Science in the Justification of Class Structure

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Science in the Justification of Class Structure

A Collective Effort

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 4, No. 1, January 1972, p. 6 – 12

It’s happened once again. Another puppet has stepped forward, scientific credentials in hand, to mouth the scientific justification for an unjust social order. This time it’s Richard Herrnstein, Harvard professor of psychology and noted pigeon researcher, who has recently joined the ranks of Jensen, Banfield, Moynihan, and other distinguished apologists for the status quo. Under the guise of science they provide the ideological props for an increasingly oppressive social system.

Sir: The Herrnstein article is the most accurately informative psychological article I have ever read in the popular press.

Arthur R. Jensen
Univ. of California
Berkeley, Calif.

This letter appeared in the December Atlantic

Herrnstein’s contribution is “I.Q.”, an article published in Atlantic magazine,1 and widely reported in the national news media. Outraged by the article, many people have demonstrated at the Atlantic publishing house and others have called for Herrnstein’s firing. These actions are in response to his rather overt political stance.

In short, Herrnstein seeks to rationalize the inequitable social stratification of modern society by asserting that such stratification is inevitable, or more precisely, genetically determined. A dozen or so pages in his article is devoted to a discussion of I.Q., its relation to heredity and environment, and its bearing on success; then the central argument is stated:

  1. If differences in mental ability are inherited
  2. If success requires those abilities
  3. If earnings and prestige depend upon success
  4. Then social standing will be based to some extent on inherited differences among people

And from this simple syllogism Herrnstein concludes that:

As the wealth and complexity of human society grow there will be precipitated out of the mass of humanity a low capacity (intellectual and otherwise) residue that may be unable to master the common occupations, cannot compete for success and achievement, and are most likely to be born to parents who have similarly failed.

Furthermore, he suggests that

as technology advances, the tendency to be unemployed may run in the genes of a family about as certainly as bad teeth do now.

While some people may have had doubts about their teeth, few had any doubts about Herrnstein’s article. On the technical level it has been shown that Herrnstein’s discussion of I.Q. and intelligence categorically neglects well known findings on the subject;2,3 but of more concern to many people are the immediate policy implications of his conclusions, namely that liberal programs to achieve equal opportunity for all people are doomed in the end to failure.

Liberal programs are in fact doomed to failure. Not for the reasons Herrnstein gives, but because they too fail to take account of fundamental structural features of the society. Herrnstein’s article thus raises questions of prime importance about the nature of society, and the nature of science as well. What determines the form of social stratification? What is the social function and purpose of the I.Q. test? Why was Herrnstein’s article published in the Atlantic rather than in a technical journal? These questions are not merely academic. Their answers will determine the direction of political action.

Why Atlantic?

The Atlantic is a monthly magazine in publication since 1857 with a current circullation of 325,000 of which more than 285,000 are subscriptions purchased at about $10 per year. Data on the readership, obtained from Harper/Atlantic sales, is shown below:

Even without such data, one can readily deduce to whom the magazine is supposed to appeal by looking through the ads. In the September 1971 issue there are 45 ads, in addition to two pages of classifieds. The largest category (16) is specialty products: twelve are for premium wines and liquors and the remaining four include ads for homes and/or pianos. The next largest category consists of twelve ads for books, book clubs, records and magazines. Nine ads are from trade associations or business institutional ads (ads that promote the public image of corporations or industrial sector). Travel ads number five and charities, three. It is clear then that the advertisers know that Atlantic’s readership can afford to buy the best, to travel, and give to charities; that they have the time to read a lot, and that they are receptive to a sympathetic view of big corporations.

But Atlantic is also a liberal magazine. An ad by Texaco boasts of their aid-to-education program and shows a photograph of twelve college students including two Blacks, all properly dressed and shorn. The copy goes “…it seems to us that campus unrest is publicized well out of proportion to the reality of the positive goals of the great majority of students,” and “we still believe in them. And we’re backing that belief.” Of course, they give it all away when they say that among “the young students who benefit from our assistance to colleges and universities (some) will never work for Texaco (but) will be leaders important to our future. … we think we’re getting a pretty good return on this investment.”

