The De-rehabilitation of Charles Murray
When Charles Murray's book Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 was published in 2003, I was assigned to review it. Forming my thoughts after reading the book, I recalled an earlier exchange I had had with the author. (We had some slight personal acquaintance by way of a private email discussion group we both belonged to.) I recorded that exchange in my review.
I once suggested to Charles Murray that the true object of his intellectual passion is not sociology, or psychology, or psychometry, but statistics. Murray: "If you had said 'data,' you would have been nearer to the truth." That was when he was still at work on Human Accomplishment. Reading the book now, I see the wisdom of his reply. Murray is a master mariner of data — a datanaut, as it were. The science of statistical analysis supplies his tool kit — his sounding line and sextant — but his passion is for the numbers, and the truths that lie hidden in their dim green depths.
That is a key insight into Murray the public intellectual. I should say before proceeding, though, that it sells him short as a writer. The book about the Apollo Program that Murray and his wife Catherine Bly Cox wrote together, published in 1989, is straight reportage with very little number-crunching. It is beautifully done, a small masterpiece of journalism, and rightly received rave reviews. (Murray: "The one in the Washington Post is the stuff of authors' fantasies.") With the fiftieth anniversary of the first Moon landing coming up, Apollo: The Race to the Moon is still well worth reading, if you can find a copy.
However, it is that passion for data that most characterizes Murray as a public intellectual. Looking back on his life in a podcast conversation with science writer Sam Harris in April last year, Murray recalled the writing of Human Accomplishment very fondly. The five years he had spent on the book were, he said, "one of the great intellectual adventures of my life … a great memory."
That intellectual adventure must also have been something of a refuge. In 1994 Murray had published The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, co-written with psychologist Richard Herrnstein, who died of cancer in the month the book was published. The Bell Curve was of course extraordinarily controversial. I shall enlarge on the reasons for the controversy further along in this article, but a key one was some passing references in the book to race differences in IQ.
Murray is a sociable and articulate man, but a private one, by no means a publicity hound. The obloquy heaped on him by detractors of The Bell Curve must have been vexing to him at the very least, perhaps distressing. It is easy to understand the pleasure he felt, working away on Human Accomplishment those five years, secluded with graphs, tables, and spreadsheets — a datanaut sailing the ocean of numbers, the howling of the mob only a distant murmur far across the waves, beyond the walls of his study.
In the years following 2003 Murray published five more books: two (first, second) offering libertarian approaches to social policy, one on education, one of life advice, and a big one — Coming Apart, 2012 — revisiting the theme of The Bell Curve but restricting its attention entirely to white Americans. By mid-2016, Murray told Sam Harris, he believed he had been "pretty much rehabilitated, that the viciousness and the anger and so forth had disappeared."
Then came the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. Presidency and the rise of the "Resistance" movement and its street-fighting vanguard, the Antifa. Quite suddenly the political temperature went up twenty degrees. In the nation's intellectual life the dull schoolmarmish conformism of the Bush and Obama years in matters relating to the human sciences gave way to a fierce, angry intolerance of all dissent from socially-approved dogma. Viewpoints that had formerly been countered with a disapproving tongue-click and a roll of the eyes were now denounced from academic pulpits with passionate zeal.
As in Mao Tse-tung's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, persons demoted or blacklisted years before and left to vegetate in silent ignominy were dragged out from their places of banishment to be "struggled" anew for the edification of the masses. Murray encountered this new atmosphere of zealotry when, six weeks into the Trump Presidency, he showed up at Middlebury College, a small liberal-arts school in Vermont, to give a talk about his book Coming Apart at the invitation of a conservative club at the college. More than a hundred shouting, chanting protestors prevented him from speaking. He was eventually able to give his talk, in the form of an interview with Middlebury professor Allison Stanger, by video from a closed room, while the protestors set off fire alarms in the corridors outside. However, when Murray and Prof. Stanger were escorted out from the back of the building by college officials:
[S]everal masked protesters, who were believed to be outside agitators, began pushing and shoving Mr. Murray and Ms. Stanger, Mr. Burger [a spokesman for the college] said. "Someone grabbed Allison's hair and twisted her neck," he said.
