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Biology 103
2001 Third Web Report
On Serendip

The Bell Curve: An illustration of the existence of social science as a social problem

Vivian Bishay

If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin(1)

The 1994 publication of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, revisits primordial studies of IQ. Co-authors Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray reinstate the undisputed difference in mean IQ scores between the white European population of the United States and the African-American population. (2) The psychometrician novelists summarize the work of previous decades in psychometrics and policy studies, and report their own results. The controversy, skepticism, and condemnation that resulted from the book's publication are attributed to the author's affirmation that between 40% and 80% of IQ is heritable. (2).This blunt statement of genetic and racial intellectual possibilities has engrossed the attention of not only the intelligence testing community and leaders of political parties but also everyone else who has "not actually read it...but will form an opinion of it." (2)

Whether these opinions are supportive, or dismissive, they are of utmost gravity, as race is irrefutably a pillar and mainstay in our society. I believe that the existence of social science as an advocate of racial division is a phenomenon as old as the discipline itself. The Bell Curve is simply the latest of "scientific" propaganda making legitimizing policy recommendations. The question at hand for such advocates of this notion is not 'For whom does the bell curve toll?' but rather, in a broader arena, 'For whom does social science toll?' On the other hand, members of the nonprofit Pioneer Fund, which supported, via grants to universities, the work of researchers whose publications were cited in The Bell Curve, maintain that the controversy surrounding the study is an example of the unfair criticism aimed repeatedly by media at scientists who conduct politically incorrect research on intelligence. (4)

Charles Darwin's revolutionary book, The Origin of Species, 1859, was the first literary work to give scientific legitimacy and assent to the ideas of racial superiority and inferiority. Seemingly, Social Darwinism was among the first concepts to originate the idea of European superiority as a part of natural evolution and selection, the fact is that the correlation between race and intelligence had long been theorized by European thinkers in conversation. Bernier, Buffon, and Gobineau set a pattern in racialist thinking by way of linking color to behavior and human ability. Buffon, the greatest naturalist of eighteenth-century France, was an abolitionist and argued that inferior races can be improved in appropriate environments.

While racial prejudice may be as old as the human species, the biological justification that has formed a primary line of attack has only been substantial within the past century. The initial biological theory supporting early scientific racism that was well tabulated and quantitative was that on craniometry, the measure of heads. Yet, it is important to keep in mind that virtually no one in the society at the time doubted the propriety of racial ranking-it was merely a question of whether or not you believed that a people's right to freedom depended on their intelligence or not (7)

In the case of The Bell Curve, the issue becomes how we apply Herrnstein and Murray's belief that IQ relates not only to school performance, but to jobs, income, crime, and illegitimacy; and that IQ cannot be ignored in any meaningful look at America's future.

Herrnstein and Murray state that social problems are thus "prevalent among people who have low cognitive abilities. Poverty, school dropout, unemployment, crime, welfare, illegitimacy, single-parent families, low birth- weight babies and deprived home environments are inevitable consequences of a growing lower cognitive class". (5) Herrnstein and Murray conclude that members of the "cognitive elite class, who measure in the top percentiles of cognitive ability, are thus becoming increasingly isolated" and "a deteriorating quality of life for people at the bottom end of the cognitive ability distribution has occurred over the better portion of this century." They go on to ask questions of how policy should deal with "the twin realities that people differ in intelligence for reasons that are not their fault, and that intelligence has a powerful bearing on how well people do in life?" (5)

A massive problem arises when we allow social scientists to suggest policy recommendations based on IQ testing whose ramifications could do irreparable damage to race relations and our preexisting notions of capitalism and equality. Murray himself states that in The Bell Curve the authors own political predispositions which have nothing to do with IQ are described; it is then explained why they hold these political predispositions, and having disclosed them, they tell the reader their strategic view of what ought to be done. (2)

Suggestions made by Herrnstein and Murray regarding the eradication of the welfare system we currently employ are earnest, but can we justify, even with the presence of such a considerable gap in intelligence among races, ending redistribution programs? Another issue that a significant amount of attention has been focused on is the limitations IQ has in measuring varied forms of intelligence. Herrnstein and Murray testify themselves that "with regards to the radicals and the theory of multiple intelligences, we share some common ground. Socially significant individual differences induce a wide range of human talents that do not fit within the classical conception of intelligence." (5)

Bearing in mind that multiple intelligence, talents, and not to mention Emotional IQ (EIQ), are not included in the studies of Herrnstein and Murray, how can their findings be significant or thorough enough to warrant the types of policy changes as well as the type of social-structural recommendations they propose? Personally, I feel that the very of existence of The Bell Curve today suggests that our old habits of giving scientific legitimacy and assent to the ideas of racial superiority and inferiority are still present. This need for one race to prove themselves superior to another creates a turbulent society and lifestyle, and also a massive social problem. Supporters of The Bell Curve see the flip side of the coin, to them social science is not a social problem, but rather a social facilitator.

