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The Bell Curve

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This article is about a book. For the statistical concept, see Gaussian distribution.
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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 egalitarian ideal of contemporary political theory underestimates the importance of the differences that separate human beings. It has become objectionable to say that some people are superior to other people in any way that is relevant to life in society … Discrimination, once a useful word with a praiseworthy meaning, is now almost always used in a pejorative sense.
The Bell Curve

The Bell Curve (ISBN 9780029146736) is a highly controversial 1994 book by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray.[2] It purports to show that intelligence is dispositive in the trajectory of each person's life, and that can be used to predict such things as socioeconomic status and tendencies toward criminal behavior.

Much of the research in The Bell Curve is not disputed, but the conclusions drawn from it (low IQ is to blame for the underclass) are frequently cited by eugenics and white nationalist movements.[3][4][5] Their work bubbled up in 2014 after Representative Paul Ryan applauded Murray’s work in his speech about “inner cities.”[6]

Murray is listed as a scholar for the American Enterprise Institute, which is sponsored by the Kochs. Murray is essentially a right-leaning libertarian who argues that innate individual differences help explain economic inequality.[7][8] Also, to describe how sociologically ignorant he himself was as a teenager, Murray said that he as a teenager didn't recognize any racial implications when he and his friends burned a cross.[9]

The "cognitive elite"[edit]

Drawing on author Murray's background in political science and on Herrnstein's background in psychology, the book cites such factors as crime rates, teen pregnancy, and income to explain what they call the "cognitive elite."[10] These claims are suspect. Many experts argue that the correlation between low performance on IQ tests and poverty is indeed causal, but it's poverty that explains low IQ, not the other way around.[11] The book was also criticized for its selective use of research on education.[12]

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.[13] Recent advances in genome wide association studies have begun to discover some genetic basis for educational attainment and cognitive ability.[14][15][16]

The public furor over the book prompted 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 noted several shortcomings in the way Herrnstein and Murray used it.[17] 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.[18] 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 having refuted the sole means of measuring IQ, what exactly is Murray basing his claims on? At any rate, the fact is 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."[19] 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.[20]

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,[21] 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.

Race and innate intelligence[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Racialism
Chocolate rain,
The bell curve blames the baby's DNA
Chocolate Rain,
But test scores are how much the parents make
—Tay Zonday

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.[10] (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.[22][23]

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.[24] There's really no subtlety to this. Notably, one of the sources cited favorably multiple times was J. Philippe Rushton, a crank 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.[25] The Bell Curve's conclusions on race and intelligence has been debunked by prominent behavioral scientists.[26][27]


Herrnstein and Murray advocated for replacing the welfare state with cash supplements.[28] Cash supplements are a form of welfare; the only difference is that cash supplements are a form of welfare to help people get off welfare. Cash supplements are effective in aiding long-term welfare recipients to the path to employment when cash supplements work together with welfare payments to reduce inequality.[29] There is no evidence that completely replacing the welfare state with cash supplements actually works. In his later years, Murray seems to have gone to the left on welfare policy. He wrote a book advocating for the replacement of the welfare state with a guaranteed income of $10,000 a year for every American and financing it by raising taxes on Americans who make more than $25,000 per-year. He got blasted by The Atlantic for his plan making no fiscal sense.[30]

Murray argues that welfare cannot be effective in reducing inequality as these "welfare mothers" IQ were too low.[31] He further argues that welfare state allows these low-IQ women to game the system as they are not able to get a job as they are too dumb.[31] This is incorrect as a person's IQ is based on socioeconomic status, not the inverse. Improving intelligence of the general population is easy. The research showing that simple free public education vastly increases intelligence is quickly dismissed as flawed in the book.[32] It's also rather odd that Murray thinks women who are "too dumb to get a job" are simultaneously smart enough to "game the system".

Herrnstein and Murray's interception of the data is skewed to fit into an American conservative viewpoint.


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[33] Jason Richwine, notable for co-authoring that organization's report on why illegal immigrants would feast on the blood of white babies,[34] 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.[35] Richwine cites Murray in the dissertation, stating that “no one was more influential than Charles Murray.”[36]

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.


Murray's self-promotion with Coming Apart: The State of White America has been successful in re-framing his arguments. He intentionally focused on the white working class in order to avoid racial controversy, so instead of bashing poor people of all races, he only bashes poor whites and the cognitive elite who are failing to spread their genes and bourgeois values.[37] Of course this is just another retread of a subject matter that was discussed even back in the 1800s, and Murray's book unsurprisingly aligns with the Victorian idea that the poor are just inferior.[38] This worked perfectly and the pundits ate it up,[39] even though it's the same basic ideas from The Bell Curve but with the race parts scrubbed out.

