The Science Behind The Bell Curve

The Science Behind The Bell Curve

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The Science Behind The Bell Curve

 
    The science behind The Bell Curve has been denounced by both the American Psychological Association and the Human Genome Project. Its authors were unqualified to speak on either genetics or intelligence, since their expertise lay in other fields. Their project did not rise through the usual system of academic publishing, and in fact the authors ducked the process of peer review. The Bell Curve was ultimately funded by the wealthy, far-right Bradley Foundation, which used its media connections to launch a massive national publicity campaign. And The Bell Curve relies heavily on studies that were financed by the Pioneer Fund, a neo-Nazi organization that promotes eugenicist research.

 

"The scientific basis of The Bell Curve is fraudulent." (1)

 

With those words, the American Psychological Association denounced The Bell Curve, the controversial book that claims that blacks generally have IQs 15 points lower than whites. The authors assert that because IQ is mostly genetic and unchangeable, programs promoting equality (affirmative action, welfare, Head Start, etc.) are a waste of money. For those unfamiliar with the American Psychological Association, it is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States, and includes over 142,000 members.

 

The story of how a scientifically unsound book like The Bell Curve bypassed the usual checks and balances of the scientific community reveals a great deal about how wealthy conservative businessmen are trying to create their own alternate academia.

 

To begin with, the authors of The Bell Curve were largely unqualified to write a book about genetics and IQ. Charles Murray is a political scientist, whose specialty lies in welfare and affirmative action issues. Richard Herrnstein (who died shortly before publication) was indeed a psychologist, but he spent his career studying pigeons and rats, not genetics and IQ. In fact, Herrnstein never published anything in peer-reviewed journals about genetics and IQ during his entire 36-year career. (He did publish a few articles in popular magazines.) The most that can be said for either of them is that they were familiar with the scientific method and were experts in fields that were distantly related to the topic.

 

The writing of the book was shrouded in secrecy, but it was launched directly to the American public in a magnificently funded and organized media campaign, one that included cover stories in Newsweek, The New Republic and The New York Times Book Review.

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Early articles and editorials appeared in Time, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, and The National Review, before eventually swamping the rest of the national media. Some of these early articles were critical of the book, but that was beside the point -- any publicity at all was welcome, because a large part of the nation was ready to receive new justifications for their racial beliefs. (The Bell Curve is not an original work; earlier books making the same claims languished due to a lack of well-funded publicity.) To date, The Bell Curve has sold over 500,000 copies.

 

But the way the authors concealed -- and then publicized -- the book was disingenuous. Most scientists share their work with other scientists before publication, because their criticism is helpful and constructive. In fact, the National Academy of Sciences promotes such a policy in the form of the peer-reviewed journal and the scientific conference. In these two forums, researchers can face their critics and argue it out. Sometimes the debate is brutal and extensive, but it is useful for weeding out errors and arriving at a consensus. Murray and Herrnstein completely bypassed this process. To say that they would have faced a certain firestorm of opposition from "liberal academia" is beside the point -- if the research were valid, then not all the criticism in the world would hurt it. Therefore, bypassing peer review can be condemned on principle alone.

 

And there is a practical criticism as well -- peer review helps to correct flawed information before it reaches the public, where it tends to take on a life of its own. Defenders of The Bell Curve seize on this as an example of "liberal censorship," hence the reason why Murray and Herrnstein sought to avoid it. But this ignores the fact that there is freedom of the press in this country, and people can print anything they want. Peer review simply brings errors to the attention of the author, allowing him to correct them before printing. An author doesn't have to correct his errors, of course, but it becomes much more difficult to defend printing obvious and blatant errors after they have been pointed out. This is the reason why Murray and Herrnstein's bypassed peer review. Their arguments were carefully constructed fictions that would have fallen apart under expert criticism; the only reason to bypass it was to get this information out to the public before bona fide geneticists could refute it.

