Myth: The Bell Curve is a top-level work of science.
Fact: Most psychologists and geneticists regard it as crank science.
The science behind The Bell Curve has been denounced
by both the American Psychological Association and the Human Genome
Project. Its authors were unqualified to speak on either genetics
or intelligence, since their expertise lay in other fields. Their
project did not rise through the usual system of academic publishing,
and in fact the authors ducked the process of peer review. The
Bell Curve was ultimately funded by the wealthy, far-right
Bradley Foundation, which used its media connections to launch
a massive national publicity campaign. And The Bell Curve
relies heavily on studies that were financed by the Pioneer Fund,
a neo-Nazi organization that promotes eugenicist research.
"The scientific basis of The Bell Curve is fraudulent."
With those words, the American Psychological Association denounced
The Bell Curve, the controversial book that claims that
blacks generally have IQs 15 points lower than whites. The authors
assert that because IQ is mostly genetic and unchangeable, programs
promoting equality (affirmative action, welfare, Head Start, etc.)
are a waste of money. For those unfamiliar with the American Psychological
Association, it is the largest scientific and professional
organization representing psychology in the United States, and
includes over 142,000 members.
The story of how a scientifically unsound book like The Bell
Curve bypassed the usual checks and balances of the scientific
community reveals a great deal about how wealthy conservative
businessmen are trying to create their own alternate academia.
To begin with, the authors of The Bell Curve were largely
unqualified to write a book about genetics and IQ. Charles Murray
is a political scientist, whose specialty lies in welfare and
affirmative action issues. Richard Herrnstein (who died shortly
before publication) was indeed a psychologist, but he spent his
career studying pigeons and rats, not genetics and IQ. In fact,
Herrnstein never published anything in peer-reviewed journals
about genetics and IQ during his entire 36-year career. (He did
publish a few articles in popular magazines.) The most that can
be said for either of them is that they were familiar with the
scientific method and were experts in fields that were distantly
related to the topic.
The writing of the book was shrouded in secrecy, but it was launched
directly to the American public in a magnificently funded and
organized media campaign, one that included cover stories in Newsweek,
The New Republic and The New York Times Book Review.
Early articles and editorials appeared in Time, The New York Times,
The New York Times Magazine, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal,
and The National Review, before eventually swamping
the rest of the national media. Some of these early articles were
critical of the book, but that was beside the point -- any publicity
at all was welcome, because a large part of the nation was ready
to receive new justifications for their racial beliefs. (The
Bell Curve is not an original work; earlier books making the
same claims languished due to a lack of well-funded publicity.)
To date, The Bell Curve has sold over 500,000 copies.
But the way the authors concealed -- and then publicized -- the
book was disingenuous. Most scientists share their work with other
scientists before publication, because their criticism is helpful
and constructive. In fact, the National Academy of Sciences promotes
such a policy in the form of the peer-reviewed journal and the
scientific conference. In these two forums, researchers can face
their critics and argue it out. Sometimes the debate is brutal
and extensive, but it is useful for weeding out errors and arriving
at a consensus. Murray and Herrnstein completely bypassed this
process. To say that they would have faced a certain firestorm
of opposition from "liberal academia" is beside the
point -- if the research were valid, then not all the criticism
in the world would hurt it. Therefore, bypassing peer review can
be condemned on principle alone.
And there is a practical criticism as well -- peer review helps
to correct flawed information before it reaches the public, where
it tends to take on a life of its own. Defenders of The Bell
Curve seize on this as an example of "liberal censorship,"
hence the reason why Murray and Herrnstein sought to avoid it.
But this ignores the fact that there is freedom of the press in
this country, and people can print anything they want. Peer review
simply brings errors to the attention of the author, allowing
him to correct them before printing. An author doesn't have to
correct his errors, of course, but it becomes much more difficult
to defend printing obvious and blatant errors after they have
been pointed out. This is the reason why Murray and Herrnstein's
bypassed peer review. Their arguments were carefully constructed
fictions that would have fallen apart under expert criticism;
the only reason to bypass it was to get this information out to
the public before bona fide geneticists could refute it.
