- This post republishes under Creative Commons licence an extract of an original paper authored by Michael Wintroub and published in Humanities and Social Sciences Communications volume 7, Article number: 41 (2020).
- A Correction to this article was published on 27 August 2020.
“Sordid Genealogies: A Conjectural History of Cambridge Analytica’s Eugenic Roots” explores the history of the methods employed by Cambridge Analytica to influence the 2016 US presidential election. It focuses on the history of psychometric analysis, trait psychology, the lexical hypothesis and multivariate factor analysis, and how they developed in close conjunction with the history of eugenics. More particularly, it will analyze how the work of Francis Galton, Ludwig Klages, Charles Spearman, and Raymond Cattell (among others) contributed to the manifold translations between statistics, the pseudoscience of eugenics, the politics of Trumpism, and the data driven psychology of the personality championed by Cambridge Analytica.
This post continues with an extract from the article focusing on the British Psychologist Charles Spearman.
The Sordid G of Charles Spearman
While Charles Spearman did not take up the study of the Lexical Hypothesis, he helped develop the statistical tools through which Allport and Odburt’s work could be carried forward. Spearman conducted his graduate work under the supervision of Wilhelm Wundt, founder of the Institut für Experimentelle Psychologie in Lepizig and regarded by many to be the “father” of experimental psychology. Spearman joined his laboratory in 1897, receiving his doctorate in psychology in 1906. While in Leipzig, he worked less with Wundt than with his student, Oswald Külpe, who had rebelled against his Doctorvater’s notions of mental causality to root psychology in corporeal experience instead, that is, in physiology and biology (Kusch, 1995, pp. 143–145). This had the effect of opening-up higher mental processes, such as intelligence, to experimental analysis, something that Wundt had resisted, but which was to orient Spearman’s research for the rest of his life. From his years in Leipzig, Spearman worked tirelessly to localize intelligence as a differentiable heritable trait that could be experimentally investigated, statistically analyzed, and eugenically harvested.
One of the most significant relationships that Spearman cultivated in Leipzig was with Felix Krueger, who was to succeed Wundt as chair at the Institute in 1917. Today, Krueger is well-known for his role in founding a “holistic” psychology (Ganzheitspsychologie), which aimed to transform Wundt’s wide-ranging research on Völkerpsychologie into a nationalist Völkisch ideology of “blood and soil” (Klautke, 2013, p. 88). Krueger’s holism followed in the same current of anti-rationalist vitalism as Klages’ philosophy (Geuter, 2003, p. 202; Harrington, 1995). Many of his theories, especially on the psychology of the community and the concept of the supra-personal whole (Ganzheit) of the Völk, were to become key components of National Socialist ideology (Varshizky, 2017, p. 248; Mandler, 2006, p. 129). It is thus not surprising that Krueger shared Klages’ deep-seated animosity toward the corrupting presence of Jews in Germany, or that he was among the first to join the nationalistic anti-Semitic society associated with the Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, the Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur (the Militant League for German Culture).
The early collaboration of Krueger and Spearman resulted in their 1907 paper on the positive correlation of different mental abilities, which Spearman called generalized intelligence, or g: the measurable mental energy governing all cognitive activity (Krueger and Spearman, 1907; Spearman, 1904, Gould, 1996, p. 281ff). There were clear affinities between his notions of g as mental energy and the work of Klages and Krueger, who similarly stressed that psychology should turn from “sensations and epistemology” to an appreciation of the “mind or soul” (Gould, 1996, p. 77).Footnote 5 Kreuger’s holistic approach, which focused on the ability to gather the diverse elements of perception into a structured whole, seems closely entangled with Spearman’s notion of g as the expression of a general intelligence correlated across the evidence of multiple trials of the intellect. The synthetic power of unification postulated by Ganzheitspsychologie under National Socialism, like Spearman’s eugenically inspired g, found expression not only in the different cognitive abilities of individuals, but in the intellectual hierarchies found among different races. This view was to take its most extreme form with another of Wundt’s students, and follower of Krueger, Friedrich Sander, who argued for the elimination of the impurities that infected the racial whole, and such eugenic solutions as forced sterilization of “inferior hereditary stock”, and the “eradication of the Jewish parasitic growth” (Quoted in Ash, 1998, p. 343).
