Steven Pinker opens “The Blank Slate” by quoting evenhanded passages from three controversial books. The only one I had heard of before Pinker was The Bell Curve. In high school english class we had the Norton Reader, which contained several selections decrying the book, sometimes as emblematic of what’s wrong in our society. There were no actual selections from the book itself. I marked it as a book I’d have to read someday. Having enjoyed the Blank Slate I picked up one of the Terrible Trio, Judith Harris’ the Nurture Assumption. I still consider it the best science writing I’ve ever come across and thought my own mother might enjoy a bit of it, but she didn’t get far before being so offended by the premise that she refused to consider the evidence. I underlined the godhead of the notorious trinity and wondered what shock-value it contained. Thanks to Chip Smith I found out in short order: something far less polemical than either Pinker or Harris. Before diving in I’d like to look the gift-horse in the mouth by noting that my copy is missing endnotes 23-25 of chapter 22, and there is a citation of “Wilson 1972” in Appendix 7 which has no match in the bibliography. This only makes me more curious about what I’m missing, so I’d appreciate it if someone in the comments with a complete version filled in the gaps.
The Bell Curve is just what I’d want in a serious analysis of a controversial social issue. It’s a continuous barrage of graphs and tables so that the authors can’t be accused of weaseling about with anecdotes and opinions. It has a section titled “Statistics for People Who Are Sure They Can’t Learn Statistics” as the first appendix and shorter explanations in the text. There are sections boxed off from the main text to more fully explore some issues that a number of readers might ignore, but also an encouragement at the beginning of their most controversial section that they assume many will start at to read the preceding material if one has not done so. While most of the firestorm over the book focused on race, they point out that such a tiny portion of variation in our society is due to variation between races that setting them all at the same median would hardly remove any of the problem (other than perhaps how we think about it). But nobody wants to talk about the tyranny of the glib. They also point out how irrelevant the argument over genetic contribution is when our inability to reshape IQ is so glaring.
Chip left a group-blog to form his own precisely over a dispute about the book, with his first non-introductory post at the Hoover Hog starting the series You Me and The Bell Curve, saving me the trouble of writing a longer and different post. Check it out: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.
I’ll end my own discussion of the book itself where it ends. The final chapters have predictions on how society will develop from here (with “here” being 1994). Without the evidence right at their fingertips they are on less solid ground than previously in the book. The “invisible migration” has become more visible with books like The Big Sort, but not all their guesses hold up as well. The lines between “liberal” and “conservative” have not come to blur (any more than they previously did), rather the political parties have become more partisanly divided than before. As it is only the elite that have any ideology at all, the political dominance of an elite far removed from the masses would make that more likely. They draw on the same data about the rise of private arbitration and security services that Bruce Benson did in The Enterprise of Law, but extrapolations based on that were derailed when falling crime rates improved the stature the criminal justice system, and so today such dreams of privatization are still unthinkable to most. The elite have not embraced a fear-driven Latin American style of conservatism of the sort I describe here, but have become more indifferent to the underclass and relatively concerned with inequality between the rich and super-rich. Strict policing and high incarceration rates remained even after the drop in crime, but it is hard to find evidence there is a more widespread law’n’order attitude among the general public than at the time of the book’s publication rather than inertia or a ratchet effect. There has not been any move toward eliminating mandatory sentencing for any drug offenses, and putting excess prisoners in camps rather than cells is merely an eccentricity of Sherriff Joe Arpaio. The underclass has not become more spatially concentrated, but rather gentrification and section 8 housing has removed much of it from potentially valuable real-estate. Racism has not become more virulent or more open. I suspect the optimistic last chapter owes more to Murray the bleeding-heart communitarian than Herrnstein the elitist. Jeffrey Friedman attacked Charles Murray’s book “What it Means to be a Libertarian” here for advocating both libertarianism and communitarianism under the guise of having justification through empirical evidence when they really rest on his personal preference. Trends of increasing centralism, credentialism and complicated rules have not reversed and “marriage” benefits have only expanded, with “child support” being taken from fathers who can prove with DNA evidence that they are of no relation to the child. There was some effort made toward changing immigration law to be more merit-based and with less family-unification, but it came to nought. On the plus side, the EITC has risen faster than inflation. Despite all their other recommendations being ignored, society has not degenerated terribly. Perhaps I speak too soon though.
