Charles Murray

People who offer to make the size of their I.Q.s a matter for public comment—for instance, by joining Mensa—must be among the most pathetic of self-promoters. If they had any genuine accomplishments to boast of, it seems to me, they would consider it beneath them to boast of skill in taking a test. Thus the remarkably virulent and unenlightening controversy which greeted the publication of The Bell Curve, by Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein, has at least been the occasion of some innocent amusement.1 Just a glance through the letters pages of Newsweek, for example, at all those whose denunciations of the book’s “racism” claim the authority of I.Q.s in the 140s is a real hoot.

Are Murray and Herrnstein vindicated? You be the judge.

Interestingly for connoisseurs of Anglo-American differences in rhetorical style, many of the correspondents of the London Times on this subject chose to brag of their lowI.Q.s, sometimes allowing their addresses—Head of Surgery, Guy’s Hospital, as it might be—to provide an illogical (no one has ever said that low I.Q.cannot accompany high achievement) but wittily ironic commentary. But the best fun to be had with the issue on this side of the Atlantic was supplied by The New Republic, which apologized for giving Murray and Herrnstein a forum for their views by calling up an extraordinary parade of critics, all of whom attempted either to refute their argument or to discredit it.

This uniformly negative phalanx of commentators was placed between the readers and Murray and Herrnstein themselves, who were given eleven pages—five fewer than their detractors—to make their case to anyone who had come so far and still thought it possible that they could have anything sensible to say. This arrangement makes Andrew Sullivan’s editorial apologia, in which, remarkably, he defends the magazine’s offering Murray-Herrnstein a forum against an unspecified number of its own editors, look rather disingenuous. The fine words about the value of free intellectual inquiry—unfortunately marred by a carelessly racialist use of the words “dark” and “tarred”—have to be set against the unanimity of the assembled commentators in what amounts to an editorial disclaimer half again as long as the offending argument.

In it we find Murray-Herrnstein redundantly proven wrong on the authority of a host of social scientists, writers, and journalists whose actual arguments are less often cited. Not only their reasoning and their good will are impugned, but even the supposed facts upon which they are operating, and their own arguments are grossly and repeatedly distorted and misrepresented. The only contribution even remotely sympathetic to Murray and Herrnstein is that of the paper’s owner, Martin Peretz, and this is because he virtually ignores The Bell Curve in favor of a gratuitous attack on affirmative action. The funniest contributor is Leon Wieseltier, who is careful to point out that he is among the Ashkenazi Jews of European origin whose intelligence scores are at the top of the Murray-Herrnstein charts before proceeding to thunder how “repulsed” he is by the idea of being so labeled.

Such fun, alas, was too infrequent for those of us who followed the commentary closely, so I propose a little game. Let us grade the critics of Murray-Herrnstein according to the intelligence of their responses and distribute the results along a curve of our own. Does it describe a bell? Yes it does! Are Murray and Herrnstein vindicated? You be the judge.

Not surprisingly, I suppose, the left lip of the bell, the lumpen-intelligentsia, the dregs of the intellectual cup, the Forrest Gumps of the punditry, are largely academics. Many of them, it is true, labor under the disadvantage of being judged according to the samples of their thought supplied to journalists. But subject to correction, we notice in The Wall Street Journal that Leon Kamin of Northeastern University reaches the brilliant conclusion that The Bell Curve “will be much cited and used as a justification for the view that nothing can be done about social problems,” and that Dr. Howard Gardner of Harvard accuses the research in Murray and Herrnstein’s book, in which I.Q. is merely used as a predictor of economic success, of being “very anachronistic” because it does not take account of his own, in which it is revealed that intelligence is more than I.Q.

Also in the Journal, Robert Sternberg of Yale says that Murray and Herrnstein “come pretty close to a problematical equating of I.Q. with the value of a person.” How they can “come pretty close” to a point of view that they explicitly disavow is left obscure, but Sternberg also told Newsweek that “the fact that Murray and Herrnstein ignore this difference” between intelligence and I.Q.—a difference they do not ignore but, in fact, insist on—“is proof that the authors’ [political] agenda is driving their interpretation of the statistics.” Also in Newsweek, Dr. Alvin Poussaint of Harvard Medical School is quoted thus: “They’re saying it’s science, but it has a racist effect”—as if it were self-evident that real science could not possibly have any racist effects. These stupid responses should be lumped together with those of most of the journalists who quote them and whose purpose is pretty clearly to discredit the book. Newsweek’s Tom Morganthau, for instance, in a striking instance of the bias he is attacking, writes that “Murray, an intellectual snake charmer whose greatest gift may be the knack of always seeming to be fair and always in earnest, vehemently denies he is racist.”

Well, what do you expect of an intellectual snake charmer? Clearly, Morganthau is one intellectual snake that the trick did not work on! A similarly dunderheaded response is to be found in Barbara Vobejda’s news article in The Washington Post, in which she writes that “the thesis of [the] book is based on several controversial assumptions: that intelligence can be equated with I.Q.; that it can be accurately measured by a test that is not biased against ethnic and racial minorities; and that a significant component of intelligence is inherited.” Of these three “controversial assumptions,” the first is not made by the book but is, in fact, warned against; the second is not made as an assumption but is carefully and painstakingly demonstrated by a host of evidence; and the third, though an assumption, is said to be hardly controversial. Barbara joins the gaggle of professors in the dunce class.

Also among the dunces is Richard Cohen of The Washington Post, who not only makes the ad hominem argument that Murray and Herrnstein are politically motivated, not only implies that they are racists (their book “has been greeted with nothing less than glee in certain circles” he says, darkly), and not only ludicrously misrepresents their argument when he writes that “they argue that poverty, crime, out-of-wedlock births—all these pathologies and more—are not culturally based (or not exclusively so) but genetic.” Worst and most ludicrously self-contradictory of all is his conclusion. Having earlier in the same column cried shame on “the politics of those who would junk affirmative action,” he concludes by writing: “To see a person first and foremost as a member of a group is more than merely unfair. It may be the only definition of un-American with which I have no quarrel.”

Without committing quite such blatant stupidities, a number of those from The New Republic’s assassination squad shoulder in close to these dunces—especially those who, like Jeffrey Rosen and Charles Lane, are glib in branding Murray and Herrnstein as “neo-Nazis.” Likewise, Michael Lind finds sinister connections to a racialist cabal financed by the deep pockets of the sinister Pioneer Fund and sees Murray and Herrnstein as, willingly or unwillingly, tools of the “crypto-nativist” and “neo-hereditarian” Right now in the process of taking over the Republican Party in the guise of “resurgent fundamentalism.” Lind actually never gets round to considering the Murray-Herrnstein argument on its merits, so concerned is he to point to its discreditable antecedents. It seems to go without saying that anyone who keeps such company can be up to no good.

Also in The New Republic, Randall Kennedy and Wieseltier go to some lengths to show that, in spite of their own and their numerous colleagues’ intellectual assault on the man, Murray required no courage to say what he says, either because its outrageousness will bring profit to him (Kennedy) or because it is old news from discredited sources (Wieseltier). Stanley Crouch makes a frivolous, intensely annoying “creative writing” sort of response that seems to associate Murray-Herrnstein with the sort of know-nothings who fear that the “lower” races will lapse into cannibalism. Mickey Kaus’s angry charge against the authors of “dishonesty” is obviously owing to the fact that he himself wrote a book not long ago saying almost exactly the same thing as Murray and Herrnstein but without the race and I.Q. part. He is, I’m sure, bountifully endowed with intelligence, but he has to dissociate himself from M & H pronto. Therefore, we won’t grade his paper with the others.

One of the most common of the stupid responses to the book is exampled by Brent Staples, writing in the “Editorial Notebook” of The New York Times. Staples raises up a straw man of “intelligence,” whose “real” nature is still largely unknown and which, therefore, must have virtually nothing to do with I.Q.—which Murray and Herrnstein avowedly adopt not for its ontological cogency but for its practical usefulness as a predictor of future economic success. He then goes on to repeat the long-discredited slander against Sir Cyril Burt that he made up much of the data in his research on identical twins and to assert, without mentioning their evidence, that Murray and Herrnstein “have merely reasserted the long-unproven claim that I.Q. is mainly inherited”—a claim for which “there exist no plausible data”!

A similar bêtise is committed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (another academic), who reviews the book in The Washington Post Book World of November 6. Csikszentmihalyi puts on a great show of evenhandedness but regretfully comes down on the anti-Bell Curve side, since “it is well known that intelligence is a function of what happens in the nervous system. It is well known that the nervous system is a plastic organ shaped over many months in the mother’s womb, and then in the first years of an infant’s life… . It seems inconceivable that the authors should have downplayed the amount of positive change that intervention during this phase of life could make.” And, therefore, the author feels no compunctions when he goes on to compare the book “somewhat hyperbolically” to Hitler’s Mein Kampf!

Of course Murray and Herrnstein do not “downplay” the importance of pre-natal and early childhood experience for intelligence. All they do is point out—surely unexceptionably?—that someone in Washington with a few billions of conscience money to spend is unlikely to be able to do very much about manipulating these experiences for the babies of the entire bottom socio-economic quintile in order to produce useful gains in intelligence. For this they are compared to Hitler? This is a good example of the lower-quintile but not quite rock-bottom liberal response. A little higher up the curve we have Christopher Winship on the op-ed page of The New York Times, who compared the reaction to Murray and Herrnstein with that which greeted Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s warnings about black illegitimacy rates in the 1960s.

Mr. Moynihan and his defenders were denounced as racists and the African-American family became a taboo subject for scholars for the next 20 years. As we now try to grapple with the desperate situation of many black families in this country, we are missing two decades of research that could have informed current policy.

But of course it would not do simply to say this without making some kind of dissociative gesture, some antiseptic disclaimer to ward off infection by Murray-Herrnstein’s “racism.” Thus Winship says that “the consensus” among academics is “that the book’s argument is inherently racist and that Mr. Herrnstein (who died in September) and Mr. Murray are academic charlatans”—as if its being racist (assuming that it is) automatically precluded its being true. And, speaking for himself rather than the “consensus,” he criticizes the authors’ line of argument for being “divisive and irresponsible,” as if an arguer’s first responsibility were owed to social harmony rather than to the truth.

Well, what do you expect of an intellectual snake charmer?

It is this kind of thinking, this fear that the orthodoxies of social thought might be discredited by research, which makes it impossible for Winship’s warning about taboos to be heeded. He is in the position of a Victorian bishop living in continual dread of what assault upon his beliefs science might throw up next. We cannot but sympathize with such people, but it is one measure of intelligence to be aware of one’s own assumptions and fears and their likely effects on one’s thinking. Most of those who are to be found on the upward slope of the bell are not so aware.

Bunched up in the middle of the field at the top of the bell are those who manage to say something intelligent, for good or ill, about The Bell Curve, but then deplore its effects —as if the effects were adventitious and unconnected to the rest, as if Murray and Herrnstein had added them to the inert parts of their argument out of sheer ill will. These commentators share with the Victorian bishop a desire not to know that which they find uncongenial to their assumptions, but, unlike those lower down the scale, they are not intellectually paralyzed by their fear. Among those subject to this infirmity is the editorialist of The Times of London, who laments that Murray and Herrnstein “lay themselves open to the charge that their real object is to discredit all programmes of social reform as a pointless attempt to reverse the irreversible” but who refuses to consider whether or not in fact all programs of social reform are pointless attempts, etc.

The anonymous editorialist acknowledged that he had taken his lead from Adrian Wooldridge, a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and the author of Measuring the Mind: Education and Psychology in England, 1860–1990, which came out in the UK at almost the same time as Murray-Herrnstein. Writing elsewhere in The Times, Wooldridge very intelligently pointed out that intelligence testing, so far from being the means of excluding people from the elite, has historically been the means of including them. He accepts the genetic component of intelligence, but sees it as regressing, as so many exceptional genetic features do, to the mean. This means that those in the elite who wish to preserve their privileges for children who may well be less talented than they are would do better to rely on other means than intelligence testing—such as living in expensive neighborhoods where there are superior schools that are unavailable to the poor but talented.

But then Wooldridge becomes too clever by half by suggesting that Murray-Herrnstein might argue for “a more generous, not a more parsimonious social policy. The fact that some people are constitutionally dull should surely, in an enlightened society, promote a generous system of compensation.” Of course a generous system of compensation is what we have now. Recent reports calculate that someone living in Manhattan would have to earn $45,000 per annum to enjoy the same standard of living as a welfare mother. But Murray has been among the forefront of those who have shown that this “compensation” is counterproductive and tends to generate various social pathologies.

Wooldridge counts as a veritable genius among academic folk, but limitations of space do not permit me to list all the writers and commentators at the top of the bell curve who, like him, have something intelligent to say but too much unacknowledged anxiety about this subject to say it quite intelligently. On the downward slope of the bell are to be found such intelligent pieces as that of Jim Holt, done for the op-ed page of The New York Times, in which he raised the important point that, in terms of evolutionary biology, “innate differences in intelligence among the races have simply not had enough time to evolve.” Much more likely as an explanation for apparent racial differences in intelligence is the quality of pre-natal care, which is demonstrably inferior among blacks but an environmental effect which looks like a genetic one to social scientists.

Taking up a similar argument in the paper’s Sunday “Week in Review” section, George Johnson suggests that the consensus among biologists is that the operations of the brain are in measurable terms much more the product of primal neural experience than of the relatively limited amount of genetic information required to form “the rough shape of this glob of neurological clay” that is our brain of original issue. Douglas Besharov, in the “Outlook” section of the same day’s Washington Post, makes a similar point. Besharov scores high on the intelligence scale for recognizing and stating accurately The Bell Curve’s actual thesis (which has nothing to do with genetics), but he goes on to consider the problems posed by those the violence of whose objections to the book are directly proportional to their belief in its hopelessness. According to Besharov, there are still a lot of reasons for supposing that we can do things about raising intelligence, including both the improvement of pre-natal care and early childhood education and allowing the natural process of gentrification in the black middle classes to take its course.

Just below the highest levels of intelligence come those among the Victorian bishops who recognize their own fears of uncongenial facts and deal with them frankly. Murray and Herrnstein say in their New Republic article that they have undertaken their study because it is socially unhealthy for there to be “a taboo issue, filled with potential for hurt and anger” to be found “just beneath the surface of American life,” and claim that “it is essential that people begin to talk about this in the open.” But for all the hostile attention lavished on their arguments, there has been almost none given to this one. Its hidden analogy is drawn from therapeutic assumptions. Just as it is taken as axiomatic by therapists that “repression” of emotions is psychically unhealthy, so it is taken as axiomatic by Murray and Herrnstein that taboo subjects are socially unhealthy.

Not being either a therapist or a social scientist, I am perhaps not qualified to express an opinion on this subject, but it does seem curious to me that, as both the good times and the bad times in all of human history known to us have been marked by examples of repression of both individual emotion and social taboos, so few people think it worth even raising a question about the validity of these assumptions. It is true that, in his contribution to The New Republic’s Aunt Sally game, John Judis raises the possibility of a good taboo, but frames it so as to make the issue easy for himself. “It’s not the taboo against unflinching scientific inquiry” that Murray and Herrnstein are taking on, he says, “but against pseudo-scientific racism”—the taboo on which, needless to say, “is most deserving of retention.”

“It is inexcusable,” Worsthorne insists, “to tell people that they are stupid even if they are; bad manners, unkind, in a word ungentlemanly.”

He never considers even the possibility of racist science’s being other than pseudo, but Nathan Glazer is braver than this, allowing that what Murray and Herrnstein say may well be true, but rather shockingly dismisses it as a truth the knowledge of which does not seem to produce any “good results.”

Our society [he writes] our polity, our elites, according to Herrnstein and Murray, live with an untruth: that there is no good reason for this inequality, and therefore society is at fault and we must try harder. I ask myself whether the untruth is not better for American society than the truth.

Put so baldly, this view sounds rather sinister and Machiavellian, but Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, once the editor and now the diarist of the London Sunday Telegraph, makes a similar point and sounds only quaintly anachronistic. Worsthorne is as hostile to Murray and Herrnstein as many another commentator, regarding them and anyone else engaged in similar research as, ipso facto, “pretty nasty pieces of work whom I would not wish to know.” His reason is not their alleged dishonesty but the “wounding rudeness” of too much inconsiderate honesty.

