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Nurture 2, Nature 0 in US ethnic-disparity analysis
21 March 2002 17:00 EST
by Laurel A. Pasiuk, BioMedNet News
Why do so many foreign-educated scientists hold top research positions in
the US? Panelists at a New York briefing on race, genes, and intelligence
today suggested a possible reason: Because they tend to come from
countries that focus more on curriculum than on standardized testing.
America imports foreign scientists to fill jobs that its own graduates
just can't take on, said Purdue University psychology professor Peter
Shonemann. Their countries of origin in general "do not have standardized
tests, but just better school systems," he said.
Scientists from outside the US are taking up engineering and other
technical careers because Americans are not sufficiently educated to do
these jobs, concurred Joseph Graves, a professor of evolutionary biology
from Arizona State University, at the symposium in New York City,
cosponsored by the nonprofit Gene Media Forum and the New York Academy of
The participants explored the merits of using standardized tests as a
tool to measure students' intelligence, and pondered, as Shonemann put
it, "how to explain implausibly high heritabilities reported in the
literature for mental tests with such a poor track record." Much of the
discussion revisited criticisms of the controversial 1996 book The Bell
Curve, whose authors Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray dwelt heavily
on previously reported correlations between genetics and intelligence
Schonemann said that in students' first semester at university, the SAT
(Scholastic Aptitude Test given to US high school students) explains 16%
of their grade point variance. But in the last semester of the students'
senior year, the test explains only 3% of the variance. Clearly something
in the college environment affects their performance.
The discussion comes the day after the US National Academy of Sciences
(NAS) released an expert report addressing another longstanding issue
involving race and public policy: the well-known disparities in disease
and mortality rates between ethnic populations in the US. The NAS
committee's lengthy research confirmed what a previous Gene Media Forum
panel, including Graves, observed last November, that differences in the
way minorities receive health care at least in part explain disparities
in theier death rates due to disease.
Similar environmental factors, today's panel suggested, may explain
observed disparities in educational aptitude tests.
"The SAT under-predicts the success of African American students," Graves
said. Various human populations have a substantial overlap in their
genetic material and have maintained a comparatively high "flow of
exchange," he said. Therefore race should not play an important role in
discussions about the inheritance of intelligence.
The panelists agreed that heritability estimates do not explain the
differences in how well African-American and Caucasian students performed
on standardized tests. Panelist Nathan Brody, a psychology professor from
Wesleyan University, argued that traditional standardized tests, such as
the IQ test, are a poor representation of an individual's capacity to
acquire knowledge because they are influenced by environmental dynamics.
"Technically heritability is a property of a group of people," he added.
"It does not tell you much about the degree to which that trait can by
influenced" by environmental factors.
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