Volume 3, Number 82
8 September 2003

The Bell Curve

Asa JanneyDear Friends,

Let me review from the past few letters: An ideology is how each one of us believes the world functions, as well as how it ought to function. We all have ideologies, but an ideologue is one who always judges an event by his or her ideology. A scholar — meaning an ordinary person, not necessarily a PhD — is someone who judges an event by logical reasoning, after examining facts, no matter what the outcome may be.

But what happens when a scholar reaches a conclusion that differs greatly from the ideology of those who surround him?

Charles Murray, who attends Goose Creek Meeting (Virginia), where his wife was recently clerk, is one such scholar. His book, The Bell Curve, observes that whites on average get higher scores on IQ tests. Then The Bell Curve goes on to the unpopular conclusions that whites are more intelligent than blacks and that this difference is genetically determined. This is the essence of controversy generated by The Bell Curve.

Charles may be criticized on his scholarship (and indeed he has been!) But most of the criticism stems from ideology. In the next letter, TQE #83, we will consider how Stephen Jay Gould, a well-known scholar who died last year, and others have criticized Charles on his scholarship. For the present Letter, we interviewed Charles himself. Here is part of the interview:

Asa: In The Bell Curve, I read about the "g factor." Please explain it.

Charles: "g" stands for general. If you give someone ten different tests — let’s say on arithmetic knowledge, vocabulary, history, or even mechanical puzzles — you will find, with virtually everybody, that the scores on those tests are correlated. Someone who scores high on one test may not score so high on another, but the general pattern will be that if he [or she] is high on one, he will be high on all. The reason those scores are correlated is what is called a general mental factor ["g"], which really comes very close to the statistical definition of intelligence. By statistical definition I mean it is the thing on those ten different tests that isn’t just that you know vocabulary or history or arithmetic, it’s the thing that they all have in common, which means that your mind works rapidly.

Asa: And then the g factor correlates highly with achievements in real life?

Charles: That’s right. That is one of the central messages of The Bell Curve — that what we know as IQ is importantly related to all kinds of measures of success in life It does not mean that IQ is everything. But The Bell Curve says over and over that it is important when you look at large populations. That if you look at the IQ score for an individual, you know very little about how he [or she] will do. But over large numbers of people it adds socially important relationships.

In 1969 Arthur Jensen wrote an article analyzing the different educational achievements of blacks and whites and concluded that we were never going to close that education gap completely, because a substantial amount of the difference between them was based on mental ability, and these were very hard to change. That just raised a firestorm.

In The Bell Curve, contrary to publicity, we didn’t make any strong claims about genetics. We did say, in terms of groups again with overlap among individuals, that here is the story on the different test scores of blacks and whites and that the differences are real. The means [averages] are different; the differences are fairly large. It has a certain degree of implications about what we can expect in terms of equal outcomes.

We also said that we don’t know how to change this difference. People have tried lots of different strategies for getting rid of the difference between blacks and whites and they haven’t worked. That’s the important thing, not whether it is genetic or environmental, but that it is intractable. Again, this is a huge controversy.

Asa: Your coauthor [Dick Herrenstein, who died about the time of publication] got involved in the debate shortly after Jensen’s paper, right?

Charles: Yes, he wrote a book called IQ of the Meritocracy, and he was making many of the same arguments that we developed further in The Bell Curve about the relationship between IQ and success in life.

He was also talking about the heritability of IQ. There is roughly a 0.5 correlation between the IQs of parents and their children. Well, if IQ is important to success in life, and if IQ is substantially heritable, then to some degree success in life is also going to be heritable. Now, that to me does not seem to be very controversial.  But in an age when everybody wanted everybody to be above average, it was controversial.

Asa: So, when did the government and courts get involved in this controversy?

Charles: Well, government and courts had been involved even earlier in the affirmative action/equal hiring rules. So there was an early case, I believe it was Griggs, in which the courts said you could not use a test as a basis of hiring unless it could be demonstrated that the test was specifically related to performance in that particular job. So that was the first way in which the courts got involved.

