Phrenology is a valid science.
In 1981, the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould came to fame with the publication of The Mismeasure of Man, a chronicle of supposed racism in science, and a critique in particular of the idea that intelligence exists in a form that could be measured by anything so vulgar as an IQ score.
Gould took the work of a 19th century physical anthropologist named Samuel George Morton and made it ridiculous. In his telling, Morton was a fool and an unconscious racist — his project of measuring skull sizes of different ethnic groups conceived in racism and executed in same. Why, Morton clearly must have thought Caucasians had bigger brains than Africans, Indians, and Asians, and then subconsciously mismeasured the skulls to prove they were smarter.
The book then casts the entire project of measuring brain function — psychometrics — in the same light of primitivism.
Gould’s antiracist book was a hit with reviewers in the popular press, and many of its ideas about the morality and validity of testing intelligence became conventional wisdom, persisting today among the educated folks. If you’ve got some notion that IQ doesn’t measure anything but the ability to take IQ tests, that intelligence can’t be defined or may not be real at all, that multiple intelligences exist rather than a general intelligence, you can thank Gould. He’s not responsible for other arguments still rattling around our brains — about testing being culturally biased, or race being a social construct — but those ideas are just as defunct.
Then, in 2011, a funny thing happened. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania went and measured old Morton’s skulls, which turned out to be just the size he had recorded. Gould, according to one of the co-authors, was nothing but a “charlatan.”
The study itself couldn’t matter, though, could it? Well, recent work using MRI technology has established that descendants of East Asia have slightly more cranial capacity than descendants of Europe, who in turn have a little more than descendants of Africa. Another meta-analysis finds a mild correlation between brain size and IQ performance.
You see where this is going, especially if you already know about the racial disparities in IQ testing, and you’d probably like to hit the brakes before anybody says… what, exactly? It sounds like we’re perilously close to invoking science to argue for genetic racial superiority.
Am I serious? Is this a joke? Have I been watching too much Pinky and the Brain?
Well, my ironic reappraisal of phrenology is consonant with current science, although it represents at most a distant theoretical possibility of minuscule importance. The reason the joke feels dangerous is that it incorporates a fact that is rarely mentioned in public life. In America, white people on average score higher than black people on IQ tests, by a margin of 12-15 points. And there’s one man who has been made to pay the price for that fact — the scholar Charles Murray.
Murray didn’t come up with a hypothesis of racial disparity in intelligence testing. He simply co-wrote a book, The Bell Curve, that publicized a fact well known within the field of psychometrics, a fact that makes the rest of us feel tremendously uncomfortable.
Nobody bears more responsibility for the misunderstanding of Murray’s work than Gould, who reviewed The Bell Curve savagely in the New Yorker. The IQ tests couldn’t be explained away — here he is acknowledging the IQ gap in 1995 — but the validity of IQ testing could be challenged. That was no trouble for the old Marxist.
Gould should have known that he was dead wrong about his central claim — that general intelligence, or g, as psychologists call it, was unreal. In fact, “Psychologists generally agree that the greatest success of their field has been in intelligence testing,” biologist Bernard D. Davis wrote in the Public Interest in 1983, in a long excoriation of Gould’s strange ideas.
Psychologists have found that performance on almost any test of cognition will have some correlation to other tests of cognition, even in areas that might seem distant from pure logic, such as recognizing musical notes. The more demanding tests have a higher correlation, or a high g load, as they term it.
IQ is very closely related to this measure, and turns out to be extraordinarily predictive not just for how well one does on tests, but on all sorts of real-life outcomes.
Since the publication of The Bell Curve, the data have demonstrated not just those points, but that intelligence is highly heritable (around 50 to 80 percent, Murray says), and that there’s little that can be done to permanently change the part that’s dependent on the environment.
“In fact, there is almost nothing in psychological science for which there is more evidence than these claims — about IQ, about the validity of testing for it, about its importance in the real world, about its heritability, and about its differential expression in different populations,” the neuroscientist and author Sam Harris said recently. “Unfortunately, the controversy over The Bell Curve did not result from legitimate, good-faith criticisms of its major claims. Rather, it was the result of a politically correct moral panic that totally engulfed (Murray’s) career, and has yet to release him.”
In April, Harris invited Murray onto his popular podcast, after protesters at Middlebury College blocked Murray from speaking and sent his host to the hospital. His listeners — secular leftists, mostly — were shocked; one compared the impact to Nietzsche declaring God to be dead.
I was shocked, too, and can only salute Harris’ courage in performing an “exorcism,” as he called it, of the ill spirits that hover around Murray’s name. He risked his own reputation to vouch for another’s.
Not surprisingly, the momentous podcast got very little coverage. One example shows why. Here’s Fox News host Tucker Carlson, on an episode regarding Murray, backing away from a guest asking him if he thinks “that black people have lower IQs than white people.”
There’s an answer in the data, but who wants to be responsible for saying it?
The liberal explainer website Vox took a swing at Murray earlier this year, publishing a rambling 3,300-word hit job on Murray that made zero references to the scientific literature. After the Harris podcast, Vox editor Ezra Klein tried to do better, publishing a critique by three academics in the field whose views are furthest from Murray’s.
“Charles Murray is once again peddling junk science about race and IQ,” read the click-baity and slanderous headline. The article itself was more responsible, but still employed a lot of lawyerly assertions to cast doubt where there is little or none.
Vox might have gotten the last word, but a new outlet called Quillette published a first-rate rebuttal this week, which sent me down a three-day rabbit hole. I came across some of the most troubling facts I’ve ever encountered — IQ scores by country — and then came across some more reassuring ones from Thomas Sowell, suggesting that environment could be the main or exclusive factor after all.
The classic analogy from the environment-only crowd is of two handfuls of genetically identical seed corn, one planted in Iowa and the other in the Mojave Desert. One group flourishes; the other is stunted. While all of the variation within one group will be due to genetics, its flourishing relative to the other group will be strictly due to environment.
Nobody doubts that the United States is richer soil than Equatorial Guinea, but the analogy doesn’t prove the case. The idea that there exists a mean for human intelligence and that all racial subgroups would share it given identical environments remains a metaphysical proposition. We may want this to be true quite desperately, but it’s not something we know to be true.
For all the lines of attack, all the brutal slander thrown Murray’s way, his real crime is having an opinion on this one key issue that’s open to debate. Is there a genetic influence on the IQ testing gap? Murray has written that it’s “likely” genetics explains “some” of the difference. For this, he’s been crucified.
I don’t know the answer to the question, and don’t really want to know. It has no bearing on how I’d treat anyone, and I’ll probably stick with the smiley metaphysical proposition until the question is finally resolved.
Indeed, Harris asked Murray why he troubles with this area at all. “I’m not sure what it gets you, aside from a lot of pain,” he said.
Murray said that the assumption “that everyone is equal above the neck” is written into social policy, employment policy, academic policy and more.
He’s right, of course, especially as ideas like “disparate impact” come to be taken as proof of discrimination. There’s no scientifically valid reason to expect different ethnic groups to have a particular representation in this area or that. That much is utterly clear.
The universities, however, are going to keep hollering about institutional racism. They are not going to accept Murray’s views, no matter what develops. There’s a new generation of professors in the humanities who aren’t coming from the school of rational free inquiry. They’re postmodernists, and they’re animated by the desire, as the philosopher Richard Rorty expressed it, “to get rid of the idea that the world or the self has an intrinsic nature.”
Biological determinism, Gould called it. The enemy is human nature.