Why I will be attending Cardinal Conversations tonight

Feb. 22, 2018, 3:09 a.m.

Before being asked to serve as a faculty advisor to Cardinal Conversations, I had never read anything written by Charles Murray. Life is short. I have over three-dozen books, stacked by my bedside and on my iPad, that I can’t find time to read. Of course, I was not opposed to having him speak on campus, and concurred with our organizational committee’s decision to invite him here. But I personally had never been interested enough in Murray to read his books or attend a talk.

But now, having been compelled to become acquainted with some of his writings in part because of the negative reaction that his invitation to campus has caused, I want to share some assessments.

First, as a social scientist, I found Murray’s “The Bell Curve” to be a methodological mess. There are just so many flaws: weak measures of variables and their proxies, no compelling causal story linking genetic content to IQ, selection bias, no testing of alternative hypotheses, major endogeneity issues, especially regarding education and IQ and a very American-centric lens. (Comparison with other countries, especially ethnically homogenous societies, would have more robustly tested his hypotheses.) Most importantly, the major causal claim between genetic content and IQ is never demonstrated, just inferred through weak correlations.  Major scientific advances in genetics have only weakened the causal claims in “The Bell Curve.”  The data and scientific methods deployed in “The Bell Curve” would never meet the standards of an academic press or peer-reviewed journal today.

After reading this book, I also came to understand how these ideas could inspire racist agendas and white nationalist movements, even if that was not Murray’s intention, and therefore how those fighting for racial equality would be offended by Murray’s ideas.

I also perused Murray’s “Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 BC to 1950,” which argues that white males have produced all that is excellent in arts and sciences over the last three millennia. If you really want to get worked about Murray’s opinions dressed up as statistics, skip “The Bell Curve” and read this book!

I had a different reaction to “Coming Apart.”  Here I found Murray’s description of emerging class differences among white Americans interesting. I still have many questions, especially about the centrality of innate intelligence as the main explanatory variable. I still think Murray underestimates the impact of learning, education and wealth in determining IQ (which itself, of course, is a very difficult variable to measure). And I get nervous for how others might use his analysis to promote damaging prescriptions and wanted more from Murray about his own specific policy recommendations; hopefully that topic will be discussed tonight.  But I could see why engagement of the ideas of “Coming Apart” might produce a fruitful discussion, an assessment I did not have of the “The Bell Curve” or “Human Accomplishment.”

I could go on, slicing and dicing Murray’s methods and data.  But others more expert than me already have done so.[1] One valuable outcome of Murray’s books is that they have sparked many social scientists to marshal evidence to evaluate – and in many cases to refute – his ideas. Bad ideas and flawed science should be refuted by better ideas and better science. That’s the way the marketplace of ideas should work.

Murray’s presence on campus, however, serves for me an additional purpose, not related to science.  Murray is an influential public intellectual in America today; that’s an empirical statement, not a normative judgement. His ideas have shaped mainstream political discourse and policy proposals.  I see traces of Murray’s earlier work in some of President Trump’s rhetoric and policies. Again, Murray himself may not approve of the way his ideas have influenced social movements and public policy debates in the United States.  But his ideas have been impactful.  So those seeking to understand American politics and society today – both scholars and activists – should add Murray to their reading lists, and then think seriously about intellectual arguments and political actions to counter his ideas where they disagree.  (As an undergraduate at Stanford studying the Soviet Union, back in the day, I felt compelled to read Marx and Lenin, even though I did not agree with them and was well aware of how their ideas were used to justify killing millions of people around the world.)

Some Stanford students have argued that inviting Murray to campus gives him and his controversial ideas legitimacy.  I find this argument fair and serious, but ultimately, I disagree.  Last fall, I invited to Stanford Russian ambassador Anatoly Antonov, even though I am one of America’s strongest critics of Russian President Putin and his policies. Because of my outspoken statements about Putin’s autocratic regime, I am banned from traveling to Russia. Yet, I brought Antonov to campus as a means to educate our students and myself about Putin’s policies. As moderator of that event, I then made sure that visiting scholars from Ukraine got the first questions, and they asked hard ones. I do not think that I accorded legitimacy to Putin by having his representative speak on campus. I see Murray’s visit today the same way.

At the same time, I also respect students and faculty who have a different reaction to his presence. They should protest. They should write their own essays, and have every right to express their feelings and opinions about Murray’s ideas, without having to rerun his regressions or attend Cardinal Conversations. Not engaging is also an expression of free speech. Had I not been asked to serve as a faculty advisor to Cardinal Conversations, I probably would not have attended tonight’s discussion. Again, life is short.

But I will admit, somewhat begrudgingly, that this event tonight has compelled me to do my own research; to talk to geneticists, sociologists, political scientists, and philosophers and then formulate my arguments for why I mostly disagree with Murray; to argue with other Hoover fellows, professors and students about the appropriateness of Murray’s invitation; and to think hard about the ethical responsibilities of propagating ideas used for bad ends — all useful exercises. My conversations with students have been especially educational and rewarding. For that, I thank Cardinal Conversations. So, I’ll be there tonight (and tragically missing the Stanford-Washington men’s basketball game).  And if you are not, or will be there protesting his presence, I also respect your alternative expressions of free speech.


Michael McFaul ’86 MA ’86, member of the Stanford community


[1] See for instance, Claude Fischer et al, “Inequality by Design: Cracking the Bell Curve Myth” (1996); and Sanders Korenman and Christopher Winship, “A Reanalysis of the Bell Curve,” NBER Working Paper, (2010); Cornelius Rietveld, et al, “GWAS of 126,559 Individuals Identifies Genetic Variants Associated with Educational Attainment,” “Science” (2013); and Daphne Martschenko, Sam Trejo, and Benjamin Domingue, “Genetics-Infused Education Research: What Can and Can’t Knowledge of Genetics Brings to Education,” (2018).

Marcus W. Feldman and Sohini Ramachandran, “Missing compared to what? Revisiting heritability, genes and culture ,” (2018).


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