's accomplishments are estimable. After finishing two bachelor's degrees in three years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Richmond, Va., native finished a Ph.D. in economics at the same institution and went on to a series of government jobs, including work in the Office of Management and Budget, and in Richard Nixon's White House, where he worked on energy policy. He came to UNO from Rice University, and has, in the course of his career, published more than 150 papers in at least seven disciplines. Last fall, he spent a semester as a Fulbright lecturer at People's University in Beijing.

Miller says his initial interest in matters of race began in the 1970s, when he was doing statistical work in capital budgeting and became curious about economic disparities along racial lines. He describes the next two decades as a "reading period" in the literature of racial variables, especially intelligence. He was tenured at UNO in 1986, and his first publications on race and intelligence followed in the early '90s. "It took a good deal of reading before I had nerve enough to write up the conclusions," he says.

Perhaps newly emboldened by the safety of his tenure, his first papers on the subject persistently emphasized racial differences. "It's almost silly to say that you can't see the differences between an African and a European or between someone from China and Africa," he says. "These differences are well-known and fairly prominent."

Miller subscribes to the notion that the world consists of three macro-races, referred to in some of his colleagues' literature as Caucasoid, Negroid and Mongoloid. He acknowledges, however, that even among those researchers whose work he values, these divisions are crude and in dispute.

The most significant difference between these three races, Miller argues, is in head (and consequently brain) size, and he and a number of his colleagues have published studies asserting a correlation between brain size and IQ. He argues that Asians, on average, have the largest brains, followed by whites and then blacks, and that average intelligence decreases in that order. The data in these studies, which Miller and his colleagues do not collect personally, comes from head size measurements taken during autopsies, skull volume measurements, outside cranial measurements using tape measures, and most recently (and to Miller and others' argument most reliably) magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data, derived from live images of the brain. Miller frequently invokes six such MRI studies in the late '90s as irrefutable data supporting his argument for an overall lesser intelligence among blacks.

But Miller doesn't stop with intelligence, citing the work of controversial University of Western Ontario psychologist J. Philippe Rushton, whose writings include the information that "Asians and Africans consistently aggregate at opposite ends, with Europeans intermediate, on a continuum that includes over 60 anatomical and social variables." Most salient in these variables: "brain size, intelligence, sexual habits, fertility, personality, temperament, speed of maturation, and longevity."

Rushton's notoriety in Canada once extended to near-prosecution under his country's hate-crime laws. His extensive work in sexual characteristics among the races has included analyzing genital, breast and buttock size. He has found that blacks lead in size in all of these categories, followed by whites and lastly by Asians.

When Miller is asked if any professional academic organizations endorse these types of conclusions, he doesn't give a direct answer. In fact, he attacks their motives. "Most of the organizations try to avoid controversy," he says. "They denounce anybody who says anything that's not politically correct."

Miller describes his personal politics as being on "the mild conservative side," but goes on to say that his scientific work has been resolutely apolitical. Then he pauses. "After a while, you may notice some implications in it," he adds.

That might be an understatement. Included in Miller's published papers is a series of book reviews/essays he has written for the Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies and the Mankind Quarterly. In one review, "BackFire: Commentary and Extension," he eagerly supports journalist/author Bob Zelnick's arguments about affirmative action, and argues for the virtues of ability testing. "Politically (in my opinion)," he writes, "the problem in getting ability tests legalized is the need to admit honestly that blacks (and to a less degree certain other groups) really are lower in ability. If one says they are lower in ability, one is accused of being racist."

In an essay titled "Why Race Matters: A Review and Extension," Miller engages the work of the infamous City College of New York philosopher Michael Levin, whose insistence that blacks are far less intelligent and more violent than whites once prompted him to assert that "blackness is a sign of danger." In the review, Miller supports Levin's ideas about why "certain beliefs about race have prevailed." Miller's explanation: "The simplest answer is observation; the traits have been repeatedly observed."

Differences in mental capacity, differences in sexual relations, differences in genitalia, differences in appearance. The cumulative picture of a black individual in Miller's paradigm is small-headed, over-equipped in genitalia, oversexed, hyper-violent and, most of all, unintelligent. Sound like a stereotype? Not to Miller, who protests that "science is science and the facts are facts." But Miller does not work in a scientific vacuum, and the data he puts forth as truth is far from black and white.

Ethnology, Phrenology and `Niggerology'

To fully understand Miller's work, it's necessary to pull back the focus and look to the historic emergence of the very notion of race. In doing so, it becomes clear that science and politics have always been ineluctably bound, and discussions of race invariably have been accompanied by discussions of political rights and public policy.

