Niall Ferguson and the Avoidance of Personal Responsibility: Every Accusation a Confession Department: (Early) Monday Smackdown
A Few Notes on Higher Education in the Age of Trump: Hoisted from June 10, 2017

Three Conservatives on Why Charles Murray's Ideas Are Bankupt in the Academic Intellectual Marketplace

Inferno Dante and Virgil among the evil counsellors and Flickr

I have never understood why "conservatives" like Niall Ferguson think that cross-burner Charles Murray is a good standard bearer for their ideas in a university setting. Is it their explicit and deliberate aim to generate counterdemonstrations and further reinforce the link between conservative ideas and white ethnicism in America today? Do they really think that yoking appeals to racial animosity, immutable "racial" differences in intelligence, and white ethnicism to their cause is a winner?

Niall Ferguson won't claim that the immutable-racial-differences arguments in Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve get it right. He will only claim that: "the sheer scale of the discussion that Murray’s work has generated would seem to argue for its importance, regardless of whether one ends up agreeing with him..." In academic speech ideas are not merely presented but evaluated. Cross-burner Murray's ideas have been evaluated by, among others, the impeccably conservative Thomas Sowell, James Heckman, and Glenn Loury. Wouldn't a proper Cardinal Conversation aimed at elevating the debate have featured one of these non-cross-burning conservatives? They would have said something like:

  • Glenn Loury: "Implicit in their argument is the judgment that we shall have to get used to there being a substantial minority of our fellows who, because of their low intelligence, may fail to perform adequately in their roles as workers, parents, and citizens.... What I find problematic is their suggestion that we accommodate ourselves to the inevitability of the difference in mental performance among the races in America.... The record of black American economic and educational achievement in the post-civil-rights era has been ambiguous—great success mixed with shocking failure.... The account that attributes it to the limited mental abilities of blacks is singular in its suggestion that we must learn to live with current racial disparities.... The question now on the floor... is whether blacks are capable of gaining equal status, given equality of opportunity.... Some conservatives are not above signaling, in more or less overt ways, their belief that blacks can never pass this test..."

  • James Heckman: "IQ may actually be a better measure of the environment facing children than the measure of environment used by Murray and Herrnstein. They use IQ to predict schooling, but schooling produces IQ. Hence, they are especially likely to find a strong measured effect of 'IQ' on schooling. The same remarks apply to their study of racial and ethnic differentials in socioeconomic outcomes.... There are methods for addressing these problems, but Murray and Herrnstein do not use them.... Finally... the argument does not cumulate.... Its case against affirmative action... does not require acceptance of a single ("g-loaded") scale of ability, or acceptance of the importance of heredity in producing socioeconomic inequality. The authors' evidence of growing stratification by cognitive ability in schools and workplaces does not require that they take a position on how the ability is produced. Yet the authors argue strenuously for their narrow view of ability and its heritability and thereby distract the reader's attention.... The authors have no good way to separate genetic from social influences on social behavior. Their environmental data are too crude and the AFQT score they use is obtained too late in life to make a genetic-environmental distinction meaningful. The authors would require much finer measures of environmental variables than they have at their disposal to rule out the importance of family and society in determining individual outcomes..."

  • Thomas Sowell: "Perhaps the strongest evidence against a genetic basis for intergroup differences in IQ is that the average level of mental test performance has changed very significantly for whole populations over time and, moreover, particular ethnic groups within the populatio'Jews and other immigrant groups were thought to be below average in intelligence'. It was neither folklore nor anything as subjective as thoughts. It was based on hard data, as hard as any data in The Bell Curve.... The implications of such rising patterns of mental test performance is devastating to the central hypothesis.... The failure to draw the logical inference seems puzzling. Blacks today are just as racially different from whites of two generations ago as they are from whites today. Yet the data suggest that the number of questions that blacks answer correctly on IQ tests today is very similar to the number answered correctly by past generations of whites. If race A differs from race B in IQ, and two generations of race A differ from each other by the same amount, where is the logic in suggesting that the IQ differences are even partly racial? Herrnstein and Murray do not address this question.... Perhaps the most intellectually troubling aspect of The Bell Curve is the authors' uncritical approach to statistical correlations. One of the first things taught in introductory statistics is that correlation is not causation. It is also one of the first things forgotten, and one of the most widely ignored facts in public policy research. The statistical term "multicollinearity," dealing with spurious correlations, appears only once in this massive book..."

What is the point of inviting the cross-burning Murray, other than to ghettoize Stanford's conservatives?


