The Bell Curve … and Its Author, Part I

Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Charles Murray
Title: The Bell Curve…and its Author
VTR: 1/20/95

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is the ever-provocative social theorist, Charles Murray, whose recent Free Press book written with the late Richard Herrnstein, “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,” has cause just about as much of a hullabaloo as his Losing Ground did a decade ago. Maybe even more, for now the stakes may be higher.

Instead, I began an Open Mind program with Dr. Murray back then by recalling the waggish suggestion Adlai Stevenson used to make in crisis ties when too many others were wildly scurrying around, always trying to fix things: “Don’t just do something,” Stevenson would say, “Stand there.” For a whole school of thought, with Charles Murray and its guru, had surfaced by then—some called it “conservative chic”—that insisted Lyndon Johnson’s earlier “Great Society” had actually lost, not gained, much ground for Americans in always doing something, anything, it seemed in effort to right the nations’ perceived wrongs. In short, social engineering human endeavors, it will, was added Murray’s Law of Net Harm: However well-intentioned, activist social policies designed to transfer the good things of life from the privileged to the underprivileged, actually generally result in losing ground. And Dr. Murray’s book by that title, “Losing Ground,” become, of not the nations’ singular in-reading, at least the book that the in-crowd talked and argued bout incessantly.

And now he’s done it again. Charles Murray ahs become the target once more of incredibly much heat, and distressingly little light, in efforts to place his “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life” right smack stage center in the conflict between those who do and those who do not find, or want to find, individual intelligence measurements of commanding importance in out quest for social injustice. Important to not, of course, has been the fierce debate waged over precisely what its authors mean The Bell Curve to tell us. So let’s as Mr. Murray himself.

MURRAY: What did we have in mind? Dick Herrnstein and I started this book in the fall of ’89. And at that time, I think it’s as simple as this, we were convinced that IQ is an important phenomenon in trying to understand what’s going on in society, at the very bottom, and at the very top. We were also convinced that this was something that simply hadn’t been broached for basically 30 years. Dick liked to say, “This is like uncut diamonds lying around in the field. That all you have to do is picked them up, as opposed to most scholarly work where you have to find some little, tiny specialty were there is something new to be done.” So, we started out, and we were basically in a descriptive kind of mode. “Here’s how IP interacts with social problems; here’s how IQ interacts with social stratification.” And in doing that, it turns out we touched on a whole bunch of taboos. We kind of knew we were, but I guess that I’m still surprised at the intensity of the reaction.

HEFFNER: You know, you say “descriptive.” But didn’t you become very quickly prescriptive?

MURRAY: No, I mean, I you look at the book, Richard, this one of my…You know, I guess every author, when there are accusations, and there are some that really irritate him more than any other. The one that really irritates me is the sense that, “Oh, these guys set out to write this book with a political agenda.” Here is the truth about The Bell Curve, which is that it supplies a huge amount of ammunition for the left. Listen, I mean…And this is not something that came out ex post facto; we knew this going in. And in fact, some of my conservative friends said, “Don’t you realize what the left can make of this?” We are saying that IQ does play an important role in determining how you make out in life, and we also say it isn’t your fault whether you get a high or low IQ in the luck of the draw. Doesn’t that sound to you like a justification for a Rawlsian state?

HEFFNER: Unless one were saying, “That’s it. There it is. That’s the way it flew. Leave it alone.” Now aren’t you saying that?

MURRAY: Okay. Now, that’s, if you say, if you interpret Rawl as saying, “We are going to change the institutions of society so people all rise through their own efforts and abilities,” I’d suppose you’re right. That’s not what Rawl said. He said, “if you ware,” and I’m speaking of social democracy more generally. There is nothing intrinsic in social democracy which should be hostile to the ideas of “The Bell Curve.” It simply says, “Look, this is another way in which people are disadvantaged through no fault of their own. We used to emphasize social institutions and political intuitions and economic oppression as the cause, but now we have this other kind of cause. And what you do is redistribute.

HEFFNER: Yes, but isn’t it fair to say that when you write that, whatever your intention was, it had to be taken than as, “That’s the way it is; don’t try to fix it,” going back to Adlai Stevenson?

MURRAY: It’s certainly the way it’s been taken.

HEFFNER: Isn’t it meant that way? Share that with me, please.

MURRAY: If you go to Chapter 22, the concluding chapter…


MURRAY: …we started out by saying that this set of data can go either way in term politically. And as you read the opening to that chapter, you will hear the voice of two guys we themselves are thinking to themselves, “We have go to justify going a way that would not appear natural to most people.” I know of no other social policy book that has as clear a statement by the authors, “Here, folks, are our political predispositions, and we are now going to explain to you how they inform our vision of what ought to be done.” We say it explicitly, we say it openly, and we say it undogmatically in terms of what ought to happen.