Later they got involved with affirmative action for preferred groups, or "protected groups," which is the legal term, that would get preferential treatment for admissions despite having lower test scores. In the 1970s the courts tried to say in a variety of ways, "These test scores do not really mean anything and you do not need to worry about them."

Asa: When you get into the discussion on racial differences in IQ, you make this statement: “Ethnic differences in higher education, occupation, and wages are strikingly diminished after controlling for IQ. Often they vanish. In this sense, America has equalized these central indicators of social success.”

Charles: That’s a positive story.

Asa: But it’s not one that people know about or would even accept automatically when told about it.

Charles: No, it’s as if the ethnic inequalities that we have in this country must have as their cause some evil force. I find it wonderful, terrific that when you take blacks with IQs of 120 and whites with IQs of 120, their incomes are about the same. I think that is great. I think it is great that blacks, whites, and Latinos of similar IQs have similar rates of going to college, blacks actually having somewhat higher rates than whites. That’s good news, but good news in this sense is not welcome because it involves talking about differences in IQ between ethnic groups.

Asa: You raise a couple of issues on affirmative action in schools and the workplace. In the workplace you say that absolutely fair hiring would produce racial disparity.

Charles: Right.

Asa: But a lot of people would say that affirmative action is fair in that it provides a desirable outcome — that it is fair in terms of racial balance and that this outcome is good for society. What do you think about that?

Charles: Well, I think that we are talking about one of the most complicated balancing acts of any policy. Condoleezza Rice did not get where she is by affirmative action, but is it good for black youngsters to see role models like that? Yes, sure it is. However, there is another change that goes on, and this is the kind of thing that people don’t appreciate.

Let’s stipulate for this discussion that there is a substantial mean [average] difference between blacks and whites. In the absence of affirmative action, and emphasis on treating people according to their ability, that doesn’t make much difference. I’ll give you a specific example: I entered Harvard in 1961. At that time we were forbidden to put pictures in our applications because the admissions committee was trying to know nothing about race. The effect was twofold. First, all the black kids at Harvard were just as smart as the white kids. Second, the white kids knew it; there was no condescension. In fact, you were better off assuming that the black kids had got there by overcoming more difficulties than you had, and that’s very helpful.

When you have aggressive affirmative action, you have situations which now prevail at universities around the country where the automatic assumption, particularly at the elite schools, is that black kids are not so smart as the white kids. You have taken what is a group difference and forced it into the university environment when the university had the option of getting rid of that. I think we would be a lot healthier society if at every step of the way, whether it is in the school or the workplace, that we have to assume as we encounter people that we can make no judgment about their abilities based on their color. Affirmative action, in effect, gives us a basis for thinking we can make such judgments. It’s pernicious.

End of Interview

Friends, do you base your judgment of The Bell Curve on ideology or scholarship? Basing it on scholarship does not mean that you must redo the scholarship that Charles has done. But it does mean that you have taken into account the writings of others who have done so.

In the next issue, we will discuss the work of Stephen Jay Gould, a renowned scholar, and other researchers who disagree with Charles Murray's methods. Then, Friends, make up your minds.

Sincerely your friend,

Asa Janney

Readers' Comments

I just thought I'd mention that I haven't been Clerk of Goose Creek Meeting. I have clerked committees, but that's not the same thing. Thanks.

— Catherine Cox (Charles Murray's wife) Goose Creek Meeting (VA)

Here is the only missing argument I find: It has long been argued that IQ tests are biased in favor of white males. Therefore it is hardly surprising that white males score higher, or that their scores and IQs are highly correlated with success in a white male dominated society that probably rewards white males with broader opportunities. It is exciting that white women and people of color can make it to college and succeed at all, but it would be more exciting if a measure of IQ could be created that is reliable and valid for women and people of color.

Just an aside: When I was a student of psychology and sociology at University of Arizona in the '70's, I witnessed an "experiment" where a vocabulary test written in what was then called "black english" was given to two groups, a group of black sociology students and a group of white sociology students. Our IQ (I am white) was significantly lower on that "g measure" than theirs. It was not a valid or reliable tool, but it made a point.

