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Review essay: the shaped bell curve and the social sciences.

Reading Murray and Herrnstein's The Bell Curve would likely evoke memories of a famous Yogi-ism, "It's deja vu all over again," if their atavistic theme were not so capable of justifying or even encouraging the next demagogue's holocaust. Nowadays, when the Third Reich has been replaced by the "politically correct(ed)" Third Wave(1) and endorsed by the newly anointed Speaker of the House,(2) when fascism has become "friendly," when eugenics has its own foundation and PAC,(3) and when genocide percolates just beneath the euphemistically softened phrase "ethnic cleansing," one dare not be amused in the least by quaint little rear guard theories.

Yet all of this, from Murray and Herrnstein's most reactionary and fallacious thesis that African-Americans are immutably and intractably inferior to Whites because they score on average 15 points less on IQ tests (pp. 269-315) to the flourish of liberal, social scientifically informed critiques(4) that quickly ensued in all the right places is so painfully reminiscent. This is especially true for those of us who hazard not to forget Jensen(5) and his immediate and equally correct scientific critics (e.g., a majority of the next two issues of the Harvard Educational Review was devoted to various rebuttals of Jensen's thesis).

One need only recollect that this authoritarian thesis has surfaced and been scientifically refuted only to arise again at least three times in this century: in the 1910's with the development of IQ testing and its importation to the US, in the 1930's in Nazi Germany, and in the late 1960's and early 1970's with Jensen and then Herrnstein(6) to raise an uneasy suspicion for two conclusions. First, this is a very resilient myth capable of laying dormant for decades only to arise again, more viral than phoenix like, to haunt and distract the social scientific community and to sabotage tragically the mobility and hope of another generation of minorities. Second and therefore, this issue seems more political than scientific; otherwise it would have been firmly laid to rest beside all the other flat earth theories.

One must even begin to suspect that the timing of these episodes is not coincidental. The first debased muckraking and the Populist movement and resulted in policies that severely restricted immigration into this country, the second knelled the end to the New Deal and its European analogs and justified the holocaust, and the third denigrated the counter culture movement and froze civil rights at a stage that effectively keeps the burden on the victim. Given such a pattern, it is perhaps not too early to venture what political ends the Herrnstein-Murray screed may serve - the renunciation of the democratic pursuit of equality and the final dismantling of the Great Society programs. The speculative nature of this conclusion diminishes when one recalls the invective of Murray's policy endorsements in his Losing Ground.(7)

That Simon and Schuster would publish such discredited ideas concurrent to the 50 year anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the opening of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum attests with cruel vengeance the notion that capitalism not only knows no morals, but will presume an amnesic memory of the public that is contemptuous. (The Free Press, for those who would fondly associate this house with the classics of social scientists like Weber and Durkheim, has been reduced by the conglomeration of the publishing industry to a subsidiary label now apparently more comfortable evoking images of the Geopolitik of Nazi Germany than preserving the once proud "geographical" independence symbolized by "of Glencoe.")

Herrnstein and Murray are not simply contemptuous of our collective memory but also of sound scientific and scholarly principles. Space does not allow nor prudence require an exhaustive examination of The Bell Curve's fallacies. However, a brief sampling may lend credence to a contention that their methods are as specious as their purposes are ignoble. Herrnstein and Murray assert (pp. 22-23) that "beyond significant technical dispute" a stable, general intelligence factor exists, which is accurately measured by standard IQ tests that, when properly administered, are culturally (and racially) unbiased leading to an unavoidable conclusion (e.g., pp. 23, 109) of the substantial (40 to 80 percent) heritability of intelligence.

To the absolute contrary, intelligence is only stable when expressed as a quotient, a point that even Herrnstein once characterized as Binet's "sleight of hand."(8) Something that varies with chronological age, a veiled proxy measure for, in part, environmental effects, cannot be construed as immutable. No one has scientifically identified let alone isolated g or a general factor of cognitive ability, a point that led even Jensen to "define" intelligence as what the IQ test measures.(9) Logic dictates that if psychometricians do not know what intelligence is, then accurate measurement and construct validity must remain squarely within "technical dispute."

