While it seems innocent enough, a Sunday column in the Wall Street Journal by Charles Murray, the white nationalist and “race science” expert who co-authored a controversial book about genes and IQ, gives us pause. Is this man really the best person to tell us how to live our lives? Consider his advice on finding a soul-mate:
Personal habits that you find objectionable are probably deal-breakers. Jacques Barzun identified the top three as punctuality, orderliness and thriftiness. It doesn’t make any difference which point of the spectrum you’re on, he observed: “Some couples are very happy living always in debt, always being late, and finding leftover pizza under a sofa cushion.” You just have to be at the same point on the spectrum. Intractable differences will become, over time, a fingernail dragged across the blackboard of a marriage.
We find personal habits of pseudo-scientific bigotry objectionable, which is why Mr. Murray is just about the last person on Earth we would ever ask for relationship advice, or religious inspiration, or whether we should watch the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day repeatedly — all of which he advises us to do in addition to “marrying young.”
Sunday’s WSJ column is basically a promotion for Murray’s new book, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life. While the title suggests this tome might be less controversial than his more famous work, it is worth remembering evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s classic takedown of The Bell Curve.
The Bell Curve is even more disingenuous in its argument than in its obfuscation about race. The book is a rhetorical masterpiece of scientism, and it benefits from the particular kind of fear that numbers impose on nonprofessional commentators. It runs to 845 pages, including more than a hundred pages of appendixes filled with figures. So their text looks complicated, and reviewers shy away with a knee–jerk claim that, while they suspect fallacies of argument, they really cannot judge. In the same issue of The New Republic as Murray and Herrnstein’s article, Mickey Kaus writes, “As a lay reader of ‘The Bell Curve,’ I am unable to judge fairly,” and Leon Wieseltier adds, “Murray, too, is hiding the hardness of his politics behind the hardness of his science. And his science, for all I know, is soft…. Or so I imagine. I am not a scientist. I know nothing about psychometrics.” And Peter Passell, in the Times: “But this reviewer is not a biologist, and will leave the argument to experts.”
The book is in fact extraordinarily one–dimensional. It makes no attempt to survey the range of available data, and pays astonishingly little attention to the rich and informative history of its contentious subject. (One can only recall Santayana’s dictum now a cliché of intellectual life: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”) Virtually all the analysis rests on a single technique applied to a single set of data—probably done in one computer run. (I do agree that the authors have used more appropriate technique and the best source of information. Still, claims as broad as those advanced in The Bell Curve simply cannot be properly defended—that is, either supported or denied—by such a restricted approach.) The blatant errors and inadequacies of The Bell Curve could be picked up by lay reviewers if only they would not let themselves be frightened by numbers—for Herrnstein and Murray do write clearly, and their mistakes are both patent and accessible.
A fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Murray has his own page at the Southern Poverty Law Center website, and it is quite a good resource for understanding exactly what is wrong with him. For example, Murray has made extensive use of “research” conducted by the sort of white nationalist pseudo-scientists who make Robert Stacy McCain’s neoconfederate heart flutter.
Murray whitewashes the individual people who provided the intellectual foundation for The Bell Curve. To take only one example, Murray and Herrnstein described Richard Lynn, whose work they relied on more than any other individual, as “a leading scholar of racial and ethnic differences.” In his many subsequent defenses of Lynn, Murray neglected to mention the many serious methodological criticisms of Lynn’s work, or his contributions to white supremacist publications including VDARE.com, American Renaissance and Mankind Quarterly, the last of which Lynn also serves on the editorial staff of.
The Bell Curve not only relied on “tainted sources” like Lynn, but is itself making a fundamentally eugenic argument. The central, and most controversial chapter of the book, focuses on the threat of “dysgenesis,” a term that Murray and Herrnstein claimed to have borrowed from population biology, but which in actuality was coined and has been used exclusively by eugenicists to describe the problem that their policy proposals were intended to fix. Dysgenesis refers to the supposed genetic deterioration of a population, but while Murray and Herrnstein wrote as though it represents mainstream science, dysgenesis is not considered to be a real phenomenon by modern evolutionary biologists. It is widely accepted only among the “scholars of racial and ethnic differences” that appear so prominently in The Bell Curve’s bibliography.
On reflection, Murray’s guidance for living and “right thinking” seems like a softer side of the same bigotry. “Marry young” is the sort of advice you give white children if you are concerned about the “browning” of America. “Take religion seriously” is a code phrase that means ‘adopt Christian conservative politics.’ Just as Murray tried to obscure the sources of his pseudo-science in The Bell Curve by burying them in hundreds of pages, the slimness of this volume at 146 pages conceals the agenda within it. This book pretends to be light pabulum, but its goal is to pass on the “psychometrics” of Murray’s bigotry to another generation.