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January 19, 2007

A Charles Murray Reader

Charles Murray has another execrable article in the Wall Street Journal arguing that most children aren't genetically capable of reading well (it's possible these inferiors can, with great persistence and dedication, learn to sound words out), and so we should stop trying to teach them. Indeed, Murray argues that, "It would be nice if we knew how [to raise intelligence], but we do not. It has been shown that some intensive interventions temporarily raise IQ scores by amounts ranging up to seven or eight points...There is no reason to believe that raising intelligence significantly and permanently is a current policy option, no matter how much money we are willing to spend." But here's Howard Gardner, summarizing portions of The Bell Curve:

[Murray and Herrnstein] note that IQ has gone up consistently around the world during this century--15 points, as great as the current difference between blacks and whites. Certainly this spurt cannot be explained by genes! They note that when blacks move from rural southern to urban northern areas, their intelligence scores also rise; that black youngsters adopted in households of higher socioeconomic status demonstrate improved performance on aptitude and achievement tests; and that differences between the performances of black and white students have declined on tests ranging from the Scholastic Aptitute Test to the National Assessment of Educational Practice.

The mendaciousness amazes. Murray not only knows better, he's said so publicly. Anyway, the fine folks over at Cognitive Daily offer a quick slap at Murray's ignorance of cognitive development research, the very field he professes expertise in, but we should probably go a bit farther. Murray comes up every once in awhile, and I'd hate to begin each rebuttal from scratch, so here's a quick resource for readers trying to get a grasp on a debate that's now decades old:

The Bell Curve Flattened: As Nicholas Lemann points out, "The Bell Curve [Murray's most famous work] was not circulated in galleys before publication. The effect was, first, to increase the allure of the book (There must be something really hot in there!), and second, to ensure that no one inclined to be skeptical would be able to weigh in at the moment of publication. The people who had galley proofs were handpicked by Murray and his publisher...The result was what you'd expect: The first wave of publicity was either credulous or angry, but short on evidence, because nobody had had time to digest and evaluate the book carefully." Lemann, helpfully, returns to the tome a few years after publication, and looks into the peer-review of its claims: "The Bell Curve, it turns out, is full of mistakes ranging from sloppy reasoning to mis-citations of sources to outright mathematical errors. Unsurprisingly, all the mistakes are in the direction of supporting the authors' thesis."

Does IQ Matter?: Not nearly so much as Murray wants you to think. The best research shows that IQ is a relatively weak predictor of future success. In this article, two top authorities on cognitive development show that standard measures of self-discipline are much more important than raw IQ numbers. "Duckworth and Seligman conducted a two-year study of eighth graders, combining several measures of self-discipline for a more reliable measure, and also assessing IQ, achievement test scores, grades, and several other measures of academic performance. Using this better measure of self-discipline, they found that self-discipline was a significantly better predictor of academic performance 7 months later than IQ."

Cracking Open the IQ Box: Howard Gardner, reviewing The Bell Curve not long after its publication, explains: "the links between genetic inheritance and IQ, and then between IQ and social class, are much too weak to draw the inference that genes determine an individual's ultimate status in society. Nearly all of the reported correlations between measured intelligence and societal outcomes explain at most 20 percent of the variance. In other words, over 80 percent (and perhaps over 90 percent) of the factors contributing to socioeconomic status lie beyond measured intelligence. One's ultimate niche in society is overwhelmingly determined by non-IQ factors, ranging from initial social class to luck. And since close to half of one's IQ is due to factors unrelated to heredity, well over 90 percent of one's fate does not lie in one's genes."

Uncontroversial? Duncan and Digby explain the rhetorical mendaciousness used to buttress the scientific malpractice.

Not Just From The Left: To make sure these criticisms -- most of which are methodological -- aren't dismissed as mere defensives from PC lefties, here's Thomas Sowell eviscerating the book.

Wired: Katherine has a good suggestion on what Murray should be consuming in order to correct some of his addled assumptions.