 

The media blitz was ultimately financed by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, one of the wealthiest and most conservative foundations in the country. With assets over $420 million, the Bradley Foundation has been instrumental in creating an "alternate academia" of far-right think tanks and conservative media outlets. For example, it provides major funding to National Empowerment Television, a cable channel that delivers far-right programming to American homes nationwide. The Bradley Foundation pays Murray $100,000 a year to continue his researches as a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, one of the nation's top conservative think tanks. Without the Bradley Foundation, Murray's academic career would have foundered long ago. (Even the conservative Manhattan Institute has asked him to leave.) Nor would The Bell Curve have graced the covers and pages of so many national publications. (2)

 

After The Bell Curve ignited an uproar, the National Academy of Sciences found itself competing to be heard among all the voices assessing the work. Nonetheless, peer review occurred after the fact. The American Psychological Association set up a task force of its top experts to review the science and politics of the controversy. According to Dr. Ulric Neisser, the task force chair, the investigators were commissioned to research the issues "in an unbiased, systematic manner." (3) Ideologically, the task force spanned the spectrum of opinions, from Thomas Bouchard, Ph.D. (generally supportive of The Bell Curve) to Ellin Bloch, Ph.D. (generally against). (4)

 

In August 1995, a year after The Bell Curve hit the bookstores, the task force released its report. Its press release opened with the following general observation:

"What is intelligence and can it be measured? These questions have fueled a continuing debate about whether intelligence is inherited, acquired, environmental, or a combination of these and other factors. In a field where so many issues are unresolved and so many questions unanswered, the confident tone that has characterized most of the debate on these topics is clearly out of place." (5)

As for specific assessments of The Bell Curve, the findings of the task force can be summed up in three points:

* Much of the book's data are accurate, especially when addressing the fundamentals of intelligence and IQ testing. One of the stated purposes of the book was to serve as an introduction to the topic, and in this respect the book succeeded. Stephen Ceci, Ph.D., said that despite Herrnstein and Murray's political agenda, they have been "the clearest and most comprehensive writers" on the topic to date. (6)

* However, much of the data are also wrong, and analysis of it severely flawed. Halford Fairchild, Ph.D., who led one of the panels assessing the scientific accuracy of the book, summed up their conclusions this way: "The scientific basis of The Bell Curve is fraudulent." (7) Indeed, some of the errors were so large as to be attributable to non-experts attempting to write in the field.

* The policy recommendations suggested at the end of the book do not follow from the book's own arguments on genes and IQ. On this point the task force was emphatic: it called The Bell Curve a "political" work, not a "scientific" one. (8)

What were the errors that the task force found? A major flaw was that most of the "IQ" scores used by the authors were not from an IQ test at all! They mistook an armed forces qualifying test that measures vocabulary and verbal reasoning for IQ tests, Fairchild said. "This is an achievement test. It shows the extent to which you've benefited from school. To assert it's a proxy for IQ is a big lie." (9)

 

Another problem the task force found was the authors' handling of the "Flynn Effect," a world-wide phenomenon which is raising average IQs about three points per decade. That is much too fast to be genetic; therefore, social factors must play a large role in raising IQs.

 

Another problem was the authors' thesis that the smart classes are getting smarter, and the dull classes duller. However, the task force found quite the opposite: "We're getting a convergence, not a divergence," Ceci noted. Specifically, the IQ gap between those at the top and bottom rungs of the social hierarchy in job status has shrunken from a 12.5-point difference in the 1930s to an 8.5-point difference today, with people testing higher on average than they used to. (10)

 

The American Psychological Association is not the only expert organization that has denounced The Bell Curve. The Human Genome Project has weighed in as well. In a letter written to Science magazine, its members wrote: "As geneticists and ethicists associated with the Human Genome Project, we deplore The Bell Curve's misrepresentation of the state of genetic knowledge in this area and the misuse of genetics to inform social policy." (11) In particular, they raised three objections:

"First, Herrnstein and Murray invoke the authority of genetics to argue that 'it is beyond significant technical dispute that cognitive ability is substantially heritable.' Research in this field is still evolving, studies cited by Herrnstein and Murray face significant methodological difficulties, and the validity of results quoted are disputed. Many geneticists have pointed out the enormous scientific and methodological problems in attempting to separate genetic components from environmental contributors, particularly given the intricate interplay between genes and the environment that may affect such a complex human trait as intelligence.

