YouTube Gives a New Home to Racist Views on IQ
The topic of IQ has been making a resurgence on YouTube not only as a good way to measure intelligence, but as a tool that can be used to promote scientific racism.
In February, YouTuber Logan Paul—best known for gawking over a dead body in a vlog in Japan’s “suicide forest,” and recently, for hosting conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on his podcast—released a video called “THE MAVERICK HOUSE TAKES IQ TESTS! **loser gets tattooed**.
The video, which has 2.4 million views at time of writing, is exactly as it sounds. Paul and his friends all take an online IQ test. The person with the highest score got $10,000, and the person who got the lowest score had to get a tattoo of their score. The friend who got the lowest score was visibly humiliated, and did not want to go through with the tattoo punishment.
Notably, at one point during the video, Logan says, “We chose this [IQ test] because Joe Rogan did it.”
In January 2018, YouTube and podcasting giant Rogan made an Instagram post showing his score for the BMI IQ test, the same IQ test that Paul and his friends took in the video. In the weeks following this Instagram post, Rogan started to give space on several of his shows to discuss so-called “links” between race and IQ. Clips of Rogan discussing race and IQ with podcaster Sam Harris have accumulated millions of views on the platform.
Harris appeared on Rogan’s podcast after facing backlash in April 2018, when he invited Charles Murray—best known for publishing the notorious book The Bell Curve, where he made a pseudoscientific argument that there are immutable differences of intelligence among ethnic groups—on to his podcast. This was just a few weeks after the New York Times published an op-ed arguing that society should take racial differences in IQ seriously.
Over the past year, the topic of IQ has been making a resurgence on YouTube not only as a good way to measure intelligence, but a tool that can be used to promote scientific racism. Videos about IQ, especially race and IQ, often get hundreds of thousands of views or more.
Many channels—including ones with moderate followings like Crispy Concords, Tibees, and Quick Reaction Team—have made videos in the past year that capitalize on the fact that “IQ” is now an search term goldmine on YouTube. Dozens of videos that mention “IQ” are uploaded to the site every hour. Although some of the top results “debunk” the usefulness of IQ, most of them do not.
Even channels that discuss IQ but not race—such as the Paul video—operate under the implicit assumption that IQ is a reliable way to measure intelligence. These channels also appear to take advantage of the fact that race-IQ videos do well on YouTube, and attempt to capitalize on it.
When contacted by Motherboard via email, Paul’s publicist said, “Thank you for thinking of Logan but he is not available at this time.”
The efficacy of IQ, or intelligence quotient, as a measure of human “intelligence” is highly debated.
“IQ tests measure part of intelligence,” Robert Sternberg, a professor of human development at Cornell who has studied psychology and intelligence, told Motherboard in an email. “Neither Binet nor Wechsler, the originators of the tests, believed that they measured the whole thing.”
IQ assessments—developed in the early twentieth century—include visual mathematical problems and claim to test for the variable “g,” or general intelligence. But since cognitive ability takes on many forms, it’s mostly inaccurate to say that “g” truly measures intelligence.
Sternberg told Motherboard that IQ tests for skill in for many school-based tasks and some life-based tasks. It doesn’t test your ability to listen to others, work in groups, generate creative ideas, or manifest your ideas into the real world.
The way that we think is inscribed in us socially. In other words, if you’re white and upper middle class, with immense resources to invest into your school-based education, you’re more likely to succeed in IQ-based skills.
“People with higher IQs tend to do better in life, but that is partly because they are given more educational and other opportunities, which can create self-fulfilling prophecies,” Sternberg said.
Proponents of IQ as an accurate measure of intelligence will usually say that IQ reflects innate ability, but scholars have pointed out that IQ is not a rigorous enough test to measure innate intelligence. “G” is not a physical trait, or a gene that programs the brain. It’s a variable that exists for the purpose of IQ tests.
“For researchers who crave the veneer rather the substance of hard science, it is enticing to say that they have a measure that rivals physical measures in precision, even though this is obviously not true,” Sternberg said.
Despite the fact that “g” doesn’t reflect innate intelligence, and there’s no rigorous proof that innate intelligence even exists, IQ tests have been treated as immutable scientific fact and deployed against vulnerable populations. In the twentieth century, at the peak of the eugenics movement, the results of IQ tests were weaponized against people of color—who are structurally subject to reduced opportunity in society—to justify racism, bigotry, stratified opportunity, and forced sterilization.
A century later, bigots are still weaponizing faulty interpretations of IQ tests. But now, YouTube provides a platform where this manifestation of scientific racism has a new face: not the old man, but the charismatic influencer.
