Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Charles Murray's "Inequality Taboo" article

Charles Murray has been prophetic in some cases (e.g., see: Losing Ground and "The Coming White Underclass"); willing to write outside of conventional wisdom (see: Losing Ground, Bell Curve); and an amazingly helpful thinker in how to think about social policy (see: Coming Apart if you're into poverty and inequality; and if you're into public policy, do yourself a big favor and read his timeless In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government).

Murray's most (in)famous book is The Bell Curve (BC). The nature of its fame is, itself, interesting. It's not his most important work-- or likely, his best. Instead, its fame is more closely related to his willingness to tackle a tough issue and say things that are unpopular.

I doubt that I'll ever get around to reading BC. It's useful and interesting, I'm sure. But it's a huge book, 20 years old, and outside of my areas of expertise and top-tier interests. That said, I was really pleased to learn about a short (article-length) update (a decade later) in Commentary Magazine. (I don't know how I missed it when it came out in 2005-- except to reiterate that its subject is not an area of top-tier interest or expertise for me.) I devoured the article quickly this week; learned a bunch; and increased my faith in Murray's work (in general) and the likely value of BC. (Here's a more recent effort to provide published chapter summaries of what is a really long book-- one of the reasons, presumably, that people like to criticize it without reading it.)

The catalyst for the article seems to be the response to Larry Summers' comments, when he was the president of Harvard, about (innate or at least "intractable") gender differences.

It was depressingly familiar. In the autumn of 1994, I had watched with dismay as The Bell Curve's scientifically unremarkable statements about black IQ were successfully labeled as racist pseudoscience. At the opening of 2005, I watched as some scientifically unremarkable statements about male-female differences were successfully labeled as sexist pseudoscience.

Murray writes at length about racial differences. And for those who might be interested, he happens to provide more detail for recent comments about gender differences, detailing the academic literature:

The historical reality of male dominance of the greatest achievements in science and the arts is not open to argument. The question is whether the social and legal exclusion of women is a sufficient explanation for this situation, or whether sex-specific characteristics are also at work.

The upshot of bogus assumptions here in terms of policy?

The assumption of no innate differences among groups suffuses American social policy. That assumption is wrong. When the outcomes that these policies are supposed to produce fail to occur, with one group falling short, the fault for the discrepancy has been assigned to society. It continues to be assumed that better programs, better regulations, or the right court decisions can make the differences go away. That assumption is also wrong.

One of the ironies is that it's the most "enlightened" and "liberal" people who try to shut down people like Murray. Along the way, they ignore research in many scientific fields (neuroscience, biochemistry, psychology, genetic markers and their correlation with self-reported ideas of "race"), scientific narratives (popular evolutionary just-so stories), and intuition (I love Murray's line on "the ways in which science is demonstrating that men and women are really and truly different, a fact so obvious that only intellectuals could ever have thought otherwise"). But that's what happens when one is blinkered by fundamentalism and pride.


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