You've got to be taught to hate and fear ...

››› ››› ERIC ALTERMAN

(Feeling unwell, I thought I was going to need a day off this morning. But "Dr. Steve B." of New York came through with a copy of the three-part critique I once published of Charles Murray's work a couple of years back, which was originally drawn on work I did for What Liberal Media? and I thought, in light of yesterday's post, it might be useful to put it up again so it could be located whenever anyone might find it useful. Thanks, Dr. Steve.)

The Bell Curveball, Part I

Perhaps the most successful publishing foray into the world of ideas by a combination of right-wing funders and their compatriot intellectuals is the amazing public relations achievement undertaken on behalf of the work of the formerly obscure Charles Murray. How many 800-plus-page nonfiction books featuring over a hundred pages of graphs and source materials have managed to sell upwards of 300,000 copies in hardcover in recent years? How many have inspired Vanity Fair-type celebrity coverage in virtually all major news magazines, as well as a special issue of The New Republic, which featured no fewer than seventeen responses? How many authors of such books have been featured in major Hollywood films, carried by characters wishing to demonstrate intellectual toughness? [1] The answer to all of the above is precisely one: Murray's The Bell Curve. [2] Back in 1982, however, Charles Murray, was still a "nobody" in the words of William Hammett, president of the Manhattan Institute, and about to be Murray's chief patron. Murray's ascendancy would never have been possible without the patient, far-sighted investments in his work by a conservative network of funders and foundations, including the reclusive billionaire, Richard Mellon Scaife, the Olin Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and, perhaps most significantly, Milwaukee's Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. They not only supported Murray when he needed time to research and write his books, they funded elaborate publicity campaigns to ensure that Murray's argument would dominate media discourse.

The story of Charles Murray's rise in just one decade from being a public nobody to being America's best known and perhaps most influential public intellectual is an odd but instructive tale with regard to just how easily conservatives can manipulate the SCLM, and legitimate views once considered unspeakable in polite society. As a writer, Murray displayed an uncanny ability to offer what appeared to be a reasonable and scholarly-sounding voice to opinions and arguments that had hitherto been considered beyond the pale of respectability. Indeed, he has been quite self-conscious regarding this purpose as evidenced by the fact that in his book proposal for Losing Ground, he explained to potential publishers that his work would be welcomed by people who secretly believed themselves to be racists. "Why can a publisher sell it?" he asked. "Because a huge number of well-meaning whites fear that they are closet racists, and this book tells them they are not. It's going to make them feel better about things they already think but do not know how to say." [3]

Trained as a Ph.D. in political science but without any formal credentials in economics or psychometrics -- the two fields in which his work managed to incite national debates -- Murray's work has met with little but vituperation and disgust among those experts competent to judge its scientific merits. Yet owing to a series of brilliant and extremely well funded marketing strategies, and an unarguable genius for locating the g-spot of the political/intellectual marketplace, Murray somehow managed to transform public debate on issues where he lacked what most in the field would consider basic professional competence.

Back when Murray was still in Iowa, he became friends with a well-connected Reagan Administration official named Michael Horowitz. Horowitz secured an invitation for Murray to speak at a lunch sponsored by the Manhattan Institute, convincing William Hammett that he had discovered a star. Meanwhile, Murray sent a copy of an article he wrote for the Olin Foundation-funded neoconservative journal The Public Interest, co-founded and edited by Irving Kristol. Kristol called Michael Joyce, whom he had helped hire to run the Olin Foundation, and explained that Murray wanted to turn his article into a book but needed money to do so, as no commercial publisher would pay a living wage for a wonky right-wing study of welfare policy by a nobody from Iowa. A series of quick phone calls resulted in a $125,000 grant from three conservative foundations.[4]

Viewing Murray's work as a potential antidote to Michael Harrington's The Other America, which helped inspire the War on Poverty, Hammett wrote, "Every generation produces a handful of books whose impact is lasting; books that change basic assumptions about the way the world works," in a private memo at the time. "Charles Murray's Losing Ground could become such a book. And if it does it will alter the terms of debate over what is perhaps the most compelling political issue of our time: the modern welfare state." [5] Right again.

According to Murray's formulation, welfare did not ameliorate or attenuate the ravages of poverty; it perpetuated and entrenched them. Instead of empowering poor people, it created a dangerous dependency on federal handouts that sapped their energy and destroyed their initiative, thereby preventing them from acquiring the productive skills they need to achieve success in America's market economy. "We tried to provide more for the poor and produced more poor instead," Murray lamented. It was time to scrap the entire system and let the poor fend for themselves.

