Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Apparently the re-runs aren't just on TV...

Because Charles "co-authoring The Bell Curve didn't kill me" Murray is back with a piece in Commentary. You'll be pleased to know that in it, he defends not only the claims of that well-known book, but also the esteemed Lawrence Summers.

Where to start?

First, anyone who hasn't read Ned Block's paper, "How Heritability Misleads about Race", really should.

(Go on. I'm not going to read it for you.)

All I want to say about the scientific credibility (or ... not) of the arguments in The Bell Curve and their re-occurrence is that "heritability" is a concept scientists spend a good bit of effort trying to make precise, to the extent that they find it a helpful concept. Measuring the heritability of a trait (like intelligence, or IQ, which is supposed to be a reasonable proxy for intelligence), or even getting a sensible estimate, is wicked-hard most of the time. And, it's fair to say, heritability is not a straightforward concept that a lay person will be clear on.

Not, of course, that the policy wonks who opted out of serious science courses in college won't feel themselves entitled to take some scientist's word for it, even if other scientists are offering pretty serious reasons to question the work.

Murray says pretty much what you'd expect about what history tells us about the achievements of men and women, about women wanting babies, etc. I'm not in the mood to dissect it (as I have grading to do tonight, and I have to ration my bile accordingly). But, there are a couple claims I just can't leave alone:

"Among women who have become mothers, the possibilities for high-level accomplishment in the arts and sciences shrink because, for innate reasons, the distractions of parenthood are greater. To put it in a way that most readers with children will recognize, a father can go to work and forget about his children for the whole day. Hardly any mother can do this, no matter how good her day-care arrangement or full-time nanny may be."

OK, how many fathers are going to work and forgetting the kids for the whole day? Get those dads listed first on the Emergency Cards at school! On the other hand, how many women (given the societal realities) would admit after an engrossing day in the lab, "Gee, I was in the zone and forgot I even had offspring!" Do you want to be spending time on the phone with Child Protective Services?

"I have omitted perhaps the most obvious reason why men and women differ at the highest levels of accomplishment: men take more risks, are more competitive, and are more aggressive than women."

It all depends on how you define "risks", doesn't it? While I know studies have indicated that having kids during one's probationary period lessens the chances of getting tenure even for men, it has a profound effect on the tenuring rate for women. Yet there are serious scientists and scholars (chicks, no less) taking that risk. (Often, it seems the men on the promotions committees are the ones who are risk averse ...)

After commenting that tests show that on average males do better than females with abstract cognitive tasks:

"In the humanities, the most abstract field is philosophy—and no woman has been a significant original thinker in any of the world’s great philosophical traditions."

Dr. Murray, please pull over and give us a look at your license to practice philosophy.

I am optimistic that someone else will have the time, patience, and stomach to give Murray the point-by-point critique and analysis he deserves.


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