After the two got into a car, Mr. Burger said, protesters pounded on it, rocked it back and forth, and jumped onto the hood. Ms. Stanger later went to a hospital, where she was put in a neck brace. (New York Times, March 3rd 2017.)
Sixty-seven Middlebury students were subsequently disciplined for the fracas, but the penalties were as light as they could be. No student was expelled nor even suspended. None of the masked assailants who put Prof. Stanger in the hospital were identified, and there were no arrests. "It was more of a scrum," shrugged Middlebury's police chief. "There wasn't any assault per se."
An irony of the Middlebury event is that Charles Murray, a small-government libertarian-conservative, was a fierce Never Trumper during the 2016 election campaign. This irony is, however, only visible from outside the political cauldron. In the unlikely event the protestors bothered to apprise themselves of it, it would have done nothing to cool their anger. In their eyes Murray had been sufficiently exposed twenty years before in the Bell Curve controversy. He was a counter-revolutionary, an enemy of the people. Denounce! Denounce!
I should add that while he personally dislikes Trump, Murray the social scientist soon understood very well what had happened in November 2016. As he told Sam Harris: "The working-class guys I know would hate Trump if he lived next door … What I didn't get was the extent to which they were looking on Trump as the murder weapon … He was a guy who was not acting like the Establishment elite." Trump as the murder weapon! I know of no better five-word encapsulation of Trump's appeal.
One more footnote to that March 2017 event. The protestors needed no encouragement to their obscurantism and bad manners. What they needed was dis-couragement, but discouragement came only very feebly and equivocally from the college authorities. Murray told Sam Harris that:
The President of the college was there and she made a statement beforehand … to the effect that: "We have to let this awful person speak on behalf of the values of freedom of speech" … I wish she'd been a little less willing to feed the preconceptions of the crowd …
The source of those preconceptions was of course Murray's (with Herrnstein) 1994 book The Bell Curve; or rather, a loud and well-publicized subset of the responses to that book.
Since the middle of the last century much of the academic world — the humanities and most of the soft sciences (especially anthropology) — has been in thrall to a strong ideology. It is a curious thing that this ideology has no fixed name, although several have been suggested and enjoy limited circulation: the Standard Social Science Model, Blank Slate Theory, Neo-Lysenkoism, and a few others. Seeing nothing much to prefer among available options, I shall refer to it just as "the Ideology."
The essence of the Ideology is that the "BIP" traits (behavior, intelligence, and personality) of a developed human being are shaped entirely by postnatal experiences, with various small allowances generally made for events in the womb. So far as potential development of the BIP traits is concerned, all human zygotes are identical. Charles Murray himself came face to face with the Ideology — by no means for the first time, I am sure — in 2008, following the publication of his book on education. The book argues, among many other things, that people have different innate abilities, and that a rational education system ought to acknowledge the fact. Murray gave an interview about the book to Deborah Solomon of the New York Times. The interview was published in that newspaper on September 19, 2008. It included the following exchange between Murray and Ms. Solomon.
DS: Europeans have historically defined themselves through inherited traits and titles, but isn't America a country where we are supposed to define ourselves through acts of will?
CM: I wonder if there is a single, solitary, real-live public-school teacher who agrees with the proposition that it's all a matter of will. To me, the fact that ability varies — and varies in ways that are impossible to change — is a fact that we learn in first grade.
DS: I believe that given the opportunity, most people could do most anything.
CM: You're out of touch with reality in that regard.
As Ms. Solomon's remarks illustrate, the Ideology was by that point the default outlook on human nature among cultural elites outside the hard sciences. (Ms. Solomon's credentials are in Art History and Journalism.) It still maintains that position ten years later.
It follows from the fundamental axioms of the Ideology that IQ tests do not measure any intrinsic, immutable quality of a person. They only record the consequences of a person's post-conception environment acting on his original zygote, whose potential for development of BIP traits is the same as all other human zygotes'. "Given the opportunity, most people could do most anything." For the general public, this outlook was presented most influentially in a 1981 book, The Mismeasure of Man, by paleontologist and science popularizer Stephen Jay Gould. The observations and speculations about the current and future evolution of American society that form the real matter of The Bell Curve depend heavily on analysis of large-scale IQ testing. From the point of view of the Ideology, therefore, that means they depend on nothing, so the book is worthless.
