Herrnstein, Richard J. and Charles Murray. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994).

July 27, 2007

The Bell Curve

“Lawyers, for example, have higher IQs on average than Bus Drivers.”

The Bell Curve is a mammoth study of the effects of intelligence on social trends. Herrnstein and Murray seek to show that intelligence is the relevent predictor for things such as socio-economic status and unemployment. They then use their study to propose public policy based on this information; they claim this with help to destratify the rising high IQ upper class from the low IQ underclass. They were able to get a lot of press for this massive book by including a completely irrelevant section on ethnicity and intelligence (I’ll bet you can guess what they said). It’s fascinating reading if you can stomach 600 pages of statistics laden writing. If your like me and can only cope with the most basic of math then it is a book that takes some amount of dedication, and in the end might not be worth the trouble.

Before I hit on the law, I’d like to try and come to grips with what I found to be the major flaw of the book. There is nothing new in this discussion, it has been rehashed much better elsewhere. I think that the authors make some basic assumptions in their work that can’t be justified, and this is one of the things that has made the text so controversial. They fail to take into account basic cultural things that I just can’t conclude (even after their extensive proofs) don’t come into play more. For example, they attempt to show that IQ is for the most part set at birth and is not effected by years of education. However, the flaw is that they treat all education as equal. The result is that they assume two people with high school diplomas are similarly situated. This just isn’t the case. My high school education from Thomson High School in Thomson, GA prepared me much better for the SAT (a test they specifically address) than say a student at M.S. Palmer High School in Marks, MS. It doesn’t have a thing to do with the intelligence or race of the students in Marks. It has everything to do with the amount of opportunity embodied in the two different school systems. In the same way they show that Asians have a higher IQ than whites, especially in the area of maths. However, the cultural background emphasizes math and that sort of thinking. Thus culturally math is taught (if you don’t believe me have a look at Chinese school children and their abacuses). I don’t dispute that some portion of IQ may be genetic, but the study seems lacking to show that it works to the extent the authors claim. It excludes that the brain tends to be a muscle that can be exercised and can be developed.

The author’s claim that the main purpose of their book is to address public policy concerns, so I’ll leave all the nature versus nurture talk to the pros. As this is a law blog I’m going to run down the policy that they suggest and its legal implications. For this purpose I’ll simply accept their assertions about intelligence and get to the meat of what they suggest, which I at times find more problematic than their genetics discussion.

First, I think it should be pointed out that the authors are quite naive when it comes to the results of what they suggest. Early on they give a brief summation of the ways in which IQ has been used in the past to disadvantage ethnic and racial minorities. These include immigration policies as well as sterilization laws that were passed in the early 20th century (see Buck v. Bell a 1927 case in which Oliver Wendell Holmes upheld sterilization laws: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough”). Thus the authors are certainly aware of the dangers that racial differentiation have proved to cause in the past. But later the authors, before giving their racial data, seem to be dismissive of the history of racism in the United States. They state, “We cannot think of a legitimate argument why any encounter between individual whites and blacks need be affected by the knowledge that an aggregate ethnic difference in measured intelligence is genetic instead of environmental.” It seems to me that a Havard professor and a Bradley Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute might realize that in the US (and the world in general) “legitimate arguments” aren’t often used to support racism. I agree that study of such things can be extremely important scientifically, but when they begin to base public policy around it, they tread on the exact ground that our forefathers did in cases like Buck v. Bell and risk retrograde motion in society’s achievements.

Their jumping off point for their public policy claim is employment law. They note that both Congress and the Supreme Court (Griggs v. Duke Power) have made it illegal to use intelligence testing in hiring practices, and that this costs the economy up to $80 billion a year. This is due to hiring inefficiencies, which they claim could be beat with an IQ test. I grant intelligence testing is an effective way of determining whether a candidate will be suitable for a job. However, as the authors pointed out early on, this tradition has a history of manipulation. Thus the Supreme Court held that a test should have to do with the skills involved on the job and not general intelligence. Herrnstein and Murray dispute this logic by claiming that general intelligence tests tend to predict job performance better. As you might guess affirmative action also draws their fire, and probably rightly so. They explain the convoluded system which is used to determine whether a business is discriminating or not. But they also forget to put the system in historical perspective, and that we are still feeling the effects socially and culturally of past racism. The systems heart is in the right place, its just an inefficient way of producing the correct results. Thus they point out that the Civil Rights Act did not create a sudden change in blacks being in jobs, but just because those jobs are open to blacks doen’t mean that Blacks have been trained for them. In 1965 education was so ineffective for minorities that the effect of affirmative action would be impossible to feel immediately. The program seeks long term results in changing trends of disadvantage among minorities, who are not as ingrained in the upper eschelons of culture. Thus, they propose a thought experiment in which if all employment laws were abolished would the reader begin to discriminate. Two problems with this experiment. First, they have numerous times pointed out that the average reader is probably well educated and most likely and academic, so no the average reader probably wouldn’t, but the reader isn’t the average American. Second, They have told us statistically that intelligence is the best predictor of job preformance and that statistically a white person is more likely to be the more intelligent person – but suddenly the reader isn’t supposed to use that information. It follows right along with their willing naiveite when looking at racial problems. Essentially, the authors choose to ignore a history of discrimination, which we still feel the effects of today. The government hasn’t fixed the problem, but there is something empty in the authors suggestion.

