(Originally published in The National Review, December 8, 1997)
Is The Bell Curve the stealth public-policy book of the 1990s?
Mr. Seligman is the author of A Question of Intelligence: The IQ Debate in America. Mr. Murray is co-author of The Bell Curve.
DS: Three years after publication of The Bell Curve, I find myself endlessly reading news stories about great national controversies in which all the participants do their best to ignore the data you and Dick Herrnstein laid on the table. Three recent examples:
1) the row over school vouchers, whose advocates (e.g., Bill Bennett in the Wall Street Journal) endlessly take it for granted that poor performance by students reflects only inadequacies by the teaching profession -- inadequacies among the learners being a huge unmentionable;
2) the President's astounding proposal (never characterized as such) that all American youngsters, including those with IQs at the left tail, should have at least two years of college;
3) the expressions of surprise and rage when it turned out that, in the absence of affirmative action, prestigious law schools would be admitting hardly any black students. The participants in these controversies were in no sense talking back to The Bell Curve. They were pretending its data do not exist. What's your perspective?
CM: I read the same stories you do and ask the same question: Do these guys know but pretend not to? Or are they still truly oblivious? In the case of education vouchers, there is a sensible reason to ignore The Bell Curve: inner-city schools are overwhelmingly lousy. Bill Bennett has read the book, understands it, and (rare indeed) has defended it on national television. But his battle cry is, and should be, ``These kids are getting a raw deal'' -- not a lot of qualifications about the difficulties in raising IQ.
Bill Clinton and his pandering on college education is another story altogether. Vouchers for elementary school can be a good policy idea, no matter what our book says about IQ. But universal college education cannot be. Most people are not smart enough to profit from an authentic college education. But who among Republicans has had the courage to call Clinton on this one? A lot of silence about The Bell Curve can be put down to political cowardice.
Affirmative action was still politically sacrosanct when The Bell Curve came out in October 1994. Within a year, the tide had swung decisively. Did the book play any role? Damned if I know. Dick and I were the first to publish a comprehensive account of the huge gaps in SAT scores at elite colleges, but I have found not a single citation of the book during the affirmative-action debate.
My best guess -- and the broad answer to your question -- is that The Bell Curve is the stealth public-policy book of the 1990s. It has created a subtext on a range of issues. Everybody knows what the subtext is. Nobody says it out loud.
DS: I am reading with fascination your ``afterword'' in the paperback edition, and I have an argumentative question about the passage where you speculate on long-term responses to the book. You postulate a three-stage process. In stage one, the book and its authors take endless rounds of invective from critics who simply want to suppress the message that human beings differ in mental ability. These critics turn to thought control because they look at your findings and conclude, in Michael Novak's words, that ``they destroy hope'' -- a hope which Novak sees as a this-worldly eschatological phenomenon. [eschatalogical = relating to the end of the world. MVC] In stage two, the invective attracts the interest of scholars not previously involved in these disputes. They look over the empirical record, deciding in the end that your case is supportable and may indeed have been understated in some areas. In stage three, these scholars build on your work, and in the end do more than The Bell Curve itself to demolish those eschatological hopes. In the long run, the thought control shoots itself in the foot.
This process seems entirely plausible. But I wonder: Will the truth ever break out of the academic world? Remember, the basic message (including even a genetic factor in the black - white gap) was already pretty well accepted by scholars in the mid Eighties as the Snyderman - Rothman book documented. What I never see is acceptance of any part of this message in the public-policy world, where the term ``IQ'' is seldom uttered without the speaker's sensing a need to dissociate himself from it.
Among many horror stories is the current row over Lino Graglia, the University of Texas law professor now in trouble for having stated an obvious truth: that black and Mexican-American students are ``not academically competitive'' with white students. Graglia gave the most benign possible explanation for this educational gap: minority students were not genetically or intellectually inferior but were suffering from a cultural background in which scholarship was not exalted. But that explanation got him nowhere. He has been attacked by every editorial page in Nexis that has weighed in on the matter. (He did better in the letters columns.)
NOW, I can see the process you envision going forward -- with some scholars and maybe even some journalists looking at actual academic performance at Texas and other universities. What I cannot imagine is defenders of Graglia surfacing in any institutional setting -- at least not in the realms of politics and education, nor in major media. Meanwhile, what with Texas campus demonstrations and Jesse Jackson's call for Graglia to be made a social pariah (cheered at the demonstrations), scholars have got the crucial message: Stay under cover if you hold beliefs challenging to those eschatological hopes.
