How Media Let The Bell Curve's Pseudo-Science Define the Agenda on Race
When the New Republic devoted almost an entire issue (10/31/94) to a debate with the authors of The Bell Curve, editor Andrew Sullivan justified the decision by writing, “The notion that there might be resilient ethnic differences in intelligence is not, we believe, an inherently racist belief.”
In fact, the idea that some races are inherently inferior to others is the definition of racism. What the New Republic was saying–along with other media outlets that prominently and respectfully considered the thesis of Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein’s book–is that racism is a respectable intellectual position, and has a legitimate place in the national debate on race.
The Bell Curve was accorded attention totally disproportionate to the merits of the book or the novelty of its thesis. The book and its dubious claims set the agenda for discussions on such public affairs programs as Nightline (10/21/94), the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour (10/28/94), the McLaughlin Group (10/21/94), Charlie Rose (11/3/94, 11/4/94), Think Tank (10/14/94), PrimeTime Live (10/27/94) and All Things Considered (10/28/94).
In addition to the above-mentioned New Republic issue, the “controversy” made the covers of Newsweek (10/24/94) and the New York Times Magazine (10/9/94), took up nearly a full op-ed page in the Wall Street Journal (10/10/94), and garnered a near-rave review from the New York Times Book Review (10/16/94; Extra! Update, 12/94).
While many of these discussions included sharp criticisms of the book, media accounts showed a disturbing tendency to accept Murray and Herrnstein’s premises and evidence even while debating their conclusions. “While Murray and Herrnstein base their findings on various surveys and extensive research, many of the conclusions they draw are fiercely disputed,” declared Robert MacNeil (10/28/94). “You’ve written a long book,” Ted Koppel told Murray (10/21/94). “I assume a great deal of work and research went into it. But the problem is your book has become a political football.”
While Murray and Herrnstein were generally characterized as sober social scientists, their critics were sometimes identified with censorious political correctness: “Both Murray and Herrnstein have been called racists,” wrote Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen (10/18/94). “Their findings, though, have been accepted by most others in their field, and it would be wrong–both intellectually and politically–to suppress them.” Proclaimed Newsweek‘s Geoffrey Cowley (10/24/94): “As the shouting begins, it’s worth noting that the science behind The Bell Curve is overwhelmingly mainstream.”
Murray himself doesn’t think that the research they relied on was so mainstream. “Some of the things we read to do this work, we literally hide when we’re on planes and trains,” Murray told the New York Times Magazine (10/9/94).
Pioneers of Eugenics
As well they might. Nearly all the research that Murray and Herrnstein relied on for their central claims about race and IQ was funded by the Pioneer Fund, described by the London Sunday Telegraph (3/12/89) as a “neo-Nazi organization closely integrated with the far right in American politics.” The fund’s mission is to promote eugenics, a philosophy that maintains that “genetically unfit” individuals or races are a threat to society.
The Pioneer Fund was set up in 1937 by Wickliffe Draper, a millionaire who advocated sending blacks back to Africa. The foundation’s charter set forth the group’s missions as “racial betterment” and aid for people “deemed to be descended primarily from white persons who settled in the original 13 states prior to the adoption of the Constitution of the United States.” (In 1985, after Pioneer Fund grant recipients began receiving political heat, the charter was slightly amended to play down the race angle–GQ, 11/94.)
The fund’s first president, Harry Laughlin, was an influential advocate of sterilization for those he considered genetically unfit. In successfully advocating laws that would restrict immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, Laughlin testified before Congress that 83 percent of Jewish immigrants were innately feeble-minded (Rolling Stone, 10/20/94). Another founder, Frederick Osborn, described Nazi Germany’s sterilization law as “a most exciting experiment” (Discovery Journal, 7/9/94).
The fund’s current president, Harry Weyher, denounces the Supreme Court decision that desegregated schools, saying, “All Brown did was wreck the school system” (GQ, 11/94). The fund’s treasurer, John Trevor, formerly served as treasurer for the crypto-fascist Coalition of Patriotic Societies, when it called in 1962 for the release of Nazi war criminals and praised South Africa’s “well-reasoned racial policies” (Rolling Stone, 10/20/94).