In the mid-19th century, whites on both sides of the abolition issue were clamoring to find a scientific defense of their racial politics. In The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate of Afro-American Character and Destiny 1817-1914, George M. Fredrickson outlines prevailing trajectories of thought in that period, noting the rise of the "American school of ethnology," which held that the various races of mankind had been separately created as distinct and unequal, a theory also known as polygenesis. Among the methodologies employed to prop up this theory was the collection of data on human skull size and shape and its comparison across different races. Such studies would anticipate the scientific vogue of the late 19th century, phrenology, which studied the contours of the skull as predictive of intelligence and behavioral qualities.

Among the loudest and most influential champions of polygenesis was Dr. Josiah C. Nott, whose self-described field of "niggerology" marked blacks as an inferior race slated for imminent extinction because of inherent ineptitudes.

Polygenesis rapidly gained currency among supporters of slavery. It was especially popular in intellectual circles, where elaborate biological arguments were made for Caucasian racial superiority and the necessity of blacks' continued enslavement. As this argument would have it, blacks would expire from their own feeblemindedness, were they ever to be released from captivity.

When emancipation failed to produce the much-prophesied "Negro extinction," racially fixated scientists then turned to the application of Darwinian theory. Predictions again did not bode well for blacks, and their expiration once more was anticipated on the grounds that numerous disadvantageous traits, among them a disinclination to work, would drive them out of existence. When none of these predictions came to pass, scientists continuously revised their theories.

Underneath these ever-evolving, unapologetically racist theories was the fear of intermarriage between the races. For these white scientists, such relations amounted to a debilitating pollution of the superior Caucasian bloodline.

Sander Gilman, a professor of liberal arts in human biology at the University of Chicago (and a Metairie, Louisiana native), has done extensive work on the "science" of race. "Over the last 150 years, there has been a desire to take the latest cutting-edge science, whether it was the discovery of blood-types or now the genome, and fit it into 19th century models of race," he says. "The question is, `Why do people keep going back to notions of race?'"

Gilman relates the work of Miller and his colleagues to racist 18th and 19th century science. When Charles Murray and the late Richard J. Hernstein published their now-infamous 1996 study, The Bell Curve, Gilman was among the first experts to describe the book's scholarship as the product of a lineage of biased studies and conclusions. "Certainly the stuff that's been done recently on intelligence and race is not terribly different from the stuff that was done 150 years ago," he says.

Gilman sees a link between now-discredited pseudosciences like phrenology and the conclusions some have drawn from more recent MRI studies. "There's no difference, and of course there is a difference," he says. "Phrenology made some presuppositions about the relationship between brain localization, brain size and skull size. We know that's specious. MRI measures different things. If we're talking about electronic resonance in the brain, MRI measures that very well. But when you start to say that certain heightened areas mean certain things, then you get into some very suspicious arenas."

Gilman says that MRIs do provide a veneer of legitimacy for such studies, but cautions that it is in the crucial area of interpretation where things become cagey. "Over the last few years as we've developed various and sundry means of measuring brain activity, if we go from one measurement to another, one of the things that we realize is that there a lot of maps that don't overlap very well. The various measuring mechanisms tell us different things, and the way we read those different things is based on our presuppositions."

Which brings things back to politics. Felipe Smith, a professor of English at Tulane University and author of American Body Politics: Race, Gender, and Black Literary Renaissance, also has researched racial motives in scientific history. "The science is always about a public agenda," he says. "It's always about how we use these results to make society a better place, i.e. public policy."

Understanding such policy motives in a historical and social context, Smith says, punctures "the self-representation of the scientist as being a kind of custodian of pure analysis of what the numbers say." His book opens with the example of William Benjamin Smith (no relation), a Tulane professor of mathematics who, in 1904, wrote a "scientific" defense of Southern policies of racial separation. At the time of that writing, Tulane's own desegregation was beginning to look more likely.

"He captures the whole scientific cadre that was beginning to elevate Darwinian science and numbers to a kind of deific position," Felipe Smith says. "And it's rather interesting that 100 years later, there's this resurgence of people who want to go back to the numbers to do statistical analyses as a basis for making these kinds of fine judgments and discriminations in population groups."

No Such Thing as Race

UNO anthropologist, research professor and author Martha C. Ward describes herself as one of the few at the university who still maintains an open dialogue with Ed Miller. She participated in the colloquium on race at UNO that followed the Miller controversy. She also devoted a chapter of her forthcoming book, How I Got to Be White, to Miller and his colleagues. Yet she insists that she will not debate him in a traditional sense. "What Ed wants is to say that your ideas are the equivalent of my ideas and they're debatable, and I refuse to say that," she asserts.

