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Born in New York City, he served in the United States Army from 1955-1957. Gordon earned his B.A. from the College of the City of New York in 1957, then attended the University of Chicago, earning his M.A. in 1961 and his Ph.D. in 1963. That year, he began teaching at Johns Hopkins University, where he has been since.
He was the second husband of Linda Gottfredson and was one of 52 signatories on "Mainstream Science on Intelligence," an editorial written by Gottfredson and published in the Wall Street Journal, which defended the findings on race and intelligence in The Bell Curve. He has also criticized a 1994 ABC news report on the Pioneer Fund in an extensive commentary. Gordon and Gottfredson have both received money from the controversial fund.