Over the past five to ten years, many people have noticed increasing narrow-mindedness on much of the left. As always, the cost to suppressing ideas is to give up the intellectual high ground. For a long time, criticism of narrow-mindedness couldn’t penetrate the left-wing bubble (that’s the thing about bubbles.) It’s as if critics are trying to draw them into open intellectual combat, and they won’t take the bait. But they may be starting to wear down. Two of the latest entries in the endless series of efforts to debunk Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve indicate that some on the left feel the need to fight the stigma of dogmatism.
One appeared in Vox (https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/5/18/15655638/charles-murray-race-iq-sam-harris-science-free-speech.) The authors tried to push back on the notion that Murray’s work provokes “politically correct moral panic,” and that his conclusions are only disputed by those “afraid of the policy implications.” They conceded much of Murray’s case: yes, IQ is a meaningful measure of intelligence, yes, it is partly heritable, etc. They took refuge in a kind of “God of the gaps” argument: we don’t yet know particular genes for IQ! And don’t worry, we’re a long way from finding them! (So it appears progressives do after all need to be a bit afraid of the progress of knowledge…)
The Voxen gave us no real way to evaluate the claim about the likely future course of science. Serendipitously, the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/22/science/52-genes-human-intelligence.html) had an article just days later reporting work by scientists identifying 52 genes linked to intelligence. The Times reassured us that the genes “do not determine intelligence, their combined influence is miniscule, suggesting that thousands more are likely to be involved and still await discovery [uh oh!], and intelligence is profoundly shaped by environment.” However, the Times reported that the study is “a significant advance in the study of mental ability,” and “could make it possible to begin new experiments into the biological basis of reasoning and problem solving [red alert!]”)
My focus, though, is on the other article, in Current Affairs, by one Nathan Robinson (https://www.currentaffairs.org/2017/07/why-is-charles-murray-odious). Robinson acknowledges “Murray’s self-perception as a persecuted truth-teller, who uses real facts that the politically correct simply don’t want to hear, is reinforced by the fact that many people who hate him haven’t read his work. Press coverage of Murray has distorted his positions, and it’s frequently true that people label him a ‘white supremacist’ or ‘eugenicist’ without knowing what he actually says about race, genetics, and intelligence.
“Plenty of writings about Murray, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center’s long file on him, are sloppy or biased…Murray often gets the better of his opponents because they stretch the case aginst him beyond its limits, allowing him to correctly point out that they are misrepresenting him….
“Nor should Murray necessarily be called, as so many label him, a ‘pseudoscientist.’ His writings are above-average in their statistical scrupulousness, and he uses no less logical rigor than many highly qualified social scientists do. The problem is far less in his use of the scientific method than in his normative values and conceptions of the good, which affect the uses to which he puts his science.”
Okay, this sounds promising. He’s distinguishing fact from value. So it would seem we’re going to get an argument that Murray’s conclusions are wrong because he makes an error in moral reasoning somewhere along the way, not that his facts are wrong because our morality requires that they be wrong.
Robinson makes clear he is fine with the book’s thesis that our society is becoming stratified by IQ, fine with the claim that it is correlated with economic outcomes, and doesn’t object to the claim that “there are ethnic differences in IQ scores.”
But then the first of three objectionable claims he accuses Murray of making is that “black people tend to be dumber than white people.” Isn’t that a factual question? Well, it rests on the judgment that IQ is “IQ scores match whatever it is that people mean when they use the word intelligent or smart in ordinary language.” Robinson disputes without evidence, and without contesting Murray’s case that it is.
But is there a flawed moral theory involved here, even a racist one? Does Murray posit that intelligent people are of greater moral worth than dumb people? Robinson makes no effort to develop his argument. Obviously, the Vox writers, who acknowledge IQ as a measure of intelligence, are racist and morally odious according to Robinson’s argument.
Nevertheless, Robinson has to this point gone thousands of words into the piece behaving like an honest debater, one who is outlining a case for why Murray is wrong, not why he MUST be wrong. The reader at this point may have a false sense of security about his approach.
Because while he was supposedly okay with the correlation between income and IQ, now it turns out that he isn’t, if we are talking about racial gaps. “The central argument of The Bell Curve is that, given the structure of American society, IQ is a core determinant of where one will end up in life. When it comes to ethnicity, Murray and (coauthor) Hernestein use the fact that blacks, Latinos, and whites who have the same IQ scores will have roughly similar economic outcomes to argue that it is IQ differences, rather than racial oppression, that cause differences in those outcomes.” So it’s fine to talk about this thing as a general matter, but don’t touch race, because it will threaten Nathan Robinson’s preferred conclusions.
