From Charles Murray, Thought-Provoking Words. Now What?

Here, in a Cato podcast featuring Charles Murray,we are presented with a troubling—and, I think, accurate diagnosis of a growing problem within American society. Murray worries that because of increasing social isolation and a removal from actual rather than remote and virtual life experiences, the American public is losing touch with core values essential to what makes this culture unique and productive.

The interview is 15 minutes, and raises two issues. The first is what Murray is directly discussing. The second is whether someone like Murray raising them can have any positive impact at all. Charles Murray is a bête noire. of the Left. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls him a white nationalist. Many liberals regard him as a racist. I have read many of his works: I would call him someone who makes a good living pointing out unpleasant theories that wouldn’t help us solve society’s problems even if we could prove they are true.

Essentially, Murray’s most controversial work posits that successful people are, as a group, smarter than unsuccessful people. I think this is intrinsically obvious, but there are many ways this offends progressive cant, which holds that the poor are only poor because they have been disadvantaged by an oppressive power structure, and that, given the same “privileges” as more successful Americans, they would be just as successful. The problem with Murray’s various theses is that they can be employed to support racism, and appear to justify prejudice. Murray says in his books and essays repeatedly that the fact that a given group may have certain genetic advantages over another means nothing regarding any individual within those groups. Agreed: so why, in this country, with its values and dedication to individual rights, should anyone care about, study or discuss “group differences”?

Even without this baggage, which Murray has worked hard for and wears like a badge of honor, he would still be a public intellectual. For the most part, the only people who listen to public intellectuals are other intellectuals, public or otherwise,or non-intellectuals who uncritically accept what public intellectuals say when their positions seem consistent with what the non-intellectuals already believe. In the podcast, Murray calls for the societal elites to lead a new awakening of mindfulness and a values-centered existence. Easy-Peezy!

How? What? Who? When?

Who from the other side of the ideological spectrum will heed a call from Charles Murray? What good does a podcast like this do? Isn’t it just high-level virtue-signalling and preaching to the choir?

Let me know what you think.


Pointer: texaggo4

15 thoughts on “From Charles Murray, Thought-Provoking Words. Now What?

      • Totally understand the workload.

        Maybe if people would listen to the podcast we could have some good commentaries. I’ll even need to listen to it again before commenting.

        I do think his comments regarding American civic life in the podcast are valuable can be analyzed and discussed independently of any commentary he’s made in the past that has raised the ire of progressives. But yes, good point, what good is a message if an audience has already disregarded wholly the messenger?

  1. I don’t know if Murray is a racist. I think he definitely isn’t a white nationalist–I’ve never seen anyone quote him as arguing that we need to keep whites the majority in the United States, or advocate for any other policies typical of white nationalists. In fact, from what I’ve seen (and granted, I haven’t read his work, just summaries of it from leftists and rightists), he takes pains to say his work doesn’t imply any necessary policies at all. I think his reliance on IQ data renders most of his work irrelevant to me. His more hysterical critics are doing more to make racism seem normal than Murray is, IMO.

    As for the last question, couldn’t you ask the same of this blog? The only people who are going to take anything from what you do are those already willing to consider ethics seriously and overcome bias. But the only way we know who those people are is to try and reach them.

    • The last question would only be like this blog IF enough people have made up their minds that Jack is an unreliable messenger or that Jack is hopelessly biased. Though many have made up their minds in that regard, most either have not made up their minds that he is are have made up their minds that he actively fights his biases and is indeed, quite a reliable messenger.

    • Sure, except that there are a lot more people who take ethics seriously than who take public intellectuals seriously. And if you call me an intellectual, I’ll hit you with my Spike Jones collection…

  2. I loved your line, ‘Agreed: so why, in this country, with its values and dedication to individual rights, should anyone care about, study or discuss “group differences”?’

    I listened to a lot of punk rock growing up in the 80’s/90’s, and still remember the Bad Religion hook, ‘Now everybody equal, just don’t measure it’. I’m also reminded of a professor I had in a upper level mathematical logic class describing a new system we were working with. He pointed out this system was the most democratic one as it lacked the concept of equality. If we just stop measuring outcomes we can say everyone is equal, or maybe if we lack the concept of what equal means we can finally treat people fairly.

    To answer more generally your question, scientist study, discuss, measure, and experiment with concepts and ideas exactly because they don’t know if they will be useful or meaningful. You can’t come to the conclusion that group differences have no meaningful impact on an individual level until you have done the research, asked the questions, and considered the evidence.

    Further, a lot of social science is explicitly researching how groups of people interact, change, behave, and function for the sake of better understanding the complete human condition. It’s all fine and well to understand physiologically how and why humans behave on an individual level, but humans are pack animals with social hierarchies literally coded into our genetics. Ignoring/opposing research into groups because they may lead to unpleasant or politically incorrect findings, or uncover truths that run counter to some American ideal of individualism strikes me as much a much scarier and more dangerous proposition than the original research on group IQ differences.

  3. Jack,

    I think you mean a bête noire.

    so why, in this country, with its values and dedication to individual rights, should anyone care about, study or discuss “group differences”?

    As you note, there is an ideology with a vested interest in claiming that all disparities between demographic groups in our society are the result of invidious discrimation embedded in our national fabric. The differences between these groups are superficial and meaningless, and are broadly attributable to the historical and ongoing oppression of non-dominant (non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-educated, non-wealthy) demographic groups by the dominant group. This injustice is best resolved by a deliberate plan of redistributing wealth, representation, and power away from the dominant group and toward the non-dominant groups.

    Along comes Murray, who blows up this narrative by providing evidence of real, meaningful, and persistent differences between these groups, on average, that are not explained by systemic oppression. The ideological diagnosis is wrong, and the policy prescription isn’t working—if we really wish to provide the best basis for success to these non-dominant groups, if we really wish to make our nation a better place for all citizens, we must pursue a different course. I think that contribution was very valuable.

    You’re right the Murray’s call won’t change the minds of any meaningful number of people. But I don’t think that’s mostly his fault. Public intellectuals are broadly listened to when their area of expertise isn’t caught up in sociopolitical controversies. In Murray’s area of expertise, the well was poisoned before he even came along. It was already a matter of political orthodoxy in leftish circles that there could be no innate differences between demographic groups, and even the mere suggestion was racism, sexism, etc.

    • Fixed it: stupid French.

      I was blocked from going to class by protests when this issue was first brooked, and the whole scientific community denounced the research. Scholars and researchers are going to seek knowledge, and even knowledge for its own sake. I don’t blame the scientists who examined this,but I appreciate the arguments that say the research does more damage than good, especially given the dubious definitions of intelligence, the complexity of character, the vicissitudes of luck, and perhaps most of all, the questionable value of IQ as a definitive measurement of anything.

  4. Anything that Charles Murray has to say is worth listening to. It’s well-reasoned, logical, and provocative: similar to your posts, Jack! His arguments are always buttressed with data. You may question the hypothesis being advanced and maybe the methodology – this is sociology, a soft science, not physics, being validated, but he has still has the better arguments. Why else would he be essentially barred from college campuses?

    I thought in the podcast Murray had a tendency to wander. He started out by examining how we fritter away our spare time on the many excellent diversions out there and become less socially engaged (his next book?), while bemoaning the lack of drive, maturity, and responsibility that is dramatically widening the gap between rich and poor – across races – today (his last books). His project, it seems to me, has always been about the two classes, the widening between them, and what causes them. Though he uses IQ, SES, social stability, media, and maybe identity politics, the problems underlying them are structural, hence largely resistant to policy changes (head start, wealth redistribution) or quick fixes (raising taxes on the one percenters).

    Almost with the first college class – English 101 – back from the service, I cut my teeth on a debate over IQ in an article by Richard Herrnstein. My teacher, a Wellesley grad, noted its controversial nature, but wanted us to examine the author’s arguments, which boiled down to this: IQ is predictive of success. Higher socioeconomic status individuals tended to marry those same people, had children who were raised and educated along the same lines, and they married … you get the picture. Those from the lower SES would marry (or have children) within their own group which would move them in the opposite direction. He theorized back in the late 60s – early 70s – that we were headed towards two classes of society in which a sort of meritocracy reigned. This was troubling to her, to us, and the author back then. Now it seems much more obvious and troubling today. Charles Murray would find little to disagree with here and seemed the logical co-author for the Bell Curve. And most scientists today would agree that there is a genetic component to intelligence, though whether it’s IQ, or how much, and what gives you the added edge in this especially competitive world – nurture, persistence, luck – is open to question.

    Let me say I don’t buy the IQ argument categorically, else why would there be so few success stories coming out of the Mensa camp! But IQ was supposed to measure success in school, and that got you a long way up: a ticket to the best schools, a good job, a suitable mate, and today especially, an elite position in society from which you can safely criticize the world, while signaling your virtue.

    Thanks to Texagg04 & Jack for pointing the way.

    • Hmmm… that theory could explain California’s decades long fall from grace.

      Beautiful, superficial, lower IQ people migrate to Hollywood, marry each other and have kids that reinforce those characteristics. Those kids marry each other, and so on. This started over 100 years, or 5 generations ago.


  5. I deconstructed the entire “danger” in establishing trends across groups of people in my How Not to be a Bigot article. Essentially, the only reason that genuine statistics can be dangerous is that people are often looking for an excuse to place themselves ahead of others without putting in any effort. That’s where generalizations, prejudice, and bigotry of all kinds often comes from.

    I agree with the idea that group trait theories do not provide solutions. However, they might help identify aspects of a problem. If a culture scores worse on certain intellectual tests, it may be that the culture is undervaluing certain thinking skills or fails to instill them. Identifying specific thinking skills the lack of which holds people back is where I come in.

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