— Valerie Ireland, Boulder Meeting (CO)

Your letter reminds me of a truism I discovered in 25 year of legal practice and that I often share with others:

"We can live with the poor judgments and decisions we make ourselves; what is difficult is living with those that others make for us."

— Joseph Mills, Kalamazoo Friends Meeting (MI)

If black educators prepared IQ tests and gave them to white school children, the Bell Curve would have an entirely different message.

— Gary Smith, Haddonfield Friends Meeting, Haddonfield, NJ

I wonder whether the Equality Testimony is ideology or scholarship (since it apparently must be one or the other). I wonder whether there is such a thing as a "race" or "culturally" neutral IQ test. I wonder whether there is a "scientific" approach to "race" comparisons in light of the consensus from the scientific community that "race" is genetically meaningless.

— Phil Lord, Chestnut Hill Monthly Meeting, Philadelphia

... Years ago, I read an article in Science News reporting on some research with mice or rats that showed that the offspring of those critters who had learned to run mazes learned to run them much more easily than the offspring of those critters who had not learned to run mazes. I know we can't simply extrapolate from mice to humans, but I've always wondered if that might mean (especially over time) that the offspring of well-educated people might learn educational tasks more easily that the offspring of those people who had less opportunity to learn our western mazes leading to success in school. If one wanted to entertain that argument, it seems another argument in favor of excellent educational opportunity for the disadvantaged before college. The experience with the Head Start program would suggest validation for this hypothesis...

Maybe much of the complexity of the issues we expect The Bell Curve to speak to have to do with unclear goals of graduate and undergraduate education and how we measure "success" or "achievements in real life," as Asa put it. I have read that it is possible to get different measures of success for graduates in one uses the usual yardsticks of money and status or a yardstick of "satisfaction" in life. Of course, the latter may not contribute large sums to the endowment...

... I would argue that Condoleeza Rice undoubtedly owes something to affirmative action. I was indisputably the top student in my high school class, but the young man who finished second received a full scholarship to an Ivy League School and I a small scholarship to a State University, after convincing the University to give me an application to fill out. I was also considered "too poor" and from "too large a family." After several years of successful teaching, when I interviewed to apply to graduate school in education at a major university, I was told that I was "a young woman who belonged home with her children." Inexperienced me. I should have looked before, not afterwards, to see that there were no women on the education faculty.

— Sharon Hoover, Alfred Monthly Meeting (NY)

Asa, you say that in the litigation consulting you do, it's understood that each side focuses on their strong points — it's up to the other side to poke holes. This seems fair (certainly it's a lot to ask that someone go through all the weaknesses of their arguments), but I would point out that that is in the context of a carefully refereed competition. American scholarship has many such tournament grounds of its own, peer-reviewed journals being the obvious example. M&H, to my knowledge, have not appeared, nor tried to appear, in a single one (with regards to the Bell Curve thesis, Herrnstein was frequently published in peer-reviewed journals with regard to other work). Commentators (no doubt with their own biases and agendas) have frequently emphasized how carefully M&H have avoided these venues.

— Geoffrey Williams, attender, New York (NY) Fifteenth Street Meeting.

You ask, "Friends, do you base your judgment of The Bell Curve on ideology or scholarship?" I would say there is a danger of introducing a false dichotomy here. I would like to base any judgment on truth, not on ideology nor on scholarship alone. I say this not to devalue scholarship, but to remember that scholarship is fallible, particularly when it is itself influenced by ideology. Even the whole system of peer-reviewed publication is liable to distort the truth, when the system is in some way bound up within an ideology.

It is equally important to note the difficulty, if not impossibility, of establishing an ideologically pure standpoint from which to judge the extent of scholarship's corruption or compromise by an ideology. I guess we have to work piecemeal, step-by-step, based on what we can see at this time.

Is it inevitable that IQ should be the principle component of advantage in any society? I think not. In a society where social status is based on performance in sport, or music, IQ might not have such a correlation with social success.

— Simon Grant, Liverpool Meeting, Britain Yearly Meeting


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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.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters a week in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

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

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