Cognitive Daily

Charles Murray (of The Bell Curve fame) has written a series of articles for the Wall Street Journal on intelligence (available free here). One frustrating aspect of the articles is that Murray doesn’t cite his sources. Consider this statement:

Our ability to improve the academic accomplishment of students in the lower half of the distribution of intelligence is severely limited. It is a matter of ceilings. Suppose a girl in the 99th percentile of intelligence, corresponding to an IQ of 135, is getting a C in English. She is underachieving, and someone who sets out to raise her performance might be able to get a spectacular result. Now suppose the boy sitting behind her is getting a D, but his IQ is a bit below 100, at the 49th percentile.

We can hope to raise his grade. But teaching him more vocabulary words or drilling him on the parts of speech will not open up new vistas for him. It is not within his power to learn to follow an exposition written beyond a limited level of complexity, any more than it is within my power to follow a proof in the American Journal of Mathematics. In both cases, the problem is not that we have not been taught enough, but that we are not smart enough.

Is Murray really suggesting that we shouldn’t bother to teach children of average ability how to read and write effectively? Murray later claims that only small, “temporary” increases in IQ are possible, and that poor performance of many schools is due primarily to low IQ in their student population. But there’s more:

There is no magic point at which a genuine college-level education becomes an option, but anything below an IQ of 110 is problematic. If you want to do well, you should have an IQ of 115 or higher. Put another way, it makes sense for only about 15% of the population, 25% if one stretches it, to get a college education. And yet more than 45% of recent high school graduates enroll in four-year colleges. Adjust that percentage to account for high-school dropouts, and more than 40% of all persons in their late teens are trying to go to a four-year college–enough people to absorb everyone down through an IQ of 104.

And then there’s this:

The encouragement of wisdom requires mastery of analytical building blocks. The gifted must assimilate the details of grammar and syntax and the details of logical fallacies not because they will need them to communicate in daily life, but because these are indispensable for precise thinking at an advanced level.

The encouragement of wisdom requires being steeped in the study of ethics, starting with Aristotle and Confucius. It is not enough that gifted children learn to be nice. They must know what it means to be good.

Only the gifted — those with IQs above 120 — are worthy or capable of being “good,” Murray suggests. Murray offers little evidence to support these notions, other than to point readers back to his 1994 book. What I’m wondering is if Cognitive Daily readers might be interested in generating a list of resources to help open Murray’s mind a bit. He could start with this one.

Any other favorites, readers? Please share them in the comments.

Comments

  1. #1 Katherine
    January 19, 2007

    This isn’t my area of research so I don’t have specific journal articles for Murray to read, though if anyone did a 5 minute web of sciece or psycinfo search they could find probably thousands of solid research directly challenging these claims.

    I’m tempted to write a very long rant refuting each of Murray’s claims in the article you just linked, but I know it would be preaching to the choir. So instead I will recommend not a “reading” for Murray, but a TV show: The Wire. The Wire is a supposedly realistic portrayal of urban life in Baltimore. In the show, you will find a lot of very smart people doing a lot of very bad things. It’s a good reminder that poor intelligence cannot be the sole or even primary cause for social problems.

    I don’t know why Murray is so dismissive of EQ when it has been shown to correlate with measures of success much better than IQ does, and it only weakly correlates with IQ. It seems to me that people with lower than average EQs pose much bigger problems to society than those with lower than average IQs.

  2. #2 quitter
    January 19, 2007

    Not only is IQ much more flexible than he gives it credit for, it is really not the one perfect measure of intelligence. Further, the IQ hasn’t shown to be highly heritable, and is more closely tied to environment than he give it credit for.

    Further, this is just racism, plain and simple, or at the very least classism, which in this country is racism. The fact it’s in the WSJ is a clue.

    He’s basically trying to morally justify not giving a crap about poor kids and non-whites who do worse on these tests? As his old Bell Curve book attests, it’s the white kids who do better.

    So basically, he’s saying it’s ok to give up on educating those troublesome inner-city minorities. If you have a low IQ you’re hopeless, and you deserve your fate. WSJ readers rejoice!