An ad by the Chase Manhattan Bank shows two black Americans holding a white and a black doll. The ad reads “these guys help manufacture ethnic dolls for the Shindana Toy Co., a subsidiary of Operation Bootstrap … Chase Manhattan Capital Corporation … invested in this company and continues to serve as a financial advisor.” This ad ends with the boldface slogan, “A good motive for change is the profit motive.”

There we have it. The advertisers in this magazine want to keep capitalism viable. This can no longer be done by preaching that what is good for GM is good for the country—the destructive practices of individual firms are becoming increasingly apparent. Rather the thrust of advertisements is to demonstrate concern about pollution problems and social problems and show that industry will solve the problems that “irresponsible” capitalism has created. The image makers on Madison Avenue are trying hard to portray corporations as humane, compassionate institutions. They recognize that anti-capitalist sentiment is growing. They see the possibility of the liberation struggle of Black Americans transforming into a class struggle, working people against capitalist; and they recognize that their best bet is to strengthen the black bourgeoisie. They want everyone, that is professionals, the whole middle class, all those whose belief in capitalism has not been shaken to support “the college of (their) choice,” give to charities, support black business. In short, getting capitalism to deliver just enough of the goods is their first strategy against revolution and, in this, the Atlantic serves at least the function of passing the word along to their still loyal supporters in business, education and the technostructure.

Now while one part of the essential ideology necessary for capitalism to function is the belief that self-interest promotes the human good (“A good motive for change is the profit motive”) the other part is that the stratification of labor and the division of society into owners and workers are the consequences of natural law. It is therefore not surprising that a magazine that, as represented by its advertisers, wants to make capitalism work, should publish, in the very issue described above, Herrnstein’s I.Q. article—for that article purports to show by correlating I.Q. to social and economic standing, that the socio-economic position of most people is simply their natural position. Herrnstein claims we are evolving a “meritocracy” which reflects the real capabilities of people; he suggests that unemployment may be hereditary and implies that Blacks and others are in lower economic classes and in less intellectually demanding jobs because of their natural low hereditary I.Q.

To explain social phenomena on the basis of natural law is only to admit the impoverishment of science. The social Darwinists, for example, invoked such principles in justifying the social carnage of the 19th century. For Herrnstein the approach consists essentially of taking the social and economic relations of society and simply elevating these to the level of fundamental law, one in which the predictive parameter (innate intelligence) is a quantity not even subject to measurement. To be more concrete, consider the following items:

  1. There are tests called I.Q. tests
  2.  I.Q. test scores taken by parents and offspring tend to correlate
  3. Income and test scores tend to correlate
  4. Income and prestige correlate
  5. Prestige and social standing correlate
  6. Success as measured by income and prestige correlates with income and prestige.
  7. Mental ability is defined according to scores on these tests
  8. Blacks are in low income category
  9. Children of Blacks are also in low income category
  10. Children of parents in high income category tend to be in high income categories
  11. Children of the poor tend to be poor
  12. There are more unemployed among the poor than among the rich
  13. Teamsters can drive trucks well and often find their work interesting but find figures boring
  14. Accountants and auditors do mindless work with boring figures but usually can’t bake
  15. Bakers, welders, lumberjacks and teamsters don’t usually read the Atlantic
  16. Herrnstein is not a teamster
  17. Etc.

The point is that these data explain nothing. To establish correlations is by no means to understand the basis of the phenomena. What Herrnstein does is to present as fact what should be deduced — the necessary relationships among things.4

I.Q. and Stratification

So what we must understand is why there are I.Q. tests. But first, what are these tests? They are tests to evaluate the skills and kinds of reasoning characteristic of the culture of the upper and middle classes—those skills necessary for success (income, prestige, and status) in that culture. They ignore the bulk of mechanical, manual, social, and mental skills needed by the working class, especially minority workers, to survive in the environment in which they must work and live. What would testing middle-class children for working-class skills reveal about the “intelligence” of middle-class children? In short, the I.Q. tests simply confirm the racial and class divisions in American society.