 

"Second, even if there was consensus on the heritability of cognitive ability, lessons from genetics are misrepresented. The authors argue that because cognitive ability is substantially heritable, it is not possible to change it and that remedial education is not worth the effort or cost. This is neither an accurate message from genetics nor a necessary lesson from efforts at remedial education. Heritability estimates are relevant only for the specific environment in which they are measured. Change the environment, and the heritability of traits can change remarkably. Saying a trait has high heritability has never implied that the trait is fated to be. Height is both genetically determined and dependent on nutrition. Common conditions in which genetics play a role, such as diabetes or heart disease, can be corrected with insulin or cholesterol-lowering drugs and diet. The disabilities associated with single-gene conditions, such as phenylketonuria or Wilson disease, can be prevented or significantly ameliorated by medical or nutritional therapy.

 

"Third, the more scientists learn about human genes the more complexity is revealed. This complexity has become apparent as more genes correlated with human genetic diseases are discovered. We are only beginning to explore the intricate relationship between genes and environment and between individual genes and the rest of the human genome. If anything, the lack of predictability from genetic information has become the rule rather than the exception. Simplistic claims about the inheritance of such a complex trait as cognitive ability are unjustifiable; moreover, as the history of eugenics shows, they are dangerous." (12)

Finally, there is the reception of the entire scientific community itself. "Within the sophisticated research community, the opinion has been virtually unanimous that 'The Bell Curve' was a primitive, oversimplistic and flawed analysis," says Craig T. Ramey, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Alabama. (13) Many scientists have been writing detailed, technical refutations to The Bell Curve. A team of sociologists led by Claude Fischer has addressed the sociological arguments raised by The Bell Curve in their book, Inequality by Design. (14) Reanalyzing the very data used by Herrnstein and Murray, they correct many of the statistical errors and show how the environment, not genes, plays a larger role in who gets ahead in life.

 

For example, Herrnstein and Murray analyzed a long-term survey (the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth) and concluded that a person's future success is far better predicted by IQ than by childhood socioeconomic status. But they failed to include several important factors in their definition of "socioeconomic status": the number of siblings, the presence of two parents in the home, farm residence, etc. Correcting for these factors, the authors of Inequality by Design recalculated the data and showed that socioeconomic status, not IQ, is a far better predictor of future success. Based on the corrected data, the authors conclude: "If we could magically give everyone identical IQs, we would still see 90 to 95 percent of the inequality we see today." (15)

 

 

The sources for The Bell Curve

 

Defenders of The Bell Curve have double duty to pull, for not only has the book been denounced by the top scientific organizations in the U.S., but the book itself relies on sources that most scientists regard as dubious, racist, white supremacist and eugenicist. Whenever The Bell Curve talks about racial differences in IQ, the studies cited are almost always ones funded by the Pioneer Fund, a neo-Nazi group whose founder advocated sending all blacks back to Africa. Even Murray himself seems embarrassed by some of his sources:

"Here was a case of stumbling onto a subject that had all the allure of the forbidden. Some of the things we read to do this work, we literally hide when we're on planes and trains. We're furtively peering at this stuff." (16)

The urge to hide embarrassing sources must also have struck the authors while writing The Bell Curve, because they do not prominently display some of the names of Pioneer Fund researchers in the main text, preferring instead to hide them in the endnotes. The authors cannot be held accountable for the racist views of their sources, of course, but then why would they rely on their studies so heavily? It's hard to believe they don't sympathize with those views. In an article in The New York Times Magazine, Murray admitted to burning a cross with a group of friends as a teenager. He conceded his actions were "dumb," but insisted: "It never crossed our minds that this had any larger significance." (17)

 

The Pioneer Fund was created in 1937 by Wickliffe Draper, an eccentric millionaire who wanted to rid the U.S. of its black population. Another founder, Frederick Osborn, described Nazi Germany's sterilization law as "a most exciting experiment." (18) The history of the organization is replete with neo-Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. (19)

 

Pioneer has been crucial to funding scholars whose research promotes the belief that whites are a superior race and that blacks threaten to drag society down, either economically or genetically. Promoting eugenic policies has been it's prime goal. Over the years, it has awarded major research grants to scholars who have achieved widespread notoriety, all of whom are cited heavily in The Bell Curve:

* Arthur Jensen, who once said, "Eugenics isn't a crime," has received over $1 million from the Pioneer Fund. (20) Jensen's name became synonymous with racism in the 70s, after he blamed lower black performance in Head Start on lower black IQs.

