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Charles A. Murray ’65 spoke to Harvard affiliates at a Friday webinar about his new book, which criticizes the idea that race and gender are social constructs. Faculty in attendance criticized his work, saying it makes unfounded claims and is rooted in flawed methodology.
Government preceptor David D. Kane invited Murray — whose work the Southern Poverty Law Center terms “racist pseudoscience” – to speak about his 2020 book “Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class” as part of a lecture series entitled “Data Scientists, Data Professionals, Data Dissidents.”
Murray said during the talk that many of Harvard’s social science and humanities faculty are “outdated” in their belief that race is a social construct.
“We know that the allele frequencies for different population groups on traits are quite different,” he said. “And the chance that once we untangle the effects of these, that they’ll balance out to zero, is statistically just about impossible.”
Sociology professor Mary C. Waters, who attended the webinar, criticized Murray’s research, writing in an email that he frequently committed the “elementary error” of confusing correlation with causation throughout his talk.
“Murray's performance was embarrassing and certainly does not reflect excellence in data science or social science,” she wrote. “His work is very weak. He cherry picks data and studies that suit his desired conclusions and he does not seem to understand the issues he writes about.”
Murray has courted controversy since 1994, when he co-authored the bestselling book, “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.” The book posited that differences in intelligence between classes are partially attributable to race and ethnicity, an argument that has since been widely discredited.
In the more recent “Human Diversity,” Murray critiques the social science “orthodoxy” that gender and race are social constructs and that class is a function of privilege. He presents ten counter-propositions, including claims that there are real differences in personality between the sexes, that there are genetic distinctions corresponding to self-identified race and ethnicity, and that class structure has a significant basis in genetic differences.
Harvard students and faculty protested Murray’s talk the last time he spoke on campus, and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay said in a recent interview that she does not believe Murray’s work has academic merit.
During the webinar, Murray acknowledged that his parts of his work have been co-opted by white supremacist groups to advance racist agendas.
“Is it a fact that [there are] some white nationalist groups and white supremacist groups that misuse ‘The Bell Curve?’” Murray asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “On the other hand, is there any scholar out there who has written any work that has gotten a lot of attention on a controversial topic that has not been misused? That's not my problem.”
“I am not dependent upon the opinions of Harvard faculty who I suspect have never read a word I've written,” he also said.
Sociology professor Jocelyn Viterna, who attended the talk, wrote in an email that she has indeed read “Human Diversity” and found that its logic was unsound.
“Murray’s new book once again argues that environmental factors don’t matter as much as biological factors, but once again, it bases the argument on assumption and speculation, and not on a careful, data-driven analysis,” she wrote. “It also flat out ignores the extensive, data driven, carefully analyzed, peer reviewed research that already demonstrates, over and over again, how social factors shape inequality.”
She added that Murray “didn’t have a single thing of substance to say” during his talk when presented with “thoughtful” questions about how he arrived at his conclusions about the role genetics play in shaping individuals and societal inequalities.
“Murray rambled a great deal about how mistreated he has been, but there were no data, and there was certainly no science; just a good deal of deflecting and pouting,” she added.
Murray did not respond to a request for comment about Waters and Viterna’s statements.
During the talk, Murray expressed frustration at the censure he has previously received from professors at Harvard and beyond for his work, characterizing the present moment as an “intellectual dark age.”
“The idea that Veritas is no longer an appropriate ideal for the University — that instead it must be the advancement of social justice that is the purpose of the University — is, to my mind, a tragic event,” he said.
Murray, however, was not the only one to receive rebuke. Waters also wrote that she and her fellow social science faculty in attendance were disturbed by the fact that Kane disabled the public chat, instead asking participants to ask questions through a private submission function.
Waters wrote that disabling the chat precluded “the back and forth between speaker and audience that academic scholarly debate requires.”
Waters further criticized Kane’s decision to invite Murray to speak to students.
“The choice of Murray for a data science class and the way that Kane was afraid of allowing real debate makes me question Kane's qualifications for teaching,” she wrote. “Harvard students deserve better instructors and better guest lecturers.”
Kane did not respond to a request for comment on the decisions to invite Murray and disable the chat function.
This contentious webinar comes two weeks after Government professor Kosuke Imai replaced Kane as course head of Government 50: “Data,” following student allegations that Kane authored racist blog posts under the pseudonym “David Dudley Field ’25” on his website EphBlog. Imai also wrote to Gov 50 students that he felt “dismay” at the decision to invite Murray.
Kane wrote to Gov 50 students Thursday that he removed the course name from the speaker series “since there is no connection between the two, other than my involvement in both.”
At the end of the talk — during which Murray also called the SAT’s so-called “adversity index” a “PR ploy” and said he does not know “who to trust in the climate change debate” — Kane said “we may invite Charles to come back.”
“You’re a sucker for punishment,” Murray said to him.
“I’m a fool and proud of it,” Kane responded.
—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.
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