Friday, July 10, 2009

IQ, Temperament and 'Meritocracy'

If you've actually read Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein's The Bell Curve, you understand how the many merits of the book were obscured by an unfortunate (if necessary) controversy over their discussion of the hereditary component of intelligence.

My own encounter with the book was unusual. I had followed the journalistic controversy over The Bell Curve, especially in The New Republic, where then-editor Andrew Sullivan insisted that Murray and Herrnstein should not be peremptorily dismissed as crackpot eugenicists. I sided strongly with the book's enemies, accepting their descriptions of the book's ideas and (implied) purposes.

However, after that controversy died down, I found myself in a furious online argument with a white separatist (Dennis Wheeler) who used The Bell Curve to justify his views. I regurgitated the criticisms of the book that I had absorbed from the journalistic discussions, and Wheeler replied: "Have you actually read the book?"

This is the kind of challenge that always gets my goat. My encyclopedic reading habit is a point of pride, and this guy had played the trump card. So I read the book and was surprised to find it far more reasonable in tone and modest in its conclusions than its critics had been willing to admit. Of course, The Bell Curve does not justify, advocate or endorse the kind of racialist doctrine that Wheeler was promoting, and his belief that it did so was evidence of his own inferior understanding.

Having read the book, I re-read the earlier criticism and realized that, of all Murray and Herrnstein's critics, only Thomas Sowell had really laid a glove on them, by arguing that the influences of heredity and culture were hard to untangle in seeking the causes of general differences in groups. Ergo, we need not suppose that such differences are fixed and permanent, even if -- and here, Sowell sided with Murray and Herrnstein -- we agree that the coercive egalitarianism of the liberal welfare state is not an effective means of addressing these differences.

However, the entirety of the controversy over what Murray and Herrnstein said about hereditary and race was a horrible distraction from what was, to me, the most revealing part of their book: How the democratization of educational opportunity and the near-universality of intelligence testing (the SAT and other standardized aptititude tests function, at some basic level, as IQ tests) had resulted in a revolution in American socio-economic class structure.

Tyranny of the Meritocrats
The specific sort elitism that I routinely excoriate here -- e.g., in my recent treatment of David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan -- is based on an overinterpretation of The Bell Curve as misguided as Dennis Wheeler's racialist doctrine. The errors of Brooks and Sullivan can be summed up in a single word: "meritocracy."

In the first two chapters of The Bell Curve, Murray and Herrnstein discuss a series of related points:
  • (a) Higher education has become widely available without regard to wealth or social class;
  • (b) Elite institutions (especially the Ivy League schools) have begun to recruit bright students on a nationwide basis;
  • (c) Standardized testing has enabled the early identification of bright children, who are routinely "tracked" into college-preparatory curricula;
  • (d) The Information Age has placed an economic premium on intelligence, so that the super-bright graduates of elite institutions are recruited for the most lucrative occupations;
  • (e) As a result of these trends, a phenemenon called "cognitive partition" has taken hold, so that the smart and the rich have less and less social interaction with the dumb and the poor; and
  • (f) Increasingly, poverty and failure are tantamount to proof of stupidity, while wealth and success are proof of genius.
My characterizations of The Bell Curve's arguments in points (e) and (f) are hyperbolic overinterpretations, of course, but hardly an exaggeration of the elitist conclusions that Sully and Brooks evidently drew from their readings of the book.

If you have read both The Bell Curve and Brooks' Bobos in Paradise, you know how he applied Murray and Herrnstein's ideas -- in a light, breezy, humorous way -- to his study of the lifestyles of the emerging overclass. And every time Sullivan savages Sarah Palin, you are witnessing an expression of Sully's certainty that no one who attended a community college and graduated from a state university can be more fit to govern than a true "meritocrat" like Barack Obama.

Whatever her SAT score, Palin has failed to jump through the proper institutional hoops necessary for validation as a member of the congnitive elite that Sullivan, Brooks & Co. recognize as the only legitimate governing class.

This view amounts to a repeal of the American founding. If the graduates of elite institutions are exclusively qualified to govern, then most citizens are thereby adjudged incapable of the self-governance which was the ideal of the Founders.

Furthermore, the Sully-Brooks interpretation denies the equality of the states, for Oklahoma produces fewer National Merit Scholars than do Massachusetts and Connecticut, and therefore Sen. Tom Coburn and his constituents are politically inferior to Sen. Chris Dodd or Sen. John Kerry and their constituents.