David Brooks Gets Into Trouble Trusting Murray: Another example of Murray's inability to do math.

The 99th Percentile of Dishonest: Kevin Carey details Murray's habit of asserting that no one has answered question X, then pretending that he, in fact, has. He also notes Murray's condescending glorification of craftsmen occupations.

Murray's Appeal: Rob Farlyey explains, The successful in any position like to believe that they win because they are good. The less capable are left behind because they are, well, less capable. Accepting that racism and misogyny corrupt our institutions means abandoning this meritocratic fantasy...If our institutions are not meritocratic, then our presence at the top of those institutions may not be evidence of our merit. It is far easier, of course, to simply shake our heads and accept that women and people of color, with the exceptions of some prominent individuals, just aren't quite as good as the rest of us, the rest of us being white men."

Return of Murray: And lastly, here are some more recent comments on Murray from me, focusing on why journalists take him seriously and what sort of ideas he actually pushes. "Murray discovered and skillfully exploited a fairly foundational flaw among journalists -- their generalist nature. Most commentators are not wonks, and they're definitely not statisticians. Therefore, when faced with one of Murray's opuses, they're dazzled by the array of statistics, multivariate regression analyses, and other impressive techniques he uses, the flaws of which the reviewers are often ill-equipped to assess. Murray incapacitates them by talking over them, and few writers want to risk a humiliating display of ignorance by engaging his dense substance. So there’s a lot of ambivalence as to his conclusions, but much enthusiasm for his boldness and intellectual courage, virtues that self-important commentators feel well-equipped to identify. "

January 19, 2007 | Permalink


Our school district takes students from a nearby failed urban district on a voluntary basis. Some of these kids come into second grade in our district not knowing how to read at all. (this district has a goal of 100% reading by end of first grade; our previous district, with a higher disadvantaged population, had a goal of 100% reading by end of kindergarten).

My spouse volunteers as a classroom assistant, and this year has been assigned a lot of 1-on-1 reading tutoring and enrichment. He was just commenting the other day how exciting it is to only be in January and already seeing some of these kids powering up almost to grade-level readings skills (again - from zero!).

"Not capable" - baloney. Some of the boys had never had a book about trucks or a comic book read aloud and explained to them. When my spouse sat down and did that they started running after him every time he came in the door.


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Jan 19, 2007 11:21:26 AM

Thanks for the links. I read Murray's three articles this week and intended to look for rebuttals. You saved me a lot of time.

Posted by: Emma Zahn | Jan 19, 2007 11:22:41 AM

Ezra--thanks for the one-stop shopping!
Cranky--isn't it amazing how well any kid can learn with 1-on-1 tutoring? But, still, the President says it would be crazy to spend 1.2 trillion dollars on tutoring for inner city kids. But it's fine to spend it starting a civil war in someone else's nation.

Posted by: Redbeard | Jan 19, 2007 11:42:08 AM

I don't want to make the mistake of thinking anecdotes (even my own, superior ones) are data. But I still have to make my own judgements, and my own experience in the corporate world and through close involvement with many aspects of the K-12 educational world is that 95% or better of all humans can achieve a _minimum_ of a 10th grade reading/math/general comprehension level given the right motivational spark and resources. What that spark is for each person is different and can be decidedly non-traditional ("You know, I could make you toolroom supervisor if you would let me teach you a few things about triangles") but when it hits the person takes off - often years after (mutually) rejecting the standard education system[1].

Whenever I hear or argue with the Murrayites my blood boils (per my first paragraph), but they are so persistent and fairly good in their misuse of stats that it is possible to start doubting oneself when against them. Which is why I also appreciate (per Ms. Zahn above) Ezra's collection of solid, verifiable refutations in one spot.


[1] Not implying any fault on either side here - the traditional system was/is designed for mass production, and it generally works, but by definition such a system will not work for some people.

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Jan 19, 2007 12:10:29 PM

"Ezra--thanks for the one-stop shopping!"