  3. #3 gonzoknife
    January 19, 2007

    This arguing about IQ is besides the point. The real point of Murray’s line of reasoning is that the wealthy and successful are that way because of innate qualities. If you’re not rich, it isn’t anyone’s fault. You’re just genetically inferior.

    The part about learning to be good is to me the most frightening. It is back to the age old idea that the rich are morally superior. Since they’re morally superior, we lower types must defer to their wisdom. Their moral superiority also entitles them to a different set of rules and laws.

    So, while everyone is arguing the finer points of the validity of IQ, the target audience for this series (the WSJ readers) are getting the reinforcement that they’re looking for. Class distinctions are a natural result of genetic differences.

  4. #4 quitter
    January 19, 2007

    Ding!

    Give that man a cookie.

  5. #5 Dave Munger
    January 19, 2007

    Ezra Klein has an excellent, authoritative response to Murray.

    And Brad DeLong chimes in with an oldie but a goodie.

    I’ll try and add updates here as they pop up around the blogosphere.

  6. #6 Scoop
    January 19, 2007

    While Murray’s WSJ articles certainly make many sweeping statements without defining terms or providing evidence, your critique (and those from your snarky choir) are worse. Not only do you make vague and unsupported claims, you also muddy the debate with outrageous distortions Murray’s first article never argues that society shouldn’t teach sub-average students to read and write as best they can. It asserts that their inherent limits preclude any in-school changes that will greatly improve their performance. This unsupported claim is controversial enough without your distortions. As for your claim that Murray asserts that only kids with IQs over 120 will ever be good, that, too, is simply not true. Murray asserts that such people cannot truly absorb an elite college education and that they are dramatically less likely to occupy important positions in society. Again, it’s perfectly fair to ask Murray for supporting evidence and to shout him down if he cannot provide it, but demonizing him with crude distortions hardly adds to civil debate. It only lowers reader respect for you.

  7. #7 Joe Shelby
    January 19, 2007

    A comment that came to mind on the “High IQ” post from November that you link to. Feel free to go back to that post to read it (I leave the note here ’cause I don’t know if you get update notices for older material).

  8. #8 Dave Munger
    January 19, 2007

    Murray’s first article never argues that society shouldn’t teach sub-average students to read and write as best they can. It asserts that their inherent limits preclude any in-school changes that will greatly improve their performance. (emphasis mine)

    No, in fact he claims that even average children, in the 49th percentile, will never learn to “follow an exposition written beyond a limited level of complexity.”

    He later argues that only the top 15 to 25 percent of the population is qualified to enter college, due to the inherent limits of IQ. But not only does he offer no evidence to support this claim, he ignores the vast array of evidence which contradicts it. I’m simply asking my readers to help direct him to this research. Far from distorting his claims, I present just a few of them, and then question whether he could really be making such outrageous statements.

    As for your claim that Murray asserts that only kids with IQs over 120 will ever be good, that, too, is simply not true. Murray asserts that such people cannot truly absorb an elite college education and that they are dramatically less likely to occupy important positions in society.

    Murray also asserts that the only way to learn what is “good” is to read the ancient Greeks, the very literature he claims only people with high IQs can understand. I’d say there’s little doubt this “suggests” he believes that non-gifted individuals cannot truly be “good.”

    Even when Murray provides a few numbers to back his claims, they too are comparatively worthless. For example, he claims that the federal government spends only $9.6 million on gifted programs, compared to billions on the rest of the budget. Yet AP course enrollment has skyrocketed in recent years, bringing rise to speculation that too much pressure is being placed on top students.

    And federal money is distributed in proportion to the budget of the states, thus ensuring that the wealthiest states continue to get most of the money. Meanwhile, the states with the poorest performance on SAT tests and other measures continue spend the least on education — and get the least support from the federal government.

    In short, the smart kids already are getting the most money. There’s no need to radically alter our spending to ensure the brightest kids get a proper education. Whether we need to be spending more on the vast majority of “non-gifted” children might still be up for debate, but it’s certainly not the case that the non-gifted get a disproportionate share of the pie.

