The Bell Curve Revisited

A number of years ago, a book called The Bell Curve was published and immediately became the center of an intellectual firestorm. In retrospect, one could almost say that it was a case of “While I don’t like your statistics, I don’t have any better figures, but because your statistics conflict with what I believe (or have seen on an individual basis), they can’t possibly be so.”

As Murray and Hernstein, the authors, stated, statistics are not valid for individuals, but well-developed statistics are almost always accurate for large populations. Their statistics appeared to raise disturbing implications in two areas: (1) individuals with higher IQs — on average — are more successful in our society, and (2) certain minorities, notably blacks — on average — have lower IQs. The authors also claimed that IQ does not change significantly for most people after an early (pre-school) age. Recent research has raised some issues with the last point, but only about the threshold age after which IQ seldom changes, although it seems clear that certainly IQ does not usually change significantly after puberty, and may be determined considerably earlier.

Whether the authors are correct or not should be assessed, not by philosophical predilections or by anecdotal evidence, since exceptions make both bad law and bad policies, but by a broad-based study which addresses such specific issues as:

(1) Is IQ a valid predictor of economic/societal success [not whether it should be, but whether it is]?

(2) If IQ does have validity as such a predictive tool, to what degree is IQ genetically determined, and what other factors can scientifically and effectively be determined to change IQ [i.e., do prenatal care, maternal nutrition, very early childhood education and support, etc., play a significant or a minor role]?

Finally, regardless of causal factors, the authors addressed one simple and basic problem: the fact that, in an information-based hierarchy, those who show higher IQs are more likely to be successful than those who do not. Even if methods and techniques can be developed to ensure all individuals realize their maximum potential IQ, in our society those with higher IQ levels will continue to become an increasingly powerful and self-selecting elite. Isn’t that really the controversy? That we have developed a culture where some individuals, no matter how hard-working, will never be among the most successful so long as success is measured by hierarchical power and economic success and that such success requires the skills measured by higher IQs?

We also seem ready to reject any “scientific” method that may indicate some groups will be either more or less successful than others in areas requiring mental prowess, even while we readily acknowledge such inequality in athletic areas. Why? Is it because we are unwilling to admit that most individuals cannot alter their basic mental capacities, and that such capacities are fixed by outside factors and the actions of others?

In the end, much of the controversy over The Bell Curve seemed to have been generated by individuals — on both sides — whose beliefs were deeply affected — those who either wished to use the statistics presented to justify their already-existing negative feelings and actions about minorities or those who rejected those findings because the findings were antithetical to their very beliefs.

Yet, more than ten years after the publication of The Bell Curve, I have yet to see any evidence whatsoever addressing the authors’ point that, like it or not, economic and professional success in the present-day United States can be predicted largely on the basis of IQ. I have to emphasize that I am not saying this is as it necessarily should be, but the fact that this finding has been quietly buried and remains unrefuted is more than disturbing in itself.