An Interview with the Author Charles Murray

NPR, 10-28-1994.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host: In a nutshell, here is the thesis of the book The Bell Curve - Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life - IQ is important in America, more so than ever before. IQ is a better predictor than socio-economic status or ethnic background of how well an individual will fare in school and at work. We are an increasingly segregated society, but we're not divided by a color line or by tax brackets. We are distributed along the social scientists' bell curve. The mass of Americans huddle at the mountain in the middle. People with high IQs form a cognitive elite at the right, and those with low IQs form the real underclass at the left.

Authors Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein go further - IQ, they say, is dictated more by heredity than by environment. The gap of about 15 points between the mean IQs of whites and blacks persists even among groups of equal socio-economic status. Their book has received some respectful reviews, but it has also generated an outcry in magazines and editorial columns and some predictions that other social scientists will debunk the book in due course. Charles Murray has been accused of being a racist and a tendentious scholar who ignores contradictory data. When he came here today, I asked if any of the criticism has led him to regret any of what he wrote in the 800 pages of The Bell Curve.

CHARLES MURRAY, Author: In one way, you're talking to a sadder but wiser man. That's- There's no doubt about that. I have been appalled by the last couple of weeks, and a friend of mine said to my wife when she made this point, he said, `Well, what is it? You sound like somebody who got into World War II and is surprised that they're firing real bullets.' So I guess I shouldn't be surprised in some ways, but I am. I expected to get hate mail. All right? And I expected to get hate phone calls, which I haven't gotten. Please don't take this as a request for them. But I didn't expect to see journalists who I respected and have oftentimes known personally for many years to act as irresponsibly as I think a lot of them have acted.

SIEGEL: But let me stand up for your wife here, who told you you should have expected as much, which is that arguments about genetic determination of intelligence or the lack of intelligence have been put to some of the most obscene uses of any science or pseudo-science in our times. Surely, you must have known in approaching the race issue and the disparities of IQ that you were walking into an area that people are, can become deeply offended and-

Mr. MURRAY: Yeah, yeah, we did know that. And I think if you read the chapter, as you have, that we sort of clearly say we are aware of what we're about to do. What's going on behind the scenes in this country and the dialogue about race is very dangerous, and what Dick and I said is, you know, the facts are not as scary as a lot of the misinformation out there. It is time to lay a lot of this stuff out on the table, and we in a period of time can get over it. We are not through that period of time yet.

SIEGEL: But let me run past you something that I gleaned from the dialogues on race that I've been party to that I think counts for some of my reluctance to accept a rigid hereditary or inheritable theory of intelligence, and that is that, when you show that blacks and whites of equal socio-economic standing, or, as socio-economic status increases, that a gap in IQ and other social measurements persists - to say that those two groups of people are the same in a way clashes with what I've learned as an adult, which is that the same experiences people of the same income level, the same education level, black and white, can find situations of employment or education remarkably different. They can find the same physical, material, temporal experience, on the one hand, a breeze and something you're born to thrive at, and, on the other hand, something quite threatening and undermining. And blacks and whites very often see things because of their social and economic histories quite differently. I wonder if we shouldn' t put a big asterisk onto `same socio-economic status.'

Mr. MURRAY: Well, just to clarify something. When it comes to the role of genes in the black-white test score difference, Dick Herrnstein and I are really agnostic about what the mix might be there, and, in fact, we aren't going to go very far out on a limb saying there' s a mix at all. We don't really know. But your larger point is well- taken, and, in fact, I would endorse it in this regard - let's start thinking of the environment as being a whole lot bigger and more complex than we have in the past. And let's say that it could very well be an environment and that, writ large, that accounts for some of these differences.

SIEGEL: It's not just things and money, but what I think that person over there thinks of me, what I think, in what way I think they esteem me or don't esteem me-

Mr. MURRAY: But, but, but that in itself is, I think, consistent with another point that we try to make, that we've taken a hammering on, which is that, when people think of the environment and the environment causing differences, there is this impulse to think, `Oh, well, we know what to do about that.' And we have all these little things we'll trot out that will provide for children to make up for their environmental deficits. If there is a contribution in this book with regard to the racial difference, I hope it is this - that we get a lot more realistic about how hard it is to manipulate the environment because I think until we do that there is going to be a lot of self- congratulatory talk every time we raise the funds spent on remedial education and whatever and not a hard enough look at what we're actually accomplishing.