The media blitz was ultimately financed by the Lynde and Harry
Bradley Foundation, one of the wealthiest and most conservative
foundations in the country. With assets over $420 million, the
Bradley Foundation has been instrumental in creating an "alternate
academia" of far-right think tanks and conservative media
outlets. For example, it provides major funding to National Empowerment
Television, a cable channel that delivers far-right programming
to American homes nationwide. The Bradley Foundation pays Murray
$100,000 a year to continue his researches as a Senior Fellow
at the American Enterprise Institute, one of the nation's top
conservative think tanks. Without the Bradley Foundation, Murray's
academic career would have foundered long ago. (Even the conservative
Manhattan Institute has asked him to leave.) Nor would The
Bell Curve have graced the covers and pages of so many national
After The Bell Curve ignited an uproar, the National Academy
of Sciences found itself competing to be heard among all the voices
assessing the work. Nonetheless, peer review occurred after the
fact. The American Psychological Association set up a task force
of its top experts to review the science and politics of the controversy.
According to Dr. Ulric Neisser, the task force chair, the investigators
were commissioned to research the issues "in an unbiased,
systematic manner." (3) Ideologically, the task force spanned
the spectrum of opinions, from Thomas Bouchard, Ph.D. (generally
supportive of The Bell Curve) to Ellin Bloch, Ph.D. (generally
In August 1995, a year after The Bell Curve hit the bookstores,
the task force released its report. Its press release opened
with the following general observation:
"What is intelligence and can it be measured? These questions
have fueled a continuing debate about whether intelligence is
inherited, acquired, environmental, or a combination of these
and other factors. In a field where so many issues are unresolved
and so many questions unanswered, the confident tone that has
characterized most of the debate on these topics is clearly out
of place." (5)
As for specific assessments of The Bell Curve, the findings
of the task force can be summed up in three points:
What were the errors that the task force found? A major flaw was
that most of the "IQ" scores used by the authors were
not from an IQ test at all! They mistook an armed forces qualifying
test that measures vocabulary and verbal reasoning for IQ tests,
Fairchild said. "This is an achievement test. It shows the
extent to which you've benefited from school. To assert it's a
proxy for IQ is a big lie." (9)
- Much of the book's data are accurate, especially when addressing
the fundamentals of intelligence and IQ testing. One of the stated
purposes of the book was to serve as an introduction to the topic,
and in this respect the book succeeded. Stephen Ceci, Ph.D., said
that despite Herrnstein and Murray's political agenda, they have
been "the clearest and most comprehensive writers" on
the topic to date. (6)
- However, much of the data are also wrong, and analysis of
it severely flawed. Halford Fairchild, Ph.D., who led one of the
panels assessing the scientific accuracy of the book, summed up
their conclusions this way: "The scientific basis of The
Bell Curve is fraudulent." (7) Indeed, some of the errors
were so large as to be attributable to non-experts attempting
to write in the field.
- The policy recommendations suggested at the end of the book
do not follow from the book's own arguments on genes and IQ.
On this point the task force was emphatic: it called The Bell
Curve a "political" work, not a "scientific"
Another problem the task force found was the authors' handling
of the "Flynn Effect," a world-wide phenomenon which
is raising average IQs about three points per decade. That is
much too fast to be genetic; therefore, social factors must play
a large role in raising IQs.
Another problem was the authors' thesis that the smart classes
are getting smarter, and the dull classes duller. However, the
task force found quite the opposite: "We're getting a convergence,
not a divergence," Ceci noted. Specifically, the IQ gap between
those at the top and bottom rungs of the social hierarchy in job
status has shrunken from a 12.5-point difference in the 1930s
to an 8.5-point difference today, with people testing higher on
average than they used to. (10)
The American Psychological Association is not the only expert
organization that has denounced The Bell Curve. The Human
Genome Project has weighed in as well. In a letter written to Science
magazine, its members wrote: "As geneticists and ethicists
associated with the Human Genome Project, we deplore The Bell
Curve's misrepresentation of the
state of genetic knowledge in this area and the misuse of genetics
to inform social policy." (11) In particular, they raised
"First, Herrnstein and Murray invoke the authority of genetics
to argue that 'it is beyond significant technical dispute that
cognitive ability is substantially heritable.' Research in this
field is still evolving, studies cited by Herrnstein and Murray
face significant methodological difficulties, and the validity
of results quoted are disputed. Many geneticists have pointed
out the enormous scientific and methodological problems in attempting
to separate genetic components from environmental contributors,
particularly given the intricate interplay between genes and the
environment that may affect such a complex human trait as intelligence.
