Analyzing Charles Murray’s academic work

Feb. 22, 2018, 3:07 a.m.

Today, Charles Murray will be in conversation with Francis Fukuyama at Stanford University for a Cardinal Conversations event about populism and inequality. We hold that this invitation is in error, due to Murray’s career of misapplication of science about genetics, intelligence and race, whose thinking is continuous with that of his recent work about socioeconomic inequality. An op-ed by university administration frames Murray as a controversial scholar who adds intellectual diversity to the university. We propose an alternative frame: There is no academic controversy here. His work is known, by many among natural and human scientists, to be bad. While bad work does not necessarily merit exclusion from an academic community, it does not follow that it should be elevated or defended for its quality.

Race and intelligence are concepts whose accounting for through science are complex. Murray has proposed that genetic variation across races explains differences in intelligence across them. This proposal immediately encounters two problems: how race exists and how intelligence exists. Among the human sciences there is little controversy that race as understood today is a social construct, originating in early modern history. Categories of “Black,” “White,” “Asian” and so forth are primarily products of society and history, not bodies or genes. We do not deny that genetic variation exists across human populations, e.g. that people in some parts of the world have (say) different shades of hair. Certain aspects of the body, such as skin color or genes, are treated in society as markers of race, though that treatment itself is highly variable by context. However, genetic variation corresponds very poorly to modern racial categories. It does not justify an ontology of race except as social construct.

On the other hand, we understand that a body of genetics research has recently emerged, which shows how genetic variation does partially explain variation in educational attainment and general intelligence. We wish not to critique this body but to show its break with Murray’s thinking. There is some controversy over the concept of general intelligence, but even in applying it, this body of research suggests that this construct is influenced weakly by numerous minute “moments” of genetic variation. There is not a single hereditary locus for smarts. This research also cannot fully account for the causal pathways from genetic variation to life outcome: Genetic variation, for example, may influence a child’s myopia, which in turn influences her classroom participation, which in turn influences her self-esteem as student. Clearly, there are in this case numerous social opportunities—giving free glasses, for example—to change the child’s life outcomes even if they partially originate from eyesight. Moreover, literature reviews suggest problems of replication in this field.

Other criticisms of Murray remain. Murray accounts for neither differences of environment, nor for differences of historical state intervention across groups, nor for access to education. The heritability of cognitive ability should not be confused with its immutability—indeed, heritability depends greatly upon social context. Genes explain less variation in educational attainment than social environment does. Murray’s work in “The Bell Curve” lacks early childhood data. Murray’s work lacks genetic data. This list goes on. Scientists across multiple disciplines have responded to “The Bell Curve,” which we believe provides more than adequate ground to abort misleading conversations about race and intelligence. It should not be the task of scientists to exhaust themselves in refuting work already refuted. Nevertheless, Murray himself has maintained the validity of his work in “The Bell Curve” to the present, and continues to open-mindedly speculate about the role of genetics in racial intelligence.

All of this should further trouble inquiry about a genetic relationship between race and intelligence. As it stands, our university has invited him to serious public discourse. By the Hoover Institution’s account, this invitation is motivated by Murray’s recent work, which examines socioeconomic inequality in America. We caution against viewing this issue as a progressive turn from “The Bell Curve,” for it shares anxieties about subordinated populations: in one case people of color and in another the working class and poor. His new book “Coming Apart” pathologizes the habits of a White “underclass” and extends his worry about the disproportionate concentration of smarts across certain social groups.

The university administration’s response appears to explain another motive of invitation: that a dose of controversy spurs growth in an intellectual community. Scientific response to Charles Murray, however, presents less a debate over what ought to be done about group deficits and more a systematic exposure of the weakness of his thinking. To be sure, we do not oppose a vision of a campus community rich in dialogue, and we endorse freedom of dialogue in podium and protest. What puzzles us is his institutional recommendation on the basis of good controversy. He may be controversial, but if so his controversy is not about scientific knowledge, but about ideology. This ideological controversy might be summed up as: what to do about the poverty experienced by socially subordinated groups, particularly Black, Latinx and poor groups, if it is caused by their mental shortcomings and cannot be remedied by political will. We hold that any university, in considering the allocation of resources to generate conversation, need not court this controversy.


Alexander Mejia, PhD student Graduate School of Education

David Song, PhD candidate Graduate School of Education

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