EDUCATION POLICY ANALYSIS ARCHIVES Volume 3 Number 2 ISSN 1068-2341 February 3, 1995 (800
EDUCATION POLICY ANALYSIS ARCHIVES
Volume 3 Number 2 ISSN 1068-2341
February 3, 1995 (800 lines)
A peer-reviewed scholarly electronic journal
operating as a LISTSERV under the name
EDPLOYAR at ASUACAD.BITNET (Internet address:
ASUVM.INRE.ASU.EDU). Editor: Gene V Glass,
Glass@ASU.EDU. College of Education,
Arizona State University,Tempe AZ 85287-2411
Book Review Editor: Walter E. Shepherd
EPAA is gophered at INFO.ASU.EDU in the sub-
directory CAMPUS-WIDE INFORMATION. WWW URL:
Copyright 1995, the EDUCATION POLICY ANALYSIS
ARCHIVES.Permission is hereby granted to copy
any article provided that EDU POLICY ANALYSIS
ARCHIVES is credited and copies are not sold.
Race, Intelligence and Ideology
A Review Essay of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's
The Bell Curve: Class Structure and the Future of
America. New York: The Free Press. 1994. $30.00
John C. Culbertson
University of Kansas
Occasionally a book out of academia will break from
scholarly circles and enter into the mainstream market. On even
rarer occasions, it will gain considerable notoriety before its
initial publication. Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The
Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life is
such a book. Currently, it has entered the New York Times best-
sellers list and appeared in most academic and mainstream
periodical book reviews. Direct publicity for the book has also
been strong. Although Herrnstein died September 24 of the past
year, Murray has appeared on many popular television and radio
Since so much has already been written and said about this
book, it would seem redundant to give merely a brief review of the
work. Ironically, with so much being said about its content and
implications, very little depth has been offered regarding the
fundamental presuppositions and implications that the study
When examining the findings of Herrnstein and Murray, an
obvious question arises: What are the scientific merits of their
discoveries? From this question, two elements will be analyzed in
this essay: (1) the notion of race as a legitimate category; and
(2) intelligence as an understandable phenomenon. If the
scientific status of these elements is clearly discreditable,
another question arises: What is the ideological purpose of such a
study? As a conclusion, I will offer some final thoughts relevant
to the book as a whole.
It should be understood that the entire book is not
dedicated to ethnicity and intelligence. The latter half of the
book addresses this notion, but the first half outlines the basis
of an emerging cognitive elite among white America and how that
has contributed to the separation of the cognitive classes. The
last two chapters (around 20 pages) set the ideology to solving
the problems that are recognized in the study.
It is also interesting how Herrnstein and Murray respond
to criticism of incoherence and contradictions of their work. On
recent radio and television talk shows Murray has stated that it
is unimportant if the cause of lower IQ's originates from cultural
suppression or genetic endowment. This logically tautological
stance undermines the fundamental question at hand, but at the
same time (unintentionally?) exposes the main ideological purposes
of the book. It should also be noted that Herrnstein and Murray
seem to acknowledge their particular ideological scheme and state
many times in the book that their conjectures (and even scientific
evidence) are not written in stone.
With 552 pages of text, 110 pages of appendices, 168 pages
of notes and a 57 page bibliography, The Bell Curve does not make
for leisurely reading, as one might have expected from its
popularity. But, even with its length, the book is well written
and appropriately organized, with one appendix completely
dedicated to those who do not thoroughly understand the
sophistication of statistical measurement (entitled Statistics for
People Who Are Sure They Cant Learn Statistics). The grammatical
style of the book also suggests that Herrnstein and Murray had the
mainstream market in mind; sentences are short and simple.
Race, Intelligence and Ideology
The category of racial separation has a peculiar history.
The ancient Athenians considered anyone who could not speak Greek
an inferior barbarian. Even the advanced civilizations found in
Egypt and Persia were thought of as inferior for their lack of
Greek ideals, education and culture. Similar conjectures were
fabricated by the Romans regarding the Goths, Vandals and Huns.
