My old sparring partner and current NYU colleague Mark Dery and I have been having an interesting exchange in the comments thread about the presence of The Bell Curve in my personal "canon." This morning, I started typing out a longer response, and thought I'd bump it up to the front door, since others may be interested. Briefly, the conversation involved this exchange:
Me: The Bell Curve is there because I've been dealing with IQ a lot in the past few years, and it's the most influential book about IQ -- though completely wrongheaded on almost every front -- published in the last few decades, maybe ever.
m surprised to hear it, since in the (admittedly closed) circles I travel in, it's viewed as a strain of intellectual leprosy, trapped between two covers. Who has it influenced, I wonder? Are there that many unreconstructed social Darwinists out there?
Now, to the extent that Mark's and my circles don't entirely overlap, I'm sure they're united in agreement that The Bell Curve was an evil, racist book. But that's precisely why it's on my shelf. The Bell Curve was influential in three senses. On the most basic level, it had a reach that no other book about IQ -- as far as I know -- has ever had. It made the Times bestseller list, and had whole issues of magazines and journals devoted to critiques of its argument. (Granted, "emotional IQ" has had even more of an impact in the form of the book Emotional Intelligence, but that's a different IQ.)
Now, that huge response had two polarizing effects. A bunch of largely conservative folks embraced the argument, and particularly embraced the premise that IQ was rigidly determined by genes, which is the basis for the entire book. On the left -- in Mark's and my circles -- the book was not only denounced on its own terms, but it became the poster child for the dangers of talking about IQ seriously in any context. There's a whole crowd out there who -- thanks to the attack on The Bell Curve -- think that IQ is just a completely made-up number, or worse, a racist made-up number.
I happen to consider both those positions to be wrong, for reasons that I spell out in the second half of Everything Bad. The whole point of the Flynn Effect is that it demonstrates convincingly that IQ can be shaped by environmental conditions, and is not purely genetic in nature. That's why I think Flynn is a much more interesting figure in this than Gould, because he's every bit as progressive in his politics, but instead of trying to unravel the entire category of IQ, he instead uses it as a kind of wedge for progressive ends. And so in publicly arguing for the relevance of the Flynn Effect, I knew I would have to battle both sides of the Bell Curve legacy, which made me think that I probably should actually read the book. And in fact, it turned out to be incredibly helpful on a number of fronts. I can't tell you how many radio call in shows and interviews and lectures I did where someone would listen to me talk about the Flynn Effect, and then angrily denounce my biological determinism in invoking IQ in the first place. And I'd have to say: did you just hear what I said? The Flynn Effect is an argument against biological determinism! What's more, it's the one fact in The Bell Curve that causes Murray and Herrnstein to admit that IQ may also be influenced by social factors.