Becca Lewis, a researcher for Data and Society, published a research paper last year that outlined what she called the “Alternative Influence Network” (AIN). The AIN is an informal network of YouTube creators whose beliefs range from mainstream conservatism or so-called “classical liberalism” to white supremacy. Lewis explained that through promotions and collaborations, the AIN connects mainstream figures such as Rogan to more fringe beliefs.
In a phone call with Motherboard, Lewis said that scientific racism—such as the race and IQ discourse—is one of the key bridges between mainstream and fringe AIN beliefs.
“One thing I saw in my research was this network of influencers ranged from very mainstream conservatives, and libertarians, all the way through to white supremacists and white nationalists,” Lewis said. “But one of the really crucial bridges between those two—in terms of the type of rhetoric that was being used—was rhetoric around eugenics and scientific racism.”
Lewis said that the fact that Paul cited Rogan in his video about IQ proves that the AIN has reach in mainstream YouTube culture. “The AIN, and the content that’s coming out of it, clearly has influence beyond just the bounds of that network,” Lewis said.
A YouTube spokesperson said in an email to Motherboard, “Videos on our platform represent a wide variety of perspectives, including some that people may strongly disagree with.”
The spokesperson also said that the videos mentioned in this article, and other videos about race and IQ that appeared in YouTube search results, do not violate YouTube’s Community Guidelines. While YouTube's Community Guidelines forbids "hateful" content, that's defined as "promoting or condoning violence," or having a "primary purpose" of "inciting hatred."
The people who make videos about race and IQ evade this definition. By trying to seem like reluctant messengers of truth, they’re still able to make deeply racist arguments and evade YouTube’s definition of “inciting hatred.”
If you search for the term “IQ” on YouTube with your browser in incognito mode, about half of the top ten results will be videos featuring Jordan Peterson, a Canadian professor known for his lectures about a widespread “crisis in masculinity.” Almost all of them were released in 2018, around the time that Harris collaborated with Murray and Rogan.
Peterson says that IQ is a single, irreducible heritable trait, and then argues that smart people have more cognitively difficult, higher-paying jobs, while people with IQs below 83 have no place in modern society.
“What it implies is that in a complex society like ours, and one that’s becoming increasingly complex, there isn’t anything for 10 percent of the population,” Peterson says.
This argument supports a controversial, meritocratic understanding for the world—and it also ignores the fact that there’s no proof that IQ gauges intelligence as Peterson understands it.
Peterson’s claim is also completely unsubstantiated. Peterson cites unspecified “military research” from World War I. Motherboard, and even Jordan Peterson fans, have searched for this research unsuccessfully. The military did test intelligence in World War I, but they used English literacy tests, meaning immigrants or non-white soldiers were deemed to have a lower average intelligence than English-speaking white soldiers.
Peterson essentially makes the same faulty argument as Murrary: that IQ is a sound scientific concept that can accurately predict intelligence, and it should be analyzed through race. Peterson says that the prevalence of people with low IQs is a crisis, and vaguely incites action.
“Well what are we going to do, are we going to ignore that?” Peterson asks. “Are we going to run away from that?”
Paul’s eagerness to entertain IQ, and Rogan and Peterson’s willingness to discuss faulty links between race and IQ, link them with more fringe, far-right figures. For instance, far-right YouTuber Stefan Molyneux has also discussed so-called links between race and IQ, and he also hosts people who publish white supremacist blogs on his podcast.
Discussing race and IQ has been a long-known tactic of the far right. By attempting to falsely attribute their racist beliefs to social science, far-right figures try to increase their credibility. But over the past year especially, this hateful belief has been encroaching its way into the YouTube mainstream.
Finding a solution for this problem won’t be easy. One solution could be taking down videos about race and IQ. This would likely prompt outcry about “free speech” and “censorship” from the AIN.
Another solution could be fact-checking, as YouTube automatically populates videos with links to Wikipedia articles when they touch upon topics associated with conspiracy theories or misinformation, such as flat earth videos. Race and IQ videos do not automatically populate with Wikipedia article links.
But as Lewis highlights in her Data and Society Report, AIN influencers take pride in presenting themselves as independent of credible fact-checking organizations. Many of their followers simply don’t trust information that doesn’t come from a YouTube influencer.
So long as there is hate in the world, there will be hate on the internet. But hate thrives on YouTube specifically because it only bans videos that are explicitly hateful. Yet the videos that racicalize viewers are largely unmoderated, and rewarded by the platform through monetization.
“Scientific racism has been promoted for hundreds of years; it’s nothing new,” Lewis told Motherboard. “But it really has found a home on YouTube.”