Volume 3, Number 83
18 September 2003

Criticism of The Bell Curve

by Asa Janney

Dear Friends,

Asa JanneyIn TQE #82 I told of my interview with Charles Murray on The Bell Curve and his views on mean racial differences in IQ. Charles — a scholar, not an ideologue — believes that the black-white test score gap is genetically determined and not susceptible to change by social policy.

Most scientists believe the black-white gap exists but disagree with Murray on its causes. Their theories use environmental factors to explain the gap. Two of the books that support these arguments are The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould, and The Black-White Test Score Gap, edited by Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips (J&P).

Many non-scientists argue against biological determinism from a sense of moral outrage. These feelings are often reflected in social policy debates. Americans have sometimes used flawed science and even pseudoscience to establish policies that were simply an expression of prejudice. The immigration law of 1924 is a good example.

Are IQ scores used unfairly today? They sure are. Scholars have debated what IQ measures from the beginning of IQ testing. When I was a child, a teacher told me that "IQ is what IQ tests measure." I thought it was a joke then; now I see it as a telling statement.

J&P write: "Almost all psychologists now agree that intelligence tests measure developed rather than innate abilities." They also make the unqualified statement that "no one has found genetic evidence indicating that blacks have less innate intellectual ability than whites." Let's look at some specifics that lead them to make those statements.

The Flynn Effect, named after James Flynn who first observed it, is the observation that Western countries have experienced gains as great as 15 IQ points per generation in recent decades. That fact alone indicates that the black-white IQ difference may be due entirely to environmental factors because the gene pool of those countries cannot be changing fast enough to cause this result.

In 1961 K. Eyferth obtained one of the most compelling findings on genetic determination. He realized that American GIs, some black, some white, had fathered children by German mothers during the occupation after World War II. He found that the IQs of children with white fathers averaged 97 while the average for those with black fathers was virtually the same. Because the test-score gap in the U.S. military was the same as that for the general U.S. population, Eyferth concluded that the gap is not genetic in origin.

Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson designed an ingenious set of tests given to Stanford undergraduates. Black students had a significantly higher error rate when they were asked before the test to record their race or were told that the test measured "verbal reasoning ability." The scores of white students did not respond to these factors.

Steele theorizes that remedial programs for black undergraduates are actually counterproductive; they aggravate the stereotype and work against performance. He tested that theory with a random sample of all students at the University of Michigan where he designed a program that described itself as more demanding than the usual. That program boosted the grades of black students during and after their participation. The implication is that the best way to improve black undergraduates' performance may be for schools to treat them like everyone else and to expect more from them, which may also be the best way to counter the impression that blacks are less intelligent than whites.

After The Bell Curve was published, Stephen Jay Gould reprinted The Mismeasure of Man, adding the critique that The Bell Curve was just another incident in the long history of the misuse of scientific research to support biological determinism and racial superiority. He asserts that "The Bell Curve contains no new arguments and presents no compelling data to support its anachronistic social Darwinism." In his opinion Herrnstein and Murray (H&M) do not discuss or defend the four cornerstones of their argument, which are:

  1. Intelligence is depictable as a single number.
  2. That measure can be used to rank people by intelligence.
  3. Intelligence is genetically based.
  4. During one's life it is effectively immutable.

He writes: "If any of these premises are false, the entire argument collapses. For example, if all are true except immutability, then programs for early intervention in education might work to boost IQ permanently, just as a pair of eyeglasses may correct a genetic defect in vision." Gould writes that The Bell Curve downplays "the strong circumstantial evidence for substantial malleability."

Gould writes, "Nothing in The Bell Curve angered me more than the authors' failure to supply any justification for the central claim ...: the reality of IQ as a number that measures a real property in the head ...." He argues that H&M take it for granted that the issue has been settled and do not adequately indicate that this view has only limited support among psychometricians. He severely criticizes trying to measure intelligence with a single number.

Both Gould and Jencks discuss the pitfalls in statistical analyses that I deal with in my work continually. (I am a statistician.) Accidental correlations spring up everywhere. I like Jencks's example of noticing that the correlation of hair length with sex is high. Should we conclude from this that hair length is genetically determined?

I want to end this letter on two positive notes. One is that many of the authors I reviewed think that the test-score gap can eventually be eliminated. The other is that even if the gap were due to genetics, that does not tell us that it is untreatable. As Jencks writes, "there is no evidence that genetically based learning problems are harder to treat than environmentally based problems."

But most of all, both Murray and his critics are scholars, not ideologues. This demonstrates how scholars may disagree with each other. It is neither necessary nor desirable to base beliefs on ideology.

After reading the interview with Charles Murray (TQE #82) and the arguments (in this Letter) of scholars who disagree with him, how do Friends — thinking as scholars and not ideologues — assess this matter?

Sincerely your friend,

Asa Janney

Readers' Comments

The Quaker Economist's summary of The Bell Curve's conclusions about race are not quite on target. The authors did not state that group differences on IQ scores are genetic in origin.  Here is the book's most direct statement on this matter: "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."

As far as refereed journals go: Herrnstein and Murray were not primarily presenting their own research in The Bell Curve, a fact which they made clear. Their announced topic was "the relationship of human abilities to public policy." They were acting as knowledgeable commentators upon a large body of research, describing the work of psychometricians who were indeed published in refereed professional journals — work that was not well known to the general reading  public but that Herrnstein and Murray believed should be. The Bell Curve includes an extensive bibliography full of references to all sides of the IQ debate.  (Charles Murray did publish, subsequently, a paper on sibling pairs in the Proceedings of the American Economics Association.)

— Catherine Cox, Goose Creek Meeting, Lincoln, VA

This entire "scholarly" discussion about The Bell Curve is utter nonsense. Call me an idealogue if you wish, but any promotion or "rational" discussion of the "findings" in The Bell Curve are just another attempt to preserve white male privilege in the US, and consequently our racialized society.  I must admit that I didn't read TQE #82, but why are Quakers devoting any intellectual time to this garbage?  Racism is unfortunately "alive and well" in our society and we need to denounce it in whatever form it appears.

— Ken Woerthwein, Harrisburg (Pa) Friends Meeting.

I'm also a statistician, working at the University of Penn's School of Medicine, where genetic factors are considered strong determinants of everything from body weight to susceptibility to depression. I read Murray and Herrnstein's book, and was quite impressed — they certainly pointed out many pitfalls to naive environmentalism. I seem to remember that they reviewed studies in which black educators made up the tests, and whites still did better. I think that whites did better on the "culture free" parts of the test also. The idea that different human populations would differ genetically in cognitive abilities seems quite plausible to us in medicine, but we never talk about it — too politically dangerous. We all remember the guy at Rutgers who had to resign from loose lipped speech. The emotions run very high. One view is that human genome studies will eventually untangle the relationships. As I person of European descent, I may just have to accept that we are less intelligent than those of Asian descent on average — but I'll wait for the specific gene frequency evidence.

— Mark Cary, Middletown (PA) Meeting.

I own to being troubled by several aspects of this discussion. I tend (living in the lively "melting pot" of Miami, Florida) to be aware daily of the diversity achieved by centuries of the mixing of humanity — we now know that the first Spanish fishermen, sailing from Cuba, soon had additional "wives" among the First Nations of Florida's Gulf Coast, and took some of their children back to Cuba, as one simple instance.  Add to their offspring the genetic heritage of Spain (where Moor might mean more or less Arab, more or less African) as well as that acquired in the "New World" and one could well ask HOW one determines a genetic race that meets laboratory standards to be used for benchmarking such IQ tests?Ê Where I grew up, in racially segregated Jacksonville, Florida, of course, there was no "minimum" — any Black African heritage made you "Negro." This is patently foolish.

It is troubling that IQ test results are at issue, since it is not convincing that IQ alone measures fitness. If one were to speculate on survival of the fittest, then those nations with the largest populations could arguably be providing the best genetic material overall. By those measures, African nations seem much more successful than European ones.

There are many kinds of memory. We know this. IQ without memory is a joke. A corollary: good verbal memory may successfully imitate real intelligence among a company. But what of the value to the individual and to the community of the kinds of memory and intelligence not measured by standardized verbal testing? Surely we have heard of those whose excellence at design, manipulation of tangible objects, dexterity, or their senses, have made them enormously valuable to humanity. What does an IQ test tell you about musicians, artists, weavers, chefs, surgeons, hunters, gatherers, story- tellers, or those who heal the hearts of the hurt with loving and compassionate listening? Not as much as this discussion has been implying, I think.

