The Bell Curve: Science or Political Statement?

This essay was the result of a discussion I was having on an e-mail list in which I participate called Human_ism back, in 2000.

The person I was debating about The Bell Curve accused me of not reading the book as we debated the merits of it.

I had not read the book. I came to my views about it from articles I read about the book. So, to take that argument away from my opponent, I bought the book (ugh) and read it (My eyes! My eyes).

The conclusions I write in this essay are my own, after reading the book. I thought I had published this on my website but found out, when the discussion came up again recently, that I had not.

I have revised it a bit because some of my phrasing seemed a bit klunky but overall this is the final draft of the essay. — dlb

The Bell Curve: Science or Political Statement?

An essay by Doug Berger
*Note* To save me some typing I used some abbreviations. TBC = The Bell Curve, H&M= Herrnstein and Murray (the authors), con/lib = conservative/libertarian

The Bell Curve is a controversial book that salted the wound between the “haves and have nots” and those that have and want to help the have nots. H&M have been called a lot of names from racist to bigot and their book has been trashed and supported by many well known scientists in the world.

That is what happens when a political statement is passed off as science. H&M basically showed the trends in IQ between classes of people, asserted that a large “underclass” will emerge, and offer “suggestions” to help deal with a lot of poor dumb people.

Is TBC racist? Are H&M racist? Are TBC implications as profound as Chester Finn said in “Commentary”. Hopefully H&M words in TBC can shed some light on those issues.

I should say now that I won’t be dealing with the nuts and bolts of the science in the book. There has been plenty of debate about that issue by people well versed in those fields [read the side note at the end of this essay]. This little essay will deal with what H&M says in the book as result of the science they present. TBC is really a conservative/libertarian political statement and an old one at that.

The book is long any contains a lot of statistics, graphs, and results. On the whole, for the intended audience, this is just filler. Based on a skim of the book, the words they use and the conclusions they draw, the intended audience seems to be white conservatives who have been fighting government social programs for 30 years for various reasons.

In the preface, one gets a sense of the initial bias H&M has going into the book. They say: “…They propose solutions founded on better education, on more and better jobs, on specific social interventions. But they ignore an underlying element that has shaped the changes: human intelligence….”

The inference for the reader is that the solutions proposed by “They” (social scientists, journalists, and liberal politicians) haven’t solved the problems of poverty and the underclass. One would seem to think that the problem can’t be solved due to dumb poor people who can’t be changed.

On page 64 H&M state the economic efficiency in business between high IQ and low IQ workers:

“Our main point has nothing to do with deciding how large the loss is or how large the gain would be if intelligence test could be freely used for hiring. Rather, it is simply that intelligence itself is importantly related to job performance. Laws can make the economy less efficient by forbidding employers to use intelligence tests, but laws cannot make intelligence unimportant.”

This is the primary premiss in the book. Intelligence is important to humans.

Then H&M spend a bulk of the book presenting evidence that low IQ is the majority of the nation’s ills and it is there where they get into trouble. It starts with how they present the argument. They start by only focusing on whites as an introduction then repeat their arguments using “ethnic groups”. H&M call the section “The National Context” and include evidence of the IQ differences between whites, blacks, and asians. Basically the reader is left with the conclusion that lower IQ is at the root of all our social ills like poverty and blacks have lower IQ than whites and asians have slightly higher IQs than whites. The dots that the reader then connects is that blacks are at the root of the social ills. They would have been more effective and less racist if they had kept their argument to ‘lower IQ is the root of social ills’ rather than bringing in the old worn ethnic differences – that blacks are lower than whites and asians are slightly above whites in IQ. They present a clever basis to justify arguments against government social intervention.

In the final sections of the book H&M examine some current solutions for poverty and how since the programs don’t match the IQ of the people it is intended to help, most don’t work. They also make a complaint about the “gifted minority” who they see as being left out. This is yet another con/lib argument made about education. It seems to con/libs gifted children are almost all white.

I did spot a glaring contradiction in H&M’s argument.

On page 54, H&M said adoption of children into better homes doesn’t improve the job status of those children in the future.

But in Chapter 17, they claim that preschool and Head Start programs don’t raise IQ. They claim that the only thing that seems to work, to the tune of a 6 point rise, is adoption of the child from a “bad” family environment to a “good” one.

In Chapter 18 they make an argument that since education can’t raise IQ, the government should support parental choice through vouchers, tax credits, or within the public schools. They also suggest that some funds that go to the disadvantaged should go to programs for the gifted instead. They make the claim that until the later half of the 20th century, educating the gifted was the chief purposes of education. They argue that education has been dumbed down for those with lower IQ and that puts our future in danger.