Glenn Loury: The Bell Curve-Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life: "The authors of _The Bell Curve _undertake to pronounce upon what is possible for human beings to do while failing to consider that which most makes us human...

...They begin by seeking the causes of behavior and end by reducing the human subject to a mechanism whose horizon is fixed by some combination of genetic endowment and social law. Yet we, even the "dullest" of us, are so much more than that.... Can we sensibly aspire to a more complete social integration than has yet been achieved of those who now languish at the bottom of American society? A political movement that answers "no" to this question must fail, and richly deserves to.

Herrnstein and Murray are not entirely direct on this point. They stress, plausibly enough, that we must be realistic in formulating policy, taking due account of the unequal distribution of intellectual aptitudes.... Implicit in their argument is the judgment that we shall have to get used to there being a substantial minority of our fellows who, because of their low intelligence, may fail to perform adequately in their roles as workers, parents, and citizens. I think this is quite wrong. Social science ultimately leads the authors astray on the political and moral fundamentals....

Some citizens simply lack the wits to manage their affairs so as to avoid criminal violence, be responsive to their children, and exercise the franchise, Herrnstein and Murray argue. If we want our "duller" citizens to obey our laws, we must change the laws (by, e.g., restoring simple rules and certain, severe punishments). Thus: "People of limited intelligence can lead moral lives in a society that is run on the basis of 'Thou shalt not steal.' They find it much harder to lead moral lives in a society that is run on the basis of 'Thou shalt not steal unless there is a really good reason to.'"...

Observing a correlation between a noisy measure of parenting skills, say, and some score on an ability test is a far cry from discovering an immutable law of nature.... I urge Republican politicians and conservative intellectuals to think long and hard before chanting this IQ mantra in public discourses....

The authors will surely get more grief than they deserve for having stated the facts of this matter—that on the average blacks lag significantly behind whites in cognitive functioning. That is not my objection. What I find problematic is their suggestion that we accommodate ourselves to the inevitability of the difference in mental performance among the races in America. This posture of resignation is an unacceptable response to today's tragic reality. We can be prudent and hard-headed about what government can and cannot accomplish through its various instruments of policy without abandoning hope of achieving racial reconciliation within our national community.

In reality, the record of black American economic and educational achievement in the post-civil-rights era has been ambiguous—great success mixed with shocking failure. Myriad explanations for the failure have been advanced, but the account that attributes it to the limited mental abilities of blacks is singular in its suggestion that we must learn to live with current racial disparities....

The question now on the floor, in the minds of blacks as well as whites, is whether blacks are capable of gaining equal status, given equality of opportunity. It is a peculiar mind that fails to fathom how poisonous a question this is for our democracy. Let me state my unequivocal belief that blacks are, indeed, so capable. Still, any assertion of equal black capacity is a hypothesis or an axiom, not a fact. The fact is that blacks have something to prove, to ourselves and to what W. E. B. Du Bois once characterized as "a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." This is not fair; it is not right; but it is the way things are.

Some conservatives are not above signaling, in more or less overt ways, their belief that blacks can never pass this test. Some radical black nationalists agree.... At bottom these parties share the belief that the magnitude of the challenge facing blacks is beyond what we can manage.

I insist, to the contrary, that we can and must meet this challenge. I find it spectacularly unhelpful to be told, "Success is unlikely given your average mental equipment, but never mind, because cognitive ability is not the only currency for measuring human worth." This is, in fact, precisely what Herrnstein and Murray say. I shudder at the prospect that this could be the animating vision of a governing conservative coalition in this country. But I take comfort in the certainty that, should conservatives be unwise enough to embrace it, the American people will be decent enough to reject it.


James Heckman: Cracked Bell: "IQ rises with age and with years of schooling completed...

...IQ may actually be a better measure of the environment facing children than the measure of environment used by Murray and Herrnstein. They use IQ to predict schooling, but schooling produces IQ. Hence, they are especially likely to find a strong measured effect of "IQ" on schooling.

The same remarks apply to their study of racial and ethnic differentials in socioeconomic outcomes. If racial differentials in environments affect ability and influence measured test scores, evidence that racial differentials weaken when ability is controlled for using regression methods does not rule out an important role for the environment in explaining performance in society. In the presence of measurement error in the environment, the authors' analysis will overstate the "true" effect of ability on those outcomes.

There are methods for addressing these problems, but Murray and Herrnstein do not use them. They should have tried a variety of measures of family background to explore the sensitivity of their reported results to the particular measures of family background they do use. A strict environmentalist could justifiably argue that the evidence reported by Murray and Herrnstein simply reveals the crudity of their measure of the environment and the strength of the correlation between the test score and their measure of environment.