Unfortunately, Murray's assertions were based on a series of internal contradictions, specious arguments and outright phony claims unsupported by his data. For instance, his assertion that that the hope for welfare payments was the main source of illegitimacy among black teenagers posited no evidence for this claim, and failed to explain why the rate of illegitimacy rose for everyone -- and not just welfare recipients -- after 1972, while the constant-dollar value of those welfare benefits declined by 20 percent. While continually insisting on the impotence of the Great Society programs of the Johnson administration, Murray never once explained the development of the black middle class during this period. Moreover, why blame the welfare policies of the late 1960s and early 1970s on for the decline in participation of black males in the labor market when the decline actually dates back to the late '50s? It turned out that Murray's calculations relied on the highly disputed figures of an obscure economist named Timothy Smedding. Using more traditional and widely accepted measurements, Christopher Jencks calculated that contrary to Murray's central claims, the percentage of the population defined as poor in 1980 was only half the size it was in 1965, and one-third the size it was in 1950.

Much of Murray's argument was taken up by a "thought-experiment" based on a fictional couple he named Harold and Phyllis who lived in Pennsylvania, who made what Murray argued was an entirely rational economic decision for the woman to remain unmarried after having a child in order to collect welfare benefits. But Murray screwed up his math. While Pennsylvania was indeed atypically generous to welfare recipients in 1980, the couple's income would still have been over thirty percent higher if Harold had worked at a minimum wage job rather than Phyllis collecting welfare as the sole means of support for the family. [6]

Despite these weaknesses, Hammett's prediction proved prophetic. Nothing so trivial as fundamental flaws in both reasoning and calculations managed to interfere with the Manhattan Institute's plans to turn Murray's blame-the-victim argument into the nation's new conventional wisdom on welfare. The publicity campaign for Losing Ground was planned and executed with impressive discipline and imagination. Surely it had no precedent in the world of welfare wonkdom. Before it began, Hammett informed his colleagues "any discretionary funds at our disposal for the next few months will go toward financing Murray's outreach activities." He then mailed out a massive number of copies -- over 700 -- to academics, journalists, and public officials, sent Murray on a national speaking tour (funded by $15,000 grant from the Liberty Fund) and he raised another $10,000 to "gather twenty of the nation's leading scholars from both the conservative and liberal camps, along with some of the best writers on the subject, for a two-day discussion," according to an internal memorandum. Hammett explained in an internal memo. Well-known columnists and other members of the media were paid between $500 and $1,500 a piece to participate, something that was unheard of at the time, and remains extremely rare. Taking advantage of the economic illiteracy of the punditocracy, Murray was able to sell his idea to these opinion-makers without having to respond to difficult queries that might have been posed by a competent economist. (No one, for instance, suggested submitting any part of Losing Ground to a peer-review professional journal.) The pundits who liked it did so because it reinforced their own worldviews -- along with the arguments necessary to support Reagan Administration's assault on the welfare state. Ronald Reagan liked to tell stories about "welfare queens" buying vodka with their food stamps. Most people understood these to be apocryphal, but conservatives repeated them in the belief that they contained within them a "larger truth." Now here was Charles Murray with a book full of graphs and economic data that appeared to "prove" the larger story that Reagan's imagined anecdotes hoped to impart. For conservatives seeking to weaken the welfare state, and for liberals and moderates seeking to make themselves appear more "relevant" in a period of conservative ascendancy, there was no sense in looking this gift horse too closely in the mouth.

In spite of the book's errors, or because his readers were oblivious to them, Losing Ground quickly became a cause celebre for pundits and politicians alike. "This year's budget-cutters' bible seems to be 'Losing Ground,' " noted a New York Times editorial early in 1985. Among movers and shakers in the federal executive branch, the newspaper reported, " 'Losing Ground' had quickly become holy writ: In agency after agency, officials cite the Murray book as a philosophical base" for proposals to slash social expenditure." [7] The book was the subject of dozens of major editorials, columns, and reviews in publications such as The New York Times, Newsweek, The Dallas Morning News, and The New Republic. As Charles Lane observed in The New Republic, its success could be viewed as "a case study in how conservative intellectuals have come to dominate the policy debates of recent years." [8] Even once the book's obvious weaknesses had been identified, as experts began to weigh in from professional journals, they barely made a dent in its effectiveness as a weapon in the ideological wars. A decade or more later, conservatives were still wielding Losing Ground like a sword against the scourge of more money for the poor. When Murray was invited to be a guest on ABC's This Week during this same period, host David Brinkley lavishly praised him as "the author of a much-admired, much-discussed book called Losing Ground, which is a study of our social problems." Minutes later, Murray was explaining his solution: "I want to get rid of the whole welfare system, period, lock, stock and barrel -- if you don't have any more welfare, you enlist a lot more people in the community to help take care of the children that are born. And the final thing that you can do, if all else fails, is orphanages." [9] More than a dozen years after publication, the Philadelphia Inquirer accurately recalled that Losing Ground "provided much of the intellectual groundwork for welfare reform," and just as the new House Speaker Newt Gingrich was suggesting that children in poverty be put in orphanages. [10]

[1] This was 1994's With Honors starring Joe Pesci, about a homeless man at Harvard, released by Warner Brothers.

