Mutual harm at Middlebury

Tristero strikes exactly the right note in this letter to the professor who was injured in the protests against Charles Murray at Middlebury. There is no excusing the harm done to Professor Stanger, but there is also no excusing the harm done by Murray.

I have, in fact, read The Bell Curve, the book Charles Murray co-authored with Richard Herrnstein (who died before publication).As I recall, the book appeared to me to be little more than a spectacularly pathetic attempt to boost the low self-esteem of the authors by claiming that blacks in general had inherently lower IQs than their own ethnic groups. My heart went out to Murray and I hoped he would find a good therapist that would instill some some self-confidence in him.

But even more so, my heart went out to the people who would be surely harmed by his terrible book. I knew that The Bell Curve would be mistaken as being super-serious intellectual research (it’s got charts and things!) when it was nothing of the sort.

Here’s where you come in.

Murray is a hero to racists with pretensions to intellectuality, like college-age right-wingers. But having regular access to the Wall Street Journal’s Op-Ed pages (I’ve also read many of Murray’s op-eds and they’re as unserious as The Bell Curve) makes it difficult for Murray to complain that someone’s trying to suppress his freedom of speech. For that, he needs useful idiots who are prepared to invite him not to fawning right wing think tanks or Klan meetings, but to places where the people who his writings actually harm can confront him.

Make no mistake about it: the racism that Murray empowers is as inexcusable and irresponsible as the injuries you suffered. I’m extremely sorry that you were hurt, but I’m also extremely sorry that Murray was provided an excuse to claim the high road. Both are utterly disgraceful outcomes of this unfortunate set of circumstances.

I too read The Bell Curve way back when it first came out, although, thankfully, the details of that pile of shit have faded from my memory, leaving only the recollection of a sensation of disgust. Murray relies on baffling his audiences with the arcana of statistical analysis which neither he nor most of his readers understand, but which earns him the love and appreciation of racists who don’t really care how he gets to his conclusions, as long as those conclusions support their prejudices.

I’m only competent enough in those arcana to see the flaws in his arguments, but not to explain them well. For that, I recommend the invaluable Cosma Shalizi, who made the case against g:

To summarize what follows below (“shorter sloth”, as it were), the case for g rests on a statistical technique, factor analysis, which works solely on correlations between tests. Factor analysis is handy for summarizing data, but can’t tell us where the correlations came from; it always says that there is a general factor whenever there are only positive correlations. The appearance of g is a trivial reflection of that correlation structure. A clear example, known since 1916, shows that factor analysis can give the appearance of a general factor when there are actually many thousands of completely independent and equally strong causes at work. Heritability doesn’t distinguish these alternatives either. Exploratory factor analysis being no good at discovering causal structure, it provides no support for the reality of g.

And also argued against misinterpretations of heritability:

To summarize: Heritability is a technical measure of how much of the variance in a quantitative trait (such as IQ) is associated with genetic differences, in a population with a certain distribution of genotypes and environments. Under some very strong simplifying assumptions, quantitative geneticists use it to calculate the changes to be expected from artificial or natural selection in a statistically steady environment. It says nothing about how much the over-all level of the trait is under genetic control, and it says nothing about how much the trait can change under environmental interventions. If, despite this, one does want to find out the heritability of IQ for some human population, the fact that the simplifying assumptions I mentioned are clearly false in this case means that existing estimates are unreliable, and probably too high, maybe much too high.

Once you knock those two props out from under Murray’s claims, he flops down into a disreputable heap.

But he keeps getting invited to speak at universities. I don’t know why. Stanger claims that the protest was a result of people not reading Murray’s book, but I think the real problem is people who read Murray’s book and don’t understand what a pile of garbage it is.


  1. thirdmill says

    Charles Murray is indeed an idiot, and I’m sure the money spent to bring him to Vermont could have been put to a much better use, but at the same time, I thought one of the purposes of college was to expose students to a wide variety of ideas, even ridiculous ones, so they can learn to think critically for themselves. I think the better course of action, once the invitation had been extended, would have been to let him talk and then let the professors thoroughly and in excruciating detail pick his arguments apart after it was over.

    I read both Mein Kampf and Das Kapital when I was in high school. Agreed with almost nothing in either one. But learned things about the world that I hadn’t known before, and am a more educated person for it. God forbid people should learn things from people they disagree with.

  2. says

    You know, I haven’t dedicated a whole class hour to Time Cube yet, or astrology.

    If I want my students to learn about heritability in genetics, I don’t think handing them a Charles Murray op-ed would be at all useful.

  3. starfleetdude says


    You don’t have to invite David Irving to discuss the Holocaust to learn something about it. Not inviting him doesn’t mean you can’t encourage critical thinking either. All inviting a crank does is incite people.

  4. thirdmill says

    PZ, there’s a fairly significant difference, though, in that unlike racism, astrology is relatively harmless, so if people believe it, the stakes are relatively low. It may waste time but nobody is going to get killed over it, or have a cross burned in their yard for it. People don’t get discriminated against for being Scorpios (at least not in any large numbers if it does happen). So there’s no real need to spend time on what is little more than a waste of time.

    Racism, like it or not, still has significant numbers of adherents who do harmful things in large quantities to other human beings. So like it or not, I don’t think you can just flippantly dismiss it as being nonsense (although it is), and the problem with shutting down Charles Murray is it makes him a martyr to his followers, which then energizes them even further. I think the solution to Charles Murray is to let him talk and then debunk what he says, even though I agree with you it would be nice to spend the time on other things.

  5. thirdmill says

    And starfleetdude, I’m fine with not inviting him in the first place. There is no right to speak at Middlebury. I’m talking about what happens once an invitation has been extended and he’s actually there.

  6. zoniedude says

    Murray used an empirical fact to promote a racist conclusion without divulging the empirical fact. Fact: widespread lead poisoning in urban black communities results in lower intelligence. Because of housing discrimination, low-income urban black neighborhoods have high levels of deteriorating lead-based paint plus high lead in soil levels due to leaded gasoline. Lower cognitive function is a known consequence of lead poisoning. So if you test IQ in populations of white and black comparative groups, you are testing white groups where lead poisoning is extremely low and black groups where lead poisoning is high. This necessarily results in black populations having a lower IQ than white populations even if the IQ is valid. Ironically, very few people want to recognize this because the cost of cleaning up the lead poisoning would only benefit poor black people trapped in these neighborhoods and would not benefit black or white middle class.

  7. emergence says

    Thirdmill @5

    What also energizes his followers is legitimizing Murray by considering him worth debating.