Saturday, October 01, 2005

Still On the Bell Curve

Andrew Fraser assures us that the biology of racial difference 'is not any longer [sic] open to serious scientific question'. That being so, there are remarkably few people publishing in the field, doubtless due to the efforts of the left-wing conspiracy that runs our government and universities. So barren is the academic landscape of race science that it remains dominated by the colossus of Charles Murray (of Bell Curve fame), whose latest foray into the citadel of political correctness targets gender rather than race. Indignation at the treatment received by Harvard president Lawrence Summers over comments that men are biologically more equipped than women for maths and hard science inspired Murray to pen 'The Inequality Taboo', which trots out facts from brain size and testosterone levels to SAT results to prove that at the 'extreme end' of achievement in certain fields, women just can't cut it with guys.

Like other 'racial realists', Murray trades on the fallacy that the existence of evidence for a theory makes it scientifically sound. It's been amply demonstrated that a researcher's political and cultural baggage suffuses his/her scientific method, from framing the initial inquiry to interpreting results. The credible scientist escapes this postmodernist trap to some degree - otherwise no knowledge would be possible - by avoiding explicit ideological agendas. The ideologue by contrast walks straight into it. It's not incidental to Murray's work that he's bankrolled by the Bradley Foundation ("a vigorous defence at home and abroad of American ideas and institutions") and works out of the American Enterprise Institute, otherwise known as neocon central.

If these credentials weren't enough, Murray has made it clear that his research is directed at changing US government policy, so that it promotes a 'true (i.e. racially scientific) meritocracy'. The story doesn't end with him, though. Many of the experts cited in The Bell Curve received grant money from the Pioneer Fund - a not-for-profit set up during the 1930's to promote eugenics - and are connected to Mankind Quarterly, a journal edited by a founding member of the Northern League (the fascist one, not the baseball one). Ideology, anyone?

There is evidence that race and culture affects socioeconomic and academic outcomes. Ideological commitment such as Murray's, however, distorts the accuracy of conclusions drawn from that evidence - in this instance the ability to balance genetics or culture against other factors in explaining observed results. Research becomes an exercise in piling up evidence to support a pre-existing position.

Why, for example, am I the only Chinese (in fact, the only non-white) male among over a hundred students enrolled in Historical Theory at Melbourne Uni? Types like Murray and Andrew Fraser - with his emphasis on Chinese 'traits' of rote learning and rigorous discipline - would doubtless dismiss me as an aberration from a Chinese cultural or biological disposition towards maths and hard sciences, and (in Murray's case) produce reams of data to prove it. Widen the empirical field, however, and the results don't stick: traditional Chinese education was humanist, and the PRC/Taiwan/Singapore today have flourishing academic communities in the social sciences and humanities.

Could it be that the socioeconomic pressures on second generation Chinese-Australian migrants divert them into vocational courses, rather than more abstract intellectual fields? That would explain why I did chemistry, biology and maths methods in VCE, why I did two years of commerce before jumping ship to arts, and why I've been studying law the whole time (the 'iron rice bowl' degree). But I wouldn't expect Murray to include information that puts an alternative spin on his results. In 'The Inequality Taboo', he fails to accont for research undermining the integrity of SATs or IQ tests as measurements of intelligence, or showing that socialised gender discrimination remains strong - strong enough, perhaps, to override miniscule differences in brain size that haven't been lnked to specific cognitive processes anyway. Until conservative pundits like Murray learn to perceive the world as it does look, rather than as it should look - a charge they constantly level at 'left-wing' opponents - no amount of statistics or bell curve diagrams is going to substantiate their worldview.

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