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The Real Defense of Charles Murray: Truth Not Free Speech

The Middlebury College incident in which Charles Murray was forcefully prevented from speaking about Coming Apart has generated a mini-industry of brilliant responses on behalf of academic freedom. Unfortunately, at least from my perspective, these high-sounding admonitions are misdirected and paradoxically give comfort to disruptors. Murray’s champions uniformly embrace the classic let- a-thousand-flowers-bloom, anti-censorship argument so vital to a democracy. Surely a noble sentiment but it is content-free and herein lies the problem.

Murray’s lecture should have been defended on substantive grounds: he is a highly qualified expert who has something important to say, and those who shouted him down represent the forces of darkness. The Middlebury fiasco was more than just a generic attack on free speech, though it was certainly that; it was the triumph of the barbarians—the town folk with torches marching up to Dr. Frankenstein’s castle– who substitute feelings for science as a method to discover truth. That this anti-science assault occurred at a college only compounds the harm.

To be sure, there is nothing wrong with the venerable argument that free speech, save some special exceptions, should be tolerated even if views expressed are noxious, factually incorrect, and hateful or makes people uncomfortable. This Hyde Park Speaker’ Corner crackpot defense would certainly apply to Middlebury if the college invited, say, somebody promoting astrology.

But, this all-encompassing defense hardly applies to Charles Murray. He is not a crank needing a safe space or extra legal protection; his books and articles are models of social science analysis making major scholarly contributions and as such his presence need not be justified by some catch-all free speech protection. Yes, not everybody accepts his methods and conclusion, but to intimate that he should be lumped together with soapbox orators preaching the likes of creationism is a grievous mistake and, to boot, a personal insult.

Unfortunately, this generic approach is the safe path taken by Murray’s academic supporters—we should permit him to speak just as we might allow a wacko creationist to present his evidence. It is, indeed, an alluring and 100% safe defense: embrace the First Amendment and escape any suspicion that one might actually agree with his “racist” views. All gain, no pain for these apostles of intellectual freedom.

Those going to bat for Murray should have directly confronted the accusation that Murray is an incompetent who traffics in pseudo-scientific racism, classism and all the rest. Don’t retreat to a web-based safe space and quote from J. S. Mill’s On Liberty yet one more time; one should have been there to expose the disruptors (especially Middlebury faculty joining the fray) for what they are—ill-informed enemies of science, albeit of the social science variety.

This science-based defense hardly entails embracing Murray’s contentious conclusion. Rather, it calls for Murray’s arguments to be tried in the court of science, not affirmed or rejected by whether somebody, somewhere is offended. Defenders should have confronted the shouters and asked for a show of hands on how many protestors members have actually read The Bell Curve or any science-based rejoinder?

Similarly, how many of these noisy social justice warriors can briefly summarize the core argument of Coming Apart? Here’s a trick question: what does Coming Apart say about African Americans? (Answer: nothing, it’s only about whites). I suspect that even a few simple questions would expose the protestor as anti-knowledge airheads.

Better yet, stand tall and let it be known that you are not intimidated by masked disruptors and their snowflake auxiliaries. Openly ask for reaction to The Bell Curve’s most controversial data (p. 279) that African Americans on average have IQ’s 15 points lower than whites.  This gap explains numerous educational and economic outcomes, including the failure of myriad government imposed, well-funded measures to close the academic gap between blacks and whites.  In other words, do not concede the science to those silencing Murray. The real cranks are the ones in the black masks and students with signs saying, “No Eugenics” (Murray has never advocated eugenics). Protestors, not Murray, need an unrestricted Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner soapbox to explain why IQ tests are meaningless, why there is no such thing as “intelligence” or why spending trillions more will surely cure poverty.

Going one step further, the post-incident reaction should skip the empty rhetoric about needing yet more free speech protection etc. etc. How about demanding that Middlebury require all liberal arts majors take one course in scientific methodology? In this “Science for Snowflakes,” students will learn that science moves forward via falsification and shouting “racist” is not falsification. This would certainly be an improvement over a compulsory course celebrating multiculturalism (and I can only imagine the give and take when those learning about scientific methods enroll in fantasy-filled PC courses).