Murray and Herrnstein mightily compounded their offense against ideological orthodoxy by including a section — it comprises 48 of the 687 pages of main text in my 1996 edition — dealing directly with race differences in IQ. (A Further 72 pages discuss related social consequences.) Large-scale testing of Americans consistently turns up different mean IQs by ancestry group: Ashkenazi Jews highest, northeast Asians next highest, non-Ashkenazi whites lower, blacks lower still. The Ideology is even more fiercely hostile to the reality of race than it is to the reality of innate intelligence. Race and intelligence (and now, most recently, sex) are mere "social constructs." To say otherwise, declare the ideologues, is tantamount to approving race slavery and the Holocaust. Hence the furious reactions to The Bell Curve. One of the most hysterical was offered by sociologist Steven Rosenthal at a website belonging to Montclair State University:
The Bell Curve is a vehicle of Nazi propaganda wrapped in a cover of pseudo-scientific respectability. It is an academic version of Adolph Hitler's Mein Kampf … The voices of millions should be raised in condemnation of the authors of The Bell Curve and their circle of Nazi-admiring friends.
(The attitude of actual Nazis towards IQ testing was inconsistent, with no strong party line. IQ tests were used in Germany up to the mid-1930s as they were everywhere else, for identification of the "feeble-minded" and for military selection, but later fell out of favor for reasons unclear to me. That the Nazis banned IQ testing because of the high scores of Jews is an urban legend; there was no formal ban. The party ideologues just seem not to have found psychometry very interesting. In the U.S.S.R. disapproval of IQ testing was stronger and more official, as contradicting Marxist theory about human nature; but again, there does not seem to have been any formal ban.)
These intensely negative responses were already, by the mid-1990s, in the nature of a rearguard action. From the 1960s to the 1980s, while the Ideology was enjoying its glory days, key developments were accumulating to undermine it. IQ testing was improved and refined. Studies of genetics at the "output" end — the BIP-trait consequences of genetic similarity and difference, as revealed by sibling and twin studies — gave birth to Behavioral Genetics as a legitimate field of inquiry. Databases of test results became ever larger and ever more accessible to datanauts thanks to the advent of cheap computing power. While there are always, in any field of science — and in the human sciences more than most — disputes and disagreements among researchers on particular points, the science of intelligence presented in The Bell Curve was as mainstream for 1994 as science gets. A collective statement to that effect by experts in psychometry was organized by Linda Gottfredson, a professor of psychology at the University of Delaware, and published in the Wall Street Journal later that year. In a postscript added slightly later, Prof. Gottfredson wrote:
The mainstream shifted slowly but steadily in recent decades as accumulating research evidence changed our understanding of the nature, measurement, origins, and consequence of differences of intelligence. The press and public have yet to catch up to the new mainstream.
The Middlebury College incident of March 2nd, 2017 brought Murray back to the attention of the American public in general, and of ideological enforcers in particular. By the time the aforementioned podcast with Sam Harris was published on April 22nd that year, Murray's hopes of rehabilitation had been dashed. The influential Ideology-compliant website Vox.com had already, on March 28th, published a 1,700-word tirade against Murray and The Bell Curve by political scientist Nicole Hemmer. She called the book "racist" and "social Darwinist" and linked it to, yes, Donald Trump.
The podcast with Sam Harris itself then inspired a more thoughtful piece, also on Vox.com, co-authored by three academic psychologists: Eric Turkheimer, Kathryn Paige Harden, and Richard Nisbett, hereinafter THN. The title of the piece is: "Charles Murray is once again peddling junk science about race and IQ." Authors are not necessarily responsible for the titles under which their words are published, so we should make allowances. It is the case, however that all three co-authors are on the political Left. (And then some, in Dr. Harden's case: In a New York Times op-ed published July 24th 2018 she quoted Lenin with approval!)
