Thanks for the ‘heads up’ from Jeanne Paul (Brazil 1964-66)
Charles Murray Returns, Nodding to Caution but Still Courting Controversy
A review in the New York Times, February 13, 2020
by Parul Sehgal
Yes, that Charles Murray, who in 1994 co-authored “The Bell Curve,” with Richard J. Herrnstein, arguing in two notorious chapters that I.Q. differences between the races were mostly innate and mostly intractable. (They allowed that environmental factors play a part in I.Q., but held that the “balance of the evidence” put a genetic factor of 60 percent “on the low side.”) Social programs like welfare or early education intervention ought to be scrapped not only because they were fruitless but because they encouraged women with low I.Q. (“the wrong women”) to have more children. These “findings” were presented as good news: Why should intellectual achievement be considered the hallmark of success? Why should black people interpret this neutral data as a statement of their inferiority? No, the authors maintained, with breathtaking condescension: They will develop their own alternate sources of esteem; they might, for example, console themselves with their athletic “dominance.”
In the years since its publication, the book has been roundly discredited on moral, political and scientific grounds. Reviewing “The Bell Curve” in The New Yorker, Stephen Jay Gould called attention to the authors’ questionable use of statistics and cherry-picked data. Peer reviews found shoddy reasoning and mathematical errors (all in service of the book’s thesis). There have been debates about what I.Q. really measures (other than the ability to take I.Q. tests), and whether an individual’s I.Q. is as relatively unchangeable as the authors claimed.
In The New York Review of Books, Charles Lane described the book’s “tainted sources.” The authors, he argued, were relying on fringe researchers, many of them supported by the Pioneer Fund, whose founding mandate was “race betterment,” achieved by promoting reproduction by the descendants of “white persons who settled in the original 13 colonies prior to the adoption of the Constitution and/or from related stocks.” Richard Lynn, for example, a self-described “scientific racist,” and J. Philippe Rushton, who maintained that black people were shaped by evolution to be less nurturing to their children than their white counterparts. (“Rushton’s work is not that of a crackpot or a bigot,” Murray and Herrnstein straightfacedly proclaimed.)
Outrage has been good to Charles Murray. Far from being the victim of “a modern witch burning,” as the neuroscientist and podcaster Sam Harris has described him, Murray has been able to cloak himself in the mantle of the embattled intellectual, the purveyor of forbidden knowledge, while comfortably ensconced at the American Enterprise Institute, the influential think tank, for three decades. His previous book, “Coming Apart,” which examined a balkanized America through the lens not of I.Q. but “cultural differences” between wealthy and poor white Americans, was warmly received. “I’ll be shocked if there’s another book this year as important,” David Brooks wrote in his column in this newspaper. The violent actions of protesters when Murray appeared at Middlebury College in 2017 were widely deplored.
With “Human Diversity,” Murray tries to stoke some of the same controversy that powered “The Bell Curve” — which sold 400,000 copies in its first two months after publication — although more cautiously; “Human Diversity” is thick with reassurances to the reader, and caveats that individuals ought to be judged on their own merits. “I’m discussing some of the most incendiary topics in academia,” he writes, hastening to add that “the subtext of the chapters to come is that everyone should calm down.”
We are on the cusp of a revolution, Murray argues. Advances in genetics and neuroscience promise to liberate the social sciences from a stifling orthodoxy that denies the differences between people by insisting that we are blank slates, our potential impeded only by our environments. He identifies three key tenets of this orthodoxy: Gender is a construct; race is a construct; and class is a function of privilege.
Murray claims that the opposition to this orthodoxy is widespread, if covert and cowed by political correctness. “If you were to go onto a university campus and chat privately with faculty members whose research touches on issues of gender, race or class, you would find that many of them, perhaps a majority, have a more nuanced view than this. They accept that biology plays a role. Why then don’t they mention the evidence for a biological role in their lectures? Their writings? A common answer is that they fear that whatever they write will be misinterpreted and misused.”
Possibly, I’d hazard, by Murray himself. “Human Diversity” has all the bulk of
authority. A synthesis of research on the putative differences between the sexes and races, it’s rich with statistical analysis. It’s a curious fact, however, that Murray — who lambastes the unwillingness of politically correct social scientists to look dispassionately at the data — publishes his books under such carefully controlled circumstances. Advance review copies of “The Bell Curve” were not distributed, as Nicholas Lemann has noted. Early readers were handpicked and, on one occasion, flown to Washington by the American Enterprise Institute and briefed by Murray himself. “Human Diversity,” too, appears to have been parsimoniously circulated; the earliest reviews have been found at sympathetic outlets like The National Review.
