Nisbett`s Intelligence And How To Get It: Why no mention of Milwaukee Project fraud?
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June 16, 2009, 01:25 PM
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As a follow-up to my last column, let me add that in psychologist Richard E. Nisbett`s much-lauded new book Intelligence and How to Get It, he devotes pages 124-126 to recounting the successes at raising black test scores achieved by Rick Heber`s Milwaukee Project. This was an expensive late-1960s study much like the Early Childhood Education endeavors that Barack Obama is now promoting.

Nisbett writes with a straight face:

An intervention even more ambitious than the Perry program was started by researchers in Milwaukee. Rick Heber, the program`s initiator, discovered that one particular area of the city, which 3 percent of the population, accounted for 33 percent of the mentally retarded children in the district. He decided to concentrate his resources on that section of the city. All of the children recruited for the study were African Americans at high risk for mental retardation because their mothers were poor and had IQs of 75 or less. The children were randomly assigned either to a control group (eighteen children) or to an intervention group (seventeen children), which was an intensive day-care program lasting from the time the children were less than six months old until they enrolled in first grade. ...

At termination of the program at age seven, the average treatment-group IQ was still 22 points higher than the average for the control group. (Note that this gives an even higher upper bound for the differences between typical lower-SES rearing strategies and superior strategies.)

Amusingly, Nisbett never mentions that Heber went to prison for fraud in connection with the Milwaukee Project! The Concise Encyclopedia of Special Education says:

HEBER, RICK R. (1932-1992)

... Heber is best known for his work as principal investigator of the Milwaukee Project and the subsequent controversies surrounding the project. ... Heber was a member of the faculty of the University of Wisconsin at Madison when he was indicted on charges stemming from the misuse of federal funds allocated to the project. He was subsequently convicted and served time in the federal prison in Bastrop, Texas. Previously a respected scholar in the field of mental retardation, his academic work on the Milwaukee Project has been called into serious question. It is now questionable whether the project ever actually existed as it had been described by Heber.

And here`s the Encyclopedia`s description of this Milwaukee Project that Nisbett takes so seriously:


The term Milwaukee Project is the popular title of a widely publicized program begun in the mid-1960s as one of many Great Society efforts to improve the intellectual development of low-achieving groups. It was headed by Rick Heber of the University of Wisconsin (UW), Madison, who was also director of the generously funded Waisman Institute in Madison. The Milwaukee Project was a small study with some 20 experimental subjects and 20 control subjects. It was not reported on by the investigators in any refereed scientific journals, yet its cost was some $14 million, mostly in federal funds, and its fame was international, since it claimed to have moved the IQs of its subject children from the dull-normal range of intelligence to the superior range of intelligence.

Enthusiasm, controversy, and scandal subsequently surrounded the history of the project. Its claimed success was hailed by famous psychologists and by the popular media. Later in the project, Heber, the principal investigator, was discharged from UW, Madison and convicted and imprisoned for large-scale abuse of federal funding for private gain. Two of his colleagues were also convicted of violations of federal laws in connection with misuse of project funds. …. However, the project received uncritical acceptance in many college textbooks in psychology and education.

Hmmhmmhmm … This reference book gives a rather different perspective on the Milwaukee Project than Nisbett’s book, no?

To be fair to Nisbett, perhaps he never heard of Heber’s fraud conviction 28 years ago. After all, it didn’t get much coverage from the media outlets that had earlier trumpeted Heber`s press releases.

On the other hand, imagine how you would never hear the end of it if, say, Charles Murray wound up in the slammer …