During the 18th and early 19th century, it was common for
Europeans to refer to racial disunion in relation to geographic
locality, (e.g., British race, French race, etc). Over 100
years ago the "Chinaman" was described by Westerners as an
inferior race (Clairmonte, 1970). Arthur de Gobineau published
The Inequality of Human Races in 1853, which asserted that the
Aryan race is the derivative of civilized man and the purity of
the race can only be preserved if the blood of Aryans is
maintained. Similar notions were expressed by Houston Chamberlain
of Germany in the 1913 work, Foundations of the Nineteenth
Century. The measurement of intelligence has also had a peculiar
history ranging from the number of bumps on the head to the volume
of the cranium (Gould, 1981).
Ideas like these are clearly devoid of any scientific
value, and most people today give them very little consideration.
But even with this understanding, the notion of race is still
conventionally recognized as a legitimate category. In their
hypothesis of differentiating innate structures in intelligence as
represented by race, Murray and Herrnstein propose a stance
similar to the speculations expressed above, but now such
statements are supported through the justification of "scientific
proof." Given the polemic nature of such a study and its
purported findings, the responses to the work have been mixed.
Some condemn Murray and Herrnstein for being blatant racists with
no regard for the legitimate canons of scientific method. Others
have criticized the conclusions, but support such research in the
name of academic freedom. With the prominence that scientific
inquiry holds in this age, a thorough investigation into the
scientific merit of The Bell Curve is in order. A clear place to
begin is with the category of race and the phenomenon of
intelligence itself. What has been scientifically demonstrated or
even plausibly argued in this respect?
Herrnstein and Murray do not consistently use the term
"race." Due to its pejorative connotations they intermittently
employ the word "ethnicity." Likewise, the phenomenon of
intelligence carries with it "undue affect and political baggage"
(p. 22). Subsequently, "we shall employ the more neutral term
cognitive ability" (p. 22). With little supporting argument, they
declare that the category of ethnicity is legitimate and valid.
It is appropriate, by the fact that, clearly, "There are
differences between races, and they [the differences] are the
rule, not the exception" (p. 272). Put simply, "Races are by
definition groups of people who differ in characteristic ways" (p.
272). They also state, that "The rule we follow here is to
classify people according to the way they classify themselves" (p.
Regarding the nature of cognitive ability, "we will be
drawing heavily from the classical tradition" (p. 19). The
classicists "seek to identify the components of intelligence much
as physicists seek to identify the structure of the atom" (p. 14).
The classicists are for practical purposes unanimous in
accepting that G [general factor of intelligence] sit at the
center of the structure in a dominating position-not just as
an artifact of statistical manipulation but as an expression
of a core human mental ability. (p. 14)
The notion of G was invented by Charles Spearman, a
British Army officer and statistician whose research was conducted
during the early part of this century (Spearman, 1904). A
fundamental conclusion regarding the classical tradition claims
that, "All standardized tests of academic aptitude or achievement
measure this general factor to some degree, but IQ tests expressly
designed for that purpose measure it more accurately" (p. 22).
Questions regarding cognitive ability in relation to ethnic
differences are justified because, basically "race is on peoples
minds when they think about IQ" (p. 272), regardless of what the
"intellectual elite" purport (pp. 11-13).
Intellectual fashion has dictated that all differences [in
intelligence] must be denied except the absolutely undeniable
differences in appearance, but nothing in biology says this
should be so. (p. 272)
Furthermore, "We are worried that the elite wisdom on this issue,
for years almost hysterically in denial about that possibility
[the genetic factor], will snap too far in the other direction"
(p. 315). It is a fact, Herrnstein and Murray assert, that, "IQ
is substantially heritable" (p. 105). They claim that it is also
certain that "Races differ not just in average IQ scores but in
the profile of intellectual capacities, (as represented by the
aggregate of many sub-tests)" (p. 299). There are several factors
that support this notion even though it is not going to be learned
"tomorrow that all the cognitive differences between races are 100
percent genetic in origin" (p. 315).
Social problems are thus prevalent among people who have
low cognitive abilities. Poverty, school dropout, unemployment,
crime, welfare, illegitimacy, single-parent families, low birth-
weight babies and deprived home environments are inevitable
consequences of a growing lower cognitive class (pp. 369-386 &
523-526). Solutions to crime and welfare "must be judged by their
effectiveness with the people most likely to exhibit the problem:
The least intelligent people" (p. 386).