One of the most strenuously argued points of How I Got to Be White is that science is as much about politics as it is about inquiry. "Science is not neutral or free of values," she writes. "It's an enterprise of patterned power relations, human errors, and social judgments, as many excellent critiques show." Miller, she says, simply won't acknowledge that.

But that is only the beginning of her rebuttal. The real clincher, she says, is that "there's just no such thing as race."

"Race is a lived experience, a social and political construction within a consensual reality," she writes in How I Got to Be White. "Race is learned and defined in cultural terms."

The American Anthropological Association (AAA), the nation's largest organization in that discipline, agrees. Its "Statement on `Race'" lays out the 18th century emergence of the concept of race as a means of establishing social hierarchies and rationalizing European colonial attitudes, stating, "It became a strategy for dividing, ranking and controlling colonized people used by colonial powers everywhere."

The AAA doesn't stop there. It also has taken a stance against studies that argue for genetic differences across so-called racial lines. It asserts that most physical variation, about 94 percent, occurs within "racial" groups, rather than between them. Human variation is basically continuous, with no distinct lines between one "race" and another.

But there are always those who will argue that what looks different must be different. "The color of one's skin is a convenient optical way of categorizing people," says Steven Kroll-Smith, a professor of sociology at UNO. Kroll-Smith helped organize the colloquium on race at UNO, which addressed issues of scientific racism from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. The colloquium -- initiated by faculty members, not the administration -- was UNO's only substantive response to the 1996 controversy.

Kroll-Smith says the work of Edward Miller and others is a contemporary revival of eugenics, the late 19th century movement that promoted hereditary improvement through selective breeding. "[This belief] has emerged during periods where it seems to be culturally important to rank people," he says, adding that such rankings could then be used to distribute social resources based on "scientific or numerical indicators." The starkest example of this movement, he adds, was the Third Reich.

Like the AAA and Ward, Kroll-Smith espouses the view of race as a purely social construction. He also questions another component of the debate. "There is no consensus on the definition of intelligence," he says. "We have people constructing tests that by their very nature construct notions of intelligence in the questions that they're asking. So you've got the tail and the dog problem going around and around.

"Intelligence has always been attached to the moral with these guys," he adds. "The idea that intelligence can't simply be a number that indicates one's capacity to function cognitively, but that it also signals moral disposition, has been a big part of the eugenics movement."

Ward points outs that those scholars advancing theories about race and intelligence are almost invariably white men, and that they have closed ranks in a kind of outcast club of intellectual misfits. "They find their way into these networks after having been teenage nerds," she says with a laugh, "and they're sensible enough to keep quiet until they have a tenure-track position."

But not all agree that these men and their ideas can be laughed off.

The Pioneer Fund

J. Philippe Rushton speaks with an impeccably well-measured British accent, his syllables rolling out with the kind of melody normally reserved for a BBC news reader or a narrator of children's stories. Catch a reference to him in the Canadian or American media, though, and you're more likely to see a caricature of him shaking hands with Hitler than sharing story time with a circle of kids.

"When my views became widely known back in 1989, the media here in Canada essentially ran cartoons as though I were wearing a Ku Klux Klan hat and having a conversation with a delighted-looking Adolf Hitler," says the psychologist, speaking by phone from his office in Ontario. "They ran editorials linking me to the Holocaust and racism and all kinds of horrific things, and eventually I had to take out libel action. It's swastika-painting and political propaganda. There's no attempt at an objective appraisal."

The media may have been guilty of hyperbole, but it also was responsible for unearthing Rushton's connection to the Pioneer Fund. This 62-year-old nonprofit organization in New York grants more than $1 million a year to academics conducting research in genetic racial differences in intelligence and behavior, as well as to those who examine the policy implications of such "findings."

The Pioneer Fund has a long history of supporting eugenic and hereditarian causes from behind the shadows. Among its beneficiaries have been Arthur Jensen, a University of California at Berkeley psychologist who, in the throes of the civil rights movement, wrote of the genetic superiority of whites over blacks; Stanford University physicist William Shockley (the co-inventor of the transistor), who proposed sterilizing welfare recipients and the voluntary sterilization of the "intellectually inferior"; Rushton; and one candidate whose Pioneer check of $2,000 was refused by UNO -- Edward Miller.

