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Charles Murray’s Middlebury Melee

April 19, 2017 by Blue Ridge Leader filed under Columns, Sustainable Planet No Comments

“Earthrise”, photo taken from Apollo 8 by Bill Anders on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1968.

By Tony Noerpel

On March 2, 2017, the appearance of Charles Murray at Middlebury College in Vermont caused a small riot [1]. The media blamed the students. While I don’t condone their violence, the lion’s share of the fault lies with the college administration, Professor Allison Stanger, who invited Murray and who unfortunately was injured in the consequent melee, and Murray himself, i.e., the adults who should have known better. In any event the students will be punished; the adults will walk. Their only punishment will be that they might one day read this article and perchance agree with it and feel badly, which is unlikely.

Murray is controversial because he wrote a book “The Bell Curve” which “argued that social inequality in America could largely be explained as a result of IQ differences between races and individuals [2].” This argument was used in the nineteenth century in the South to justify slavery and in the North to justify discriminatory black laws [3, 4] and it is unambiguously racist. Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould criticized Murray’s methodology [5, 6]. Neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran [7] dismisses Murray’s hypothesis as having little more than shock value. There are a host of excellent books describing racism in America [8] to convince anybody that racism is the cause of social inequality. To claim one can ferret out a signal based on IQ rather than say lynchings is implausible and divisive. Stanger criticizes the protestors for not having read Murray’s book but I don’t think Stanger’s read it either. Nor am I recommending she does.

It is easy enough to dismiss Murray as a racist but there may be another explanation for “The Bell Curve”. Hold that thought and we will return to it.

We think in two broadly different ways.

  1. Science, super forecasting or evidence-based, “slow” thinking. Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardiner codify a dozen characteristics [9, 10]. Michael Gazzaniga describes this as using both the left and right sides of our brains; the left to make up stories and the right to fact check [11].
  2. Ideology or faith-based, “fast” thinking involves only the left story teller [11].

Ideology has advantages regards survival on the savannah, getting up and out of bed in the morning or avoiding spending too much time over thinking every detail. Ideological thinking uses less energy. According to Robert Dunbar’s social brain hypothesis our brains evolved to interact socially [12]. There are survival advantages to believing the same stories as other people in our tribe; perhaps the more absurd the belief the better for social cohesion within the group and the identification and exclusion of outsiders [13]. Thinking ideologically can be explained by evolution. What is surprising is that our brains can also think critically and do calculus.

To improve our collective model of reality, requires science or super forecasting while ideology inhibits our ability to improve our model if we take our beliefs too seriously [9, 14]. If the church stifled Copernicus’ heliocentric solar system in favor of the dogmatic Earth centered universe, we would never have discovered the law of gravity. Ideology leads to motivated reasoning and confirmation bias and getting along within our tribe, but not to truth.

What kind of thinker is Murray? I’ve not read “The Bell Curve” but did read his book “Coming Apart”. On page 238 of this book, Murray tells a story about John Maynard Keynes whose opinions evolved as he accumulated more evidence. Murray writes: “Keynes, accused of changing his mind on monetary policy, famously replied ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?’” Murray answers “often nothing.” In a remarkable dismissal of science, Murray describes Keynes scientific approach, being willing to be wrong and considering evidence, as “unreasonable”.

One reason America is coming apart, the subject of Murray’s book, is ideological thinking. Murray writes that a social democrat would consider Murray’s own evidence as a compelling case for redistribution of wealth. A social conservative would see in the same evidence a compelling case for more religion. Murray, a libertarian, sees in it a compelling case for a smaller government. Just focusing on America coming apart and ignoring that humanity and the biosphere are coming apart, Murray Ignores relevant data: demise of labor unions, war on drugs, privatization of prisons, Laffer’s trickle-down economics, tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation, particularly of the financial sector, subsequent growth of this sector, trade and current accounts deficits, Vietnam War, increased military spending and the rise of neo-conservatism, the velocity of money, technology, energy, pollution, climate change and more. Murray is no scholar.

While science converges on the truth based on ever improving evidence and willingness to be wrong, ideology is divisive, since evidence doesn’t matter. The Civil War was a consequence of ideological intransigents [3]. Cognitive psychologists observe that exposure to evidence increases ideological confabulation which is why evidence is required but not sufficient [15]. One must be willing to be wrong.

Libertarian ideologues, shackled to free markets and small governments, find themselves forced to justify extremely concentrated wealth and power, and deny the positive feedback loop between wealth and power in the macro-economy. Strident libertarianism is incompatible with democracy. The libertarian economist N. Gregory Mankiw defends concentrated power by assuming every economic transaction is voluntary, leaving both parties better off [16]. But this is a false assumption and thus a logic violation called the principle of explosion or ex falso quodlibet [17].

Murray defends extreme power on page 296 denying the problem and asking us to assume this is economically rational, which is meaningless, and that the dynamics of extreme inequality promote economic growth and a better life for everybody, a modern version of the divine right of kings. But the data says [18]:

“A 2016 report by charity Oxfam showed that the wealth of the world’s richest 62 people has risen by 44 percent since 2010, with almost half of the super-rich living in the United States, while the wealth of the poorest 3.5 billion fell 41 percent.”