SIEGEL: But if the- If one were to read the book and say and deal with your data more than with your policy recommendations and say, `Look, OK, IQ turns out to be a bit stubborn.' Many, some social scientists who have commented in the reviews about your book say actually there are other studies to show that IQ is more elastic than you would say, but it appears to be stubborn. You would say, it levels out about age six or eight, and it's a very good predictor of what will happen to people in later life. Well, at around the third grade, let's test for IQ, track like crazy, stop with efforts to create a more diverse elite and do vocational education starting at age nine for those people who are headed for the left tail of the bell curve. Is that a sensitive reading of your book?

Mr. MURRAY: No, no, it's not. We think that what, in terms of education, what people ought to do is to be able to fulfill their talents as far as they want to go, and actually we think parents are a pretty good way, the family's a pretty good way, to have a whole bunch of people trying hard to have their kids go as far as they can go. So we do not want an 11-plus kind of system like they had in Britain. We want, if anything, to decentralize control over education even more than it is now. There is in our book very little- No, let me phrase that more positively. I would say there is in our book a very strong affirmation of a traditional American ideal, which is that you treat people as individuals, you try to let everybody fulfill their potential as individuals. What Dick and I are saying is, as we go about that process, let's also be aware of the larger social phenomena that this drives. Let's be aware of the down sides that it has, which have nothing with race, because, unless we are aware of those, we are in danger not just from an underclass or even as much from an underclass as we are from our cognitive elite, which, in our view, is becoming more and more a potential threat to free institutions.

SIEGEL: If I had told you somewhere along the lines of writing the book or researching the book that this, that the publication of the book would prove terribly dispiriting to minority kids, let's say, to black school children who would catch the drift, the distant drift of this thesis that's wending its way through every news weekly and op-ed page and letters to the editor, would you think twice about that if you felt you were putting into the air a case that might make a large number of kids feel debilitated and feel like everyone think' s they're stupid. Would you say, `Well, maybe on second thought I shouldn't write this'?

Mr. MURRAY: Dick and I talked a lot about that, and I don't want to speak for him because I don't remember exactly where he came out. I know for my own part, were this the early 1960s before the advent of treatment by groups, before the advent of a lot of other problems that we've had, when there was real progress in race relations in this country, I think that I would have had other thoughts. In 1994, it is not the case that black youngsters are suddenly with publication of this book getting the sense that, `Gee, whites think that we have lower IQs than they do.' This is not only in the air and has been in the air continuously; it has been, we think, all the more debilitating because it's been this kind of miasma that permeates everything, never talked about, never exposed to the light of day. Everybody knows it's there.

SIEGEL: But let me call you on that for a moment because I think to look back on race relations in America and to say that it was never talked about that whites thought blacks were intellectually inferior is to miss decades of racist discourse in the United States which have bombarded black people in America, and this isn't novel-

Mr. MURRAY: I was referring to right now.

SIEGEL: Yes, I know you were referring to right now, but to the ears of somebody who's been raised on the black experience in America, this is compounding something that has been absolutely the argument behind segregation. Mr. MURRAY: No, the- Well, whatever. We're going to disagree on this, but I'll tell you why I disagree. Dick Herrnstein and I both feel very strongly that the facts on this are not something that needs to make a black youngster feel bad about himself because we don't think that's the way parents and youngsters deal with their lives. When I am thinking about what I am going to be as a child, I am thinking about what I am and what I can do, and what I want most of all is a society that tells me, `Youngster, you can go as far as your energy and abilities will take you in whatever direction you have energy and abilities.' That's the message we want to send, what we think this country has been doing, and, again, I would ask for you to have me back in three or four years, and let's see who is right on this issue.

SIEGEL: Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve.

[The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, in order to meet rigid distribution and transmission deadlines, it has not been proofread against audiotape and cannot, for that reason, be guaranteed as to the accuracy of speakers' words or spelling.]

Copyright 1994 National Public Radio. All Rights Reserved.




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