That particular problem aside, any test must be standardized on the target population tested to provide meaningful scores. The Stanford-Binet, commonly used to standardize other intelligence tests and to demonstrate test validity, was itself standardized only on native born U.S. Whites, who were unrepresentatively urban and of high SES, until 1972 (after the original formulation of Herrnstein's thesis and after the Stanford-Binet abandoned attempts to achieve measured norms). In 1972 when Blacks were first included in the standardization sample, deviation IQ scores rose which was explained as due to cultural changes in the overall population.(10) While the administration of an IQ test impacts score reliability (for example, Blacks score lower on the tests when they are administered by Whites), cultural bias is more a product of test content - including factors as fundamentally unavoidable as the language in which the test is written and administered and the cultural value placed on aptitude testing - which renders every test culturally bound.

These crucially significant technical issues dictate that conscientious efforts to use a construct of general intelligence as a scientific explication of human agency proceed with meticulous caution. Caution however is nowhere in evidence in Herrnstein and Murray's exercise. They provide no additional primary empirical data that address, let alone resolve, any of these technical issues.(11) Given a-reliance on secondary data and in light of Herrnstein and Murray's (e.g., pp. xxiii, 297) acknowledgment of the potential harm of their work, one would expect scrupulous scholarship. Again the reader's expectation will be summarily dashed. Rather than simply excluding the fraudulent and totally discredited works of Burt, they defend his work (pp. 11-12). Rather than avoiding the maelstrom created by Jensen's slipshod work, they herald him as a courageous victim of persecution (p. 9). Rather than ignoring works produced in service to fascism and eugenics, they cite the work of ten members of Mankind Quarterly's editorial board and of another seven of its contributors.(12) Alternately, assiduous work(13) that would question, if not "flatten Murray's thesis once and for all,"(14) is nowhere to be found in their references.

Among many others, each of these shortcomings constitute fatal methodological flaws summing to a verdict that the Herrnstein-Murray venture, rather than being a reasoned scientific effort is but a comedy of errors - that is, an absurdity which again, we dare not humor. Again that is, when one realizes how little originality can be found in either of the foundational theses of the The Bell Curve. The race-IQ thesis is a politically polished rehash of Herrnstein's I.Q. in the Meritocracy: Inferior Black IQ dooms any social intervention to failure. The concerns surrounding "the coming of the custodial state" (esp. pp. 523-526) are agonizingly similar to Murray's Losing Ground: Social intervention produces dependence on welfare that handicaps efforts to eradicate poverty. As such, each of these works was dangerously reactionary in its own right and was therefore panned in any number of devastating reviews. Audaciously, Herrnstein and Murray now join ranks where they shape the data in order to concoct an even more nefarious political prescription of Catch-22 proportions that would bring pause even to Joseph Heller. In short, I believe that in their (e.g., p. 532) efforts to attack any policy of egalitarianism as "perverse," relative to their prescription of "clan ethnocentrism," they attempt to savage the capacity of all ameliorative human agency - collective or individual. The outcome is not benign neglect, but rather a 1990's version of Ayn Rand's rugged individualism where, presumedly, the Darwinian survivors need not even mourn the dead.

Given the rich compendium of scientific critiques that are(15) and will be(16) readily available to the social scientific community and the reading public and given Murray and Herrnstein's recalcitrance,(17) this piece would be superfluous if my intent was to simply recount others' sage and derogatory reviews of The Bell Curve. I am of the mind, however, that other important questions must be raised about the resurfacing of the race-IQ thesis lest we face the possibility of allowing this episode to be the latest, as opposed to the last, episode. Specifically, I would propose that we, as social scientists, haunted more by the paradox than the promise of Mannheim's "free floating intelligentsia," nevertheless do some courageous self-questioning about our pedagogy and our practice that may ironically permit and even promote recurrences of this type of social scientific alchemy.