The science in the THN piece is, to borrow a favorite cant word of the ideologues, problematic. "[N]o self-respecting statistical geneticist would undertake a study based only on self-identified racial category as a proxy for genetic ancestry measured from DNA." Really? Without trying hard I turned up a 2005 study out of Stanford University Medical Center finding that in a sample "consisting of 3,636 people who all identified themselves as either white, African-American, East Asian or Hispanic … only five individuals had DNA that matched an ethnic group different than the box they checked at the beginning of the study. That's an error rate of 0.14 percent." THN's statistical geneticist, as well as respecting himself, would surely respect an accuracy level of 99.86 percent; and presumably twelve further years of research pushed that level higher.
More telling from the THN piece was this:
The new DNA-based science has also led to an ironic discovery: Virtually none of the complex human qualities that have been shown to be heritable are associated with a single determinative gene! There are no "genes for" IQ in any but the very weakest sense. Murray's assertion in the podcast that we are only a few years away from a thorough understanding of IQ at the level of individual genes is scientifically unserious.
Concerning that first sentence, with its take-that! exclamation point at the end: Who thinks otherwise? Monogenic traits (hairy elbows, crumbly earwax) are exceptional — that's Genetics 101. Any trait as complex as intelligence can safely be assumed to be polygenic. Scientifically-literate citizens have understood this for decades. What did THN take us for? (And why is this long-held assumption "ironic"?)
And "scientifically unserious"? As I write, in July 2018, the latest news in this field concerns a genome-wide association study of educational attainment in 1.1 million individuals. The study found 1,271 significant SNPs. (A SNP, pronounced "snip," is one of the few million — out of three billion — basic components of the genome that regularly vary among individuals). As genetics blogger Razib Khan notes: "This is a big achievement, considering that five years ago a paper with ∼125,000 individuals identified just 3 SNPs that were significant for this trait!" From 3 to 1,271 in five years is a compounding annual rate of 335 percent. With that rate of progress, Murray's assertion doesn't look so "unserious."
Neuroscientist Richard Haier did a full professional critique of THN at the invaluable website Quillette.com, June 21st 2017. He identified one particular notion as the fundamental sticking-point separating THN from Murray: Whatever factors influence intelligence differences among individuals will also influence average differences among groups. Haier calls this "the Default Hypothesis." THN, he says, reject it — prematurely, as it is not inherently preposterous, only unproven. The worst possible interpretation of the Murray-Harris podcast is, says Haier, that they prematurely endorse it.
I think an alternative name for the Default Hypothesis would be "the Last Ditch." THN actually concede most of what Murray and Herrnstein wrote in The Bell Curve. With evidence on the genetic architecture of intelligence accumulating ever faster, the long rearguard action to defend the Ideology against the advance of reality has retreated at last to this one earthwork. But the jig may be up on the Last Ditch stratagem. This past March Harvard geneticist David Reich took to Last Ditch home field, i.e. the New York Times, to write:
So how should we prepare for the likelihood that in the coming years, genetic studies will show that many traits are influenced by genetic variations, and that these traits will differ on average across human populations? It will be impossible — indeed, anti-scientific, foolish and absurd — to deny those differences.
Meanwhile Charles Murray has informed me via private email that he is hard at work on a new book with the working title Human Differences: Gender, Race, and Genes. Yes, the datanaut is back on the high seas with compass, sextant, and sounding-line. To judge by that working title, his spirit is in the best nautical tradition: Damn the torpedoes!
- Private email to me, May 7 2018, quoted with permission.
- By Charles Sheffield, Washington Post Book World, July 9 1989 … can't find it on the web.
- At 2h12m33s in this April 22, 2017 "Waking Up" podcast with Sam Harris. NB: Because I have mined this podcast for recent quotes from Murray in his own voice, I shall henceforth just refer to it in these footnotes as "WU" followed by h-m-s.
- WU 2h12m59s.
- WU 1h48m00s.
- WU 2h04m27s.
- The best up-to-date brief survey of the science of intelligence for non-specialists is Stuart Ritchie's 2015 handbook Intelligence: All That Matters. The title, however, is unfortunate. The book does not make an argument that nothing matters except intelligence; it is merely one of the publisher's Xxxxx: All That Matters series giving the essentials — all that matters — of numerous general-interest topics.
- Private email to me, July 29 2018, by permission.