From this loosely knit rationale, Herrnstein and Murray
conclude that members of the "cognitive elite class, who measure
in the top percentiles of cognitive ability, are thus becoming
increasingly isolated" and "a deteriorating quality of life for
people at the bottom end of the cognitive ability distribution has
occurred over the better portion of this century" (p. 50). "How
should policy deal with the twin realities that people differ in
intelligence for reasons that are not their fault, and that
intelligence has a powerful bearing on how well people do in
life?" (p. 527).
Declarations of the kind expressed above fall into two
general types. The first deal with what has been discovered
concerning the scientific legitimacy of the category of race. The
second address the phenomenon of intelligence and the possibility
of both measuring it validly and of relating it to race. Within
both of these types of assertions, the expected social results
(i.e., the social ills caused by a growing ethnic group of low
cognitive ability) are also addressed, along with an ideology for
solutions to these problems.
The Category of Race
Clearly, statements of the first kind can be judged by
scientific evidence or rational arguments. Murray and Herrnstein,
however, offer no evidence and only an unclear rationale for
employing the category. Without justification they dogmatically
adopt the category along with its dubious history outlined above.
Furthermore, as it will become clear with more specific
illustrations, any attempt to unpack the concept of racial
distinction turns into incoherence and equivocation.
The specific claim of dividing people up by physical
characteristics is utterly ambiguous. Are Herrnstein and Murray
saying that the pigmentation of skin and facial structure are
clear and distinct demarcations? If this is the case, then their
"rule" can be rejected on the grounds of pure dogmatism. As
geneticists have consistently demonstrated, there are no
significant differences between the gene pools of "races" as we
currently define them. To say that there is one sub-species or
group that is more "intelligent" than another based merely on the
phenotype simply does not make sense in the light of the current
theories (Raven and Johnson, 1988). In fact, a greater variation
in the genotype occurs between individuals of the same race (e.g.,
Europeans) than between the people of differing races (e.g.,
European "white" and "African black").
There simply are no solid theories, or consistent
arguments regarding the legitimacy of the category of race in
connection with intelligence. It seems absurd to base an entire
study on a phenomenon that is empty of theory and argument.
Perhaps Herrnstein and Murray are suggesting that skin
pigmentation and facial structure are such obvious
characterizations that they cannot be overlooked. If so, then
other attributes cannot be overlooked either, such as height and
intelligence, eye color and intelligence, weight and intelligence,
and virtually every other trivial way we can classify by physical
characteristics. No one would take seriously a study that
proposed a causal correlation between eye color and intelligence,
but people do take race and intelligence seriously, because we
unfortunately live in a society that heavily discriminates against
If the rationales that Herrnstein and Murray offer are
scientifically pretentious, they are also disingenuous in their
assertion that they are dividing people up as people wish to be
divided up. This notion also is devoid of any scientific or
argumentative merit. Arguing that a notion is valid because the
majority of the people believe it is plainly fallacious. People
are divided up the way they are because they are required to fill
in a questionnaire that asks for "race" or "ethnicity," and which
lists the classifications from which to choose.
Herrnstein and Murray concede that they focus "on three
major racial-ethnic groupings--whites, East Asians, and blacks--
because they have dominated both the research and contentions
regarding intelligence" (p. 275). But for their argument to have
any merit, they must show that there is a scientific basis for the
classification as represented by the authorities in the field.
Surely they are not contending that psychometricians are
authorities in genetic biology.
Herrnstein and Murray are completely unclear with
statements like, "race differences are varied and complex, and
they make the human species more adaptable and more interesting"
(p. 272), and then state that, "Jews--specifically, Ashkenazi Jews
of European origins--test higher than any other ethnic group"
(p.275). This sounds very much like the voice of 18th and 19th
century racism, dividing people up according to geographic
location. Are Herrnstein and Murray claiming that Ashkenazi Jews
of European origin are a clear and distinct race, separate from
other Jewish people? Specificity of this nature can easily be
reduced to nonsense, (e.g., Might not Italians--specifically,
Brooklyn Italians of New York origin--test higher than any other
ethnic group?) Surely, with the statements above, Herrnstein and
Murray are referring to the varied cultural differences that make
the human species more interesting, not the fact that one group of
people has more or less melanin than the other. But such comments
are so vague that it is unclear if their assertions about
ethnicity and intelligence amount to anything at all.
