The Bell Curve and its Enemies

Some guy at the Center for American Progress, Zack Beauchamp, writes about “Why Conservatives Love to Link Race And IQ.”  One of the central confusions of the piece is his application of his question to all conservatives, rather than two specific people, namely, Charles Murray and now Jason Richwine; the wording of the question presupposes that the answer is political.  Most prominent conservatives have no real interest in the matter and in any case would not touch it with a ten-foot pole. 

Murray is the only person anyone has heard of who has publicly and systematically considered the question, or was until Richwine came along.  I’m talking public intellectuals here, not scientists writing in journals nobody reads who can say whatever they want.  In the public arena, everything since Murray has basically been commentary on Murray, with progressives denouncing him as a Nazi and some conservatives defending his writings. 

The claims Murray (and late co-author Herrnstein) made were that IQ is real, that it is in significant part genetic, and that it has recently become the basis for class structure in American life.  I think he had one chapter on race and IQ.  This was probably because the first two claims, that IQ is real and that it is partly genetic, are sensitive in light of racial gaps in IQ, for obvious reasons.  It would have been one heck of an elephant in the living room hanging over the book to avoid taking the issue on, but race was tangential to the point Murray was trying to make.  It appears to be more central for Richwine, who opposes Latino immigration because he thinks Latinos are likely to have low average IQs.  I haven’t read his work, but probably he worries that they will drive down wages for low-IQ Americans (white, black or Latino), or that they will disproportionately contribute to social problems.

So, to rephrase the question, what motivates Murray and some others to write about IQ and genetics?  Beauchamp, the CAP guy, admits it isn’t the political popularity of the idea: “These spats don’t generally endear conservatism to the general public, so it’s not like this is a political move.”  Lots of progressives seem to think America’s latent racism explains otherwise baffling conservative success; as I understand their argument, the Southern strategy won Nixon 49 states in 1972 and Reagan another 49 in 1984, and the American public disliked Willie Horton primarily because he was black.  But Beauchamp doesn’t make such an argument.  So, again, what’s the motive for genes-and-IQ writers?

It could be that they think what they are saying is true.  Stranger things have happened.  One of Beauchamp’s two explanations, though, is writing these things allows Murray, et al “to take up the mantle of disinterested, dispassionate intellectual they so love.”  Well, okay, maybe that’s it.  Maybe people embrace taboo ideas out of a love of truth, maybe they do it because they love looking like they love the truth, maybe it’s a mixture of these motives. 

Anyway, for Beauchamp, pretending to seek truth allows Murray, et al to support their policy preferences with “the mantle of objective scientists persecuted for telling ‘hard truths.’”  “One of the founding myths of modern conservatism,” he explains, “is that conservatives are hard-headed rationalists, while liberals let their soft-minded care for the downtrodden get in the way of rational public policy.”  This is a pretty accurate description for how conservatives see themselves, or did once.  That was the first conservative self-image I was aware of, probably the dominant one in Rush Limbaugh’s heyday of the 1990s.  In the 2000s, conservatives’ self-image, personified by Bush, involved the idea that liberals were effete intellectuals crippled by their own nuance, while red-state America embraced intuitive, simple truths and supported a President who went with his gut, even if he wasn’t all that bright (perhaps he had a kind of emotional intelligence?)  This of course is the attitude famously caricatured by Colbert, and helped bring about a reaction: alarming increases in confidence in government by a huge portion of the country, based on the idea that if only we could get old, white trash (and, ahem, low-IQ) America out of power, scientific, educated (ahem, high-IQ) people could use the government to achieve great, transformational things.  No wonder that Andrew Sullivan, Murray’s greatest conservative supporter when his book came out, now embraces today’s technocratic progressivism so thoroughly.

                                                               ***

So are Murray and his supporters correct that opponents attempt to drive their ideas out of acceptable discourse more than meeting their arguments?  Beauchamp doesn’t explicitly dispute this.  His token, blippy attempt to argue that the science they point to is wrong consists of links to two articles. 

The first (almost exactly the same objections I will make apply equally to the second) is a Foreign Policy piece attacking genetics-intelligence arguments in development economics.  The piece that itself blippily links to two articles to support the assertion that genetic factors in racial intelligence (what about genetic factors in intelligence, period?) have been debunked, along with the idea of IQ (if you can’t measure intelligence, how can a genetic link be disproven?)  It then goes onto the much more comfortable territory of politics, noting the intellectual legacy of imperialism.  This emphasis seems to support Murray supporters’ self-image that they tackling a forbidden topic.  So does his effort to link politically incorrect development economists with John Derbyshire’s offensive writings on black people, which got him fired from National Review: “Derbyshire’s deserved disgrace is a needed reminder to throw brickbats at his partners in malodor who work in global development.”

