‘The Bell Curve’ 20 Years Later: A Q&A with Charles Murray

Natalie Scholl, AEI Ideas, October 16, 2014

October marks the 20th anniversary of “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,” the extraordinarily influential and controversial book by AEI scholar Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein. Here, Murray answers a few questions about the predictions, controversy, and legacy of his book.

It’s been 20 years since “The Bell Curve” was published. Which theses of the book do you think are the most relevant right now to American political and social life?

American political and social life today is pretty much one great big “Q.E.D.” for the two main theses of “The Bell Curve.” Those theses were, first, that changes in the economy over the course of the 20th century had made brains much more valuable in the job market; second, that from the 1950s onward, colleges had become much more efficient in finding cognitive talent wherever it was and shipping that talent off to the best colleges. We then documented all the ways in which cognitive ability is associated with important outcomes in life–everything from employment to crime to family structure to parenting styles. Put those all together, we said, and we’re looking at some serious problems down the road. Let me give you a passage to quote directly from the close of the book:

Predicting the course of society is chancy, but certain tendencies seem strong enough to worry about:

  • An increasingly isolated cognitive elite.
  • A merging of the cognitive elite with the affluent.
  • A deteriorating quality of life for people at the bottom end of the cognitive distribution.

Unchecked, these trends will lead the U.S. toward something resembling a caste society, with the underclass mired ever more firmly at the bottom and the cognitive elite ever more firmly anchored at the top, restructuring the rules of society so that it becomes harder and harder for them to lose. (p. 509)

Remind you of anything you’ve noticed about the US recently? If you look at the first three chapters of the book I published in 2012, “Coming Apart,” you’ll find that they amount to an update of “The Bell Curve,” showing how the trends that we wrote about in the early 1990s had continued and in some cases intensified since 1994. I immodestly suggest that “The Bell Curve” was about as prescient as social science gets.

But none of those issues has anything to do with race, and let’s face it: the firestorm of controversy about “The Bell Curve” was all about race. We now have 20 more years of research and data since you published the book. How does your position hold up?

First, a little background: Why did Dick and I talk about race at all? Not because we thought it was important on its own. In fact, if we lived in a society where people were judged by what they brought to the table as individuals, group differences in IQ would be irrelevant. But we were making pronouncements about America’s social structure (remember that the book’s subtitle is “Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life”). If we hadn’t discussed race, “The Bell Curve” would have been dismissed on grounds that “Herrnstein and Murray refuse to confront the reality that IQ tests are invalid for blacks, which makes their whole analysis meaningless.” We had to establish that in fact IQ tests measure the same thing in blacks as in whites, and doing so required us to discuss the elephant in the corner, the mean difference in test scores between whites and blacks.

Here’s what Dick and I said: There is a mean difference in black and white scores on mental tests, historically about one standard deviation in magnitude on IQ tests (IQ tests are normed so that the mean is 100 points and the standard deviation is 15). This difference is not the result of test bias, but reflects differences in cognitive functioning. The predictive validity of IQ scores for educational and socioeconomic outcomes is about the same for blacks and whites.

Those were our confidently stated conclusions about the black-white difference in IQ, and none of them was scientifically controversial. See the report of the task force on intelligence that the American Psychological Association formed in the wake of the furor over “The Bell Curve.”

What’s happened in the 20 years since then? Not much. The National Assessment of Educational Progress shows a small narrowing of the gap between 1994 and 2012 on its reading test for 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds (each by the equivalent of about 3 IQ points), but hardly any change for 17-year-olds (about 1 IQ-point-equivalent). For the math test, the gap remained effectively unchanged for all three age groups.

On the SAT, the black-white difference increased slightly from 1994 to 2014 on both the verbal and math tests. On the reading test, it rose from .91 to .96 standard deviations. On the math test, it rose from .95 to 1.03 standard deviations.

If you want to say that the NAEP and SAT results show an academic achievement gap instead of an IQ gap, that’s fine with me, but it doesn’t change anything. The mean group difference for white and African American young people as they complete high school and head to college or the labor force is effectively unchanged since 1994. Whatever the implications were in 1994, they are about the same in 2014.


The flashpoint of the controversy about race and IQ was about genes. If you mention “The Bell Curve” to someone, they’re still likely to say “Wasn’t that the book that tried to prove blacks were genetically inferior to whites?” How do you respond to that?

Actually, Dick and I got that reaction even while we were working on the book. As soon as someone knew we were writing a book about IQ, the first thing they assumed was that it would focus on race, and the second thing they assumed was that we would be talking about genes. I think psychiatrists call that “projection.” Fifty years from now, I bet those claims about “The Bell Curve” will be used as a textbook case of the hysteria that has surrounded the possibility that black-white differences in IQ are genetic. Here is the paragraph in which Dick Herrnstein and I stated our conclusion:

If the reader is now convinced that either the genetic or environmental explanation has won out to the exclusion of the other, we have not done a sufficiently good job of presenting one side or the other. It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences. What might the mix be? We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not yet justify an estimate. (p. 311)

That’s it. The whole thing. The entire hateful Herrnstein-Murray pseudoscientific racist diatribe about the role of genes in creating the black-white IQ difference. We followed that paragraph with a couple pages explaining why it really doesn’t make any difference whether the differences are caused by genes or the environment. But nothing we wrote could have made any difference. The lesson, subsequently administered to James Watson of DNA fame, is that if you say it is likely that there is any genetic component to the black-white difference in test scores, the roof crashes in on you.

On this score, the roof is about to crash in on those who insist on a purely environmental explanation of all sorts of ethnic differences, not just intelligence. Since the decoding of the genome, it has been securely established that race is not a social construct, evolution continued long after humans left Africa along different paths in different parts of the world, and recent evolution involves cognitive as well as physiological functioning.

The best summary of the evidence is found in the early chapters of Nicholas Wade’s recent book, “A Troublesome Inheritance.” We’re not talking about another 20 years before the purely environmental position is discredited, but probably less than a decade. What happens when a linchpin of political correctness becomes scientifically untenable? It should be interesting to watch. I confess to a problem with schadenfreude.


Reflecting on the legacy of “The Bell Curve,” what stands out to you?

I’m not going to try to give you a balanced answer to that question, but take it in the spirit you asked it–the thing that stands out in my own mind, even though it may not be the most important. I first expressed it in the Afterword I wrote for the softcover edition of “The Bell Curve.” It is this: The reaction to “The Bell Curve” exposed a profound corruption of the social sciences that has prevailed since the 1960s. “The Bell Curve” is a relentlessly moderate book–both in its use of evidence and in its tone–and yet it was excoriated in remarkably personal and vicious ways, sometimes by eminent academicians who knew very well they were lying. Why? Because the social sciences have been in the grip of a political orthodoxy that has had only the most tenuous connection with empirical reality, and too many social scientists think that threats to the orthodoxy should be suppressed by any means necessary. Corruption is the only word for it.

Now that I’ve said that, I’m also thinking of all the other social scientists who have come up to me over the years and told me what a wonderful book “The Bell Curve” is. But they never said it publicly. So corruption is one thing that ails the social sciences. Cowardice is another.

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