Charles Murray vs. Charles Murray

The Bell Curve (1994) by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which argued that IQ is destiny, was the most IQ-glorifying book since . . . well, ever. Now Mr. Murray has taken a big step away from his position in that book, yet he continues to glorify IQ.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Mr. Murray wrote an op-ed piece (“What’s wrong with vocational school?”) with which I mostly agree. His main point is that for most students, college is a waste of time. As a college teacher (at Berkeley), I have seen that all too clearly. Mr. Murray has an unfortunate way of stating his position. “A four-year college education teaches advanced analytic skills and information at a level that exceeds the intellectual capacity of most people.” I’d put it differently: A four-year college education teaches analytic skills and information at a level that exceeds the interest of most people. I am sure that if my students or anyone’s students were more interested in the material, they would learn it better. That most college students are not interested in the same things as most college professors is a good thing, economically speaking. A healthy economy is a diverse economy; a diverse economy requires a wide range of skills and knowledge, much wider than the narrow skills and knowledge possessed and taught by college teachers. But it is a bad thing for the students and teachers, who are trapped. They have to be there. I feel worse for the students, of course — they are paying to be there.

It isn’t complicated: IQ tests were designed to predict school performance. They do. People with higher IQs do better in school. To believe in the value of IQ is to believe in the school system it reflects. To glorify one is to glorify the other. Now Mr. Murray has taken a step away from one (the school system) but not the other (IQ). Well, nobody’s perfect.

Were I grading The Bell Curve, I would give it a B. The sad truth is that its basic conclusion, that a high IQ is really helpful, is entirely correct. A better book would have replaced the wacky genetic chapter with an attempt to understand why IQ matters so much. In a world where we place less weight on successful completion of college — the world that Murray now advocates — IQ will matter less.

In The Nature of Economies, Jane Jacobs pointed to the stultifying effects of discrimination. “Macho cultures typically have pitiful, weak economies,” she wrote. “Half their population, doing economically important types of work, such as cooking and food processing . . . are excluded from taking initiatives to develop all that work [e.g., open a restaurant] — and nobody else does it, either.” IQ discrimination is also stultifying. If our society did a better job of helping students who are not good at college — helping them find jobs where their abilities shine, instead of wasting four precious years of their lives — the entire economy would benefit.

8 Replies to “Charles Murray vs. Charles Murray”

  1. IQ has validity for predicting plenty of non-academic outcomes in life. That’s why the U.S. military began using IQ tests in 1917 and spends a fortune on IQ testing of would-be enlistees and correlating the results with their performance during their military career. Higher IQ soldiers are less likely to die in combat, to die in truck driving accidents, to drop bombs accurately on targets, etc. From 1992 through 2004, only 1% of new enlistees were allowed into the military with IQ scores on the AFQT from the bottom 30% of the IQ distributions. The new data in the long second part of The Bell Curve was delivered to Murray by the chief psychometrician of one of the services.

  2. Why was the IQ/heredity chapter wacky? Because it ignored the implications of the Flynn effect. That effect implies that environmental effects on IQ can be just as large as the effects that the authors wanted to explain.

    The army data are interesting. Many people, including Herrnstein and Murray, seem to take the predictive value of IQ as permanent, whereas I believe that in a different society — ancient Sparta, say — its predictive value would be less. In a world where we don’t force everyone to go to college, its predictive value would probably be less, for example.

  3. “I don’t think they ignored its implications.” If I remember correctly, here is what Herrnstein & Murray ignored. The Flynn Effect implies that there are one or more powerful environmental effects on IQ. They can raise or lower IQ on the order of 20 points. For simplicity, let’s say there’s just one factor, Factor X. If you are high on Factor X, your IQ will be 20 points higher than if you are low on Factor X. Herrnstein and Murray speculated on the possible genetic cause of Black/White differences and other group differences without knowing (a) what Factor X is and (b) where Whites, Blacks, and other groups fall on this factor. Once those two pieces of info were known, there might be nothing left to explain. Differences in Factor X might entirely account for the observed group differences.

  4. Once again, I believe Herrnstein and Murray coined the term “Factor X.” Finding Factor X was a huge obsession of American social scientists from the 1960s into the 1980s, when they started to give up out of frustration with repeated failures. For a lot of subtle reasons besides the repeated failure to find Factor X, the black-white IQ gap doesn’t look much like it’s caused by Factor X. It looks more like a larger version of the genetic driven differences in IQ found among biological siblings raised in the same households.

    Perhaps you should review what Murray has actually written before denouncing him?

  5. The Flynn Effect implies that Factor X exists. If American social scientists failed to find it . . . they failed to find it. That failure doesn’t affect the point I’m making.

    “Perhaps you should review what Murray has actually written.” I read The Bell Curve. As far as I can tell from your comments so far, my criticism of that book is correct. I am happy to be corrected however; if you would tell me on what page of The Bell Curve the authors refute or even show an understanding of my point about the Flynn Effect I would be happy to look at it.

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