In a 2 hour hand-holding and praise-fest, Sam Harris went completely out of his way to extol Murray as a principled victim of "academic injustice", ignoring the actual details of Murray's work. In short, Harris and ilk are using Murray as a weapon. They claim the left is ignoring the substance of his ideas,[40] but Murray is not objected to because he's vaguely "conservative" in some way. He's a pretend sociologist peddling turn-of-the-century dysgenic paranoia, updated for the turn-of-the-21st freeze peach warriors.

Useless nerd trivia[edit]

The 977 page rulebook for the infamously racist (duh), misogynistic, homophobic, ableist, and overall unplayable[41] "adult" fantasy medieval role-playing game, F.A.T.A.L. (2002) cites The Bell Curve in its bibliography, along with non-peer reviewed works on physiognomy, cognitive differences between sexes, and other discredited quackery.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]



  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. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray (1994) Free Press. ISBN 0029146739.
  3. Rothbard, Murray, "Race! That Murray Book", December 1994.
  4. Charles Murray entry] at SPLC.
  5. Sam Seder mocks racial realist for 15 straight minutes.
  6. Isquith, Elias, "Dem congressman slams Paul Ryan for endorsing Charles Murray’s “racist sewage” ", Salon (23 April 2014, 6:01 PM PST).
  7. McGrath, Charles, "Just Leave Them Behind", NYT 29 October 2008.
  8. "What Charles Murray Doesn't Get About Women and Philosophy", Atlantic 17 April 2014.
  9. Herbert, Bob, "In America; Throwing a Curve", NYT 26 October 1994.
  10. 10.0 10.1 The Bell Curve. Herrnstein, Richard J. and Charles Murray. Free Press: 1994.
  11. Children in Poverty. Huston, Aletha. Cambridge University Press: 1991.
  12. Cracked Bell, James J. Heckman, Reason (of all people).
  13. Ned Block. How Heritability Misleads About Race. The Boston Review, XX, no 6, January, 1996, p. 30-35
  17. Ulric Neisser et al. Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns. American Psychologist, Vol. 51, No. 2, 1996.
  18. Flynn Effect page
  19. Hauser and Huang. Verbal Ability and Socioeconomic Success: A Trend Analysis. Social Science Research, Volume 26, Number 3, September 1997 , pp. 331-376(46)
  20. There Are No Marching Morons, PZ Myers
  21. Coming Apart on Amazon
  22. Racism Resurgent, FAIR
  23. Gould also updated his work after the release of The Bell Curve. See also his review in The New Yorker.
  24. Bell Curve and Pioneer Fund
  25. SPLC profile of Rushton
  26. Charles Murray is Once Again Peddling Junk Sciencce about Race and IQ (Turkheimer et al 2017)
  27. There's Still No Good Reason to Believe Black-White IQ Differences Are Due to Genetics (Turkheimer et al 2017)
  28. "The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life" by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray. A Free Press PaperBacks book. Published by Simon & Schuster Chapter 22: A Place For Everyone. pages 547-548 of 872.
  29. Canadian Self-Sufficiency Project Coalition for Evidence Based Policy
  30. "Why Murray's Big Idea Won't Work" Written by Anonymous for The Atlantic. April 2006 issue.
  31. 31.0 31.1 Interview on race and IQ, “Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg,” PBS, 1994
  32. The Skewed Logic of The Bell-Shaped Curve Skeptic Magazine
  33. "About That Dissertation". National Review Online
  34. "The Fiscal Cost of Unlawful Immigrants and Amnesty to the U.S. Taxpayer"
  35. "IQ and Immigration Policy", Jason Richwine
  36. The Inside Story of the Harvard Dissertation That Became Too Racist for Heritage, ThinkProgress
  37. Haq, Husana, "'Coming Apart': Charles Murray sees an America divided, but not by race", CSMonitor 7 February 2012.
  39. Hanlon, Aaron R., "The Myth of the “Marketplace of Ideas” on Campus", New Republic 6 March 2017.
  40. Hains, Tim, "Charles Murray: Hillary Clinton's 'Deplorables' Comment May Have Changed The Course Of World History", RCP 25 April 2017.
  41. You can read an extremely long but hilarious review here