[2] The book was co-authored with the late Richard Hernstein, who died shortly before its publication. Its full title is The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (New York: Free Press, 1994).

[3] Jason DeParle, "Daring Research or Social Science Pornography?" The New York Times Magazine, October 9, 1994, 51.

[4] Sidney Blumenthal, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment: From Conservative Ideology to Political Power (New York: Times Books, 1986), 293

[5] Sidney Blumenthal, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment: From Conservative Ideology to Political Power (New York: Times Books, 1986), 293

[6] Regarding the various flaws of Losing Ground, see Michael Harrington, "Crunched Numbers," The New Republic, January 28, 1985, pp.7-10, Robert Greenstein, "Losing Faith in 'Losing Ground,'" The New Republic, March 25, 1985, Michael B. Katz, The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989) pp.153-155, Michael Lind, Up From Conservatism: Why the Right is Wrong for America (New York: The Free Press, 1996) pp. 180-183 and Sidney Blumenthal, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment: From Conservative Ideology to Political Power (New York: Times Books, 1986) pp. 292-295.

[7] The New York Times editorial page, February 3, 1985.

[8] The New Republic, 3/25/85.

[9] ABC News's This Week, November 28, 1993.

[10] Philadelphia Inquirer editorial page, October 13, 1997.

The Bell Curveball, Part II

Despite the success and continuing influence of Losing Ground, Murray soon shifted gears. Race is largely absent from Losing Ground. But Murray had a chance meeting with Harvard professor Richard Hernstein, who had been arguing in various places, including the "liberal" Atlantic Monthly, that "[i]n times to come, the tendency to be unemployed may run in the genes of a family about as certainly as bad teeth do now." [1] Murray was clearly excited by arguments like these, and decided to redirect his own research toward it. In 1990, the Manhattan Institute decided that it did not want to associate itself with this kind of research and informed Murray to find another home for his work on what he termed "the genetic inferiority stuff." [2]

Fortunately for Murray, Michael Joyce, who had been so instrumental in supporting him at the Olin Foundation, had now taken over the Bradley Foundation. Murray's $100,000 grant was moved from the Manhattan Institute to the American Enterprise Institute, after a brief -- and failed -- attempt to place him in the more centrist and establishment-oriented, Brookings Institute. Murray was, once again, extremely fortunate in his choice of sponsors. By the time he completed his second book, he had received more than $750,000 since the Bradley foundation had begun its support, with more than $500,000 coming during the four years he worked on The Bell Curve. [3]

The publicity campaign for The Bell Curve mimicked that of Losing Ground. It is safe to say that most scholarly books containing hundreds of pages of regression analyses and primary source-based historical, economic and sociological claims would first be published, at least in part, in academic quarterlies that vet submissions by scholarly peer review on the part of an editorial board. But Simon & Schuster did not even send The Bell Curve to reviewers in galleys, and neither did its authors. A Wall Street Journal news story reported that the book had been "swept forward by a strategy that provided book galleys to likely supporters while withholding them from likely critics." The Journal suggested that AEI "tried to fix the fight when it released review copies selectively, contrary to usual publishing protocol." Murray and AEI also hand-picked a group of pundits to be flown to Washington at the think tank's expense for a weekend of briefings by Murray and discussion of the book's arguments.[4] This strategy would pay off when the book was released and the publicity machine put into action, long before the scientific establishment could garner a look and form any coherent judgments.

Couched between an endless array of tables, charts and ten-dollar words, the Murray/Hernstein thesis, at its core, was nevertheless disarmingly simple. The book's first sentence is: "This book is about differences in intellectual capacity among people, and groups, and what these differences mean for America's future." The authors blame many of the nation's social problems, including the persistence of an "underclass" characterized by high-levels of crime, welfare, and illegitimacy, on the fact that black people are just not as smart as white people. After all, they argue, all racial barriers to advancement have been removed from American society; hence, we have arrived at a near perfect consequential relationship between IQ and socioeconomic achievement. And because, the authors believe IQ to be largely the product of one's genetic inheritance, it is futile for society to try to boost those doomed to failure beyond their natural stations in life. In addition, high-IQ women are now entering the workforce at record rates and refusing to reproduce a comparable rate to that of poor and stupid women, who rarely work and collect lots of welfare money. These trends are "exerting downward pressure on the distribution of cognitive ability in the United States," with its resultant increases in crime, welfare dependency and illegitimacy. Because those under siege will not simply sit tight and let their society slip inexorably into anarchy, the authors predict a future semi-fascist "custodial state" for America, not unlike "a high-tech and more lavish version of an Indian reservation." Unfortunately, the dumb ones among us will lose such cherished rights as "individualism, equal rights before the law, free people running their own lives," according to the authors, but such measures will become unavoidable lest we taken to address the coming crisis of a national dysgenic downturn.

