As we approach the two year anniversary of scholar J. Philippe Rushton’s death, now would be a good time for me to share my memories of this exceptional man. Being Canadian, I had heard about this man all my life, and the news coverage wasn’t flattering. Canada’s a liberal country, and so Rushton attracted controversy for researching whether there was a link between between brain size, intelligence, geographic ancestry, and sex. But as I developed an interest in Oprah, I couldn’t help but wonder what Rushton would think if he knew the world’s most influential woman was arguably the world’s biggest brained woman, and that perhaps the world’s richest black (at the time) was arguably the world’s biggest brained black. To me the absolute symmetry of something that perfectly aligned was so irresistible, aesthetically pleasing, and almost divine, that I had to tell him.
And so I picked up the phone and began dialing the phone number of the University of Western Ontario, but before the phone had finished ringing I hung up. I was terrified that I would look foolish for even trying to discuss something as lowbrow and pop-culture as a daytime talk show host with a learned scholar. I was also terrified that he would be the racist the media had portrayed him as and would be furious that I even suggested a black woman could be brilliant. I realize these fears sound childish, but I was only a high school kid at the time and a pretty immature one. Finally I decided to walk through my fear and dial the number. I think a switch board operator came on, and I asked to speak with J. Philippe Ruhston, and as his direct line began to ring, part of me was hoping he wouldn’t pick up, and then:
“Phil Rushton, here” he answered.
After making a bit of small talk, I asked him if he had ever seen The Oprah Winfrey Show. He had seen it a few times he replied. I mentioned that her head size was enormous.
“I would imagine that a lot of these black entertainers are very intelligent,” he replied.
“Her head is twenty-five and a quarter inches around,” I explained.
“Where did you get that figure?” he asked, quite startled.
I explained that Oprah had mentioned the figure on her show, in the context of explaining why she has to have her hats custom made.
“Isn’t that interesting that hers should be so big. I’ll have to take a closer look the next time I see her on television”
I then asked him what he thought Oprah’s IQ was, given her incredible wealth. He evaded the question, saying only that she was a unique combination of genes, but did finally say “there are always going to be those who are way off in the top 1%. And indeed one would have to be to succeed in a field as competitive as television talk shows.”
It was unclear whether he meant she was in the top 1% of the general population, or the the top 1% of her race, since Rushton was a race scholar, but either way, the conversation went so well that I would start phoning him once every couple months. On cold dark Canadian afternoons, I would make a nice cup of hot chocolate against the cold outside and phone this brilliant eloquent man I regarded (and still regard) as the Darwin of the 20th century. It was the best education you could have, and I think for him too, it was rewarding to finally talk to someone who was interested in his theories entirely for their scientific value, with no political or ideological motivation whatsoever, and even while still in high school, I had a PhD level of knowledge of intelligence research and I would ask questions he considered “stimulating”, questions that required “a great deal of thought”.
But in life nothing lasts forever, and sadly, Rushton and I drifted apart. I developed an interest in the Flynn effect and was interested to learn that Victorians had scored the same as modern Africans on culture reduced IQ tests. I thought Rushton would also find it interesting because he did a lot of cross-cultural IQ testing, administering culture reduced IQ tests to South African Blacks and European Roma…but he didn’t find it interesting, he found it boring and would have none of it.
It turned out Rushton was one of those “The Flynn effect is irrelevant” people. He found it prima facie absurd that we could have been a nation of mentally disabled people a century ago. It simply didn’t make any sense to him, given the outstanding achievements of early 20th century society. But it didn’t make any sense to me why the same tests that were culture reduced enough to measure the intelligence of South Africans could be so wrong when measuring Victorian intelligence. I needed an explanation. The Flynn effect is unrelated to g (general intelligence) and that was enough for him to just dismiss it and move on.
But in one of our last conversations, he told me that he thought my Oprah discovery was absolutely fascinating and encouraged me to publish it in an academic journal. I decided it would be much easier to just publish it on my blog instead; I just deeply regret having waited so long to do so, because I had no idea he would die so young.
I realize many people were deeply offended by his theories and I have great empathy for that, but Rushton deserves great credit for maintaining his convictions and dignity in the face of unimaginable academic, media, and political hostility. And when I see this video, it makes me smile: