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The Devil in the Details

The Bell Curve Raised the Issue, Now We Wait

By Bruce L. Gottleib

It's hard not to notice that individuals have inherently unequal mental capacities. Each of us has, no doubt, encountered the full spectrum: the impossibly obtuse, the merely incompetent, the average Joe, the smart fella and the inconceivably brilliant. People object when accused of stupidity; but, few question the basic thesis that some got it and others don't.

With the publication of their new book, The Bell Curve, Charles Murray '65, a fellow at a prominent conservative think tank, and the late Richard Herrnstein, Pierce professor of psychology, have added a new dimension to the current conversations on race and intelligence.

The authors report that whites in America have long suspected that "fundamental racial differences are implicated in the social and economic gap that continues to separate Blacks and whites." The book summarizes scientific data which supports this claim.

Murray and Herrnstein write, "It is now beyond much technical dispute that there is such a thing as a general factor of cognitive ability on which human beings differ and that this general factor is measured reasonably by a variety of standardized tests, best of all IQ [Intelligence Quotient] tests." The authors document the disparity between mean Black and mean white IQ scores--a fact easily proved by experimentation. And on the strength of the above-cited assumption, they allege that Blacks have less intrinsic aptitude or ability.

The use of IQ tests sets this work apart from others which seek only to compare different races' attainments. According to Murray and Herrnstein, the Intelligence Quotient measures people's "cognitive ability," in a word, smarts. The authors attempt to interpret something we all know--that some racial groups are more academically and socioeconomically successful than others--as a sign that some racial groups are dumber than others. In short, a theory of inequality rooted in environmental differences (which can be changed) is replaced with one rooted in genetics.

Frightening and radical stuff, if true. But almost no one seems willing to accept their thesis. The media's response has been overwhelmingly negative--though most accounts have taken pains to be respectful.

Respected scholars such as Glenn Loury, Andrew Hacker and others have written short, but thoughtful responses to the book which dispute its basic claims and criticize some of its methods of argumentation. They do not dismiss the book a priori based on its rather unsettling contentions, but engage its substance.

These commentators act in the best tradition of intellectual analysis. The techniques of statistics and forms of debate in the social sciences are meant to distinguish truth from hogwash.

If the goal of scholarship were to confirm what beliefs about the world we held already, then many students and professors could save themselves much sweat and tears. We could transform this institution (formerly dedicated to veritas) into a giant orgy of self-congratulation. We could march through the Yard glorying in our ignorance. We could use the books in Widener as kindling in our fireplaces, and sit happily in our common rooms, secure in our righteousness.

The point of scholarship has been, and will remain, to ferret out the truth in whatever form it presents itself.

The short opinion pieces written by concerned intellectuals are the beginning of a considered response to The Bell Curve. These articles have pointed out the basic difficulty of disentangling the effects of intelligence and environment in determining academic and socio-economic success. Can Johnnie not read because he's dumb or because he lives in one of the most God-awful ghettos in America, and his average class has 40 people (half with guns) and one teacher?

It will take several months, or perhaps years, until experts in statistics and the social sciences can comment on the credibility of the claims made in The Bell Curve. An open-minded individual will reserve judgment until that time.

Some early research by Jeffrey Rosen, Charles Lane and Michael Lind has cast doubt on the objectivity of many of the studies cited in The Bell Curve. For example, cited by Murray and Herrnstein are two eugenicists who have advocated the sterilization of "anti-socials."

Another source is the Canadian professor J. Phillipe Rushton, who believes that Asians have greater than average mental powers, but smaller than average penises. Rushton has appeared at malls near his university, asking Blacks, Asians and whites. "How far can you ejaculate?" and "How long is your penis?" Rushton has been quoted in Rolling Stone as saying. "It's a trade-off: more brain or more penis. You can't have everything."

Rosen and Lane, who report this information in The New Republic, were unspecific about the possibility of a comparable trade-off among Asian, white and Black females.

Other authors cited in The Bell Curve's bibliography are so-called scholars who theorize about a Black sex drive inexorably pushing members of that race towards promiscuity and a concommitant increased likelihood of contracting AIDS.

Amusing though it may be, exposing some of Herrnstein's and Murray's sources is not enough to discredit the entire book. Rather, The Bell Curve has achieved one of its stated goals, which is to bring private speculation on a much whispered-about topic into the public sphere of discussion. Casting aspersions on the authors is not enough--apologists could reasonably label the opinions of liberals like me tendentious, simply because I find the book's conclusion deeply offensive.

Ideas should be judged as though they were sui generis. If their author's private biases were so important, then we would be better served studying biographies instead of actual works.

The Bell Curve's assertions will stand or fall based upon highly technical questions of correlation versus causation. Ultimately, the question deserves careful debate and should be answered by those with an expert knowledge of the field.

Until then, we know nothing more than we did before the book's publication.

Bruce L. Gottleib '97 is an occasional contributor to the Opinion page.

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