Monday, October 27, 2014

Quickies: Predictions Fulfilled

The American Enterprise Institute has posted a brief question-and-answer session with Dr. Charles Murray, one of America's best known social scientists, concerning the observations, assertions, and predictions he and co-author Richard Herrnstein made in The Bell Curve, published just twenty years ago to incredible controversy and no small amount of denunciation. Perhaps the most piercing bit of the exchange is as follows:

Q: The flashpoint of the controversy about race and IQ was about genes. If you mention “The Bell Curve” to someone, they’re still likely to say “Wasn’t that the book that tried to prove blacks were genetically inferior to whites?” How do you respond to that?

Actually, Dick and I got that reaction even while we were working on the book. As soon as someone knew we were writing a book about IQ, the first thing they assumed was that it would focus on race, and the second thing they assumed was that we would be talking about genes. I think psychiatrists call that “projection.” Fifty years from now, I bet those claims about “The Bell Curve” will be used as a textbook case of the hysteria that has surrounded the possibility that black-white differences in IQ are genetic. Here is the paragraph in which Dick Herrnstein and I stated our conclusion:

If the reader is now convinced that either the genetic or environmental explanation has won out to the exclusion of the other, we have not done a sufficiently good job of presenting one side or the other. It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences. What might the mix be? We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not yet justify an estimate. (p. 311)

That’s it. The whole thing. The entire hateful Herrnstein-Murray pseudoscientific racist diatribe about the role of genes in creating the black-white IQ difference. We followed that paragraph with a couple pages explaining why it really doesn’t make any difference whether the differences are caused by genes or the environment. But nothing we wrote could have made any difference. The lesson, subsequently administered to James Watson of DNA fame, is that if you say it is likely that there is any genetic component to the black-white difference in test scores, the roof crashes in on you.

On this score, the roof is about to crash in on those who insist on a purely environmental explanation of all sorts of ethnic differences, not just intelligence. Since the decoding of the genome, it has been securely established that race is not a social construct, evolution continued long after humans left Africa along different paths in different parts of the world, and recent evolution involves cognitive as well as physiological functioning.

Contemporaneously with the announcement of the book, "journalist" Jason de Parle did a hit piece on Murray that appeared in the New York Times. Its title: The Most Dangerous Conservative In America. Never let it be said that the Times simply reports the facts and leaves us to form our opinions for ourselves.

As Murray says elsewhere in the Q & A, his and Herrnstein's predictions of a social fissure steadily widening between the "cognitive elite" and the rest of the population, while the "cognitive elite" steadily merge with the economic and political elite, have observably come true. He foresees more troubles, and worse, over the decades immediately before us...and unusually for a social scientist willing to give his opinions openly and candidly to the public, both reason and the available evidence are on his side.


  1. Since this touches also on the social component, let's add this social component -- appearing Saturday in the Daily caller.

    Charles Barkley: ‘Unintelligent’ Blacks ‘Brainwashed’ To Keep Successful Black Men Down [VIDEO]

    Barkley particularly calls out the beatings blacks receive from other blacks for "acting white" by learning useful things.

    When I first heard of the trend from a news story out of NJ in the late 80s, I noted that the wider community had a responsibility to end it. But it appears they behaved instead as accessories after the fact.

    In later years the pattern was ascribed to something like "the bigotry of lowered expectations" for "certain segments" of society.

    IOW, a subtler form of the old racism held blacks as inferior because "every body knows that."

    That attitude among whites in the upper eschelons of society -- the liberal side they'd have crowed -- who had control of the social contract (which promises to protect innocents from thugs) -- never acted on behalf of the victims in the cases of beatings for acting white -- because why?

    You know the answer, don't you?

    In which case, the circle is complete Fran.

    If someone disagrees with this assessment, I'd like to hear it.

  2. I'm not a fan of Charles Murray, in part because *he* doesn't strike me as particularly intelligent, although I'm sure he could pull out his test scores and academic degrees to refute that. I've run into a lot of high IQ people who can't think. They'll jump on a crossword puzzle or do some other thing that demonstrates their cognitive gifts, but they produce soggy arguments often buttressed with informal logical fallacies. For instance, a doctor from a stellar med school who I know fairly grunts out responses, as if the effort to clarify a thought is too difficult to bear. Many years ago I was interviewing a neuroscientist about Alzheimer's research and we got off onto tangents and he started in on how high IQ individuals often resembled savants, in that they were very good at just certain tasks (one presumes taking IQ tests to be one of them to be so identified).