Consider, for example, their admission that "the
differences [in cognitive ability] among individuals are far
greater than the differences between groups" (p. 271). This is
true whether or not ethnicity is treated as a category. As
Herrnstein and Murray point out, in largely homogenous societies,
there are still differences in cognitive abilities. Those
differences could, with a certain degree of validity, randomly
correlate with some other arbitrary physical characteristic.
Furthermore, the average IQ of people within a certain ethnic
category is logically unrelated to the contingencies of a
particular individual. So the question remains: Why the category
To try and hedge this answer, as Herrnstein and Murray do,
is unworthy. A distinct element in our empirical understanding of
the world involves dividing phenomena into categories. Since
different cultures and groups of people see the world differently,
and subsequently, divide the world into different categories, the
question of methodological objectivity arises in relation to the
category of race or anything else. Many of these divisions and the
language employed rest on the engraved conventions of the past as
is the case with race, and it is unlikely that they will change
quickly (this seems to be where Herrnstein and Murray find their
justification). The notion seems to be an historical malady to be
overcome in the same way slavery was eliminated. Much has been
written on this topic in feminist epistemology in attempts to
understand the bias of one's conceptual scheme with respect to
objectivity in scientific understanding (Antony, 1993). I won't
recount the argument here, but the consequences of the notion of
race are sadly unjust and closely related to what feminist
epistemology is addressing.
We are constantly bombarded with applications of the
category of race without justification or rationale, especially in
studies of crime and anti-social behavior (another main theme of
The Bell Curve). Even if one accepts the position presented in
this book (i.e., that certain ethnic groups are not as intelligent
as others), Herrnstein and Murray concede that "the increase in
crime over the last thirty years (like the increase in
illegitimacy and welfare) cannot be attributed to changes in
intelligence but rather must be blamed on other factors" (p. 251).
In the news we find lead stories like, "Two black youths
were arrested today..." or "An Hispanic was charged with murder in
the slaying of a white youth." Not only are these depictions
unfair to the entire group of blacks or Hispanics, who are
undeservedly associated with the one individual committing the
crime, but they are also unfair to the other ethnic groups. Used
in that way, race becomes a way to tell the criminals from the
victims. As has been widely reported, many Caucasians feel unsafe
in the presence of a black or Hispanic man. Is this caused by
some genetic ethnophobia? Surely not, especially since very young
children often pay no attention at all to race. We live in a
culture that presupposes race as a legitimate category producing
social consequences that are plainly unfair. This is even more
evident when it includes the notion of inferiority.
The presuppositions in The Bell Curve remind us that
America is a racially separated nation, with the major distinction
being drawn between European-Americans and African-Americans.
Herrnstein and Murray are correct when they say, "the politics of
cognitive inequality get hotter--sometimes too hot to handle--when
they are attached to the politics of ethnicity" (p. 271). As many
are trying to come to grips with this country's history of
oppression, we are constantly reminded that the scientifically
empty category of race is still one of the most prominent forces
in the country.
The Phenomenon of Intelligence
The phenomenon of intelligence, like the category of race,
is an equally obscure amalgam of complex properties, which
dissolves into triviality and incoherence under examination. The
tests used as tools for predictor values fail at most levels,
except perhaps at measuring the ability to take tests well.
Admittedly, Herrnstein and Murray state that measuring
intelligence is a troublesome task, but one that has produced a
great amount of knowledge regarding the phenomenon. "The
individual's IQ score all by itself is a useful tool but a limited
one" (p. 19).
As for their claim that the "classicist" psychometricians
are similar to physicists in their approach, this seems greatly to
broaden the scope of what scientific methodology entails.
With regards to the radicals and the theory of multiple
intelligences, we share some common ground. Socially
significant individual differences induce a wide range of
human talents that do not fit within the classical
conception of intelligence. (p. 20)
"When properly administered the tests are not measurably
biased against socioeconomic, ethnic, or racial subgroups. They
predict a wide variety of socially acceptable important outcomes"
(p. 15). For Herrnstein and Murray to take a socially derived
definition of intelligence and make mostly biological statements
about behavior is just as misleading as their approach to
ethnicity. Clearly a socially derived concept can be a universal
generality, but not necessarily a product of genetic structure.
