Intelligence and the Social Scientist

Leon R. Kass, The Public Interest, Summer 1995.


Someone who has not read the book, but “knows” it only from the largely irresponsible things written and said about it, will be surprised to discover that The Bell Curve is not primarily about race. Neither does it teach that genes (fully) determine intelligence or that intelligence determines one’s destiny. It remains loudly agnostic about whether, and to what extent, observed racial differences in IQ have any genetic basis. Also, its presentation of the scientific evidence is scrupulously separated from—and not driven by—its (limited) public-policy suggestions.

Herrnstein and Murray write with great clarity and unusual care. Immensely difficult and technical subjects are made accessible, often with the aid of marvelously apt examples or analogies. Premises are explicitly stated (for example, about which concept of intelligence they adopt and why), methods are explained, data are thoroughly, yet cautiously, interpreted, and arguments about their significance are presented explicitly and fully, yet with admirable recognition of the limits on what the data allow one to conclude. Evidence on all sides of controverted questions is always presented, and, in this reader’s judgment, with remarkable even handedness and judiciousness. The tone throughout is sober, measured, concerned; there is nary a note of smugness or condescension. Whether its conclusions prove true or false, whether its interpretations are wrong or right, and, indeed, whether it should or should not have been published, The Bell Curve is an impressive work, written in the best academic (social) scientific spirit—animated entirely by the desire to know the scientific truth about these devilishly tricky and delicate subjects.

National Affairs [pdf]