Finally and most importantly, the Sully-Brooks "meritocracy" theory tends toward the negation of local self-government and the endorsement of unconstitutional centralization of power in Washington, since the national government attracts the "best and brightest" (the meritocrats who are fit to govern) in a way that the governments of Texas or Tennessee cannot.

The Flaw in 'Meritocracy'
What the Sully-Brooks interpretation fails to take into account are (a) imperfections in the screening systems that drive cognitive partition, and (b) the non-cognitive factors that might discourage participation in the system.

It never occurs to the elitists that someone qualified for membership in the meritocracy (i.e., anyone with a 98th-percentile IQ, a category that includes more than 4 million American adults) would reject an invitation to join their club, but many do.

Not every kid who scores well on standardized tests decides to orient his life toward graduating at the top of his high school class and attending an elite university. Those who elect to follow that treadmill of "gifted" programs and honors classes, who grind for an all-A average and organize their extra-curricular activities with an eye toward how it will look on their applications to Harvard, can be said to differ from other children (including children of equal or greater intelligence) in terms of temperament.

The Sully-Brooks "meritocratic" theory ignores the influence of temperament in the operation of the cognitive partition system. Our public education system, after all, is not operated by geniuses. As The Bell Curve points out, education majors are, on average, the stupidest category of college graduates.

An education system dominated by such mental mediocrities inevitably tends to reward the compliant, the obedient, the natural-born conformists with an appetite for regimentation. A few years spent covering the education beat, combined with my own experiences as a public-school student, convinced me that many of our brightest students are essentially "lost" by the system because of this factor.

The more perceptive the student, the more likely he is to perceive that the educational system is run by time-serving bureaucrats, and that the system's rules are designed chiefly for the convience of the bureaucracy, with intellectual excellence not even a secondary consideration in the process. It is not a justification of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to note that both of them were very bright, and that Columbine High was fairly typical of the large surburban "comprehensive" high school where so many other very bright teenagers develop a contempt for the education system that is no less thorough for being less violent.

Elitism as Self-Congratulation
Considerations of temperament -- the possibility that some children simply don't have the appetite for apple-polishing necessary to become a valedictorian -- are just one factor omitted from elitist notions of meritocracy.

A very bright student with athletic aptitude, for example, might spend time working on his jump shot or his curveball, rather than spending his extracurricular moments studying SAT vocabulary words or improving his prose composition skills. Intelligence and wisdom are not synonyms, love makes fools of many, and even a genius might be foolish enough to employ his after-school hours in pursuit of romance.

Given the hypercompetitive pressures increasingly applied to the admissions process at elite schools -- pressures applied, in many cases, by parents who use their children as symbols of vicarious achievement -- a laser-like focus on scholastic performance allows the would-be Yalie or Princetonian little room for distraction. A brilliant childhood buddy of mine (who went to Emory) enjoyed automotive tinkering. How many Ivy Leaguers have ever installed a custom camshaft in an old Chevy?

This, of course, doesn't even begin to confront the "meritocratic" myth that socioeconomic class no longer presents obstacles to the bright-but-poor student's admission to elite schools. Legacy admissions afford an important advantage to the children of alumni, and there is no point in a student applying for admission to a school that he could never afford to attend. (My own daughter was offered scholarships we couldn't afford for her to accept.)

For all the talk of "diversity" at elite schools, their student bodies are overhwelmingly composed of young people from affluent backgrounds whose adolescence was consumed by a single-minded devotion to the goal of being admitted to a top university. It is their affluence and precocious ambition, rather than intelligence per se, that distinguishes them. Having excelled in bookish ambition, members of this elite then congratulate themselves on the proof of their superiority to others: Je suis un meritocrat!

This self-congratulatory intepretation of The Bell Curve is, I would argue, far more politically dangerous than the racialist doctrines of Dennis Wheeler and his ilk. The conceit of our soi-disant meritocrats tends toward a contempt for the ordinary citizen, a sensibility of intellectual exclusiveness where the elite address their arguments only to their meritocratic peers, while offering only dumbed-down propaganda to "the masses," who are presumed as incapable of comprehending elite arguments as they are incompetent for self-government.

Over the past several months, some have denounced my populism -- including my support for Sarah Palin -- as purely a function of chip-on-the-shoulder resentment of my "betters." Excuse me for having failed previously to explain the real political danger that I mean to oppose. When the Palinistas defend their heroine against the Sullivans, Brookses and Parkers, they are expressing a small-d democratic conception of politics that is instinctively mistrustful of the elitist approach to governance.

