Critique of The Bell Curve doesn't ring true

The issue of Dec. 12 contains a commentary by John Boli on The Bell Curve, by Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein ("For whom The Bell Curve tolls"). As most readers of the Emory Report know, this book has been extremely controversial. It presents several important theses, including, (1) there are wide differences in human intelligence, (2) these differences are highly correlated with a wide spectrum of behavior, by way of both success and failure, (3) differences in intelligence are increasingly correlated with status in class structure, threatening highly undesirable social polarization, and (4) we do not now possess the knowledge of how to make significant improvements in the IQ of individuals. The book has become notorious for presenting data to the effect that the IQ of whites is, on average, higher than that of blacks. (This contention is not original to The Bell Curve.)

The last point is the only one addressed by Professor Boli, who prefaces his remarks with an eloquent statement in defense of intellectual honesty. He then asserts that Murray and Herrnstein are patently guilty of intellectual dishonesty and are motivated by racism and love of money.

How does the professor reach such a conclusion? He does so by claiming that as a putative work of science, The Bell Curve is such a grossly transparent failure that it is ludicrous even to conceive it as science. Accordingly, it must be exposed for what it really is.

The truth, however, is that it is a work of science. The data and hypotheses presented by Murray and Herrnstein are drawn from an array of scientific studies that would boggle the mind of an uninitiated reader of Boli's diatribe. The citations, notes and bibliography are extraordinarily extensive. Indeed, at least one reviewer of The Bell Curve has complained that its authors have reported too many studies that are already well known to the pertinent scientific community. As for any work of disciplined inquiry, there are reputable scientists who have not been convinced by the evidence presented for one or more of the book's theses, including its most inflammatory one; and there are other reputable scientists who are largely persuaded on many points. (As reported by Snyderman and Rothman in The IQ Controversy: The Media and Public Policy, the great majority of scientists familiar with the controversy believe there is a significant genetic component in IQ. They differ regarding the extent of the component, and they differ regarding the sources of the differences between blacks and whites.)

As it is on the frontiers of any science, there is conflicting evidence, and there are conflicting and indecisive studies. Murray and Herrnstein introduce all of the evidence - both pro and con - which they have been able to find, and they attempt to evaluate it. Like any responsible scientists, they frequently express uncertainty about how well established a given hypothesis is, and they are frequently willing to suspend judgment and wait for further studies. They express uncertainty, for example, about the extent of the genetic component in IQ, and they also express uncertainty about the sources of the differences between white and black intelligence. (These differences might be more due to environment than heredity.)

One gets no inkling of the nature and content of The Bell Curve from Professor Boli. He states (very unscientifically), "On the basis of present knowledge, we have no reason to believe that differences in intelligence among racial or ethnic groups have any genetic component whatever." Yet a great deal of evidence to the contrary is presented in the book. Is the evidence fabricated? Are the many scientists who have worked conscientiously on this question frauds, liars and incompetents? Where is Boli's evidence?

Then Boli states that it is "useless" to make distinctions between ethnic groups in order to study the alleged biological sources of intelligence. Herrnstein and Murray are not naive about this problem, however, and they refer to a study on the topic (on p. 729). Many investigators of IQ make ethnic distinctions. It is pertinent that ethnic groups are distinguished for the purpose of innumerable sorts of studies in social science and in policy making, such as with regard to affirmative action. Inasmuch as Herrnstein and Murray are concerned above all with the policy consequences of differences in IQ, it is wholly appropriate for them to use the same social categories that are prominent in contemporary discourse.

One more example of Boli's critique: he insists that one must have a general theory of why there are racial differences in order to investigate the question responsibly, and he says that Herrnstein and Murray know this and willfully ignore it. Yet the two authors state repeatedly that it is uncertain why there are differences; science is not yet equal to that task. But they also point out that there are vast data to show that there are differences, and they also contend that we have so far learned very little about how to change them, citing many experimental efforts that have failed to raise IQ. When public policy is at issue, this is a most significant claim. (Boli declares that the "environmental harshness" theory seems to be favored in the book. This theory, advanced by Philippe Rushton, is treated briefly in one of seven appendices. Herrnstein and Murray state, "We cannot at present say who is more nearly right as a matter of science, Rushton or his critics.")

I must say in all candor that Richard Herrnstein was a close and treasured friend of mine. (I know Charles Murray less well.) I can attest that Herrnstein was a thinker of greater integrity and intellectual honesty than anyone I have ever known. He was neither a racist nor a panderer. One might conclude that I am defending him due to our friendship. That is part of my motive, of course. But I, too, care about intellectual honesty. The evidence for what I say is to be found in The Bell Curve. The book has been a handy instrument for various reviewers to show that they are morally sensitive - in the politically correct way, of course! They have not typically been interested to analyze the book as a work of science. I invite readers to actually read the book. Then judge for yourself whether it is pseudo-science, racist or opportunistic.

Intellectual honesty in-deed, Professor Boli!

James Gouinlock is a professor in the Department of Philosophy.