Arthur Jensen, a UC Berkeley professor whose scholarly contributions to the field of psychological measurement were often overshadowed by the furor over his findings on race-based differences in intelligence, has died. He was 89.
One of the most provocative figures in 20th century psychology, Jensen died Oct. 22 at his home in the Northern California town of Kelseyville. He had Parkinson’s disease and other ailments, said his son-in-law Joe Morey.
In 1969, Jensen reignited a long-simmering debate over race and intelligence with an article in the Harvard Educational Review defending studies showing whites scored an average of 15 points higher than blacks on standard IQ tests. He argued that the gap was largely due to genetic differences between the two groups and not, as he had previously believed, to cultural and environmental factors.
His assertions, which came amid the social and political turmoil of the late 1960s, stirred critics to call him a racist. His lectures were disrupted by angry mobs, bomb squads handled his mail and irate colleagues mounted a campaign to formally censure him.
The effort failed and the tenured professor continued to teach at Berkeley until his retirement in 1994, but controversy dogged him for years. In 1977, Margaret Mead, the eminent anthropologist, attempted to block his nomination as a fellow of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, arguing that his selection would amount to an endorsement of racist theories.
She lost, but his notoriety endured. In the 1990s protesters in London pelted him with tomatoes at a lecture hall. “Jensenism” became a term of rebuke, used against those who championed theories about whites’ superiority. “Jensenism,” evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once declared, rested “on a rotten edifice.”
Jensen “took incredible abuse,” said Charles Murray, the political scientist whose 1994 bestseller, “The Bell Curve,” co-written with Harvard professor Richard J. Herrnstein, opened the next chapter in the so-called IQ wars with a wide-ranging examination of intelligence and class structure that included a discussion of racial differences in intelligence. “Although he had this reputation as a very controversial figure, he was actually a pure academic and almost a naive one. He was … devoted to analysis and kind of obtuse about the reaction he would provoke with the findings he came out with.
“But he was a remarkable man,” Murray said, “an extremely important psychometrician who published very important work.”
James R. Flynn, an authority on IQ tests who gained prominence with his discovery of the worldwide increase in IQ scores known as the “Flynn effect,” said in an interview this week that Jensen made “landmark contributions” to psychology, most of which had nothing to do with questions of race.
Jensen asserted that IQ tests were valid measures of intelligence that did not discriminate against blacks or other minorities. This was the subject of his 1980 book, “Bias in Mental Testing,” which Flynn called a classic in the field of psychological measurement.
Flynn and others also credit Jensen with resurrecting the long-maligned concept of inherited general intelligence, which scholars in the field refer to as the g-factor. Jensen’s research correlating brain speed, or mental reaction times, to IQ has led to research confirming the neurological and physiological basis of core intelligence. “Arthur Jensen contributed hugely to progress in that area,” Murray said.
Jensen exhibited unusual interests at an early age. Born in San Diego on Aug. 24, 1923, he was the only son of a lumber store owner and his wife, a hardy pioneer who traveled to California by stage coach. He attended public schools and read voraciously, earning the nickname “Little Prof” from his family because of his penchant for delivering lectures about his readings at the dinner table.
He dreamed of becoming an orchestra conductor and at 13 he achieved his ambition when he took the baton of a local symphony. He also collected snakes and other reptiles, which he traded to the herpetologist at the San Diego Zoo.
He told the New York Times in 1969 that his interest in IQ may have been inspired by an aunt who gave him a book on the subject in high school. He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at UC Berkeley in 1945 and a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University in 1956. He was a research fellow at London’s Institute of Psychiatry, where he worked with Hans Eysenck, an authority on personality and intelligence.
At UC Berkeley, which he joined in 1958, he devoted himself to studies of intelligence and behavior. It was there he met Barbara Jane DeLarme, a psychology student whom he married in 1960.
His wife died in 2007. Jensen is survived by their daughter, Roberta Ann “Bobbi” Morey, and a step-grandson, Chris Morey.
Jensen was a low-key figure in Berkeley’s hotbed of radicalism. “If you met him during his long tenure on the Berkeley campus,” Frank Miele, a former editor of Skeptic magazine, wrote some years ago, “you’d be much more likely to think he taught business or law than psychology.”
“He was a very nice guy,” said UC Berkeley educational psychologist Frank Worrell, who took a class from Jensen as a graduate student in the late 1980s. A Trinidad native of African descent, Worrell recalled that fellow students told him to avoid the professor because he was a racist, but Jensen wound up giving Worrell the highest grade in the class. “I never saw any sign of racism,” his former student said.
What Worrell had no trouble recognizing was Jensen’s devotion to science and data-driven research.
“I argued a lot, but his thing was ‘Show me your data,’ ” Worrell said. “I know many of his ideas come across as racist to others, but he was interpreting the data as he saw it.
“I would also point out that for him the gap in IQ scores did not speak to the inherent worth of an individual.”
Although subsequent studies show that the white-black IQ gap has narrowed, Jensen did not waver in his belief that such differences are rooted in nature more than in nurture.
“The study of human differences cannot be racist,” he told the London-based Times Higher Education Supplement in 1996. Comparing himself to anthropologists and medical researchers who study physical differences between racial groups, he said, “I’m simply doing the same thing with this trait” called general intelligence.