Tuesday, August 8, 2017

responses to Murray's Bell Curve (two professional/academic and one pop)

I recently posted a summary of Charles Murray's complete, unedited, chapter summaries from his controversial book, The Bell Curve (co-authored with Richard Hernnstein).

A few months ago, in response to me sending the relevant links to a friend/colleague, he sent me links to two professional/academic responses in one of the field's top journals-- one from 1996; the other from 2012. (American Psychologist is the peer-reviewed journal of the APA and is rated 10th out of 129 journals in the field.) Later, he sent me a popular article on topic in Vox.

The 1996 article is a distillation of a 1995 report from a task force of experts whose purpose was to respond to Murray and Hernnstein (MH) and TBC. The 2012 article was an opportunity to update the literature, revisit the controversy, get a nice journal article for the resume, and take some pot shots at Murray. In the Vox article, the authors discuss TBC in light of a Sam Harris podcast interview with Murray and the Middlebury brouhaha (where illiberal students, posing as liberals, attacked Murray and his liberal host). Two of the three Vox authors are in the 2012 AP article. So, this was an attempt to popularize the academic article, extend its audience reach, apply the intellectual debate to current events, and mess with Murray some more. (As an aside, I want to commend this article by John McWhirter to the pile. I'll discuss it briefly at the end.)

In the rest of this blog post, I'll discuss details of all three articles...

1996's Neisser et. al.
In establishing the task force, the founders noted that an "unfortunate aspect of the debate was that many participants made little effort to distinguish scientific issues from political ones." One might quibble or even argue that MH did not do enough to separate science from politics, but when you look at the structure of the book and their conclusions, it's clear that they certainly made a strong effort.

Moreover, "the charge to our Task Force was to prepare a dispassionate survey of the state of the art: to make clear what has been scientifically established, what is presently in dispute, and what is still unknown. In fulfilling that charge, the only recommendations we shall make are for further research and calmer debate."All of that sounds good-- and again, one might quibble or argue with MH on how they handled the science, but it's not in good faith to claim that they don't make a good-faith effort. As for "calmer debate", unfortunately that call has not been heeded by MH's opponents, especially and ironically, those who haven't even read MH's work at all.

This article has little to say about TBC, at least directly. There is an oblique assertion early-on-- that MH and "many of their critics" have gone well beyond the scientific findings (78). One might wish for more precision in the assertion, but the article's purpose is not to engage MH and TBC per se. Moreover, it's interesting that Neisser et. al. take a vague poke at many of MH's critics-- either in the spirit of vague fair-mindedness or wanting to be or be perceived as agnostic on TBC.

They mention MH a few times throughout their lit review, either acknowledging that MH are within the mainstream in their citations of the field (82, 95) or they are on one (presumably respectable) side of a debate in the field (78).

They make another reference to TBC's discussion of "Affirmative Action" as beyond the scope of their effort (90). As I note in the other post, MH are careful to talk about individual vs. group differences-- and thus, as it follows, to advocate more focused policy efforts (something well within the reasonable scientific inferences for public policy).

They spend the last page of the article on Black/White IQ differences-- a topic in TBC but they don't interact with it all. (As an aside, Neisser et. al. note that standardized tests are not racially "biased" (93); I didn't know that had been established in the literature so long ago.) At the end of the day, this article is innocuous for TBC and helpful as a reasonably-objective academic look at the relevant literature. 

2012's Nisbett etl. al.
This article deals with MH and TBC much more directly. Unfortunately, their greater directness is matched by less accuracy and, apparently, less objectivity.

Start with their summary of MH in TBC:

"IQ tests are an accurate measure of intelligence; that IQ is a strong predictor of school and career achievement; that IQ is highly heritable; that IQ is little influenced by environmental factors; that racial differences in IQ are likely due at least in part, and perhaps in large part, to genetics; that environmental effects of all kinds have only a modest effect on IQ; and that educational and other interventions have little impact on IQ and little effect on racial differences in IQ."


Let's compare/contrast this with how MH actually summarized the relevant science in their intro:
  1. There is such a thing as a general factor of cognitive ability on which human beings differ.
  2. All standardized tests of academic aptitude or achievement measure this general factor to some degree, but IQ tests expressly designed for that purpose measure it most accurately.
  3. IQ scores match, to a first degree, whatever it is that people mean when they use the word intelligent or smart in ordinary language.
  4. IQ scores are stable, although not perfectly so, over much of a person’s life.
  5. Properly administered IQ tests are not demonstrably biased against social, economic, ethnic, or racial groups.
  6. Cognitive ability is substantially heritable, apparently no less than 40 percent and no more than 80 percent.

