The 800-Pound Gorilla in the Statistical Jungle

October 20, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Suddenly it's no longer taboo to talk about brains.

For a generation in this country, the subject of human intelligence has been as unmentionable as were certain body parts in the Victorian era. It could be alluded to, but only indirectly, and certainly not in public. Delicacy and convention demanded certain evasions.

Now, all of a sudden, thanks to the publication of one powerful and probably inevitable book, the wraps are off and this difficult, provocative issue stands naked on the stage, with the floodlights on and the customers agape. Despite the lingering objections of those who wanted to continue the blackout, a wrenching, passionate discussion is getting under way.

No taboo is ever abandoned without anxiety, and this is no exception. Advocates of continued censorship are already predicting all sorts of dire consequences, and assaulting the motives of the heretics who dared speak out.

But the deed is done. The genie can't be stuffed back into the bottle, and the cause of intellectual freedom is the better for it.

The book at the center of the maelstrom is ''The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,'' by Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein, the former a writer on a wide range of social topics, the latter a Harvard professor of psychology who died last month.

It's a massive, scholarly, chart-filled study of such politically loaded questions as what intelligence means, whether current measurements of it are meaningful, and whether it's primarily inherited or acquired.

The bell curve in the title refers to the shape of a graph classifying population by intelligence-quotient scores, most of which range between 50 and 150, with 100 being a standardized mean. Most people score somewhere near the mean, so the line is highest at the center. At the left and right of the graph the line is low, representing the much smaller numbers of people who score either very low or very high on IQ tests.

The voluminous data collected in the book are not, for the most part, either new or especially surprising. The statistics in most cases mirror widely-held assumptions. For example, they show that on both abstract-reasoning and spatial-relations sections of the standardized tests, East Asians -- primarily Japanese and Chinese -- score significantly higher than white Americans or Britons.

What has the intellectual community in such turmoil, though, is the forthright way it deals with the difficult but well established fact that the median score of black Americans is plainly lower -- by perhaps 15 points -- than that of whites. This fact is what Mr. Murray calls ''the 800-pound gorilla'' in the statistical jungle, and it's the reason some usually serious people are saying ''The Bell Curve'' should never have been published.

Newsweek, that vapid barometer of big-media cultural dogma, assails Mr. Murray this week as a ''conservative ideologue'' who has produced an ''angry'' book -- which it certainly isn't. At the genuinely cerebral New Republic, which published an excerpt from the book along with an explanatory essay by Messrs. Murray and Herrnstein, there was tremendous internal upheaval.

According to the magazine, which solicited and published an avalanche of criticism but still managed to treat the book with fairness and insight, some staff members actually argued against publishing anything by Messrs. Murray and Herrnstein on the grounds that it might promote their politically unacceptable conclusions.

But what is The New Republic for, the editors asked in a splendid and refreshing introduction to their package of articles, if not to address such issues?

Could it truly be racist, the magazine wondered, even to discuss the possibility that there might be genetic factors involved in IQ differences? And if it were true that vulnerable African-Americans might be wounded by a public discussion of such a topic, would suppression then be justified? No, the editors bravely concluded, and then added in passing that the black writers they asked to comment on the Murray-Herrnstein book ''were far less worried about publication than many of their white counterparts.''

It's impossible in a newspaper column to do justice to the book, but it's important to note what it doesn't say. It doesn't say -- as Newsweek asserts that it does -- that blacks are ''inferior'' to whites, or deny that there are blacks of genius. It propounds no pernicious Hitlerian the- ories of eugenics.

It does argue, in great and persuasive detail, that the United States is in serious danger of becoming a society polarized by intelligence, with a dysfunctional underclass from which few can ever escape. That would be a nightmare world for the haves as well as they have-nots, and whether we arrive there or not may depend on the extent that we allow public discussion of vital issues to be limited by political or intellectual taboos.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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