Just as important as the fatuous—and eugenic-fueled—understanding of the heritability of mental energy of g in Spearman’s work, were the mathematical methods of multivariate factor analysis he pioneered (Norton, 1979, pp. 142–143; Spearman, 1904). Factor analysis aims to describe underlying correlations between unobserved conjectural variables as causes contributing to correlations among those that can be observed. Like the gravitational effect of an invisible star on the orbit of distant sun, factor analysis makes the invisible visible as a statistical object of analysis.Footnote 6 Thus, Spearman argued that underlying the positive correlation of ranked variables found in the results of students on different cognitive tests was evidence to support an inferred common latent variable or source trait, which he called general intelligence (Spearman, 1904). G, as Spearman conceived it, was a causal entity, responsible for variations of intelligence. Not only was it heritable, it was found in its most energetic and vital form among men like himself—intellectual elites comprising Britain’s professional middle classes. The human consequences of this notion of g were enormous, providing the tools and justifications to rank people, and peoples, numerically on a unilinear scale of intellectual and moral worth (Gould, 1996, p. 269).Footnote 7 This was at the heart of Spearman’s ambition to restructure society on a rational—eugenic—basis.
Thus, for example, in the Introduction to his Magnum Opus, The Abilities of Man (1927), Spearman quotes a “writer of well deserved authority” who wrote the forward to Carl Brigham’s influential book, A Study of American Intelligence (1923):
“Two extraordinarily important tasks confront our nation”, this writer argues, “the protection and improvement of the moral, mental, and physical quality of its people and the reshaping of its industrial system so that it shall promote justice and encourage creative and productive workmanship” (Spearman, 1927, p. 7).
For Spearman, these tasks could be successfully accomplished by intelligence testing. As he put it, “an accurate measurement of everyone’s intelligence would seem to herald the feasibility of selecting the better endowed persons for admission into citizenship—and even for the right of having offspring” (Spearman, 1927, p. 8; see also Spearman and Hart, 1912, p. 78).
It is worth noting that the unnamed (though authoritative) author Spearman quotes was Robert Yerkes, the psychologist responsible for developing and conducting the Alpha and Beta Intelligence Tests given to soldiers in the US army during WWI. Brigham was one of Yerkes’s assistants during the Army tests. In his book, Brigham revisited the data of their study with the explicit aim of determining whether intelligence could be correlated with race. He concluded in the affirmative, arguing that the “Nordic” races were of superior intelligence, while the “Alpine” (Eastern European), “Mediterranean” and “Negro” races were manifestly inferior. His book concluded that “American intelligence is declining, and will proceed with an accelerating rate as the racial admixture becomes more and more extensive. The decline of American intelligence will be more rapid than the decline of the intelligence of European national groups, owing to the presence here of the negro. These are the plain, if somewhat ugly, facts that our study shows. The deterioration of American intelligence is not inevitable, however, if public action can be aroused to prevent it” (Brigham, 1923, p. 210). This “public action” followed almost immediately. Brigham’s arguments were quickly taken up by Harry Laughlin of the Eugenics Records Office in lobbying Congress for the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924, the passage of which was lauded by Adolph Hitler as indicative of America’s obeisance “at least in tentative first steps, to the characteristic Völkisch conception of the state” (Whitman, 2017, p. 63).
Although he only quoted from the beginning of Yerkes’s Forward to A Study of American Intelligence, Spearman surely would have also agreed with its conclusion:
The volume which is the outcome of Mr. Brigham’s inquiry, and which I now have the responsibility and satisfaction of recommending, is substantial as to fact and important in its practical implications. […] The author presents not theories or opinions but facts. It behooves us to consider their reliability and their meaning, for no one of us as a citizen can afford to ignore the menace of race deterioration or the evident relations of immigration to national progress and welfare (Brigham, 1923, p. vii, my emphasis).Footnote 8