Interestingly, while The Bell Curve sets out to achieve the same aims as Losing Ground -- the reduction and eventual elimination of all transfer payments to the poor and indigent -- it does so by directly contradicting Losing Ground's central argument. In Losing Ground, Murray placed the lion's share of responsibility for the creation of the American underclass at the feet of government anti-poverty programs, primarily welfare. "Focusing on blacks cripples progress," he declared in a 1986 op-ed piece (titled "Not a Matter of Race"), as Mickey Kaus later noted, traditional explanations of the special problems facing blacks nearly all begin with the assumption that blacks are different from everyone else, whether because of racism or because of their inherent qualities. [5] But in The Bell Curve, Murray attributed the existence of an underclass to the "true" difference between blacks and whites -- the intellectual deficiency of blacks (among others), whose IQ scores averaged 15 points below those of whites. Moreover, in The Bell Curve, Murray argues that entry to the welfare rolls almost qualifies as prima facie evidence of a low IQ, while in Losing Ground, he purported -- albeit using cooked statistics -- to demonstrate that in many instances, it was a perfectly rational choice over certain job choices and even sometimes marriage.

Though he contradicted his earlier argument, Murray marketed his book by relying on the same psychological insight he made in his proposal for the first one: namely that many people worried that, privately, they were racists who yearned for expert reassurance that the rest of the nation shared their prejudice. "The private dialogue about race in America is far different from the public one,"[6] he wrote in The New Republic. The Bell Curve aimed to replace the public dialogue -- the one in which all peoples were deemed created equal, their genetic makeup considered to be only a portion of their destiny -- and replace it with the private one in which blacks and Latinos were understood to be inferior to whites and Asians.

Aided by another brilliant marketing campaign, The Bell Curve inspired a media firestorm. The book entered the public discourse, as one writer commented, "like a noseful of cocaine." It spent fifteen weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, outselling Losing Ground by a factor of 10 to one, and even this was only a tiny measure of its spectacular success. Magazines published special issues; talk shows offered up two-part editions, and four separate collections of essays were published, devoted entirely to arguments about the book. As Chester Finn asked in January 1995, "Is there anyone left with access to a microphone, television camera, or printing press who has not unburdened himself of an opinion of The Bell Curve?" [7]

Much as Blanche DuBois depended of the kindness of strangers, Charles Murray depended on the ignorance of pundits. The initial debate on the Bell Curve was conducted almost entirely by people who had no professional capacity to assess its science. "I am not a scientist. I know nothing about psychometrics," wrote Leon Wieseltier, one of the most learned and least retiring members of the elite media, in The New Republic.[8] Even The New York Times Book Review, unchallenged as the most influential book review on earth, assigned the book to a science reporter, rather than a practicing scientist, much less a biogeneticist. As a result, the early reactions to the book proved to be a kind of Rorschach test for pundits on what innocent reviewers assumed to be the scientifically proven conclusions relating to the genetic intellectual inferiority of blacks and what might be done about it, rather than the more fundamental question of whether Murray and Hernstein had, in fact, proven anything. For instance, Time called the book "845 pages of provocation with footnotes," while Newsweek defended its sourcing as "overwhelmingly mainstream."[9]

Not surprisingly, Murray's oddest claims about The Bell Curve and the controversy it provoked related to race. Over and over he insisted that the claims he made about Black genetic inferiority were both unimportant to the book's central thesis and generally uninteresting and unimportant. He wrote in his 10,000-word essay in The New Republic:

Here is what we hope will be our contribution to the discussion. We put it in italics; if we could, we would put it in neon lights: The answer doesn't much matter. Whether the black-white difference in test scores is produced by genes or the environment has no bearing on any of the reasons why the black- white difference is worth worrying about. If tomorrow we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt what role, if any, were played by genes, the news would be neither good if ethnic differences were predominantly environmental, nor awful if they were predominantly genetic." [10]

Yet Murray could hardly claim to be unaware of the explosive potential of his work and likelihood that it would anger many people of good will. After all, he had been asked to leave his professional home at the Manhattan Institute over its subject matter. Murray noted in The New Republic that the subject upon which he was writing tended to leave people "scared stiff about the answer." He admitted to a reporter that his investigation for The Bell Curve "was a case of stumbling onto a subject that had all the allure of the forbidden. Some of the things we read to do this work, we literally hide when we're on planes and trains. We're furtively peering at this stuff." [11] One wonders if this is one place where Murray took Glickes' advice, as David Brock described it, to call black "white" and "deny a political agenda" as "the price of media credibility." [12]

