How Do You Solve a Problem Like Charles Murray?

Portrait caricatureCharles Murray, author (with Richard J. Herrnstein) of the notoriously racist The Bell Curve was invited by a student chapter of the American Enterprise Institute to speak at Middelbury College last Thursday. Unfortunately for Murray, the American Enterprise Institute club appears not to have been representative of the Middlebury student body more generally, hence Murray’s appearance was not well received. In fact, the audience for Murray’s talk appeared to be comprised mainly of protestors who turned their backs on Murray when he tried to speak and began chanting such slogans as: “Who is the enemy? White supremacy!” and “Hey-hey, ho-ho, Charles Murray has got to go!”

So go he did, finally, to the safety of a video studio from which the talk was live streamed to the campus. The video on YouTube of the aborted talk is mesmerizing. At least it mesmerized me. It’s not easy to keep chanting for about half an hour without stopping. There was something heart warming about the spectacle of a group of young people so united and determined in their rejection of racism and economic elitism. That Middlebury is itself an elite institution wasn’t the only irony of the protest, however. A crowd that chanted repeatedly: “Your message is hatred. We cannot tolerate it!” also held up signs that read: “Fuck Eugenics,” and “Fuck White Supremacy.” A crowd that was professing to champion the rights of everyone was refusing to allow Murray to speak.

I have enormous sympathy with those students, and yet I am deeply uncomfortable with their tactics. Murray should be allowed to voice his views, no matter how offensive some people find them. The question is whether it is appropriate for him to voice them as an invited speaker on a college campus. I think Middlebury’s student protestors correctly intuited that there was something wrong with Murray’s appearing as an invited speaker at Middlebury, or on any college campus. The problem, I believe, is not so much that Murray’s views are morally offensive. There is, after all, a certain subjective element in moral offense. Some people are offended by things that others find inoffensive. The problem is that they are not based in sound science and scholarship.

IQ tests are widely recognized by psychologists and social scientists to be extremely unreliable indicators of intelligence. In fact, long before The Bell Curve, IQ tests were criticized for implicit social and economic bias and recent research suggests they are virtually meaningless. “[I]f you are not good at them,” explains Dr. Adrian Owen, a British neuroscientist at Western University in Canada, “all it proves is that you are not good at IQ tests. It does not say anything about your general intelligence.

Intelligence is such a complex and ill understood phenomenon, and social and economic influences, not so much on the quality of thought as on its character, are so unimaginably difficult to calculate that it would seem impossible even in principle to devise a test to measure intelligence. And yet Murray constructed an argument that involved claims about the relation between race and intelligence based on IQ tests that was taken seriously by at least some intellectuals.

When I teach critical reasoning, I sometimes use as an example of poor reasoning an article by Murray from The Wall Street Journal entitle “Prole Models” in which Murray argues that proletarian moral values are ruining our country. What he identifies as proletarian moral values, however, are not, in fact, proletarian moral values, but criminal, or as Murray says himself “thug” values. Any sociologist worth his salt will tell you that working-class moral values are solidly traditional: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t cheat, do unto others, etc. It’s the social and economic elites who set the poor moral examples by conspicuously excepting themselves from these rules. It’s the social and economic elites who are unraveling the moral fabric of this country by repeatedly sending the message to those less fortunate that cheaters do prosper.

Murray’s argument in “Prole Models” is not merely based on obviously erroneous premises. It isn’t even coherent because while he’s railing against the working classes for their supposed “promiscuity” he acknowledges explicitly that promiscuity has always been accepted “in a few sophisticated circles.” If that isn’t enough, he actually praises the hypocrisy of women of the “social elites,” whose circles were presumably less sophisticated, for endeavoring to hide that they were sexually active.

Murray includes no references to research that would support the parade of contentious claims he presents in “Prole Models” and yet he presents those claims as if they are authoritative and he is able to publish such “fake scholarship” (okay, somebody had to coin that phrase) in no lesser paper than The Wall Street Journal! He keeps cranking it out, too. He published the equally morally and intellectually offensive Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 in 2012 (see “Debunking Charles Murray Again”), and he has a new book, In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State, which presumably, was why he was invited to speak at Middlebury.

In a properly functioning democracy with a good system of public education and a vital intellectual culture, Murray wouldn’t receive the attention he has. That Murray’s views have been taken seriously by people who purport to be intellectuals reveals that many people in this country with advanced degrees aren’t really all that well educated.

Murray should be allowed to speak, of course, but it is entirely inappropriate, in my opinion, for him to be an invited speaker on a college campus. It is no more appropriate for Murray to speak on a college campus than it would be for the host of the Arts and Entertainment series “Ancient Aliens” to do so. Murray’s views are the sociological equivalent of Holocaust denial in their departure from accepted standards of science and scholarship. He should not be speaking at an institution of higher education. Middlebury’s student protestors were right about that.

So what do you do with a problem like Charles Murray coming and speaking on your campus? ––You don’t go. And what do we, as a culture do about that problem? We labor mightily to improve the general quality of education in our nation so that Murray’s theories will be conspicuous as the clap-trap they are. Then, maybe, he would no longer receive invitations to speak on college campuses. THAT would be heartwarming!


(This article appeared originally in the March 7, 2017 edition of Counterpunch.)

3 responses

  1. “of the notoriously racist The Bell Curve ”
    Could you point me to a single racist* sentence in “The Bell Curve”?

