The Bell Curve Scam

Against the Current, No. 54, January/February 1995

Robert McChesney interviews Noam Chomsky

Robert McChesney, a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, interviewed Noam Chomsky on November 1, 1994. That interview will appear in a forthcoming issue of Against the Current here we present the brief excerpt in which Chomsky comments on the controversy over The Bell Curve.

Robert McChesney: The New York Times Sunday Magazine in October published a cover story on Charles Murray, discussing his IQ theories that suggest social stratifications along the lines of race and class are due to genetics, not social factors. Recently a member of the Illinois state legislature stated that African-American state employees were lazier than white state employees, and that accounted for some (if not most) of the state’s fiscal crisis. Without meaning to sound alarmist, is there something going on here that marks a new direction?

Noam Chomsky: First, there is nothing particularly new going on. Over twenty years ago I wrote a long essay discussing in detail the work of Richard Herrnstein (see Chomsky’s 1973 collection, For Reasons of State — ed.) on which much of the current Herrnstein-Murray book is based, and showing it was a tissue of absurdities, even if we accept its “science” (which in fact merits no such honorific term).

Part of what is happening is simply a scam. The trick is to take some position that will be greatly welcomed by the powerful (say, the editors and readers of the Wall Street Journal, etc.) with no need for concern about the status of the alleged empirical grounds or the validity, or even sanity, of the arguments.

Service to power will suffice to guarantee rave reviews, massive exposure, huge sales and the other corollaries to service to power. Then, the authors pray that someone will condemn them — if not, they can invent it. At this point they can portray themselves as tortured victims of powerful forces — like Black mothers, the radicals who (as we know) run the universities, etc.

The original gets huge media exposure, and the suffering of the victims who dared to brave the Black mothers and radicals who rule the world even more so. As I say, it’s a scam, quite a comical one in fact, but one that works brilliantly in a highly conformist intellectual culture, with remarkable intellectual and moral standards.

The “political correctness” comedy has many of the same features. In fact, the remarkable issue of the New York Times Book Review that was led off by a long praise of Herrnstein-Murray had many examples of the scam: effusive praise for a book that “dared” to say the elite had merit, even notice of the “brave, heroic” book by Harold Bloom that had the courage to say that students should read Shakespeare.

One must be awe-struck in admiration of this heroism. In the intellectual culture, it is all taken quite seriously, an interesting indication of that culture’s character.

There are good reasons why the Herrnstein-Murray sort of thing should be undergoing another one of its period revivals today. Social policy, particularly in the Anglo-American societies, has been designed over the past fifteen to twenty years to devastate families, children, working people, Blacks and vulnerable sectors generally, while directing resources to welfare for the rich.

Of course this leads to all kinds of “social problems” (substance abuse, falling achievement, etc.). But any PR specialist or other propagandist knows it would be plain stupid to allow the actual policies and their roots to be discussed, or even to be visible.

So, let’s talk about something really serious, like the possibility that Black mothers don’t nurture their children because they evolved in the warm climate of Africa — real hard science, of the kind taken seriously by Malcolm Browne of the >New York Times, in the lead review mentioned earlier.

Such ideas, Browne writes, we ignore at our peril, unlike the social policies that have an overwhelming effect on the problems under discussion; these we not only can but must ignore, and he has not a word about them; not a word, for example, about the fact that in the city where he writes, forty percent of the children now live below the poverty line.

Also, the Times scrupulously avoids major works from fully respectable sources that review and analyze these policies; these receive no mention in a review dealing with the decline of IQ, SAT, etc., though it does deal respectfully with work that ranges from loony (Rushton) to tenth-rate (Herrnstein-Murray).

It’s an entirely natural stand. The beneficiaries of the social policies are talking to one another, seeking to construct an ideological framework that will divert the attention of the public from what is being done to them, and why. So what could be better than focusing on proposals like those that Browne reviews, either admiring or denouncing them, while suppressing what is really happening — but which only harms others, namely, the vast majority of the world’s population, and by now, even the majority in the Anglo-American societies.

ATC 54, January-February 1995


  1. This entire article can be summed up as a gigantic Ad hominem. Not to mention it’s somewhat of a red herring seeing as how the Bell Curve was an analysis of /overall/ class life in America. The kind of upward redistribution he’s talking about can only account for maybe %1 of the total obfuscation. His deflection cannot explain why IQ correlates with the rest of the middle to middle-upper class which encompass a MUCH higher percentage of the population than the super rich with banking connections. Chomsky has astounded me before with his intellectual absurdities, but this one really epitomizes his flawed thinking. One can make a claim that his anti-capitalism does pit him at fundamental odds, but this is just a blatant denial of facts! Nowhere at all does he justify his position, but instead operates entirely on the presumption that Murray and Hernsteinn are wrong. Absolutely appalling.

  2. Professor Chomsky’s point in the article is that the book (Bell Curve) and its resulting praise and ‘controversy’ are themselves the red herring. To put it succinctly and in somewhat vulgar terms, WTF does a score on an I.Q. test have to do with the distribution of wealth and power in any society?
    Pointing to a, weakly asserted, correlation between a number on a sheet of paper and who has wealth and power in our society draws much needed focus from the arbitrary man made policies that distribute said wealth from the needy to the greedy. That is: for Herrnstein-Murray and their elite cheerleaders the topic should not be, for example, how high-tech industry would collapse in a true free market where the crutches of publicly funded research and development and subsidies have been removed. Nor should it be how the geniuses on Wall Street regularly crash the system and have to run to the nanny state to be rescued. No the topic should be a test score.
    The Bell Curve is just a repackaging of the same old trope that ‘justified’ the existence of monarchs, oligarchs and plutocracies; the slaughter of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, and the exploitation of women etc and on and on. ‘It’s not the greed and evil in men’s hearts, it’s just natural selection.’ It used to be gods providence and manifest destiny; this time it’s the pseudo-scientific explanatory power of a test score.

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