As with “The Bell Curve,” we will have to wait for peer reviews to carefully sift through the science. Early indications might indicate some trouble for Murray. Last month, the psychologists Michelle N. Meyer, Patrick Turley and Daniel J. Benjamin issued a sharp rebuke to his use of their research on polygenic scores in his piece for The Wall Street Journal teasing the new book. He characterized polygenic scores as providing decisive insight into I.Q. that was “impervious to racism and other forms of prejudice.” In fact, the psychologists assert in response, “polygenic scores can and do reflect racism, sexism or other prejudices, as well as more benign environmental factors.”
Murray serenely rolls out his propositions, assuring us on occasion that it is all “consensus,” “securely known.” And yet several claims are plainly contentious, even to the lay reader. Take Murray’’s description of male brains as “systemizers” and female brains as “empathizers,” drawing on work of the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen. Men are drawn to things, in other words, and women to people. (You’ll recognize this terminology from James Damore’s diversity letter to Google.) This rubric becomes an organizing principle in the book, explaining the typically gendered vocations for men and women (Things Jobs and People Jobs). What Murray avoids discussing are the profound questions surrounding one of the studies that scaffold his thinking.
In 2000, Baron-Cohen and colleagues published a study of day-old babies that found that boys looked at mobiles longer (hence “systemizers”) and girls at faces (“empathizers”). This study has never been replicated, not even by Baron-Cohen. It was also poorly designed: for one, some of the newborns were propped up; their gaze might have been mediated by how they were held. Not to mention the core question, as posed by the psychologist Cordelia Fine, who has written extensively about bias in research on sex differences in the brain: “Why think that what a newborn prefers to look at provides any kind of window, however grimy, into their future abilities and interests?”
Or consider Murray’s interpretation of why women haven’t branched into more male-dominated fields over the last 30 years. Once again, he finds an explanation in the female preoccupation with people and emotion as opposed to the male orientation toward things and abstract thought. Sexism cannot be the culprit, he claims. Now that outright prohibition of women entering male-dominated fields has ended, any vestigial opposition ought to have abated in “a matter of years.” Never mind the wealth of research showing the very real persisting impediments that Murray dismisses. To name just one well-known example: In a study at Yale University, over 100 scientists reviewed a résumé submitted for an open position. The résumés were identical, although half were submitted under men’s names and half women’s names. The women’s résumés were ranked significantly lower than the men’s — by both female and male faculty.
Why doesn’t Murray attend more thoroughly to the role of the environment, to history — even if to decisively repudiate their impact? On genetics, too, he dismisses aspects that might dilute the strength of his argument that outside interventions are limited in their effects on personality and social behavior. Developments in epigenetics, for example — outside mechanisms that effectively turn genes “on” or “off” — are waved away as “hype.”
Stranger still are the inconsistencies. “Race is a construct” is among the tenets Murray seeks to dismantle. Yet tucked midway through the book is the bland assertion that his evidence does not “deny the many ways in which race is a social construct.” There is no genetic basis for race. It is a social and legal definition — a young, crude one at that, overlaid on the tangled realities of ancestral heredity. “Ancestral populations” might be more apt, he concedes. Not 40 pages later, however, he’s back to huffing at the “elite wisdom” that “race is a social construct.” Murray appears to want it both ways: to gesture at a more nuanced and precise formulation but also to harness, when he chooses, the raw rhetorical power of railing against woke dogmas about race.
The main question is: Why am I asking these questions of Charles Murray? True, the burden of proof is on him to make a case for this “exciting” scientific revolution (whose discoveries just happen to regurgitate some of humanity’s most pernicious, wearying and stubborn stereotypes). But proof is not Murray’s concern. Despite its blizzard of statistics, the book’s most astonishing (and telling) declaration is on the first page. If “you have reached this page” — the first page, I remind you — “convinced that gender, race and class are all social constructs, and that any claims to the contrary are pseudoscience, you won’t get past the first few pages before you can’t stand it anymore. This book isn’t for you.” He continues smoothly: “Now that we’re alone…”
Now that we’re alone. This book is for the believers. Rigorous readers, skeptics, the unindoctrinated — you won’t be persuaded by “Human Diversity,” but why should that matter? You’re not even invited. How’s that for a safe space. How’s that for an orthodoxy.
Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class
by Charles Murray (Thailand 1965-67)
$31.50 (hardback); $16.99 (Kindle)