Cattell Affair: Do Hard Cases Make Poor Lessons?
University of Washington
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for the now-terminally ill scientist, asked that his name be withdrawn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?
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
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 Cattells 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 organizations policy is clearly
not to regard a scientific discussion of these issues as anathema.
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.
observed rise in intelligence does not mean that Cattell was wrong.
Genetic inheritance does not determine ones 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.
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.
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
Cattells 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.
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 Hitlers
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 ones 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
order to keep some sense of proportion, it is also worth pointing
out that Cattells 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 Cattells 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.
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.
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
Cattells 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 Cattells 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 Cattells 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.
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?
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
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.
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.
APA committee was similarly insensitive. Matarazzo claimed that
the committee had no knowledge of Cattells philosophical
and political writings. They had no right to plead ignorance.
I have seen excerpts from two of the letters written in support
of Cattells nomination for the APA/APF award. In both cases
the writers mention Cattells philosophical positions, and
one gave citations. The writers dissociated themselves from this
aspect of Cattells work, but recommended the award on balance.
If the award committee did not know of Cattells 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.
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.
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,
Medal Award for Life Achievement in Psychological Science: Raymond
B. Cattell. (1997). American Psychologist, 52, 797-799.
U. (Ed.) (1998). The rising curve: Long-term gains in IQ and
related measures. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
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
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.