I began by suggesting that we dare not make light of such a insidiously pernicious idea that some of our fellow citizens are inherently incapable of being equal in our society qua meritocracy. (Less than 40 years ago, Young could successfully parody the rise of meritocracy,(18) but now, still well short of the year 2033, this seems immanently less humorous in light of The Bell Curve.) Yet some of us, surely unwittingly, may have, in effect, propagated such a political position as tenable. I, for one, must admit that I have in the past adopted text-readers for some of my classes where a foundation for such ideas were given a forum in the name of presenting both sides of the issue. How many of us have used, for example, Finsterbusch and McKenna's (1990) Taking Sides(19) where Murray (pp. 208-217) shrewdly spouts his ultra right wing conservatism in a harmonious, and increasingly orchestrated, chorus of his kind? (There also are Edward Banfield, George Gilder, William Rusher, and James Wilson - the same Wilson, not incidentally, who with Herrnstein, in another Simon and Schuster release offered to presumedly all criminologists for the cost of postage and handling, linked the constitutional disposition argument to race and crime.(20)) Confident that our more astute students will entertain us as they debunk these provocateurs' logic as vacuous and their ideology as bankrupt, we nevertheless promulgate their perspective. We should not be so easily amused; and, given the current political zeitgeist, for reasons perhaps more dire than even Postman's sobering caveat.(21) I have come to fear that it is possible when we artificially prop up these mountebanks, even as foils, that we may inadvertently lend credence to their positions for some of our students. If so, we must shoulder the blame for fostering some of the receptiveness that Murray and Herrnstein's position may meet (at this writing, reputedly, 300,000 copies have been sold).

Unfortunately, I suspect that the motive for giving equal time to both sides of the issue occasionally runs deeper than simply acknowledging that all issues are complex and deserve, in typical liberal fairness, a multitude of voices and further research. Specifically, I believe that such a pedagogical approach can be, and sometimes is, a manifestation of relatively less noble, less defensible, and less acknowledged motives - namely, fear of political repercussions for taking a position and, relatedly, the maintenance of the myth of value-free social science. In sum, I wonder if Gouldner was not more correct than we commonly like to admit when he suggested that the myth of value neutrality is, in part, sacrosanct because a willingness to make our background and domain assumptions explicit, and thereby make them vulnerable to challenge, requires an uncommon level of intellectual courage.(22)

Compounding a problem of intellectual valor, well beyond the everyday realities of administrative censures, denials of tenure or grants, and the scarcity of desirable academic positions, is a less conspicuous, but perhaps more fundamental factor - the nature of science itself. Certainly more unsettling, given a desire to challenge a too uncritically accepted liberal practice, is that our complicity may trace its origins to the very methodological heart of our enterprise. I sense that many, perhaps most contemporary, practicing social scientists subscribe to a Popperian conception of scientific knowledge. Specifically, experience tells me that a principle of falsifiability - science may fail to disprove a proposition but it can never prove a proposition - tempers our willingness to confidently take a definitive public stance on the political issues of the day.

However defensible and even admirable such a philosophical precept may be and however well it has and will serve us as researchers, we must come to grips with the fact that the Herrnsteins and Murrays are not so ethically constrained despite their genteel veneer. Their incessant and disingenuous protests to the contrary notwithstanding, they are unabashedly willing to assume a political stance and to promote as scientific the most unwarranted policy implications. Our repeated response - correctly pointing out the sophistry of their "science" - comes across as timorous in the face of their temerity. More importantly, if we will allow this century's history to instruct, scientifically sound methodological critiques will preclude neither the resurgence of their version of the dualistic fallacy nor their political allies from implementing irreparably damaging policies.

As it turns out, however, we need neither compromise our principles of scientific validity nor forsake the first precept of our professional humanism - a collective vision of egalitarianism. We need only forswear the false dichotomy of science and politics. All social science research worthy of the name is fraught with policy implications. We must acknowledge this inevitability and muster the courage and the wisdom to understand that if we do not speak to the policy implications of our empirically based knowledge, ever granting a lack of finality, there will always be someone of the Murray-Herrnstein ilk who will. Social science praxis - a politically informed fusion of theory and practice - carries a potential to free our professional findings from being a source of another's beguilement. In doing so, it may also dampen the spirits of those who would fancy to resurrect the peculiarly resistant race-IQ strain of what Montagu long ago exposed as humanity's most dangerous myth.

However hopeful we may be in the eventual accomplishment of a more egalitarian future, we dare not underestimate the clear and present danger in current attempts to abort the Enlightenment project with the resurrection of tyranny. In particular, we must be evermore vigilant as we recall that Marx envisioned the ultimate threat to human emancipation would likely coincide with the inevitable demise of the capitalistic world order. At the coming of that fin de siecle, Marx expected societal evolution to go in one of two ways - toward fascism and a doctrine of inequality or toward democratic socialism and the abolition of class based inequity.

