The Bell Curve revisited.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Oct. 17 2005 3:40 PM

Moral Courage

Is defending The Bell Curve an example of intellectual honesty?

1_123125_123050_2111751_2127473_051014_cb_bellcurve

Imagine that the labels "morally courageous" and "intellectually honest" didn't refer to inner personal qualities but instead were prizes in a language game. The goal of the game is to be awarded the labels "morally courageous" and "intellectually honest." To win the prize, you must obey the rules: Never parrot conventional wisdom, and whenever possible, cast yourself as the victim of a speech-suppressing enemy. Any avid consumer of American newspapers and periodicals, especially over the last dozen or so years, will recognize the language game immediately: It's called "punditry." In punditry, the premium on being contrarian or unique is set very high, while the premium on being right often shrinks to an extensionless point. As is usually the case, the downgrading of truth brings with it an upgrading of sheer chutzpah, frequently under the guise of moral courage. I now point readers to an Aug. 26 post by Andrew Sullivan on his blog, which is worth quoting at length:

Stephen Metcalf Stephen Metcalf

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.

One of my proudest moments in journalism was publishing an expanded extract of a chapter from "The Bell Curve" in the New Republic before anyone else dared touch it. I published it along with multiple critiques (hey, I believed magazines were supposed to open rather than close debates) - but the book held up, and still holds up as one of the most insightful and careful of the last decade. The fact of human inequality and the subtle and complex differences between various manifestations of being human - gay, straight, male, female, black, Asian - is a subject worth exploring, period. Liberalism's commitment to political and moral equality for all citizens and human beings is not and should not be threatened by empirical research into human difference and varied inequality. And the fact that so many liberals are determined instead to prevent and stigmatize free research and debate on this subject is evidence ... well, that they have ceased to be liberals in the classic sense. I'm still proud to claim that label - classical liberal. And I'm proud of those with the courage to speak truth to power, as Murray and Herrnstein so painstakingly did.

Advertisement

Readers who clicked on a link were directed to a long and academic-seeming article, written in that convincingly dispassionate tone of a sober presentation of establishment consensus. For all its impressive oak paneling, though, the article appeared in Commentary, was written by Charles Murray, and simply reiterated the main lines of argument from Murray's own 1994 book The Bell Curve. (The Bell Curve's co-author, Richard Herrnstein, died just before the book was published.) Inspired in part by the recent Laurence Summers flap, Murray starts this new article by examining the differences in cognitive ability between men and women. But he quickly proceeds to his famous argument that group differences in IQ between whites and blacks are primarily genetic, and to the degree they are genetic, are ineradicable. The piece is long—it runs to well over 7,000 words, excluding its elaborate footnotes—and filled with the same daunting statistical hoodoo that left laypeople unable to evaluate the merits of The Bell Curve 11 years ago. Unless Sullivan has a degree in cognitive psychology we don't know about, he's as unqualified as the rest of us to determine whether Murray's arguments are sound science, or the same old Francis Galton-ish racism poured into fancy new casks. So before we proclaim The Bell Curve a contemporary classic, a brief pause might be in order.

1_123125_123050_2111751_2127473_051017_mismeasureman

Far from having held up as a "careful" work of scholarship, The Bell Curve has inspired a lot of suspicion on the part of the properly accredited. In his own book on human intelligence, The Mismeasure of Man, Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould pointed out that Herrnstein and Murray had buried key data in remote appendices. Upon closer inspection, that data appeared to demolish one of their core claims, that low IQ correlates highly with anti-social behaviors, more highly even than low socioeconomic status. (Apparently they didn't plot "the scatter of variation" around their own "regression curves" and didn't "square their correlation coefficients"; to statistics what the layup and jump shot are to basketball.) Do I know if Gould was right? Of course not. But I do know that in response to The Bell Curve, the widely esteemed Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks organized a yearlong faculty workshop on IQ and meritocracy at the University of Chicago. The dozens of resulting papers were presented by the Brookings Institute in a book, The Black-White Test Score Gap, whose conclusion was summarized by Jencks in the forward: "Despite endless speculation, no one has found genetic evidence indicating that blacks have less intellectual ability than whites. Thus while it is clear that eliminating the test score gap would require enormous effort by both blacks and whites and would probably take more than one generation, we believe it can be done."

Do I know if Jencks was right? No, but I find particularly interesting one early chapter in the Brookings collection, "Race, Genetics, and IQ," by Richard Nisbett, a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan. In his essay, Nisbett reviews all the studies that might weaken Murray and Herrnstein's beloved thesis that blacks, taken as a group, are less intelligent than whites, taken as a group. He reviewed studies of skin color, blood group indicators, reported white ancestry, mixed-race children, adoption studies, and, most intriguingly, a study of the children of American soldiers and German mothers in post-war Germany. (The cohort of the children of black soldiers had the same IQ as the cohort of the children of white soldiers, indicating that the relatively depressed IQs of American-born blacks are an artifact of an environmental factor—the intractability of white American racism, maybe?) Like any prudent scientist, Nisbett admits when his evidence is vague, incomplete, or contradictory. But on one score he was unequivocal: "By conventional academic standards, Herrnstein and Murray's review of the evidence on the heritability of the IQ difference between blacks and whites is shockingly incomplete and biased."