* Thomas Bouchard has also been a major recipient of Pioneer Fund grants, which enabled him to conduct the famous Minnesota twins study. This study compared the traits of twins separated at birth and raised apart. According to Bouchard's results, intelligence turned out to be 70 percent genetic in the twins, even though all other twin studies have found it be only 50 percent. (And even these figures are too high, because the adoption agencies usually put the twins in the same neighborhoods.) Curiously, Bouchard has not allowed other scientists to examine the methodology he used to arrive at these unusually high results -- consequently, no one can disprove them. (21)

* Richard Lynn has received at least $325,000 from the Pioneer Fund, for research along the lines of "Positive Correlations Between Head Size and IQ." (22) He has said: "What is called for here is not genocide, the killing off of the population of incompetent cultures. But we do need to think realistically in terms of the 'phasing out' of such peoples.... Evolutionary progress means the extinction of the less competent. To think otherwise is mere sentimentality." (23) Herrnstein and Murray call Lynn "a leading scholar of racial and ethnic differences."

* And then there is J. Philippe Rushton, who has received at least $770,000 from the Pioneer Fund. Throughout his career, Rushton has been obsessed with the alleged negative correlation between IQ and the size of sexual organs like penises, breasts and buttocks. "It's a trade-off: More brain or more penis. You can't have everything," he told Rolling Stone magazine. (24) Of course, the stereotype that black men have large penises figures prominently in Rushton's theories about why they have such low IQs.

These are the sources that Herrnstein and Murray use for most of their arguments on racial differences in IQ. Needless to say, the scientific quality of many of these studies are dubious at best, and their methodology has been almost universally criticized. By no stretch of the imagination could The Bell Curve be called a top-level work of science. But tell that to Newsweek, which is both corporate-owned and under the spell of the Bradley Foundation. In a generally positive article, it wrote: "The science behind 'The Bell Curve' is overwhelmingly mainstream." (25)

 

 

 

Endnotes:

 

1. Don Lattin, "'Bell Curve' Called Political, Not Scientific: Psychologists examine race-IQ controversy," The San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, August 11, 1995, A6.

 

2. "Buying a Movement: Right-Wing Foundations and American Politics," People For The American Way, 2000 M Street NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC, 20036.

 

3. Tori DeAngelis, "Psychologists question findings of Bell Curve," APA Monitor, American Psychological Association, October, 1995.

 

4. "Task Force Releases Report in Response to Bell Curve," American Psychological Association, Press Release, Fall 1995.

 

5. "APA Task Force Examines the Knowns and Unknowns of Intelligence," American Psychological Association, Press Release, September 15, 1995.

 

6. DeAngelis.

 

7. Lattin.

 

8. "APA Task Force Examines the Knowns and Unknowns of Intelligence."

 

9. Marilyn Elias, "Experts find fault with 'Bell Curve'" USA Today. (No date given; probably Fall 1995.)

 

10. Ibid.

 

11. Lori B. Andrews, Dorothy Nelkin and endorsing members of the Human Genome Project, "The Bell Curve: A Statement," letter to the editor, Science, January 5, 1996.

 

12. Ibid.

 

13. John Yemma, "Studies hit 'Bell Curve' linking of race, IQ: Books say environment, not heredity, is major determinant of intelligence," Boston Globe, May 7, 1996.

 

14. Claude Fischer et. al., Inequality by Design: Cracking the Bell Curve Myth (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

 

15. Ibid., p. 70-101, 14.

 

16. Jason DeParle, "Daring Research or Social Science Pornography?" The New York Times Magazine, October 9, 1994, p. 51.

 

17. DeParle.

 

18. Discovery Journal, 7/9/94, cited in Jim Naureckas, "Racism Resurgent: How Media Let The Bell Curve's Pseudo-Science Define the Agenda on Race," Extra!, January/February 1995, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting.

 

19. Naureckas.

 

20. Newsday, 11/9/94, and GQ, 11/94, cited in Naureckas.

 

21. Scientific American, 6/93; The Nation,

11/28/94, cited in Naureckas.

 

22. Rolling Stone, 10/20/94, cited in Naureckas.

 

23. Newsday, 11/9/94, cited in Naureckas.

 

24. Rolling Stone, 10/20/94, cited in Naureckas.

 

25. Geoffrey Cowley, "Testing the Science of Intelligence," Newsweek, October 24, 1994, p. 56.

 

 
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