June 2006 Archives

The Bell Curve

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I've been re-reading Murray and Herrnstein's The Bell Curve, an old favorite of mine.

I read it when it first came out, while I was at college, in 1994. If you weren't at a university at the time, then reports from that era might seem odd, but The Bell Curve was seriously disruptive. Even Case Western Reserve University had a pair of seminars on the book, where professors and other folks went to comment on and discuss the book.

I went to one with a good friend and it was a real disappointment. No one commenting had read the whole book. Everyone spent time trashing Charles Murray, questioning how the book was financed, asking why it wasn't peer reviewed and so on. Peer review is useful, no doubt, but the everything else mentioned were ad hominem attacks and did not discuss the central thesis of the book. This ritual, legal but unethical, was carried out across America in churches and at Universities and no one had read the book.

I had. I had read it, found a number of mathematical errors, tried to work on the data a bit and had come to some similar and some different conclusions. Subsequently, a number of scientists with more patience and time to do so went over the book with a fine toothed comb and came up with a number of challenges.

Here are some of the theses that stood:

  1. Policies do not take differences in ability into account.
  2. Meritocracy creates problems, particularly stratification.

There were a number of theses which fell apart, as well, including the two below, which generated most of the criticism:

  1. Murray and Herrnstein contend that IQ is mostly genetic. It isn't. It is partly genetic. If you use the data that Murray and Herrnstein have used (the National Longitudinal Study of Youth), then you get a different answer than they got, closer to 40%. Michael Daniels, Bernie Devlin, and Kathryn Roeder write about it in the sedately titled Intelligence, Genes, and Success : Scientists Respond to THE BELL CURVE.
  2. Murray and Herrnstein contend that Asians are smarter than Caucasians, who are smarter than Latinos, who are smarter than Blacks. Since the book also postulates that smarter=better and that smart is genetic destiny, you can see where the critical fury came from. While the topic is controversial, the results purported by Murray and Herrnstein weren't. They were wrong (or as Wolfgang Pauli might have said, not even wrong). They made mistakes copying information from the data they used and made obvious errors in multiplication. Robert Hauser and Wendy Carter, over at the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison wrote an article that covers rationally the errors that Murray and Herrnstein made.

The reason that I'm re-reading it is because the two theses that still stand are powerful in their implications and a critical part of the problems facing a society that simultaneously values equal rights, meritocracy and upward mobility - or even de-stratification.

The current policy making structure in the United States clearly favours people who care about policy. A policy that is subtle and nuanced, with implications that ripple throughout the people it effects to acheive the intended consequence of the policymaker is considered a good policy - right? But, in fact, if you also care about stratification and equal rights for all, then there's a concern here.

All policies and all laws have flaws. They're not perfect. They're subject to interpretation by human beings and their application can have as great a role to play in their effect as their wording.

This means that, in a lawful society, a person who can unwind a convoluted policy has a definite advantage over someone who can't. The advantage grows the more convoluted the policies become. The more refined and balanced our policies become, the harder they are to follow and the more citizenry we disenfranchise - because some people are smarter than others.

I'm not sure what the efficient and fair way is to take differences into account when making policies is, but my instincts tell me that a combination of simpler and fewer policies and simpler and fewer laws would go an awfully long way. While it's beyond the scope of this blog, it would also help if the lawmaking process had a feedback loop in it.

As unlikely as it is that we'll ever resolve the tension between simplicity and completeness in lawmaking, it is even less likely that we'll resolve the stratification that results from meritocracy.

The playing field has become more level across the middle classes - which it has done, slowly, as corporate executives have recognized the value of the work of folks like Gary Becker and Ronald Coase. All other things being equal, a company that has a meritocracy in place will outperform the same company with any other structure (i.e. nepotic or racist or sexist biases). The bottom line is improved if you can successfully inculcate a meritocratic culture and most modern companies make the attempt in order to improve their bottom line - with the result that the playing fields are levelling.

Some governments have also introduced laws that have provided effective valves that vent the cycle of poverty, permitting those with the werewithal to escape. These policies have had the effect of reducing the transaction costs associated with labor mobility, making it easier for people to move around and switch jobs.

That's great for the economy at large and for the individuals who take advantage of them. What it also does is remove sources of support for the people whom economic migrants leave behind, creating far more entrenched ghettos. If everyone in a neighborhood with any talent has moved on, there's no one left except the talentless. This kind of ghetto is very difficult to tackle; the better you are at tackling the problem of poverty, the more hopeless the cases are that remain.

There's a neighborhood in nearby Glasgow that I think of every time this topic comes up: Shettleston. Google it. It makes Scotland one of the most violent, unhealthy, short lifespan places to live in Europe basically singlehandedly. The average lifespan is 56 years, nearly 20 years less than Edinburgh.

If anyone out there has any ideas, I'm listening.

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