Pull the Other One

Ian Hacking

  • The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray
    Free Press, 845 pp, £25.00, November 1994, ISBN 0 02 914673 9

Late last autumn this book received a prodigious amount of attention in the United States. No one who has been exposed to any of the American media can have escaped it. Among the reactions was a chorus of élite liberal denunciations. The New Republic of 31 October ran a piece by Murray followed by 18 criticisms. Stephen Jay Gould spoke out in the New Yorker of 28 November. I especially recommend Alan Ryan’s analysis in the New York Review of Books of 17 November, followed in the 1 December issue by Charles Lane’s examination of some of the sources of statistical information in this book, sources closely connected with an Edinburgh publication, the Mankind Quarterly. Lane is particularly useful on Richard Lynn, a professor at the University of Ulster, who is cited 24 times in the book, but whose research will strike many readers as questionable.

The authors maintain that there is an accurate unitary measure of general intelligence, named g, first isolated in 1904 by the British psychologist Charles Spearman, who became Professor of Mind and Logic at University College London. (Our authors, and some of their critics, persist in referring to Spearman as a ‘former British Army officer’, which he was, but for goodness sake, he was professor at what was, in its day, the world centre for research on statistical inference, and took his doctorate at Leipzig, in its day the world centre for experimental psychology. This does not prove his work is valuable. Indeed I mistrust factor analysis, the technique he invented, and I am sceptical about g, but what game is being played by referring to Spearman simply as a military man?) Spearman’s g, claim Herrnstein and Murray, is a feature underlying what is measured in any plausible test for intelligence. Wary of the word ‘intelligence’, they write of ‘cognitive ability’, which, thanks to the prowess of modern cognitive sciences, sounds good, but they say the phrase means exactly, no more and no less, what intelligence testers call ‘intelligence’. Seeking vernacular but polite usage, they call people on the lower end of the IQ scale ‘dull’ and ‘very dull’. For people at the other end they often use the excellent American word ‘smart’, which gets the British ‘clever’, and ‘bright’ and ‘quick’ all at once.

Herrnstein and Murray hold that IQ, as measured, is distributed as what mathematicians call a Gaussian or normal distribution. Intuitively, this looks like a bell; hence the title of the book. The authors hold that the average IQ of East Asian populations is higher than that of white Americans (here they rely heavily on the dubious work of Professor Lynn). They correctly note that on average American blacks score substantially worse than American whites. They hold that IQ is partially inherited, which they manifestly believe, but they do insert words of caution and rightly note that many of their theses do not depend on genetically transmitted IQ.

Herrnstein and Murray compile and tabulate an immense amount of information from many sources. Their original contribution is based on the national Longitudinal Survey of Labour Market Experience of Youth. Starting in 1979, this survey has been tracking about 12,500 young Americans, following not only their family background, education, employment, marriage and child-bearing, but measuring their IQ. This unique resource enables our authors to show that IQ is a fairly good predictor of many social variables – educational attainment, unemployment, salary when employed, pregnancy in and out of wedlock. In the earliest part of the book they provide results for white Americans only, and show that low IQ predicts, with some probability, numerous bad events or qualities, while high IQ predicts good ones. Men are studied chiefly as solid workers or the opposite, unemployed or criminals. Women are studied chiefly as solid homemakers or the opposite, single mothers on welfare. When it is careful, the book restrains itself to the language of prediction and correlation, but often it lapses, and speaks of cause or effect; low IQ as a cause of poverty, unemployment or illegitimate births.

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[*] Checking out The Bell Curve’s 108 pages of notes can provide hours of innocent pleasure. The book does not exactly quote Malinowski, but takes his words from Senator Moynihan quoting from a book of reprinted essays. Had the authors gone back to the source, they might have been displeased at the company Malinowski kept. For the quotation comes from a 1930 book of essays, The New Generation: The Intimate Problems of Parents and Children, edited by V.F. Calverton and S.D. Schmalhausen. I think none of Malinowski’s fellow contributors, from Margaret Mead down, agreed with him. Most were moved by the Marxist thought that legitimacy is demanded only by property and inheritance. One of the editors has a very stirring defence of the illegitimate child – modern society ‘has never failed to place property above personality or to sacrifice life for a formula’. The rich cream on this wonderful pudding is provided by Bertrand Russell’s glorious Introduction, which includes his exultant cry: ‘Enter the new feminism trailing the new matriarchate!’