When the FP writer does get around to making arguments, he challenges the claims of the authors of a book called IQ and the Wealth of Nations, that average IQ in Africa is around 70, pointing to small and unrepresentative samples.  He then criticizes the logic (but not the empirics) behind one other work.  And from that, and a lot of emotionalism, we are supposed to conclude that all of genetics-based development economics is flawed. 

How Beauchamp thinks any of this damns Murray’s book, which considerably predates the works criticized in Foreign Policy and thus could not have very well drawn on them, is unclear.  In fact, though, it actually turns rather dramatically against Beauchamp’s claim.  The FP writer points to education, health care, and nutritional differences as environmental factors explaining the IQ differences between countries, and argues that rapid improvements in IQ by some countries lends support to environmental explanations, but that those will go away and IQs will converge as countries get better in these regards.  He responds to the claim of a consensus that “general intelligence is largely hereditary” by saying “that consensus — to the very limited extent it is one — is based on studies within populations born to mothers who enjoyed health and good diets.” 

So to recap, environmental explanations explain intelligence differences between the U.S. and Congo.  (And can we then say those intelligence difference explain economic gaps?)  But the better you get at government and institutions, the more those environmental factors go away, and the more you’re left with genetic factors as the only source of remaining differences.  That sounds awfully like the thesis of a book by…Charles Murray.  Murray’s next step was to note that, as we extend equality of opportunity, people with better genes are likely to make it to the top, stratify, intermarry, etc.

This brings us to Beauchamp’s second explanation for conservatives’ writing about genetics and IQ: “a link between race and IQ moots the moral imperative for public policy aimed at addressing systemic poverty.”  Despite the reference to race, Murray’s arguments and Beauchamp’s attempts at arguments apply to all discussions of genetics and intelligence, not just those related to race. 

How does linking genetics and intelligence moot the moral imperative for fighting poverty?  According to Beauchamp, Murray opposes “essentially all policy interventions aimed at reducing economic inequality,” because “if some people are less intelligent than others…creating an economically more level playing field will only cause the most talented to rise to the top again.”  Actually, you should take out the “again”; a more level playing field will cause the most talented to rise to the top. 

Beauchamp conflates equal results (“policies aimed at reducing economic inequality”) with equal opportunities (“creating an economically more level playing field”) because, for him, everyone is equal in intelligence and in every other way, and so a true meritocracy would yield equal results.  Liberals and conservatives disagree about the nature of their economic disagreements, with conservatives taking the position that they favor equal opportunity whereas liberals favor equal results, and liberals heatedly denying this, saying that their favored policies are necessary to bring true equality of opportunity.  Yet the way liberals measure whether we have achieved justice is to see how much inequality there is- so that differences, between races or between individuals, are presented as evidence of inequality of opportunity.  Liberal notions of equal opportunity are thus difficult to distinguish in practice from equality of results.

If Murray believes there is a genetic component to IQ, that means he thinks equalizing environments will by definition increase the genetic basis for remaining IQ differences, and equalizing opportunities in other ways will insure that high-IQ people rise to the top.  Why would that be an argument against equalizing opportunity?  If making sure people have decent nutrition, health care and education won’t lead to equal outcomes, is that a reason not to do it?  If Murray is supposed to be writing on behalf of high-IQ people, then he should love equal opportunity and be a hard-core meritocrat?  If he is supposed to be arguing on behalf of privilege, why would he argue that the best rise to the top more as we take away privilege? 

Let’s look in more detail at Beauchamp’s claim that Murray uses race, genetics and IQ to oppose policies aimed at equalizing opportunity, and see just how dishonest Beauchamp is.  “Murray’s research focused more on the purported unintelligence of African-Ameicans, but his conclusions about its role in sustaining poverty were similar.  Murray has taken this conclusion and used it to argue against everything from affirmative action to essentially all policy interventions aimed at reducing economic inequality.”  The Murray article he links to has nothing to do with race.  It is long, but the relevant bit is the final paragraph, dealing with policy implications.  There is nothing in it that supports Beauchamp’s interpretation, unless you come in with some twisted ideas about what conservatives must be arguing.  Indeed Murray recognizes, unlike Beauchamp, that his arguments on their face do not automatically yield conservative policy conclusions.  Quite the opposite: “People of different political viewpoints may legitimately respond to this presentation with policy prescriptions that are in polar opposition.  In many ways, the Left has the easier task.  These data are tailor-made for the conclusion that a Rawlsian redistributive state is the only answer.” 

At least Beauchamp isn’t trying to pose as a disinterested truth-seeker.

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