    I contend that character is a formidable kind of intelligence. A man of steadfast honesty and integrity, for instance, can be taken more seriously, including for his opinion on important subjects, than someone two standard deviations up the IQ ladder who practices chicanery as his method. Which man is thereby cognitively elite? Likewise, a well-trained thinker might be more valuable in general, for instance during an emergency, than a someone who is cognitively superior based on IQ but can't think worth a damn. So, family cohesion featuring the inculcation of strong values and an expectation of an impeccable character will get a lot of value out of average intelligence. Whereas a high IQ type who drifts into perplexity and uncertainty about, for instance, right and wrong, or truth and falsehood, might be pretty much worthless. Then again, practiced chicanery does have a lot of markets in the elite places of a society.

  3. Echelon. No "s", unless you are referring to the telecom corporation by that name. I apologize, but as an older 'white' man, with several intelligent 'black' men as friends; I must share that ignorance is the issue - and, increasingly, due to the wide variety and range of methods to learn and gain knowledge - that ignorance is a choice. In America today, the "dumbing down" of our youth is such a peril, if something isn't done soon to motivate our children to seek wisdom; they will soon be "kept by middle class Asians as pets." (and I do not mean pseudo intelligence, either...)

  4. Sorry, Martin. Fan or no fan, the evidence is entirely on Murray's side. More, your comment swiftly deviates to a completely separate thesis from the one he addresses – essentially, a tendentious attempt to redefine intelligence. While there's some substance in your contentions about other assets than intelligence as traditionally understood and their potential value, they're wholly irrelevant to Murray's thesis.

    Your observation about supposedly bright persons going wildly wrong is merely an illustration of Bertrand Russell's observation that "logic is often merely an organized way of going wrong with confidence." All the smarts in the world won't save you from the most egregious imaginable errors if your premises are wrong and / or your evidence is faulty or incomplete.

    Finally, remember that you don't have to like a man personally to grapple fairly and objectively with his contentions; indeed, his personality is irrelevant to any statements he makes about matters outside himself. Intellectual honesty demands that you separate the speaker from the spoken – no matter what you think of either.

  5. Huh. I have no specific thoughts about Murray personally, and refer only to his hard dependence on IQ testing as a measure of intelligence (when I say I'm not a fan). Perhaps you've been hoodwinked, Fran, by the label. Why, the test says it tests intelligence, so what it tests must be intelligence. But what if it only tests a sector of intelligence? And, for instance, has no capacity whatsoever to test the actual results of experience and judgment? O.K., so we have a test that shows that a seven year old has extraordinary cognitive gifts, while another seven year old has only average gifts. Nothing measures, even at that point and certainly not at various points during the lifetime of each, the accumulation of experience and judgment, nor the values that guide both. This integral intelligence will be tested only by life and situations.

    I wonder where Willie Mays would have wound up on the IQ scale. Certainly a genius by the measure of a very diffficult and sophisticated game, with an extraordinary grasp of situational and spatial ratios and the capacity to integrate them into a "gameview," he might not have a knack for concepts expressed on a sheet of paper.

    You write: "Your observation about supposedly bright persons going wildly wrong is merely an illustration of Bertrand Russell's observation that "logic is often merely an organized way of going wrong with confidence.""

    That is a full conflation of what I partially conflated and inadequately differentiated. A failure of foresight is one thing, and that befalls many/most at various points. No one can see the future. But then there is also a kind of nugget of stupidity that is often embedded in the brights that will not be corrected. Might have to do with as little as being unable to sweep the spotlight just a tad to the right or left, up or down. Goes back to my long ago conversation with the neuroscientist that I mentioned in my first response.

    You say that the evidence is entirely on Murray's side. Well, if he is limited to the premises of the game he's playing, then by definition all the outcomes (evidence) will conform with the particular elements of intelligence that he's measuring. I think his findings have value, but to the extent that it creates some sort of deterministic cognitive world, no. I think that there are assumptions made at the foundation of the science that are wildly incomplete.


Comments are moderated. I am entirely arbitrary about what I allow to appear here. Toss me a bomb and I might just toss it back with interest. You have been warned.