Sad to say, a substantive defense of Murray—his so-called noxious, arguments rest on solid science and can only be rejected scientifically—is unlikely to be offered on today’s PC-dominated campuses, at least in public though, I suspect, some Middlebury faculty and even a few students will agree in private with the doors locked, the shades pulled and only among trusted colleagues. In fact, the very idea of an objective, scientifically verifiable truth regarding racial differences might be deemed “too controversial” to even discuss.

If this event proves anything, it demonstrates that the Left now dominates the campus, and speaking the truth on contemporary taboo topics is career-ending; offering up a day late, dollar short celebration of the marketplace of ideas is not about to upend this control.

The power to silence those who believe in science has been metastasizing for decades. Those seeking a professorial career, at least in the humanities and social sciences, have long been socialized to accept that saying anything “disrespectful” about certain minorities and women is professional suicide no matter how strong the evidence and endless qualifications. And, with so many safe research topics available, it makes perfect sense to drink the Kool-Aid and insist that 2+2=5.

In the final analysis, Murray’s “talk” given electronically from a secure location was highly educational to those contemplating intellectual honesty, though not in the way Murray intended. The real bad news is not the silencing of Murray (he will convey his ideas elsewhere); it is the example given to younger academics.

They will see that if they should, even accidentally, stray over the academy’s invisible fence, dozens of fellow professors will write brilliant defenses of intellectual freedom on their behalf on countless websites. To recall a saying when growing up in NYC during the early 50’s: that and ten cents will get you a ride on the subway (today it would be $2.75).

Charles Murray Insulted but Allowed to Speak

The thought police are at it again. The latest confrontation is at Virginia Tech University at Blacksburg where the usual suspects — a coalition of black activists and white leftists — have called upon the university president to withdraw an invitation to Charles Murray, where he is scheduled to speak on March 25 at Tech’s business school. Murray will give an address drawn from his latest book, Coming Apart, which explains the increasing economic and cultural polarization that has taken place in America because of structural changes in our information-based, post-industrial economy.

Like much of Murray’s interest over the past three decades, Coming Apart focuses on the alarming growth of a downwardly mobile, and ever-more disoriented white underclass at the same time that a highly educated white over-class has pulled away and isolated itself in upscale, affluent communities.

These latter groups, Murray argues, have a vastly disproportionate influence on how public policy is conducted in America, yet they lack an understanding of the needs and traditions of less affluent and less well educated people. The protesters, however, seemed unconcerned with what Murray intends to say at Virginia Tech. Their sole objection is to the very appearance of Charles Murray, the co-author of the rarely-read but much vilified book, The Bell Curve, which was published more than 20 years ago.

<How Our Campuses Came to Reject Free Speech>

Together with his co-author, the late Richard Herrnstein — a distinguished Harvard psychologist — Murray documented in The Bell Curve the increasing returns in the job market to those with high abstract reasoning ability as indicated by high IQ test scores. The book’s primary concern was with IQ differences among socio-economic groups — a topic Herrnstein had written about many years earlier. But two chapters dealt with the data on IQ and race. It was this material that produced an explosion in commentary by reviewers, much of it hostile, uninformed, and irrational.

The Bell Curve pointed out that decades of testing had shown a persistent IQ gradient around the world with Ashkenazic Jews at the top, followed by northern Asians, whites, Latinos, African Americans, and at the very bottom black Africans, the latter a full standard deviation (15 IQ points) behind their descendants in America. After surveying much of the relevant technical literature on the topic, Murray and Herrnstein concluded with what, under more rational circumstances, would surely have been considered a very moderate, reserved, even anodyne statement about the likely causes of these differences:

If the reader is now convinced that either the genetic or the environmental explanation [for racial differences in IQ scores] has won out to the exclusion of the other, we have not done a sufficiently good job of presenting one side or the other.  It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences [in IQ scores]. What might the mix be? We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not yet justify an estimate. (p. 311)

Moderate and circumspect though such a statement may seem, it brought the roof down on the two Bell Curve authors, with Murray having to face the avalanche of criticism alone since his co-author died unexpectedly just as the book was going to press. The style, substance and quality of much of the criticism are well captured by the title of one of the reviews in The New Republic: “Neo-Nazi!”

