When You Say Tomato and Your Sister Says Tomahto

This week, Princeton professor Carolyn Rouse organized a protest of a planned lecture by Charles Murray, of The Bell Curve infamy:

Join us today in a silent protest against the normalization of racism and classism in academia,” Ms. Rouse, who also directs the Program in African Studies at Princeton, said in the flier. “We are choosing to walk out of today’s lecture after the speaker’s bio is read. Charles Murray is an armchair demagogue who argues that blacks and the poor are intellectually and morally inferior, as the cause of social inequality in America. For decades, credible and respected academics have vehemently critiqued Murray’s misleading use of cherry-picked data and dissemination of racist pseudoscience. We walk out to demonstrate that Murray’s work is unworthy of our attention — and even our anger. If possible, we would ignore him completely. However, his writings have been used by powerful policy-makers to disenfranchise the working class and the poor since the 1980s.

The main cherry-picked data Murray and his coauthor Richard Hernstein used for the Bell Curve was the Armed Forces Qualifying Test administered to the 1979 cohort of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.

Carolyn Rouse’s sister is Cecilia Rouse, one of the three members of Obama’s first Council of Economic Advisers, Dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, and a well-known economist of education. (Their dad was a physicist with a doctorate from CalTech, their mom was a psychologist, and their brother is a physicist, clearly disproving hereditarian theories of intelligence.) In a 2006 paper, Dean Rouse used the Armed Forces Qualifying Test administered to the 1979 cohort of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth as one of her main data sources.

While she and her coauthor, Lisa Barrow, address in passing the controversy surrounding this data source (and opt to call it a measure of “observed ability” rather than intelligence), they find that controlling for the AFQT produces similar estimates of the returns to education in the workforce across racial groups (see differences between first and second columns below):


The paper’s conclusions, therefore, strongly reinforce the assumption that the AFQT as administered to the NLSY:79 nationally representative cohort was not a racially biased measure of ability.  (Quite aside from the fact that it would be odd and self-defeating for Rouse and Barrow to choose deliberately a measure of ability they believed to be racially biased.) The paper’s descriptive statistics, which show a greater-than-one standard deviation difference between black and white test takers on the AFQT, are the same as Murray’s, which is not surprising, since they are drawn from the identical sample:


Well, nobody agrees with their siblings all of the time.

More seriously, it would be helpful if we could clarify when we are excoriating the purpose of different kinds of argument about race versus excoriating making quantitative observations about race in general.  How much of what we want to call racism is a matter of descriptive belief, and how much is a matter of sympathies?

That is, the reasonable explanation for why Cecilia Rouse does not get into trouble for using the same dataset as Murray and Hernstein is not because she substitutes “observed ability” for the word IQ, but because it is assumed that she does not have ill will towards fellow African Americans and her purpose is not to foment bias against them.

But the existence of malice or affection in our hearts is not knowable to anyone but ourselves, and perhaps not even then.  Freddie DeBoer has argued that acceptance of the reality of individual biological differences, which he considers an obvious concession to empirical reality, can be distinguished from belief in differences along lines of race or sex, which he considers “straightforwardly bigoted”:

With that important caveat, here are some things I believe:

  • That genetics plays a significant role in a variety of human outcomes
  • That biological parentage has a demonstrable impact on a given student’s academic tendencies
  • That parenting style plays a limited role in a child’s personality, and that some portion of our personalities is genetic in its origin.

Here are some things that I don’t believe and that I consider straightforwardly bigoted

  • That different races have inherent advantages or disadvantages in intelligence, however you want to define it
  • That there are consistent gender differences in academic potential, whether generally or in specific fields like math or science
  • That some racial groups are inherently predisposed to aggression or passivity
  • That belief in “human biodiversity,” to use a euphemism popular with race science types, can ever be compatible with a just society.

This seems like an untenable distinction to me, implying that if you read the first half of this review of the hereditary evidence on intelligence by James J Lee of the University of Minnesota you are acquainting yourself with the available evidence, while if you read the second half you will become an irredeemable bigot.

To take an example that is less politically charged but still transgresses DeBoer’s line in the sand, I am quite confident that the difference in reading ability between boys and girls, favoring girls at all age levels and all countries tested, is at least in large part of biological origin and related to innate differences in both visual perception and language ability.


That does not mean that we would give up on teaching boys to read and write. Some of them grow up to be able to read and write perfectly well! But it does mean that we would expect first grade teachers to have different sets of worries for boys who reverse their letters and numbers than for girls, and not to make teachers or school psychologists feel like bigots for violating DeBoer’s precepts above. Recognizing biological differences, and recognizing that they are unlikely wholly to disappear, does not mean that we can’t do anything in response to them, even knowing they are not going to go away.

Obviously, intelligence, and intellectual achievement, have a special place in our culture. Perhaps because of our diminishing religiosity, we have a great deal of trouble saying that each of us is morally equal and has claim to be equal before the law without saying that we are each equally smart. Still more, the racial history of the country is not something that can waved away and dismissed. I have my own misgivings about whether “observed ability” on tests is indeed the same as intelligence, broadly defined, and the scope of African-American cultural achievement over the last three centuries would seem to put the lie to any theory of racial superiority or inferiority- people are better and worse at different things.

But all of that is ancillary to the question of whether people can discuss the fundamental questions of our society at all. Last year, the President of Brown University formally censured the school newspaper for publishing student columns that included the “incorrect notion that biological differences exist between races.”

Come on. The nature and consequences of biological differences between races may be in doubt, but the existence of differences at all? Even if you think differences are only in visible outward characteristics, there is a reason my kids have darker skin and curlier hair than me. And for people trying to improve public health (like, say, students at Brown University’s medical school) differences in physiological function are large enough to be clinically important and dangerous to ignore.

There is no good answer to how much the divisions within the society should be laid bare and made open to public debate- more than none, and less than all, I think. But the escalating attempts by elite institutions to control language and force a single set of perceptions onto society seem to me a failure not only at capturing truth but in an instrumental purpose of promoting a cohesive society.



Charles Murray knew what he was getting into when he wrote the book. Berkeley students protested Arthur Jensen in almost identical circumstances, for example, in 1969. Moreover, it’s hard to argue Murray has even suffered greatly for his supposed transgression-  like El Guapo in the Three Amigos, Murray has, thanks to The Bell Curve, become so famous he’s infamous.

For better and often for worse, the rest of us now have the anonymity of the Internet on which to air these issues, along with the occasional private conversation. Perhaps Carolyn Rouse can discuss them with her sister over Christmas Break.



9 thoughts on “When You Say Tomato and Your Sister Says Tomahto

  1. Also notice how Rouse cites the $PLC at the bottom of the flier. The $PLC page on Murray which comes from their “extremist file” is pathetic; they call him a “white nationalist” and talk about the pioneer fund.


  2. I look forward to a day on which we can be reasonable about this topic in public, but I am not at all confident that that day will come. Human neurological conformity is the fundamental faith of the western secular religion (sort of). I strongly suspect that our elites believe that “underprivileged minorities” are biologically underprivileged, but that that makes them “better,” and so pointing out those biological differences is singularly “bad.” Compare this to the way that many adults of the current era are intensely reluctant to give negative feedback to children.


    1. It seems to me that we should think about why we don’t need the idea of uniformity in order to argue for equality before the law and equal citizenship. This is not only because of the pace of genetic research, but also because artificial intelligence is making us all obsolete faster than not. Of course, it’s also possible that the very fact that we will be living in a world driven by and managed by algorithms will allow us to keep human differences away from our conscious awareness, using the methods of technocracy to institute laws that are unequal in application even while preserving the illusion of equality.


      1. It’s not just equality before the law, and equal citizenship, and equality of opportunity that matter in our democracy, but also the idea that everybody’s happiness is of equal interest when it comes to government policy. For instance, as I know you know perfectly well, that’s why current trade and immigration policies are so wrong: they harm the life chances of the least-skilled and most vulnerable segments of the population, African Americans above all.

        What we should be aiming for is a society in which anyone “who works hard and plays by the rules” (to use Bill Clinton’s excellent formulation) should have a decent chance to lead a good life. That has become increasingly difficult over the past half-century for the left-hand side of the Bell Curve (in fact the left 75% of the Bell Curve). (I have a book coming out soon that will address this problem, but I’ll save that for another time.)

        But there is one subsidiary point I would like to make: If we could in fact achieve a society in which anyone who works hard and plays be the rules has a good chance to lead a rich and fulfilling life, a lot of the racial strife in this society would disappear. It wouldn’t matter so much who got into the Ivy League, was hired as a firefighter, or who your daughter (or, in your case, you) married, etc.. At least I think this would be the case.


  3. I suppose the solution is to form a battalion of Arctic Warriors from a band of brothers regardless of tolerance of cold and inability to acquire Vitamin D and skin contrast with the snow (maybe colour the snow) and have them ski across the North Pole and bite the Big Bad Bear!

    Equally, the world is crying out for a team of malaria resistant yellow fever chomping good ol’ boys n gals eager to convert “The Horror, the Horror!” of the Congo into the African Augusta.

    Liked by 1 person

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