Review of The Bell Curve

Kevin Langdon

Originally published in Noesis #104, April 1995

Copyright 1995 by Kevin Langdon.


A recent book, The Bell Curve, by the late, eminent Harvard psychologist and psychometrician Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, an American Enterprise Institute fellow, has stirred up a storm of controversy. Members of the Mega Society cannot help but be interested in the ongoing debate about intelligence, intelligence testing, and the heritability of mental ability, which has been much in the public eye lately due to the appearance of this book.

The research reported in The Bell Curve is standard stuff in the field of intelligence testing. The “controversy” reported in the media is largely a matter of attacks from outside the field—usually by people who lack the statistical background to understand what they’re criticizing.

The following are excerpts from the introduction to The Bell Curve:

For the public observing the uproar in the academy from the sidelines, the capstone of the assault on the integrity of the discipline occurred in 1981 when Harvard paleobiologist Stephen Jay Gould, author of several popular books on biology, published The Mismeasure of Man. Gould examined the history of intelligence testing, found that it was peopled by charlatans, racists, and self-deluded fools, and concluded that “determinist arguments for ranking people according to a single scale of intelligence, no matter how numerically sophisticated, have recorded little more than social prejudice.” The Mismeasure of Man became a best-seller and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Here are six conclusions regarding tests of cognitive ability, drawn from the classical tradition, that are by now beyond significant technical dispute:

1. There is such a thing as a general factor of cognitive ability on which human beings differ.

2. All standardized tests of academic aptitude or achievement measure this general factor to some degree, but IQ tests expressly designed for that purpose measure it most accurately.

3. IQ scores match, to a first degree, whatever it is that people mean when they use the word intelligent or smart in ordinary language.

4. IQ scores are stable, although not perfectly so, over much of a person’s life.

5. Properly administered IQ tests are not demonstrably biased against social, economic, ethnic, or racial groups.

6. Cognitive ability is substantially heritable, apparently no less than 40 percent and no more than 80 percent.

. . .

Having said this, however, we are left with a dilemma. The received wisdom in the media is roughly 180 degrees opposite from each of the six points.

The hottest point of contention has to do with the relationship between race and intelligence. The November issue of Discover contains several articles that attempt to explain away the race concept entirely, so uncomfortable are the authors (and apparently also the editors of Discover) with the idea that there are significant respects in which all men are not created equal. Actually, the highly significant differences among the races on mental ability tests provide one of the strongest arguments for fundamental divergence of populations.

There is a significant difference between blacks and whites in mean intelligence—a little more than one standard deviation for the U.S. population. It is firmly established that something like 70 percent of the observed variation in performance on I.Q. tests is due to heredity. The Bell Curve actually understates the strength of the evidence here. [1]

This information comes as a shock to many people, and the degree to which they are shocked shows the unconscious charge surrounding racial issues in our society. We’ve become desensitized to dirty words, but there’s still one genuinely taboo word, the “dirtiest” word in the English language: “nigger.”

As much as they’d like to feel that they’re beyond racial stereotyping, there is a pervasive fear of black violence—based on the stereotype of the black man as brute—in most of the white population, leading to propitiatory behavior toward blacks, including deference in language usage (like the deference to feminists of those who meticulously edit themselves for “sexist” language, though in this case it’s not violence but the concentrated wrath and scathing tongues of women that’s feared).

The stereotype reflects a statistical reality and evokes an instinctive reaction. This is just one example of the widespread fears about one another entertained by social groups and individual people; these fears give rise to many unconscious biases.

An impartial observer from another planet would not be surprised to learn that evolution has resulted in variation among human subpopulations in intelligence, as this is the case with all other measurable variables, such as height, weight, body proportions, athletic ability, etc.

The Bell Curve contains not only a body of psychometric data and inferences but also an analysis of what the authors refer to as the rise of a low-I.Q. “cognitive underclass,” disproportionately non-white, low-income, violence-prone, and with a high birth rate. Herrnstein and Murray estimated that the mean I.Q. of incarcerated offenders is about ten points below the general population mean. They went on to explore the policy implications of the rapid growth of the cognitive underclass.

Much of the criticism of this book has confused the policy ideas put forward here with those of the right-wing nuts who want to abolish welfare without giving a thought to how to dispose of the corpse; this is the same kind of gut-level, do-it-and-shove-the-consequences attitude that the Right rightly objected to when the Left set up all the entitlement programs that are now bankrupting America, without figuring out how to pay for them.

I don’t buy into the hand-wringing notion that society owes every bum who doesn’t want to work a living. I support the “workfare” concept; I think we can find something that any able-bodied person on public assistance can do to defray, wholly or partially, the cost of society’s investment in him (late-term pregnant women and new mothers can be considered temporarily non-able-bodied).

This is one side of the issue, but if we just cut people loose, without establishing the sort of retraining and other social support programs the proponents of welfare abolition want to eliminate, this cannot help but lead to an increase in crime (especially violent and predatory offenses) and emergency room visits, and to nutritional and other necessities-of-life deficiencies for innocent children of welfare recipients.

But Herrnstein and Murray are not “let ’em starve” Neanderthals. Here are their main conclusions on policy, from the last chapter of The Bell Curve:

As America enters the twenty-first century, it is inconceivable that it will return to a laissez-faire system regarding income. Some sort of redistribution is here to stay. The question is how to redistribute in ways that increase the chances for people at the bottom of society to take control of their lives, to be engaged meaningfully in their communities, and to find valued places for themselves. Cash supplements need not compete with that goal, whereas the social welfare system that the nation has developed in the twentieth century most definitely does. We should be looking for ways to replace the latter with the former.

. . .

We can imagine no recommendation for using the government to manipulate fertility that does not have dangers. But this highlights the problem: The United States already has policies that inadvertently social-engineer who has babies, and it is encouraging the wrong women. If the United States did as much to encourage high-IQ women to have babies as it now does to encourage low-IQ women, it would rightly be described as engaging in aggressive manipulation of fertility. The technically precise description of America’s fertility policy is that it subsidizes births among poor women, who are also disproportionately at the low end of the intelligence distribution. We urge generally that these policies, represented by the extensive network of cash and services for low-income women who have babies, be ended. The government should stop subsidizing births to anyone, rich or poor.

The authors have identified some important and generally overlooked social policy issues, but it’s easier to diagnose the disease than to prescribe a cure that will actually work.

For example, they call for replacement of existing social welfare programs with income supplementation, without addressing the reason that many programs were established on a non-cash basis in the first place: the epidemic of alcohol and drug abuse, gambling, and other forms of irresponsible, addictive behavior, particularly among those at the low end of the cognitive and economic spectrum.

I consider it unfortunate that Herrnstein and Murray chose to juxtapose the psychometric and social-policy aspects of their work. It seems inevitable that this will increase the public misconception that the basic psychometric propositions are controversial, in the scientific sense of the term.

Nonetheless, The Bell Curve represents a substantial contribution to public awareness of important issues. The wealth of statistical data contained in this book makes it essential reading for members of the Mega Society.


  1. Recent evidence suggests that only about 50% of the factors accounting for intelligence are genetic. The discrepancy is due to better data on prenatal environmental influences.


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