modern mindset: Everyone of above-average intelligence knows that
everyone is equal.
I don’t think it’s a matter of growing jaded.
is, you begin with the usual well-intended prejudices. You assume it’s all
been settled. You assume that our best minds have done the yeoman’s work – that,
as the late Stephen Jay Gould famously insisted, “Human Equality Is a
Contingent Fact of History.”
But then something in your reading or casual observation –
maybe it’s those damn twin
studies, or your neighbor’s adopted kid who never really fit the family
mold – prompts you to wonder if the skeptic’s knife might cut in the opposite
direction. So, with inexpert caution, you begin to wade past the political
static, carefully navigating your way through the myriad contentious
issues at the nexus where politics meets the life sciences, until you
hit upon something closer to a real consensus, where acrimony gives
way to unashamed fascination and politically vested agendas no
longer predefine the tenor and content of the debate.
It turns out that "chitling
test" you took in Psych 101 never really counted for much
beyond trendy educationist rhetoric. And for all the
effusive praise and honoraria heaped upon Professor Gould, you
gradually come to realize that avuncular old doyenne
of the reining intelligentsia was serving up a market-ready
pastiche of obscurantist deck-shifting sophistry that was never taken
too seriously by the relevant experts to
At some point, perhaps you stumble across Gene Expression, where matters of potentially
explosive socio-genetic import are discussed as a matter of course. Or
maybe you catch up on Steve Sailer’s disarmingly
on human biodiversity. Or,
if you’re a much smarter bird than I, you acquaint yourself with the work of
true giants in the relevant disciplines — men like Charles Spearman, Hans Eysenck, Raymond Cattell, William Hamilton,
John Maynard Smith
– and yes, Arthur
Jensen, who, contrary to everything you thought you knew, was never
discredited. Not even close.
And before you know it, damn if you haven’t forgotten what
all the fuss was about.
Thus I was naively surprised by the minor row that
ensued when I suggested to a friend that The
Bell Curve might not be so easily dismissed. The regrettable
tooth-gnashing played out on a community
blog where I once scribbled among friends. In answer to my ostensible gaffe, my
disappointed compatriot – an intelligent and very decent chap – assured me that were I only to read a 1995 report put out by something
called Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, I might yet come to understand the
skein of scurrilous pseudoscience that seduced me to embrace such an
undignified point of view.
So I took one look at it, saw it for the misinformed
hatchet job it was, and moved on.
In retrospect, I suppose I might have handled things differently. After
all, my friend’s rancor did serve to remind me of the intense scientific and
ideological static that still simmers around The Bell Curve, making it such an explosive watchword more than ten
years after its initial publication. Few books achieve such remarkable
notoriety, for the simple reason that few books strike at so many guarded
shibboleths in the liberal humanist imagination – particularly where the
subject of race is concerned.
My sense is that most thinking people harbor the same
vaguely informed suspicions. If we reflexively censor our thoughts among
friends and colleagues, it isn’t so much for fear of reprimand as it is that we
are uncertain of where the discussion may lead. I believe the anxiety and misapprehension is
understandable but ultimately unwarranted. In an effort to articulate my considered
perspective on the affair writ large and small, I have drafted this rather long series of posts. It may have started out as an attempt to provide a more thoroughgoing reply to my disillusioned pal, but as I studied
on the issues in the cross-hairs, I began to see what an otiose and
self-serving gesture that would have been. We have to figure this shit out for
ourselves. Or not. Life is short.
Before diving in, however, I want to be clear on a couple of
points. First and emphatically, I do not
profess any expertise in the matters under discussion. I don’t have an academic
background, and loath as I am to admit it, I probably couldn’t slog through the
psychometric math at the core of these issues if my cats’ lives depended on it.
In lieu of scholarly exposition, I shall merely attempt to provide an honest account
of state of the debate as it has developed among people who really do know what
they’re talking about. Leaving the hard work to the pros who know how to apply
the analytic tools that remain beyond my ken, I strive only to delineate a
responsible perspective and avoid the bullshit on all sides. In this effort, I am
guided by my abiding respect for science and skepticism and the ideal objective
truth. Needless to add, readers are encouraged to explore the source material
and decide for themselves who’s being disingenuous.