This tightly acquainted circle of benefactors, grantees and affiliates publish, cite and support each other, regularly rallying to the cause of whichever individual finds himself under the latest scrutiny. Most recently, it has been Glayde Whitney, the Florida State University psychologist who penned the introduction to David Duke's My Awakening (which was dedicated to Shockley). Praising the "honest truths" in Duke's memoir, Whitney writes that "racial egalitarianism is the scientific equivalent of the flat Earth theory."

But this network doesn't end with the Pioneer Fund. Both the Mankind Quarterly and the Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies, where Miller publishes the bulk of his studies on race and intelligence, are run by Roger Pearson, a 1966 Pioneer Fund recipient and publisher who also directs the Scott-Townsend Publishers imprint. Among some of the more evocative titles in its catalog: The Racial Origins of the Founders of America; A History of Lynching, Will America Drown?; Immigration and the Third-World Population Explosion; and The U.S. Experiment in School Integration.

There's also a Byzantine web of Internet sites featuring these and other writings by Pioneer Fund/Pearson-published scholars, all readily linked to such organizations as the Aryan Nation. Miller's own Web site, featured in a larger site called "Stalking the Wild Taboo," is only a few mouse clicks away from an assortment of secessionist movements.

Such links illustrate the fringe quality of these scholars, but they also demonstrate how readily these data-packed studies can be used as political ammunition. For these scholars, President Clinton's pledge to "end welfare as we know it" can be seen as a mainstream step in the right direction. So can David Duke's unexpected third place finish in Louisiana's most recent Congressional election.

Homosexuality, Breast Size and Family Life

Miller is scheduled for a second interview, but he begs off a few days before the appointed time, saying that his wife is leery of the controversy. With only a month to go in her pregnancy, she is worried that some who disagree with her husband might try to hurt him or disturb their family. She is relatively new to America, Miller says, and fearful of what she perceives as this country's readiness for violence. He says that she repeatedly implores him to stay clear of public attention.

He agrees to a talk on the phone, and the conversation quickly turns to Duke and the former congressional candidate's politics.

"All politicians try and find facts to support their positions, and hopefully the better politicians adapt their positions to the facts as they understand them," he says. "Duke seems to have been fairly aggressive in seeking out the facts and even writing a book. And he's one of the few politicians who has actually read the scientific literature in this area."

Asked whether individuals like Duke and Miller are simply obsessed with race, the professor responds so quickly that it seems rehearsed. "It's certainly less of an obsession with race than most politicians seem to have -- at least most minority politicians."

Miller goes on to explain that his latest work isn't political, anyway. He's presently concentrating on original research, although he admits, "If I ever get a chance again to work in Washington and influence policy, I may take it."

He talks a little about his current research, which includes an eye-catching paper on homosexuality. "I argue that homosexuality is a result of numerous genes and environmental factors that, on average, make males more competent as fathers and a little more feminine," he says. "If you get a large number of these factors added up, then homosexuality results."

Another Miller-penned paper is even more attention-grabbing, about the need for human females -- more than other primates -- to have large breasts. "It will affect their mates' ability to reproduce if they have a loyal mate who is attracted by breasts swollen with milk," he explains. "After males had evolved to prefer females with this shape, females who put extra fat on to retain this shape were able to attract males."

After talking for the better part of an hour, Miller suddenly offers one unsolicited piece of autobiography. "As you may know, I have a multiracial son on the way," he says. "So I'm probably a long way from your stereotype of the person who is opposed to multiculturalism or anything."

Miller pauses. "She's making gestures not to say anything," he says, indicating that his wife has again been silently present for the duration of the interview. Her quiet protestation is heard briefly in the background, and then it trails off.

She isn't alone in her desire for anonymity. UNO would probably like nothing better than for New Orleans to forget about Edward Miller, a magnet for bad publicity and potential admissions dropoffs. UNO Chancellor O'Brien refused repeated requests to speak about Miller, or to discuss the fact that UNO's library stocks the Mankind Quarterly, or to announce any university plans to encourage more dialogue on issues of race, both in UNO's classrooms and in the community. "He doesn't want to rehash it all," UNO public information officer Kit Lipps says.

But much as UNO tries its best to keep him invisible, the university still sends mixed messages to the community. The latest edition of a school media directory "designed to help members of the news media in securing authoritative comment on a wide variety of issues," which was compiled and released after the Miller controversy, demonstrates how certain views can insinuate themselves into a university and community.

Under Edward Miller's name and contact number, three areas of expertise are listed: stock market theory, productivity, and human intelligence.