Finally, there is the reception of the entire scientific community
itself. "Within the sophisticated research community, the opinion has
been virtually unanimous that ‘The Bell Curve’ was a primitive,
oversimplistic and flawed analysis," says Craig T. Ramey, a professor
of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Alabama. (13)
Many scientists have been writing detailed, technical refutations
to The Bell Curve. A team of sociologists led by Claude
Fischer has addressed the sociological arguments raised by The
Bell Curve in their book, Inequality by Design. (14)
Reanalyzing the very data used by Herrnstein and Murray, they
correct many of the statistical errors and show how the environment,
not genes, plays a larger role in who gets ahead in life.
"Second, even if there was consensus on the heritability
of cognitive ability, lessons from genetics are misrepresented.
The authors argue that because cognitive ability is substantially
heritable, it is not possible to change it and that remedial education
is not worth the effort or cost. This is neither an accurate message
from genetics nor a necessary lesson from efforts at remedial
education. Heritability estimates are relevant only for the specific
environment in which they are measured. Change the environment,
and the heritability of traits can change remarkably. Saying a
trait has high heritability has never implied that the trait is
fated to be. Height is both genetically determined and dependent
on nutrition. Common conditions in which genetics play a role,
such as diabetes or heart disease, can be corrected with insulin
or cholesterol-lowering drugs and diet. The disabilities associated
with single-gene conditions, such as phenylketonuria or Wilson
disease, can be prevented or significantly ameliorated by medical
or nutritional therapy.
"Third, the more scientists learn about human genes the more
complexity is revealed. This complexity has become apparent as
more genes correlated with human genetic diseases are discovered.
We are only beginning to explore the intricate relationship between
genes and environment and between individual genes and the rest
of the human genome. If anything, the lack of predictability from
genetic information has become the rule rather than the exception.
Simplistic claims about the inheritance of such a complex trait
as cognitive ability are unjustifiable; moreover, as the history
of eugenics shows, they are dangerous." (12)
For example, Herrnstein and Murray analyzed a long-term survey
(the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth) and concluded that
a person's future success is far better predicted by IQ than by
childhood socioeconomic status. But they failed to include several
important factors in their definition of "socioeconomic status":
the number of siblings, the presence of two parents in the home,
farm residence, etc. Correcting for these factors, the authors
of Inequality by Design recalculated the data and showed
that socioeconomic status, not IQ, is a far better predictor of
future success. Based on the corrected data, the authors conclude:
"If we could magically give everyone identical IQs, we would
still see 90 to 95 percent of the inequality we see today."
The sources for The Bell Curve
Defenders of The Bell Curve have double duty to pull,
for not only has the book been denounced by the top scientific
organizations in the U.S., but the book itself relies on sources
that most scientists regard as dubious, racist, white supremacist
and eugenicist. Whenever The Bell Curve talks about racial
differences in IQ, the studies cited are almost always ones funded
by the Pioneer Fund, a neo-Nazi group whose founder advocated
sending all blacks back to Africa. Even Murray himself seems embarrassed
by some of his sources:
"Here was a case of stumbling onto a subject that had all
the allure of the forbidden. Some of the things we read to do
this work, we literally hide when we're on planes and trains.
We're furtively peering at this stuff." (16)
The urge to hide embarrassing sources must also have struck the
authors while writing The Bell Curve, because they do not
prominently display some of the names of Pioneer Fund researchers
in the main text, preferring instead to hide them in the endnotes.
The authors cannot be held accountable for the racist views of
their sources, of course, but then why would they rely on their
studies so heavily? It's hard to believe they don't sympathize
with those views. In an article in The New York Times Magazine,
Murray admitted to burning a cross with a group of friends
as a teenager. He conceded his actions were "dumb,"
but insisted: "It never crossed our minds that this had any
larger significance." (17)
The Pioneer Fund was created in 1937 by Wickliffe Draper, an eccentric
millionaire who wanted to rid the U.S. of its black population.
Another founder, Frederick Osborn, described Nazi Germany's sterilization
law as "a most exciting experiment." (18) The history
of the organization is replete with neo-Nazis and Nazi sympathizers.
Pioneer has been crucial to funding scholars whose research promotes
the belief that whites are a superior race and that blacks threaten
to drag society down, either economically or genetically. Promoting
eugenic policies has been it's prime goal. Over the years, it
has awarded major research grants to scholars who have achieved
widespread notoriety, all of whom are cited heavily in The
These are the sources that Herrnstein and Murray use for most
of their arguments on racial differences in IQ. Needless to say,
the scientific quality of many of these studies are dubious at
best, and their methodology has been almost universally criticized.
