Thursday, October 20, 2005

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.

10 Comments:

At 3:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is ridiculous. Your blog is shrill, whiny, annoying, misinformed, and getting worse.

Sullivan is not a conservative, except in fiscal matters. Gelertner is an intelligent scientist, and his essays are not drivel, you just disagree with them. You'd call them brilliant if his politics were different. Bennett does not want to destroy the black race, he made an insensitive remark that requires a simple apology.

The republican sleaze in the last two elections was no worse than the democratic sleaze (Clinton's midnight pardons, etc).

You can not say enough bad things about the war in Iraq, but at bottom it was a war that liberated a nation and conquered a madman that twice attempted genocide, twice invaded a neighboring nation, and twice spawned sons who were raised to do worse. The results of Bush's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been commendable. An entire region where people suffered unimaginable oppresion and suffering is set to become democratic.

Bush did not lie about WMD, he was mistaken and so was everyone else, including most Democrats.

Since when did it become acceptable for an educator to act like this?

 
At 3:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hah!

 
At 2:34 AM, Blogger Martin Wagner said...

The republican sleaze in the last two elections was no worse than the democratic sleaze (Clinton's midnight pardons, etc).

You mean the Dems rigged the 92 and 96 elections? Clinton's pardons resulted in 2000 dead US soldiers and tens of thousands of dead foreign civilians? Who knew?

Bush did not lie about WMD, he was mistaken

Ah, so using deliberately forged documents (that were known by the CIA to have been forgeries at the time) to make the case for WMD is not lying, simply a "mistake". Oopsie, sorry for invading a sovereign nation by mistake! Our bad!

Costly mistake, you know, with close to 2000 dead Americans so far. Oh yeah, I forgot...

The results of Bush's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been commendable. An entire region where people suffered unimaginable oppresion and suffering is set to become democratic.

Yep, Afghanistan and Iraq are now as safe and happy and free as any American town, and all terrorists everywhere are dead or hiding or reforming their ways. There will never be terrorism ever again! Osama bin Laden may still be loose, but, ah, minor detail, who cares, right? Surely not Bush.

And everybody all over the world loves us for the glorious liberators we are! With the Iraqis' new democratic freedoms, they'd surely never vote in an anti-American Islamist theocracy, would they? After all we did for them, that they're so eternally thankful for? Heavens no! Bush has ended mideast strife and saved the world! Yay for our Fearless Leader! We Won!

(Ever wonder what goes on in the brains of the 38% who still support Bush? Pure fantasy, obviously.)

 
At 2:14 PM, Anonymous tc99mman said...

Anonymous quashes you.
Martin wagner writes nonsense.
Rigged elections? Prove it!
The Iraq war is a mistake? Perhaps, but asserting it does not make it so.
There is much more to the WMD claim than the "forged documents."
As Christopher Hitchens often says, "making the perfect the enemy of the good is a mistake." Would you prefer that Saddam were still in power in Iraq?
Reality is not as simple as you say. Doing nothing about Saddam's Iraq may have led to even worse consequences. American KIA's are always lamentable. Whether or not confronting Islamofascists in Iraq is the best course remains to be seen. Perhaps, we could have given them WalMart franchises and moderated their fanatic anti- Western murderous rage via consumerism (like the PRC). Sometimes trying to put out the fire is wiser than searching out the root causes while the house burns down. Unlike my opponents on the Left, I'm just not so sure. Life requires decisions when certainty is lacking. Mistakes often happen. Slogans do not substitute for intelligent criticism or better alternative policies. What do you suggest we do about militant Islamofascism?

 
At 11:07 PM, Blogger Martin Wagner said...

Rigged elections? Prove it!

Come on, dude, give me a hard one.

Try here, here, here, and here. For starters. You can find out a great deal more simply by Googling "2000 election fraud".

The Iraq war is a mistake? Perhaps, but asserting it does not make it so.

Thing is, I'm not the only one asserting it. The area has been destabilized, possibly for the next decade, world opinion of the United States is in the commode, and al Qaeda has grown in popularity and influence. Iraq has become their very own "Remember the Alamo," thanks to George. Meanwhile, back home, the pitiful response to Hurricane Katrina proved that, after four years, the federal government is in no better a position to deal with a major disaster on US soil, either natural or terrorist-created, than it was on September 10, 2001.

There is much more to the WMD claim than the "forged documents."

That doesn't change the fact that those WMDs still don't exist. And the scare quotes aren't necessary around the phrase forged documents, as they were, in fact, forged.

Would you prefer that Saddam were still in power in Iraq?

