Posted on December 18, 2006

Charles Murray Reenters the IQ Debate

Alexander Hart and Kevin Carter, Special to AR News, Dec. 18, 2006

In his latest book, State of Emergency, Patrick J. Buchanan says ignoring the “great taboo” of race is “like not telling one’s doctor of a recurring pain that could kill you.” Mr. Buchanan was writing about immigration, but in the case of the racial gap in test scores, a better analogy is of a doctor unwilling to diagnose a disease for fear the truth will demoralize the patient. Journalists, commentators and politicians agonize over the gap, but the argument over causes never gets beyond racism, welfare, ghetto culture, and poverty.

Well, almost never. One of the few high-profile social scientists who discuss race and IQ is Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute. The Bell Curve, which he co-authored in 1994 with the late Richard Hernnstein, is by far the best-known book about heredity, intelligence, and race. While the left has relentlessly attacked the book, Mr. Murray has, compared to other scientific heretics, been relatively unscathed. He is still well respected by mainstream conservatives, and even by some liberals.

For some years after The Bell Curve Mr. Murray wrote very little about race and intelligence. After the controversy over Lawrence Summers’s comments about women at Harvard, however, he returned to the subject in the September 2005 issue of Commentary in an article called “The Inequality Taboo.” It stimulated discussion on the Internet but was otherwise ignored. On Nov. 28, 2006, Mr. Murray publicly debated the prominent egalitarian James Flynn at the American Enterprise Institute, on the question “The Black-White IQ Gap: Is It Closing? Will It Ever Go Away?”

Washington think tanks sponsor many symposia like this one, but even with prominent speakers, attendance is often low. On the occasion, the prospect that taboos might be broken brought out an audience of more than 50. There were journalists from Reason, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Newhouse News, and Inside Education. There were also analysts from beltway think tanks like The Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, as well as many of Mr. Murray’s AEI colleagues.

Both panelists agreed that the achievement gap has closed somewhat (Mr. Murray would argue that this reflects differences in teaching more than any real convergence in underlying intelligence), but they disagreed as to whether the gap will go away.

Mr. Flynn, who is political scientist at the University of Otago in New Zealand, took the view that there are no underlying genetic differences in intelligence between backs and whites, and that the achievement gap will disappear when social conditions improve. He based his case largely on a study of children born to German women and American GI’s shortly after the Second World War. A handful of these children were mulattos, and their IQs were about equal to those of the white children. Mr. Flynn admitted that this study is hardly definitive. The sample was small, and military IQ tests kept a proportionately larger number of blacks than whites out of the army. Likewise, black soldiers who were able to strike up liaisons with German girls may have been more intelligent than the average black GI.

Mr. Flynn’s only other basis for assuming genetic equality was a recent test that supposedly shows virtually no racial gap in intelligence for eight-month old infants. During the question period, someone in the audience pointed out that Prof. Philippe Rushton has found that blacks develop physically more quickly than whites and Asians, so that an intelligence gap might well not appear until later. Mr. Murray agreed that this was possible, and noted also that there is no height gap between the sexes at infancy. He added that he seriously doubted the validity of infant IQ tests.

Mr. Murray had a much larger body of evidence on which to base his arguments. Relying on the results of countless tests of intelligence, academic achievement and aptitude that have been administered for decades to millions of people, Mr. Murray demonstrated that the no matter how it is measured, the intelligence gap persists despite every attempt to close it. He argued that basic schooling and improved nutrition probably raised black intelligence somewhat until the 1960s, but that now there are no environmental changes anyone can think of that will make a difference. Mr. Murray also wondered why Mr. Flynn and other egalitarians base their conclusions on a few obscure studies while ignoring the many comprehensive surveys that undercut their position.

Although the debate was not about No Child Left Behind, with its mandate that schools be categorized as “failing” if they do not close the racial gap, it was clearly on the minds of Mr. Murray and many in the audience. There has been much public hand-wringing over the persistence of the gap, but the only solutions “conservatives” propose are vouchers and charter schools. Mr. Murray said it was foolish to believe these will have much effect. He added that he wished he had done more to oppose NCLB when it was first introduced, and will try to prevent its renewal, though he conceded that no politician would dare adopt his arguments.

Someone named Henry Aaron from the Brookings Institution asked what may be the most insulting question one can put to a scientist: Was Mr. Murray’s position on IQ politically motivated? Mr. Murray answered patiently that the issue was “careful empirical data on interventions to raise IQ,” and explained that as far as public policy was concerned, even if race differences are entirely due to environment, every realistic way to try to close the gap has already been tried.

One of the more revealing moments in the debate was when James Flynn openly declared himself to be a socialist, saying government should do more to improve our lives. There is certainly no better way to expand government than to set it to work trying to solve an insoluble problem.

Powerful though it was, Mr. Murray’s presentation may have been a little too technical for his listeners. Mr. Flynn, who has the air of an Oxford don, did a better job presenting his views, and in any case, they were what the audience wanted to hear.

Even though he is almost certainly wrong on the central question, there is much to be said for Mr. Flynn. Unlike many other egalitarians, he agrees that IQ is a meaningful concept and that there is a racial gap. He has also vigorously defended dissident scholars such as Mr. Murray, Arthur Jensen, and Philippe Rushton from vilification.

Mr. Murray concluded by saying he believed the Human Genome Project and other genetic research will eventually make it impossible to dispute the hereditarian view of race differences. He seemed almost to suggest that he will sit on the sidelines while the accumulating evidence forces the egalitarians to recant. Let us hope Mr. Murray does not withdraw from this fight. The stakes are too high; every voice of reason is an important one.

Moreover, Mr. Murray’s faith in genetic research may be misplaced. When Bruce Lahn of the University of Chicago first discovered racial differences in the distribution of brain- and intelligence-related genes, he sought publicity for his research, and the university considered applying for patents based on his research. Then the forces of orthodoxy swung into action. The university abandoned its plans for patents, and Dr. Lahn decided to change his field of research. “It’s getting too controversial,” he explained, adding that he is warming to the idea that some knowledge may not be worth having.

Dr. Lahn grew up in China, and was spared the early years of egalitarian and diversity cheerleading to which Americans are subjected. He is also Asian, which gives him some degree of protective coloring against charges of “racism.” If even he has been frightened off the scientific trail, we can count on very few to stick to it.

The genes implicated in intelligence will surely be discovered, but there will be huge resistance to publishing any data that suggest they are not equally distributed among all races. Even if such findings are published, the media will ignore them. When the occasional dissident cites them, the orthodox will dismiss them as “decisively refuted” — just as people who have never read it dismiss The Bell Curve.

Even after the terrible abuse Mr. Murray received because of The Bell Curve he may yet underestimate the massive moral commitment the United States has made to the dogma of across-the-board racial equality. People who have ignored the available evidence are likely to ignore genetic evidence, and people who know better will be afraid to speak out. The truth needs the help of men like Charles Murray more than ever.