Then it’s back to intellectually honest Nathan Robinson: he suddenly acknowledges that Murray’s thesis about the role of IQ in contemporary society lends itself perfectly well to left-wing conclusions after all, and that Murray points this out. After all, why should the genetic lottery, rather than any life choices, determine how well-off someone is? Can we really have equal opportunity to succeed if that is the case?
So again, the thesis is fine, but not as applied to blacks. It may be that, in theory, you can make a fine redistributive case out of the IQ matter. Still, in reality, people aren’t likely to find that argument as compelling as one that appeals to the moral guilty over slavery and historic oppression of blacks, especially if it includes ongoing “institutional racism.” Because the IQ gap threatens to crowd out such explanations, it is morally repugnant. Or as Robinson puts it,
“The controversial aspect of The Bell Curve, then, is not its core thesis about IQ and class. Rather, it is that Murray and Hernnstein are contemptuous of the idea that racial oppression [plays] a significant role in American society.”
Robinson then goes on at length about slavery and Jim Crow to give his point maximal moral impact. Finally, he gets carried away and says that, given these disadvantages blacks face, Murray should have considered the hypothesis of “black genetic superiority,’ and the fact that he didn’t shows that he is racist. This despite having begun this portion of the argument by denouncing Murray for supporting genetic basis for IQ differences.
After taking care to appear rigorous in his treatment of The Bell Curve, Robinson becomes quite sloppy in his section on Human Accomplishment, Murray’s survey of great achievement in art and science. He apparently assumes we aren’t reading carefully and critically any longer. Sympathetic readers have already reassured themselves that Robinson, and they themselves, are rigorously engaging inconvenient ideas. So Robinson becomes lazy, and barely bothers to support his caricature of Murray’s position in Human Accomplishment with textual evidence from the book.
Robinson rejects (while caricaturing) Murray’s view that there is objective beauty or excellence in art. But it turns out that Robinson thinks these things exist every bit as much as Murray does, and in fact speaks Murray’s language in Human Accomplishment perfectly well:
“When we talk about black American music of the early 20th century, we are talking about one of the most astonishing periods of cultural accomplishment in the history of civilization. We are talking about an unparalleled record of invention, the creation of some of the most transcendently moving and original artistic material that has yet emerged from the human mind. The significance of this achievement cannot be overstated.” (Bolding mine.)
Robinson then returns to the Bell Curve, and gives up on subtlety altogether. He claims that Murray believes “We should restore the conception of equality held by the Founding Fathers, who thought black people were subhumans.” He bases this claim on the final chapter.
“Murray is right; people do get stuck on the ‘Ethnic Differences in Cognitive Ability’ chapter and neglect the rest of the book. It’s a shame, because the infamous chapter isn’t actually the worst chapter. The worst chapter is actually the last: ‘Chapter 22: A Place For Everyone.’”
That chapter notes the history of premodern thought, which assigned people to their places: “Society was to be ruled by the virtuous and wise few. The everyday business of the community fell to the less worthy multitude, with the most menial chores left to the slaves.” It then turns to modern thought, based on rights rather than duties. Locke and the American Founders, Murray and Hernstein explain, recognized natural intellectual differences among people but still held that all had equal rights. However, their concept was one of negative rights, as we would now say. The American Founders wanted a meritocratic “natural aristocracy” to rise. To summarize, “men were unqual in every respect except their right to advance their own interests.”
Murray and Hernstein advocate returning to this model of equal negative rights, and against the modern egalitarian tradition, which they argue underestimates the differences among people and requires extensive social control. Moreover, the leveling effect of egalitarianism eventually destroys concepts of virtue, excellence, beauty and truth. At a more concrete level, Murray and Hernstein advocate ways to allow everyone a “valued place,” defined as one where “other people would miss you if you were gone,” something he argues that low-IQ people once had but have lost.
Robinson instead claims that Murray and Hernstein advocate a neoreactionary return to the world of assigned place. He quotes their description of this premodern though, including the bit about society being ruled by the wise and virtuous few with menial chores left to slaves, out of context, indicating that it is what they are advocating. He makes no effort to describe their actual negative rights, meritocratic advocacy, but since Jefferson is among the thinkers whom Murray quotes, Robinson takes the opportunity to further link meritocracy with slavery.