By no stretch of the imagination could The Bell Curve be
called a top-level work of science. But tell that to Newsweek,
which is both corporate-owned and under the spell of the Bradley
Foundation. In a generally positive article, it wrote: "The
science behind 'The Bell Curve' is overwhelmingly mainstream."
- Arthur Jensen, who once said, "Eugenics isn't a crime,"
has received over $1 million from the Pioneer Fund. (20) Jensen's
name became synonymous with racism in the 70s, after he blamed
lower black performance in Head Start on lower black IQs.
- Thomas Bouchard has also been a major recipient of Pioneer
Fund grants, which enabled him to conduct the famous Minnesota
twins study. This study compared the traits of twins separated
at birth and raised apart. According to Bouchard's results, intelligence
turned out to be 70 percent genetic in the twins, even though
all other twin studies have found it be only 50 percent. (And
even these figures are too high, because the adoption agencies
usually put the twins in the same neighborhoods.) Curiously, Bouchard
has not allowed other scientists to examine the methodology he
used to arrive at these unusually high results -- consequently,
no one can disprove them. (21)
- Richard Lynn has received at least $325,000 from the Pioneer
Fund, for research along the lines of "Positive Correlations
Between Head Size and IQ." (22) He has said: "What is
called for here is not genocide, the killing off of the population
of incompetent cultures. But we do need to think realistically
in terms of the 'phasing out' of such peoples.... Evolutionary
progress means the extinction of the less competent. To think
otherwise is mere sentimentality." (23) Herrnstein and Murray
call Lynn "a leading scholar of racial and ethnic differences."
- And then there is J. Philippe Rushton, who has received
at least $770,000 from the Pioneer Fund. Throughout his career,
Rushton has been obsessed with the alleged negative correlation
between IQ and the size of sexual organs like penises, breasts
and buttocks. "It's a trade-off: More brain or more penis.
You can't have everything," he told Rolling Stone
magazine. (24) Of course, the stereotype that black men have large
penises figures prominently in Rushton's theories about why they
have such low IQs.
Return to Overview
1. Don Lattin, "'Bell Curve' Called Political, Not Scientific:
Psychologists examine race-IQ controversy," The San Francisco
Chronicle, Friday, August 11, 1995, A6.
2. "Buying a Movement: Right-Wing Foundations and American
Politics," People For The American Way, 2000 M Street NW,
Suite 400, Washington, DC, 20036.
3. Tori DeAngelis, "Psychologists question findings of Bell
Curve," APA Monitor, American Psychological Association,
4. "Task Force Releases Report in Response to Bell Curve,"
American Psychological Association, Press Release, Fall 1995.
5. "APA Task Force
Examines the Knowns and Unknowns of Intelligence,"
American Psychological Association, Press Release, September 15,
8. "APA Task Force Examines the Knowns and Unknowns of Intelligence."
9. Marilyn Elias, "Experts find fault with 'Bell Curve'"
USA Today. (No date given; probably Fall 1995.)
11. Lori B. Andrews, Dorothy Nelkin and endorsing members of the
Human Genome Project, "The Bell Curve: A Statement,"
letter to the editor, Science, January 5, 1996.
13. John Yemma, "Studies hit 'Bell Curve' linking of race, IQ:
Books say environment, not heredity, is major determinant of intelligence,"
Boston Globe, May 7, 1996.
14. Claude Fischer et. al., Inequality by Design: Cracking
the Bell Curve Myth (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
15. Ibid., p. 70-101, 14.
16. Jason DeParle, "Daring Research or Social Science Pornography?"
The New York Times Magazine, October 9, 1994, p. 51.
18. Discovery Journal, 7/9/94, cited in Jim Naureckas,
"Racism Resurgent: How Media Let The Bell Curve's Pseudo-Science
Define the Agenda on Race," Extra!, January/February
1995, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting.
20. Newsday, 11/9/94, and GQ, 11/94, cited in Naureckas.
21. Scientific American, 6/93; The Nation,
11/28/94, cited in Naureckas.
22. Rolling Stone, 10/20/94, cited in Naureckas.
23. Newsday, 11/9/94, cited in Naureckas.
24. Rolling Stone, 10/20/94, cited in Naureckas.
25. Geoffrey Cowley, "Testing the Science of Intelligence,"
Newsweek, October 24, 1994, p. 56.