Now, Richard, having said that, okay, I have understood in the last three or four months something that Dick and I did not understand. We did no understand how important it was to the left that people be malleable.

HEFFNER: How could you not have been aware of that? The notion of change, the notion of change, the notion of molding. I mean, in “Losing Ground,” you had to, you dealt with, and I think very effectively, the continuing efforts to mold, to change, to do something. Now, your plea of innocence falls, even for me, an admirer, on somewhat deaf ears.

MURRAY: Richard, don’t call me disingenuous. I’m so tired of seeing that word. Because you can call me dumb, you can call me naive. You can say that Dick and I weren’t thinking straight. Neither one of us understood how important it was that people be seen as malleable. We thought it was enough that people be seen as different. And so that as, I mean, don’t understand me too fast here. I just assumed that as long as people on the left would say, “Oh, well, people have low IQ and it’s not their fault, and therefore we have to help then in all these ways,” I thought that that would be a natural reaction for them. And it surprised me to find the extent to which they do fiercely resisted the idea that their helping could not be conjoined with a transformation that they could make in these people’s lives.

HEFFNER: Well, let me ask you quite precisely: Do you believe, did the authors believe that that transformation could take place?

MURRAY: When we started out?

HEFFNER: When you started out, right now today. Either one. Take your pick. Dealer’s choice.

MURRAY: Oh, Dick and I were always, I mean, we started out the book temperamentally. And we kidded each other, he was the Tory and I was the Whig, he used to say. But neither one of us ever thought that human beings are plastic and can be molded to whatever interventions want them to be. But on the other hand, I guess I would say that this is a conceit of the last 30 years which was out of whack with the rest of history. It’s been a very limited period of time that it has been the prevailing political ideology that people are plastic. So, the findings in the book did not come as a surprise to us. I guess we just didn’t think it was that big a deal.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, you say it wasn’t that big a deal. And I was enormously impressed, I told you, when my first copy of this book was left somewhere 3,000 miles away, not on purpose. And last evening, when I picked up this copy I was so impressed with—and I don’t know how I skipped it, because I was so eager to start in on these hundreds and hundreds of pages, but how I skipped—your initial quotation from Edmund Burke: “This is a most absurd and audacious method of reasoning avowed by some bigots and enthusiasts, and through fear assented to by some wised and better men. It is this: They argue against a fair discussion of popular prejudices because, they say, though they would be found without any reasonable support, that the discovery might be productive of the most dangerous consequences. Absurd and blasphemous notion, as if all happiness was not connected with the practice of virtue which necessarily depends upon the knowledge of truth.” You were saying here in your selection, “Hey, folks, we’ve got a truth that is going to throw you, that is going to throw you, that is going to cause this book to be as much of a, the center of a firestorm as Losing Ground was.” Isn’t that really fair?

MURRAY: Oh, no. Now if you say, “Did we know that the book was going to be controversial?” Yes, we did. It’s always one thing to say that you know something is going to happen and to have it happen. What, because I think that we were, w had too much hubris in the sense that we thought that we had couched some of the most difficult topics in such an obviously non-hysterical, low-key, reasonable way, I think there was a part of Dick and me that said, “People will read this, and those who read it carefully will understand and we’ll get the credit for it.” What happened that I did not expect, at least to the degree that it happened, was the extent to which people who talked about the book simply went ballistic and lied about the book. I mean, there are cases where clearly the people hadn’t read the book that wrote about it. There are other cases, I think, where people have read the book, and for some reason they feel that it’s okay to misrepresent the book in very fundamental ways. We touched a nerve that was rawer than we thought it was.

HEFFNER: You know, I was impressed—depressed is the better word—looking at some of the stories that were written about you and about the book, beginning, Newsweek: “Charles Murray, bon vivant and conservative ideologue, ponders the question like a wine of doubtful vintage and provenance.” New York Times begins a story, you’re flying to Aspen sipping fine wine. Why do you think the “in” crowd again made such a point again of getting at Charles Murray?

MURRAY: I don’t know. I mean, that’s, it’s a question that I thought about a lot.

HEFFNER: You’d have to.