This is just a silly assertion on their part. The purpose of education, since our modern educational system began was to be able to make all students, regardless of ability or class status, productive citizens. An educated populous benefits the nation as a whole.

Restricting education to the gifted only, as H&M suggest, ignores the entire history of education in this country.

H&M then use the next couple of chapters to argue against Affirmative Action in education and the work place. They perpetrate the myth that some minorities accepted or hired due to Affirmative Action are not qualified for the school or job. They make that argument since they believe that IQ makes one qualified – not any education or training. They feel that poor dumb people are “naturally” unqualified.

In Chapter 21, H&M talk about the future problems that they think will happen if public policy is not changed in the way they suggest in the previous chapters. This basicially fans the flames of fear about poor dumb people multipling unchecked until they take over the world (or rather that is the sense I got from the chapter). Not only will we have scores of poor dumb people but we will have spent our precious tax money on those lost causes.

They saved Chapter 22 for more “suggestions” to deal with the “problems” outlined in the book and Chapter 21.

They suggest:

A wide range of social functions should be restored to the neighborhoods when possible and otherwise to the municipality.

Making it easier to make a living (less government rules)

Making it easier to live a virtuous life : Crime should be black and white. Marriage should be be restored to it is unique legal status.

Replace welfare payments with an alternative such as the earned income credit.

The government should stop subsidizing births to anyone, rich or poor.

The US should consider accepting immigrants based more on high cognitive ability (IQ).

H&M conclude TBC with a restatement of the con/lib argument that the government should deal with the “small” segment of the population (low IQ) who account for the “large” proportion of the social problems they outlined in the book, but the govt. should leave the rest of us alone.


TBC is a political statement on public policy that has been heard from the con/lib camp for sometime. H&M talk about returning to local control, less regulations, get tougher on crime, protecting marriage, school choice, ending welfare, changing affirmative action, and restricting immigration. They base their conclusion on the problems that are rooted at those with low IQ, something they argue can’t be changed.

The inferences the reader makes in the IQ discussions are racist on the face no matter what H&M state explicitly. The audience of the book is white conservatives who all ready agree with their conclusions. The “evidence” then justifies their agenda. H&M could have made the same arguments without even dealing with genetics or race, but they did.

H&M don’t offer solutions for low IQ only to state that it is the root of all our problems and it can’t be changed. Since they also show that blacks make up the large portion of low IQ what is a reader to conclude? Murray states in the afterword that he didn’t think that race was a big deal in the book. Why then even mention it?

I am also bothered at the amount of space devoted to IQ when their conclusions and suggestions had nothing to do with IQ.

Is TBC racist? Yes, in that it goes into the IQ/race argument for no apparent reason especially when one of their concerns toward the end of the book was a rise in a white underclass.

Are H&M racists? In a general sense yes since they blame all current social ills on poor dumb people and the added racial argument just makes it more clear they are.

Are the implications of TBC profound? No. They just repeat what they themselves say is known but not talked about and their policy suggestions have been heard before.

Basically I think TBC is just another version of “Darwin’s Black Box” that tries and cloaks a political agenda in science. It tries to use science to prove its conclusions.

[Side Note: I am not a science person. There has been some heated debate among the science community about the validity of H&M studies. This fact is true. The Bell Curve was never peer reviewed. That is it wasn’t published in any science journals where accepted science come from.

H&M found a publisher and sold it straight to the public much like the scientists supporting the Intelligent Designer idea of Creationism.

Here is one example of a rebuttal of H&M’s research. More can be found at the link at the end of the example — dlb

“The remaining studies cited by Lynn, and accepted as valid by Herrnstein and Murray, tell us little about African intelligence but do tell us something about Lynn’s scholarship. One of the 11 entries in Lynn’s table of the intelligence of “pure Negroids” indicates that 1,011 Zambians who were given the Progressive Matrices had a lamentably low average IQ of 75. The source for this quantitative claim is given as “Pons 1974; Crawford-Nutt 1976.”

A. L. Pons did test 1,011 Zambian copper miners, whose average number of correct responses was 34. Pons reported on this work orally; his data were summarized in tabular form in a paper by D. H. Crawford-Nutt. Lynn took the Pons data from Crawford-Nutt’s paper and converted the number of correct responses into a bogus average “IQ” of 75. Lynn chose to ignore the substance of Crawford-Nutt’s paper, which reported that 228 black high school students in Soweto scored an average of 45 correct responses on the Matrices–HIGHER than the mean of 44 achieved by the same-age white sample on whom the test’s norms had been established and well above the mean of Owen’s coloured pupils.”