Whatever Murray's reasoning, it worked. The New York Times Magazine made him its cover story. In a deeply sympathetic review in Forbes, Peter Brimelow, who had attended AEI's pre-publication conference, hailed the book's "Jeffersonian vision." (Brimelow was apparently innocent of Jefferson's views of the allegedly physiological basis of what he deemed to be black intellectual inferiority in his famous 1787 essay, "Notes on the State of Virginia.") [13] Ben Wattenberg gave Murray an extremely generous hearing on a special two-part version of "Think Tank." The American Spectator assigned the book to the extremely conservative African-American sociologist Thomas Sowell, who also proved notably sympathetic with the authors' goals as well as their motives. The review published in Commentary was authored by Olin-funded and Manhattan Institute-housed writer Chester Finn, who also proved quite sympathetic, though disappointed that the authors did not go even further in their conservative prescriptions to solve the dysgenic crisis they diagnosed. And the magazine also offered Murray the opportunity to speak directly to his critics in a lengthy riposte to the reviews elsewhere.[14]

Undoubtedly the biggest political boost The Bell Curve received was from The New Republic. The decision by the editors of this once-liberal magazine to carry Murray's arguments at such length was symbolic to say the least. At more than 10,000 words, it proved to be one of the longest articles ever published in the magazine's nine decade life. When added to the seventeen responses published with it, it's safe to say that no topic had ever galvanized the editors of what was once America's liberal flagship quite to this degree, save perhaps the Arab peoples from time immemorial. Then editor, Andrew Sullivan argued in his unsigned editorial, "the notion that there might be resilient ethnic differences in intelligence is not, we believe, an inherently racist belief. It's an empirical hypothesis, which can be examined." This defense of Murray and Hernstein's speech right to free speech rather than the validity of their argument, sounds plausible until one remembers that Holocaust denial is also an empirical hypothesis that can be examined. Clearly the magazine's editor and owner sought to give Murray's arguments the magazine's imprimatur.) Today Sullivan says he believes the book to be "one of the bravest, smartest books of the decade." [15])

Aside from Sullivan's editorial, the only essay resembling an outright endorsement of Murray's arguments came from editor-in-chief Martin Peretz himself. He devoted his essay to the alleged injustices perpetrated in the name of group-admissions to universities and (somehow) compared the United States unfavorably to Israel's "ingathering of the exiles" on this point. A few New Republic editors have been known to play a game with one another in private whereby they try to insert favorable references to Israel in places where they clearly do not belong. Here Peretz seemed to be playing too.

It would be difficult to think of another prediction which sounds so innocuous but would prove to be quite so wrong-headed ...

[1] Irene Sege, "'The Bell Curve': The Other Author," The Boston Globe, November 10, 1994, p. 91.

[2] Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado, No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and foundations Changes America's Social Agenda (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), 58

[3] Jason DeParle, Times Magazine, 32.

[4] Slate.com, Posted Friday, Jan. 17, 1997, at 4:30, m. PT

[5] Mickey Kaus, The New Republic, 1994

[6] Charles Murray and Richard Hernstien, "Race. Genes, and IQ - An Apologia," The New Republic, October 31, 1994

[7] Chester Finn, "For Whom it tolls," Commentary Review, January 1995

[8] Leon Wieseltier, , "The Lowerers," The New Republic, Oct, 31, 1994, p. 20

[9] Geoffrey Cowley, "Testing the Science of Intelligence," Newsweek, October 24, 1994, p. 56, (Ryan BCD, 29?), Richard Lacayo, "For Whom the Bell Curves," Time, October 24, 1994 and Measured Lies: The Bell Curve Examined, Joel L. Kincheloe, Shirley R. Steinberg and Aaron D. Gresson III (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996)

[10] Charles Murray and Richard Hernstien, "Race. Genes, and IQ - An Apologia," The New Republic, October 31, 1994

[11] Jason DeParle, "Daring Research or Social Science Pornography?" The New York Times Magazine, October 9, 1994, 51.

[12] David Brock, Blinded, 107.

[13] Among other beliefs, Jefferson held that blacks "secrete less by the kidnies and more by the glands of the kin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour. This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat and less so of cold, than the whites. ... They seem to require less sleep... They are at least as brave, and more adventurous. But this may proceed from a want of forethought which prevents danger their seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female; but love seems with them to be more an eager desire than a delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. ... In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. Thomas Jefferson, "Notes on the State of Virginia" (1787) in Thomas Jefferson, Writings, n(New York: Library of America, 1984), 265

[14] Brimelow in Forbes, Finn in Commentary, Wattenberg,

[15] Email to the author, 2/21/01

The Bell Curveball, III

The criticisms came in two waves. The first, largely from journalists and published in mass-market publications, focusing largely on the book's political implications; all they could do, really, was invite readers to accept their worldview as superior to that of Murray and Hernstein's. But because the authors were presumed by most to be far more expert in their chosen field than their journalistic critics, these criticisms enjoyed precious little authority to dent The Bell Curve's argument's impact and almost none in damaging the book's popularity. But the second wave of reviews, which did not arrive until much later, was comprised of expert opinion in the relevant field and provided a belated substitute for the peer-review process to which Murray and Hernstein were originally unwilling to submit.

