When many of us criticize Charles Murray, we tend to focus on his unwarranted extrapolations from correlations; it’s easy to get caught up in the details and point out esoteric statistical flaws that take an advanced degree to be able to understand, and are even more challenging to explain. It’s also easy for the other side to trot out “experts” who are good at burying you in yet more statistical bafflegab to muddy the waters. Nathan J. Robinson makes a 180° turnabout to explain why Charles Murray is odious, and maybe goes a little too far to pardon the bad science, but does refocus our attention on the real problem, that his argument is fundamentally a racist argument, built on racist assumptions, and it can’t be reformed by more clever statistics.
Robinson drills right down to the core of Murray’s book, and highlights what we should find far more offensive than an abuse of abstract statistical calculations. He distills The Bell Curve down to these three premises.
- Black people tend to be dumber than white people, which is probably partly why white people tend to have more money than black people. This is likely to be partly because of genetics, a question that would be valid and useful to investigate.
- Black cultural achievements are almost negligible. Western peoples have a superior tendency toward creating “objectively” more “excellent” art and music. Differences in cultural excellence across groups might also have biological roots.
- We should return to the conception of equality held by the Founding Fathers, who thought black people were subhumans. A situation in which white people are politically and economically dominant over black people is natural and acceptable.
He backs up these summaries with quotes from Murray and Herrnstein, too, and criticizes critics.
Murray’s opponents occasionally trip up, by arguing against the reality of the difference in test scores rather than against Murray’s formulation of the concept of intelligence. The dubious aspect of The Bell Curve‘s intelligence framework is not that it argues there are ethnic differences in IQ scores, which plenty of sociologists acknowledge. It is that Murray and Herrnstein use IQ, an arbitrary test of a particular set of abilities (arbitrary in the sense that there is no reason why a person’s IQ should matter any more than their eye color, not in the sense that it is uncorrelated with economic outcomes) as a measure of whether someone is smart or dumb in the ordinary language sense. It isn’t, though: the number of high-IQ idiots in our society is staggering. Now, Murray and Herrnstein say that “intelligence” is “just a noun, not an accolade,” generally using the phrase “cognitive ability” in the book as a synonym for “intelligent” or “smart.” But because they say explicitly (1) that “IQ,” “intelligent,” and “smart” mean the same thing, (2) that “smart” can be contrasted with “dumb,” and (3) the ethnic difference in IQ scores means an ethnic difference in intelligence/smartness, it is hard to see how the book can be seen as arguing anything other than that black people tend to be dumber than white people, and Murray and Herrnstein should not have been surprised that their “black people are dumb” book landed them in hot water. (“We didn’t sat ‘dumb’! We just said dumber! And only on average! And through most of the book we said ‘lacking cognitive ability’ rather than ‘dumb’!”)
I have to admit, I’m guilty. When one of these wankers pops up to triumphantly announce that these test scores show that black people are inferior, I tend to reflexively focus on the interpretation of test scores and the overloaded concept of IQ and the unwarranted expansion of a number to dismiss people, when maybe, if I were more the target of such claims, I would be more likely to take offense at the part where he’s saying these human beings are ‘lacking in cognitive ability’, or whatever other euphemism they’re using today.
The problem isn’t that Murray got the math wrong (although bad assumptions make for bad math). The problem is that he abuses math to justify prior racist beliefs, exaggerating minor variations in measurements of arbitrary population groups to warrant bigotry against certain subsets. That ought to be the heart of our objection, that he attaches strong value judgments to numbers he has fished out of a great pool of complexity.
In part, too, the objection ought to be because somehow, his numbers tend to conveniently support existing racist biases in our society. But he consistently twists the interpretations to prop up ideas that would have been welcomed in the antebellum South.
We should be clear on why the Murray-Herrnstein argument was both morally offensive and poor social science. If they had stuck to what is ostensibly the core claim of the book, that IQ (whatever it is) is strongly correlated with one’s economic status, there would have been nothing objectionable about their work. In fact, it would even have been (as Murray himself has pointed out) totally consistent with a left-wing worldview. “IQ predicts economic outcomes” just means “some particular set of mental abilities happen to be well-adapted for doing the things that make you successful in contemporary U.S. capitalist society.” Testing for IQ is no different from testing whether someone can play the guitar or do 1000 jumping jacks or lick their elbow. And “the people who can do those certain valued things are forming a narrow elite at the expense of the underclass” is a conclusion left-wing people would be happy to entertain. After all, it’s no different than saying “people who have the good fortune to be skilled at finance are making a lot of money and thereby exacerbating inequality.” Noam Chomsky goes further and suggests that if we actually managed to determine the traits that predicted success under capitalism, more relevant than “intelligence” would probably be “some combination of greed, cynicism, obsequiousness and subordination, lack of curiosity and independence of mind, self-serving disregard for others, and who knows what else.”