  9. #9 bsci
    January 19, 2007

    I’ve sludged through some Murray before, but this article seems to go to a new low of scientific ignorance. Even if the hypothesis that IQ is directly linked to academic success was true, is there a shred of evidence that a 5 point difference in IQ has any meaning? What’s the noise level if the same person takes an IQ test multiple times? Can I pretend that he’s not actually proposing making a 5 point cutoff range for IQ on whether or not you’re allowed to go college?
    Again even sticking with his core hypothesis, there are IQ sub-measures for different areas. If someone has a high verbal IQ, but a low math IQ for vice versa does that mean they are unfit for college or intellectual advancement? I think he is an embarassment to AEI, which is quite an accomplishment.

  10. #10 James
    January 19, 2007

    Why would anyone try to come up with a reading list for Charles Murray? He clearly isn’t capable of learning anything he doesn’t already believe.

  11. #11 bioephemera
    January 19, 2007

    In with Murray’s craziness, he makes a few good points about educating the gifted. Dave, you say “the smart kids are already getting the most money.” Maybe in certain places, but certainly not everywhere. My high school had one AP class, no IB classes, and didn’t offer calculus, much less gravy like Latin, ethics, philosophy, or politics. We had far more remedial classes than advanced classes. Outside metropolitan areas, I’d bet most high schools are like mine.

    Murray rightly points out that smart kids are neglected because they don’t need as much attention. That is a very important point. Although you might think they don’t suffer for it – they’re getting As, aren’t they? – they’re not learning the fundamentals. Insufficiently rigorous habits of thinking will return to bite you savagely in the behind when you get to graduate or professional school. I know, because it happened to me.

    For example: I don’t know the rules of grammar. I rarely break them, because when I do, it “sounds wrong”. But I can’t articulate why. It’s all intuitive. When Murray says that the gifted need to learn about “goodness,” I don’t believe he means intuitive goodness, or being a good person. He’s talking about attaining a rigorous grasp of philosophy and ethics. I don’t believe I have that, either. Despite my PhD, I am constantly finding out how shaky my foundations are. Why? Because I learned almost nothing in high school (as just one measure, my PSAT/SAT scores did not change appreciably between 7th grade and senior year). I graduated without pre-calculus, without reading anything by a Greek, without knowing the name of a single political philosopher, without basic fluency in a single foreign language. Plus, I was lazy, prone to procrastinate, and had no study skills, because I had never needed any. What a freaking waste!

    I can’t imagine that I’m the only person with this experience. In fact, I know I’m not, because I’ve seen the same symptoms in some of my own students. If our society wants to get the best from our gifted individuals, we can’t give them a generic, superficial high school education, then expect them to identify their own deficits and play catch-up for the rest of their lives. For one thing, many brilliant and creative people will have given up out of sheer boredom before reaching college. As a society, we’re wasting their talents.

    It’s true that the bar needs to be raised for education across the board. And it’s true that measures of intelligence like IQ and standardized tests are problematic and fraught with social bias. I chose to teach at a small public college in a rural area because I feel strongly that everyone has the right of access to an excellent education – in that, I disagree with Murray. But it’s just not the case that one type of education fits all, or that all students are equally able to learn the most complex material. I hate that we’re not allowed even to acknowledge that, for fear of being lumped in with racists and bigots.

  12. #12 Tom
    January 19, 2007

    Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligence,1993.

    Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, 1997.

  13. #13 Andreu
    January 20, 2007

    There is a research paper from two Universitat Polit├Ęcnica de Catalunya students that looked into the factors that predicted academic success in engineering students. The study was conducted in 1998 or so.
    They found no correlation between IQ and academic grades, but they found a very strong correlation between emotional maturity and grades of first year students.
    It seems that beeing able to maintain good study habits, setting reasonable goals and beeing a well balanced person are far more important than IQ when it comes to academic success.
    One of the authors was Albert Espinosa.
    I don’t know if there is an english translation of the paper.