Once experts in the fields of psychometrics, dysgenics, and genetics began to weigh in on the book, not much of it was left. Scholarly examination repeatedly demonstrated that the statements that form the very core of The Bell Curve's arguments were either highly questionable or demonstrably false. For instance, Hernstein and Murray insisted, "it is beyond significant technical dispute that cognitive ability is substantially heritable". But as a group of British geneticists and psychometricans pointed out in response, "Research in this field is still evolving, studies cited by Herrnstein and Murray face significant methodological difficulties, and the validity of results quoted are disputed. " [1]

The mistakes grow even graver. Herrnstein and Murray actually seek to quantify the degree to which such intelligence is heritable. "Half a century of work, now amounting to hundreds of empirical and theoretical studies," they write, "permits a broad conclusion that the genetic component of IQ is unlikely to be smaller than 40 per cent or higher than 80 per cent. ... For purposes of this discussion, we will adopt a middling estimate of 60 per cent heritability." They appear to the unsuspecting reader to be the soul of caution in this regard. Alas, as Nicholas Lemann reported in Slate, another study by three scientists at Carnegie Mellon University employing exactly the same data base, suggested "a narrow-sense heritability of 34 per cent and a broad-sense heritability of 46 per cent," a far cry from the figures employed by Murray and Hernstein.

In perhaps the key test of the honesty of the underlying science of the book, trained experts in the field found they could not reproduce its results. For instance, one chart in The Bell Curve purports to show that people with IQs above 120 have become "rapidly more concentrated" in high-IQ occupations since 1940. But Robert Hauser and his colleague Min-Hsiung Huang retested the data and came up with estimates that fell "well below those of Herrnstein and Murray." They added that the data, properly used, "do not tell us anything except that selected, highly educated occupation groups have grown rapidly since 1940." In another example of same, also unearthed by Lemann, Herrnstein and Murray attempted to measure socioeconomic status by averaging four factors of equal weight: mother's education, father's education, father's occupation, and family income. Since the last two were missing from their data sample, however, they simply substituted an average for the entire sample. But six scientists at the California at Berkeley recalculated the effect of socioeconomic status, using the same variables but weighting them differently. They found the book's estimates of the ability of IQ to predict poverty suddenly appear profoundly exaggerated -- by 61 percent for whites and 74 percent for blacks.[2] Robert Hauser notes, "To begin with, several of the numbers in [The Bell Curve] are simply wrong. There are no fewer than five copying or multiplication errors in age- and test-specific entries in the body of" a single table. These mistakes, he noted, led the authors to "understate both the initial black-white differences and the changes in test scores across time." Rerunning the data with a more accurate standard deviation, Hauser came up with a significantly higher black-white IQ convergence.[3]

In fact, the entire study is built on a faulty edifice. In this final summary statement of his TNR essay, Murray wrote, "In study after study of the leading tests, the idea that the black-white difference is caused by questions with cultural content [i.e, that the tests are "biased" against the culturally deprived] has been contradicted by the facts."[4] If this statement is false, then virtually everything else in the book must also be false. But Jared Diamond, the celebrated professor of physiology at the UCLA School of medicine and extremely highly regarded expert in evolutionary biology and biogeography is one of many experts who insists that this statement -- at least in its descriptive sense regarding "study after study" -- cannot be justified. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond explained:

Even our cognitive abilities as adults are heavily influenced by the social environment that we experienced during childhood, making it hard to discern any influence of preexisting genetic differences. Second, tests of cognitive ability (like IQ tests) tend to measure cultural learning and not pure innate intelligence, whatever that is. Because of those undoubted effects of childhood environment and learned knowledge on IQ test results, the psychologists' efforts to date have not succeeded in convincingly establishing the postulated genetic deficiency in IQs of nonwhite peoples.[5]

Diamond's observation seems particularly relevant given the apparent carelessness to which Murray and Hernstein applied their false assumptions to the scientific studies they professed to assess. For instance, to take just one small example, Murray and Herrnstein note that South African "coloureds" have about the same IQ as American blacks. This helps to prove their case, they argue, because, "the African black population has not been subjected to the historical legacy of American black slavery and discrimination and might therefore have higher scores."[6]

But their claim of extremely low IQs for black Africans -- "very dull" in the authors' words -- derives from tests conducted in South Africa before the end of apartheid, a circumstance that could hardly be more relevant. And yet this qualification is nowhere to be found in The Bell Curve.[7] Nor do the authors find space to mention the racist assumptions of the scientist who conducted the research. And to top it all off, they misread the data upon which they were relying, and thereby screw up their own calculations.[8] Other scientists found countless other incidents of the authors either ignoring data that conflicted with that which they cited or unaccountably failing to include or address important studies that would throw a monkey wrench into their reasoning.[9]