Yup. That's a helluva rundown.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 19, 2007 12:18:45 PM

I would argue that Murray's points should be ignored simply because he uses such a limited definition of "intelligence" - whatever that means. Howard Gardner takes on our social conception of intelligence in Frames of Mind, arguing that what we view as intelligence should be redefined as one of many intellectual faculties. According to his research in cognitive development, IQ is a socially biased measure of linguistic and logical mental faculties. If you're interested in learning more about intelligence, check out Robert Sternberg's Theory of Tri-Archic Intelligence.

Posted by: Carlos | Jan 19, 2007 12:46:15 PM

One of the unfortunate aspects of the Murray brou-ha-ha is that the issue of how raw IQ scores are improved by better nutrition (a result most visible in third-world studies) gets caught up in the issue of race and IQ. IQ is not "meaningless," but instead is subject to a variety of meanings, and while hardly perfect can act as a shorthand for a variety of different useful metrics (including intellectual development permitted within specific constraints). An effort at improving nutrition (especially addressing specific deficiencies in specific populations -- such as sub-Saharan Africa) could make a big difference for millions of people. Instead, we end up arguing about how Charles Murray is using IQ as a bludgeon for specific political reasons. Ironically, given his purported intents, he's set back (way back) the use of IQ to do any actual good.

Posted by: IP Guy | Jan 19, 2007 12:51:13 PM

Regarding the issue of IQ as a predictor of success: when people claim it is or is not, are they trying to model success as a monotonic function of IQ? And how do they define success?

For whatever worth IQ actually has as far as quantifying this hard to define notion of intelligence, I would imagine that, e.g., annual income would be highly related to IQ, but not in a monotonic way: I would imagine people with above average IQs would be earning more than people with average or below average IQs, because whatever IQ measures, it is measuring some aspect of intellectual fitness (if the measure is culturally biased, so what? earning potential would be effected the same way by whatever causes that cultrual bias ... if the measure doesn't measure genetics but rather upbringing, again, so what? and for the same reasons) to be "successful" in society. OTOH, the high IQ crowd, unless they've married well and/or have sold out to spread manure for the powers that be (a la the think tank inhabitants of the right), can achieve nice, upper-middle class lifestyles as professors or computer programers or such, but they aren't going to become rich doing so. Thus, I would expect that in modeling (monetary -- as that's what likely is gonna count for the crowd who's most interested in this sort of thing) success as a function of IQ, one would need to use some model with a correction term such that, for high IQ levels, predicted success goes down as a function of IQ.

Posted by: DAS | Jan 19, 2007 1:14:39 PM

Murray incapacitates them by talking over them, and few writers want to risk a humiliating display of ignorance by engaging his dense substance.

Sorry, not good enough. Shockley & Jensen did the same thing, & were generally viewed with skepticism. (Certainly, The New Republic never devoted an issue to their work.) It was a change in the political climate that made the difference.

The right has pushed these ideas politically from time immemorial, & they've always had their preferred experts. (See old issues of National Review.) After WW2 & the civil rights revolution, they temporarily were discredited, but with the recession of racial liberalism, they're back.

Posted by: KH | Jan 19, 2007 1:40:54 PM

On IQ: When I was in middle school my teachers were pushing for me to take the standard courses because they had decided that I wasn't smart enough to take the advance classes based on my grades up to that point. I pushed, and got, a battery of tests that rather than testing on use of words actually focused on the ability to analyze complex spacial relationships, understand patterns and comprehend complicated data. After taking that test, the teachers stopped questiong whether I should be in the talented and gifted program. I am just pointing this out to say that from my own personal experience Cranky is right about the fact that we each learn and understand differently.

Posted by: akaison | Jan 19, 2007 1:43:10 PM

I wish Charles Murray would go on Colbert or The Daily show and make those assertions. It burned me up that he got away with that racist crap back in 1993.

Posted by: d0n camillo | Jan 19, 2007 1:43:40 PM

Are IQ and success linked? How many people say their boss is smarter than them?