“It is inexcusable,” Worsthorne insists, “to tell people that they are stupid even if they are; bad manners, unkind, in a word ungentlemanly.” Of course, the pursuit of truth trumps all such arguments, he recognizes, and “if Charles Darwin was right to tell the truth about man’s descent from the apes, in spite of this undermining of the Christian religion, so are these American scientists to tell the truth about differing racial I.Q.s, in spite of this undermining the religion of racial equality.” But “if ever there was a case for the scientific equivalent of a white lie, turning a blind eye, then surely race is it.” This seems to me an honorable and an intelligent thing to say.

What we know is altered by our publication of it: No statement of a truth is made in isolation, and its truthfulness is compromised by the circumstances of its utterance. We are all aware of this on some levels. For instance, the intelligent man who says that intelligence does not matter so much as common sense may be stating a truth about intelligence (in the absence of a clear definition of common sense we cannot be sure) but he certainly is stating something about himself: that he is not stuck-up about his big brain and not trying to set himself up as better than you poor slobs who are reading his words. Most of the time he feels he has to say something like this precisely because he is stuck up and setting himself up as better than the poor slobs who are reading his words.

What, then, is the possible truth value of his statement? Very small, I would have thought. In the same way, Murray and Herrnstein’s saying (or implying) that the fact that blacks are better than whites at dancing and basketball, as they do in the most regrettable part of their New Republic piece, is self-evidently an attempt to deprecate attacks on their invidious thesis by conceding some area of superiority to the otherwise inferior black man. What is the truth value of that statement? Similarly very small. It would be better not to say such things —not only more diplomatic but, in an important sense, more truthful, since we know and are always likely to know less of the truth about race and I.Q. than we are the truth about why people say the things that they do.

At the extreme-right-hand edge of the bell, I am tempted to place the likes of Jerry Adler of Newsweek, who makes the brilliant but not quite relevant point that the distribution of life’s goodies may correlate well with I.Q. but does so even more with good looks, and Ms. Valerie M. Hudson of Brigham Young University, who, in a letter to The New York Times, points to a little-known but striking correlation between intelligence and breast feeding, a practice engaged in by 54 percent of white mothers but only 8 percent of blacks. But indisputably among the brightest are Thomas Sowell and Charles Krauthammer, both of whom accurately reproduce the thesis and arguments of The Bell Curve. Neither tries to posture in order to reveal to us his own superior intelligence and/or compassion to those he is writing about, and both express disagreement with details of the book but agreement with its broad outlines.

David Brooks of The Wall Street Journal belongs with them. He asks: “Smart people do better than dumb people—so what? This apparently obvious principle radically undermines the whole range of arguments made in the name of the holy troika of race, class and gender studies.” Equally brainy is Robert Samuelson, who is able to accept Murray and Herrnstein’s broad conclusions while at the same time pointing out that the various social pathologies that correlate with low intelligence—in particular crime and illegitimacy—have increased in the population over the past thirty-five years without there being any corresponding decrease in intelligence. In other words, “other changes in the social or economic climate must have done the main damage” and “the effect of intelligence is secondary. All Murray and Herrnstein say is that those with lower-than-average intelligence are especially vulnerable to these changes.” If those words had been inscribed at the beginning, a whole issue of The New Republic would have been unnecessary.

But at the summit of intelligence I would have to put Glenn Loury who, against the unpromising background of The New Republic’s slug-fest, is able to take the Glazer/Worsthorne argument a stage further. “Just how necessary is it,” he asks, “that we engage in a public discourse of regret concerning what they present as the unfortunate but recalcitrant disabilities of an identifiable set of our fellows?” Language depends on context, and Loury is the only one to make explicit the necessary point that, whatever the truth or falsity of their claims, “declaring a stark and intractable gap between the intellectual abilities of black and white Americans is a political act.” (Emphasis in the original.)

This is indisputable, and something that it is debatable whether Murray and Herrnstein were intelligent enough to see for themselves. Here is one instance wherein falling a little short in intelligence would be to their credit. Loury, whose criticisms are the more telling for being among the very few intelligent ones, also deserves distinction for his lapidary conclusion, that “the inherent equality of human beings [is] an ethical axiom, not a psychologically contingent fact.” These words ought to stand at the head of any discussion of the subject as a warning to both sides.


  1.  The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein; The Free Press, 845 pages, $30.

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