Bronze-level articleThe Bell Curve

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Publishers, forget about carefully reasoned, nuanced discussions of the issues of the day—that stuff is for college want to make the big bucks, you need to think like a boxing promoter and stage fights that will get attention. And nothing, but nothing, draws hype like a match-up between liberal pundits and the man they love to hate, the belligerent behind the The Bell Curve, the warrior against welfare, the proudly politically incorrect Charles Murray.
—Peter Schmidt[1]

The Bell Curve is a highly controversial 1994 book by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray. It purports to show that intelligence is the most dominant factor in the trajectory of each person's life, and it serves to predict such things as socioeconomic status and tendencies towards criminal behavior. The book has served as a platform for many modern-day racists, giving them an "intellectual" basis and source of data to support many of their beliefs. Quite a bit of the research compiled within The Bell Curve is not disputed, but the conclusions drawn from it are widely considered to be bunk, and it has been criticized for aiding racist ideologies.


[edit] The "cognitive elite"

Drawing on author Charles Murray's background in statistics and Richard Herrnstein's background in psychology, the book uses a variety of analyses of such factors as crime rate, pre-teen pregnancy and income in order to point to the success of what the authors call the "cognitive elite."[2] Such claims are already suspect, as many experts argue that the correlation between low performance on IQ tests and poverty is indeed causal, but it's the poverty that causes the poor IQ and not the other way around.[3] The book was also criticized for its selective use of research on education.[4]

According to the authors, the heritability of IQ is about 60%. This constitutes one of the foundations of their argument that society is becoming more stratified by intelligence and the "cognitive elite" is separating itself from the rest of society's rabble through (self-)selective breeding. In his review, philosopher Ned Block noted that Herrnstein and Murray conflated genetic determination with heritability. He also demonstrates that differences in a trait that is 100% heritable within a group may not be at all heritable between groups.[5] Recent advances in genome wide association studies have begun to discover some genetic basis for educational attainment and cognitive ability.[6][7][8]

The public furor over the book led the American Psychological Association to assemble a task force on the validity of intelligence testing. The APA reaffirmed the basic usefulness of IQ testing, but pointed out a number of shortcomings and limitations in the way it was used by Herrnstein and Murray.[9] One issue the APA review notes with using IQ testing is the "Flynn effect," in which IQ scores were found to have been rising over the 20th century by psychologist James Flynn.[10] This is a rather ironic criticism, as The Bell Curve actually coined the term "Flynn effect," though the authors claim that the effect merely represented rising IQ scores but not an increase in general intelligence ("g") and that the "real" average IQ of the American population was declining. One wonders that if IQs are not a real measure of intelligence, then what exactly is Murray basing his claims on? At any rate, the fact that the nature and cause(s) of the Flynn effect are still unknown and debated to this day.

Further tests of verbal ability have also challenged the book on this front in terms of its claims of increased "cognitive sorting."[11] In addition, the claims of "cognitive sorting" often commit one of the basic fallacies of eugenics: Conflating genotype and phenotype. The overarching thesis concerning the "cognitive elite" boils down to their deep concern that the smarties are being out-bred by the idiots. This was a perpetual claim of the eugenicists of the 19th and 20th centuries, most famously summed up in Cyril Kornbluth's short story "The Marching Morons" and recycled in the movie Idiocracy.[12]

Murray would later revisit this foreseen fate - a division between the elite and the rest - in his 2010 Coming Apart: The State of White America,[13] which argues that a vast cultural gap has appeared between wealthy and lower-class Caucasians, deriving in no small part from these groups' respective genetic inheritances.

[edit] Race and innate intelligence

See the main article on this topic: Racialism

Far more crankish, though, was The Bell Curve's further conclusion in the third and fourth parts of the book that innate intelligence plays an important role in the different socioeconomic statuses of differing ethnic groups in the United States. Arguing that intelligence is inherited in large part, and that the average intelligence of different ethnic groups can thus be assessed, the book then concludes that different ethnic groups have varying levels of intelligence, and certain groups are poor or unfortunate mainly because they are not as smart as others.[2] (Many early, knee-jerk criticisms in the media latched onto this point without addressing the rest of the book.)