I also learned something new. I read The Bell Curve years ago when it first came out, and it did effectively turn me away from ever wanting to hear another word from Charles Murray. But he has written other books! He also wrote Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, which Robinson turns to to further reveal Murray’s implicit bigotry.
Human Accomplishment is one of the most absurd works of “social science” ever produced. If you want evidence proving Murray a “pseudoscientist,” it is Human Accomplishment rather than The Bell Curve that you should turn to. In it, he attempts to prove using statistics which cultures are objectively the most “excellent” and “accomplished,” demonstrating mathematically the inherent superiority of Western thought throughout the arts and sciences.
Oh god. I can tell what’s coming. Pages and pages of cherry-picking, oodles of selection bias that Murray will use to complain of cultural trends when all his elaborate statistics do is take the measure of the slant of his own brain. Pseudoscientists do this all the time; another example would be Ray Kurzweil, who has done a survey of history in which he selects which bits he wants to plot to support his claim of accelerating technological progress leading to his much-desired Singularity. Murray does the same thing to “prove” his prior assumption that black people “lack cognitive ability”.
How does he do this? By counting “significant” people. (First rule of pseudoscientists: turn your biases into numbers. That way, if anyone disagrees, you can accuse them of being anti-math.)
Murray purports to show that Europeans have produced the most “significant” people in literature, philosophy, art, music, and the sciences, and then posits some theories as to what makes cultures able to produce better versus worse things. The problem that immediately arises, of course, is that there is no actual objective way of determining a person’s “significance.” In order to provide such an “objective” measure, Murray uses (I am not kidding you) the frequency of people’s appearances in encyclopedias and biographical dictionaries. In this way, he says, he has shown their “eminence,” therefore objectively shown their accomplishments in their respective fields. And by then showing which cultures they came from, he can rank each culture by its cultural and scientific worth.
Then it just gets hilariously bad. Murray decides to enumerate accomplishment in music, of all things, by first dismissing everything produced since 1950 (the last half century has failed to produce “an abundance of timeless work”, don’t you know), and then, in his list of great musical accomplishment, does not include any black composers, except Duke Ellington. Robinson provides a brutal takedown.
Before 1950, black people had invented gospel, blues, jazz, R&B, samba, meringue, ragtime, zydeco, mento, calypso, and bomba. During the early 20th century, in the United States alone, the following composers and players were active: Ma Rainey, W.C. Handy, Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, J. Rosamond Johnson, Ella Fitzgerald, John Lee Hooker, Coleman Hawkins, Leadbelly, Earl Hines, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson, Son House, Dinah Washington, Thelonious Monk, Muddy Waters, Art Blakey, Sarah Vaughan, Memphis Slim, Skip James, Louis Jordan, Ruth Brown, Big Jay McNeely, Paul Gayten, and Professor Longhair. (This list is partial.) When we talk about black American music of the early 20th century, we are talking about one of the most astonishing periods of cultural accomplishment in the history of civilization. We are talking about an unparalleled record of invention, the creation of some of the most transcendently moving and original artistic material that has yet emerged from the human mind. The significance of this achievement cannot be overstated. What’s more, it occurred without state sponsorship or the patronage of elites. In fact, it arose organically under conditions of brutal Jim Crow segregation and discrimination, in which black people had access to almost no mainstream institutions or material resources.
Jesus. This ought to be the approach we always take to Charles Murray: not that his calculations and statistics are a bit iffy, but that he can take a look at the music of the 20th century and somehow argue that contributions by the black community were inferior and not even worth mentioning. His biases are screamingly loud.
Unfortunately, while I suffered through The Bell Curve, this is so outrageously stupid that I’m not at all tempted to read Human Accomplishment, and I’m a guy who reads creationist literature to expose its flaws. Murray is more repulsive than even Kent Hovind (Hovind should not take that as an accolade, since that’s an awfully low bar.)