See the differences-- and do you see how they tilt each time? "Accurate...strong...highly...little influenced"? In the next paragraph, they claim that Neisser et. al. was "critical in some important respects". This vague statement implies significant disagreement with MH (ehh, not sure that's accurate) with NO mention of them taking the same poke at MH's critics (gotta do both, if you want to be seen as objective, folks!) If you'll forgive my half-tongue-in-cheek reference to another fun topic in science: Given the probabilities involved, I'd say these characterizations are a product of intelligent design rather than a random, purposeless process.

Nisbett et. al. conclude their summary with this probably-telling sentence: "The authors were skeptical about the ability of public policy initiatives to have much impact on IQ or IQ-related outcomes." The description is quite accurate this time. But where Neisser et. al. leave policy in the background, Nisbett et. al. bring it to the foreground. As I argue in my other post on this, I think this is the likely reason for such angst about MH and TBC. 

After the opening, they only engage Murray, MH or TBC twice. The article seems to be a good review of the updated literature, but the pokes at Murray are somewhere between odd, intended to titillate, and trying to please a journal editor.  

2017's Vox
Here, two of the co-authors of the 2012 piece (Nisbett and Turkheimer) join another (Harden) to write a popular piece. (Here, it's noteworthy that Turkheimer is the lead author; the newcomer--probably a former grad student-- is second; and the top academic of the 2012 piece is now third.) The article is explicitly in response to the Sam Harris podcast with Murray. (For kicks, I'll guess that Harden subscribes to the podcast and brought it to the attention of T, who then included N as an author here, since he had been lead author on the academic piece.)

Since they're now writing in a popular setting, the logic gets sloppier, the writing gets looser, and polemic gets a larger role. (The title is crap-- inaccurate and inconsistent with what they write in the article ["junk science"?!]. But that's probably the fault of the editor much more than the authors.) It's not all wrong by any means, but it ain't academic either. (Maybe I should more careful how I write in more popular settings, unknowingly using my currency as a PhD?) 

For example, their conclusion is clearly hyperbolic and misleading: "Our bottom line is that there is a responsible, scientifically informed alternative to Murrayism: a non-essentialist view of intelligence, a non-deterministic view of behavior genetics, and a view of group differences that avoids oversimplified biology." "Murrayism" is neither essentialist, nor deterministic, nor based on oversimplified biology. As the authors note earlier (thankfully and accurately), "there is undeniably a range of opinions in the scientific community. Some well-informed scientists hold views closer to Murray's than to ours." 

From their discussion of the podcast, it sounds like Murray gets loose too-- along with Harris. So, maybe all's fair in science (vs. Science) and rhetoric. So, be careful-- especially in interpreting the adjective choices-- but the article is also worth a read. 


One big beef: "Murray and Harris pepper their remarks with anodyne commitments to treating people as individuals." Murray "peppers" in this regard?! Uhh, no! It's patently clear in TBC, rather than peppered-- both in the analysis and the policy recommendations. His opponents misrepresent him on his analysis-- and ironically, strongly prefer NON-individualistic public policy approaches! And if you read anything else from Murray-- in terms of philosophy or public policy-- this is a ridiculous claim that leads to unpleasant inferences about the intellect or integrity of the authors.

John McWhirter's piece is strong on its own merits. But it also points to the need to talk about intelligence and other group differences IF one insists on blanket public policies-- by groups or especially by race! For example, you can't do Affirmative Action for race X (well at least responsibly) without addressing the efficacy of the policy, which depends in part on the characteristics of the recipients.



Along those lines, let me close with the authors' odd defense of our govt's ineffective and remarkably expensive Head Start programs. Their embrace of Head Start seems to illustrate the importance of ideology over analysis, a strong preference for means over ends, a disinterest in effective public policy, and an implicit lack of concern for the marginal in our society. Nobody credible can look at Head Start and be satisfied-- with respect to either the theory or the data.

TBC certainly expresses (warranted) skepticism, but does not dismiss the potential role of government activism in addressing these problems. But to MH's crucial broad point on public policy, such policies should be appropriately targeted rather than imposed as a blanket-- if we're to have much if any hope of getting beyond the usual problems in political economy (e.g., cronyism and bureaucracy) to construct effective programs.

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