Charles Murray Returns, Nodding to Caution but Still Courting Controversy - 2020-02-12
As with "The Bell Curve," we will have to wait for peer reviews to carefully sift through the science. Early indications might indicate some trouble for Murray. Last month, the psychologists Michelle N. Meyer, Patrick Turley and Daniel J. Benjamin issued a sharp rebuke to his use of their research on polygenic scores in his piece for The Wall Street Journal teasing the new book. He characterized polygenic scores as providing decisive insight into I.Q. that was "impervious to racism and other forms of prejudice." In fact, the psychologists assert in response, "polygenic scores can and do reflect racism, sexism or other prejudices, as well as more benign environmental factors."
Murray serenely rolls out his propositions, assuring us on occasion that it is all "consensus," "securely known." And yet several claims are plainly contentious, even to the lay reader. Take Murray"s description of male brains as "systemizers" and female brains as "empathizers," drawing on work of the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen. Men are drawn to things, in other words, and women to people. (You'll recognize this terminology from James Damore's diversity letter to Google.) This rubric becomes an organizing principle in the book, explaining the typically gendered vocations for men and women (Things Jobs and People Jobs). What Murray avoids discussing are the profound questions surrounding one of the studies that scaffold his thinking.
In 2000, Baron-Cohen and colleagues published a study of day-old babies that found that boys looked at mobiles longer (hence "systemizers") and girls at faces ("empathizers"). This study has never been replicated, not even by Baron-Cohen. It was also poorly designed: for one, some of the newborns were propped up; their gaze might have been mediated by how they were held. Not to mention the core question, as posed by the psychologist Cordelia Fine, who has written extensively about bias in research on sex differences in the brain: "Why think that what a newborn prefers to look at provides any kind of window, however grimy, into their future abilities and interests?"