Whatever one says pro or con about Palin, I believe the anti-elitist impulses of the Palinistas are valid and legitimate. Their "populist" resentments are entirely justified by the undemocratic beliefs and practices of the snobs who pat themselves on the back by celebrating the hegemony of a phony "meritocracy."


  1. RS,

    What is funny is how the Left (and the Country Club Right) are both arguing for an American Aristocrcy that allows those "Not Our Kind," to have their families attacked. Just like Palin, if they step out of the box, it is the elites (and their bloodhounds) who want to keep the great unwashed away from power.

    Check out Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, Chapter 4: The Trouble with Geniuses, part 2. Then tell me there is no class structure 9as evidenced by Sullivan, et. al) in America. And last I checked, Ivy Universities did not support in finacial terms or by votes, either Bush or McCain.

    And if the Ivies were so damn smart, why is the Unemployment rising during one of the so-called smartest Presidents term?

  2. Brilliant, sir.

  3. Spot on!

    My personal experience, is instructive, I think. I was a National Merit Finalist and scored 1590s on my SATs. I was recruited by and could have gone to any college in the country. In high school, my desire was to go to MIT and get my PhD in Physics and finish the Unified Field Theory that Einstein had tried and failed to develop.

    I couldn't afford to go to MIT (or Stanford, my second choice) so I ended up going to a midwestern public college. Shortly after arriving at said college, I discovered how viciously political academia really was. One's success in academia has nothing whatsoever to do with one's ability or work ethic, but everything to do with one's ability to brown-nose, back-stab and kiss a$$. Conformity was the name of the game.

    I was always independent-minded, so conformity was never my strong suit. Eventually, I discovered that the nascent field of Computer Science was far less political than most. After four and a half years, I graduated with BS in Computer Science and BA in the Philosophy of Science. I turned my back on academia forever.

    I've gone on to a very successful career as a software engineer and high-tech entrepreneur. I've found the business world to be ethical and appreciative of talent and hard work in a way that academia can not match. Occasionally, you DO run into the sleazy, the lazy or the incompetent, but they are not the norm. Invariably, the sleaziest seem to come from Ivy League schools. Harvard MBAs are the worst of all, combining sleaze, incompetence and arrogance in an unholy trinity unmatched by any other school.

    I consider myself an intellectual and I have continued my education in fields such as history, political science, economics and philosophy through my voracious reading habit.

    Living in the Bay Area, I often run into so-called highly educated people that simply stun me with their lack of knowledge about their own fields. I've run into History professors who don't know who the Carthaginians were or where the Peloponnese are. I've run into Economics PhDs who've never read Schumpeter or von Mises or Hayek. I've run into PhD candidates in Philosophy who've never read Aristotle.

    The "meritocracy" is a sham. They do not select for ability or work ethic or any kind of merit. Instead, they select for conformity,
    intellectual inertia and moral ambiguity.

    The true meritocrcy is the business world.

  4. Posted by K~Bob, posing as Anonymous to get past the "helpful" comment tool.
    Stacy, this entry is exactly what the "Brooks column" of the Republican party needs to read, and find some way to comprehend. Unfortunately it is difficult to add something to the tiny worldview held by the mind of an elitist.

    Depending on which schools are inclusive of the "A" list of an elitist, room exists for only about six-to-twenty thousand freshmen each year--more if you include the next tier. Unfortunately the top tier kids have a sense of clubbishness that does not totally extend to that next rank (otherwise known as "second place"). Because of the limited class size, the top schools have to find some way of choosing who is, and who is not, eligible. Having the best grades in your class and being valedictorian are not enough, since that would still leave too many from which to choose.

    So they introduce "other factors". These "other factors" are biased toward those who favor community organizing over such mundane interests as curing cancer or being a young history scholar.

    Meanwhile an interesting pair of phenomena have occurred since the writing of the Bell Curve. Our population has undergone a phase change due to overall increase in college-eligible kids and the availability of information to them. The other phenomenon is also a phase change: locally-increasing political power bases, supported by vastly more money (thanks to ridiculous tax increases). The locally-increasing power bases have caused the building of more and more community colleges (and other colleges) which have increased dramatically in quality. In short, we have far more kids who are bright, and far more colleges to which they can go. (Many of these community colleges feature professors "moonlighting" from their jobs at higher-ranked schools.)