In some instances, Hernnstein and Murray base their
argument not on the weight of evidence in favor of it, but on what
they claim is the absence of evidence against it--as though the
failure to disprove the existence of unicorns establishes their
existence. But the current failure to refute radical genetic
determinism does not mean that it is necessarily true. The same
holds for their use on the concept of G, general intelligence, on
which their whole argument rests heavily. In the 845 page book,
fewer than 50 pages are dedicated to G, and of those pages, only a
few attempt to establish its existence. "From the classical
traditions that are by now beyond significant technical dispute,
there is such a thing as a general factor of cognitive ability on
which human beings differ" (p. 22). The fallacy here is that the
"experts" used to justify the notion of G are the same scholars
who support the classical tradition. Hernnstein and Murray's
reliance on G lacks rational justification and their affinity for
it has more to do with legitimizing their conclusions than the
conclusions being legitimized by the evidence.
"High cognitive ability as of the 1990s means, more than
ever before, that the chances of success in life are good and
getting better all the time, and these are decreasingly affected
by the social environment, which by extension indicates that they
must be increasingly affected by genes" (pp. 109-110). This is a
rather simplistic analysis, and as mentioned above, to be
reductive with the phenomena of intelligence, behavior and its
possible biological implications is simply fallacious.
Herrnstein and Murray's initial approach to intelligence
is also odd. Usually, physicists start with an accepted working
hypothesis that explains some phenomenon. An accepted
hypothetical/theoretical base explaining the structures of what
intelligence is has not been provided. IQ is arbitrarily defined
by IQ tests, which were designed by compiling what the test makers
think intelligent people are likely to know.
Herrnstein and Murray concede this problem and give an
excellent example of the built-in bias that IQ tests entail. This
particular example was taken from the verbal analogy portion of
the SAT (p. 281).
As Herrnstein and Murray explain, "The answer is
oarsman:regatta--fairly easy if you know what both a marathon and
a regatta are, a matter of guess work otherwise. How would a
black youngster from the inner city ever have heard of a regatta?"
(p. 281). But the real question is: What do the psychometricians
have on their mind when they create such tests and from what
conceptual scheme are they deriving their questions?
Herrnstein and Murray go on to say that other more
sophisticated tests have eliminated vocabulary bias (e.g.,
geometrical figures, etc.) and now measure reaction time and
movement time, which give a more reliable figure to the G factor
(p. 281-295). Again, this has been broken down according to
ethnicity. Even with the limitations of test bias and the
amendments to the new testing methods, there is widespread failure
to note the unargued assumptions that go into the creation of
these revised instruments. Without any solid theoretical
framework, there are many inferences that one could make regarding
the amount of time someone spends answering a question and the
speed with which the hand moves to answer the question, not one of
which would necessarily have anything to do with the phenomenon of
intelligence or the category of race.
The point applies to all tests including those that
utilize geometric figures instead of vocabulary. The conceptual
framework from which the tests were created can never be
completely purified of the single-minded bias of the creators.
Many have written about this problem; but perhaps the most famous
is Stephen Jay Gould. In his The Mismeasure of Man, he states
succinctly that "determinist arguments for ranking people
according to a single scale of intelligence, no matter how
numerically sophisticated, have recorded little more than social
prejudice (Gould, p. 27-28, 1981).
Usually, both laboratory and theoretical physicists are
concerned about the consistent predictor value of the
implementation of the methodology, but with the methodology
employed in The Bell Curve, there are no such concerns. When we
look for specific predictions, we find nothing, only vague
conjectures and no obvious conclusions, which brings us right back
where we started:
The state of knowledge does not permit a precise estimate,
but half a century of work, now amounting to hundreds of
empirical and theoretical studies, permits a broad conclusion
that the genetic component of IQ is unlikely to be smaller
than 40 percent or higher than 80 percent. The most
unambiguous direct estimates, based on identical twins raised
apart produce some of the highest estimates of heritability.
For purposes of this discussion, we will adopt a middling
estimate of 60 percentheritability, which, by extension means
that IQ is about 40 percent a matter of environment (p. 105).
Imagine an engineer who is building a bridge saying to the
contractor, "Well, I can't give you an accurate estimate, but
there is between a 40 to 80 percent chance that this bridge will
not fall, so I will go with the mean and say 60." Clearly, the
contractor would not be renewing any jobs with that engineer in
the near future.
