The Bell Curve Flattened
Subsequent research has seriously undercut the claims of the controversial best seller.
Charles Murray is a publicity genius, and the publication of his and Richard Herrnstein's book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, in the fall of 1994 was his masterpiece.
Virtually all ambitious trade hardcover books are preceded by an edition of 100 to 200 flimsy "galley proofs." These are sent out to people who might generate buzz for the book: blurbists, bookers for television talk shows, editors, and--most important--book critics. There is an ethos of letting the chips fall where they may about the sending out of galleys: Now the book will begin to receive uncontrolled reaction. (For example, back in 1991, Murray somehow got hold of the galleys of my own last book, and wrote me heatedly denying that he was working on a book about black genetic intellectual inferiority, as I had asserted. I left the passage in, but softened it.)
The Bell Curve was not circulated in galleys before publication. The effect was, first, to increase the allure of the book (There must be something really hot in there!), and second, to ensure that no one inclined to be skeptical would be able to weigh in at the moment of publication. The people who had galley proofs were handpicked by Murray and his publisher. The ordinary routine of neutral reviewers having a month or two to go over the book with care did not occur. Another handpicked group was flown to Washington at the expense of the American Enterprise Institute and given a weekend-long personal briefing on the book's contents by Murray himself (Herrnstein had died very recently), just before publication. The result was what you'd expect: The first wave of publicity was either credulous or angry, but short on evidence, because nobody had had time to digest and evaluate the book carefully.
The Bell Curve isn't a typical work of trade nonfiction. It is gotten up as a work of original scholarly research. Most works containing fresh regression analysis and historical argument from primary sources would be published in academic quarterlies that send manuscripts out for elaborate, lengthy evaluation before deciding whether to publish them. Herrnstein and Murray didn't do this, so it wasn't until a full year or more after The Bell Curve was published that the leading experts on its subject had a chance to go through the underlying data with care. Therefore, as time went on, the knowledgeability of the Bell Curve discussion grew, but the attention paid to that discussion inevitably shrank.
The debate on publication day was conducted in the mass media by people with no independent ability to assess the book. Over the next few months, intellectuals took some pretty good shots at it in smaller publications like the New Republic and the New York Review of Books. It wasn't until late 1995 that the most damaging criticism of The Bell Curve began to appear, in tiny academic journals. What follows is a brief summary of that last body of work. The Bell Curve, it turns out, is full of mistakes ranging from sloppy reasoning to mis-citations of sources to outright mathematical errors. Unsurprisingly, all the mistakes are in the direction of supporting the authors' thesis.
First, a quick précis of The Bell Curve. IQ tests, according to Murray and Herrnstein, measure an essential human quality, general intelligence. During the second half of the 20th century, this quality has risen to supreme importance, because society has become increasingly complex. The intelligent have therefore gone through an "invisible migration," from points of origin all over the class system to a concentration at the top of business, government, and the professions. They are likely to become ever more dominant and prosperous. The unintelligent are falling further and further behind. Because intelligence is substantially inherited, nothing is likely to reverse this process. Blacks are overrepresented among the unintelligent. Any efforts government might make to improve the economic opportunities of poor people, especially poor black people, are likely to fail, because their poverty is so much the result of inherited low intelligence. About the best that can be done for these people is an effort to create a world of simple, decent, honorable toil for them.
Herrnstein and Murray begin by telling us that the liberal position on IQ--namely, "Intelligence is a bankrupt concept"--has been discredited, and that "a scholarly consensus has been reached" around their position. This consensus is "beyond significant technical dispute." Thus, by the end of their introduction, they have arranged matters so that if intelligence has any meaning at all, the idiotic liberals stand discredited; and meanwhile, extremely broad claims for intelligence have the cover of "consensus."
The notion that IQ tests are completely useless never prevailed in liberal academia to nearly the extent that Herrnstein and Murray say. A more accurate rendering of the liberal position would be that rather than a single "general intelligence," there are a handful of crucial--and separate--mental abilities; that none of these abilities is important enough to obviate the role of family background and education; and that native ability (and economic success independent of native ability) can be enhanced by improving education, training, and public health. The Bell Curve refers in passing to some of these points, but on the whole it sets up a cartoon-left position as its (easy) target. Meanwhile, the psychometricians who dominate the footnotes of The Bell Curve are John Hunter, Arthur Jensen, Malcolm Ree, and Frank Schmidt. These men are well known within the field as representing its right wing, not a mainstream consensus.
The next problem with The Bell Curve's thesis is in the idea of the rise to dominance of the cognitive elite. To the book's initial audience of Ivy Leaguers, this idea seemed valid on its face. Everybody knows that the best universities, law firms, hospitals, investment banks, and the State Department used to be run by preppies whose main virtue was fortunate birth, and are now open to one and all on the basis of merit.
B ut the larger premise--that intelligent people used to be scattered throughout the class structure, and are now concentrated at the top--is almost impossible to prove, simply because the mass administration of mental tests is such a recent phenomenon. High scorers on mental tests do "bunch up" (as Herrnstein and Murray put it) in elite-university student bodies. But this is tautological: Any group selected on the basis of scores on mental tests will be composed disproportionately of people who score high on mental tests. Proving The Bell Curve's thesis would require proving that success increasingly correlates with IQ in areas of life where mental tests are not the explicit gatekeepers. To see how The Bell Curve tries and fails to get around these inherent problems, see and.
Nicholas Lemann is national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and the author, most recently, of The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. He is now at work on a history of meritocracy in the United States.