Charles Murray — Social Science Pornographer

"It really is social science pornography," says Murray, as he pulls income and IQ statistics off his laptop computer. In a 1994 interview with New York Times reporter Jason DeParle, the think tank researcher talks about race, intelligence, poverty and Thai bar girls.

Murray is best known for the book he co-authored with psychologist Richard Herrnstein — The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Lifea controversial book that argues that low IQ is a major cause of black disadvantage. In an earlier book — Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 — he argues that anti-poverty programs make social problems worse not better.

"Where others rant," says DeParle, "Murray seduces with mountains of data and assurances of his own fine intentions." And for many non-black, non-poor Americans Murray’s message is irresistible:

Social science pornography. The phrase may explain more about Murray’s influence than he intended, and possibly more than he fully understands. Much of that influence has stemmed from his ability to express, through seemingly dispassionate analysis, many people’s hidden suspicions about race, class and sex. His writings comprise a kind of Michelin guide to the American underpsyche.

The phenomenon is one that he himself has at least inadvertently acknowledged. "Why can a publisher sell it?" he asked in the proposal for "Losing Ground." "Because a huge number of well-meaning whites fear that they are closet racists, and this book tells them they are not. It’s going to make them feel better about things they already think but do not know how to say."

Murray is fond of moralizing about illegitimacy. He argues that fatherless boys are more likely to grow up to be violent unsocialized criminals. But, according to DeParle, he’d hate you think he was prudish about sex, "No young man who spent as many years in Bangkok as I did can be against sex", he told the reporter.

What then, took place in Bangkok? Quite a lot, it seems, since his friends from those days still tell tales of Murray’s barroom antics, ones that he nostalgically repeats. Murray explains that he and a Peace Corps friend once sat for 12 hours at a place called the Patpong Terrace, interviewing bar girls as they returned from their liaisons, taking "all sorts of intimate notes about who did what, that I don’t care to repeat." The resulting document became an underground thriller among his friends.

Murray also makes clear that he did more than take notes, though he theatrically objects to hearing the women described as prostitutes. "Don’t use that word," he says. "They were women of the evening. Courtesans. We liked them, and they liked us.

"In a lot of the places you had to woo the ladies," he continues. "It involves money on the man’s part, yes, but it also involves consensual relations."

Charles Murray is in Australia as a guest of the Centre for Independent Studies. He will speak at the Centre’s Big Ideas Forum — In Praise of Elitism — an event that will involve money on your part. $15 for members and $10 for non-members.

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Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

Charles Murray is certainly a social science trash talker. James Heckman took him apart in a recent review.

Nabakov
Nabakov
14 years ago

Reading the blurb for this forum, it’s interesting to note that it seems the issues they plan to explicitly and/or implicitly form negative value judgements about eg:

“Universities are dumbed down as entry standards are diluted. Politicians appeal to blatant self-interest as they compete for the votes of an apolitical and uninformed electorate. Television is engaged in a race to the bottom, and the internet (once hailed as the harbinger of the rebirth of Athenian democracy) is full of hard pornography.”

are all the products of untrammelled capitalism in one way or another. Not that I have a problem with capitalism – which has made me the well-off drunk I am today.

But I reckon this forum’s just gonna end up blaming the diminishing standards of user-pays education, cynical pollies, crappy TV and easy access to porn on the usual suspect – the increasingly threadbare spectre of 60’s idealogy – while eliding over the fact that in a prosperous and free market world all this stuff will not go away but instead has been, and will always become, central commodities, service industries and modes of production and consumption.

Instead I suspect there will be lot of talk over the need for reinstituting respect for “serious values” and most of it completely unaware of the irony that you can’t seperate the economic freedoms you approve of from the personal, political and corporate freedoms that you disapprove of and that others will always want to indulge in. Even the immense and ruthless Middle Kingdom’s struggling to make that one work.

Although I am looking forward to Chuck Murray’s presentation at this forum appearing on You Tube, complete with him juggling a lighted cigarette and several ping pong balls while keeping his mouth and hands free.

Also Don, I don’t think “$15 for members, $10 for non-members” sounds right. Unless of course the CIS wants the believers to really feel the burn.

Down and Out of S
14 years ago

“Begat many bar-girl bastards in Bangkok, Mr Murray?”

amused
amused
14 years ago

Mr Murray really lets the cat out of bag doesn’t he?

