Sins of the Cognitive Elite

Michael Novak, National Review, December 5, 1994.


Our intellectual landscape has been disrupted by the equivalent of an earthquake and, as the ground settles, intellectuals are looking around nervously and bracing themselves. At such times, the best policy is to heed the evidence that leads toward truth.

The problem with this policy today is that on at least three matters—IQ, heritability, and human nature—the rules we have lived under for some decades now are evasion, euphemism, and taboo. The earthquake has been caused by the simultaneous violation of all three. The problem is especially acute for liberals who have invested virtually their entire substance in three unusual beliefs: that almost everything important about human beings originates in the environment; that environmental factors may be manipulated at will by an intelligent and highly moral elite (composed of themselves); and that the ideal condition of human life would be a certain uniformity, which they call (equivocally) “equality.” By the latter term, they do not mean equality under the law, or even equality of opportunity, but an administered equality of result.

The Herrnstein-Murray findings have violently shifted the ground from under these intellectual foundations; hence the loud wailing and gnashing of teeth. Hence, as well, rapid efforts to shovel the earth back under the wobbly walls. Hence, finally, the hysterical efforts to assassinate the messengers. Their message cannot be true because much more is at stake than a particular set of arguments from psychological science. A this-worldly eschatological hope is at stake. The sin attributed to Herrnstein and Murray is theological: they destroy hope.

Meanwhile, two important theses of the book have been ignored. They concern the right and left tails of the bell curve, and the special hazards attached to having above-average or below-average intelligence.

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