This is not the issue. The issue has to do with invading a sovereign nation under false pretenses and deliberate lies and manipulations. If you want to try to defend Bush by saying, "He didn't know, he was mistaken, other people lied to him," my response is, he's the fucking president, he's supposed to be in charge, and if he's going to launch a war, especially against a country that has neither attacked the United States nor announced plans to attack the United States, it's his responsibility to make sure the facts are ironclad. Saying he was out to lunch when the bogus intelligence about Nigerian yellowcake uranium was being manufactured does not absolve him of his responsibilities as president.

Reality is not as simple as you say.

Funny, I find I have to remind conservatives of that all the time.

Doing nothing about Saddam's Iraq may have led to even worse consequences.

Like what? Condi's imaginary "mushroom clouds"? This is a country that had no military to speak of, no economy, and whose population was practically starving due to UN sanctions and a restrictive no-fly zone. What "worse" thing was Iraq in any realistic position to actually do?

American KIA's are always lamentable.

Yeah, but hey, they aren't you or anyone in your family, huh? What about Iraqi children? Are their deaths lamentable, too?

Whether or not confronting Islamofascists in Iraq is the best course remains to be seen.

For those who've been paying attention to what's really been going on over there, it's been seen and the verdict is in. There weren't any "Islamofascists" in Iraq when we invaded (and not one of the 9/11 hijackers was Iraqi), but now they're moving in and setting up shop, and even drafting plans to take over the country once US forces pull out. Because our invasion was the greatest recruiting tool they ever had.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, two nations full to the brim with "Islamofascists", remain our allies. Odd, that.

Sometimes trying to put out the fire is wiser than searching out the root causes while the house burns down.

You don't put out fires very effectively by throwing gasoline on them.

Life requires decisions when certainty is lacking.

Deliberate lies are not the way to fill gaps in certaintly.

Mistakes often happen.

And we'll be paying for this one for years and years and years. Enjoying your $3 gas?

Slogans do not substitute for intelligent criticism or better alternative policies.

Tell this to all your GOP friends with those yellow ribbon magnets on their SUVs.

What do you suggest we do about militant Islamofascism?

For starters, let's not elect a president who spends 42% of his first year in office on vacation at his ranch, who does nothing in response to memos with headlines that read "Bin Laden Determined to Strike US," who sits on his ass in a school classroom one month later when that strike actually occurs, who waits three full weeks before retaliating against the Taliban in Afghanistan thus allowing bin Laden a nice head start in escaping into the mountains, and who, four years later, still has not only failed to catch the man who killed 3000 Americans on our own soil, but actually has the balls to go on television and declare that he is "truly not all that concerned" about him.

That'll do for starters, I think.

Class dismissed.

 
At 12:18 AM, Blogger Martin Wagner said...

PS to everyone else: Sorry to fuel the fire of this silly feedback thread, as this is supposed to be the Evolution blog. But I couldn't let some foolish comments go unanswered, obviously. Clearly, ID is not the only area where some folks — many of whom are sincere, I know — prefer to construct their own reality in which to live.

 
At 10:39 AM, Anonymous Jim said...

Martin:
The particular string that we are on, “The Bell Curve Revisited”,
was originally only loosely concerned with evolution anyway. Its main point had more to do
with intellectual dishonesty…so, anyway, I enjoyed your reply to tc99mman & “anonymous”. Sometimes
you’ve got to take care of business. It was stated above that, “Bush did not lie about WMD, he was mistaken and so was everyone
else, including most Democrats.” If W was in fact mistaken about WMDs it was only because he choose to be put in that position. Other, counter, information was readily available. Also, as president,W had/has access to information that congressional Dems don’t, so to say that the Dems were in the same information position as the
president just isn’t so. Oh, by the way, (tc99mman & anonymous),
a president putting himself in the position of not knowing the details
of covert or security issues is nothing new. All presidents do it; it’s called “plausible denial”. It’s a disgusting legal maneuver to avoid responsibility & W (like his hero Reagan) is a master.

 
At 11:58 AM, Anonymous The REAL Karl Rove said...

anonymous,

We need to sign you up. and get you back to defend american honor!

will you let these lying pond-scum idiots shut you up with FACTS? Heck no ! Yell LOUDER!! use lots of !! and @#$$.

Keep on repeating the Clinton angle and start saying "and would Hillary be any better? She would have let the terrorists get away!!"

and hit the "IRAQ is the main battlefield on the GWOT" button a few more times and I'll arrange for a hike in the color coded threat level

 
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At 7:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Drivel of the highest order. Try reading the following, instead of simply quoting it:

"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."

Got that? The gap is real. What causes it is the real unmentionable in American politics, which isn't race, which no one seems to shut up about. The great unmentionable class.

Incidentally, would it kill you to give the whole title of the book? It's The Bell Curve: IQ and Class Structure in the United States. Yet no one wants to talk about that.

Save me from wannabe biologists who don't know the difference between genetic, racial, hereditary, inborn and biologically fixed.

 

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