One of the Pioneer Fund’s largest current grantees is Roger Pearson, an activist and publisher who has been associated with international fascist currents. Pearson has written: “If a nation with a more advanced, more specialized or in any way superior set of genes mingles with, instead of exterminating, an inferior tribe, then it commits racial suicide” (Russ Bellant, Old Nazis, the New Right and the Republican Party).
These are the people that financed nearly all The Bell Curve‘s “data” on the connection between race and intelligence. (Murray and Herrnstein themselves have not been funded, although Weyher says of Herrnstein, “We’d have funded him at the drop of a hat, but he never asked”–GQ, 11/94.)
Take the infamous Chapter 13, which Murray has often claimed is the only chapter that deals with race. (Far from it–there are at least four chapters focused entirely on race, and the whole book is organized around the concept.)
Murray and Herrnstein’s claims about the higher IQs of Asians–widely cited in the media as fact–are almost entirely cited to Richard Lynn, a professor of psychology at the University of Ulster. In the book’s acknowledgements, Murray and Herrnstein declare they “benefitted especially from the advice” of Lynn and five other people.
Lynn has received at least $325,000 from the Pioneer Fund (Rolling Stone, 10/20/94). He frequently publishes in eugenicist journals like Mankind Quarterly–published by Roger Pearson and co-edited by Lynn himself–and Personality and Individual Differences, edited by Pioneer grantee Hans Eysenck. Among Lynn’s writings cited in The Bell Curve are “The Intelligence of the Mongoloids” and “Positive Correlations Between Head Size and IQ.”
Murray and Herrnstein describe Lynn as “a leading scholar of racial and ethnic differences.” Here’s a sample of Lynn’s thinking on such differences (cited in Newsday, 11/9/94): “What is called for here is not genocide, the killing off of the population of incompetent cultures. But we do need to think realistically in terms of the ‘phasing out’ of such peoples…. Evolutionary progress means the extinction of the less competent. To think otherwise is mere sentimentality.”
Elsewhere Lynn (cited in New Republic, 10/31/94) makes clear which “incompetent cultures” need “phasing out”: “Who can doubt that the Caucasoids and the Mongoloids are the only two races that have made any significant contributions to civilization?”
Lynn’s fingerprints are all over the footnotes to Chapter 13. In discussing the question of Asian intellectual superiority, Murray and Herrnstein say that the affirmative position has been well defended by Lynn, but that the question can only be decided by “data obtained from identical tests administered to populations that are comparable except for race.”
“We have been able to identify three such efforts,” the authors announce–two that support the concept of Asian superiority and one that does not. A review of the footnotes reveals a sleight of hand: The two tests that support Lynn’s thesis were conducted by Lynn himself. (See New York Review of Books, 12/1/94.)
Media reports also treated as fact Murray and Herrnstein’s claim that black IQs are 15 points lower than whites. “For as long as Americans have been IQ-tested, blacks have trailed whites by that 15-point margin,” ABC‘s Dave Marash reported for Nightline (10/21/94). “Murray sees in the consistency of these gaps proof that intervening to raise low IQs just doesn’t work.”
But The Bell Curve cites as its primary sources for this assertion R. Travis Osborne, Frank C.J. McGurk and Audrey Shuey–all recipients of Pioneer grants. Osborne, who has received almost $400,000 from Pioneer, used his “research” into black genetic inferiority to argue for the restoration of school segregation (Newsday, 11/9/94).
And, in fact, even the data collected by these racists does not show a consistent 15-point gap. The studies they present show a wide range of results, ranging from no black/white IQ disparity at all to the absurd finding that most African-Americans are severely retarded.
As for the “consistency of the gaps,” even The Bell Curve acknowledges that more recent tests have shown a narrower black/white difference, ranging from seven to 10 points. SAT tests have shown a similar convergence. But Murray and Herrnstein warn that “at some point convergence may be expected to stop, and the gap could even begin to widen again”–because “black fertility is loaded more heavily than white fertility toward low-IQ segments of the population.” In other words, the bad genes will triumph, no matter what the evidence says.
