The Inequality Taboo

The statistical tests for uncovering job discrimination assume that men are not innately different from women, blacks from whites, older people from younger people, homosexuals from heterosexuals, Latinos from Anglos, in ways that can legitimately affect employment decisions. Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 assumes that women are no different from men in their attraction to sports. Affirmative action in all its forms assumes there are no innate differences between any of the groups it seeks to help and everyone else. The assumption of no innate differences among groups suffuses American social policy. That assumption is wrong. —Charles MurrayThe Inequality Taboo (Commentary)

Murray is one of the authors of The Bell Curve. I found this essay fascinating, especially this caveat: “[T]he members of just about every group can so easily conclude that they are God’s chosen people. All of us use the weighting system that favors our group’s strengths.”

The whole essay’s over 16,000 words — I had to start skimming.

From the conclusion:

Let us start talking about group differences openly—all sorts of group differences, from the visuospatial skills of men and women to the vivaciousness of Italians and Scots. Let us talk about the nature of the manly versus the womanly virtues. About differences between Russians and Chinese that might affect their adoption of capitalism. About differences between Arabs and Europeans that might affect the assimilation of Arab immigrants into European democracies. About differences between the poor and non-poor that could inform policy for reducing poverty.

A culture that values diversity seems to insist that people aren’t the same. Historically, when those in power have identified difference, what happens next is that tribalism and selfishness tends to isolate, to exclude, to denigrate. Is Murray’s language a fancy way of saying “celebrate long-standing stereotypes”? I don’t think it really helps anyone to anyone to award points for “high self esteem” in a spelling test or a bar exam or a military training exercise, so it doesn’t seem to make much sense to me to give pity points beyond elementary school.

Still… it seems so very convenient that his scientific evidence supports the status quo so well. On the other hand, is that any reason to dismiss the evidence? My “Drama as Lit” students have read several plays in which a woman wants to do something that is compassionate and just, but which happens to be against the law. The women in “Trifles” hide evidence that would convict a farm wife of murder; a grieving mother in “Heart in the Ground” wants to bury a child on her farm, despite a local regulation prohibiting it; and Nora in A Doll House sees nothing wrong with forging a signature if it will save her husband’s life. In the world of fiction, where motives are simplified, and characters carefully drawn, the answers are more clear-cut, or at least the audience has been conditioned to be satisfied with a well-posed question, and with the ensuing opportunity for self-reflection and study.

Being a scientist, however, Murray demands an answer — consequences be damned. He is careful to note that he is usually talking about very minor differences, which manifest themselves in such a way that environment and socialization are insufficient explanations. After controlling for those factors, he still sees difference, tied closely to an evolutionary advantage associated with that difference. Men had to track game and throw spears; women had to gather edible mushrooms and berries, leave the poisonous ones alone, keep track of children, and build social networks through gossip.

Is it bad to say such things? Well, if you’re the president of Harvard, it’s risky. And if you don’t respond to the outrage in the blogosphere by immediately releasing a full transcript of the event, so that bloggers could see the context for themselves, then its even more risky.

I think most telling is Murray’s argument that, in the specific areas of mathematical cognition that are required for visionary genius skills, women are clustered in the middle of the scale, while men are more likely to have widely differing skills. This means, I presume, that in the particular subset of mathematical skills required for higher mathematics, men are more likely to be geniuses, and more likely to be idiots, than women. The idiots didn’t bring home the bison or win Nobel Prizes, but the geniuses did. The idiot men aren’t any competition for the genius women; the genius men are serious competition.

Which brings us back to the bell curve.