The second point is that this is not an essay about The Bell Curve as such. The
Bell Curve is a deceptively dense book teeming with big ideas about social
stratification and human destiny, and the arguments it presents digress in many
(though seldom in the directions assumed by critics). As much as I might enjoy waxing over the
tethers, our present exploration is more concerned with the penumbral buzz that
has followed from the book’s caricature-driven reputation. Of necessity and
without apology, this means focusing at some length on the dirty parts. About
race, intelligence, and genetics.
We shall kick things off with due consideration of the dated
FAIR report to which I was referred. For all its blustery fallaciousness, Jim Naureckas’s "Racism Resurgent" provides an
interesting time-frozen vantage through which to evaluate the controversy as it
has evolved over the past decade. But that will only get us so far.
By the time it began inching up the bestseller list in 1994,
the public furor over The Bell Curve was already boiling on full. You’d have to
go back to Darwin’s Origin of Species or Kinsey’s bombshell
sex studies to find a big academic tome that ignited such seismic swells of public
controversy. Critics were everywhere, and I couldn’t get enough of it. I remember reading everything I could get my
hands on, from the most vitriolic jeremiads, to the occasional fair-minded commentary.
I read The Bell Curve Debate and Inequality by Design and I took seriously
Nobel Laureate James Heckman’s ambitious – if ultimately unfruitful – reanalysis of the primary data. The way I
figure it, dialectical fisticuffs is par for the course in these affairs – the spectator sport
of an open society.
But even with the benefit of contextual hindsight, it is hard
to size up Jim Naureckas’s FAIR report as anything deeper than an ideologically
motivated screed. Typical
of low-rung Bell Curve bashing,
“Racism Resurgent” evinces little interest in the broader social arguments
developed in the book’s pages. Instead, it dwells predictably on race, and more
specifically on the black-white IQ gap, subjects which, it bears repeating, are
substantially addressed in only two chapters of the 800 page treatise. Which
would be fair enough, except that instead of seriously engaging the arguments
and empirical evidence at the foundation of The
Bell Curve’s discussion of group
differences in cognitive traits, Naureckas plays at the familiar dead-end game
of chasing imaginary dragons, i.e. “racist” scholars, and putting up clever smokescreens, i.e. appeals to discredited authority,
to deny established facts.
Still, the FAIR report is one of the primary articles to
which the Wikipedia entry on The Bell
Curve links, so it’s likely a lot of newcomers to the controversy will take
it as an evenhanded debunking. If for no
other reason, then, it deserves a thoughtful response.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take a cognitive elitist to see
where FAIR goes wrong.
True to his media-watchdog credentials, Naureckas kicks off his attempted deconstruction with a reference to The New Republic’s 1994 cover story on The Bell Curve, which largely set the
tone for the public debate that would follow. Right off the bat, Andrew
Sullivan (then-editor-in-chief of TNR) is called to task for defending his
editorial decision by writing that “[t]he notion that there might be resilient
ethnic differences in intelligence is not, we believe, an inherently racist
belief.” In a telling effort to stop the festivities before they begin, Naureckas
cries foul: “In fact,” he informs us, “the idea that some races are inherently
inferior to others is the definition of racism.”
What The New Republic was
saying–along with other media outlets that prominently and respectfully
considered the thesis of Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein’s
book – is that racism is a respectable intellectual position, and has a
legitimate place in the national debate on race.
Setting aside the question of whether “racism” thus defined
retains any pejorative distinction worth discussing, it is interesting to note
that Naureckas’s chastising volley doesn’t even jibe with the words he cites;
there is nothing necessarily “inherent” about “resilient ethnic differences.” Such differences might result from cultural,
environmental, or genetic forces, or from some confluence of the same. Indeed, The Bell Curve is resolutely agnostic on
the question of whether genetic factors contribute to observed racial
differences in IQ, a point nowhere acknowledged in Naureckas’s essay.
imposing his presumptive interpretation on Sullivan’s more cautiously parsed
proposition, Naureckas gets to jump to the “gotcha” at the core of his critique
– specifically that the handful of media outlets that deigned to take The Bell Curve’s thesis seriously were tacitly endorsing the view that
“racism is a respectable intellectual position.” That’s neither fair nor accurate.