As to the actual source of this number and its
calculation, Herrnstein and Murray are vague, they simply state
that "nonspecialists need not concern themselves with the nuts and
bolts" (p. 106). They then go on for merely three pages outlining
both the direct and indirect procedures that psychometricians have
implemented to derive it. This weakness in the methodology is
acknowledged in their own examples.
Suppose that the question at issue regards individuals:
"Given two 11 year olds, one with an IQ of 110 and one with
an IQ of 90, what can you tell us about the differences
between those two children?" The answer must be phrased very
tentatively. On many important topics, the answer must be,
We can tell you nothing with any confidence (p. 19).
From the execution of the scientific method, physicists do
not discuss "crisis of belief" or "loss of confidence" in relation
to their studies, but clearly psychometricians must have these
notions to help explain their 40 to 80 percent calculation. Even
with the imprecise number derived, Herrnstein and Murray go on and
say that "luck continues to matter in life's outcomes, but now it
is more a matter of the IQ handed out in life's lottery than
anything else about the circumstances" (p. 109). But this notion
is, as stated, without clear empirical support and left with no
clear meaning or understanding.
The overall purpose for applying this methodology to human
phenomena is also vague. In most cases, scientific methodology
assumes that the result of some antecedent can be deduced from the
testable knowledge of specific causes, and the knowledge of the
antecedent can also be deduced from the knowledge of the results.
Are Herrnstein and Murray implying that through statistical
measurement, specific predictions can be made as to who people
are, what they will do or what they will become? If this is the
case, then their claim is easily dismissable. Even the most
radical determinist would admit that, although all phenomena may
be determined, there may be contingencies in human understanding
that are not explainable or testable. By limiting the phenomenon
of intelligence to the framework of the methodology presented in
this study, it is virtually impossible thoroughly to study the
relevant concepts of any human phenomena, much less to outline
their structures or to discover any predictor value in them.
Even if one grants that the measurements taken in this
study reach acceptable levels of reliability and validity, the
correlation coefficients are not very high. The higher correlation
of .68 with likelihood of having a child is for the high school
sample of mothers living in poverty (sample taken from January 1,
1978 through December 31, 1987). The highest correlations are for
consistency of test taking ability. The remaining correlations are
so modest that they hardly establish any relationship whatsoever,
much less a causal one. And yet Herrnstein and Murray insist that
it is intelligence, and not socio-economic status with which it is
correlated, that is primarily responsible for the group
Ideology and Policy
Herrnstein and Murray's proclamations regarding America's
social decline in relation to the cognitive classes fall into the
range of borderline suspicion to full-blown paranoia. Much of the
aggravation that has ensued from the publication of this study
centers on the ideological framework advanced in relation to the
social decline of American culture (approximately 20 pages).
When shaky scientific evidence is presented and cannot
stand on its own merit, the advancement of an ideology usually
follows (Chomsky 1972). The difficulty is to separate the validity
and scientific status of The Bell Curve from its ideological
Understandably, both the scientific evidence and the ideology are
legitimate topics (Herrnstein was a professor of psychology at
Harvard, and Murray is a professor of Political Science at
Harvard), but it doesn't seem fitting for the overall topic and
supposed purpose of this book. For example:
Over the next decade, it will become broadly accepted by the
cognitive elite that the people we now refer to as the
underclass are in that condition through no fault of their
own but because of inherent shortcomings about which little
can be done...It will be agreed that the underclass cannot be
trusted to use cash wisely. Therefore policy will consist of
greater benefits, but these will be primarily in the form of
services rather than cash (p. 523).
What this has to do with the "scientific" measurement of
intelligence is unknown. In a similar passage, they state:
Membership in this new class, the cognitive elite, is gained
by high IQ. But once in the club, usually by age eighteen,
members will begin to share much else as well. Among other
things, they will come to run much of the country's business.
In the private sector, the cognitive elite dominates the
ranks of CEO's and the top echelon of corporate executives
From these passages, and others similar to it, Herrnstein
and Murray justify their findings through a particular ideology
and agenda, which pretentiously defines the specific
presuppositions (the category of race and intelligence) for
writing this book. The intensity present in their writing
suggests that they are more than merely dispassionate scientists
in search of the truth and the advancement of their field. This
is disturbing, especially when so many people will read the book
and possibly hold it in high regard without examining its
unsupported assumptions. From this point Herrnstein and Murray
refer to the consequences that will bear on the fate of children,
the new white underclass and the eventual custodial state, which
will emerge from such isolation of the cognitive elite.
