"You Have To Tell The Truth"—The Bell Curve After Ten Years

[See also: The Bell Curve, Ten Years After: It Tolls For Us, by Peter Brimelow]

The publication of The Bell Curve Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life by the late Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray in October 1994 was one of the pivotal events of the last decade. Along with the furious backlash, it permanently changed political movements such as neoliberalism and neoconservatism—not, alas, for the better.

Here are ten points about The Bell Curve that remain important today.

1.  How in the world did an 845-page book of social science statistics—including 94 quantitative graphs, 109 pages of notes, and a 58-page bibliography—sell more than 400,000 copies?

(Conversely, how in the world is this massive bestseller out of print today?)

The usual answer: "controversy." But controversial books are more likely to be squelched than flourish, as the sad fate of the other outstanding IQ books of the Nineties showed.

For example, Dan Seligman's 1992 A Question of Intelligence, which remains the best quick introduction to IQ, got a snippy two-paragraph review in the New York Times. (Here is Herrnstein's review in the old, pre-purge National Review.)

Similarly, the two books both entitled The g Factor that were written in the later 1990s barely saw the light of day. Arthur Jensen's monumental summary of 30 years of research ended up at a mail order publishing house. (Here's my review, which the post-purge National Review commissioned in 1998, but then turned down.)

Meanwhile, Chris Brand's suavely philosophical The g Factor was actually yanked from store shelves by its publisher, John Wiley & Co., only a couple of weeks after its release following an indiscreet but irrelevant interview Brand gave a newspaper. (You can download Brand's book here.)

But rereading The Bell Curve, it's easy to see one reason it broke through: it's a model of how a serious nonfiction book ought to look and read.

The ubiquitous charts are elegantly uncluttered, yet get the story across lucidly, using only black, white and shades of gray. Even the text looks more inviting than usual because a tiny extra amount of leading was inserted between the lines. And the prose style is vivid yet calm, direct yet judicious. As Murray commented shrewdly:

"The descriptions of The Bell Curve as an angry, racist polemic have led people in bookstores to pick it up to see what the fuss is about. The pages to which they turn are nothing like what they expect, their curiosity is piqued, and some of them buy it."

2.  The admirable moral character displayed by The Bell Curve authors.

Humble, endlessly curious, honest, and large-hearted…the contrast between them and their critics—so many of them pompous, vicious, slanderous, and small—is overwhelming.

3.  The powerful content of The Bell Curve.  

This falls into two categories. The first is a far-ranging survey of what had previously been discovered about cognitive testing, citing over 1,000 sources in a massive bibliography. The second was new: an analysis of the lives of a nationally-representative sample of about 12,000 young people a decade after the military had paid them in 1980 to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery [ASVAB]. Four of the ten subtests within the ASVAB comprise the IQ test that the military requires all applicants for enlistment to take—the Armed Forces Qualification Test.

The AFQT hadn't been renormed against the civilian population since 1944, so in 1980 the military hired the academics who had set up the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) the year before to give their enormous sample the AFQT.

When reinterviewed a decade later in 1990, the test-takers were now 25-33 years old. This allowed to Herrnstein and Murray to see how well their youthful IQs predicted their status as adults.

(Can't accept the results Herrnstein and Murray got? Download their data from this page maintained by Prof. Eric Rasmusen of Indiana U. and crunch the numbers yourself.)

It's constantly said in the Establishment Media that IQ and IQ tests have been "discredited." But the institution that has studied IQ testing in the greatest detail over the last 87 years—the U.S. military—remains utterly devoted to the value of cognitive tests. The Department of Defense says "AFQT scores are the primary measure of recruit potential."

Because the military spends billions to get high quality recruits, the average IQ of enlisted personnel is much higher than many civilians expect. About two thirds of enlisted men and women have IQs above the national average. Almost no recruits (1.1%) fall below the 30th percentile in IQ.

Did the violent denunciations of the book that was, after all, based on the military's test cause it to, well, rethink its use of IQ testing?

Absolutely not.

4. Contrary to the detractors' myth, relatively little of The Bell Curve concerns race.

The first 126 pages described "the emergence of a cognitive elite" via the higher education system. The heart of the book is the next 142 pages on "cognitive classes and social behavior," which examines the impact of IQ on poverty, schooling, unemployment, family, crime, and so forth. Here, Herrnstein and Murray looked only at data drawn from non-Hispanic whites—to avoid confusing the effect of IQ with that of race.

Then, from p. 269 to p. 315, comes the much-denounced Chapter 13 on "Ethnic Differences in Cognitive Ability." Murray and Herrnstein carefully step through the evidence, pro and con, and reach the following judicious conclusion:

"If the reader is now convinced that either the genetic or environmental explanation has won out to the exclusion of the other, we have not done a sufficiently good job of presenting one side or the other. It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences. What might the mix be? We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not yet justify an estimate."

That's it—the conclusion to the chapter that launched a thousand screeds. Not surprisingly, it's almost never quoted. Try looking for parts of it in Google. Herrnstein and Murray's critics prefer to denounce straw persons.