As a result of the above, more than a few members of the expert community denounced the book as a kind of scholarly swindle; Writing in a special issue of The American Behavioral Scientist -- exactly the kind of journal that would have offered a peer review-reading of The Bell Curve had the authors been willing to submit to one -- Michael Nunley, a professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma charged:

I believe this book is a fraud, that its authors must have known it was a fraud when they were writing it, and that Charles Murray must still know it's a fraud as he goes around defending it. By "fraud," I mean a deliberate, self-conscious misrepresentation of the evidence. After careful reading, I cannot believe its authors were not acutely aware of what they were including and what they were leaving out, and of how they were distorting the material they did include.[10]

The Bell Curve "would not be accepted by an academic journal. It's that bad," added Richard Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.[11] They were joined by many scholars, perhaps most notable among them, Leon J. Kamin, a noted professor of psychology at Northeastern University and author of The Science and Politics of IQ, who had been pointedly excluded from the AEI press-release gathering, lest his expertise get in the way of the book's publicity campaign. Kamin warned, "To pretend, as Hernstein and Murray do, that the 1,000-odd items in their bibliography provide a 'scientific' basis for their reactionary politics may be a clever political tactic, but it is a disservice to and abuse of science."[12]

But Murray and Hernstein's research raised even more troubling questions about the authors' agenda than mere incompetence or even ideological fervor. Charles Lane discovered that 17 researchers cited in the book's bibliography were contributors to the racist journal Mankind Quarterly. Murray and Hernstein also relied on at least 13 scholars who had received grants from the Pioneer Fund, established and run by men who were Nazi sympathizers, eugenicists, and advocates of white racial superiority.[13]

The racial problems with The Bell Curve's sources went way beyond mere guilt by association. Many of its most important assertions rested on the work of the Pioneer Fund/Mankind Quarterly group of "scholars." J. Philippe Rushton of Canada's University of Western Ontario, for instance, is cited eleven times in the book's bibliography, and receives a two-page mention in its appendix (pp. 642-643). Rushton professes to believe in the existence of a hierarchy of "races" in which "Mongoloid" and "Caucasoid" are at the top and "Negroid" at the bottom. "Negroids," he argues, are younger when they first have intercourse, have larger penises and vaginas, increased sex hormonal activity, and larger breasts and buttocks. He judges that these factors, combined with the fact that black women produce more eggs and black men more sperm, lead to increased fertility, poorer parenting and sexually-transmitted diseases, including the AIDS virus. Rushton once summarized his views on black/white difference as follows: "It's a trade off, more brains or more penis. You can't have everything."[14]

Also the acknowledgements in The Bell Curve, include an authors note indicating that they have "benefited especially" from the "advice" of one Richard Lynn, whom they identify as "a leading scholar of racial and ethnic differences." A professor of psychology at the University of Ulster in Coleraine, Lynn is also associate editor of Mankind Quarterly, and has received $325,000 from the Pioneer Fund. He has expressed the scholarly view that "the poor and the ill" are "weak specimens whose proliferation needs to be discouraged in the interests of the improvement of the genetic quality of the group, and ultimately of group survival." Leon J. Kamin describes Lynn's work as riddled with "distortions and misrepresentations of the data which constitute a truly venomous racism, combined with scandalous disregard for scientific objectivity."[15]

While some innocence on the part of critics, a category that would include the vast majority of the reading public is excusable in the book's early reception, this caveat begins to evaporate with time as more and more of the book's flaws became evident. At that point, support for the work begins to look much more like ideological solidarity than intellectual rigor. For instance, The New Republic editors' decision to champion the book cannot be justified by the book's scholarly value. It must therefore have appealed to its editors own beliefs about race and intelligence -- beliefs, as Murray suggested previously, that they had hitherto felt uncomfortable admitting in public forums. Why else lend the magazine's credibility as the voice of the center-left to a project riddled with racist sources and reactionary recommendations?

If The Bell Curve were actually a respectable scholarly contribution to the debate over the place of race and genetics in our society, then closing one's eyes to its conclusions would have been a cowardly and ultimately self-defeating response. But as Mickey Kaus pointed out, the question isn't whether it is possible that some ethnic groups have, on average, higher mental abilities than others, it's whether Murray is a reliable guide when it comes to exploring this possibility."[16] The question of whether Murray and his late co-author Richard Hernstein are themselves racists is a pointless and ultimately insoluble debate. What is unarguable, however, is the fact that they were willing employ sources infected with racist underpinnings in pursuit of arguments custom designed to appeal to racist inclinations on the part of their readers and reviewers.