Good post, and good comments.

Posted by: American Citizen | Jan 19, 2007 2:07:31 PM

This comment is made in honor of my late, eponymous aunt who taught first grade for 45 years in Chicago in a number of schools serving students from different socio-economic and racial backgrounds.

She would tell you that the statement, "most children aren't genetically capable of reading well," is a lie. She love to teach students to read - little in life gave her as much joy and her life was one characterized by joy. She maintained to her dying die that if the teacher was well trained and willing to work hard and supported by a principal and d.s. who valued the time committment teaching all students to read well required, the number of students who could not learn to read would be exceedingly small indeed.

Her three sisters, all Chicago school teachers who taught in schools serving a range of socially, economically and racially diverse students, unanimously and emphatically agreed with her. But, they'd always point out that her opinion mattered most, because it was based on actual experience. I think the four of them would have rolled their eyes at Murry and then asked with a sly Irish grin - "is he a teacher, or is he from downtown?"

Posted by: Pudentilla | Jan 19, 2007 2:25:06 PM

Again with the charges of mendaciousness. Ezra, when you're accusing someone of dishonesty, you should at least try to properly represent their views and do better than cherry-pick views that agree with your own in response--that isn't the most intellectually rigorous approach.

most children aren't genetically capable of reading well (it's possible these inferiors can, with great persistence and dedication, learn to sound words out), and so we should stop trying to teach them.

Murray doesn't say anything like what's in the parentheses, and the last part is misleadingly ambiguous in a way that seems to say more than what he does as well. He's not against trying to teach these kids. He's against trying to teach them in a way that ignores their limits.

You quote Murray:

It would be nice if we knew how [to raise intelligence], but we do not. It has been shown that some intensive interventions temporarily raise IQ scores by amounts ranging up to seven or eight points...There is no reason to believe that raising intelligence significantly and permanently is a current policy option, no matter how much money we are willing to spend.

The quote you give from Gardner in response doesn't show that Murray has contradicted himself. Without having read The Bell Curve, I can pretty well guess that the 15-point rise in IQ (meaning IQ scores, I assume) over time reported in the book wasn't due to the "intensive interventions" Murray refers to in his new piece. The rest of what Murray said must be read carefully in the context of his arguments. First, he is speaking there of raising "intelligence," not IQ scores, which he explains represent both test artifacts and a real underlying general intellectual ability he calls "g." It's the latter he's referring to in the second part of the quote as "intelligence," as he makes clear when he directly addresses the point you rebut him with, immediately following what you quote from him:

Nor can we look for much help from the Flynn Effect, the rise in IQ scores that has been observed internationally for several decades. Only a portion of that rise represents an increase in g, and recent studies indicate that the rise has stopped in advanced nations.

Gardner's quote doesn't rebut that.

Murray gives arguments making a prima facie case that we aren't paying enough attention to limits on intelligence, and that we've come close to maxing out what we can do in raising intelligence. He could well be right on the first point; I rather doubt he's right about the second. But to know, his arguments would have to be dealt with more forthrightly and carefully than they have been here.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jan 19, 2007 3:07:36 PM

I find the left's virulent reaction against Murray amusing, but probably from a different angle than some might expect. Many times the author of this blog and many of its posters proudly proclaim their membership in the "reality based community" and occassionally condemn the "christianists" and other faith-based communities. But isn't the reaction to Murray's central thesis--intelligence is heritable--really a faith-based reaction? If you deny the existence of God, then isn't the only way anything gets passed is through the genes? Are you saying that while genes give you your hair color, eye color, proclivity to breast cancer, heart disease, down's syndrome, schizophrenia, depression and a myriad of other health isssues but they can have no affect on intelligence? IF intelligence is heritable then there HAS to be differences among people based on their parents and family groups. Smart people reproducing with other smart people will have on average smarter children than dumb people reproducing with other dumb people. The only way to deny this is to say their are no smart or dumb people, which again many posters here insist their are plenty of dumb people out there, since they occassionally call me dumb, but I digress.

