January 26, 2007

Ideology and scientific inquiry are strange bedfellows in advancing policy

Last week, Charles Murray published a three-part series of editorials in The Wall Street Journal arguing that education reform can do very little to improve the test scores of below-average students, that more young adults should choose vocational school instead of college, and that education should ultimately serve to make the brightest brighter. While not out of line with his past arguments, the editorials have nonetheless brought back to prominence one of the most controversial members of the nature-nurture debate in the past 50 years. His career is a prime example of a perpetual struggle in intellectual thought that is never fully resolved: the struggle to separate political opinions from intellectual beliefs.

Murray jumped into the spotlight after he coauthored The Bell Curve with Richard Herrnstein. In that book, he argued that students with poor test scores, primarily low-income and minority students, cannot be successful, and educational policy should adjust accordingly. The Bell Curve inspired several death threats against Murray and prompted bomb threats to places where he spoke. Clearly, these leftist protestors were not really exhibiting the life of the mind.

But is Murray exhibiting it either? Unlike Herrnstein, Murray is not an academic; he is a fellow at a prominent conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute. While academics aim to be descriptive, Murray is clearly prescriptive and uses his research to back his predetermined political views. As a result, his intellectual legitimacy is somewhat compromised. For instance, he argues that intelligence, what evolutionary psychologists term the G factor, is a single, uniform unit that is inherited at birth. However, in modern cognitive psychology that position is controversial. The chief academic supporter of G is none other than Murray’s conservative counterpart, Richard Herrnstein.

Furthermore, his biological justification for his arguments against education reform for the poor hold no more weight than those of conservative politicians who say “it’s in the genes.” Though evolutionary psychologists agree that intelligence is mostly inherited, G can be affected by a change in the environmental settings. If height, a genetically determined phenomenon, can change drastically after a change in diet, why can’t G change with better qualified teachers and curriculum reform?

While Murray stands out among intellectuals for his political biases, the same can be said of those on the other side of this debate. Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, two of the leading evolutionary biologists of the 20th century, offered a theory of spandrels, or a side effect of an evolutionary development. Yet, because their political views were staunchly leftist (and in Lewontin’s case, Marxist), they were constantly targeted as creating a straw man and confusing politics with academia, often quite deservedly so.

In reality, the straw man argument goes both ways. In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker argues in favor of Herrnstein and Murray’s view on the nature-nurture debate. While he glosses over Herrnstein and Murray’s unabashedly conservative viewpoints, he devotes multiple chapters to calling Lewontin and his supporters Communists without really addressing the spandrel argument.

You don’t have to be a radical postmodernist to see that academia has clearly failed to create a divide between political and intellectual viewpoints. The problem is, in this era, in an enormously complex society with increasing dependence on academic research in policy decisions, the stakes are much higher than in the past. The traces of confusion of political and intellectual viewpoints are a part of nearly every major political event in recent memory, from the intelligent design debate to the decision to go to war in Iraq.

If political views perpetually infiltrate the advancement of science, how can we learn to trust our judgments? This is not a new question; it’s one that’s plagued philosophers for millennia. In terms of modern American politics, however, a firmer response is needed. When a new intellectual theory is advanced, the political views of its creators must be laid out on the table. Hiding those affiliations only makes the argument weaker. Once an idea is introduced honestly and openly into public discourse, it’s easier to let that viewpoint gain legitimacy on its own merits. History, not an idea’s proponents, decides whether an idea is correct. Force-feeding an idea onto society will result in disaster if its motives are overlooked. The sooner we recognize this, the better.