5.  Herrnstein and Murray were right, dammit.

My friend Gregory Cochran, the physicist turned evolutionary biologist, likes to ask about controversial ideas, "Well, if it were true, how would the world look different from what we see around us?" The short answer for The Bell Curve: the world portrayed in the book is the world we live in to within a rounding error.

6. The Bell Curve marked the climax of first-generation neoconservatism.

Today, of course, neoconservatism means messianic Invade-the-World-Invite-the-World immigration and foreign policies. But for its first three decades, beginning with the founding of The Public Interest journal in 1965 by Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell, neoconservatism meant intensely quantitative social science research that cast doubt on liberal pieties about race and ethnicity.

Landmarks in the evolution of this long-lost form of neoconservatism: the 1965 report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan raising the alarm that the illegitimacy rate among blacks had reached 22 percent (it's now triple that); James Q. Wilson's 1975 book Thinking About Crime, which introduced the commonsensical solution that finally quelled the long crime wave of 1961-1995. (Lock up more criminals for longer, because they can't victimize the public when they're in prison.)

Charles Murray was at the neoconservative Manhattan Institute when he became interested in researching IQ. The Manhattan Institute dropped him like a hot potato. But he was immediately picked by the neocon American Enterprise Institute.

The Bell Curve was the crowning achievement of 30 years of neoconservative analysis … and, as we'll see below, its death blow.

7. The backlash to The Bell Curve was the most unhinged in recent intellectual history.

As Cochran says: "Nobody ever gets that really mad at somebody unless they are telling the truth."

The hysteria began among the "neoliberals" at The New Republic. Neoliberals are, more or less, neoconservatives who continue to vote Democratic. Neoliberalism doesn't much exist outside of journalism, but a neoliberal pundit can carve out an influential career starting at the Washington Monthly, moving up to The New Republic and Slate, and finally making some decent money at Newsweek and the Washington Post.

The New Republic's then editor, Andrew Sullivan, invited Herrnstein and Murray to introduce The Bell Curve in an 11-page cover story entitled "Race and IQ" in the October 31, 1994 issue. Sullivan's staff, however, rebelled at the very thought that such a vile essay would desecrate the pages of their magazine.

Why this berserk response? My theory: Honest talk about IQ exposes some deeply personal inconsistencies among our most influential thinkers. The typical white intellectual claims he wants to censor discussion of IQ to shield black self-esteem, but his reactions reveal that he finds it a peril to his own. Secretly, he considers himself superior to ordinary white people for two contradictory reasons: a] he constantly proclaims belief in human equality, but they don't; b] he has a high IQ, but they don't.

To maintain peace, Sullivan printed 17 almost uniformly ill-informed replies. Only owner Martin Peretz's was cautiously positive.

In National Review's December 5, 1994 symposium on The Bell Curve, Dan Seligman lamented:

"A howling mob of liberal commentators not knowing what in hell they are talking about is a dispiriting spectacle, and media reaction to the Herrnstein—Murray book has been infinitely depressing. I cannot remember any other work of scholarship, in any field at all, that has been assailed so cavalierly by writers ignorant of the material and manifestly unconcerned about accurately representing its ideas.

"I used to think that Mickey Kaus was a smart and serious guy. But there he was in The New Republic, attacking the authors for resisting 'a near-avalanche of evidence that the black-white difference in IQ is a function of environment rather than heredity.' The avalanche cited by Kaus consists of studies he apparently learned about from The Bell Curve itself. Its authors judiciously lead readers through a wide range of studies, some consistent with a purely environmental explanation of racial IQ differences, some powerfully suggesting that environment alone cannot explain them all. Kaus points to several studies in the former group, dismissively mentions one in the latter group, and ignores the survey data cited by Herrnstein and Murray, which tell us that expert opinion is strongly tilted toward some genetic contribution to the gap."

Not terribly long after, Peretz fired Sullivan—in part, reportedly, because TNR's staff never forgave Sullivan for publishing Herrnstein and Murray.

The New Republic, and neoliberalism in general, has not recovered its intellectual heft. Neoliberalism degenerated into high-IQ snarkiness—fast brain-food for smart people with short attention spans, exemplified by the Michael Kinsley-edited Slate, where Mickey is now the star blogger.

8. The neocons' slow distancing of themselves from The Bell Curve marked the death of neoconservatism as a serious intellectual movement.

Initially, neoconservatives rallied bravely to The Bell Curve's defense. Ten years later, their comments are surprising to read.

James Q. Wilson defended the book staunchly. (Unusually, Wilson has never backtracked about the importance of IQ—he wanted me to write an article on it for The Public Interest in 2000, but Nathan Glazer vetoed my proposal. That became instead the five part VDARE.COM series called "How to Help the Left Half of the Bell Curve.")

Murray's AEI colleague Michael Ledeen also added (rightly): "Never has such a moderate book attracted such an immoderate response." Another AEI colleague, Michael Novak, also praised it.