The Bell Curve had clearly breached a powerful taboo, one that calls for explaining racial, ethnic, and socio-economic differences in IQ scores solely in terms of non-genetic, non-heriditarian factors.  To a large segment of the American intellectual and media elite a genes-plus-environment explanation was simply unacceptable and identified with the demented minds of Nazis and Klansmen. Even if Murray himself were not a Nazi or Klansman, he was, many commentators seemed to believe, at the very least a fellow traveler and his book gave aid and comfort to the most despised enemies of the human race.

An Open Letter from a Suddenly Disinvited Speaker

For many elements of the campus Left, this is still where Murray stands, and his appearance on a university campus, even to discuss matters unrelated to race, must never be tolerated. This is true despite Murray’s impeccable scholarship, his great personal integrity, his concern in recent years for developments among whites rather than non-whites (Coming Apart is subtitled “The State of White America 1960-2010”), and the ever-increasing acceptance by knowledgeable researchers of The Bell Curve’s basic genes-plus-environment explanation for a host of human differences.

Even in its own time The Bell Curve was hardly an outlier in terms of what it said about racial differences in IQ scores and their likely origin. A poll of professional psychologists, sociologists, and behavioral geneticists conducted years before publication of the Murray/Herrnstein book found the proportion of those favoring a genes-plus-environment explanation for the persistent black/white IQ-gap exceeding those favoring an environment-only explanation by a factor of 3-1.

Only 17 percent of the respondents were in the environment-only camp, versus 53 percent who believed that both genes and environment were responsible for the observed IQ differences. Of the remainder, only 1 percent adopted a genes-only explanation while the rest said the data were insufficient to make a sound judgment. See Mark Snyderman and Stanley Rothman, The IQ Controversy, the Media, and Public Policy. In recent years, with the exponential growth of interest in behavioral genetics, this 3-1 ratio may well have increased.

<How Universities Promote the Coming Apart of America>

Among the campus Left, Murray continues to be vilified as a “fascist,” “Nazi,” “Social Darwinist” and the like, though he is simply a rigorously honest scholar — the New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan once described him as “honest to a fault” — with an exceptionally humane, classical liberal approach to most social problems. At Virginia Tech, a group calling itself the Coalition for Justice fell into this standard pattern of Murray vilification. In a public statement, the group objected to having Murray speak on campus saying that his was a voice of prejudice and hate that should not be given a Virginia Tech forum.

“At the time when rising racism, misogyny and anti-intellectualism have moved to the forefront of our national consciousness,” the group said in its statement, “there is no better place than a college campus from which to focus our efforts against the voices of prejudice and hate. … Mr. Murray’s social Darwinist take on intelligence, ability and morality — and his assertion of the inherent racial and gender inferiority of non-whites and women — do nothing but promote a white supremacist agenda, cast in the guise of ‘scientific discourse’.” The group wanted the business dean to rescind Murray’s invitation.

(How the “misogyny” theme got in there is anybody’s guess, since Murray has never written anything that can be construed — or even misconstrued — as critical of women whether in The Bell Curve or, to this writer’s knowledge, anywhere else.  In Coming Apart it is the lazy, irresponsible, uninvolved white fathers in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Fishtown who clearly stoke his ire).

The anti-Murray onslaught was joined by both the local Virginia Tech chapter of the NAACP and several faculty members of the Africana Studies Program. The latter group issued a statement that while not calling for revocation of Murray’s invitation said that Murray was “engaged in a mission to use discredited pseudoscience to perpetuate the subordination of people of African descent, Latino/as, Native American Indians, the poor, women and the disabled.”  His ideas were seen as perpetuating a kind of narrative that would “visit violence upon marginalized populations — recalling the history of forced sterilization, unjust institutionalization and incarceration, and denial of basic human rights.”

The president of Virginia Tech, Tim Sands, also got into the act of issuing public statements with “An Open Letter to the Virginia Tech Community” that can best be described as combining elements of “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” On the good side, Sands refused to rescind the invitation to Murray while reaffirming the values of academic freedom and open debate at Virginia Tech.