If you buy evolution, then the only way ANY trait gets passed on is through the genes. If you accept the fact that there is a variation in intelligence, Murray has to be right generally if not specifically in saying there is a bell curve on intelligence. I do not see how this can be controversial to the "reality based community" unless they are claiming evolution worked out so we all have equal intelligence.

My own view is that God has indeed endowed us each with our own gifts and talents and all people our equal in the eyes of the creator. But alas, I am a rabid christianist.

Posted by: Scott | Jan 19, 2007 3:13:46 PM

> Smart people reproducing with other smart
> people will have on average smarter children
> than dumb people reproducing with other dumb
> people.

I am no geneticist, but I can tell you right off the bat that even if this mysterious, undefinable, ever-mallable "g" is genetically heritable, it don't necessarily work that way. As an example, the French, German, and Russian nobility all tried the "breed smart to smart" theory and the end result was unviable inbred lines, with the defects vastly overwhelming any purported benefits in intelligence. Even in characteristics which clearly _are_ strongly heritable, such as hair color, a family of 9 children (I grew up in a Catholic neighborhood; so sue me) will show wide variation and some unexpected outcomes.

Or for a simpler example: Columbian coffee is good. Kenyan coffee is good. Mix Columbian and Ethopian coffee and you get: undrinkable battery acid.

But in any case, my personal observation is that most humans use at most 40% of their native "intelligence" (again, whatever that is: this "g" thing seems to mutate faster than a family of fruit flys trapped in a nuclear reactor - and it always fits the polemicist's need). Environment, drive, determination, luck, and, hey, /starting point/ generate the ultimate outcome.


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Jan 19, 2007 3:48:00 PM

Along with my degree in politics amd law, my other degree is in Biology, especially focused on genetics.

Scott- stop embarassing yourself. The writer in question may be engaged in social science, but he's most certainly not engaged in science.

Science requires the observation of a phenomenon, followed by theories to explain the phenomenon that can then be tested through experimentation from which the scientist can discern measurable results to prove or disprove the description of the thing one is examining.

That's not happening here. No where close to it. Because its not happening here- it's not a science, no more than those who used to measure the bumps on people's skull to measure intelligence were in engaged in science.

The problem with the left and right (notice that I say both) when it comes to science is that you don't understand it so you try to reframe the narraritive of actual science in terms that you do understand- attempts to explain social phonemon through pseudo science. I have seen this on the discussion of human sexuality as well. On the left you have the queer theory people who askew the science in favor of theories on gender and sexuality from the social sciences. On the right, you get similar results.

The result is that like Scott- you tend to embarass yourself. Please stop. Intelligence is a hard thing to measure not because there aren't any underlying biological elements to it, but because you are dealing with a complex of both biological and environmental foces that are intertwined.

Trying to figure out the biological component is next to impossible to do ethically in terms of genetics, etc because of what one would have to do to figure out the answer.

For the record, we have only recently uncovered the full human genome. As James Watson, one of the fathers of genetics, recently said, this mean we are just begining. On the subject of cancer which is probably far easier to understand than something like intelligence, it is the case that we will have to wait a while to understand just those genes and how they work and how to make vaccines specific to individual cancers on a genetic level. This will be a cake walk compared to figuring out precisely what is the biological component of intelligence and how it works with nuture.

Posted by: akaison | Jan 19, 2007 3:49:11 PM

If you buy evolution, then the only way ANY trait gets passed on is through the genes.

Thanks for the capitalization, it makes it a lot easier for us to realize just how bonkers you are. This statement is the only real point of your long tirade, and it's utterly ridiculous. Were your parents Christianists like you? If so, did you inherit it genetically? Humans — well, some of us, maybe you should try it some time — can do this crazy thing called "learning".

But isn't the reaction to Murray's central thesis--intelligence is heritable--really a faith-based reaction?