Now Herrnstein shows that I.Q. scores correlate with success. This is hardly surprising since the I.Q. test is simply one of a battery of devices (reading tests, aptitude tests, grading, and academic tracts) which are used to determine success; that is, are used to channel people into one kind of work or another. The function of the I.Q. test is to help achieve the division of labor into workers, managers, teachers, engineers, etc. so necessary for the efficient functioning of the economy. Of course Herrnstein never asks where these categories of labor come from, never questions the economic basis of the division of labor, never asks what relationship there is between the system of production and the social stratification he claims is inevitable.5

The extreme inequities in this country, whether in income, wealth, access to health care, decent housing, conditions of work, racial discrimination, or any number of others, are not a consequence of the best use of people’s talents, nor the inevitable product of human nature. They are structural features of the system of production. They stem from a form of economic organization in which the vast majority are forced to offer themselves as employees to the small fraction of American people who own and control the resources of the society. The system of production, capitalism, defines not only the categories of labor, but also its use according to what is necessary to maintain the vitality and longevity of the capitalist economic system.

This system is organized for maximizing profit, and that includes growth of productive capacity, markets, and economic control. This goal is of prime importance in the manipulation and division of labor, in the creation of wage differentials, and in the limitation of social mobility. Division of labor because specialization means efficiency for the owner of labor, and fragmentation, separation, and powerlessness for the worker. Wage differentials because they provide the incentive for advance. Limited social mobility because it guarantees a reservoir of low cost labor. Unemployment and depressed wages to blacks, women, young people, and other minority groups are institutionalized in the system. The owners and managers hold the power of hiring, firing, establishing production priorities, and disposing of profits. The government, agent of capitalist interest, reinforces these practices through taxes, subsidies, labor legislation, and military force.

These, then, are the roots of social stratification — not heredity. To understand them is to understand the productive relations and internal dynamics of capitalism. The variety of incentives and other methods of manipulating labor are tied up with the ideological superstructure which supports and rationalizes this system of production. But though these relationships are complex, one thing is sufficiently clear. Modern capitalism is irrational. People labor to produce waste or trivia, and those who produce the least of social value are the ones who reap the greatest rewards, for economic and social standing depend on a person’s utility to the system and its ruling class, not his utility to people. Bankers and money handlers manipulate capital, managers manipulate labor, corporate executives manipulate the market, government bureaucrats and executives manipulate people. Rewards are based upon the rational criteria of an irrational system.

Worse than irrational, capitalism is oppressive. It does not meet the needs for food, health care, and shelter unless these generate profit. But worse yet, people become reduced to a mere commodity. Their creativity, humanity, and desire to be socially productive, are drowned in the competitive struggle for economic security. The actions of both managers and workers are reduced by the demands of capital to mechanistic responses. At worst these actions involve the brutal murder or starvation of large masses of people; at best they mean the institutionalized violence of disease, slum life, and financial insecurity.

Is it any surprise therefore that the worker feels alienated? His work is meaningless, he has no control over either the product of his labor or the use to which it is put. He is a mere cog in the machinery of production and his knowledge of the total process is so limited that he feels powerless. And his inventiveness and development are seriously stifled.

It is a mistake to think this fate is reserved only for factory workers or typists and stenographers in office pools. Though their work is conspicuously alienating, so also is most work in this country for most people, including the so called professionals. Scientists, for example, who tend to think of themselves as the elite, have as little control over their work, the use to which it will be put, or the security of their jobs as other workers. And by one of the most standard measures of the value of scientific work, its usefulness to colleagues—consider the following estimate: “the average scientific paper is read by 1.3 people and, while many are read by several people and a few by hundreds, a large number are read by nobody but their authors (if we exclude the editors).”6 It is as if the work is gone, evaporated, as if it had never been done. Did anyone even read it?

Of greater concern, however, to scientists and technical workers is the realization not that their work is not used, but that more often than not it is misused — directed towards antisocial ends. Though this situation was more obvious with regards to weapons development for the Vietnam War, it has now become more generally understood that science is seldom used except to further entrench the status quo. As a result, not only have students turned away from science, but several scientists have themselves locked the doors of their laboratories.