MURRAY: (Laughter) At this point, the answers become self-serving, I mean, you’d say, well, they have to get me because I represent some kind of important threat to them, and so, I don’t know. I’ve been very depressed by this because it’s…I could give you one example. This might seem like a minor example to anyone else, but people talk about it, several reviews talk about this being an angry book and a book driven by agendas and so forth. And I look at that book and I sort of defy anybody to pick up the book and look at it and reasonably come away with that reaction. Why is it that people have to say, with regard to this book, when they disagree with something, that Dick and I were either knowingly misrepresenting the facts, we were selectively ignoring certain data, we were being disingenuous, or, when we made a point in the book that they agree with, then they say, “Herrnstein, and even Herrnstein and Murray admit that,” As if we had not openly, freely said such. The commentary on this book—I will make a self-serving statement—the commentary on this book shows the bankruptcy of the American media in dealing with difficult topics. What was done by some of the most respected newspapers and magazines in the country with this book is despicable.

HEFFNER: You know, I couldn’t agree with you more about the treatment of this book, and of the many other treatments of many other subjects. So let’s take that as a given…


HEFFNER: …about the press, at least for the two of us wearing the same jacket and appearing on the same program here.

MURRAY: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: But I think it’s only fair then, because I had turned to Chapter 22, A Place for Everyone, and ask you then, without concern for the attacks or whatever, whether they are personal or ideological, tell me, tell our audience what it is that you and your last colleague wanted us to understand and to get from Herrnstein and Murray.

MURRAY: The first thing that we wanted people to understand overarchingly is that we have a problem in late, post-industrial society that needs to be thought about. And the way we put it, in Chapter 22, is this: How is it that you can have a society in which IQ plays a very large role in how well you do in life, a constraining role, and yet have it be a society in which everybody has access to a satisfying life? And what we are saying is that economics cannot be the sole answer here. I mean, we try to put the economics issue aside. We sort of say, very quickly and easily, “Look, if you want to come up with methods for augmenting the income of people whose skills are not highly values I the marketplace through an earned income tax credit or whatever, fine with us. Negative income tax, if you like that idea, fine.” What we want to do is then get people to confront the tougher question: If economics had been put aside, and you provided a decent material living for everyone else, everyone, how it is that somebody who comes up on the short end of the stick, not very smart, let’s say, just to make things more clear, is not very industrious, not very charming, not very handsome, how is it that that person can live out his live and reach the age of 70 and be proud of who he is and of what he has done with his life? And we say, this is an immensely difficult question. And at this point we are not, we have ideas about the strategy we ought to take, but neither Dick nor I insisted upon that so much as people coming to grips with the question, the fact that this is tough. It’s not enough to simply have had enough money to have lived a decent life. You have to have to have other sources of satisfaction available to you.

HEFFNER: All right, now, that’s starting again with the quotation from Burke. Tough problem, and you have to put it on the table. And you’ve done that. You’ve described the question. There are assumptions, and I’d like to set aside the assumptions and ask you what, to the degree that you can identify them, were your and Richard Herrnstein’s answers to the questions?

MURRAY: They are a combination of his Toryism and my Whigism, which is, you say, “Look, human communities, left alone, given freedom in the classical sense, that is the state exists to make sure that nobody is using physical coercion against others,” we say that, “In those kinds of communities, that you naturally create a lot valued places in the following sense: in such communities the family is very important. You don’t have to have a government agency to try to restore family values. We say that the family is naturally extremely important in communities in which it has not been supplanted by their institutions. Well, being a good husband, a good wife, is one of the most, is one of the richest value places that you can have. In such communities, you naturally tend to have all sort of other ways in which being a good neighbor has more content than going over and having a barbeque together, in which being a good neighbor involved being part and parcel with the stuff of live, whether it’s birth, death, celebration, mourning, taking care of problems. Those are, being a good neighbor is also a value place in life.

We then further say…and here’s where we do get quite political…we say, “Look, whatever you may think of the merits of the efficiency of removing these functions from the family and the neighborhood, and putting them into government institutions, whatever you may think of that, the fact remains that that displacement did, in fact, occur. We did, in fact, denude the family and the community of a lot of its functions.” And it so happens that those are the functions that are most easily accessible to people on the low end of the stick. And therefore it’s wrong.

But, look, you and I, we can have television appearances, and I can have books, and we have our professional circles of friends. So even if family has not been that satisfying to us, and even if we really don’t want to be in a neighborhood at all, we just want to be left alone as far as when we go home, it’s okay for us because we have all of these other things that we can use to try to fill up our lives. But what social policy has done is taken two of the only sources of satisfaction from people eon the low end of the distribution, and strip them.

HEFFNER: And those are?

MURRAY: Family, community. And so when Dick and I say that we want to go back to a Jeffersonian notion of limited government, that is the basis for wanting to do it.