One important technical point worth making here concerns the method used by the authors to measure standardized changes in IQ and family background.... By restricting the range of the environmental variable they understate the role of the environment in affecting outcomes relative to the role allocated to IQ.

Finally, the book fails due to a lack of coherence. The argument does not cumulate in a convincing way. Too many seams are visible. Its case against affirmative action and egalitarianism in education, and in favor of the use of testing in the workplace, does not require acceptance of a single ("g-loaded") scale of ability, or acceptance of the importance of heredity in producing socioeconomic inequality. The authors' evidence of growing stratification by cognitive ability in schools and workplaces does not require that they take a position on how the ability is produced. Yet the authors argue strenuously for their narrow view of ability and its heritability and thereby distract the reader's attention.

Nor do the two competing visions of the future of American society offered up in Part IV naturally flow from the arguments and evidence presented in the earlier parts of the book. The first dystopic vision relies on stronger sorting and heritability mechanisms than the authors have demonstrated actually operate in American society. Even if IQ is largely inherited, there is considerable scope for intergenerational economic mobility. The extreme pessimism of this scenario ignores the warnings issued by the authors that even among persons in the lowest ability grouping, there is still a lot of socially productive behavior. Their pessimistic vision relies on unsupported assumptions about the skill bias of future technological change and the inability of entrepreneurs—and social institutions—to efficiently utilize unskilled labor. This vision might be realized, but it reads more like a story borrowed from science fiction novels than a plausible extrapolation of existing social trends....

Had the authors been more cautious, they would have told the following defensible story: They have produced very convincing evidence that by the late teenage years, essential features of the skills and motivation of persons are determined. These features strongly influence individuals' performance in schools, in the market, and in other aspects of social life. The Armed Forces Qualifying Test seems to be a good measure of the skills affecting social performance. Using the components on which the test is based, rather than one composite score, would probably capture the diversity of abilities in the population even better.

The authors have no good way to separate genetic from social influences on social behavior. Their environmental data are too crude and the AFQT score they use is obtained too late in life to make a genetic-environmental distinction meaningful. The authors would require much finer measures of environmental variables than they have at their disposal to rule out the importance of family and society in determining individual outcomes.

Nonetheless, their evidence and the evidence assembled from many government skill-remediation programs for adults suggests that persons are not very malleable after their late teens or perhaps their early 20s. Successful interventions for such people are likely to be very costly. The literature suggests a particularly poor performance of educational remediation programs for adults of low cognitive ability as measured by AFQT and other cognitive tests....

As for social policy, we should recognize that heterogeneity in experiences and endowments produces a wide range of cognitive skills and motivations. For a variety of reasons, treating persons fairly as individuals may lead to heterogeneity in outcomes among demographic groups. Denying individual heterogeneity by treating persons as members of demographic categories will produce disparities in productivity among demographic groups, reduce economic efficiency, and foster a sense of injustice among all participants in society.


Thomas Sowell: Bell Curve: "The name-calling and mud-slinging with which so many critics of The Bell Curve have responded...

...especially among black intellectuals and "leaders," are only likely to provoke others to conclude that they protesteth too much, lending more credence to the conclusion that genetics determines intelligence. Such a conclusion goes beyond what Herrnstein and Murray say, and much beyond what the facts will support.... Critics have largely overlooked... disputable points....

The greatest black-white differences are not on the questions which presuppose middle-class vocabulary or experiences, but on abstract questions such as spatial perceptual ability.... When European immigrant groups in the United States scored below the national average on mental tests, they scored lowest on the abstract parts of those tests. So did white mountaineer children in the United States tested back in the early 1930s. So did canal boat children in Britain, and so did rural British children compared to their urban counterparts, at a time before Britain had any significant non-white population. So did Gaelic-speaking children as compared to English-speaking children in the Hebrides Islands. This is neither a racial nor an ethnic peculiarity. It is a characteristic found among low-scoring groups of European as well as African ancestry. In short, groups outside the cultural mainstream of contemporary Western society tend to do their worst on abstract questions, whatever their race might be....

Perhaps the strongest evidence against a genetic basis for intergroup differences in IQ is that the average level of mental test performance has changed very significantly for whole populations over time and, moreover, particular ethnic groups within the population have changed their relative positions during a period when there was very little intermarriage to change the genetic makeup of these groups....