Contrary to Naureckas’s broad implication, the initial
discussion of The Bell Curve in major
media outlets was far from sympathetic. Indeed, the issue of The New Republic to which such
disapproving reference is made was remarkable not so much in that it provided a
veneer of legitimacy to the long suppressed IQ debate, but for how dramatically
its published commentary was weighted against Murray and Herrnstein’s thesis. Of
the 17 contributors enlisted to provide perspective on the big bad book,
virtually all were, to varying degrees, highly critical – even vituperative –
in their treatment of its imputed content. And let’s not forget that when Sullivan first proposed to publish Murray and Herrnstein’s précis, the entire TNR staff threatened to walk out in
Most of the public discussion cited by Naureckas was framed in
similarly negative to hostile fashion. And far from being a “near rave,” Malcolm
Browne’s review in the New York Times was distinguished only in that it grappled
with the book’s actual content rather than some conveniently warped distortion. But Browne’s review – as well as David
Brooks’ thoughtful commentary in the Wall Street Journal – stood in sharp
contradistinction to the onslaught of misinformed animadversion that typified the
public reaction to The Bell Curve.
For Naureckas, however, it seems the only legitimate media
response would have been uniform condemnation, or perhaps a full-on blackout. After all, this is racism. End of discussion.
Who’s Afraid of The
Naureckas seems especially piqued by the assertion – true
then and true today – that the scholarship underlying The Bell Curve’s
discussion of ethnic differences in cognitive ability is scientifically
uncontroversial. Far from being moderate or responsible, Naureckas assures us,
the research upon which The Bell Curve
proceeds is a rank and racist stew of pseudoscience, unworthy of serious
academic attention. To bolster his
contention, Naureckas falsely informs readers that “[n]early all the research
that Murray and Herrnstein relied on for their central claims about race and
IQ” was supported by The Pioneer Fund, an organization with tangential links to eugenics
and racialist ideology.
Confident he’s latched on to a show-stopper, Naureckas
attempts to snow readers with a detailed account of The Pioneer Fund’s unseemly
history. He cites sources characterizing
the fund as a neo-Nazi organization and trots out a hair-raising medley of
racist utterances attributed to persons directly and indirectly associated
therewith. The idea seems to be that if you pile on with enough sensibility-jarring
noise, fair-minded readers just might assume it’s infra-dig to study any
further. It’s a familiar tactic. Magicians call it misdirection. Logicians call it argumentum ad hominem. I
call it a nice try.
Naureckas reserves a special animus for three “racist” scholars
whose work he believes to be beyond the pale of permissible discourse. The ashen
rogues in his lurid narrative are Richard Lynn of the University of Ulster, J. Philippe Rushton of
the University of Western
Ontario, and Berkeley’s
perennially vilified Arthur Jensen. It
is true that all three have been recipients of Pioneer grants. But before you go scurrying for higher ground, it must
be emphasized that these men remain highly respected scholars in their respective
fields, the bulk of their research having been published in refereed scientific
journals where it has been fully vetted and subjected to the intense scrutiny
of peer review.
Naureckaus wants to
hustle the impression of unscrupulous cranks and pamphleteers plotting at the fringes
of academe. The reality was never so
dastardly or sensational. The names on
Naureckas’s blacklist are bona-fide scholars with solid credentials. Their interest
in taboo subjects is the sticking point.
In examining the question of whether Murray and Herrnstein’s
scientific credibility is undermined by their peripheral association with dodgy
sources, one point needs to be set straight. Pace Naureckas, The Bell Curve’s discussion of race and IQ does not rely primarily on research underwritten by The Pioneer Fund. To
be sure, it wouldn’t matter if it did, but it simply isn’t true. In
claiming that “nearly all of the data” are tainted by Pioneer largess,
Naureckas seems to be relying on secondary accounts. (I imagine that Chuck Lane’s widely cited smear job in the New York Review of Books was a big influence, but I’m only speculating.)
