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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"The Bell Curve"--20 Years Later

The American Enterprise Institute has published an interview with Charles Murray, one of the authors of The Bell Curve to discuss the continued relevance of the findings set out in the book. While the book is famous (or infamous) for it linking low IQs with certain minority groups, the research indicated more than just that. From the interview:

It’s been 20 years since “The Bell Curve” was published. Which theses of the book do you think are the most relevant right now to American political and social life?
American political and social life today is pretty much one great big “Q.E.D.” for the two main theses of “The Bell Curve.” Those theses were, first, that changes in the economy over the course of the 20th century had made brains much more valuable in the job market; second, that from the 1950s onward, colleges had become much more efficient in finding cognitive talent wherever it was and shipping that talent off to the best colleges. We then documented all the ways in which cognitive ability is associated with important outcomes in life — everything from employment to crime to family structure to parenting styles. Put those all together, we said, and we’re looking at some serious problems down the road. Let me give you a passage to quote directly from the close of the book:
Predicting the course of society is chancy, but certain tendencies seem strong enough to worry about:
  • An increasingly isolated cognitive elite.
  • A merging of the cognitive elite with the affluent.
  • A deteriorating quality of life for people at the bottom end of the cognitive distribution.
Unchecked, these trends will lead the U.S. toward something resembling a caste society, with the underclass mired ever more firmly at the bottom and the cognitive elite ever more firmly anchored at the top, restructuring the rules of society so that it becomes harder and harder for them to lose. (p. 509)
Remind you of anything you’ve noticed about the US recently? If you look at the first three chapters of the book I published in 2012, “Coming Apart,” you’ll find that they amount to an update of “The Bell Curve,” showing how the trends that we wrote about in the early 1990s had continued and in some cases intensified since 1994. I immodestly suggest that “The Bell Curve” was about as prescient as social science gets.

I myself question whether the thesis have been borne out. Are colleges truly better at finding cognitive talent and shipping it off to the best universities. Considering the increased costs of education, I would suggest that there are in fact significant barriers to "shipping" the best talent to the best schools. Also, if Murray is suggesting that "cognitive elite" is synonymous with "intelligent elite," then he is again incorrect--President Obama and his advisers being exhibit 1 to refuting that conclusion.

In fact, this "cognative elite" does not select for intelligence, but based on political correctness. David Brooks observes in an op-ed published today in the New York Times:

For example, political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood gave 1,000 people student résumés and asked them which students should get scholarships. The résumés had some racial cues (membership in African-American Students Association) and some political cues (member of Young Republicans). 
Race influenced decisions. Blacks favored black students 73 percent to 27 percent, and whites favored black students slightly. But political cues were more powerful. Both Democrats and Republicans favored students who agreed with them 80 percent of the time. They favored students from their party even when other students had better credentials.
 Race and party affiliation was more important than merit.

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