    The elites are unable to contend with these two phenomena because they are constrained by geography and by their infrastructure. This is one reason why the elites did not produce iPhones. In fact, the elites do not appear to excel over the general population of college graduates in any notable way other than rank "clubbishness." I doubt seriously the elites are aware of how well-read is the population at large. Being part of a network of people who have read the same books is of little value in today's world. Intellectually, it's a bit backward.

    I know several kids who are gifted musicians while also being brilliant inventors who have spend their own time studying history and literature just because it's available to them. They aren't impressed with trying to be elitists who went to "the right schools." I'd bet that, in my town, with four high schools, I could easily find enough kids to match the "qualifications" of the entire freshman class of any elite institution.

    The fall of the newspapers, the rise of citizen writers, and the overall increase in smart kids with access to more information has reduced the influence of people like Mr. Brooks. As Martha would say, "That's a good thing."

  5. The biggest threat posed by the current system of "meritocracy" is the fact that the government is ever more being run as a conspiracy by the the meritocracy against the mass of American citizens. A gaggle of brown-nosing pettifogging teacher's pets take charge of the legislative process and pass a bunch of laws and regulations that require an average citizen to either waste hours of his time crossing t's and dotting i's like they did at Haahhvahhd or prostrate himself before his "betters" in order to keep from running afoul of the law. The government exists solely to make us all dependent on the over-educated class that runs it.

    This is really why the future of the Republican party is so bleak. At the end of the day even if some Republicans have philosophical differences with Democrats, they are nonetheless part of the over-educated meritocracy. Their welfare as a class depends on ensnaring more and more Americans in tedious and incomprehensible red tape so that their future employment (and that of their legacy admit children) is assured.

  6. Stacy,

    I am a fan of your blog-fu advice (even though I'm not very good at implementing it). If it's not a trade secret, mind telling us how long it took you to put together these 1800 words?

  7. I cannot and will not try to compete with your other posters, so I will cut to the chase. Lincoln was SELF EDUCATED and yet he is widely considered to be one of our best Presidents. He was a LEADER who understood the complexities of governance and the moral imperative to demand equality. His thought in the Gettysburg Address that "government of the people, by the people, for the people" underscores his commitment to ALL members of the Union. The thought that some educational elites could govern better than anyone else would never have crossed his mind. And I doubt if he would have scored well on the SAT exam.

  8. The stories I could tell. I'll settle for one- I was in the gifted program in high school (late 70's) before dropping out and going to community college and UCLA. The gifted history teacher did a mock trial every year, of Harry Truman for war crimes for dropping the atomic bombs. The suckups went for the prosecution of course, and that is out "elite."

  9. Wait. Come on. "My encyclopedic reading is a point of pride," Robert? But wait. You're against elistism, eh right? And especially against "Elistism as Self-Congratulation"?

    ...You are, in fact, far whinier, far more self-obsessed, far more impressed by your own intelligence... than any of the non-existent strawman elitists that you decry. The next time you can make it through five blogs without blathering on about what a supposed smarty-pants you are, you let me know.

    Still looking forward to it, chief.

  10. ...And sorry for not commenting under the right account; there are about ten options. I always randomly choose a different one.

    Eh what, Robert?

  11. There is another fallacy to the elitist attitude - that is an assumption of shared value system. Being super smart does not mean that you oppose gun ownership, or support abortion, or disdain Christians.

    I'm a 99th percentile guy, with a Univ of Chicago Ph.D., and I hate the coasts, I love gsuburbs and guns, I'm deighted with my Christians neighbors and relatives, and I think hunting and the Wisonsin Dells are cool.

  12. This is one of your most important posts ever. Well worth spreading this logic around.
    I had a rule during my time in academia: the worth of a researcher was proportional to the time it took to say they were from an elite institution. I met some smart people, including Nobel Prize winners, and others with great pedigrees I would not trust with a burnt out match.
    If a scientist bragged the head of their Ph.D. granting research group was part of a Nobel Laureate research group (i.e. the scientist was 2 generations from a Nobel), they had ego/ performance mismatch issues for sure.

    NaCly dog

  13. The grades of the elites usually are dictated by the students and their parents. Or they are non sequiturs because the "students" will accede to their father's/mother's tony firm no matter what. There is no meritocracy to it, usually. Threats yes, merit rarely.

    Look at the product. Merit?