If you don’t believe me, just turn to the
infamous “chapter thirteen” and study on the citations, one by one. You will find references to a wide range of
secondary sources; you will find reference to official test data from
government sources; you will find meta-analytic surveys spanning the history of
modern psychometrics. It is trivially true that some of the meta-analyses were compiled by Pioneer grant recipients,
but so what. Out of more than 1000 sources cited in The Bell Curve, only thirteen have been identified
with The Pioneer Fund, and of those the important ones were indeed published in
respected academic forums.
But never mind all that, because far and away the largest
and most robust source of data to which Murray and Herrnstein cite on the whole
contentious issue is the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (more
specifically, the Armed Forces Qualification Test data extracted therefrom), a nationally
representative databank consisting of test scores for over 6,502 white and
3,022 black subjects that has been described by none other than Stephen Jay
Gould (more on whom later) as “the best source of information” then available.
On the question of resilient ethnic differences in IQ, the AFQT data
unequivocally confirm the widely documented difference of approximately one
standard deviation (or roughly 15 points) in the distribution of IQ scores for
white and black test populations. If you’re skeptical, take a look for
yourself; the primary data are freely available online.
Inexcusably, “Racism Resurgent” contains no reference whatever
to the NLSY data.
Sift past the bluster, and you begin to see that the
ritual hand-wringing over “eugenics” and dreadful "Nazi"
linkages is filtered through the myopic lens of distinctly modern sensibilities. In layering
on such high-minded sanctimony over the past sins of the Pioneer
Fund, Naureckaus might, for example, have paused to recall that no less a paragon
of progressive virtue than Margaret Sanger, the founder of
Planned Parenthood, was an active and outspoken participant in the
early twentieth century’s abandoned eugenics movement.
Rather than being the hate-mongering miscreants of
Naureckaus’s Nazi-distorted imaginings, the early “pioneers
of eugenics” were in reality drawn from a wide spectrum of political persuasions.
Indeed, early proponents of eugenics included such prominent progressive era leftists as
George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and even
the the feminist anarchist, Emma Goldman. Naureckaus
wants to conflate the entire movement with vulgar racist ideology, but when you consider
the facts with a modicum of historical context, the picaresque narrative of
the Pioneer Fund becomes less coherent. If you’re not careful, you may begin to wonder
if there could be something to their side of the story after all.
But even if we are to grant every lurid detail Naureckas
serves up without nuance or context or apology, it would ultimately make no
proceeds by conjecture, by trial, by experiment, and by the
slow accumulation of evidence, its aims and methods being eternally indifferent
to the proscribed bounds of morality or ideological fashion. If
the laws of general relativity had been discovered by Adolf Hitler, the nuclear
age would not have waited. And no matter
how loudly critics condemn The Pioneer Fund or its purported alliances, scientific
research conducted under its auspice still must be evaluated on its own merit. This is how it works. Period. The rest is noise.
When he isn’t attempting to spook readers with the specter
of racist ghouls, Naureckas tries to assure us that the whole business about
group differences is largely an artifact of racially biased data mining. “[E]ven
the data collected by these racists does not show a consistent 15-point gap,”
he writes, “[t]he studies they present show a wide range of results, ranging
from no black/white IQ disparity at all to the absurd finding that most
African-Americans are severely retarded.” Naureckas goes on to
point out “that more recent tests have shown a narrower black/white difference,
ranging from seven to 10 points.”
Leaving the subject of pathological-range IQ for another day, I would point out that the question of whether the gap has narrowed is given due consideration
in The Bell Curve.
in IQ, a dispassionate review of the evidence does not come close to supporting
the egalitarian hope that the differences are artificial or in any significant
degree diminishing. If it’s all a wash,
the eugenicist machinations must run awfully deep, because even it we were to
take Naureckas’s lead in ignoring the NLSY data, the legitimacy of Murray and
Herrnstein’s factual claims was prominently endorsed by two academic consensus
reports that were published at the height of the public furor over The Bell Curve.