By the rules of our language game, however, the motives of people who distrust (or, frankly, revile) The Bell Curve are instantly suspect, while the motives of people who spend their entire professional lives trying to prove black people are dumber than white people escape all scrutiny. Said researchers often refer to themselves as "race realists," and, in addition to the Orwellian moniker, they have mastered a host of rhetorical maneuvers meant to clear themselves of the charge of out-and-out racism: They carefully insist that East Asians are smarter even than whites; that estimating any individual's intelligence by noting his race is impossible; and above all, that the data are the data no matter where they lead, even if into the frenzy of a politically correct backlash. (You can begin to see why the pundit is the race realist's best friend.) Before I casually took up the cause of the race realists and assumed that only an overprogrammed PC hysteria had kept their work from gaining widespread legitimacy, I'd want to know a couple of things. I'd want to know why "the data" are always so selective and incomplete, if not hidden or misrepresented, and I'd want to know a whole lot more about the movement's two leading lights, J. Philippe Rushton and Arthur Jensen.

Rushton and Jensen came to my attention when Murray fingered them, along with Lawrence Summers, as the impetus for his new Commentary article. The two published a "comprehensive survey" of evidence supporting The Bell Curve this past June in the journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Murray—who leans heavily on Rushton and Jensen's work both here and in The Bell Curve—identifies this survey as being the "strongest argument" yet made by race realists. Rushton has been retailing the idea of black inferiority for decades, though in two distinct styles: In pseudo-legitimate journal articles, he sounds a very Murray-like note of scholarly disinterest; at avowedly racist conventions, in front of the likes of David Duke, he argues that white women's birth canals are larger than black women's, allowing white women to give birth to larger-brained babies. In his 1995 book Race, Evolution and Behavior—now a race-realist classic—Rushton argued that "Negroids" are underevolved in comparison with "Caucosoids," because Caucosoids, having abandoned Africa for colder climates 110,000 years ago, were forced to develop their "intelligence, forward planning, sexual and personal restraint." Negroids, meanwhile, are characterized by smaller brains, larger genitals, sexual license, and lower IQs.

Rushton's work reads like a parody of 19th-century race phobia dressed up as 20th-century science, and you might think the terrifically disinterested Murray, that paragon of scientific probity, might at least mention that this was one of the keystone sources for his own conclusions. But while Murray is happy to speculate about the motives of those who reject his work—apparently it's a vast left-wing conspiracy—he refuses to seriously discuss the fact that J. Phillippe Rushton, along with Arthur Jensen and 14 other researchers whose work is cited prominently by The Bell Curve, are recipients of grant monies from the Pioneer Fund. What is the Pioneer Fund? The Pioneer Fund was founded in 1937 by Harry Laughlin and Wickliffe Draper. Laughlin is described innocuously in The Bell Curve as "a biologist who was especially concerned about keeping up the American level of intelligence by suitable immigration policies." This may have passed as an acceptable gloss in 1994, but since the publication of The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism by Stefan Kuhl and The Funding of Scientific Racism: Wickliffe Draper and The Pioneer Fund by William H. Tucker, and extensive archival work by a University of Virginia medical ethicist named Paul Lombardo, it has become—how to put it?—a tad incomplete.

Defenders of the Pioneer Fund like to portray Laughlin as a man of his era, a garden-variety eugenicist at a time when eugenic theories were common, even respectable, intellectual coin. But Laughlin was a good deal more than that. As superintendent of something called the Eugenics Record Office, Laughlin's testimony before Congress helped pass the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924. ("The Jew is doubtless here to stay," Laughlin confided to his associate Madison Grant, "and the Nordic's job is to prevent more of them from coming.") Meanwhile, as editor of the Eugenical News, Laughlin was an avid admirer of the German racial and sterilization policies being pioneeredunder Adolf Hitler. After Hitler signed the Law for the Prevention of Defective Progeny, Laughlin wrote an editorial praising Germany as one of the "great nations of the world" for its recognition of the "biological foundations of national character." When Laughlin was offered an honorary degree by the University of Heidelberg—then a fully Nazi institution purged of all Jewish remnant—he replied with "deep gratitude" at the honor "because it will come from a nation which for many centuries nurtured the human seed-stock which later founded my own country." Laughlin was unable to attend. But when his official diploma finally arrived stateside, he threw himself a luncheon on his own behalf. Two years later, he founded the Pioneer Fund.

If Laughlin acted as the (ahem) intellectual behind the Pioneer Fund, Wickliffe Draper, his partner, wrote its blank check. Heir to a vast textile fortune, Draper obsessed over the "dysgenic" degeneration of America's Nordic stock. In late August 1935, Draper traveled to Berlin to attend the International Congress for the Scientific Investigation of Population Problems. Presiding over the conference was Wilhelm Frick, the reichminister of the interior who had administered the Nuremburg Laws. (Frick was hanged in 1946 for hiscrimes against humanity.) There Draper's travel companion and Laughlin's colleague and official conference surrogate Clarence Campbell delivered an oration that concluded with the words: "The difference between the Jew and the Aryan is as unsurmountable [sic] as that between black and white. … Germany has set a pattern which other nations must follow. … To that great leader, Adolf Hitler!" Three years later, when Draper paid to print and disseminate a book titled White America, a personal copy was delivered to Reichminister Frick.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
  Life
Gaming
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 PM Should You Freeze Your Eggs? An egg freezing party is not a great place to find answers to this or other questions.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.