On the bad and ugly side, the Open Letter erroneously claimed that Murray’s views on race and IQ had long been discredited, and that Murray’s scholarship promoted ideas that were not merely false but dangerous, since they gave aid and comfort to fascists and other evildoers. Murray, said the Open Letter, “is well known for his controversial and largely discredited work linking measures of intelligence to heredity, and specifically to race and ethnicity — a flawed socioeconomic theory that has been used by some to justify fascism, racism and eugenics.”

Murray could not take all this sitting down, and in the form of his own “Open Letter to the Virginia Tech Community,” he responded to president Sands’ remarks. While giving a “Bravo” to Sands’ defense of intellectual freedom, Murray accused Sands of being “unfamiliar either with the actual content of The Bell Curve …. Or, with the state of knowledge in psychometrics.” Anyone who has carefully read The Bell Curve and kept up with developments in psychometrics and related fields of intelligence research would hardly dispute Murray’s assessment.  Murray proceeded to cite some of the findings of the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on intelligence, a group of leading specialists in psychometric testing, which published its findings in the February 1996 issue of the American Psychologist.

On the issue of black/white differences in IQ scores, the hereditability of intelligence, and the predictive validity of IQ for the differing black and white populations, the Task Force came to conclusions virtually identical to those of The Bell Curve authors (the Task Force’s report can be obtained online by googling “Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns – CiteSeerX”).

<Princeton Takes a Stand on Free Speech>

Continuing his indictment of Sands’ statement, Murray wrote that it was particularly exasperating to have the president of a distinguished university accuse the authors of The Bell Curve of presenting material that has been scientifically discredited.  On the contrary, Murray says, “our presentations of the meaning and role of IQ [in The Bell Curve] have been … steadily reinforced by subsequent research in the social sciences, not to mention developments in neuroscience and genetics.”   Murray was most upset, however, by Sands’ accusation that he was promulgating a theory used in the past to justify fascism and racism.  At this point President Sands, Murray wrote, “went beyond the kind of statement that merely reflects his unfamiliarity with The Bell Curve and/or psychometrics. He engaged in intellectual McCarthyism.”

Such is the state of much of academia where a combination of left-wing political correctness, the cowardice of university presidents, and the fear of being called a racist determines the order of the day.  In saner times, a scholar of Murray’s stature would be honored wherever went and he would probably hold an endowed chair at an institution like Harvard or Stanford. Today, he never knows if he will be allowed to show up even at an institution that has invited him to speak.

How Universities Promote the “Coming Apart” of America

Coming Apart.JPGEvery decade or so, Charles Murray writes a blockbuster book captivating America. First came Losing Ground, focusing attention on our dysfunctional system of public assistance, and, along with Richard Herrnstein, The Bell Curve, a controversial but rigorous examination of the role played by cognitive endowments in American life. I suspect his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, will be another mega hit. Based on a quick read, Murray demonstrates the growing gaps between affluent upper-middle-class Americans and their blue-collar, lower-income counterparts. He confines his analysis to whites to avoid all sorts of unrelated side issues, including the tendency to see the growing gap between Americans as primarily a problem of race, ethnicity or bias.

Murray’s thesis is simple: a powerful new class has emerged in America, based on cognitive and educational homogamy–the interbreeding of individuals with like characteristics. Colleges and universities have played a key role–particularly the elite institutions, which attract almost no one outside the top ten percent of the nation’s cognitive talent. (Fifty years ago, only three percent of Americans graduated from college, and the elite institutions tended to attract the well-connected and the economically successful, not necessarily the brightest.) These institutions now function as sorting mechanisms. The exceptionally bright now tend to meet and then marry similarly bright partners. In addition to building a culture vastly different from that of mainstream America, they perpetuate the advantages that high levels of cognitive skills offer. As a result, Murray concludes, “Highly disproportionate numbers of exceptionally able children in the next generation will come from parents in the upper-middle class, and more specifically from parents who are already part of the broad elite.” As the new class pulls away from mainstream America, so does the discouraged underclass–now made up of all ethnicities–giving up on work, family and community.

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