Unless poverty is good for us and more poverty even better Murray’s assumptions are false. Not only are most people financially poorer, but the life expectancy of middle aged white men in America, the subjects of Coming Apart has deteriorated over the last several decades coincident with the rise in inequality [19]. On page 302, Murray denies the role of randomness, a hard-physical reality [20] and page 304 he uses free will to justify inequality.

Libertarian ideologues deny global environmental problems such as human-caused climate change and the sixth extinction event [21, 22, and 23] because the solution requires international governance. Libertarianism is insensitive to destruction of the biosphere and may be incompatible with human survival. They may give lip service to gay rights but then consistently vote for homophobes expecting us to overlook this not particularly subtle inconsistency. Now we can understand why Murray entertains racist views. He is forced by his ideology to deny the impact of racism on social inequality because the only way Black Americans have been able to gain freedom from slavery, social justice and overcome racism is through federal government intervention. Murray finds it easier to shift the blame onto Blacks themselves than admit his ideology is wrong. It is as if Murray’s right parietal lobe has atrophied [11].

Which brings us back to Middlebury College [1]. Stanger wrote “Though he is someone with whom I disagree, I welcomed the opportunity to moderate a talk with him on campus on March 2 because several of my students asked me to do so. Middlebury students could have learned from identifying flawed assumptions or logical shortcomings in Dr. Murray’s arguments.” Mark Twain’s advice is appropriate “if you argue with a fool onlookers will not be able to tell the difference.” William James advises the art of wisdom is knowing what to ignore. No chemist teaches phlogiston and no physicist reads Immanuel Velikovsky. Similarly, Murray is best ignored and not just because his views are divisive, but because his methodology is unsound. He violates every rule of super forecasting and the scientific method and is only capable of producing nonsense. Murray is, in the words of Garrett Hardin [24] “merely eloquent”.

Stanger and all of us should teach ourselves and our students to use both sides of our brains or at least try. I assume her students are enamored with Murray because of his free-market, small-government ideology and may have never heard of “The Bell Curve.” But others have. She could have avoided a great deal of trouble for her college by noting a lot of people consider him a racist and would seriously object to his invitation, which as a matter of fact they did. If she explained this to her students they may have been sensitive and reasonable enough to suggest a less objectionable libertarian to represent their ideology. Stanger could then have made the case that a small government could never have put a man on the moon or funded the Earth sciences necessary to discover human-caused climate change and the need for an Earth Day. The conversation with Murray was not going to move beyond his racism. Stanger, the adult in the room, should have known better.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/13/opinion/understanding-the-angry-mob-that-gave-me-a-concussion.html?_r=2

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_and_intelligence

[3] David R. Goldfield, America Aflame, How the Civil War Created a Nation

[4] Edward E. Baptist, The Half has never been told.

[5] Stephen J. Gould, in the 1996 edition “The Mismeasurement of Man”

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Murray_(political_scientist)

[7] V. S. Ramachandran “Tell Tail Brain”

[8] in addition to {3 and 4], “Sundown Towns” by James W. Loewen, “The Race Beat” by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff and “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson

[9] Tetlock and Gardner, Superforecasting.

[10] Tony Noerpel, superforecasting a book review, July 25, 2016 http://brleader.com/?p=20681

[11] Michael Gazzaniga, Who’s in Charge, free will and the science of the brain, p. 98.

[12] http://psych.colorado.edu/~tito/sp03/7536/Dunbar_1998.pdf and https://www.psy.ox.ac.uk/team/robin-dunbar

[13] Jared Diamond, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

[14] Jerry Coyne, Faith vs. Fact, Why Science and Religion are incompatible, Viking, 2015.

[15] Daniel Kahan, link to articles: http://www.culturalcognition.net/science-literacy-and-political/

[16] Tony Noerpel, Defending the Over-pampered, August 30, 2016, http://brleader.com/?p=20919

[17] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principle_of_explosion

[18] http://www.cnbc.com/2016/12/02/worlds-growing-inequality-is-ticking-time-bomb-nobel-laureate-yunus.html

[19] http://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/3/23/14988084/white-middle-class-dying-faster-explained-case-deaton

[20] Leonard Mlodinow, The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

[21] Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Sixth Extinction”

[22] Anthony D. Barnosky, Nicholas Matzke, Susumu Tomiya, Guinevere O. U.Wogan, Brian Swartz, Tiago B. Quental, Charles Marshall, Jenny L. McGuire, Emily L. Lindsey, Kaitlin C. Maguire, Ben Mersey and Elizabeth A. Ferrer, Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived?, Nature, Vol. 471, 3 March 2011.

[23] Tony Noerpel, The Trump Effect, Blue Ridge Leader, January 6, 2017 http://brleader.com/?p=21941

[24] Garrett Hardin, Filters Against Folly

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