Throwing a curve:
`The Bell Curve' uses intelligence testing statistics to justify hierarchy in America
By David Cogswell
(This appeared first in Manhattan's Downtown)
``The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life''
by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray
Is there a way to objectively measure hatred? What about greed, fear, prejudice? Most would probably answer that the idea of quantifying such things is ludicrous. But many of these same people would never question the validity of methods for measuring a vastly more complex and multifaceted quality called intelligence.
``The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life'' by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray is built on a number of fallacies, the primary one of which is that general intelligence can be measured objectively by written tests.
From this premise, a huge leap in itself, the authors proceed to the conclusion that whites are genetically more intelligent than blacks and no amount of social programs will ever change that. Intelligence is tied to race and both are tied to wealth, power and class status by genetic birthright, the authors proclaim, and they invoke the great god of science to ordain their words with the power of law.
A great big hulk of a book, with a huge volume of statistics, graphs, appendices and scholarly nuspeak jargon, it is designed to intimidate, mystify, and neutralize opposition by implying that those it makes its targets could never understand it anyway. But since its primary definitions are so askew, and its authors decline the responsibility of thoroughly establishing its basic premises, the statistical support just amounts to so much mumbo jumbo. The crux of the argument is in the first few pages where it sets up its premises.
Statistics can be made to support almost any thesis, and the idea of racial supremacy and the ordained right of one group of people to dominate another has a long history and a great deal of support built into the structure of Western civilization.
The art of lying with statistics involves a sleight of hand that makes use of the spaces between the impressive logical structures. All rational argument begins with the selection of premises, a matter of choice, something that lies outside of the logical processes themselves. How a premise was selected is often skimmed over, often not acknowledged. By beginning with a premise that virtually guarantees your conclusion, the steps in between can seem to have a great deal of logical integrity and still lead where you want it to.
The introduction of ``The Bell Curve'' tells us that ``the word `intelligence' describes something real and ... it varies from person to person ...'' Fair enough, though the authors have not made an attempt to define intelligence before they start throwing the concept around, a failure that is key to an appraisal of the book.
The text continues: ``Yet for the last 30 years, the concept of intelligence has been a pariah in the world of ideas. The attempt to measure it with tests has been variously dismissed as an artifact of racism, political reaction, statistical bungling, and scholarly fraud ...''
Here the authors equate intelligence testing with intelligence itself and proceed to take up the banner as the gallant protectors of the besieged principle, now only upheld by a few Nordic types. They jump from acknowledging that there is such a thing as intelligence which differs from person to person, to saying that it can be measured and quantified using written tests. This is a large step and requires some support. The authors apparently think the presumption needs little qualification.
They do not go into how or why intelligence testing works, or how a linear value can be used to quantify and compare something that is multi-faceted and appears in a huge variety of forms. They validate it by saying that it has remained in practice, therefore it is valid. ``If the tests had been fatally flawed or merely uninformative, they would have vanished.'' Not necessarily, not if they served a purpose.
By a few swishes of the wand, the authors dispose of the issue of whether or not such a thing as intelligence can really be measured by a creature with as little of it as Homo Sapiens. They give little consideration to what methods would be equal to such a task and in fact scarcely concern themselves with an inquiry into what is meant by the word ``intelligence.''
They trace the origin of intelligence testing to a cousin and contemporary of Charles Darwin named Sir Francis Galton. Galton ``presented evidence that intellectual capacity of various sorts ran in families.'' Fair enough, so far. Galton set out to devise precise quantitative measures. He recognized that ``each person's pattern of intellectual abilities is unique.'' Galton, say the authors, ``had the idea that intelligence would surface in the form of sensitivity of perceptions, so he constructed tests that relied on measures of acuity of sight and hearing, sensitivity to slight pressures on the skin, and speed of reaction to simple stimuli. His tests failed, but others followed where Galton had led.''
Where Galton failed, say the authors, French psychologist Alfred Binet succeeded by attempting to quantify intelligence ``by measuring a person's ability to reason, draw analogies, and identify patterns.''
The authors say nothing about their judgement that Galton's tests failed. They assume it is obvious that intelligence does not consist of what Galton presumed it did. Here they come perilously close to considering the argument that intelligence may be defined in any number of ways, but they avoid the temptation to examine the question. To pursue this line of inquiry would put them in danger of having to consider that many aspects of what may functionally be called ``intelligence'' would not be measurable, or even detectable, by a standardized written test.
If we consider that Galton's idea of intelligence might be at least a component of intelligence, we might devise an alternative testing method by which we compare two men in a context different from a written test. On a basketball court, the clear winner of a written IQ test may appear to be a bumbling fool next to a high school dropout from the housing projects. But Murray and Herrnstein have rejected the sensory alertness and quickness of response of Galton in favor of more abstract skills. A comprehensive view of intelligence, one that could be applied to a culturally heterogenious society such as ours, would have to encompass both views and a great deal more. Reasoning, drawing analogies and identifying patterns are skills that apply to many fields of activity, including athletics, the arts, or survival in general, but much of the talent expressed in these areas would be invisible on a written multiple-choice test.
The development of intelligence testing was itself a process of selection, not natural selection, but human selection, and the primary thing that had to be selected was a definition of intelligence, the thing we presume to measure. The authors ignore that there are many alternative ways to define intelligence. They dismiss Galton's conception of intelligence explicitly and all other alternatives tacitly, but don't acknowledge that the selection of one definition over another was the choice of human beings, not some all-knowing power. The choice of Binet's brand of intelligence over Galton's reflects the biases of the authors and the institutions which presided over the testing and defined intelligence according to their own purposes.
The authors refuse to acknowledge the ethnocentricity of their definition of intelligence. They either do it knowingly, to advance their agenda, or they really do not perceive how limited their own conception of intelligence is.
If you do not accept the validity of intelligence testing, it's hard to get much from the rest of the book. The authors' conclusions that welfare and affirmative action are not working are widely agreed upon in today's political climate, but putting the causes of the problems into a bedrock of genetic determinism carries implications that lead us ideologically in the direction of feudalism.
Malcolm W. Browne, in a deferential review of the book written for the New York Times Book Review, tells us that author Charles Murray's ideas , ``influenced the Reagan White House.'' The affinity is not hard to pick out. Ironically, Ronald Reagan himself is a sterling argument against the authors' pet contention that intelligence always accompanies wealth and power.
The idea that ``all men are created equal'' never meant that people are alike, but only that people will be treated the same under the law. Such an idea embraces diversity and that diversity has been a source of strength and an important part of what has made American society so admired and emulated throughout the world.