Saturday, January 08, 2005

Goldberg on Charles Murray

Murray catalogs 4,002 significant individuals over the course of 2,750 years who comprise humanity's all-star team, itself broken down into subcategories of chemistry, biology, astronomy, etc. He came up with the list by taking 167 respected encyclopedias, biographical dictionaries, and other reference works, tallying up the size, frequency, and content of the entries on specific individuals and their accomplishments--and then crunching the numbers with the sort of élan and sophistication we've come to expect from the author of "Losing Ground" and coauthor of "The Bell Curve."

Alan Wolfe is one America’s best, most honest, and interesting academic sociologists. The reason you (probably) haven’t heard of him is that we are blessed to live in a country that does not care who its best sociologists are. In the current issue of The New Republic, Wolfe writes a blistering assault on 20th century conservatism called “The Revolution that Never Was.” In it he rails against the “impossibility of conservatism” (and says some very unfair things about Charles Murray and followers of Leo Strauss).

My first major lesson in this phenomenon came when I was a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute at the time "The Bell Curve" was first published. Charles Murray, the co-author of the book, an AEI scholar (and now a friend of mine), was treated to a shellacking in the national press that has not been replicated since.

Yeah. The book took a shellacking in the media. About it, the New York Times Book Review wrote:
Charles Murray, best known for attacking welfare, and Richard Herrnstein, an experimental psychologist who argued that intelligence is largely in the genes, built public careers as the dark angels of social science. And with the publication of "The Bell Curve," their reputations have apparently been secured: The 845-page tract has driven liberal editorial writers to rug-chewing and led the editors of The New Republic to elicit 17 separate rebuttals. The idea behind "The Bell Curve," as many readers must know by now, is that I.Q. is destiny, determining how individuals get along in school, jobs and social relations. Since little can be done to raise "cognitive ability," the argument goes, little can be done to change the socioeconomic pecking order. This is a grim message, the authors acknowledge, but someone must deliver it. "There can be no real progress in solving America's social problems," Mr. Herrnstein and Mr. Murray explain, "when they are as misperceived as they are today." Not everyone has been charmed by the pair's appeal to sweet reason. Indeed, some critics have been inclined to hang the defendants without a trial: merely entertaining the idea that I.Q. tests predict economic performance, they believe, breeds complacency about racism because just one black American in six scores above the average for whites. That is unfortunate, for the authors' look at the nexus between measured intelligence and life outcomes is the most original and interesting part of the book. The analysis deteriorates sharply when it moves on to the question of whether intelligence can be raised through government intervention, and the implications for public policy if it cannot. Indeed, what begins as provocative research on the plight of the losers in a meritocracy ends in a sloppily reasoned rationale for letting them eat cake.

The New York Times science writer wrote:
However much one may disagree with this assessment, the possibility that the authors may be even partly right makes these three books worth plowing through and mulling over. The articulation of issues touching on group intelligence and ethnicity has been neither fashionable nor safe for the last three decades, but these scholars argue that the time has come to grasp the nettle of political heresy, to discard social myths and to come to grips with statistical evidence. The authors suggest that unless we do something to correct present trends, America may soon be permanently split between an isolated caste of ruling meritocrats on one hand and a vast, powerless Lumpenproletariat on the other. Society, the authors predict, will have little use for this underclass in a world dominated by sophisticated machines and the bright human beings who tend them. This grim future may already be unavoidable. ... One of the strengths of "The Bell Curve" is that it devotes an entire section to the relationships between I.Q. and behavior among whites alone, thereby eliminating the complications arising from interracial comparisons. Analyses of data gathered from exclusively white demographic groups strongly suggest that even if one ignores race, socioeconomic status and family background, I.Q. does indeed correlate with birth rates, crime rates and many other things. Taken as a whole, the statistics are impressive; it seems hard to challenge the notion that I.Q. plays a statistically important role in the shaping of society. Mr. Murray and Mr. Herrnstein draw extensively from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which has focused on 12,686 high school students, picked as a representative sample of the high school population, who graduated between 1980 and 1982. These students, who were tested and measured at the outset of the study in 1979, have been tracked ever since. Based on the psychometric indicators and the personal histories of these young people, the authors found various suggestive correlations and concluded that the biggest influence on the lives of the people in their sample was the "g" factor -- psychometricians' jargon for core intelligence. Definitions of intelligence have always been controversial, as have been tests devised to measure it quantitatively. In 1904, the British psychometrician Charles Spearman conceived of a quality he called "g," or "general factor" of intelligence, which has remained part of the psychometrician's lexicon ever since. Spearman's idea was based on his finding that people tend to achieve similar scores on tests that may be very different in content but that contain questions requiring cognitive skill. Such questions were said to measure "g," and tests that emphasized this factor rather than calling for demonstrations of learned skills are said to be "g-loaded" tests. ... Nevertheless, "The Bell Curve" makes a strong case that America's population is becoming dangerously polarized between a smart, rich, educated elite and a population of unintelligent, poor and uneducated people. The authors deplore this polarization, which, they feel, has begun to manifest itself in the polarization of the nation's services: while the elite use private delivery services, go to private schools, live in gated communities and rely on arbitration by private lawyers to handle business disputes, the rest of the population uses the Federal postal service, goes to public schools, lives outside the gates of private communities and relies on public judicial process.

Cue trolls and "mature" liberals telling me that no one has offered a serious critique of Murray and the Bell Curve. Many many many devastating ones can be found throughout my archives...