This month is the tenth anniversary of the publication of The Bell Curve, the book by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray about–to quote their own subtitle–”intelligence and class structure in American life.” The book generated a huge controversy when it was published–so much so that, if you trawl around the Internet or bookstores, you can find first, second, and third derivatives (so to speak) of the book: books and articles about it, books and articles about those books and articles, and so on.
Most of TBC consists of summaries of research in the field of psychometry–that is, the measuring of various attributes of the human mind. The rest is thoughtful commentary on the possible implications of those results for the future of American society. The authors take a broad and humane point of view on this latter topic, arguing that a good society is one in which every person, even a person of limited intellectual powers, can live a useful and satisfying life. They assert that present-day U.S. society is trending away from this ideal, towards a sort of oligarchy dominated by a “cognitive elite” of intellectually gifted lawyers and administrators, ruling over and practicing a sort of smug paternalism toward those less successful than themselves in the meritocratic rat race.
Reaction to the book split fairly clearly on conservative-liberal grounds. It is not easy at first glance to see why this should have been so. The summary I gave in the previous paragraph, which I think is a fair one, suggests a book that should, if anything, appeal more to the bleeding-heart, how-can-we-lift-up-the-poor?, earnest social reformer of the political Left than to the flint-faced, I’ve-made-my-pile-now-you-go-and-make-yours elitist of the political Right. The fact that opinion broke the other way tells us rather a lot about political psychology.
Much of the negative reaction on the left was a result of the book’s explicit repudiation of blank-slate egalitarian principles. The Left’s position on human nature is, and always has been, that it is infinitely malleable–that the superstitious peasant can be turned into New Soviet Man; that, as Mao Tse-tung said, the masses are a blank sheet of paper on which beautiful characters can be drawn. The notion that this might not be so–that human beings, either individually or collectively, might be unimprovable by any known arts, or possibly by any arts at all–is intolerable to the left mindset. This way of thinking therefore regards psychometry with loathing, and argues either that we cannot measure the attributes of the human mind, or that, even supposing we can, we ought not. (The first of those positions was most famously expressed by the late Stephen Jay Gould, a self-declared Marxist, in his book The Mismeasure of Man.)
Even more offensive to the political Left was the book’s retailing of some facts, well-known among psychometrists of all political persuasions, about the different statistical profiles presented by different common-ancestry groups when given standardized psychometric tests en masse. Groups of Ashkenazi-Jewish ancestry present very high means; groups of East Asian ancestry somewhat lower means; groups of white European-gentile ancestry lower still; and groups of black-African ancestry much lower yet. (Other common-ancestry groups scatter around the map, with their means mostly falling mostly between the black African and white European-gentile values. There are also differences in the standard deviations–the “spreads”–of the distributions, though these attract less interest because they require more math to understand.)
None of this is controversial among researchers. The results have been replicated thousands of times, all over the world, with every imaginable kind of control in place, and every conceivable objection factored in. Hypotheses about the test results being false on various grounds were decisively refuted decades ago, though they linger on as urban legends. Are the statistical differences produced by class bias? No: If your test-takers are drawn only from a narrow family-income band, the statistical differences are still there. Are they biased by ignorance on points of cultural experience? No: as Herrnstein and Murray describe at length, the statistical differences in scores are “wider on items that appear to be culturally neutral than on items that appear to be culturally loaded. And so on. These differences in statistical profiles are, as a sociologist of my acquaintance once remarked, as well established as the orbit of the Moon. To deny them, you have to deny the validity of psychometry altogether, or take refuge in pseudoscientific “hidden variable” hocus-pocus like the currently trendy though scientifically hilarious “stereotype threat” theory.
While egalitarianism and the fear of racism fueled most of the Left’s hostility to TBC, I don’t think it is much of a stretch to assume that self-interest played a part, too. There is a psychological cost to be paid for belonging to an elite that has taken over the commanding heights of a society. That cost is guilt, and the “cognitive elites” who have taken over U.S. society in recent decades are addled with it. Looking down from their lofty heights at the struggling, cognitively non-gifted masses far below them, they cannot help but feel that they have won a sort of lottery. This morphs into guilt, followed by a desire to improve the lives of the non-elite masses via social engineering–sentimental kind-heartedness mixing with cold prudence to produce a heady brew. Imbibing that brew brings on left-orthodox opinions of a traditional kind; and the cognitive elites are, in fact, overwhelmingly left in their political orientation.
But how to improve those lives? Since being cognitively gifted does not necessarily mean you have any advanced powers of imagination (the correlation is, in my experience, actually negative), most of the elites can imagine nothing better than to improve the educational opportunities of the masses so they can all go to law school, just as the elites themselves did. Problem solved! If you now say: “But there are many people who are simply not bookish, aren’t very interested in being educated, and don’t want to go to law school,” you have jabbed a large pin in the elite’s bubble, and this makes them angry. Herrnstein and Murray dared to say this, and backed it up with numbers drawn from decades of research. This made the elites very angry indeed.