Another troubling point is that, for Herrnstein and
Murray, absolute success--that is wealth and power--is determined
by heredity as reflected by intelligence and social merit. But
it is quite possible that wealth and power are attained by those
who are devious and seek material gain without regard to
principles of ethics or conscience, instead of by those who are
intelligent or socially gifted. It would be interesting to devise
tests of honesty and integrity and to administer them to leaders
in business and politics.
In the same way, Herrnstein and Murray are wrong if they
believe that the cognitive elite only define success as the
attainnent of wealth, prestige and power. Many of the world's
most intelligent people have chosen challenging and intrinsically
rewarding professions that offer no hope of wealth, prestige or
According to a previous article written by Herrnstein,
accountants and auditors tend to have higher IQs than bakers, and
thus Herrnstein concludes that individuals with higher IQs are
held in higher esteem due to the material reward given to them
from the society in which we live (Herrnstein, 1971). The same
argument is presented in The Bell Curve, but with the number of
white collar crimes presented in their own data, it is difficult
to see the legitimacy of the argument. Surely Herrnstein and
Murray wouldn't say that a crooked lawyer who makes $200,000 a
year is held in higher esteem by society than a social worker who
works for little or no money to help rebuild the slums of the
If membership in the cognitive elite rests on being
endowed with a high IQ, then the best advice that Herrnstein and
Murray could offer to students with high IQs would be not to go on
to college. They should enter the work force immediately after
high school to begin maximizing their economic potential. But not
all intelligent youngsters seem ready to choose financial success
to the exclusion of an enjoyable, fulfilling profession. Clearly,
there are other factors besides IQ bearing on the success of
individuals. In fact, who could say that any executives exercise
their mental aptitude to the extent that would be expected as
representatives of the "cognitive elite." Many working-class jobs
require at least as much applied intelligence as a CEO.
Herrnstein and Murray adopt an equally unfortunate stance
toward the "cognitively challenged" people engaging in
relationships. "It has become much more difficult for a person of
low cognitive ability to figure out why marriage is a good thing,
and, once in a marriage, more difficult to figure out why one
should stick with it through bad times" (p. 544). At this point,
what is again disturbing about Herrnstein and Murrays analysis
involves the way the study is divided up and what questions are
asked. Their primary interest in women centers on questions of
bearing children out of wedlock, being on welfare and having poor
parenting skills. Men, on the other hand, fall into the other
stereotypical category of unemployment and crime.
The prediction from their analysis involves a bizarre sort
of disinterested fascism on behalf of the majority of the people
who would rather stay isolated from the "reservations" where the
cognitively challenged will be harbored. "In short, by custodial
state, we have in mind a high-tech and more lavish version of the
Indian reservation for some substantial minority of the nation's
population, while the rest of America tries to go about its
business" (p. 526). To help combat the chaos of crime that will
unfold, there should be "a core of common law, combined with the
original concept of negligence and liability in tort law, the
mechanism for running a society easily understood by all, and a
basis for the straightforward lessons that parents at all levels
of cognitive ability above the lowest can teach their children
about how to behave as they grow up" (p. 546).
Regarding the practical reasoning required to make
decisions, Herrnstein and Murray believe, "The difference between
people of low cognitive ability and the rest of society may be put
in terms of a metaphor. Everyone has a moral compass, but some of
those compasses are more susceptible to magnetic storms than
others" (p. 543). Instead of a metaphor, I would like to use an
analogy. The entire commentary presented above sounds like the
macabre propaganda explicated by the "cognitive elite" pigs from
George Orwell's Animal Farm:
The birds did not understand Snowball's long words, but they
accepted his explanation, and all the humbler animals set to
work to learn the new maxim by heart. FOUR LEGS GOOD, TWO
LEGS BAD, was inscribed on the end wall of the barn, above
the Seven Commandments and in bigger letters (Orwell, 1946,
And of course, fitting for the premise of The Bell Curve,
we cannot forget, "All animals are equal, but some animals are
more equal than others" (p. 123).
Clearly, The Bell Curve reflects the frustrations over the
current socioeconomic dilemmas that have emerged with the
onslaught of the postmodern age. The promises of technology and
science to better our society have not delivered to the general
extent that many believed possible. In a similar sense, the depth
that the human sciences assured us in helping to improve the human
condition has also been generally disappointing.