That sort of circular argument abounds in The Bell Curve. Although sociologist Jane Mercer has shown that supposed racial differences in IQ vanish if one controls for a variety of socio-economic variables, the authors reject her method because their theories assume that low IQ causes people to be poor, rather than poverty causing low IQs. Similarly, even though IQ tests show that average scores are rising–by as much as 15 points since World War II–“real” IQs must be falling, since low IQ women are having more babies.
Giants in the Profession
Another person whose advice Murray and Herrnstein “benefitted especially from”–and who shows up constantly in their footnotes–is Arthur Jensen, whose very similar claims about blacks having innately lower IQs were widely discredited in the 1970s. The Pioneer Fund has given more than $1 million to this “giant in the profession,” as Pioneer chief Weyher describes him (GQ, 11/94). And it’s easy to see why: “Eugenics isn’t a crime,” Jensen has said (Newsday, 11/9/94). “Which is worse, to deprive someone of having a child, or to deprive the child of having a decent set of parents?”
Elsewhere, Jensen (cited in Counterpunch, 11/1/94) has worried “that current welfare policies, unaided by genetic foresight, could lead to the genetic enslavement of a substantial portion of our population.”
Murray and Herrnstein also rely heavily on Thomas Bouchard, whose study of separated-at-birth twins has “proved” that not only is intelligence largely genetically determined, but so are religiosity, political orientation and leisure-time interests. The Bell Curve uses Bouchard to rehabilitate Sir Cyril Burt, whose twin-based evidence for inherited intelligence is now believed to be fraudulent. Their logic is that Burt’s research must have been sound, because Burt’s findings closely resemble Bouchard’s, and Bouchard’s research is “accepted by most scholars as a model of its kind.”
That illustrates the sort of scholars Murray and Herrnstein associate with. More reputable researchers have raised many questions about Bouchard’s work: While other twin researchers estimate that 50 percent of the average variation in intelligence can be attributed to heredity, Bouchard comes up with 70 percent. Even the twin studies that came up with more conservative estimates of intelligence’s “heritability” (itself a highly dubious concept) are flawed because the supposedly “separated-at-birth” twins usually turn out to have been raised in close proximity; Bouchard refuses to let skeptics examine the case histories of the twins he studied, essentially rendering his research into so many “Believe It or Not!” anecdotes (Scientific American, 6/93; The Nation, 11/28/94).
Bouchard, of course, is also a major recipient of Pioneer money–“We couldn’t have done this project without the Pioneer Fund,” he told GQ (11/94). And he’s a colleague and mentor of (and has some peculiar views in common with) perhaps the crankiest of all of Pioneer’s beneficiaries, J. Philippe Rushton.
“More Brain or More Penis”
Rushton (who’s gotten more than $770,000 from Pioneer) has transformed the Victorian science of cranial measurement into a sexual fetish–measuring not only head and brain size, but also the size of breasts, buttocks and genitals. “It’s a trade-off: More brain or more penis. You can’t have everything,” he told Rolling Stone‘s Adam Miller (10/20/94), explaining his philosophy of evolution.
Rushton was reprimanded by his school, the University of Western Ontario, for accosting people in a local shopping mall and asking them how big their penises were and how far they could ejaculate. “A zoologist doesn’t need permission to study squirrels in his backyard,” he groused (Rolling Stone, 10/20/94).
Rushton’s creepy obsessions intersect with the ugliest sides of politics: A 1986 article by Rushton suggested that the Nazi war machine owed its prowess to racial purity, and worried that demographic shifts were endangering our “Northern European” civilization. Rushton co-authored a paper that argued that blacks have a genetic propensity to contract AIDS because of their “reproductive strategy” of promiscuous sex (cited in Newsday, 11/9/94). The other author was Bouchard, the author of those amazing twin studies celebrated in mainstream news outlets.
