Methodological Fetishism

Brigitte Berger, National Review, December 5, 1994.


For all its wealth of data, skillful argumentation, and scope, The Bell Curve is a narrow and deeply flawed book. Murray and Herrnstein have fallen prey to a methodological fetishism that prevents them from adequately considering alternative, equally plausible inferences that can be drawn from the studies they marshal to buttress their conclusions.

The argument of The Bell Curve is carried out on two distinct, though in the authors’ minds interrelated, levels. On the first, they discuss issues related to the rise of a “cognitive elite,” a trend characteristic of all industrial societies, whose knowledge-driven economies offer fewer and fewer employment opportunities for people unable to operate in the type of occupations such economies require. On the second level, they argue that a more or less permanent underclass, characterized by the prevalence of low cognitive ability, is becoming a fixture of American society.

Both observations have been discussed here and abroad for some time. But by adding the dimension of race, a factor peculiar to American society, The Bell Curve carries the discussion in new directions. Race-determined cognitive ability, they argue, is the underlying reality driving a grisly sorting process that is dividing the nation. Caught in an epistemological paradigm in which psychological operations are reduced to genetic ones, they suggest that biology is destiny. No amount of camouflage or public and private efforts to create a level playing field, they imply, can prevent the inexorable slide of African-Americans into a cognitive caste.

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