  14. #14 Eric Schwitzgebel
    January 20, 2007

    I haven’t noticed any special moral goodness or wisdom (as opposed to analytic smarts) in, say, philosophy professors (a very high IQ population). If only the smart can really profit from Aristotle and Confucius, and if a significant proportion do actually profit, you’d think you’d see better average moral behavior among this group.

  15. #15 Rob Sica
    January 21, 2007

    Murray: The encouragement of wisdom requires being steeped in the study of ethics, starting with Aristotle and Confucius. It is not enough that gifted children learn to be nice. They must know what it means to be good.

    Munger: Only the gifted — those with IQs above 120 — are worthy or capable of being “good,” Murray suggests.

    This is, to say the least, a grossly uncharitable interpretation of Murray’s statement. That the intellectual elite must know what it means to be good says nothing about the exclusivity of who is worthy or capable of being good. His point is quite clear: the elite in question have a special obligation to acquire this kind of knowledge because it (the elite) inevitably wields disproportionate power within the culture.

  16. #16 Dave Munger
    January 21, 2007

    Bioephemera:

    Maybe in certain places, but certainly not everywhere. My high school had one AP class, no IB classes, and didn’t offer calculus, much less gravy like Latin, ethics, philosophy, or politics. We had far more remedial classes than advanced classes. Outside metropolitan areas, I’d bet most high schools are like mine.

    Your point is well-taken; there are many underfunded school districts, and many students are not getting the education they deserve. However, the districts with the top performing students are getting the most money, and AP courses are exploding in popularity, so Murray’s claim that all the money in education is going to low-IQ students is false.

    Rob Sica:

    My claim that Murray’s words suggest he believes that only the gifted are worthy or capable of being good does not rest solely on the quote you present from Murray’s article. Sure, teaching the classics is a good thing, and certainly people with IQs above 120 would benefit from reading them. But Murray also argues that others — those with IQs below 120 — are incapable of understanding these works. He also argues that these works are superior to others, so these are the only works which show what it means to be “good.”

    I find it difficult to come to any conclusion other than that Murray believes that people with IQs below 120 are incapable of being good. But still, I tempered my claim, instead saying that Murray’s words “suggest” this is what he believes. Surely I have now demonstrated the truth of my claim, and so to argue that my interpretation of his essays is “grossly incharitable” is simply wrong.

    I’d be surprised if Murray didn’t agree with my assessment of his words.

  17. #17 Rob Sica
    January 21, 2007

    Munger: But Murray also argues that others — those with IQs below 120 — are incapable of understanding these works. He also argues that these works are superior to others, so these are the only works which show what it means to be “good.”

    From the claim (as I would gloss it) that ‘superior literary sources of understanding what it means to be good are accessible only to an elite’ it doesn’t follow that no other sources of such understanding are available to the non-elite, that such sources are exclusive of such understanding, nor even that such understanding is necessary to be good.

    Another example of pinning upon the text draconian entailments.

  18. #18 stewart
    January 21, 2007

    Murray seems to have some bizarre ideas, and doesn’t bother himself by looking at data. Would he be interested to know that a quarter of university-educated adults (16 years and more) have IQs of 103 or below? What does that mean? I don’t know, but he seems to confuse virtue, leadership, and IQ. He’s also trying to use some single number without regard for the various facets and definitions of intelligence, and confusing intelligence and wisdom. For that matter, what do secular changes in IQ (a mean rise of about 10-12 points since the 1930’s, spread throughout the distribution) mean for his argument?

    Interesting point for Murray to ponder; Of the US presidents since 1960, Kennedy probably had the lowest IQ and Nixon the highest. http://www.csbsju.edu/uspp/Election/bush011401.htm
    There is no quick link between intelligence, virtue, or wisdom. However, it’s popular among those with money and status to assume they are not only privileged but virtuous and wise, despite any eivdence that would challenge them. (Note the hopes for Bush in the link above, and how he worked to dispel them).

