Where there’s smoke, there must be fire, right? Revisiting “The Bell Curve”

I read Richard Herrnstein’s & Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve in 1994 along with other members of my book club. The main point, that cognitive ability was coming to play an ever greater role in our society was well-substantiated, and thought-provoking, and led to many stimulating conversations. These cognitive elites appeared to be separating physically and culturally from the rest of American society. What might this mean? Where Herrnstein and Murray discussed what this trend might mean, they reviewed the literature on whether intelligence is more influenced by nature or nurture; as I recall, they said something to the effect of: it’s likely to be a bit of both.

Over the years, I’ve encountered many references to the book which are at odds with what I remember. And the opprobrium has only escalated. I started to ponder my recollection. Could it have been a deeply racist, white nationalist diatribe – and I failed to pick up on it? Surely, given the amount of smoke surrounding the book, there must be some fire.

After the recent Middlebury incident, where protesters seeking to keep Charles Murray from presenting his extreme views became physically violent, I dug out my copy of the book. I intended to reread it and see how the book stacks up with the disparaging accounts I read about it. It is a weighty tome (873 pp) and would demand quite an investment of time. I was delighted therefore when brothers Bo and Ben Winegard, one a psychology professor, the other, a psychology grad student, decided to do the job for me. In A Tale of Two Bell Curves, the brothers Winegard suggest that what is said about the book is so far removed from what is in the book that it’s best to think of the two creations as separate books. They go on to compare the (actual) book’s key claims with the relevant scientific literature – finding none where the assertions are far off the beaten path. They conclude thus:

There are two versions of The Bell Curve. The first is a disgusting and bigoted fraud. The second is a judicious but provocative look at intelligence and its increasing importance in the United States. The first is a fiction. And the second is the real Bell Curve. Because many, if not most, of the pundits who assailed The Bell Curve did not and have not bothered to read it, the fictitious Bell Curve has thrived and continues to inspire furious denunciations. We have suggested that almost all of the proposals of The Bell Curve are plausible. Of course, it is possible that some are incorrect. But we will only know which ones if people responsibly engage the real Bell Curve instead of castigating a caricature.

Following Middlebury, Cornell social scientists, Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci, decided to examine just how extreme Murray’s views are. They transcribed Murray’s Middlebury speech, and had three different groups assess it; professors reviewing it without Murray’s name; professors reviewing it with Murray’s name; and, a group of regular American adults.  Reviewers were asked to rate the material on a scale from 1 to 9, ranging from very liberal to very conservative, with 5 defined as “middle of the road.” All three groups gave the piece a centrist score.  In their NYTimes editorial on the exercise, they conclude:

Our data-gathering exercise suggests that Mr. Murray’s speech was neither offensive nor even particularly conservative. It is not obvious, to put it mildly, that Middlebury students and faculty had a moral obligation to prevent Mr. Murray from airing these views in public.

And finally, neuroscientist-philosopher Sam Harris, in the April 22 2017 episode of his Waking Up podcast, interviewed Charles Murray about “the controversy over The Bell Curve, the validity and significance of IQ as a measure of intelligence, the problem of social stratification, the rise of Trump, universal basic income, and other topics.”

Harris kicks off with his own reflections on how he came to invite Murray for an interview. Like most people, he observes, he had long had a negative opinion of Murray and his work, assuming that “when seemingly respectable people are calling someone a Nazi, a fascist, a white supremacist, a eugenicist – it must be deserved.”  Seeing Murray listed as a contributor to a thematic issue of a journal, led him to decline his own invitation to contribute. Why would he want to associate himself with someone like that? Following Middlebury, he too decided to examine Murray’s work; and, he admits to being very surprised at what he found. Murray’s work reveals him to be a “deeply rational and careful scholar..”, one who is “quite obviously motivated by an ethical concern about inequality in this society.”

Reflecting on the notable gap between Murray and what Murray’s critics say about him  – Harris takes great issue with Murray’s critics. The criticisms appear to have “nothing to do with (Murray’s) errors of scholarship,  or the way he’s conducted himself, or his personal motives. The critics, in fact, ignore much of what Murray and Herrnstein wrote. Murray’s scapegoating derives instead from his “having merely discussed differences in human intelligence at all.”

In case you share Sam Harris’ earlier negative conviction about The Bell Curve and Charles Murray, and you haven’t read the book, I heartily recommend it. I’ll even lend you my copy.

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