Sounds like we are being prepped for a round of ‘why equal opportunity for blacks/losers/women/ is a waste of money therefore against reason, and biologically useless, therefore immoral’. Must be another publicly privded good they have got in their sights. Looking for ward to the opeds in the GG supporting further moves to rational, natural and moral outcomes in social policy.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
14 years ago

Let me regurtitate parts of the response of James Heckman to the book the Bell Curve:
“Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein have produced a controversial and well-written book about human differences, the sources of human differences, and how we should respond to those differences. The early reactions to the book in the popular press have been emotional and denunciatory, focusing almost exclusively on the authors’ discussion of racial differences and the genetic basis for those differences. This is unfortunate. The book is not devoted exclusively to a discussion of racial differences, although it certainly considers them in detail. It is obvious that most reviewers of the book have not read it as a whole, if they have read it at all. It is also clear that in an age of rampant egalitarianism, discussion of differences in cognitive skills remains taboo. The authors deserve much praise for discussing a forbidden subject and thereby initiating a public discussion that challenges the egalitarian presumptions of our day.

Like Robert Reich in The Work of Nations and Mickey Kaus in The End of Equality, the authors are concerned about the growth of economic and social inequality in American society, a topic that dominates many contemporary political discussions. Unlike those authors, Murray and Herrnstein probe more deeply into the personal sources of inequality, devoting considerable attention to the genetic component of personal differences and presenting fresh empirical evidence about an important relationship between their measure of IQ and success in society at large. Like Reich and Kaus, Murray and Herrnstein worry about the consequences for the social order of the growing inequality in economic and social success between the “haves” and the “have nots,” and the social and economic partitioning of high-skill, high-IQ persons away from low-skill, low-IQ persons.

This 845-page book covers an enormous and impressive range of topics. Its numerous tables and charts make close reading a challenge. Indeed, all but trained social scientists will be intimidated by the statistical details and by the complicated arguments used by the authors. Even more forbidding to most readers will be the hundreds of pages of footnotes and appendix tables that document the statistical analysis underlying the arguments in the text. Despite all this, the book is organized in easily summarized sections. It is accessible at one level to all readers who are willing to skip the details.

and in the conclusions:

“Had the authors been more cautious, they would have told the following defensible story: They have produced very convincing evidence that by the late teenage years, essential features of the skills and motivation of persons are determined. These features strongly influence individuals’ performance in schools, in the market, and in other aspects of social life. The Armed Forces Qualifying Test seems to be a good measure of the skills affecting social performance. Using the components on which the test is based, rather than one composite score, would probably capture the diversity of abilities in the population even better.

The authors have no good way to separate genetic from social influences on social behavior. Their environmental data are too crude and the AFQT score they use is obtained too late in life to make a genetic-environmental distinction meaningful. The authors would require much finer measures of environmental variables than they have at their disposal to rule out the importance of family and society in determining individual outcomes.

Nonetheless, their evidence and the evidence assembled from many government skill-remediation programs for adults suggests that persons are not very malleable after their late teens or perhaps their early 20s. Successful interventions for such people are likely to be very costly. The literature suggests a particularly poor performance of educational remediation programs for adults of low cognitive ability as measured by AFQT and other cognitive tests.

….
As for social policy, we should recognize that heterogeneity in experiences and endowments produces a wide range of cognitive skills and motivations. For a variety of reasons, treating persons fairly as individuals may lead to heterogeneity in outcomes among demographic groups. Denying individual heterogeneity by treating persons as members of demographic categories will produce disparities in productivity among demographic groups, reduce economic efficiency, and foster a sense of injustice among all participants in society.

which all reads rather more nuanced than the reactions above would make Murray sound.

David Rubie
David Rubie
14 years ago

Given that a lot of the social science Murray deals with originated in the Eugenics movement, it’s hardly a surprise to see it return there. Lets hope he’s treated with the contempt he deserves.

Andrew Norton
14 years ago

“But I reckon this forums just gonna end up blaming the diminishing standards of user-pays education”

I very much doubt it. From Murray’s Washington Post articles earlier this year, he things too many people are going to 4-year colleges, and one reason they do is a lack of user pays – the cost disincentives are weak. He thinks 2-year colleges could give people the education they need.