CM: Graglia said ``culture.'' What everybody heard was ``genes.'' As soon as anyone argues that racial differences in intelligence are authentic, not an artifact of biased tests, everyone decodes that as saying the differences are grounded in genes. It is a non-sequitur, but an invariable one in my experience. America's intellectual elites are hysterical about the possibility of black - white genetic differences in IQ.
As you know, The Bell Curve actually took a mild, agnostic stand on the subject. Dick Herrnstein and I said that nobody yet knows what the mix between environmental and genetic causes might be, and it makes no practical difference anyway. The only policy implication of the black - white difference, whatever its sources, is that the U.S. should return forthwith to its old ideal of treating people as individuals.
But how many people know this? No one who hasn't read the book. Everyone went nuts about genes, so much so that most people now believe that race and genes is the main topic of our book.
Why? The topic of race and genes is like the topic of sex in Victorian England. The intellectual elites are horrified if anyone talks about it, but behind the scenes they are fascinated. I will say it more baldly than Dick and I did in the book: In their heart of hearts, intellectual elites, especially liberal ones, have two nasty secrets regarding IQ. First, they really believe that IQ is the be-all and end-all of human excellence and that someone with a low IQ is inferior. Second, they are already sure that the black - white IQ difference is predominantly genetic and that this is a calamity -- such a calamity indeed that it must not be spoken about, even to oneself. To raise these issues holds a mirror up to the elites' most desperately denied inner thoughts. The result is the kind of reaction we saw to Lino Graglia.
But when people say one thing and believe another, as intellectual elites have been doing about race, sooner or later the cognitive dissonance must be resolved. It usually happens with a bang. When the wall of denial gives way, not only will the received wisdom on race and IQ change, the change will happen very rapidly and probably go much too far. The fervor of the newly converted is going to be a problem. I fully expect, if I live another twenty years, to be in a situation where I am standing on the ramparts shouting: ``Genetic differences weren't a big deal when we wrote The Bell Curve and they still aren't a big deal.''
DS: Watching Clinton perform in Little Rock the other day, and picking up especially on his lament about the extent and persistence of discrimination (including employment discrimination) in American life, I went back for one more look at that table on page 324 of The Bell Curve -- the one showing that job discrimination is essentially nonexistent in the United States today. At least it is nonexistent among the younger workers in that huge sample from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.
Your argument begins by noting that when you control for age, education, and socioeconomic status (SES), black earnings are still only 84 per cent of white earnings, which implies continuing discrimination. As the table shows, however, when you bring IQ into the picture, everything changes. Even if you forget about education and SES and control only for age and IQ, the black - white earnings gap essentially disappears. To be precise: when you average the results for many different occupational categories, blacks of similar age and IQ make 98 per cent as much as whites. When you control for gender as well, the figure goes to 101 per cent.
These findings seem stunning to me, on several counts. First, they show that employers are astonishingly good at seeing through the imperfect credentials represented by educational levels and family background, and at figuring out which job prospects have the most ability. Second, the findings are surely big news -- and good news. They imply that much, or most, or essentially all (depending on the extent to which NLSY data can be generalized to the labor force as a whole) of what is routinely identified as invidious discrimination is nothing of the sort. It is rational behavior by employers and it shows them to be amazingly color-blind. So why is this news not on the front pages?
CM: Think about how that front-page story would have to be headlined. It would have to convey the thought, BLACKS WITH EQUAL IQS GET EQUAL PAY. You see the problem. No matter how reasonable the explanation, it is not intellectually permissible at this moment in history for blacks or women to have different outcomes from white males. If you really want egregious examples of that attitude, don't bother with IQ and blacks. Look at the military performance of women. A military officer came into my office some months ago, almost with tears in his eyes. ``We're killing people,'' he said, referring to the degradation of entrance requirements and training standards for combat pilots -- a degradation carried out so that enough women could get through. How many journalists in major U.S. papers have been willing to write that story straightforwardly? When the problem of female combat performance is mentioned at all, it is with an ``on the one hand, on the other hand'' presentation, even though one side has all the data and the other side is only an attitude.
DS: Let me ask you to weigh in more heavily on an issue we touched on earlier -- the ``average child'' fallacy. This is the notion that any normal child can learn anything if only he gets the right teaching. Your data make plain that this view is nonsense. Indeed, you add: ``Critics of American education must come to terms with the reality that in a universal education system many students will not reach the level of education that most people view as basic.''
