The Bell Curve

Chester Finn, Commentary, January 1995.


As any author can attest who has brought forth a book and waited months for even the hometown paper—let alone the New York Times—to review it, the instant celebrity accorded The Bell Curve is astounding, the more so when one hefts this weighty tome and finds it chockablock with charts, graphs, tables, statistical exotica, and technical appendices. Though the authors strove to make it accessible to a general audience as well as to scholars and policy-wonks, this is not a volume that one is apt to read for relaxation. So why has it entered the national consciousness like a noseful of cocaine?

The reason, of course, is its provocative discussion of inherently controversial subjects: intelligence, genetics, race, and the relationship of this trinity to success or failure in American society. To make matters even touchier, the authors state facts and draw conclusions that violate longstanding taboos.

These taboos that have led some thoughtful people concerned with preserving social harmony to adopt a “shouldn’t-have-written-it” line. “I ask myself,” concludes Nathan Glazer in a sorrowful comment in the New Republic, “whether the untruth is not better for American society than the truth.” But, with exceptions that can be counted on one hand, most of The Bell Curve‘s critics do not much seem to care whether what the book says is true.

Their main project has been to hurl enough brickbats to drive both book and authors out of the public square. The objective, it is apparent, is to restore the taboos and to intimidate anyone else who would dare violate them again. Since Herrnstein died of cancer as the book was being published, Murray has taken most of the blows (though a few grim commentators have sought to trash Herrnstein’s reputation as well).