Sunday, October 26, 2003

Evading reality

Those with long memories may recall that one of the chief flaws of the Charles Murray-Richard Herrnstein opus The Bell Curve was that it relied in key parts heavily on white-supremacist and eugenicist material from extremely dubious sources, notably the Pioneer Fund.

Now we learn that his latest work -- which ostensibly demonstrates the innate superiority of white Western civilization, mostly by defining "accomplishment" in terms based on white Western values -- is even more egregiously derived. Indeed, its entire thesis is based on a scientific "method" first used by eugenicists more than a century ago, and whose real scientific usefulness is rather limited. Murray, somewhat unsurprisingly, employs it in ways no serous scientist would.

Murray's text, titled Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, uses a method called "historiometry" to obtain its desired results. From the New York Times review:
Historiometry was introduced in the early 19th century by Adolphe Quetelet, a Belgian mathematician who analyzed the relationship between age and achievement by studying the careers of prominent French and English playwrights. But it was Francis Galton, an English scientist and pioneering eugenicist, who brought the method into scholarly fashion.

For his 1869 study, "Hereditary Genius," Galton hit upon the idea of using obituaries and entries in a biographical dictionary to show a correlation between reputation, intelligence and heredity. Other studies of eminence followed, but by the late 1930's the approach had fallen from vogue as the social sciences came under the sway of behaviorism.

Galton, in fact, is the father of eugenics, having invented the term. Here's a characteristic excerpt from an 1864 magazine article penned by Galton:
If a twentieth part of the cost and pains were spent in measures for the improvement of the human race that is spent on the improvement of the breed of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of genius might we not create! We might introduce prophets and high priests of civilization into the world, as surely as we can propagate idiots by mating cretins. Men and women of the present day are, to those we might hope to bring into existence, what the pariah dogs of the streets of an Eastern town are to our own highly-bred varieties.

The feeble nations of the world are necessarily giving way before the nobler varieties of mankind; and even the best of these, so far as we know them, seem unequal to their work. The average culture of mankind is become so much higher than it was, and the branches of knowledge and history so various and extended, that few are capable even of comprehending the exigencies of our modern civilization; much less of fulfilling them. We are living in a sort of intellectual anarchy, for the want of master minds. The general intellectual capacity of our leaders requires to be raised, and also to be differentiated. We want abler commanders, statesmen, thinkers, inventors, and artists. The natural qualifications of our race are no greater than they used to be in semi-barbarous times, though the conditions amid which we are born are vastly more complex than of old. The foremost minds of the present day seem to stagger and halt under an intellectual load too heavy for their powers.

What is especially instructive about Galton was the way he devised "scientific" methods that were inimical to the nature of science itself -- that is, they often were constructed in a fashion likely to produce results that supported his original thesis, rather than working (as science must) from data first. Galton's application of historiometry, for example, relied on certain assumptions that later proved untrue. More recent social scientists have adopted historiometry for specialized fields of study, but most of them recognize the limitations of the method.

Not so Murray, who applies it to an absurdly long historical period and applies to cross-culturally, where the comparisons become based on predispositions and biases rather than anything approaching a scientific standard. Note how Murray went about collecting his data:
Borrowing the techniques of Mr. Simonton and other social scientists, Mr. Murray developed inventories of 4,002 significant figures in the arts and sciences by calculating the amount of space allotted to them in standard reference works and assigning them scores on a 100-point scale.

The built-in bias toward Western "accomplishment" should be obvious, since the vast majority of most "standard reference works" are either Western in origin or are derived in form from Western references.

This is not dissimilar from The Bell Curve in its argument that because poor blacks consistently test lower in IQ, a hereditary component must be at work -- while neglecting to take into account the effects of poverty, to wit, the fact that the poor nutrition common among small children from the lower classes directly affects their brain development and thus their IQs.

In other words, if you shut out reality and apply "scientific" methods to limited data, you can prove any point you want to make. Murray, it should be clear by now, is a master of this.

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