The most valuable form of inquiry to clarify
methodological and theoretical quandaries, epistemology, has been
neglected within the disciplines outside of academic philosophy
for the better part of this century. Instead, most disciplines
provide students with rote knowledge of theories and methodologies
that are not justified in reason, but are logged into memory.
In this age, it is very easy to be labeled a
deconstructionist if one makes any attempt to critique the claims
asserted and methodology employed in such studies as The Bell
Curve; on the other hand one can easily be labeled a racist by
supporting such claims. Both allegations are extreme and usually
unwarranted. The fact is that The Bell Curve consists of no
dependable scientific evidence or consistent argument to suggest
that there is a relation between ethnicity and cognitive ability.
In fact, the body of data is so immense that, if one were to
examine the appendices with no knowledge of the book's premise, a
large number of varying inferences could be drawn about both the
data and the topic of the book. With this notion, the
presuppositions of the study ride on a paranoid ideology that has
been around for thousands of years.
Antony, L. (1993). A Mind of One's Own: Feminist Essays of Reason
and Objectivity. Boulder: Westview Press.
Chomsky, N. (1972). "Psychology and Ideology." Cognition, 1, pp.
Clairmonte, F. (1970). The Race War. Journal of Modern African
Studies, vol. 8, no. 3.
Gould, S. (1981). The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton.
Herrnstein, R. (1971). IQ. Atlantic Monthly, (September), 43-64.
Orwell, G. (1946). Animal Farm. New York: Signet Classics.
Rave, P. and Johnson, G. (1988). Understanding Biology. St.
Louis: Times Mirror/Mosby College Publishing.
Spearman, C. (1904). "General Intelligence" Objectively Determined
and Measured. American Journal of Psychology, 15, 201-209.
Copyright 1995 by the EDUCATION POLICY ANALYSIS ARCHIVES.
As articles are published by the ARCHIVES, they are sent
immediately to the EDPOLYAR subscribers and simultaneously archived.
Articles are archived on EDPOLYAR as individual files under the
name of the author and the Volume and article number. For example,
the article by Stephen Kemmis in Volume 1, Number 1 of the
ARCHIVES can be retrieved by sending an e-mail letter to
LISTSERV@ASU.EDU and making the single line in the letter
read GET KEMMIS V1N1 F=MAIL. For a table of contents of the entire
ARCHIVES, send the following e-mail message to
LISTSERV@ASU.EDU : INDEX EDPOLYAR F=MAIL, that is, send an
e-mail letter and make its single line read INDEX EDPOLYAR F=MAIL.
EDUCATION POLICY ANALYSIS ARCHIVES are "gophered" in the
directory Campus-Wide Information at the gopher server INFO.ASU.EDU.
World Wide Web URL is http://info.asu.edu/asu-cwis/epaa/welcome.html.
Articles are available through anonymous FTP from info.asu.edu,
in the directory pub/cwis/epaa.
You may cancel your subscription to EDPOLYAR at any time by
sending an e-mail letter to LISTSERV@ASU.EDU and including
in the letter the single line SIGNOFF EDPOLYAR.
To receive a publication guide for submitting articles, send
an e-mail letter to LISTSERV@ASU.EDU and include the single
line GET EDPOLYAR PUBGUIDE F=MAIL. It will be sent to you by return
e-mail. General questions about appropriateness of topics or
particular articles may be addressed to the Editor, Gene V Glass,
Glass@ASU.EDU or reach him at College of Education,
Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-2411. (602-965-2692)
The Book Review Editor is Walter E. Shepherd. He can be contacted
with suggestions and comments at Shepherd@ASU.EDU.
John Covaleskie Andrew Coulson
Alan Davis Mark E. Fetler
Thomas F. Green Alison I. Griffith
Arlen Gullickson Ernest R. House
Aimee Howley Craig B. Howley
William Hunter Richard M. Jaeger
Benjamin Levin Thomas Mauhs-Pugh
Dewayne Matthews Mary P. McKeown
Les McLean Susan Bobbitt Nolen
Anne L. Pemberton Hugh G. Petrie
Richard C. Richardson Anthony G. Rud Jr.
Dennis Sayers Jay Scribner
Robert Stonehill Robert T. Stout
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank