Joseph A. Buckhalt (2000) A Call for a new Referendum on Conclusions of the Bell Curve. Psycoloquy: 11(128) Bell Curve (4)

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Psycoloquy 11(128): A Call for a new Referendum on Conclusions of the Bell Curve

Commentary on Reifman on Bell-Curve

Joseph A. Buckhalt
Counseling & Counseling Psychology Department
Auburn University
AL 36849


Reifman (2000) concludes on the basis of a selective review of literature that many conclusions of Herrnstein & Murray's (1994) "The Bell Curve" deserve to be overturned or at least trimmed back. He seems anxious to count the ballots for this new referendum, but I doubt that a consensus of those interested will be reached.


IQ, adoption studies, behavior genetics, bell curve, crime, education, intelligence, nature/nurture, poverty, twin studies, uterine environment.
1. Reifman (2000, Paragraph 3) claims that the major ideas of Herrnstein & Murray's (1994) "The Bell Curve" (TBC) deserve to be overturned. He appears to be appealing for a new election, or rather he claims that a new election has been held and the incumbent ideas have been voted out. For conclusions to be "overturned", though, the implication seems to be that consensus was reached on the original questions posed, and that is surely not the case as the numerous and often strident critiques have shown. I doubt that a mountain of data would convince the most devout skeptics of TBC's conclusions, and the same might be said, I might hasten to add, for true believers. One only has to look as far as evolutionary theory to see that conclusions based on scientific evidence are subject to broad differences in acceptance and interpretation. The tone of the target article seems to be, "The recent evidence overturns TBC, so let's proclaim its defeat and get on with other matters, such as working to raise all children's intelligence until they are all equal." I couldn't help thinking about sports (and political) metaphors, so ubiquitous in American society, in which one side wins and one loses. To loosely quote General George Patton (from the movie, Patton, McCarthy & Schaffner, 1970), "Americans love a winner and won't tolerate a loser." I would add that neither will they tolerate ties (I submit as evidence [a] overtimes in American football [b] extra innings in American baseball and [c] the current brouhaha over the 2000 American presidential election), and they are impatient with ambiguous conclusions from scientific research. But I appreciate the author's attempt to contribute a summary of results bearing on the questions of TBC even though performing a review based on a search of the literature using The Bell Curve as a keyword has obvious limitations, and I have serious doubts that the evidence reviewed constitutes the last word on the topics.

2. In Paragraph 6, Reifman states that "other types of 'intelligence' might still be able to show incremental predictiveness of real-world outcomes." While claims for the existence of many varieties of intelligence have proliferated in recent years (I'm surprised that gustatory intelligence has been overlooked), this stretching of the term "intelligence" is exactly the kind of fuzziness in definition that leads Jensen (1998, 1999) to go to great lengths in Chapter 3 ("The Trouble With Intelligence) of "The g Factor" to explain why he favors using g rather than intelligence.

3. Much is made of the quote from Herrnstein and Murray (1994), that "the genetic component of IQ is unlikely to be smaller than 40 percent or higher than 80 percent" (p. 105) Curious is the failure of Reifman to mention that one sentence later, the authors state that "For purposes of this discussion, we will adopt a middling estimate of 60 percent heritability" (p. 105). Such a figure is not too variant from Reifman's conclusion that .50 represents a reasonable estimate, but again I suspect that the .50 figure is troubling to some because it (mistakenly) assumes that we have a "tie".

4. Arguing about whether heritability is 40, 50, or 60 percent is interesting, but in the final analysis not as useful as answering the question, posed by Anastasi (1958) many years ago, about "how" rather than "how much". Dobzhansky (1955) among many others, has shown the importance of reaction range, such that traits with low heritability are amenable to environmental change, while those with high heritability are subject to modification by artificial selection. The level of heritability does, however, give some indication as to the ease or difficulty of the task. Indeed, I'm wondering why environmental interventionists do not praise themselves more for influencing cognitive performance in spite of high heritability coefficients.

5. In Paragraph 46, Reifman mentions that among TBC's conclusions is that "Formal schooling offers little hope of narrowing cognitive inequality on a large scale in developed countries, because so much of its potential contribution has already been realized with the advent of universal twelve-year systems" (p. 389). Indeed, if cognitive ability is so amenable to intervention, why have we not seen more narrowing as a result of mandatory, free public education? I realize that some social critics regard American public schools to be abysmally deficient, but I don't hold that view, and neither do a great many other informed observers. But to take the other position, if one argues that American public schools are as deficient as some critics claim, then we should expect to see greater equality proportional to the improvement of schooling. Linking this thought to heritability, I didn't see much attention to Hernnstein's well-known syllogism (Herrnstein, 1971; Herrnstein & Murray, 1994) that if the "optimists" about the malleability of intelligence are correct, and as schooling becomes better and better, with more attention to detection and early remediation of cognitive deficiencies, we should expect increases in heritability.

6. In Paragraph 54, citing Fischer et al. (1996) mention is made of the finding that "ethnic groups that are inferior in status and caste position score worse on achievement and intelligence" (p. 191). How does this conclusion accommodate the fact that Asian-Americans and Jewish Americans, many of whom have been stigmatized and the targets of discrimination and bias, as a group do exceedingly well on tests of intelligence and achievement?

7. Reifman makes an attempt in Paragraph 61 to find conclusions agreeable to both "sides" in his contest of ideas. While such an attempt is noble in its aspiration, I am less sanguine than he. Over a century after the work of Darwin and Mendel, public opinion is still deeply divided regarding the role of genetics in influencing the nature of the human animal. I have tried to understand why we are so resistant to accepting the idea that intellectual ability and other human characteristics are heritable to a significant degree, and here are a few hypotheses:

    a. Democratic values: Individual and group differences run counter
    to our egalitarian ideals, and to reduce cognitive dissonance, we
    use denial.

    b. Genes are invisible: Although genes are becoming increasingly
    "visible" through modern science and technology, environmental
    differences are much more available to us.

    c. Parent-child similarity: Most persons aren't aware, or choose
    not to remember, that their children are products of the
    (invisible) genotypes of their parents, rather than their

    d. Extended families: Extended families in America tend less and
    less to grow up and live near enough one another for family
    resemblance to be noticed in extended kin.

    e. Rapid cultural change and slow genetic change: Our environments
    have changed so fast during the last century due to rapid
    technological advances, that we over-attribute the influence of
    environment and under-attribute to genetic change, which is
    exceedingly slow relative to a human lifespan.

    f. Non-agrarian society: Unlike the majority of the last 10,000
    years when humans were involved in growing plants and raising
    animals, and the even longer span of millions of years when we
    coexisted in habitats with plants and animals, agriscience and
    technology have enabled us to escape our direct connection to
    nature. Americans of just a few generations ago might have
    understood implicitly that many traits are the joint product of
    breeding and husbandry.

    g. Religious myths: The myth that humans are somehow separate and
    above other species on earth continues to persist and thrive. Even
    if we all understood Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution,
    many would resist the idea that human traits are subject to these
    natural laws due to their special status as creations in God's


Anastasi, A. (1958). Heredity, environment, and the question "How?". Psychological Review, 65, 197-208.

Dobzhansky, T. (1955). Evolution, genetics, and man. New York: Wiley.

Fischer, C.S., Hout, M., Sanchez Jankowski, M., Lucas, S.R., Swidler, A., & Voss. K. (1996). Inequality by design: Cracking the Bell Curve myth. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Herrnstein, R.J. (1971). I.Q. Atlantic Monthly (September): 43-64.

Herrnstein, R.J., & Murray, C. (1994). The bell curve: Intelligence and class structure in American life. New York: Free Press.

Jensen, A.R. (1998). The g factor: The science of mental ability. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Jensen, A.R. (1999). Precis of: "The g Factor: The science of mental ability" PSYCOLOQUY 10(023) psyc.99.10.023.intelligence-g-factor.1.jensen

McCarthy, F. (Producer), & Schaffner, F.J. (Director. (1970). Patton [Film]. Twentieth Century fox, Hollywood, CA.

Reifman, A. (2000). Revisiting The Bell Curve. PSYCOLOQUY 11(099) psyc.00.11.099.bell-curve.1.reifman

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