Further compounding the errors made earlier on, this section of the book rather clearly hearkened back to the long tradition of "scientific racism." Herrnstein and Murray here rely on the biologically invalid concept of race, building on their already shaky neo-eugenic foundation of the "cognitive elite." A Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) review noted:

Anyone who flipped through the footnotes and bibliography of Murray and Herrnstein's book could see that there was something screwy about their sources. And there is hardly a proposition in their book that had not been thoroughly debunked more than a decade ago by Stephen Jay Gould's classic work on the pseudoscience behind eugenics, The Mismeasure of Man.[14][15]

A good deal of research cited in this section of the book was found to have been funded in part by the Pioneer Fund, which was infamous for its advocacy of eugenics.[16] There's really no subtlety to this. Notably, one of the sources cited favorably multiple times was J. Philippe Rushton, a psychologist who claimed "Mongoloids" were the more intelligent "race" (followed by the "Caucasoids" and then the "Negroids") and believed penis size to be inversely correlated with intelligence.[17] Herrnstein and Murray then took a page out of Thomas Malthus' playbook and used this "research" to call for the end of welfare programs that would cause the moochers, looters, and parasites to reproduce at an increasing rate.

[edit] Influence

Despite frequent and harsh criticism by academics, in some venues The Bell Curve has proven disturbingly influential. The ongoing strength of its lines of argument has continued up to the present day, particularly during such contentious public discussions as the American debate over illegal immigration from Mexico. Heritage Foundation analyst[18] Jason Richwine, notable for co-authoring that organization's report on why illegal immigrants would feast on the blood of white babies,[19] made headlines in 2013 after it was discovered that his 2009 Harvard doctoral dissertation argued that persistent differences in IQ among Hispanics suggest that IQ tests should serve as a barrier to immigration.[20] Richwine cites Murray in the dissertation, stating that “no one was more influential than Charles Murray.”[21]

Richwine shouldn't be condemned for his work (though we should be questioning the rigor of his defense panel) — even reprehensible thought experiments have their place in serious academic discussions — but he is only one of many who continue to champion the message of The Bell Curve, nearly twenty years later.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] References

[edit] References

  1. Schmidt, Charles, "Charles Murray Steps Back Into the Ring ("Oh no he di'n't")", Chronicles of Higher Education 2.12.12. Murray: "I am sure there are still sociology departments where people would cross themselves if I came into the room."
  2. 2.0 2.1 The Bell Curve. Herrnstein, Richard J. and Charles Murray. Free Press: 1994.
  3. Children in Poverty. Huston, Aletha. Cambridge University Press: 1991.
  4. Cracked Bell, James J. Heckman, Reason (of all people).
  5. Ned Block. How Heritability Misleads About Race. The Boston Review, XX, no 6, January, 1996, p. 30-35
  9. Ulric Neisser et al. Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns. American Psychologist, Vol. 51, No. 2, 1996.
  10. Flynn Effect page
  11. Hauser and Huang. Verbal Ability and Socioeconomic Success: A Trend Analysis. Social Science Research, Volume 26, Number 3, September 1997 , pp. 331-376(46)
  12. There Are No Marching Morons, PZ Myers
  13. Coming Apart on Amazon
  14. Racism Resurgent, FAIR
  15. Gould also updated his work after the release of The Bell Curve. See also his review in The New Yorker.
  16. Bell Curve and Pioneer Fund
  17. SPLC profile of Rushton
  18. "About That Dissertation". National Review Online
  19. "The Fiscal Cost of Unlawful Immigrants and Amnesty to the U.S. Taxpayer"
  20. "IQ and Immigration Policy", Jason Richwine
  21. The Inside Story of the Harvard Dissertation That Became Too Racist for Heritage, ThinkProgress
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