Murray is a hugely successful intellectual provocateur who hits the left where it is most passionate (eg welfare, race). He gets the predictable responses, but it probably isn’t doing either side much good. Egalitarians should be as concerned as Murray by a society in which intelligence counts for more than it ever has before, because intelligence has a significant genetically inherited component, raising the risk of rigid hierachies.

amphibious
14 years ago

I only recently heard of his bangkok beastliness but can’t say that I was in the least surprised, given his general unpleasant outlook. Odd isn’t it that the Right just cannot see the nexus between their fetish for free markets in goods (& service of the night…)and their distaste/horro that someone might feel the same about other social systems which don’t rely on hierarchy, ie they might not be on ‘top’.
The Middle Kingdom kinda sorta gave it a test drive with “let a thousand flowers bloom…” which quickly got rid of those pesky deviants.
In general, the Left believes in the malleability/improvability of human behaviour and the Right is afraid terrorthat it is true.

Andrew Norton
14 years ago

“In general, the Left believes in the malleability/improvability of human behaviour and the Right is afraid terrorthat it is true”

I don’t think this is right. The pop version would be:

Left: People essentially good, but hapless victims of social forces beyond their control, must be rescued by government.

Economic right: People essentially self-interested; have to design institutions that harness self-interest to good ends.

Conservative right: People tempted to do bad things; behaviour needs regulating.

All three assume that behaviour can be changed, but the two right-wing versions assume that people have more responsibility for their actions.

David Rubie
David Rubie
14 years ago

Conservative right: People tempted to do bad things; behaviour needs regulating.

Nope. Conservative right: People tempted to do the bad things I do, and they all need to be regulated except me.

ChrisPer
ChrisPer
14 years ago

Andrew Norton’s restatement is pretty useful.
I would add ‘moral status display’ in the left is a determining behaviour. On the right, I think the equivalent is ridicule of (hand-picked) behaviour on the left.

I have recently attempted to discuss politics wih a leftish person, one of those North Shore doctors whose wives are supposed to be the backbone of Labour’s vote these days, and I was astonished how his premises were just chockablock with begged questions. Moral condemnation of disagreement was automatic.

Back to the original post, I would think by now we should be able to identify the causes of social disadvantage pretty clearly, and behaviour choices would trump a small IQ difference very quickly.

They have for me, anyway. :-(

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

Thanks for the additional detail Paul.

I guess I feel that if you’re going to start messing with the meme that race and IQ are linked, you’d want to show a soberness and seriousness in your approach that Murray signally lacks. But I agree with Andrew N that Murray’s role as an intellectual provocateur is not without merit in some cases. I still think he’s irresponsible. But then being responsible isn’t really the role of a provocateur.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago

Conservatism wouldn’t be so bad if it really was "People tempted to do bad things; behaviour needs regulating." The trouble with actually existing conservatism is that it’s more like "Bad people do bad things, behaviour needs regulating." And as David Rubie says, it never occurs to the people who want more regulation that it ought to apply to them. They’re good people and good people don’t need to be regulated.

Writers like Edward Banfield and Lawrence Mead appeal to this way of thinking when they argue that poor Americans lack an ability to defer gratification or live according their own moral values. Because they lack self control or self efficacy they need to be supervised in a way that decent citizens don’t. It’s a short step from anecdotes about a few individuals to the assumption that everyone on welfare is psychologically defective and needs supervision.

Hayek caught the spirit of conservative rhetoric when he wrote:

In the last resort, the conservative position rests on the belief that in any society there are recognizably superior persons whose inherited standards and values and position ought to be protected and who should have a greater influence on public affairs than others.

Graeme Bird
Graeme Bird
14 years ago

You’ve lost your mind Don.

This fellow is an authentic social scientist of the sort you very seldom seen. A rigourous practisioner of reason. One of the most fair-minded people I’ve watched on video or read.

You are basing this all on third-party gear clearly. Or most of it. I can no doubt about that.

Go and dial him up on realvideo and watch a few hours of this excellent thinker at work.

Then hang your head in shame and ATTEMPT to be just that little bit more like Charles.

ChrisPer
ChrisPer
14 years ago

So Nick, is it a ‘meme’ (merely an idea, factual grounding irrelevant) or a measured observation that race and IQ are linked?

Seems to me that you have chosen a word to exclude examining the strength of the claim. Is it fair to say that you feel even if its true, Murray shouldn’t test it and certainly shouldn’t report it in public?

Andrew Norton
14 years ago

” In the last resort, the conservative position rests on the belief that in any society there are recognizably superior persons whose inherited standards and values and position ought to be protected and who should have a greater influence on public affairs than others.”

Don – The odd thing about that quote is that is sounds exactly like the basic worldview of the middle-class left in contemporary Australia, with their worthies open letters (I’m just waiting for the election rush of them to start) and the constant claim that power should be handed over to the courts. Meanwhile, conservatism has gone populist. It was probably true when Hayek wrote it, but I don’t think it is true now.