The work of James R. Flynn... the authors seem not to acknowledge the devastating implications of that finding for the genetic theory of intergroup differences, or for their own reiteration of long-standing claims that the higher fertility of low-IQ groups implies a declining national IQ level.... Even before Professor Flynn's studies, mental test results from American soldiers tested in World War II showed that their performances on these tests were higher than the performances of American soldiers in World War I by the equivalent of about 12 IQ points. Perhaps the most dramatic changes were those in the mental test performances of Jews in the United States. The results of World War I mental tests conducted among American soldiers born in Russia—the great majority of whom were Jews—showed such low scores as to cause Carl Brigham, creator of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, to declare that these results "disprove the popular belief that the Jew is highly intelligent." Within a decade, however, Jews in the United States were scoring above the national average on mental tests, and the data in The Bell Curve indicate that they are now far above the national average in IQ.

Strangely, Herrnstein and Murray refer to "folklore" that "Jews and other immigrant groups were thought to be below average in intelligence. " It was neither folklore nor anything as subjective as thoughts. It was based on hard data, as hard as any data in The Bell Curve. These groups repeatedly tested below average on the mental tests of the World War I era, both in the army and in civilian life. For Jews, it is clear that later tests showed radically different results--during an era when there was very little intermarriage to change the genetic makeup of American Jews. My own research of twenty years ago showed that the IQs of both Italian-Americans and Polish-Americans also rose substantially over a period of decades....

The implications of such rising patterns of mental test performance is devastating to the central hypothesis... that the greater fertility of low-IQ groups would lower the national (and international) IQ over time. The logic of their argument seems so clear and compelling that the opposite empirical result should be considered a refutation of the assumptions behind that logic.... Herrnstein and Murray... seem not to see how crucially it undermines the case for a genetic explanation of interracial IQ differences. They say:

The national averages have in fact changed by amounts that are comparable to the fifteen or so IQ points separating blacks and whites in America. To put it another way, on the average, whites today differ from whites, say, two generations ago as much as whites today differ from blacks today. Given their size and speed, the shifts in time necessarily have been due more to changes in the environment than to changes in the genes....

The failure to draw the logical inference seems puzzling. Blacks today are just as racially different from whites of two generations ago as they are from whites today. Yet the data suggest that the number of questions that blacks answer correctly on IQ tests today is very similar to the number answered correctly by past generations of whites. If race A differs from race B in IQ, and two generations of race A differ from each other by the same amount, where is the logic in suggesting that the IQ differences are even partly racial? Herrnstein and Murray do not address this question, but instead shift to a discussion of public policy:

Couldn't the mean of blacks move 15 points as well through environmental changes? There seems no reason why not—but also no reason to believe that white and Asian means can be made to stand still while the Flynn effect works its magic.

But the issue is not solely one of either predicting or controlling the future. It is a question of the validity of the conclusion that differences between genetically different groups are due to those genetic differences, whether in whole or in part. When any factor differs as much from Al to A2 as it does from A2 to B2, why should one conclude that this factor is due to the difference between A in general and B in general? That possibility is not precluded by the evidence, but neither does the evidence point in that direction.

A remarkable phenomenon commented on in the Moynihan report of thirty years ago goes unnoticed in The Bell Curv—the prevalence of females among blacks who score high on mental tests. Others who have done studies of high-IQ blacks have found several times as many females as males above the 120 IQ level. Since black males and black females have the same genetic inheritance, this substantial disparity must have some other roots, especially since it is not found in studies of high-IQ individuals in the general society, such as the famous Terman studies, which followed high-IQ children into adulthood and later life. If IQ differences of this magnitude can occur with no genetic difference at all, then it is more than mere speculation to say that some unusual environmental effects must be at work among blacks. However, these environmental effects need not be limited to blacks, for other low-IQ groups of European or other ancestries have likewise tended to have females over-represented among their higher scorers, even though the Terman studies of the general population found no such patterns.

One possibility is that females are more resistant to bad environmental conditions, as some other studies suggest. In any event, large sexual disparities in high-IQ individuals where there are no genetic or socioeconomic differences present a challenge....

Black males and black females are not the only groups to have significant IQ differences without any genetic differences. Identical twins with significantly different birthweights also have IQ differences, with the heavier twin averaging nearly 9 points higher IQ than the lighter one. This effect is not found where the lighter twin weighs at least six and a half pounds, suggesting that deprivation of nutrition must reach some threshold level before it has a permanent effect on the brain during its crucial early development.

Perhaps the most intellectually troubling aspect of The Bell Curve is the authors' uncritical approach to statistical correlations. One of the first things taught in introductory statistics is that correlation is not causation. It is also one of the first things forgotten, and one of the most widely ignored facts in public policy research. The statistical term "multicollinearity," dealing with spurious correlations, appears only once in this massive book...


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