No, it's not. Yet another example of Simple Answers to Simple Questions (TM). Murray made a much more specific statement than you seem to think, and as Ezra's links show, he made very weak arguments for it. Objecting to that is the exact opposite of a faith-based reaction. Also, atrios said something like this more than a year ago.

Posted by: Cyrus | Jan 19, 2007 3:50:46 PM

Ah yes, if you don't believe bad, methodologically flawed "science," you don't believe in science.

Posted by: Ezra | Jan 19, 2007 4:07:09 PM

the observation of a phenomenon, followed by theories to explain the phenomenon that can then be tested through experimentation from which the scientist can discern measurable results to prove or disprove the description of the thing one is examining.

Akaison, this does seem to be happening here. There is the observation that some people are more able in intellectual tasks, and there are theories and experiments to refine and test the models. It may not be as precise and simple as physics often is, but that doesn't mean it isn't science. Anyway, I agree with about the complexity of it, and I agree that Scott has mixed things up, but I think you exaggerate the unscientific nature of the study of intelligence.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jan 19, 2007 4:24:57 PM

For the record, I find Murray's conclusions generally abhorrent, but again from a humanist perspective rather than a scientific one. Whether he is scientifically right or wrong I don't know since I have neither the time or inclination to go over his book or conclusions. How about I try it this way:

Could Murray be right? Is it possible?

If you accept evolution completely, doesn't it follow that evolution is occurring for the human species right now and different populations of humans are evolving in different directions? If the Andean Indians were genetically 20,000 years removed from the Spaniards when they came, isn't it possible they went in different genetic directions? Therefore, isn't it possible that Andeans were smarter than Spaniards or vice-versa?

I'm certainly not a creationist or even a strong ID'er, just think God or whoever gave us some sort of spark that made us all human. But I fail to see how one can deny it is at least possible there are genetic differences among population groups. I personally do not think there are, but it is because of a religious perspective.

Posted by: Scott | Jan 19, 2007 4:28:07 PM

Scott, if your point is that some of the opposition to Murray isn't based on science but something more like faith, you're right. But I think you exaggerate the degree to which those who don't accept a religious account must accept anything much like Murray's views. You don't have to be religious to see that there are important nurture issues in intelligence. The debate with Murray is over the degree of genetic cause and its significance, both of which he tends to extreme views on.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jan 19, 2007 4:51:50 PM

The Flynn effect has stopped, Howard Gardner is unreliable, and the wide body of research summarized in The Bell Curve are fully supported and not considered controversial by cognitive scientists. Not that you care, or know anything about this subject.

Posted by: Johnny Thunders | Jan 19, 2007 4:57:07 PM

Sanpete- you don't understand what the scientific method is. I am not trying to be a smart ass, but you really don't.

Scott- there is no way he can prove or disprove his claim scientifically-that's the point scientifically speaking. When you talk of evolution you are talking about science not the humanities. And no you can not flip science as you are doing into a humanist discussion. That's just bizzare.

He's just making a random idealogical claim. I can claim that the universe is a circle but I would have to have some means of proving it for the argument to be taken seriously in scienctific terms. I could claim its a circle in the humanities and argue it in circles, but that's not proving anything- no more than you can prove an ought. You are also misuing the word humanist- I believe you mean social research.

Even on a social science level its poor methodology as Ezra points out. What are the controls here? What provides us a methodology of knowing these things on intelligence. You would have to have all variable be the same except the one being tested. How is that even possible here with the influence of socio cultural economic and political forces not to mention personal psychology at work.

Posted by: akaison | Jan 19, 2007 5:01:29 PM

Akaison, feel free to educate me, but you're very far from making your point. Your next step might be to show how I misunderstand.

there is no way he can prove or disprove his claim scientifically

Baloney. His claims are empirical and can be tested.

You would have to have all variable be the same except the one being tested.

You're confusing an ideal with the reality of science. A great deal of science, including physics, doesn't always completely isolate variables. Yet we learn important things.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jan 19, 2007 5:51:41 PM

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