Saturday, September 03, 2005

More on The Bell Curve

Commenters Leta and Dan provided some food for thought regarding my previous post on Intelligent Design and The Bell Curve. Dan thinks Bell Curve supporters are "mild" or "closet" racists:
..the vast majority of its supporters are those who have difficulty recognizing their own, more subtle racism before it allows them to accept the junk science.
I said "supporters of The Bell Curve probably fall into two categories: Racists and those who seek to understand the world better" but upon second thought I think he is right. The "open" racists are probably a relatively small group, while most supporters fit in his "have difficulty recognizing their own, more subtle racism" category. But I still maintain that some people (like me) want to recognize The Bell Curve as an important work in order to better understand the world.

There are, of course, many ways of recognizing somebody's work, and in my previous posts I didn't elaborate on why I "like" The Bell Curve. To be honest I never even read the whole book, I only read several excerpts back when it first came out. (I remember it well; I lived in New York City at the time and some newspaper ran several of the "juiciest" chapters.) Since then there has been extensive debate, Leta summarized it this way:
.. very few reputable scientists believe that the genetic component of our intelligence can be described by one single defined and measurable factor, as purported by the bell curve. There are also serious scientific flaws in the research used to develop the bell curve.
She then goes on to quote the late Stephen Jay Gould as saying:
The Bell Curve is scarcely an academic treatise in social theory and population genetics. It is a manifesto of conservative ideology; the book's inadequate and biased treatment of data display its primary purposeƂ—advocacy. The text evokes the dreary and scary drumbeat of claims associated with conservative think tanks: reduction or elimination of welfare, ending or sharply curtailing affirmative action in schools and workplaces, cutting back Head Start and other forms of preschool education, trimming programs for the slowest learners and applying those funds to the gifted. (I would love to see more attention paid to talented students, but not at this cruel price.)
I highly respect the work of Stephen Jay Gould, as a firm believer in Evolutionary Psychology I have come across several of his articles in the past. I was a bit surprised by his strong association of conservative propaganda and The Bell Curve, as the excerpts I read way back when did not evoke feelings of revolt in the same way that most of the stuff coming out of the Heritage Foundation does. But then again Murray hangs his hat at the American Enterprise Institute, so I'll gladly accept that Herrnstein and Murray had strong conservative leanings. So even if I didn't remember the book that way it seems clear that they wrote it partly in order to promote a conservative agenda.

But what I won't accept is that they wrote the book solely to advocate a conservative agenda, and this is why I stand by my previous posts and my recognition of The Bell Curve as an important contribution. The book is full of original scientific research (even if doubts have been raised about its quality), and I strongly get a sense that they want to make genuine (although perhaps biased) contributions to a scientific debate. Conservative hacks like Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity just don't in a style that has citations and intelligent prose like this, and neither do fundamentalist Christians pushing Intelligent Design. There were real insights in the book, or at least real arguments worth debating. As such it is not at all comparable with the ID debate. I have not seen a single argument for ID that has any scientific value whatsoever. Seasoned social scientists might say the same about The Bell Curve, although I doubt that, but even if they do there is one crucial difference: The Bell Curve raises one of modern America's taboo subjects.

This taboo is exactly why I think "real" (read "enlightenment" or "classical") liberals should resist the temptation to be Politically Correct and dismiss The Bell Curve as racist propaganda. If you truly believe that reason reigns supreme then you should strive to make your case in a way that emphasizes logical argument over name-calling. 11 years ago I watched a storm of reactions to The Bell Curve and most of them had no basis in reality. They were all motivated by sheer indignation over the fact that the subject matter was even being addressed.

Now, over the years I have learned that timing matters sometimes. My timing was definitely a bit off when a few days after 9/11 I told my NYC-resident wife-to-be (over the phone from Norway) that the attacks were "to be expected" given the history of US foreign policy in the Middle East. But we've since talked about it and reached a consensus. Sooner or later one needs to talk about things. Given the painful history of the civil rights movement in America I can understand why race and IQ is such a sensitive subject. But in the long run it needs to be discussed.

I don't pretend to have an answer to why jews do better in IQ tests and make more money than whites while blacks do worse and have less money. I don't know if all the causes are environmental or if some are genetic (such as the theory that jews in Europe were forced into professions that required higher intelligence). But I don't think there is hard evidence out there that completely refutes the possibility that circumstances which influence breeding decisions or child survival rates may have an impact. Although just as the distribution of other human qualities such as height may change in a given population over time I don't see any reason why a quality like average intelligence (or ability to take IQ exams, or both) couldn't change over time either.

In conclusion I guess my previous post wasn't so much about the actual scientific merits of The Bell Curve per se. Rather, I wanted to repeat an assertion that I've made several times before; that Political Correctness and liberalism should not go together.

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