The Bell Curve Flattened

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Jan. 18 1997 3:30 AM

The Bell Curve Flattened

Subsequent research has seriously undercut the claims of the controversial best seller.

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In the most famous passage in The Republic, Plato describes an underground cave where people are held prisoner in chains, unable to see anything but the shadows cast by figures passing outside; they mistake the shadows for reality. The Republic is probably the first place in history where an idea like that of Murray and Herrnstein's cognitive elite appears. Plato believed that through education, people could leave the cave and be able to see the truth instead of the shadows, thus fitting themselves to become the wise rulers of society. But he was quick to insert a cautionary note: Those who have left the cave might be tempted to think they can see perfectly clearly, while actually they would be "dazzled by excess of light." The image applies to The Bell Curve: Presented as an exact representation of reality, in opposition to the shadows of political correctness, it actually reflects the blinkered vision of one part of the American elite. It constantly tells these people that they are naturally superior, and offers lurid descriptions of aspects of national life that they know about only by rumor. Readers who accept The Bell Curve as tough-minded and realistic, and who assume that all criticism of it is ignorant and ideologically motivated, are not as far removed from Plato's cave as they might think.

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: Dumb College Students

: Smart Rich People

: Education and IQ

: Socioeconomic Status

: Black-White Convergence

Nicholas Lemann is national correspondent of the Atlantic.

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