"Mainstream Science on Intelligence" was first published in The Wall Street Journal, on Tuesday, December 13, 1994. It was signed by 52 internationally known scholars and outlines conclusions regarded as mainstream among researchers on intelligence, in particular, on the nature, origins, and practical consequences of individual and group differences in intelligence. Its aim is to promote more reasoned discussion of the vexing phenomenon that the research has revealed in recent decades. (6)

1. There is no persuasive evidence that the IQ BELL CURVES for different racial-ethnic groups are converging. Surveys in some years show that gaps in academic achievement have narrowed a bit for some races, ages, school subjects and skill levels, but this picture seems too mixed to reflect a general shift in IQ levels themselves. 2. Racial-ethnic differences in IQ BELL CURVES are essentially the same when youngsters leave high school as when they enter first grade. However, because bright youngsters learn faster than slow learners, these same IQ differences lead to growing disparities in amount learned as youngsters progress from grades one to 12. As large national surveys continue to show, black 17-year-olds perform, on the average, more like white 13-year-olds in reading, math, and science, with Hispanics in between. 3. The reasons that blacks differ among themselves in intelligence appear to be basically the same as those for why whites (or Asians or Hispanics) differ among themselves. Both environment and genetic heredity are involved. 4. There is no definitive answer to why IQ bell curves differ across racial-ethnic groups. The reasons for these IQ differences between groups may be markedly different from the reasons for why individuals differ among themselves within any particular group (whites or blacks or Asians). In fact, it is wrong to assume, as many do, that the reason why some individuals in a population have high IQs but others have low IQs must be the same reason why some populations contain more such high (or low) IQ individuals than others. Most experts believe that environment is important in pushing the bell curves apart, but that genetics could be involved too.

A number of the points under the category of "Source and Stability of Between-Group Differences" are replicated above. The fact that 52 known experts signed the documents agreeing on "basic known" facts about intelligence shows a certain degree of support in the intellectual testing community for the studies of Herrnstein and Murray. (4)

Furthermore, the statements on IQ made by the "Mainstream Science on Intelligence" documents are very similar to those made by Herrnstein and Murray. Bell Curve advocates hold the opinion that unfair criticism is often aimed at scientists who conduct politically incorrect research on intelligence. (4) If this is the case, then it seems, perfectly likely that a more passive, more politically correct, less abrasive form of The Bell Curve was perfectly acceptable when published in the Wall Street Journal and preceded by 52 signatures. The Pioneer Fund is one nonprofit organization, which clearly shows its support of research on human heredity and on individual and group differences in important hereditary traits, such as intelligence. (4)If it seems bizarre that the other proponents of The Bell Curve, are not blatantly and publicly supporting the research, the reasons for this are perfectly understandable. What does endorsing The Bell Curve entail? In an apparent way, supporting and openly praising The Bell Curve gives the impression of racism. The majority of society would look upon those feverishly upholding The Bell Curve as unabashed racists waving their newest instrument of legitimization and racist social policy.

Perhaps The Bell Curve controversy will never be resolved, as it involves the issues of intelligence and race, two facets of daily life too delicate to be intertwined and dissected by the scientific community. It is likely that the debate sprung up by the publication of this book will not cease within our lifetime. Aside from the fact that the findings documented in extensive IQ research is too difficult to grasp for the common person, we must also consider that it may not be something we want to grasp. Diversity as we've discussed it in class is essential to life. The effect of studies such as Herrnstein and Murray's on the future of diversity is restrictive and paralyzing.

Essentially, such studies are based on questions rather than solid scientific evidence. They perpetuate preexisting societal divisions, and tear us apart along racial boundaries. The purpose of diversity is thwarted, it no longer provides the trial paths evolution may proceed downward; instead we will be left with one path. What does IQ mean for a society that bases so much on numbers and statistics- SATs, GMATs, LSATs, MCATs, the list goes on and on-are we losing sight of our talents, special skills, and social abilities, the qualities that make us what we are and that simply cant be quantified on a numerical scale. If the policy recommendations of Herrnstein and Murray are adopted the foreseeable ramifications include genetic modification, a widening of economic, political, and social gaps, and in the worst case scenario racial extermination, or genocide.

WWW Sources

1)The mismeasure of man, by John H. Lienhard

2)For whom the bell curve tolls, interview with Charles Murray

3)Cracking open the box, by Howard Gardner

4)How smart are we about what we broadcast?, letter from Robert A. Gordon

5)Race, intelligence, and ideology, by John C. Culbertson in Education Policy Analysis Archives

6)Mainstream science on intelligence

7)Evolutionary psychology and the origins of bigotry and prejudice