FROM an editorial in the New York Times:"The Bell Curve...

Salmagundi

October 26, 1994

FROM an editorial in the New York Times:

"The Bell Curve," a flame-throwing treatise on race, class and intelligence by the late Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, advances a grisly thesis: IQ, largely inherited and intractable, dictates an individual's success -- an economic death knell for much of America's black population.

The story has America increasingly divided by race and sliding inexorably into castes based on IQ.

The book has ignited bitter controversy, and that is no surprise. It declares settled what many regard as an unresolved argument over whether IQs have scientific merit. Moreover, Mr. Murray's record as a political ideologue who uses social science data to support his policy preferences touches a tender spot in American intellectual history on the issue of race and intelligence.

. . . At its best, the Herrnstein-Murray story is an unconvincing reading of murky evidence. At its worst, it is perniciously and purposely incendiary. The graphs, charts, tables and data admit of less dire conclusions. But less dire would not have put Mr. Murray on the cover of news magazines, though it would have given America's disadvantaged a more accurate, hopeful glimpse of their future.

The authors argue that there is an underlying core to intelligence, separate from individual talents or skills, that is well measured by IQ tests. IQ scores are largely inherited and after childhood immutable. In their view, high IQ leads to high income and respectable behavior. Low IQ leads to social pathology -- poverty, welfare dependency, out-of-wedlock births and crime. . .

But many experts reject these chilling conclusions. For starters, the authors' statistical techniques are insufficiently powerful to distinguish the impact of IQ from talents or skills, some of which can be taught. Were Mr. Murray parading around town with a FTC story about skills, he would sound like everyone else who has tried to explain the explosive increase in income inequality. By blaming low IQ for poverty, he makes remediation look silly; by blaming skills for poverty, he would have invited society to try.

The first finding is obviously the more attractive for Mr. Murray, who has built his career on arguing for the elimination of social programs.

Mr. Murray's findings are not wrong because they are ugly. They are wrong because they blind us to more compelling interpretations and because they ignore the huge gaps in understanding the precise nature of intelligence.

What is right about the book was already well known: skills have taken on increasing importance in the economy and they are difficult to acquire. What is new about the book -- the fixation on genes as destiny -- is surely unproved and almost surely wrong: programs here and abroad produce measurable, if unspectacular, results. These sobering lessons were clear before "The Bell Curve" was published. They remain so afterward.

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