What Should Be Done

We have seen, then, that capitalism requires a division of labor into producers (workers in the traditional sense) and technostructure (managers, university professors, etc.). It therefore needs measures, tests that will continually differentiate the commodity of human labor into these categories in the proper amounts and with the necessary competitive pressures to make these humans responsive to the necessities of the capitalist dynamic. It follows that it is in workers interest to refuse to submit to such tests. Destroy the tests, refuse the tests! In the spirit of those who have learned how to burn draft files, to tear up and burn draft cards, we must now turn against this symbolic yet real instrument of stratification and alienation, the I.Q. test. There is only one important test, the test of whether a class is fit to rule, and the capitalists have failed that miserably. They know nothing of what to do with our creation, our tools, the technology we have created with our hands and our brains but to turn it against us.7 Only we can turn our product to human use for human beings.

As for the Herrnstein article, it will not be read by the working class; they are not among the 325,000 readers of the Atlantic. However, university faculty and students and school teachers will, and they might be impressed by Herrnstein’s academic credentials and tend to accept his arguments on faith. Herrnstein’s ideas can thus propagate to the public school classroom where their effect will be to justify the multitude of discriminatory practices by which students are constantly catalogued — ticked off one against the other — according to society’s notion of ability and achievement. What teachers must do is expose the system of tracking, of occupational channeling.8 Show how it maintains the rigidities of social class, race, and sex role divisions of American society. Show how it reinforces people’s belief that the poverty and alienation is the result of their own stupidity, their own failure to achieve. Show how it perpetuates competition among people for positions in what is an irrational, hierarchical, and oppressive occupational structure. Teachers must deny the I.Q. tests and the whole battery of devices used to categorize the essential commodity of the capitalist system, human labor.

What about the scientists and other technical workers? What is their task? Nothing short of drastic transformation of science and scientific practice. Consider for a moment the nature of present day science. Scientific problems are defined in only the narrowest technical terms. This means the scientist does not generally consider how the nature of his work, in fact the very selection and statement of the technical problem, depends upon the social, political, and economic context of the work, on the form of social organization used to carry out the research, and on the various pressures for research productivity and success. Thus a physicist, for example, disregards as part of his science such aspects as the social and economic functions of his research, the agency which funds his work, the relationships among the technicians, secretaries, graduate students and others in his laboratory, the process of decision making, the criteria for success in the scientific community, and a host of others. These are seen as extraneous. And in the mind of most scientists, the use or misuse of the research also is divorced from the work itself. This whole frame of mind, the failure to perceive or deal with the totality of experience — material and human — is the dominant form of science. It results quite clearly in a science which provides the ruling class with the tools of oppression, the instruments of death, destruction and human subjugation. It results also in the patently absurd attempts on the part of scientists to deal with social problems by technological means.

To be more general, we can distinguish two different activities which use the methodology, the tools of science. The first attempts to discover the fundamental relationships among things, to find formulations based on the totality of human experience — the material world, man and ideas. It provides the understanding, the conceptions, the clarity which enables men and women to act to change the world. The other activity does not go to the root of things, does not deal with the totality of experience, but merely describes the world in detail, accounting for its behavior on the basis of immutable conceptual ideals. By its nature it serves only to rationalize the form of things and to preserve the present order. The first we call radical science. The other, rationalistic science.

The work of Herrnstein is a prime example of rationalistic science. His approach is to explain the apparent form of things by simply regarding these forms themselves as natural, as fundamental. But this is to impose upon the real world a conception which arises out of the world of ideas alone, out of the consciousness of men living within restricted social institutions. What is natural in one system is unnatural in another. Thus to invoke the natural is only to fall back on idealism, on faith.

The effect of rationalistic science is to mystify and obscure. It does nothing more than interpret, systematize, and ultimately rationalize the ideas which form the ideological basis of the system of production. Thus rationalistic science has become accepted and institutionalized because it serves for capitalism the same stabilizing function that the church served for feudalism. It has its high priests, its alters, and its devoted followers.

The transformation of science means the building of radical science. A science which, in Marx’s words, “would be superfluous if the form in which things appear coincided directly with their reality.”

To obtain a real understanding, to achieve clarity, requires the liberation of our consciousness from the delusions and illusions of present social relations. That liberation of mind can come only in the process of revolution, that is, in the process of changing those social relations. The essence of radical scientific practice is to realize both the necessity and the actuality of revolution in everyday activity — to unite thought and action.


