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The Mismeasure of Man | Study Guide

Stephen Jay Gould

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The Mismeasure of Man | Critique of The Bell Curve | Summary



The Bell Curve

From the outset, Gould blasts Herrnstein and Murray's book for offering no new arguments and no new data to support its conclusions about intelligence. The Bell Curve's claims are based on four assumptions about intelligence, all of which must be correct for the book to be right. Intelligence must be represented as a single number (assumption 1) that can be ranked in hierarchical order (assumption 2). It must also be genetically based (assumption 3) and be immutable or unchangeable (assumption 4). The Bell Curve fails, Gould says, because all of these assumptions are wrong.

The Bell Curve also makes the controversial claim that there is an inherited difference of intelligence between racial groups. Gould insists that the book makes this statement, although the lone surviving author, Charles Murray, says that is a distortion of the book's text. Gould disagrees. He is not only adamant that the book says this, but also that it ignores both data and logic in constructing this argument. "The authors omit facts, misuse statistical methods, and seem unwilling to admit the consequences of their own words," Gould writes.

Most troubling to Gould is what he calls the triple "disingenuousness" of the book, a word that can mean anything from insincerity to dishonesty to outright fraudulence. The three ways in which Gould believes the book is dishonest are in terms of content, argument, and program. In terms of content, "Murray cannot deny that The Bell Curve treats race as one of two major topics," Gould says, "with each given about equal space." Gould quotes the very first sentence of the book to support his contention. "This book is about differences in intellectual capacity among people and groups," Murray and Herrnstein write.

In terms of argument Gould states that the authors of The Bell Curve deluge readers with hundreds of pages of data in a deliberate effort to make their arguments about intelligence look more scientific than they really are. Yet the flood of charts and numbers all center on just one study. "Virtually all the analysis rests upon a single technique applied to a single set of data," Gould writes. The book also disingenuously states that the existence of g, or general intelligence, is widely accepted by experts, when it is still a subject of debate in the psychological community. Gould is also outraged that Murray and Herrnstein never mention factor analysis, the statistical method on which the concept of general intelligence is based.

Murray and Herrnstein also confuse statistical bias with the popular understanding of the term and don't clarify this distinction for lay readers. Gould agrees with Murray and Herrnstein that in a statistical sense, IQ tests are not biased, but that is not what the public understands by the word. People want to know if the tests are culturally biased, asking questions that only a person of a specific class or group is likely to know.

The book is correct that statistical analysis shows that behaviors such as dropping out of high school are correlated more with IQ than with socioeconomic status. Gould, however, notes that the authors fail to point out two things. First, correlation is not causation: The fact that you can find a statistical relationship between two things does not necessarily mean that one causes the other. Second, the study Murray and Herrnstein refer to shows only a weak statistical relationship between IQ and social behaviors, yet they fail to stress that.

Gould condemns the book in the strongest terms for disingenuousness of program. He claims that despite the authors' claims to simply be facing facts, their interpretation is distorted by their conservative political beliefs. He writes, "Its sorry and biased treatment of data records the primary purpose—advocacy above all." Gould is also horrified by the book's talk of creating a custodial state for those with low IQ scores. He blasts this as a "more lavish version of the Indian reservation for some substantial minority of the nation's population."

Ghosts of Bell Curves Past

The ghost of this section is a 19th-century French count named Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau. Gould calls him the "grandfather of modern academic racism" and thus an ancestor of The Bell Curve as well. Gobineau was a diplomat and writer who published a four-volume work on racial inequality. Gobineau's position was that the "fate of civilizations is largely determined by racial composition, with decline and fall usually attributable to dilution of pure stocks by interbreeding."

Gould sees a parallel between Gobineau and the authors of The Bell Curve, both of whom make the same error of seeing intelligence as something not only inherited but unchangeable after birth. Gould reminds readers that Alfred Binet, inventor of the IQ test, denied that his test measured anything that could be called general intelligence. Rather, Binet used the test simply to find out where a student's academic strengths and weaknesses lay so they could be better helped by their teachers.

Binet was worried that his test might be used to label and condemn some students as inferior and railed against it. He disagreed that intelligence was fixed, saying, "We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism; we must try to demonstrate that it is founded upon nothing."

Gould uses Binet's position as a rallying cry for "scientifically accurate and ethically principled refutation" of the claims made in The Bell Curve. "Biology is not inevitable destiny," Gould states. Contrary to claims made by Murray and Herrnstein that remedial programs cannot change the situation of racial groups, humans have an "extensive capacity for educational improvement."


The second edition of this book was directly inspired by the publication in 1994 of The Bell Curve, which is why this chapter was added after the epilogue. The two sections of this chapter are actually reprints of reviews Gould wrote of the book for two magazines. The "Critique of The Bell Curve" originally appeared in The New Yorker in November 1994. "Ghost of Bell Curves Past" was first published in February 1995 in Natural History, the magazine for which Gould wrote for 27 years.

In hindsight, Gould says he realizes that he wrote the original 1981 version of his book in order to counter the claims made by Murray and Herrnstein. Unless Gould has discovered a way to travel back in time, how is it possible that he could have written a rebuttal to a book that wouldn't be published for another 13 years?

Gould's answer to this seeming time-travel paradox is twofold. First, he informs readers that Herrnstein, who was his colleague at Harvard, published an article in 1971 that discussed much of the same material later to be found in The Bell Curve. Beyond that however, The Bell Curve is a restatement of claims about the existence of general intelligence that have existed since the late 19th century. "Of course I could not know the specifics of what the future would bring," Gould says. But the same arguments that worked in the past to debunk a "bankrupt theory" will continue to hold good: "Time, by itself, holds no alchemy to improve a case."

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