  19. #19 Agnostic
    January 21, 2007

    The real point of Murray’s line of reasoning is that the wealthy and successful are that way because of innate qualities. If you’re not rich, it isn’t anyone’s fault. You’re just genetically inferior.

    Contrast that with the conclusion you’re lead to in denying the effect of IQ on social status, or the partly genetic basis for intelligence: it must be that those of low social status — because they don’t have any inborn ceiling on their capability for attaining high social status — don’t attain higher status because they’re lazy, don’t value education, and so on. “You’re just a lazy bum.”

    This IQ-denial “reinforces” a favorite illusion of “the target audience” of WSJ readers: that of the self-made man, who tends to lack empathy for his social inferiors, since they must be lazy or don’t value education and hard work. The old aristocracy believed in noblesse oblige, and some religious orders believe their staff (nuns, etc.) are saved but should work to better the lot of sinners. The bourgeois and nouveau riche, by contrast, believe in letting the downtrodden fend for themselves — since they’re of course as intelligent as the lawyer, doctor, and engineer, and so can help themselves, if only they weren’t so lazy.

    In fact, because IQ and personality traits (like Conscientiousness) are uncorrelated, there are hard-working people who aren’t very bright and so won’t attain high social status despite working like a dog for their entire lives.

    The upshot of all this hot air about class interests is that whether you want to help the poor or not doesn’t depend on why you think they’re poor — you feel obliged to or you don’t. If you do, you can spin any theory to fit it. If you don’t, you can spin any theory to fit it. That’s because people don’t base their moral decisions on pre-existing rational thoughts / interface with theory; they just go with their gut, and afterwards spin theories (if at all) only to mesh with their already decided morality.

    For academic articles on IQ & education, see those at Linda Gottfredson’s site. This is her specialty, so her references always provide a wealth of pointers. (Best of all, they aren’t guarded by university access.)
    http://www.udel.edu/educ/gottfredson/reprints/

  20. #20 Baratos
    January 21, 2007

    I consider The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould the definitive book on racism and eugenics, and one of the later versions has a section in the back that, for lack of a better phrase, totally pwns Murray’s beliefs.

  21. #21 Richard
    January 22, 2007

    You seem incapable of understanding what Murray actually said, and if you “find it difficult to come to any conclusion other than that Murray believes that people with IQs below 120 are incapable of being good,” I find it difficult to come to any conclusion other than that you haven’t read The Bell Curve.

    Your statement “Meanwhile, the states with the poorest performance on SAT tests and other measures continue spend the least on education” is wrong. North Dakota and Utah are in the bottom five in education spending, but in the top 15 in average SAT, for example.

  22. #22 RyanG
    January 22, 2007

    Where did any of you get the idea that in order to be good you must understand exactly what goodness means? I would have thought that ‘good’, being an emotional response, would be primarily innate.

    You don’t need to read and understand Adam Smith to buy things.

    I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if a thorough understanding of the nature of goodness was either not correlated or negatively correlated to actually acting good.

  23. #23 Dave Munger
    January 22, 2007

    Where did any of you get the idea that in order to be good you must understand exactly what goodness means? I would have thought that ‘good’, being an emotional response, would be primarily innate.

    It’s not my idea, it’s Murray’s. Clearly I don’t agree with it. If Murray thought there was some shortcut to learning how to be good, then why would he insist that gifted students read the Greeks in order to become good?

    RyanG:

    I’m beginning to learn that there is an army dedicated to disinformation on this topic. Regarding your assertion that school funding is not related to SAT scores, I’d encourage you to look at this report. The relevant finding:

    Not only are SAT averages scarcely reflective at all of educational attainment, they are seriously confounded by self-selection. Most of the variability in state SAT averages is due to the percentages of students electing to take the SAT exam instead of the ACT test or no test at all.

    Oh, and for what it’s worth, I have read The Bell Curve. I have also had something fairly close to Murray’s “ideal” education, having attended the University of Chicago, with its Great Books program.

  24. #24 jm
    January 22, 2007

    “I would have thought that ‘good’, being an emotional response, would be primarily innate.”