And Michael Barone even wrote in NR:

"Perhaps because I'm congenitally optimistic, I think The Bell Curve's message is already widely understood, by the American people if not by the elite. Ordinary citizens know that some people are in significant ways more intelligent than others, that only a relative few are extremely bright or extremely dull, and that intelligence bunches up at the center. They know that intelligence is not randomly distributed among members of different identifiable racial and ethnic groups. These are lessons that are taught in everyday life, and you have to undergo a pretty sophisticated indoctrination and enlist in a tightly disciplined ideological army to believe otherwise."

Commentary magazine, the neocon bible, printed Murray's long reply to his book's critics in the May 1995 issue, and his extensive response to letter writers in the August 1995 issue.

But then the neocons, perhaps worn down by the constant slinging about of the terrifying R-word, lost heart.

Barone has long since abandoned all mention of IQ. Seligman does continue to write for Commentary, but the magazine has grown so hostile to Murray that, when his intensely quantitative Human Accomplishment came out last year, it assigned the completely innumerate Terry Teachout to review it. He produced a predictably bad notice. (Here's my review and here's John Derbyshire's.) And Commentary managing editor Gary Rosen panned Human Accomplishment in the Wall Street Journal. 

After the Bell Curve wars, neoconservatism has become increasingly anti-quantitative and pro-ideological. On issues like university quotas, you no longer see quantitative research from neocons—just repeated affirmations of the principle of colorblindness.

Quantitative research quickly leads to the Bell Curve gap. And that's now a no-go zone.

Today, Abigail and Stefan Thernstrom are the neocons' designated authorities on racial differences in educational achievement. They frantically attempt to ignore the IQ elephant in the living room.

In neoconservatism's post-Bell Curve atmosphere of anti-realism, enthusiasm mounted for utopian schemes to remodel the Middle East using the U.S. military as a hammer. The disastrous results are today visible to all.

9. What has Murray found on IQ since The Bell Curve?

I'm aware of two further studies Murray did on the NLSY database:

Murray described his findings in the Sunday Times of London in 1997:

"Each pair consists of one sibling with an IQ in the normal range of 90-110, a range that includes 50% of the population. I will call this group the normals. The second sibling in each pair had an IQ either higher than 110, putting him in the top quartile of intelligence (the brights) or lower than 90, putting him in the bottom quartile (the dulls). These constraints produced a sample of 710 pairs. How much difference did IQ make? Earned income is a good place to begin. In 1993, when we took our most recent look at them, members of the sample were aged 28-36. That year, the bright siblings earned almost double the average of the dull: £22,400 compared to £11,800. The normals were in the middle, averaging £16,800. "[IQ Will Put You In Your Place, Charles Murray, Sunday Times, UK, Day 25, 1997]

These earnings gaps are likely to widen with age, as the blue-collar workers' bodies wear out and therefore their incomes stagnate or fall.

Within families, parents do a better job of equalizing children's environments than any government less tyrannical than the Khmer Rouge could accomplish.

Yet, even with the same upbringing, IQ differences are both substantial and play a huge role in the kids' prosperity as adults.

  • Second, Murray's 1999 attempt to see if the Flynn Effect —the multi-decade upward drift in raw IQ scores—was leading to a convergence of black and white IQs.

Murray was able to do this because, by the 1996 wave of NLSY interviews, over 6,000 children of the females in the sample had given birth to children who had been tested on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary IQ test.

Murray reported:

"In the two generations of the NLSY, no convergence has occurred. The BW [black-white] difference on a highly g-loaded cognitive test for the 1st generation of the NLSY, born from 1957–64, was 16.6 points, amounting to 1.24 SDs relative to the black and white distributions. For the 2nd generation, born primarily in the 1980s, the difference on a widely used test of verbal cognitive ability was 17.8 points, or 1.26 SDs. The estimated magnitude of the BW difference in the 2nd generation is robust, surviving a variety of hypotheses about possible sources of attenuation."

So, despite the Flynn effect, the black-white IQ gap was almost exactly the same from the first generation to the next.

10. Dick Herrnstein was a great man and his death a great tragedy.

Herrnstein [click here for Peter Brimelow's interview with him] died in September 1994, just before publication of The Bell Curve. Murray told this story in his obituary for National Review—which can also serve as the last word (for now) on The Bell Curve Wars:

"About four years ago, shortly after Dick and I had begun to collaborate on a new book about intelligence and social policy, we were talking over a late-evening Scotch at his home in Belmont, Mass. We had been musing about the warning shots the prospective book had already drawn and the heavy fire that was sure to come. The conversation began to depress me, and I said, 'Why the hell are we doing this, anyway?'

"Dick recalled the day when, as a young man, he had been awarded tenure. It was his dream fulfilled—a place in the university he so loved, the chance to follow his research wherever it took him, economic security. For Dick, being a tenured professor at Harvard was not just the perfect job, but the perfect way to live his life.

"It was too good to be true; there had to be a catch. What's my part of the bargain? he had asked himself.

"'And I figured it out,' he said, looking at me with that benign, gentle half-smile of his. 'You have to tell the truth.'

"There was no self-congratulation in his voice, just an answer to my question."

[Steve Sailer [email him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog.]