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Debate Over Bell Curve Not Ended



I am disturbed by David W. Brown's column "Burying the Bell Curve," (signed piece, Feb. 22, 1995) not for it s absurd and misguided attacks on Charles Murray, but for its total lack of original or insightful thought on The Bell Curve debate.

First, it amazes me that Brown, like other critics of The Bell Curve does precisely that which he accuses Murray of doing: he bases his argument on prejudices and assumptions with virtually no serious thought at all. For instance, this idea that Agassiz Professor of Zoology Stephen J. Gould has totally shredded Murray's argument and "completely debunked this flawed book" is preposterous. (At least, he didn't at the debate.)

Gould essentially said that the book was based on four assumptions and if any of them proved to be false then so did Murray's thesis. Fine. Then he claimed that it was possible that three of the four were wrong. Fine. Then he pointed out that Murray's definition of intelligence is too narrow and that he would probably use a more broad definition. Fine. Where is the "stinging criticism?" Between his jokes and smug jabs at Murray, Gould essentially said that the book could very easily be wrong, and that he thought it probably was. Of course it could be wrong! Murray even said so himself! No doubt there are very legitimate statistical criticisms, such as why he used "R" instead of "R" squared.

There are always such criticisms (and should be) in any social science or public policy study. But the notion that his ideas are so morally corrupt and racist and that thereforeit is all "pseudo-scientific" gobbledy-gook, and that we can thus rest assured because "real" (totally apolitical, of course) scientists have destroyed the whole idea is ridiculous.

Murray's most controversial claim--thought by no means his central one--is that the discrepancy in mean performance on IQ tests between blacks and whites may be partly genetically based. Does he claim that this must be the case? No. Does he claim that this should affect our public policy in regards to race? No. Does he claim that it is even public policy in regards to race? No. Does he claim that it is even important at all? No. He argues just to opposite. In fact, the only thing it should teach us is not to treat people in terms of groups because labeling by race or group says almost nothing about individuals. (Gould's only response to this was that "the political reality" is that group averages are important because people have prejudices and tend to stereotype. Hardly a "debunking.")

I didn't find Murray's argument connection IQ and socio-economic status very convincing, not to mention between IQ and race, but that does not mean that his thoughts, studies and insights are totally void of logic or morality.

Does Brown truly believe that Murray's work is as evil as the Holocaust? It appears so, since he declares that the debate over The Bell Curve is nothing less than a "struggle between good and evil." But not only is such a comment pointless sophistry, it also shows a disturbing, morally myopic view of the Holocaust and other truly evil events. Charles Barzun '97

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