Now, I would suggest to you that, at this point, the proper response is not to say, “Oh, look, the preceding 800 pages were all designed so they could write these last 20 or 30.” The proper response is, “Well, is it really true that a Jeffersonian society could function in the late Twentieth Century? Is it really true that communities would have these…” I mean, there are lots of important questions to ask. But, for Heaven’s sakes, why characterize this as being anything other than an interesting set of questions?

HEFFNER: Yes, but you see, those, when you say, “It would not be legitimate to ask…” and certainly the question, as you pose it, is the one that seems to me to be the most important one: Can, at the end of the Twentieth Century, as we’re almost into the Twenty-first, can we possibly think of those, of a society based upon those older values? Now, that’s a question I put to you.

MURRAY: Well—and here we can go off on a long conversation, which I’m willing to do—by the way, it won’t have too much to do with The Bell Curve, but…

HEFFNER: Why do you say it won’t have too much to do with “The Bell Curve?”

MURRAY: Because…

HEFFNER: It stems from “The Bell Curve,” doesn’t it?

MURRAY: It is the last chapter of The Bell Curve. And most of the preceding material is descriptive of other kinds of phenomena that feed into that last chapter. This book does not come to a point, Richard. Okay, that’s what I’m trying to say, I guess. It’s not that the whole thing funnels into the final chapter. This book is full of stuff. I mean, this books is educational stratification, job productivity and IQ, a whole series of specific social problems like parenting. What’s the relationship of parenting and IQ? You’re just talking about an enormous number of topics that are described in great detail. And that last chapter is two fellows having, as we put it in the book, making a very personal statement about how this hangs together in terms of policy.

HEFFNER: I’m not going to use the word “disingenuous.”

MURRAY: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Forget the word. Strike it. But here you’ve shown us how IQ, and what you have to say about The Bell Curve and the distribution of IQ, raises the questions of, or the question—and there could be a question mark at the end of this, you call it Chapter 22, “A Place for Everyone”; it could be “A Place for Everyone?” question mark…

MURRAY: Question mark. Absolutely.

HEFFNER: And how can you say that it doesn’t stem from everything before? You’ve described for your reader, in a sense, a placeless society for people at one end of the bell curve. And now you’re urging upon us a means for finding, it seems to me and your readers, a place for those people at the wrong end of the bell curve.

MURRAY: I’m sitting here trying to figure out whether we’re really arguing about anything or not. On the one hand, I would love it if people would go to the last chapter and see that as a very important chapter and it would affect their thinking. That would please me, it would please Dick Herrnstein. I don’t think that that is essential in order to take away from the book a lot of useful new ways of looking at the world. Let me though give you the kind of thing that underlies Chapter 22. For example, because this is one of the first chances I’ve had to talk about some of the inner processes that Dick and I went through. We talk earlier in the book about the relationship of parenting and IQ. And we talk about the ways in which you don’t have to be a genius to be a good mother, but you have real problems at the very low end in terms of parenting. And so one of the implications of that would be, gee, everybody would like to get rid of the problem child neglect and abuse, and we are saying, “Well, a lot of the child neglect and abuse has its important components feeding into other things, low IQ.” Doesn’t that then mean that what you’re really saying is what we want is a situation of which fewer low-IQ mothers, women have babies? But then you’re looking at Dick and me, who kind it frightening and unacceptable to use the state for that purpose. And so, in a sense, in Chapter 22 you have two fellows who have identified a lot of problems and who, in one sense, are coming to solutions with one hand times behind their back. Because we are not willing to say, “Oh, now we’re going to use the state for all of these neat things that are going to deal with all these other problems we’ve raised.

So, Dick and I wrote the last chapter understanding that we are a tiny minority of the distribution of opinion on how to deal with social problems. We knew that. And so the last chapter is written as, well, here are these two fellows with these somewhat eccentric ideas, but who believe them deeply, and we’re going to lay them out for you.

HEFFNER: Well, I’ll tell you what, if you’ll stay where you are—because I’m getting the signal that we have 30 seconds left—and we’ll do another program. Let’s go back to the beginning of the book. Okay? But the question of “A Place for Everyone,” I still maintain it was related to The Bell Curve.


HEFFNER: Thank you for joining me today.

MURRAY: I’ve certainly enjoyed it.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us also next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as a good friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

Leave a Reply

Send me THIRTEEN's free weekly program update email

Please note that the THIRTEEN editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness. No solicitations or advertisements will be allowed. Users may link to other Web sites relevant to discussion, but most often links to commercial Web sites will not be permitted.

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 WNET, All Rights Reserved.