— Warren Hoskins, Clerk, Miami (FL) Friends Meeting.

All the "Bell Curve" theory said to me was that a white guy in Virginia thinks he's better than black people. Not really front page news.

— Gary Smith, Haddonfield (NJ) Meeting.

Russ Nelson (publisher of TQE) adds: Is that a scientific statement or an ideological statement? The point of these two articles is not to talk about a controversial issue. The point is how we talk about a controversial issue. Do we come to conclusions a priori? Quite clearly, people who talk about things scientifically have a problem. It's much harder for them to refute an ideological statement simply because of the cost in time of doing so. Conversely, when someone makes a scientific statement, what is served by replying to it ideologically? It seems to me that what is being attacked by such a statement is not the issue itself, but instead the scientific process.

One problem with the Bell Curve hypothesis is that race itself is an artificial construct.  Who is black, and who is white in America, after 300 years of intermarriage and interracial sex. except a recent immigrant from Africa or Norway?  The absurdity of race as a concept is illustrated best to me by the example that a white woman can have a "white" child or a "black" one, depending on who fathers it, but a "black" woman can only have "black" children. The presumption that any admixture of "blackness" can make one "black" shows that the whole concept is absurd. How was the racial classification of the children who were tested established, and what criteria were used?  None of the features that are stereotypically associated with "negroid," namely dark skin, nappy hair, broad noses, thick lips, ability to run, you name it, are exclusively associated with people of African descent, nor do all Africans have them. For example, in West Africa there is a separate ethnic group of nomadic herders, the Fulani or the Peulh, who have intermarried with other groups for years and who look more like the Berbers or Moors of North Africa than they do like "Africans." Ethiopians and Eritreans do not look like the Wolof of Senegal, who in turn do not look like the Yoruba of Nigeria. Blackness or whiteness are cultural constructs (whites aren't really white, anyway, they're pink) that disappear when you look closely and that have no basis in biology. I partly realized this when I saw Afro-Americans working in West Africa. Most told me they did not feel truly American until they went to Africa and realized how unAfrican they were. The cultural gulf between them and West Africans was far greater than it was between them and white Americans.

— Walter Guterbock, Kalamazoo (MI) Friends Meeting.

This discussion misses what seems to me the point. In every population there is a distribution of ability of all kinds, including whatever abilities are measured by IQ tests. It is really only of academic interest whether certain groups (here racially defined) have different distributions from other groups considered. Even if it is so it has, or should have, nothing to do with how we treat individuals. When a black student comes to my class in mathematics, it is perfectly irrelevant what the distribution of mathematical ability is in the black community. The question is what this student can do and wants to do. All the discussion assumes that public policies ought to be based on these observed (rightly or not) distributions. But those would be bad public policies. The way we treat black students ensures that they will be discouraged from trying to be outstanding at what they do best; instead they are encouraged to be satisfied just to get by.

— Henry Helson, Vine St. Meeting, Berkeley (CA).

Your distinction between ideologues and scholars doesn't seem so pronounced to me. It is usually difficult to fault either for bad logic. While their approaches may seem different, ultimately, their conclusions depend not so much on method but their premises. If an ideologue believes in his heart (probably unexpressed) that there is something basically different in peoples of different colors, well, Charles Murray's conclusions aren't that outlandish. If a scholar starts with the notion (again, probably unexpressed) that somehow descendents of black slaves have been irreparably harmed by that fact, then his/her scholarship will probably conclude the we must use force (usually the government) to remedy the situation. If either starts with race as a genetic dividing line between various peoples, with IQ being a measure of intelligence, with dollar incomes a measure of success, or even that intelligence exists except as a concept in our minds, then they will eventually arrive where they wanted to be in the first place: in a position to tell others how they should live their lives. I suspect we can only hope for honesty in their hearts and minds, being very careful to acknowledge real premises, if we wish scholars or ideologues to arrive at conclusions that will move us into a better world.

— Jim Joyner, Short Mountain, TN


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Publisher and Editorial Board

Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board:

  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

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Copyright © 2003 by Asa Janney. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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