They also attack the education system. I love this boneheaded quote from way up in the Ivory Tower, “on the whole, America had already achieved enough objective equalization in its schools by 1964 so that it was hard to pick up any effects of unequal school quality.” It is amazing that the South, just integrated had suddenly reached school equality. There are still large portions of the Southeast where de facto segregation still occurs which robs public (black) schools of tax support, because property taxes are voted down while people send the extra money to support private (white) schools. I’m not suggesting that anything illegal is happening, but it seems to me that a declaration of school equality is a bit of a premature and that it occured in 1964 exhibits some sort of backward thinking. They point out the inefficiency of such acts as Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and project Head Start. But even these don’t seem to get the fairest of shakes. For example they discuss how Project Head start works in the short run, but not in the long run. They never address whether this could be a failing of the environmental parameters. A child with intelligent parents is in that environment all the time, a child that is in the Head Start program shows improvement, but when the program ends backslides. This says to me that thereis an advantage to a continuing nuturing and developmental environment. They also point out that there is a neglect of gifted children through funding, but thi seems bit problematic – if there are so few really gifted and their chances of success are already greater, then why spend extra money on them, especially since they are less likely to be a burden to society (wouldn’t this create more of the stratification they claim to oppose?). They suggest that as a solution that 1. the federal government should support programs that enable all parents to choose the school their child attends; 2. A federal prize scholarship program; 3. reallocate some portion of existing elementary and secondary school federal away from the disadvantaged and to the gifted. My main concern is their reliance on the federal system to effect change in state education systems. I’ll not deny some of these may be helpful, but the state system is where change should be made inorder that all children in that state (not just the ones who have parents with enough gumption to send them to a better school) get a better education.

They also investigate affirmative action in Higher Education. Specifically addressing affirmative action in Law Schools and the evidence that came out of Georgetown University by an impromptu study by law student Timothy MacGuire. I must say that I agree with their assertions on affirmative action. While, initially it was to correct racial abuses, it is now used to enrich university life. That being said it should be reformed so that universities “cast a wide net in seeking applicants.” Giving advantage to disadvantaged students, instead of race based advantages, which are becoming obselete in university systems.

While they seem to appeal to liberal ideas and reforms at some points, at others they take on extreme conservatism. It is like they are a wolf in sheeps clothing or a sheep in wolfs clothing. As a whole their public policy comes up short because it seems not to be a progressive thing as they claim, but instead it is an attempt for them to reclaim some sort of historical life style. They exhibit this throughout the book with simple things such as their attatchment to the term “illegitimate” when referring to children. They base this on anthropological work on primitive cultures. Or when they state that they would like to “return to a state of affairs that prevailed until the 1960s, when children born to singloe women . . . were more likely to be given up for adoption at birth.” Or there assertion that to stop children being born out of wedlock the goverment should give unmarried mothers no recourse to child support and unmarried fathers no recourse to visitation (because obviously the mother is always deserving of the child). It seems they want to have their cake and eat it, too. They talk big about a free society, but at the same time want to revert to a culturally oppressed one, in which the government may regulate less, but society still disadvantages and stigmitizes numerous people. The race implications of the book don’t help. They do have some good policy ideas, but being linked so inextricably to race soils them way too much. Basing any new policy on a study that says that blacks are dumber, no matter how effective the policy is unacceptable. They would probably claim that this isn’t their intention. In fact, they make claims about the fact that people won’t discriminate in light on this information, but they have presented no proof on that front. Racism isn’t as dead as they would have you believe; it is alive and well. Reading objectively, the case for the authors racism is in the book: the inclusion of the section on race and intelligence is irrelevant for proving the point they sought to prove. It was included to be inflamatory. Congrats.

A few other legal tidbits from the book that I might include. There is a bit of Ph.D. elitism going on: The authors mention, as advanced degrees Ph.D.s, M.D.s, and LL.B.s. Don’t they know that we lawyers get J.D.s these days or are they still holding a grudge that we get that Doctorate in three years? Later of course they do pay homage to the fact that lawyers can be of great worth (including those that never see the inside of a court room) by gaining favorable decisions or even through such things as jury selection. They also claim that attorneys are likely to be, on average, one standard deviation above the mean intelligence, but of course we already knew that. They claim that the destruction of the concept of negligence in tort law is based on the egalitarian principle that endorses the redistribution of goods to the underpriviledged. I would like to direct them to Torts I – Negligence. They suggest redoing the criminal law system to make it simpler (against dumbing dowm school books, but for dumbing down the law), they completely overlook why the system is complex in the first place: Justice isn’t easy.

Richard J Herrnstein
Charles Murray

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