Andrew Norton
14 years ago

“with the meme that race and IQ are linked,”

Murray did not get into trouble for saying that on average black people have lower IQs, or at least not much anyway. That’s what tests show. The academic disputes are about what IQ measures, with claims that the tests are culturally biased, and over to what extent black-white differences are caused by genetics rather than environment.

While I think Murray was overly-provocative, with the controversy drowning out his more interesting arguments, I thought the response to it was also an over-reaction.

IQ differences have little moral relevance, and to the extent they have any the arguments are those that the left generally agrees with – that people with low IQ have diminished responsibility for their actions, and people with high IQ have addded duties. which Murray argues from a conservative perspective, but which the left at least indirectly adopts through favouring high taxes on earnings, which are in turn linked increasingly to intelligence.

IQ differences have some social policy relevance, as there is only so much you can do with people of limited intellect – as again the left is now accepting in its emphasis on early childhood, implicitly recognising that potential is lost if we don’t act when people are young. But even allowing for inherited IQ there is massive scope to improve people’s lives, so there would be no logical inconsistency for a social democrat to accept Murray’s analysis of IQ and their own agenda for social intervention.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

ChrisPer,

No it isn’t fair to say that even if it were true you shouldn’t ever mention the possibility that race and IQ are linked. It seems to me that there are actually not many strong policy conclusions from such a finding – unless it was a terribly strong correlation, which it is not.

If it’s true as a generalisation there are plenty of counterexamples. So if it were true I don’t think it would have huge policy relevance, especially for a liberal who is going to try to ensure that policy does not discriminate by grouping people but if it must discriminate would do so on the characteristics of individuals.

So I can’t see it as a really important issue even if it is true. But if you are going to make such devastatingly offensive claim – a claim with an odious history – a central part of your message, then I think it’s incumbent upon you to do so on a sound methodological basis.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago

Andrew – It’s true that conservatism has gone populist. But that doesn’t change the conservative habit of distinguishing between decent people who can be trusted and out-groups who need to be managed.

As for the idea that power ought to be shifted from the executive to the courts, this is a hallmark of classical liberalism. In the Constitution of Liberty Hayek complains about the way populist politicians like Senator La Follette atttempted to curb to power of the courts and carve out a larger role for executive discretion (p 245-246).

Today it’s the populist Howard government that resents being bound by judge interpreted law and wants its ministers to have the freedom to do whatever they want to whoever they want. After all, the people don’t care what the Constitution says, they just want to be taken care of.

The ‘middle-class left’ you complain about sounds like the early 20th century Fabian socialists. The Fabian elite is a bit like Murray’s elite — it’s right to rule depends on its ability and expertise.

I’m not sure what position you’re advocating. Do you want to do away with the rule of law?

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago

Andrew – It’s true that conservatism has gone populist. But that doesn’t change the conservative habit of distinguishing between decent people who can be trusted and out-groups who need to be managed.

As for the idea that power ought to be shifted from the executive to the courts, this is a hallmark of classical liberalism. In the Constitution of Liberty Hayek complains about the way populist politicians like Senator La Follette atttempted to curb to power of the courts and carve out a larger role for executive discretion (p 245-246).

Today it’s the populist Howard government that resents being bound by judge interpreted law and wants its ministers to have the freedom to do whatever they want to whoever they want. After all, the people don’t care what the Constitution says, they just want to be taken care of.

The ‘middle-class left’ you complain about sounds like the early 20th century Fabian socialists. The Fabian elite is a bit like Murray’s elite — it’s right to rule depends on its ability and expertise.

Andrew Norton
14 years ago

“Im not sure what position youre advocating. Do you want to do away with the rule of law?”

Don – I wasn’t actually advocating any position, just doing some classifying. But now that you ask, I favour the rule of law but not on balance a bill of rights. It’s a question of who makes the laws, not whether law should apply.

ChrisPer
ChrisPer
14 years ago

Thanks Nick. I think its also devastatingly offensive that our society is so bad at getting the best out of people. Overemphasising an innate characteristic surely would hamper faith in change – a reverse Green Lantern Effect.

The positive counter-research I think could be based on the direction in Kelley and Caplan’s research on success behaviours in Harvard Business Review – book was “Star performer: Nine Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed”.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

Thanks Chris, But I’m not sure I follow what you’ve said.