n one of the numerous asides that made his lectures so memorable, Herman Kahn observed that the Hans Christian Andersen story about the emperor's clothes was psychologically flawed. It was impossible to believe, Herman said, that people committed to the wonderfulness of the clothes would instantly reverse course and accept that the emperor was naked, just because somebody pointed out this obvious truth. People truly committed to beliefs don't get turned around that easily. At a minimum, they would have furiously denounced the little boy who blurted out the nakedness news, just as they are now reviling Charles Murray and the late Richard J. Herrnstein for putting forward the data that give The Bell Curve its enormous explanatory power.
A howling mob of liberal commentators not knowing what in hell they are talking about is a dispiriting spectacle, and media reaction to the Herrnstein--Murray book has been infinitely depressing. I cannot remember any other work of scholarship, in any field at all, that has been assailed so cavalierly by writers ignorant of the material and manifestly unconcerned about accurately representing its ideas. I used to think that Mickey Kaus was a smart and serious guy. But there he was in The New Republic, attacking the authors for resisting "a near-avalanche of evidence that the black--white difference in IQ is a function of environment rather than heredity."
The avalanche cited by Kaus consists of studies he apparently learned about from The Bell Curve itself. Its authors judiciously lead readers through a wide range of studies, some consistent with a purely environmental explanation of racial IQ differences, some powerfully suggesting that environment alone cannot explain them all. Kaus points to several studies in the former group, dismissively mentions one in the latter group, and ignores the survey data cited by Herrnstein and Murray, which tell us that expert opinion is strongly tilted toward some genetic contribution to the gap. (In the survey by Mark Snyderman and Stanley Rothman of 661 scholars working in IQ-related fields, three times as many say they believe there is some genetic contribution to the IQ gap as say the gap is entirely environmental in origin.)
Kaus later turned up on CBS News proclaiming the book "deceptive" in its references to the gap and stating: "The evidence is all that it's mostly the environment." Although confusing and inaccurate, that statement would at least qualify as relevant if The Bell Curve said the black--white IQ gap was mostly or entirely attributable to genetic factors. What the authors actually say is: "It seems likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences. What might the mix be? We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; so far as we can determine, the evidence does not justify an estimate."
Many other commentators have obsessively focused on the book's discussion of a possible genetic role in the black--white IQ gap--but not so obsessively that they were compelled to get things right. Among these writers was New York Times economist Peter Passell, who reviewed The Bell Curve in the Times, signing off with: "At least Rush Limbaugh has a sense of humor." Several paragraphs before this putdown, Passell represented Herrnstein and Murray as stating that 40 to 80 per cent of the racial difference is genetic. He had evidently not read the passage on pages 298--299 in which the authors explain why those figures apply to differences within racial groups but cannot be used to estimate differences among the groups.
The same confusion reigned on the MacNeil--Lehrer NewsHour. There was Robin MacNeil stating that "many scientists" attribute racial IQ differences to "circumstances and environment," then showing a film clip of Murray appearing to disagree with the scientists as he mentions the 40-to-80-per-cent figures for genes. The Time essay by Richard Lacayo mentions the midpoint of those figures--i.e., 60 per cent, which Herrnstein and Murray identify as their best guess for heritability in the population as a whole--and, once again, leaves you thinking this is their estimate of the genetic contribution to black--white differences. Also not getting it is Washington Post staff writer Barbara Vobejda, who notes that Herrnstein and Murray "say they believe both genes and environment contribute to the racial difference," then counterfactually adds: "But they go on to suggest that genetic factors are more important."
Wandering among other examples of confusion in the press coverage, one comes to the portentous opening thought in a major (i.e., long) New York Times editorial. "The Bell Curve advances a grisly thesis: IQ, largely inherited and intractable, dictates an individual's success ..." In fact, The Bell Curve does not say that IQ "dictates" individual success. It says the opposite, in a passage italicized for emphasis: "Measures of intelligence have reliable statistical relationships with important social phenomena, but they are a limited tool for deciding what to make of any given individual."
Attempting in New York magazine to depict Murray and his supporters as wild and irresponsible ("Who, Me? Prejudiced?" is the heavy-handed title), Jacob Weisberg at one point encourages you to cackle knowingly because Arthur Jensen, "the notorious psychometrician," said at an American Enterprise Institute conference on The Bell Curve that general intelligence "correlates to cranium size." Jacob, you could look it up. The correlation is weak but always positive (around .2 or .3).
The collection of howlers was substantially augmented by the October 31 issue of The New Republic. The original plan for that issue was simply to run an essay by Murray adapted from The Bell Curve. The plan engendered mass hysteria among editors and contributors, the end result of which was an issue containing not only the essay but 19 other articles, virtually all denouncing the book; many of the contributors had obviously not read it. Typical was the overheated contribution by Leon Wieseltier, who registered particular outrage over the idea that "the fate of individuals is determined by their membership in a group," a thought that appears nowhere in the book.
It is clear enough what The Bell Curve's liberal critics want. They want its ideas suppressed. They want the data to go away. They want the authors depicted as kooks and extremists. The case made by the book is just too threatening to their own egalitarian ideologies, which typically depend on arguments for human malleability. Their arguments were crumbling even before this book came along, but until now it was often possible to ignore the evidence. Now they are reduced to misrepresenting it, and to lashing out at the messengers.