The Bell Curve Revisited
In Monday's post I criticized conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan for his unwarranted smears of academics. I concluded the entry by pointing out the irony of arguing on the one hand that academia is “value-free” (on the grounds that certain scholars studying Middle East issues used the term “altruism,” in a peculiar technical sense, in descriptions of suicide bombers) while passionately defending a piece of scientific malarkey like Murray and Herrnstein's The Bell Curve.
One place where Sullivan defended Murray and Herrnstein is this post, from August 26:
One of my proudest moments in journalism was publishing an expanded extract of a chapter from “The Bell Curve” in the New Republic before anyone else dared touch it. I published it along with multiple critiques (hey, I believed magazines were supposed to open rather than close debates) - but the book held up, and still holds up as one of the most insightful and careful of the last decade.
I remember that issue of TNR. Sullivan is being a bit disingenuous when he talks about publishing multiple replies to Muuray and Herrnstein. What he actually did was publish a ten+ page excerpt/article from the book, which is a huge amount of space in a slim magazine like TNR. Most of the multiple replies were from the magazine's usual contributors, not experts in statistics or IQ research. And most of them were just a few paragraphs, not detailed critiques.
Anyway, over at Slate, Stephen Metcalf has a good discussion of why The Bell Curve is actually dreck:
Far from having held up as a “careful” work of scholarship, The Bell Curve has inspired a lot of suspicion on the part of the properly accredited. In his own book on human intelligence, The Mismeasure of Man, Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould pointed out that Herrnstein and Murray had buried key data in remote appendices. Upon closer inspection, that data appeared to demolish one of their core claims, that low IQ correlates highly with anti-social behaviors, more highly even than low socioeconomic status. (Apparently they didn't plot “the scatter of variation” around their own “regression curves” and didn't “square their correlation coefficients” to statistics what the layup and jump shot are to basketball.) Do I know if Gould was right? Of course not. But I do know that in response to The Bell Curve, the widely esteemed Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks organized a yearlong faculty workshop on IQ and meritocracy at the University of Chicago. The dozens of resulting papers were presented by the Brookings Institute in a book, The Black-White Test Score Gap, whose conclusion was summarized by Jencks in the forward: “Despite endless speculation, no one has found genetic evidence indicating that blacks have less intellectual ability than whites. Thus while it is clear that eliminating the test score gap would require enormous effort by both blacks and whites and would probably take more than one generation, we believe it can be done.”
Metcalf also does a good job of showing that many of the people Murray and Herrnstein relied on in their book have strong connections to overtly racist organizations. Of course, that is not directly relevant to evaluating the merits of Murray and Herrnstein's arguments. But I do find some interesting parallels here with other sorts of pseudoscholarship.
Metcalf describes how many of the people on Murray and Herrnstein's side of this claim to be courageous scholars, doggedly following the data wherever it leads in a selfless pursuit of the turth on a sensitive question. But go just a little bit beneath the surface and you find the usual cadre of racist organizations and unrepentant bigots.
So it is with holocaust denial. In public they are just courageous historians. But get them away from the cameras and the cartoonish, overt anti-semitism comes percolating up to the surface.
And so it is with creationists, who publicly claim to be intellectually honest scientists, but who privately descend into the silliest sorts of religious extremism.
As I've commented before: cranks all read from the same playbook.
As for Murray and Herrnstein, a friend of mine recently summed up the situation very well. They are trying to use sociological data to draw a biological conclusion. That never ends well.