Taken in full perspective, the Herrnstein article itself, poses no direct threat, but does raise serious questions about the stratification of society, the reason for I.Q. testing, and the nature of science. Response to the Herrnstein article and to the alienation of capitalist stratification seems to fall into three categories: 1) Poor and middle workers, especially blacks and young workers, must deny the legitimacy of capitalism’s grading and channeling of them. 2) Class conscious teachers, social workers, testers, etc. must first understand the function of the classifications that the system requires, immunize themselves against becoming part of it and then educate their less aware peers. 3) Scientific workers and academics must struggle every day in every class, seminar, at the workplace, at scientific meetings, in the pages of the journals, against the pervasive ideology. If they do not critically analyze their own practise, the conventions of science, etc. they will end up as mindless radicals mouthing phrases of struggle while perpetuating the very structure that must be destroyed.


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Notes and References

  1. Herrnstein, Richard, Atlantic, September, 1971, pp. 43- 64.
  2. George Purvin has suggested, in a letter to his classmates at Harvard, the following references on I.Q. and intelligence which discuss the shortcomings of Herrnstein’s premises:

    1. Studies of Smilanski and Weikart reported in “The First Six Years of Life” by LaCrosse, Lee, Litman, France et. al., General Psychology Monograph, 1971.
    2. Study of Goldfarb and others reported by Bowlby in Monograph, Maternal Care and Mental Health, 1951, UNESCO (WHO)
    3. Studies of twins reported in Intelligence and Experience by J. MeV. Hunt.

    Also a pamphlet entitled Born to be Unemployed distributed by the University Action Group, Cambridge, Mass. (617-426-5094) discusses the shoddy psychology in the Herrnstein article, though the pamphlet’s overall critique has serious deficiencies.

  3. For an excellent discussion of the Jensen studies to which Herrnstein makes reference, see Lewinton, Science and Public Affairs, Vol. 26, no. 3, pp. 2-8, March, 1970.
  4. This is a paraphrase of Marx’s remarks on the role and methodology of political economy. The following with a few changes in key words from “political economy” to “sociology” or “psychology,” etc., is directly applicable:

    “Political economy starts with the fact of private property, but it does not explain it to us. It expresses in general, abstract formulas the material process through which private property actually passes, and these formulas are then taken for law. It does not comprehend these laws, i.e., it does not demonstrate how they arise from the very nature of private property. Political economy does not disclose the source of the division between labor and capital … ” Estranged Labor, 1844.

  5. “Now, therefore, we have to grasp the essential connection between private property, greed, and the separation of labor, capital and landed property; between exchange and competition, value and the devaluation of men, monopoly and competition, etc., … the connection between this whole estrangement and the money system.”

    Karl Marx in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, ed. with an introduction by Dirk J. Struik, translated by Martin Milligan, International Publishers, New York, N.Y., 1964.

  6. Mishan, E.J ., “The Cost of Economic Growth,” Staples Press, p. 40, 1970, London, England.
  7. The following statement pertains to a different historical epoch but the ideas are still relevant:

    “In the progress of the division of labor, the employment is of the far greater part of those who have by labor, that is, of the great body of the people, come to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore the habit of such exertion and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become … It is otherwise in the barbarous societies, as they are commonly called, of hunters, of shepherds, and even husbandman in that crude state of husbandry which preceeds the improvement of manufactures. In such societies the varied occupations of every man oblige every man to exert his capacity, and to invent expedients for removing difficulties which are continually occurring. Invention is kept alive, and the mind is not suffered to fall into that drowsy stupidity, which, in a civilized society seems to benumb the understanding of almost all the inferior ranks of people.”

    Smith, Adam, The Wealth of Nations, pp 734-35, Random House, New York, N.Y., 1937.

  8. For an excellent discussion of tracking, see: Down the Up Staircase, by Richard Rothstein, available from Teachers Organizing Project, NUC, Chicago Teachers Center, 852 West Belmont Avenue, Chicago, Ill. 60657. Reprinted in This Magazine is About Schools, vol. 5, no. 3, summer, 1971.