    I don’t think that our emotional responses are always adequate.

  25. #25 bioephemera
    January 22, 2007

    Where did any of you get the idea that in order to be good you must understand exactly what goodness means? I would have thought that ‘good’, being an emotional response, would be primarily innate.

    I agree with Ryan and Rob here. In fact, if I remember my Augustine correctly, overthinking “goodness” and “faith” can be extremely counterproductive. :)

    Dave, I can tell you detest Murray. I won’t argue with you, if only because his reputation besmirches the few good points he makes in these essays! But I was specifically disagreeing with your statement in the comments that “the smart kids are already getting the most money”.

    What I object to here is a type of generalization I see often in educated circles: that what is observed in metropolitan areas or on the coasts (such as an explosion in AP classes) is typical of the nation as a whole. I’m not talking about an isolated, sad little district here and there, I’m talking about whole states.

    Do you think the following numbers indicate Idaho is prioritizing its gifted kids over other kids, or experiencing an “explosion” in AP courses?

    Idaho 04-05 data
    (from Idaho Department of Education and CollegeBoard)

    total K-12 students 256,000
    special education students 28,706
    gifted and talented students 13,077
    students who took an AP exam (04) 2915 (05) 3338

    “low income” students who took an AP exam (2005) ~310

    That’s 300 low income students in the entire state that got to take an AP exam. I’m not impressed.

    (BTW, to follow up on your last statement, Dave, Idaho is indeed one of the states where ACT takers significantly outnumber SAT takers. As a result, ACT averages hew very close to the national average, but SAT scores are higher.)

    As for funding, a legislative report estimates state funds used for special education purposes in 04-05 at $78,000,000 (counting local and federal funds, the total looks more like $175,000,000).

    The total state funding dedicated to gifted programming in the same period was $500,000, for training only (no federal gifted funding was allocated). Districts spent an estimated $7,000,000 (which they had to take out of their general maintenance/operating budgets) on their gifted programs.

    For the record, my mother worked in special needs education, and I have the utmost respect for those who help disabled students. It’s quite reasonable that a larger proportion of funding would be needed to properly address the wide spectrum of disabilities seen in special education, and I am not advocating a reduction in special education funding. But whatever your opinion of Murray, “the smart kids are getting all the money” is a glib mischaracterization.

  26. #26 Dave Munger
    January 22, 2007

    Bioephemera:

    I actually think you and I probably agree on most things. The point about “smart kids getting the most money” (I never said all) was meant in a general sense: that wealthy school districts, which as you point out tend to be in major metropolitan areas and also have a disproportionate share of high-performing students, get a disproportionate share of federal funds, so Murray’s claim that bright kids aren’t getting any money is simply wrong.

    That doesn’t mean that there are not plenty of deserving students who aren’t getting enough money, or who don’t have access to AP and other courses. But that wasn’t Murray’s point. Murray was arguing that all gifted students aren’t getting enough support. I would say the vast majority of them are, while the vast majority of underperforming students are not.

    Also, fwiw, I don’t “despise” Murray. I don’t even know him — he might be a nice guy, he’s just wrong about this. I actually have friends who share his opinion. We disagree, but we get along just fine, and we enjoy debating each other.

  27. #27 cw
    January 22, 2007

    I live in Madison WI and I can tell you that there is very little money for gifted students here. They basically just pay lipservice to it. I think that all around the US school districts have come to the conclusion that they have limited resources and so will put their money where it is most needed, which is definitly special ed and remedial reading and math. Which is a wise choice, I have to admit, even though I believe my daughter would be much better off if she had access to a meaningful gifted program.

    But my daughter–we are middle class, college educated–will be OK becasue of the home environment she is growing up in and because we can provide her with extracirricular activites that will augment her education. The kids who really really get screwed are the gifted and talented kids in rural districts and the inner city. And these are the kids with the most potential to make a difference in their communities, in terms of the cycle of poverty. This would be a really great area to target funds. Gifted but disadvantaged. These kids are the most underserved in the whole country.

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