The Bell Curve Controversy

The Bell Curve controversy followed on from the publication of a popular science book on intelligence that was interpreted by many as racist in its conclusions. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life was first published in 1994. A scientific investigation into the nature-nurture debate and its effect upon intelligence, its authors, Richard J Herrnstein and Charles Murray, investigated the correlation between social status and IQ. Despite covering a range of topics, the book was completely overshadowed by its chapters on racial differences in intelligence, and the implications of such. Their conclusion that black people had a significantly lower IQ than other races, and the less intelligent were more likely to live in poverty and be involved in criminal activity caused a massive controversy. They were not the first to put forward the theories they did. But The Bell Curve – named after the shape of a graph of normal distribution — became a bestseller, exposing more people to the debate than ever before.

Their argument at its most basic was that intelligence is the factor on which many of the outcomes of a successful life can be correlated: The more intelligent lead more successful lives than the less intelligent, these differences are strongly genetic, and this could eventually lead to a highly split and stratified society. The book also made arguments against the size of the welfare state, affirmative action, and argued immigration should be reduced to avoid a lowering of the average IQ. Herrnstein and Murray famously envisaged a future United States in which a smaller, intellectual elite would perhaps even need physical protection from "the menace of the slums below," as intelligent Asian and white couples – the races at the top of the bell curve — had fewer children, and the less intelligent strata of society continued to reproduce through lack of education on birth control. They compared this vision to the existing situation in Latin America.

Although some applauded them for publicising such a taboo, a media furore followed, with Herrnstein and Murray branded "neo-Nazis" by their most staunch opposition. Charles Murray was not shy of the media attention and was accused of changing his arguments as and when to suit his own purposes.

The original book was so explosive, it spawned many other research titles attempting to explain its impact or disprove its theories. In his book The Bell Curve Wars the writer Stephen Fraser described the work as "clearly the most incendiary piece of social science to appear in the last decade or more." He continued: "It's easy to understand why. The Bell Curve irritates every abraded nerve in our public consciousness about race and social class." The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education was not quite so diplomatic. It wrote: "For the millions of citizens in the United States who continue to hunger for intellectual confirmation of their racial views that blacks are not only inferior biological beings but that blacks are also responsible for most of our crime and other social problems, The Bell Curve must be viewed as an extraordinary publishing success."

Although its critics agreed the divide between intelligence, IQ, social standing and opportunity is indeed a reality and a genuine problem, they argued the black population is at an unfair disadvantage, having had to "struggle for survival" in the United States since the days of slavery. In 1996, the American Psychological Association was moved to issue an investigative report on the issues raised by The Bell Curve. Although it confirmed many of their statistical findings were correct, the APA disputed the book's claims linking intelligence and genetics.

Herrnstein, a Harvard psychologist, died before the book was released. Murray, a political scientist, would later write that there had been a "public misconception" about the book. He said: "I had watched with dismay as The Bell Curve's scientifically unremarkable statements about black IQ were successfully labelled as racist pseudoscience."

In 2008 British academic Richard Lynn explored the same arguments on an international scale with his book The Global Bell Curve. He examined the inequalities in societies across the world and again came to the conclusion that genetic intelligence defined the successful ethnic groups. Despite receiving high praise from contemporaries for his thorough research, there was a debate in England as to whether the book should be banned from British libraries, appearing on a list of books including Mein Kampf, the speeches of Osama bin Laden and the work of the Marquis de Sade.

The Bell Curve Controversy: Selected full-text books and articles

The Case against 'The Bell Curve.' (Books That Links IQ to Race) By Easterbrook, Gregg The Washington Monthly, Vol. 26, No. 12, December 1994
The Mismeasure of Man By Stephen Jay Gould W. W. Norton, 1996 (Revised edition)
Librarian’s tip: Includes discussion of "The Bell Curve" controversy in multiple chapters
Race and IQ By Ashley Montagu Oxford University Press, 1999 (Expanded edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 19 "Behind the Curve" and Chap. 20 "The Tainted Sources of The Bell Curve"
A Nation Divided: Diversity, Inequality, and Community in American Society By Phyllis Moen; Donna Dempster-Mcclain; Henry A. Walker Cornell University Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Two "Two Visions of the Relationship between Individual and Society: The Bell Curve versus Social Structure and Personality"
Some Chimes from the Bell Curve: A Psychologist's Perspective By Daly, William C College Student Journal, Vol. 33, No. 4, December 1999
Does 'The Bell Curve' Ring True? By Dickens, William T.; Kane, Thomas J.; Schultze, Charles L Brookings Review, Vol. 13, No. 3, Summer 1995
Welfare-Bashing Redux: The Return of Charles Murray By Bernstein, Jared The Humanist, Vol. 55, No. 1, January-February 1995
The Assault on Equality By Peter Knapp; Jane C. Kronick; R. William Marks; Miriam G. Vosburgh Praeger, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Includes discussion of "The Bell Curve" controversy in multiple chapters
Soldiers of Misfortune: The New Right's Culture War and the Politics of Political Correctness By Valerie L. Scatamburlo Peter Lang, 1998
Librarian’s tip: "For Whom the Bell Tolls" begins on p. 112
Race in the Mind of America: Breaking the Vicious Circle between Blacks and Whites By Paul L. Wachtel Routledge, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Ideology and IQ: Moving beyond The Bell Curve"
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