Yesterday a “coalition of concerned students” wrote the Stanford Daily to oppose the invitation of Charles Murray to campus next week. Contending that Murray’s work is “a foundation for white supremacy,” they called on President Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Drell to revoke Murray’s invitation to speak next Thursday. One wonders if the students in question ever read Murray’s books, since they rely on unrepresentative quotes and hyperbolic rhetoric rather than concrete evidence and argumentation.
The authors of the piece ludicrously claim that Charles Murray “has never been an intellectual at all.” This is manifestly untrue. Murray’s work has been published everywhere from liberal media giants like the New York Times and Washington Post to mainstream publishers like HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster. His writings have been listed as required reading in numerous Stanford syllabi, even in classes in left-leaning departments. Sociology Professor Michael Rosenfeld, for example, has included several of Murray’s books in his Urban Underclass course. Murray, a graduate of Harvard University and MIT, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a serious think tank, and his books such as Coming Apart and The Bell Curve have undoubtedly shaped American discourse on social policy. If this is not intellectualism, what is?
The authors of the piece do not stop at arrogantly discrediting Murray’s qualifications, however. They cherry-pick from Murray’s Bell Curve in order to misrepresent his argument. From the very start of their article, they mislead their readers by omitting a key connecting sentence in their leading quote from page 548 — a sentence which changes its meaning from strongly favoring social engineering to vehemently condemning social engineering, arguing that the US should stop aggressively manipulating fertility through birth subsidies to the rich and poor alike.
If the writers of the editorial had read The Bell Curve more closely — and more charitably — they might have even been impressed by Murray’s defense of women’s health and argument for easy access to birth control following just a paragraph after. Instead, they conveniently ignored this section. More likely, though, they didn’t even read the book.
The writers’ assertions that Murray’s research has been disproven beyond doubt and that his work is “not an academic undertaking” are simply false. In fact, many serious sources have confirmed the legitimacy of Murray’s research. Though the conclusions of the book have been used as a political football, they are based in careful research and statistical analysis. The vast majority of The Bell Curve’s points are well within the mainstream of academic literature, as a 1994 Wall Street Journal editorial signed by 52 professors indicated.
Stanford did not invite a racist to campus. Murray and Richard Herrnstein do not argue that any particular individual is less capable simply because of his race, but simply make claims about the average ability of various groups. The “Coalition of Concerned Students” are enraged by statistical methods straight out of Econ 102A. While the authors of the editorial decry Murray for marginalizing silenced voices, Murray and Herrnstein would not support such suppression: they make clear that differences in the average cognitive ability of groups does not alter the rights of individuals. Nor do they make a eugenic claim that one’s genes or IQ determines their outcome. Instead, they argue “both genes and the environment have something to do with racial difference.”
Murray in fact wholeheartedly condemns any discrimination against individuals that may result from cognitive differences between groups. He acknowledges that some might use his research as a basis for unsavory discrimination, but points out that, even if his conclusions are accurate, “many blacks would continue to be smarter than many whites,” and that “ethnic differences would continue to be differences in means and distributions; they would continue to be useless … when assessing individuals.”
Of course, this concern should not be quickly brushed aside, and thus Murray is not without his critics, notably on the right. The brilliant Thomas Sowell devastates The Bell Curve in his American Spectator review, drawing on the experience of European immigrants to the New World, rural Brits, and Jewish-American servicemen in WWI to argue “groups outside the cultural mainstream of contemporary Western society tend to do their worst on abstract questions, whatever their race might be.” Sowell also highlights how average level of mental test performance has changed very significantly over time for whole populations and for ethnic groups.
Sowell’s constructive response, however, stands in stark contrast to the Coalition of Concerned Students’ demands for censorship. Instead of grappling with the implications of Murray’s research by reading his and his opponents’ work and attending his talk to evaluate for themselves, they took the easy way out.
In case their flimsy allegations of racism didn’t persuade, the Coalition attempted to discredit Cardinal Conversations by claiming that its leadership “as a whole leans toward the right of the political spectrum.” The committee organizing the initiative, however, comprises members from the ASSU, the Stanford Daily, the Stanford Sphere, Stanford Politics, and the Stanford Review, clearly representing a diverse range of political perspectives. The leadership consists of individuals who are committed to the promotion of intellectual diversity. If the steering committee were right-wing, why would it have invited prominent left-wing thinker Cornel West to participate in Cardinal Conversations this coming fall?
Throughout their jeremiad, the authors slander Murray as a “white supremacist,” a term that should not be thrown around without serious consideration. Murray’s theses as a social scientist are rooted in data, questionable as those datasets may be. Nowhere in his work does he assert racial inferiority. To argue that a white supremacist would survive the veto power of the Cardinal Conversations student representatives, the Hoover Institution, the Freeman Spogli Institute, Provost Drell, and President Tessier-Lavigne is preposterous. The Coalition should realize that Murray’s academic peers treat his work not as hate speech to be censored, but as an argument based on flawed data with which they must “engage in order to disagree.” Stanford students should hold themselves to the same standard.
The Bell Curve itself contains perhaps the best argument for hearing Murray out. It begins with an epigraph by Edmund Burke considering the view that certain ideas — if they seem based on popular prejudices — should not be discussed, out of fear for the dangerous consequences they might produce. Burke disagrees: even these dangerous ideas should be freely debated, in the name of the unfettered pursuit of truth. Stanford’s invitation of Charles Murray does not constitute an endorsement, but an invitation to engage with his ideas, whether by accepting or refuting them.
Not just Burke, but J.S. Mill, too, believed that open, reasoned debate serves to correct bad ideas and spread good ones. If Murray is right, we must hear him; and if he is wrong, we must correct him. We can do neither if we do not open our doors to him and engage with his ideas, however dangerous we believe them to be.