It’s not surprising that Murray and Herrnstein would defend Rushton, writing that his “work is not that of a crackpot or a bigot, as many of his critics are given to charging.” But it’s startling that a science writer for the New York Times, Malcolm Browne, would actually endorse Rushton’s book (10/16/94). Echoing The Bell Curve, Browne respectfully concludes his summary of Rushton’s bizarre theories with: “Mr. Rushton is nevertheless regarded by many of his colleagues as a scholar and not a bigot.” (“Browne doesn’t identify these ‘colleagues,’ but I expect he means Professor Beavis and Professor Butthead,” the Toronto Star‘s Joey Slinger wrote–10/20/94.)
Anyone who flipped through the footnotes and bibliography of Murray and Herrnstein’s book could see that there was something screwy about their sources. And there is hardly a proposition in their book that had not been thoroughly debunked more than a decade ago by Steven Jay Gould’s classic work on the pseudo-science behind eugenics, The Mismeasure of Man.
So why is The Bell Curve suddenly an “important book” that needs to have cover stories, news broadcasts, even whole magazines devoted to it? In large part, because the book is well-timed to take advantage of a resurgence of racism in U.S. media and society–a racism that does not want to face up to its own identity.
In a proposal outlining the book, Murray wrote that there is “a huge number of well-meaning whites who fear that they are closet racists, and this book tells them they are not. It’s going to make them feel better about things they already think but do not know how to say.” (New York Times Magazine, 10/9/94) The Bell Curve does indeed tell closet racists that they aren’t racist, and makes them feel better by saying that their prejudices are grounded in science.
The Bell Curve also fits in well with some current political agendas. The immigration issue has been seized upon by the U.S. right wing, as it has by the far right in other countries. Much of Murray and Herrnstein’s book is devoted to suggesting that “Latino and black immigrants are…putting some downward pressure on the distribution of intelligence.”
The connection between the book and the anti-immigrant movement is, once again, the Pioneer Fund; the fund has always feared immigrants, although its concerns have shifted from Poles and Italians to blacks and Latinos. The leading anti-immigration group in the U.S. is the Federation for American Immigration Reform (unfortunately sharing an acronym with the media watch group FAIR); the federation has received more than $1 million in Pioneer money, which was critical in getting the organization off the ground. (See Extra!, 7-8/93.) Pioneer also funds the American Immigration Control Foundation, a more overtly racist group whose work is cited by Murray and Herrnstein.
Similarly, the book also meshes well with conservative efforts to drastically restrict welfare spending. Murray has long been associated with the idea of eliminating welfare, and now with The Bell Curve he produces a eugenic justification: “The United States already has policies that inadvertently social-engineer who has babies, and it is encouraging the wrong women…. We urge that these policies, represented by the extensive network of cash and services for low-income women who have babies, be ended.”
For Their Own Ends
Many pundits carefully distanced themselves from the book, then made use of its claims to push their own ideological ends. In a New Republic column (10/31/94), Mickey Kaus argues against a genetic basis for IQ differences, saying, “There are obvious policies that might change the black ‘environment’ and therefore black IQ scores.” But what’s his example of such a program? “Abolition of cash welfare,” he suggests.
The McLaughlin Group (10/21/94) featured a whole parade of this sort of pseudo-critic: While no one wanted to embrace wholeheartedly Murray and Herrnstein’s genetic determinism, almost all were happy to make use of the conclusion The Bell Curve draws from the eugenic argument: that the poor and non-white are getting what they deserve.
Thus Pat Buchanan declared: “I think a lot of the data are indisputable…. It does shoot a hole straight through the heart of egalitarian socialism which tried to create equality of result by coercive government programs.”
And Michael Barone: “The implication of their argument is, if they’re right, that we really should not engage in a lot of government social engineering to create equal outcomes and so forth. They’d have to throw all the Chinese out of the Higher Math Department.”
Morton Kondracke found this message: “It does undermine the case, John, for racial quotas, which is the form of discrimination in our society.”
Clarence Page, the token liberal on the panel, described Murray as a personal friend, and gave a lukewarm critique: “It’s got some good data, but it’s Murray’s conclusions that he doesn’t prove.”
It was left to John McLaughlin, of all people, to say the obvious about The Bell Curve: “It is largely pseudo-scientific and it is singularly unhelpful.”