The thing that puzzles me about Charles Murray

Posted by Sappho on March 15th, 2014 filed in Race


I see that some of the blogs I follow are discussing Charles Murray, again, the Charles Murray debate round umpteen, as a result of Paul Ryan citing Murray and making criticisms of “inner city” culture in the same speech. And I’m reminded of the thing that most puzzles me about Murray: how thoroughly discredited he is on one end of the political spectrum, and how thoroughly not discredited he is on the other. Here, for instance, is David Weigel, describing the gulf in evaluations of Murray:

… The stain of The Bell Curve has stuck to Murray for all of the 20 years since he published it. As he’s said, like when he defended Barack Obama’s post-Jeremiah Wright “race speech,” this wrecked his reputation with some people, and it won’t get un-wrecked. But the conservatives of 2014 don’t cite Murray for his race work. They cite Losing Ground, which still guides how they think about welfare’s effects on social norms, or they cite more recent work on inequality that stayed away from the race issue.

Not being able to read Ryan’s mind, I assumed he was thinking of Murray for his Losing Ground/Coming Apart work, and not for Chapter 14 of his book about how some races just ain’t got what it takes. I assumed that because Ryan wasn’t saying anything about race—not explicitly, though I understand the people who argue he was dog-whistling. Could Ryan have been so clueless as to have not realized that citing Murray would make him sound racist? Honestly, probably—it’s called epistemic closure, and there is no known cure….

Josh Marshall, to whom Weigel was responding, replies

To which I would say, maybe? Who knows? And really, who cares? At the risk of sounding wrenchingly corny, The Bell Curve is a bell you simply cannot un-ring….

The Bell Curve isn’t something you can write off as one might a bad novel from an otherwise great writer. It is connected to all his other work on social policy and goes to the heart what he believes about black America. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that The Bell Curve made uncomfortably explicit what was implicit in Losing Ground….

Part of this gulf I can understand. The central theme of Murray’s work is, not race, but inequality. Specifically, it’s Murray’s belief that all of the policies advocated by Democrats for ameliorating inequality are bad and wrong and doomed only to make inequality worse. That’s the bright thread that runs through his work, from Losing Ground, to The Bell Curve, to Coming Apart.

On the one hand, because inequality, not race, is Murray’s main theme (as Marshall puts it, “you can set the issue of race aside entirely and simply see Murray as the chief exponent of neo-Social Darwinism”), it’s possible, especially if you agree with his other views on inequality (as Ryan obviously does), to set aside his views on race as a minor note in his work, just chapter 14 in one particular book about IQ.

On the other hand, if inequality is the central theme in Murray’s work, just what he thinks about race isn’t that minor a note, given that racial inequality, in the US, is a large part (though nowhere near all) of our equality problem. And, in fact, he’s said more about race than just Chapter 14 of The Bell Curve. The Bell Curve, itself, contains, not just one chapter arguing that racial differences in IQ are largely genetic, but two more chapters fleshing out the implications of that argument by arguing that IQ scores in black people have the same predictive value as IQ scores in white people, and two more chapters (among the five chapters of policy recommendations) arguing that the rest of the book shows that affirmative action is a bad idea. If I bring up Losing Ground in Google Books and search on “black lower class,” I see that Murray in several places talks about the negative effects of black lower class norms of behavior (if Ryan was referencing Losing Ground when he talked about men in the “inner city,” he may still have had black men in the inner city, in particular, in mind). And, when I check Charles Murray’s Twitter feed, I find that he responds to the current renewed controversy about him by linking an article of his from nearly nine years ago, in which he slightly softens his argument (he now describes IQ differences between black and white as “intractable” rather than “genetic”), but still basically defends “The Bell Curve‘s scientifically unremarkable statements about black IQ.”

So, part of the answer to why Murray’s reputation as either obviously wrecked (the SPLC describes him as a white nationalist) or obviously worth citing, depending on which side of the political aisle you ask, is that it’s easy to view the race and IQ thing as either a minor theme or a major one in his work.