[1] This statement was developed by the [British] National Institutes of Health -- Department of Energy (NIH-DOE) Joint Working Group on the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications of Human Genome Research (ELSI Working Group) and was by the National Society of Genetic Counselors. It was written by Lori B. Andrews and Dorothy Nelkin and purblished as a letter to the editor of Science, January 5, 1995.

[2] Nicholas Lemann, "The Bell Curve Flattened," Slate.com, January 18, 1997.

[3] Nicholas Lemann, "The Bell Curve Flattened," Slate.com, January 18, 1997.

[4] Charles Murray and Richard Hernstein, "Race, Genes, and IQ -- An Apologia," The New Republic, October 31, 1994.

[5] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W.W. Norton and Co, 1997), 20

[6] The Bell Curve, 288.

[7] Waqar Ahmad, "Race is a four letter word," New Scientist, July 22, 1995, 44.

[8] Nevertheless, Murray and Herrnstein venture an estimate of African IQ, drawn mainly from an article by Lynn that appeared in Mankind Quarterly in 1991. It should be noted, for a start, that the authors of The Bell Curve misreport Lynn's data, claiming he found a median IQ of 75 in Africa (p. 289). But in his article, "Race Differences in Intelligence: The Global Perspective," Lynn said that the mean African IQ -- not the median -- was 70. (26)

[9] For instance, Howard Gardner noted that the authors admit that IQ has gone up consistently around the world during this century -- 15 points, as great as the current difference between blacks and whites, which is obviously not a function of genetics. "The Bell Curve" does admit that when blacks move from rural southern to urban northern areas, their intelligence scores also rise, which would seem to contradict their thesis as well, but they glide over this challenge. So too, the fact that when black youngsters are adopted in households of higher socioeconomic status, they too demonstrate improved performance on aptitude and achievement tests. Again, this is an unanswered challenge. And the education professor Nathan Glazer pointed out that during the second world war, a U.S. Army study found that Northern black recruits not only scored higher than southern black recruits on intelligence exams, they also scored higher than southern white recruits. The study was detailed in Otto Klineberg's easily available "Race Differences," but nowhere is it mentioned in The Bell Curve. See Nathan Glazer, "Scientific Truth and the American Dilemma" in The Bell Curve Wars, Stephen Fraser edit, (New York: Basic Books, 1995) p.145. Even Thomas Sowell, the conservative black sociologist writing in the conservative publication The American Spectator, while, pointedly defending the authors against the charge of racism, found its scientific shoddiness impossible to defend. "Perhaps the most intellectually troubling aspect of The Bell Curve," he wrote, "is the authors' uncritical approach to statistical correlations. One of the first things taught in introductory statistics is that correlation is not causation. It is also one of the first things forgotten, and one of the most widely ignored facts in public policy research. The statistical term 'multicollinearity,' dealing with spurious correlations, appears only once in this massive book." See Thomas Sowell, The American Spectator, February 1995, "Ethnicity and IQ"

[10] Michael Nunley, "The Bell Curve: Too smooth to be true," The American Behavioral Scientist, September/October 1995.

[11]Quoted in Tim Beardsley, Scientific American, January 1995, Vol. 272, #1 BCW, 244.

[12]Leon J. Kamin, "Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics," R. Jacoby & N. Glauberman (Eds.), The Bell Curve Debate: History, Documents, Opinions. (New York: Times Books, 1995) pp.81-105.

[13] See Charles Lane, "The Tainted Sources of the Bell Curve," The New York Review of Books; New York; Dec 1, 1994; See also New Scientist July 22, 1995, 44 According to the book's bibliography and to back issues of the Mankind Quarterly, the seventeen are W.J. Andrews, Cyril Burt, Raymond B. Cattell (eight citations), Hans J. Eysenck, Seymour Itzkoff, Arthur Jensen (23 citations), Richard Lynn (24 citations), Robert E. Kuttner, Frank C.J. McGurk (six citations), C.E. Noble, R. Travis Osborne (three citations), Roger Pearson, J. Philippe Rushton (11 citations), William Shockley, Audrey Shuey, Daniel Vining (three citations), and Nathaniel Weyl. The 10 who are or were either editors or members of the editorial board are: Cattell, Eysenck, Itzkoff, Kuttner, Lynn, McGurk, Noble, Pearson, Shuey, and Vining.

[14] See Charles Lane, "The Tainted Sources of the Bell Curve," The New York Review of Books; New York; Dec 1, 1994; See also Waqar Ahmad, "Race is a four letter word" New Scientist, July 22, 1995, 44.

[15] Leon J. Kamin, "Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics," R. Jacoby & N. Glauberman (Eds.), The Bell Curve Debate: History, Documents, Opinions. (New York: Times Books, 1995) pp.81-105.

[16] Mickey Kaus, "October 31, 1994"

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.