Marx also predicted that things would get worse before they got better. If the current economic trends portend,(23) we have every reason to apprehensively anticipate that things may very well get worse. Yet for those given to a faith in the potential of human agency, even this persists as a cause for enduring hope. Even during an age of cynical reason,(24) this remains true if we, as social scientists, steadfastly resist the enemies of egalitarianism. Marx also held that all important historical events happen twice: the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. It is difficult to conceive of the first time that the race-IQ thesis was systematically used to structure nationalistic policy (in Nazi Germany) and the resulting extermination of six million humans as anything but the ultimate tragedy. If the Herrnstein-Murray rendition represents a second historical occasion and we social scientists are this time up to the task of rendering their thesis farcical, perhaps comedic relief is, after all, in the offing.

Acknowledgment: The author wishes to thank Lynn Reese and Allen Scarboro for valuable editorial assistance and suggestions on an earlier version of this article and for their support and encouragement.


1. Alvin Toffler and Heidi Toffler, The Third Wave (New York: Morrow, 1980).

2. Paul Gray, "Inside the Minds of Gingrich's Gurus," Time, 145, 3(January 23, 1995):20-21.

3. Michael Lind, "Brave New Right," The New Republic, 211, 18, Issue 4, 163(October 31, 1994):24-26.

4. William F. Allman, "Why IQ isn't Destiny," U.S. News and World Report, 117, 16(October 24, 1994):73-80; Richard Lacayo, "For Whom the Bell Curves," Time, 144, 17(October 24, 1994):66-67; Tom Morganthau, "IQ: Is it Destiny?," Newsweek, 124, 17(October 24, 1994):53-55; the October 31, 1994 issue of The New Republic was devoted to some 20 critiques and to Murray and Herrnstein's revealing apologia, "Race, Genes and I.Q. - An Apologia," The New Republic, 211, 18, Issue 4, 163(October 31, 1994):27-37.

5. Arthur R. Jensen, "How Much Can We Boost I.Q. and Scholastic Achievement?," Harvard Educational Review, 39(1969):1-123.

6. Richard J. Herrnstein, I.Q. in the Meritocracy (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1971).

7. Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1984).

8. Herrnstein, I.Q. in the Meritocracy, pp. 67-68.

9. Jensen, "How Much Can We Boost IQ?," p. 9.

10. Anne Anastasi, Psychological Testing (5th ed.) (New York: Macmillan, 1982).

11. This is a recurrent problem with Herrnstein and his collaborators, see Jack P. Gibbs, "Review Essay of Crime and Human Nature," Criminology, 23(1985):381-388.

12. Charles Lane, "The Tainted Sources of 'The Bell Curve,'" New York Review of Books, 61, 19(December 1, 1994):14-19.

13. Luca L. Cavalli-Sforza, Luca L., Paolo Menozzi, and Alberto Piazza, The History and Geography of Human Genes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).

14. Sribala Subramanian, "The Story in Our Genes," Time 145, 2(January 16, 1995):54-55.

15. For example, see William H. Tucker, The Science and Politics of Racial Research (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1994); Robert M. Hauser, "The Bell Curve," Contemporary Sociology, 24(1995): 149-153.

16. For example, see Steven Fraser (Ed.), The Bell Curve Wars: Race, Intelligence, and the Future of America (New York: Basic Books, 1995).

17. Murray and Herrnstein, "Race, Genes and I.Q."

18. Michael Young, The Rise of Meritocracy, 1870-2033 (Baltimore: Penguin, 1958).

19. Kurt Finsterbusch and George McKenna (Eds.), Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Social Issues (Guilford, CT: Dushkin Publishing Group, 1990).

20. James Q. Wilson and Richard J. Herrnstein, Crime and Human Nature: The Definitive Study of the Causes of Crime (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985).

21. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1985).

22. Alvin W. Gouldner, The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. (New York: Avon, 1970).

23. For example, see Bennett Harrison and Barry Bluestone, The Great U-Turn. (New York: Basic Books, 1988).

24. Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).
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Author:Reese, William A., II
Publication:The Social Science Journal
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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