The first, “Mainstream Science on Intelligence” was signed
by 52 recognized scholars in psychometrics and related disciplines and was
published in the December 13, 1994,
edition of the Wall Street Journal. On
the question of group differences, the report had this to say:
Members of all racial-ethnic groups can be found at every IQ level. The
bell curves of different groups overlap considerably, but groups often differ in
where their members tend to cluster along the IQ line. The bell curves for some
groups (Jews and East Asians) are centered somewhat higher than for whites in
general. Other groups (blacks and Hispanics) are centered somewhat lower than
The bell curve for whites is centered roughly around IQ 100; the bell
curve for American blacks roughly around 85; and those for different subgroups
of Hispanics roughly midway between those for whites and blacks. The evidence is
less definitive for exactly where above IQ 100 the bell curves for Jews and
Asians are centered.
Then, in August of 1995, responding to “the urgent need for
an authoritative report” on the science underlying the Bell Curve controversy, no
less an authority than the American Psychological Association enlisted an
expert task force to provide a more detailed summary of extant research on
intelligence. The APA report was entitled “Intelligence: Knowns and Unkowns,” and
although it was somewhat critical of Murray and Herrnstein, it nevertheless backed up The Bell Curve’s underlying factual claims about race and cognitive ability.
relevant part, the APA task force reported:
The relatively low mean of the
distribution of African-American intelligence test scores has been discussed
for many years. Although studies using different tests and samples yield a
range of results, the Black mean is typically about one standard deviation
(about 15 points) below that of Whites (Loehlin et al, 1975; Jensen, 1980;
Reynolds et al, 1987). The difference is largest on those tests (verbal or
non-verbal) that best represent the general intelligence factor g (Jensen,
1985). It is possible, however, that this differential is diminishing.
The report went on to note that evidence does not support
the popular view that black-white differences result from “test bias” as
commonly understood, and weighed in with careful agnosticism on the genetic
…the issue ultimately comes down to
a personal judgment: how different are the relevant life experiences of Whites
and Blacks in the United States today? At present, this question has no scientific answer.
Although Murray and Herrnstein assign more plausibility to
the theory that genes play a role in observed ethnic differences, the APA
findings are essentially consistent with the facts outlined in their treatment
of the available data. It is a peculiar
brand of “pseudoscience” that finds broad contemporaneous support among top
And even with all this on the table, Naureckas’s efforts
would be moot today. The most exhaustive meta-analytic review of available data
was reported by Philip L. Roth in the June, 2001, issue of Personnel
Psychology. In that survey of 105
different studies covering 6,246,729 individuals, Roth’s team found an overall
average difference between whites and blacks of 16.5 IQ points — a 1.1
standard deviation. The results were posited with a 95 percent confidence
interval, meaning that the range 1.06 to 1.15 in standard deviation leaves little room for
Since his FAIR broadside was published in early 1995,
Naureckas can be partially forgiven for not taking the big picture into account, but
somehow I suspect it would have made little difference. If those racism detecting dogs were to apply
their finely tuned microscopes, I have no doubt they would discern some trace
evidence of Pioneer Fund “fingerprints” somewhere in the mix. But at this point
the cherry picking would be revealed for the sad joke it always was, akin to
creationists obsessing over some seemingly anomalous kinks in the fossil
If you thought the flying spaghetti monster was funny, why aren’t you laughing now?
Maybe it’s because your noblest intentions never mattered. Once you’ve tripped your way into a corner where the only
logical alternative to the null hypothesis is RACISM, the moral incentive
to invent a bigger conspiracy may be difficult to resist. This is what
happens when ideology is placed before reality, when wish replaces
But like my mother used to say: wish in one hand, shit in the other, and see which gets full.
The differences are real.
Be sure to check back for Part Two, in which The Hog surveys the impact of behavior genetics and considers the dubious legacy of everyone’s favorite egalitarian gadfly, Stephen Jay Gould.