    *prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior

    “In a properly functioning democracy with a good system of public education and a vital intellectual culture, Murray wouldn’t receive the attention he has. That Murray’s views have been taken seriously by people who purport to be intellectuals reveals that many people in this country with advanced degrees aren’t really all that well educated”

    Charles Murray gained notoriety around the world upon the publication of his book, especially in Europe. Had he been Swedish, he’d have generated even greater controversy than in America (the Swedes are infamously liberal).

    What do you mean by intellectual culture? Do you think my government (Swiss) prefers those who actively and openly criticize politics over those who work and vote quietly? Of course not! Although there are many scientific and artistic foundations in my country, they better not cross swords with politics; otherwise, they might just as well shut down! There is a reason why most, if not all notable foundations are financed and maintained by the state: it appreciates intellectual pretension, not intellectual involvement.

    Murray’s views and psychological findings have not exclusively caught the eye of pretentious douchebags who boast about their IQ. There are – as always – many individuals who merely want explanations as to why racial differences – despite many civil movements, years of affirmative action, and thousands upon thousands of grants for minorities – remain undoubtedly contrasted (the Census Bureau’s statistics are far from shattering the value of such observations). All this is a concern which has plagued both Murray and parents of all races for decades.

    Though I profoundly disagree with your views, I do appreciate your support for free speech. That, for me, is the most essential (intellectual) common ground to maintain.

    • I’m not sure what you mean when you say that “Murray’s views…remain undoubtedly contrasted.” I take it from the rest of what you say, however, that you believe there is strong empirical support for Murray’s views that whites are intellectually superior to blacks. That’s precisely what’s at issue, though. What would count as empirical evidence to support such a view? Blacks have been so seriously discriminated against in American culture that what few efforts have been made at “affirmative action” cannot begin to address the inequities. I don’t know how the Swiss fund their public schools, but the way we have historically funded public schools in the U.S., and STILL fund them, ensures that the poor (and a disproportionate percentage of the poor are black) receive an education that is vastly inferior to the middle class, not to mention the wealthy. Schools are funded by property taxes, so people who live in areas where the property values are high, go to schools that are well funded. People who live in areas where the property values are low, go to schools that are underfunded. I attended such underfunded schools, schools that were predominantly black, from the fourth grade through high school and I can tell you that my “education” was very different from that of my husband who attended well-funded public schools in white New England suburbs. I basically had no education at all throughout those years. What I learned I learned from reading.

      Even with affirmative action, how is a child from such a school going to catch up to a child from a school such as the ones my husband attended? A few very exceptional children will do that, but most children, no matter how intelligent (perhaps in many cases even more intelligent than white children who grew up in affluent suburbs) won’t. Affirmative action is an empty gesture to make Americans feel better about the gross, systematic injustices perpetrated against blacks in this country. I grew up with blacks, they were my friends and intellectual companions. I KNOW they are every bit as smart as whites. We just conspire (both consciously, and to an increasing extent unconsciously) to make sure that, on average, they are less well educated and that they hence have fewer opportunities than whites so that we can continue to believe the myth of our own intellectual superiority. It is shameful.

      We absolutely agree, however, on the right to free speech. Murray should be allowed to say whatever he wants to. If Americans were better educated, they would see the weaknesses in Murray’s arguments, the problems inherent in the tests and studies he cites. In short, they would recognize the “science” on which he purports to base his views for the pseudo-science that it is and few people would listen to what he has to say. We all have a right to speak, however, no matter how feeble minded we may be.

  2. Thank you for your response.

    I never said whites are intellectually superior to blacks. Superiority, inferiority, these are Nazi terms which try to argue that certain races have to be taken more into consideration than others. I disagree with such despicable claims 100%. From a biological perspective, terms as such aren’t even applied. Bees, grasshoppers, dogs, leopards, ants, et cetera, cognitive differences exist yet all of these mentioned species have perfectly survived evolutions slippery slopes. They are all equally efficient!

    Now to racial differences in IQ.
    Questions have been raised when seeing cities like Detroit and Jackson – which are more than 80% black – fail entirely to keep up with national educational standards. The same applies to majority white cities, yet most, if not all high performing (economically, socially, technologically, scientifically) cities are majority white.

    Where, I ask, is the “white” or majority bias at a Detroitian school in which the headmaster is black as well as 90% of teachers and students? Significant improvements are yet to be seen.

    Marriage seems to be the most efficient crime fighter, for both blacks and whites. According to, married black couples are three times less likely to end up in poverty than the single, divorced, and out of wedlock black population.

    72% of all black babies are born out of wedlock, compared to the 25% of all non-Hispanic white kids. Before the civil rights movements, out of wedlock rates were significantly lower for all races, in particular for blacks (24%). Nine years ago, a black President was elected. I blame him particularly for not having raised sufficient awareness for black out of wedlock rates. Imagine a Caucasian President even alluding to this problem! Obama had an opportunity, and he wasted it.


    I have both gypsy and black friends. They, like all my other friends, are very, very smart. Some are highly educated, others less. Regardless, I love them for who they are, no matter what the race or origin. These guys are part of what Murray describes as “the cognitive elite.” The latter, no matter what the race, has little to nothing in common with low IQ individuals of the same race. Hence, this ought to be a mutual, a collective, a universal quest. We ALL ought to understand why these level of abilities vary so much amongst the different races. I fear though that “your side” (as condescending as that may sound) has perpetually tried to apply the same type of reasoning (poverty, racism, low-funding for minorities) to explain the racial gap(s) phenomenon.

    Thank you for your reasonable response. Having such exchanges is great. I will continuously review them as I am a believer in “intellectual flexibility.”

    Have a great day

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