That thought was so important that you put it in italics. In our current debate on national standards and educational reform, however, no one is paying attention to it -- certainly not Bill Clinton, but also not many conservatives. I recently caught Jeanne Allen of the pro-voucher Center for Educational Reform in a debate on CNN. She was complaining about education bureaucrats ``that don't believe, or don't necessarily think, all children are capable of learning to the highest level. I think that's scary.''
Isn't it about time to scold conservative fans of education reform for persistently dodging reality when they're out there selling vouchers?
CM: I propose a new term: ``suspension of belief,'' defined as ``basing a public-policy stance on an assumption about human beings that one knows to be untrue of oneself.'' Do you suppose Jeanne Allen believes herself capable of learning to the highest level if we're talking, say, about quantum mechanics? Of course not. Only a few silly people who have never tested themselves are under the illusion that they have no educational limits.
Putting that last sentence on the screen, however, makes me pause. Many bright liberal-arts graduates have not tested themselves. In the liberal arts and some of the soft sciences it is possible to get a PhD without having to confront that awful moment: ``My God, studying hard won't be enough. It is beyond the power of my intellect to understand this.'' With me, it came halfway through a graduate course on the theory of matrices, and it was an invaluable lesson. Isaac Asimov once gave a rule of thumb for knowing when you've hit the wall: when you hear yourself saying to the professor, ``I think I understand.''
Another factor may also be operating here: the isolation of the cognitive elite. If you have never had a close acquaintance with an IQ below 100, then you have no idea what ``dumb'' really means.
Should we scold our conservative allies for this kind of na¨iveté? Chide, I guess. But I am uncomfortably aware of a sentence in a well-known conservative tome that reads, ``I suggest that when we give such parents [who are actively engaged in their child's education] vouchers, we will observe substantial convergence of black and white test scores in a single generation.'' The book is Losing Ground, page 224. So I have a first-stone problem here.
DS: One last question: Have you had second thoughts about formulations in The Bell Curve?
CM: If Dick and I were writing it again, I suppose we would go over the section on race and put in a few more italics, and otherwise try to grab readers by the shoulders and shake them out of their hysteria. But it probably wouldn't do any good. We would certainly incorporate an analysis of siblings into the chapters of Part II that deal with IQ and social problems -- the kind of analysis I did in that Public Interest article you mentioned earlier. And there's a highly technical error we made that had the effect of understating the statistical power of our results; I would like to fix that. But that's about all. The book's main themes will endure just fine.
The reality of a cognitive elite is becoming so obvious that I wonder if even critics of the book really doubt it. The relationship of low IQ to the underclass? Ditto. Welfare reform is helping the argument along, by the way, as journalistic accounts reveal how many welfare mothers are not just uneducated, but of conspicuously low intelligence. The intractability of IQ? Dick and I said that IQ was 40 to 80 per cent heritable. The identical-twin studies continue to suggest that the ultimate figure will turn out to be in the upper half of that range. More importantly, the literature on ``nonshared environment'' has developed dramatically since Dick and I were researching The Bell Curve. Its core finding is that, whatever the role of environment may be in determining IQ, only a small portion of that role consists of influences that can be manipulated (through better child-rearing, better schools, etc.). For practical purposes, the ability of public policy to affect IQ is probably smaller than Dick and I concluded.
With regard to race differences, nothing has happened to change our conclusions about the cultural fairness of the tests, the equal predictive validity of the tests, or the persistence of the 15-point gap. Recent data from the NLSY indicate that in the next generation not only is the black - white gap failing to shrink, but it may be growing.
So I do not expect any major finding in The Bell Curve to be overturned. I realize that attacking the book has become a cottage industry. The New York Times recently used one such attack to announce that our ``noxious'' conclusions have been definitively refuted. But in the same month that this most recent definitive refutation was published, the journal Intelligence had a special issue devoted to IQ and social policy. The articles in it are not written as defenses of The Bell Curve; they just happen to make our case on a wide variety of points. And that's the way the debate will eventually be resolved -- not as a judgment about a book that has been almost buried by controversy, but by continuing research on the same issues. As that happens, it is not just that Dick and I will be proved right. We will be proved to have been -- if you will pardon the expression -- conservative.
(From the pages of the National Review.)