Letter to the Editor: the controversy of Charles Murray
To the Editor:
The front page article in the Provoc on October 4, “Cancelled speaker invokes controversy,” reported on the administration’s decision to cancel a scheduled talk by the political scientist Dr. Charles Murray. In the piece, it was noted that the Assumption College community lost an opportunity to support intellectual diversity and learn from “an internationally recognized scholar.” While we agree that the cancellation of his talk may have been a lost opportunity, it does not prevent us from learning more about why Dr. Murray is such a controversial figure in the first place, something the article did not sufficiently address.
Dr. Murray believes he is a widely misunderstood scholar who has been marginalized by an intolerant culture of political correctness in higher education that has repeatedly accused him of racism. He feels that the criticisms are not valid and amount to a hysterical overreaction.
It is true that Dr. Murray has been treated uncivilly and unfairly at times, as the recent debacle at Middlebury College demonstrates. However, the problem with Dr. Murray’s claim is that it ignores the many scholarly voices in higher education that question his application of the scientific method, not his political philosophy. Many scholars and researchers have considered Dr. Murray’s work and worry that his scholarship supports racism and is a variation on Social Darwinism.
Specifically, the debate goes back to 1994 when Charles Murray and his, now deceased, co-author Richard Herrnstein published, The Bell Curve. The book claimed that: (1) intelligence is largely a heritable condition; (2) little can be done to change intelligence; (3) since the mid-twentieth century the US educational system has been successful in sorting those with higher IQs into important and high paying jobs and those with lower IQs into lower level occupations; (4) racial groups differ, on average, in their IQ tests; this gap cannot be explained by cultural testing bias; and (5), government help to the poor is largely unwarranted because it would reward “bad behavior.” Although a dated work, Dr. Murray calls The Bell Curve“prescient” and says it informs his current research.
Dr. Murray is quick to note that he and Dr. Herrnstein are “agnostic” on theextent of genetic influence on race and IQ but they are both insistent that it is “highly likely” that racial differences in IQ have some genetic component. Dr. Murray has more recently argued that it will soon be definitively proven that a wide variety of “ethnic differences,” including intelligence, are the result of genetics.
He also claims the mean difference in IQ scores between blacks and whites has not changed since the 1970s and that the American Psychological Association task force on The Bell Curve largely supports his arguments on IQ and heritability. Dr. Murray is baffled by the negative reaction—he sees himself as merely a scholar soberly presenting facts that some find offensive.
It is our view that Murray’s scholarship has grossly exaggerated the issue of heritability and intelligence, misrepresented the scholarship on IQ, and he is dead wrong in using biological arguments to explain racial differences in intellect.
Decades of research has consistently demonstrated that genes and the environment interact in complex ways and that heritability of intelligence is much less influential than Murray and Herrnstein claim; and the IQ gap between blacks and whites actually continues to narrow since the 1970s; research has also demonstrated 12-18 point gains in IQ from early childhood to adulthood. Even the APA task force report, that Murray argues vindicates his scholarship, actually undermines many of his assertions.
However, what is perhaps especially troubling is Murray’s assertion that more recent research proves that racial differences in intelligence are real. He is clearly misrepresenting a large body of scientific scholarship that comes to the opposite conclusion: that there is more genetic variation within so-called “racial” groups than between them, and that the modern conception of race which clumped ethnically diverse peoples into monolithic categories of white, black, Asian, and Hispanic are not related to intellect. Further, the consensus of the scientific scholarship is that, for example, a white man can have more in common genetically with an African American or an indigenous Australian than a fellow neighbor who is white.
We feel that Dr. Murray’s repeated attempts to promote falsified arguments on intelligence and race are as close as you can get to what the Speaker of the House Paul Ryan would call a “textbook definition of racism.” As sad as it is to say, Dr. Murray’s arguments are uncomfortably similar to the racist eugenics theories of the 19th century that were used to defend slavery and Jim Crow segregation. And even sadder is that these ideas have major implications for public policy; Dr. Murray’s research has been consistently used to justify the elimination of government programs designed to help low income residents and to reduce systemic racism. Dr. Murray is emphatic that he is not racist, and we have no reason to think he would feel otherwise.
It is our view that Dr. Murray is within his rights to discuss his beliefs and speak on college campuses, including Assumption. Our criticism is with his scholarship. His decades of publications have continually promoted arguments that are widely rejected in higher education because they lack of scientific merit. We would like the Assumption College community to know that we welcome open dialogue about divergent views and that many scholars have reasoned and thoughtful objections to Murray’s use of data and that these objections should not be written off as “political correctness.”