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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Okay everybody- don't slit my throat on this one...but I think free easy to access birth control/ women's health clinics in low income areas need to exist. I know SO many families that have 5 children under 8 years old- some have more or include children from other marriages/relationships. It's too much. We have after school programs that some families come to simply to get a free meal for their entire family.

Young girls and boys need to understand the cause and effect relationship between sex and babies. They are curious but everyone is afraid to tell them...

I also think that a socialist medical system might help. People who are on the edge of poverty can be easily pushed in by a family illness or lack of preventative health care. This one is more of a theory- but it's based on a situationI have witnessed- though that doesn't seem to help in Shettleston.

Last of all- I think the US government should be spending on it's schools and teachers the way it funds scientific research and development within government organizations. For example- all of my reciepts for anything spent on my classroom would be refunded with almost no questions asked.

"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."

On a note, due to ethical standards and certain temporal issues, every genetics study that has been done is questionable at best. Furthermore, the accepted standards of interpretation of certain fields studying genetics (i.e. making conclusions based on demographic surveys = irrevocably flawed) are embarrassingly low. Any study making claims about a genetic cause is dubious at best.
That is all. Carry on.

Hey, Mensch.

Surely you mean every sociological genetics study that has been done is questionable at best. I'd be willing to stake my shares in Celera Genomics that not all genetics is bad science.


Good to see you, little brother!

Yes, you're certainly right, that there are genetic studies that have merit. Yes, there is no such thing as a relevant/meaningful sociological genetic study. Furthermore, I haven't seen anything in biopsychology that is worth reading, except as a debunking excercise for highschoolers.

However, it does stand that "true experiments" with human genetics violates the ethical standards of most of the institutions with the capacity for such research (and there are very very few indeed). Otherwise, genetics relies very heavily on guesswork statistics such as correlates and percentages (see post) which is a tacit admission of the field's imprecision.

Furthermore, it should be remembered that any treatise that begins suggesting that Africans are somewhat, genetically, amiss should be outright rejected. Not on the grounds of a social equality argument (though those are certainly equally strong, for different reasons), but rather that the African continent accounts for the vast majority of human genetic diversity, subsuming most of the rest of the world with the exception of very small regional mutations.

P.s. good to see you too, bro:)

Genetics research, in the field of biology - not the social sciences - is rather viable. And not all genetics research requires human embryos or tortured prisoners for its work. Genetics is the field that Charlotte is in (Danio's sis). If it were unethical, I don't think she'd be there. And she is very precise.

I know this is not your intent, but when I read articles like this one, I just feel stupid. I haven't read the book. I don't know much about what you all are talking about, yet, I feel that what little I do here at the Women's Center, works to tip the scales, break the cycle of poverty. At least, I hope so. I think what we deal with, though, more often than not, is situational poverty rather than long-term, generational poverty. I think that is much tougher to crack.

Was my comment so awful you chose not to post it!? I know it was controversial bu wow- I can't believe I've been denied on YOUR blog. Maybe you didn't get it?

My comment was basically free, accessible, quality health care and birth control. Babies are wicked expensive and the poor seem to procreate at an alarming rate. I had so many students that were one of five from one marriage/ relationship and there were still more living in the house from other fathers.

When it comes to people who are poor and the availability of free, quality health care and birth control, culture has much to do with that rate of procreation. Free birth control is available, and although it may be a challenge to get, it's not impossible. Much of poor and black culture regarding procreation is still reeling from the discrimination that they've faced in the past. Black women were given the pill like candy right after it was developed (and white women needed to pay for it and get prescriptions). Poor people and minorities for years and years have been coerced into sterilization. After facing this subtle and government-sponsored attempt at genocide, it makes a lot of sense that the culture would embrace having many children and having them soon. Although, I definitely agree that free/accessible/quality health care and birth control are incredibly important and that we should always be striving to improve our current system.

The flip side of that - the side Mommy works with - is that even though it is available, many people don't KNOW about it. (Maman helps them make the connection) It's a frustrating cycle of poverty - how do you get the help if you don't know it's out there?

Hey, Rae!

Sorry about that; it got stuck for some reason in the anti-spam section. Please forgive me for not checking; my bad.

It's rare for a comment to not get through when it has no URL's, so I'm not sure what was up.

Anyway, I've read through it and have comments - but I've got to get to work!

N8-Dawg, what the hell are you doing with your life? Send me an email from whatever account you're using these days.

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