But there’s another part of the answer, that I can’t quite put my finger on. It seems to me that arguments that racial differences in IQ are genetic are marginal, these days, among Republicans as well as Democrats. A lot more marginal, anyway, than they were when I was young. You can find more people willing to argue that Obama is not a native born American, or that he’s so dumb that he has to use a teleprompter, or that he and his administration are somehow engaged in some sort of widespread turnabout reverse racism against white people, than you can who are willing to argue that there’s a strong case for a significant genetic component in racial differences in IQ. And if I happen on HBD (“human biodiversity”) blogs, the bloggers seem to see themselves as marginalized, by conservatives as well as liberals. (Maybe in some other post I’ll write about why I’ve happened on HBD blogs, but the short story is that they turn out to use some of the same resources – genetic admixture calculators, books that discuss immigration patterns – as genetic genealogists.) But, though I don’t get the sense that all that many on the right actually push the race and IQ thing, I also don’t get the sense that it’s seen as the kind of reputation wrecker that it is on the left.

And yet, there are lines that you can cross that will wreck your reputation (like the one that got John Derbyshire fired from the National Review). But the lines fall in a different place from where they fall on the left, and in a place that’s not that easy for me intuitively to grasp. I know what kinds of things you can say about race that will get you flack from someone like Josh Marshall. What will anger people at The National Review sometimes catches me by surprise.



2 Responses to “The thing that puzzles me about Charles Murray”

  1. Hector_St_Clare Says:

    I’d argue the opposite, actually. I think the argument that racial differences in IQ are genetic are much *less* marginalized today than they were in the early 1990s. Twenty years ago, people still cited The Mismeasure of Man as an authoritative rebuttal to the race-IQ claims. Nowadays that book has been mostly discredited (including in the pages of “Nature”, and you’d find very few people denying that intelligence, like most other psychometric traits, has a very large heritable component.

    Stephen Hsu, a race realist, holds a high rankng administrative position at Michigan State (my graduate institution) and his beliefs about IQ didn’t harm him. Razib Khan, another notable race realist, formerly had a blog sponsored by “Discover” magazine, and even those who disagree with him, treat him with some degree of authority.

    I think the sheer volume of studies on the heritability of cognitive and behavioural traits, since the mid-1990s, has buried the old ‘environmentalist’ arguments about IQ under a flood of data.

    For what it’s worth, my guess would be that the HBD types are at least partly right, and that the public discourse will shift in their direction in future. (They might be wrong, I wouldn’t be *that* surprised either way. It’s clear to me that the IQ gap isn’t caused by current poverty, or by discrimination, or any of that stuff, but there migh be more subtle environmentalist explanations that do explain it).

  2. Lynn Gazis-Sax (Sappho) Says:

    Hi, Hector! When I was thinking of a time when the belief that racial differences in IQ were genetic was *less* marginalized, I was actually thinking not so much of the early 90s, when The Bell Curve was published, as the late 70s, when I started college. And I wasn’t thinking so much of academia as popular culture. Remember when James Watson made his remarks about race and IQ, and people were so shocked? My sense, when I was college age, was that those kinds of remarks were *completely normal* for people of, say, pensioner age (and very much not accepted among my fellow college students). A lot of people who became adult long before the days of the civil rights movement simply took for granted the idea that there were racial differences in intelligence (a taking for granted that predates Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, and also predates at least some of the arguments that Gould was rebutting). And there were a lot of such people still around, when I was college age.

    How far opinion has actually shifted since the early 90s, I’m not sure. I think there were a few people in academic positions who would make such arguments then, but that they tended to be marginalized in their disciplines.

    Razib Khan is, whatever his race realist views, one of the best sources of information about tools you can use to process the raw data for your genome (which is why I was reading him when he was at “Discover” magazine, though I haven’t followed him to Unz’s publication).

    I don’t think there’s any question that intelligence has a large heritable component; the issue is that there are so many environmental differences, on average, between people in different racial groups that, even if no single environmental difference seems to explain the entire gap, the whole collection of them can produce a gap of that size.