    When our son was at West Point, a true meritocracy, he spent a weekend at Dartmouth for a team sports event. Domiciled with the students there. Was shocked they were drunk all weekend and said they drank all week and who cares, they have assured jobs with dad's or mom's firm when they graduate no matter their performance. Geithner? Merit? BS!

  14. That's right on the mark. In particular the sentence "... so that the smart and the rich have less and less social interaction with the dumb and the poor"

    I think this source of the attraction by boutique conservatives to Obama. The effects of the welfare state on black america, and the rise in the cost of colleges, have made conservative elites to (1) accept the liberal premises regarding blacks (welfare wards), (2) adoring an ivy league black left-winger that can assuage their white guilt.

    Obviously there is more than that, but that particular sentence struck me as being the thread that can explain the adoration of the Obamacons to the BHO.

    Once again, RSM, you are all over this.

  15. Let me suggest that that the real target in this essay is elitism: a very small percentage of people with similar socioeconomic profiles, whose kids attend a dozen or so universities and marry each other, end up running things. Dog bites man; when has it not been so?

    An attack on the meritocratic possibilities available in this country is to imply a better alternative, but I'm stumped to find one.

    I'm a humanities professor from dirt-poor rural Midwestern roots, with an NRA membership, battery of firearms, sophisticated tastes, and a populist chip on my shoulder as heavy as anyones. I scorn the pretensions of the elites. But I'll guess that you, most of the readers here, and I agree we have accomplished what we have in life because of our abilities and ambitions, not because of silver-spoon gifts or who our parents happened to be.

    This brings to mind a comment from Madison in Federalist 10. "The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties."

    The readers of this blog all hail from the right side of the bell curve of intelligence. We are part of the cognitive elite, and most of us likely owe our social roles to the working meritocracy we have here. What we can't stand is the sneering of the self-appointed elites, not the opportunities for self advancement.

  16. The other problem with this meritocracy is that it leads its members to believe that "because I'm bright, I must be right", which is after all what they have learned by being successful in school. This attitude results in severe congnitive dissonance when they see people they consider their intellectual superiors (such as businessman) who are more successful ($) in the world then they are. Therefore there must be something wrong with the way the world is ordered, and of course the bright people are just the ones to reorder the world. The fact that they live and work in physical and cultural enclaves of like-minded people only reinforces their feelings of superiority. Google David Gelernter's excellent essay "How the Intellectuals Took Over". We have two Americas now, and one hates the others guts.

  17. Still using "Anonymous" because "Name/URL" doesn't work, K~Bob posted this:
    After reading Peggy Noonan's latest hack job on Palin over at WSJ, I'd like to add one more thing:

    A degree from an elite school is no excuse for stupidity. I hope the Republicans can find some people with intelligence to replace the worn out "intellectuals" dragging their party into the ditch.

  18. RES posting as anonymous:

    What the meritocrats fail to perceive is the quandry posed by the question of comparative intelligence of dogs and cats. Typically dogs are accorded higher intelligence in large part in consequence of their willingness, even eagerness, to please their masters through compliance with the testing process. Cats, OTOH, are inclined to yawn and, if sufficiently pestered to perform a task, inform you where you can put your intelligence tests.

    As RSM says, temperament matters.

    A further complicating factor arises from the way in which most educational testing rewards for providing the expected answer. Best example of such I've ever heard of was the young girl who, when asked to define the difference between a sub and a fish, advised that a sub had oil & vinegar while a fish was served with mayo.

    It is prudent to keep in mind that an "expert" is merely someone who has mastered the conventional wisdom. And therefore an expert has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

  19. as someone said over there self-educated people may find a higher knowledge level, specially with a real concern about the priorities for its life, I was homeschooled and now I'm a college teacher, the key of all? a quality customized digital textbooks , itsn't an issue how somebody became "expert" what really matter is what a person may offer to the world coming out from his brain.

  20. Cut to the chase here: this is Social Darwinism with a fresh coat of paint and Dymo® tape over the VIN.

    For those caring to experience the phenomenon first-hand and blatant, consult a blog by a fellow posting as "Half Sigma". No, I'm not going to link the racist, Social Darwinist ***hole, but I do go there once in a while just for the amusement value (BTW, he claims to be a New York Republican, and I believe it).


  21. It never occurs to the elitists that someone qualified for membership in the meritocracy would reject an invitation to join their club, but many do.

    As Groucho Marx (?) said, I don't want to join any club that would have me for a member. :-)