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Jewish Journal

Roots of Jewish brainpower

by Brad A. Greenberg

April 13, 2007 | 12:38 pm

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Why are Jews so smart? (Or dumb, depending on your point of reference.) Well, in this month’s Commentary Magazine, controversial scholar Charles Murray, a self-described “Scots-Irish Gentile,” has a piece titled “Jewish Genius” in which he writes that “going back to the time of Moses, Judaism was intertwined with intellectual complexity.”

In the first half of the 20th century, despite pervasive and continuing social discrimination against Jews throughout the Western world, despite the retraction of legal rights, and despite the Holocaust, Jews won 14 percent of Nobel Prizes in literature, chemistry, physics, and medicine/physiology. In the second half of the 20th century, when Nobel Prizes began to be awarded to people from all over the world, that figure rose to 29 percent. So far, in the 21st century, it has been 32 percent. Jews constitute about two-tenths of one percent of the world’s population. You do the math.

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New York City’s public-school system used to administer a pencil-and-paper IQ test to its entire school population. In 1954, a psychologist used those test results to identify all 28 children in the New York public-school system with measured IQ’s of 170 or higher. Of those 28, 24 were Jews.

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Nothing that I have presented up to this point is scientifically controversial. The profile of disproportionately high Jewish accomplishment in the arts and sciences since the 18th century, the reality of elevated Jewish IQ, and the connection between the two are not to be denied by means of data. And so we come to the great question: how and when did this elevated Jewish IQ come about?

Murray, of the American Enterprise Institute, tries to answer that question here. He refutes research published last year in the Journal of Biosocial Science that reported Ashkenazi Jews had heightened intelligence, but not Sephardic or Oriental Jews. Gregory Cochran, an author of that study, snaps back in The Forward.

“I would call it pure speculation,” said Cochran, who is a researcher in Utah. “I don’t think there’s any evidence he’s right.”

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Murray acknowledges that his work is based more on historical impressions than on rigorous science, but it is already provoking debate in a corner of the intellectual world that tends to make Jews very uncomfortable: genetics.

Cochran’s work was widely panned by geneticists, and Murray makes even less of an effort to placate these experts with scientifically grounded evidence. The assumption from which both researchers work — that intelligence has a genetic basis — is still disputed by many scientists. Harry Ostrer, a leading Jewish geneticist, said that Murray’s work was “speculation” and that both Murray and Cochran trade in a “love of group typology — Jews are smart and blacks are great athletes.”

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