To be fair to the cognitive elites, they are in a way working to perpetuate classic American attitudes. The great strength and promise of this country has always been a belief in the potential of the individual human being to make the best of himself by free action in a free society. That superstitious peasant might not be transformable into New Soviet Man by Lenin’s methods, but if he comes to these shores, he can make himself rich, or famous, or distinguished, by his own efforts. This is not a Leninist nation, but it is, in a different way, a revolutionary one, another child of the Enlightenment; and those leftist egalitarian principles have deep appeal to our collective psyche.
From this point of view, you might argue–though falsely, in my opinion–that TBC is an un-American book. It flatly denies what a lot of Americans believe, or think they believe: that anybody can be anything. This belief is, as the saying goes, “unstable under reflection“: I am not, and never could have been, Jascha Heifetz or Tiger Woods. Anyone who has raised children understands this. This belief, or imagined belief, is deep-rooted in the American collective mentality none the less, and major legislation, involving hundreds of billions of dollars of public money, is premised on it. The No Child Left Behind Act, for example, demands, in essence, that every child perform above average in academic tests. This is not just practically impossible, it is logically impossible. NCLB also demands that public schools close the gap in mean test scores between common-ancestry groups. This might be possible, but nobody in fact has any clue how to do it, and I think that most of those researchers who have spent their working lives studying human mental abilities would tell you that it cannot be done. (Or rather, it can be done only by strategies of fraud on the part of school administrators**–strategies which those administrators are now busily perfecting all around the country.)
Reality, said Philip K. Dick, is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. Some years earlier T.S. Eliot had noted that “humankind cannot stand very much reality.” The older I get, the more I think that the main driving force in human affairs is not greed or lust, still less anything positive like charity or piety: It is wishful thinking. I want it to be so; therefore it must surely be so! A survey of history suggests that all great civilizations were strongly averse to some aspect of reality; and that the aversion was, in each case, a contributing factor in civilizational downfall.
We Americans are averse to inquiring too deeply into human abilities, for fear that what we might find would contradict the founding principles of our nation, principles we naturally hold dear. In that sense, the human sciences are in their very nature un-American. Science doesn’t care what you wish. You may wish that the sky were a crystal dome, or the earth hollow, or the living species unchanging through all time; science calmly, patiently, and irrefutably tells you that none of these things is the case.
Personally I believe that the contradiction between core American ideals and the results now pouring in from the human and biological sciences is resolvable, and that a properly scientific approach to the human sciences, and a widespread popular understanding of them such as Herrnstein and Murray attempted to promote via their book, would strengthen and improve our society, not weaken it. This is a minority opinion, though–an eccentric one, in fact. The much more common attitude is to just turn one’s face away from those results–from science. In the ten years since the publication of The Bell Curve, I do not think there has been a single act of public policy at the national–nor even, so far as I am aware, at the state–level that based itself on the reality that book describes. To the contrary, there have been acts of public policy, like NCLB, whose underlying assumptions are in flat contradiction to what Herrnstein, Murray, and legions of other researchers in the human sciences all know.
That is a shame. It is one we can be sensibly philosophical about, though. Human beings must have their consolations in this cold world, and wishful thinking is by no means only found on the political left, as Creationism and the “Intelligent Design” flapdoodle illustrate. Science ought to be trusted. Careful, peer-reviewed science–even human science!–ought to be read with respect, and with calm objectivity, and with the yearning to understand this strange universe, shot through as it is with mystery and wonder.
Alas, not many people approach science in this way–ask Charles Murray (Herrnstein died before the book came out). Perhaps not many people can. Perhaps it is at last just a matter of temperament–which is, of course, immutable! Ah, well: “The truth is great and shall prevail, When none cares whether it prevail or not.”
** This needs some slight qualification. You can actually make the statistical profiles of different groups identical without cooking the books. One way is to make the tests so easy that everyone scores 100 percent. The other is to make the tests so hard that everyone just guesses every answer, drowning all group differences in random “noise.”
Incredibly, both approaches are actually in play in the world of educational testing. In my own county, applicants for jobs in the police force take a written test filled with challenging questions like (actual example): “What was your favorite sports activity in school?” Everybody scores 100 percent, and vacancies are then filled on a racial quota system.
On the other side, psychometrist Roy Freedle has argued that the SAT is biased against black students, basing his argument on the fact that, among students who receive the same overall score, black students consistently score a little better on the hard questions and a little worse on the easy ones. This is easily explained by the fact that more guessing goes on with the harder questions, reducing actual differences in ability. Mr. Freedle, however, hypothesizes that the easy questions, in both the verbal and math sections of the test, use a more common vocabulary, which is open to a wider variety of interpretations and associations based on one’s cultural background, while the hard questions use a rarer vocabulary that has fewer meanings and is more likely to be encountered only in an academic setting. His proposed solution is to score only the hard questions! The logical extension is plain…
In the matter of implementing the No Child Left Behind Act, though, cooking the books is the preferred solution.