You may be asking now, “What does this have to do with Glenn Loury”? I’ll tell you. I’ve said before that I strangely find myself a fan of him despite our large political differences. In a recent diavlog with John McWhorter he nostalgically recalled his own days as an out-of-place “black conservative”, and the sidebar helpfully provides a short biographical profile of Loury recounting his ideological journey. It’s not a perfect one, as it claims Richard Herrnstein came out with a book in 1998 when he died shortly before the 1994 release of The Bell Curve and his book with James Q. Wilson was released in 1985, two years before the bio notes Wilson & Loury co-edited a book together.
During the 80s, when neo-conservatism was in its ascendancy and still of some value, he joined it in promoting personal responsibility as the best medicine for the black community. At the same time he was secretly hanging out in the slums to score drugs. After his arrest he was born again in Christ, and credits that with saving his marriage. It was in that context that he wrote a critical review of The Bell Curve rejected by Commentary but published by National Review. His objections to the Bell Curve begin with skepticism of the explanatory power of social science itself (Loury is currenty Professor of the Social Sciences). He is dispirited by the authors’ reductionism and mechanistic view of humanity, which is insufficiently humanist. Despite being an economist, he must question the utility of his discipline when the stakes are so high (and by that he’s not referring to their policy recommendations, which Loury claims there are plenty of good reasons to support). He pooh-poohs their “[o]bserving a correlation between a noisy measure of parenting skills […] and some score on an ability test”, when as the authors point out most social science (messy by nature) rests on lower correlations than so much of what they present in their book, and there are so many significant correlations between social phenomena we are interested in and those dreaded words: IQ. At any rate the energized religious Right, perfectly aware unlike those bad science men that we have souls and free-will, will fortunately reject Murray & Herrnstein with “a spiritual argument” that social scientists may find hard to understand. He even quotes Vaclav Havel using one of Lawrence Auster’s favorite (and one of my least favorite) words: “transcendence”.
That was then. This is now. Read the bio and you will find that Loury has rejected the religion that once served to support him and shape his views. “He found it increasingly difficult to reconcile his religious beliefs with his faith in rationality and science”. The bio ends with a quote from him that his discipline, social science, is “[a]bout being changed by reason”. An admirable change, in my view. A crisis of faith is great for changing one’s mind, and possession of faith is a sign that it’s necessary. I wonder if there’s a bottom line he’s had second thoughts about. Has he changed his position on the Bell Curve? Not as far as I know, and since he’s moved firmly into the left’s camp (and I think he would prefer that word to “liberal”) and currently views his prior focus on “autonomous communal capacity” as mistaken, that’s doubtful. It is of course the case that Murray & Herrnstein thought the actions of “the IRS […] the police […] cities and states” were important enough that their suggestions were necessary for improvement, but they doubted their capacity to significantly and durably alter IQ absent very extreme measures.
Loury has recently released a book titled “Racial Stigma, Mass Incarceration, and American Values”. He states in the above diavlog with McWhorter that he doesn’t like the term “structural racism” and it wouldn’t have been introduced if it was up to him, but whatever the name that’s the topic he’s interested in. I certainly agree that this is a large problem that we’ve been content to ignore. I favor some fairly radical changes ranging from at minimum abolishing all “victimless crimes” to (with a nod to Bruce Benson) directly attacking the political clout of the prison-industrial complex by replacing criminal with civil law. I haven’t read the book, but I’m wary of the mention of “American Values”. Do those values prohibit taking into account the Unmentionable Factor which transcends (I couldn’t help but use that word) even race? And what of other individual differences that don’t show up on an IQ test? As the Bell Curve will tell you, they do exist and are significant. Does Loury attribute his own arrest while a Harvard shining star to “structural racism” these days, or was his immediate assessment correct? Loury was correct to doubt that the masses (religious Right or otherwise) would shun certain ideas. Think of Herrnstein then or Judith Harris later. Does he really think that after being burned before with the Warren Court and Great Sixties Freakout they’ll be willing to heed an academic telling them that their punitive policy preference is disguised racism? My hunch is that Robin Hanson is correct, and our “American Values” are more what we want to be associated with than actually hold. Like Naomi Wolf (and I don’t intend that comparison to be disrespectful), I think Loury has his heart in the right place but it won’t come to much without a head like Herrnstein’s.