Customer Reviews: Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (A Free Press Paperbacks Book)
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on October 14, 2005
Since you're reading this, I assume you're thinking of buying — or at least reading — this book. That being so, you'll probably want to read other reviews than mine. This is in principle a good idea; but having just read all of them (147 at the time of writing) I should warn you that you'll need both considerable stamina and a strong stomach: there are indeed thoughtful and informative reviews, but they are islands in a sea of drivel. By "drivel" I mean the following:

1) Reviews consisting entirely (or almost entirely) of expostulation rather than information ("racist garbage", "most important book of the 20th century")

2) Asserting what the book doesn't deny and denying what it doesn't assert.

3) Distortions of the book's content, and other disinformation, for instance:

- "the panel criticized the authors for not explaining what intelligence is" (intelligence is defined on page 4 (!) ).

- "The Bell Curve ignores bad diet" (Nutrition is explicitly dealt with on pp. 391-3).

And so on.

Many of the critics appear not merely to have misunderstood the book, but not even to have read it; amusingly, this is actually admitted in one review ("Although Head has only browsed through the book, she has seen this kind of pseudo-science before"). Some appear to be basing their argument upon the Moralistic Fallacy: if different groups had different average IQs for even partially genetic reasons, it would be a Bad Thing, and therefore that cannot possibly be the case.

(It also follows, naturally, that there's no need to examine the evidence, because the correct outcome is known in advance; and also that those who think otherwise must be making factual and/or logical errors, either unconsciously or consciously, making them fools in the former case and fascists in the latter.)

For myself, I found this a strange book in some ways, but only one other reviewer (Jennifer Kerns, I think the name was) touched on the reason. And that is that the book falls logically into three parts, which by their very nature are of varying reliability.

The first, and by far the largest, covers the available evidence on IQ and heredity. The second and third parts extrapolate present trends to the future (with unpleasant consequences) and make policy recommendations to deal with these projected consequences. Thus almost by definition these are on shakier ground.

- The first section, which excited by far the most controversy, is (ironically), easily on the firmest ground scientifically — as confirmed (for example) by an American Psychological Association task force explicitly set up to investigate it*; and by a letter to the Wall Street Journal by fifty-two leading psychometricians, a copy of which can be found on the Net ("Mainstream Science on Intelligence", also reprinted as an appendix in H.J. Eysenck's Intelligence: A New Look).

It seems to me a very able summary: it defines its terms, states its assumptions, produces its evidence and argues the merits of the various theories purporting to explain it. So there's no need for you to take my word (or anyone's) as to whether the thesis is justified; the evidence and the arguments are both there; if you're capable of rational thought, you should be able to decide for yourself. And this is what I advise you to do.

- The second part envisages the potential stratification of society by intelligence into a hereditary élite and underclass. Here the authors start to part company with some (at least) of the aforementioned psychometricians. Eysenck, for instance — certainly in the "hereditarian" camp as regards IQ — writes of an earlier article in Atlantic Monthly:

"Here Herrnstein is definitely beginning to run off the rails in his predictions (...) he disregards the importance of regression, the genetic factor which causes children of very bright and very dull parents to regress towards the mean of the whole population (...) [R]egression makes it quite impossible that castes should be created which will breed true — that is, where the children will have the same IQ as their parents. Within a few generations, the differences in IQ between the children of very bright and very dull parents will have been completely wiped out." (The Inequality of Man, pp.213-219)

Richard Lynn, however, disagrees, pointing out that if regression operated in all cases, then dog-breeding, and indeed evolution as a whole, would be impossible.

- The third part, the policy recommendations, is well outside my area of competence, so I offer no comment.

I should, however, like to make one further comment on other reviews, those containing the recommendation: "People wanting an honest scientific analysis of the claims of racial superiority should read Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man".

Gould's writing certainly has many admirable qualities, but honesty and scientific impartiality are not conspicuous among them — for specifics, see (for example) Chapter 3 of John L. Casti's Paradigms Lost. Or see J. Philippe Rushton's review of "Mismeasure", or Arthur Jensen's review ("The Debunking of Scientific Fossils and Straw Persons"), or John B. Carroll's, all of which you can find on the Web.

I've been following the debate over IQ for 40 years, and The Mismeasure of Man has more factual errors per page than any book I've ever read.

For a critical but still rational review of Herrnstein & Murray, I suggest Thomas Sowell's from American Spectator, which can also be found on the Web ("Ethnicity and IQ").

If you want a balanced account of the IQ field, try Intelligence: The Battle for the Mind, half of which is written by H.J. Eysenck and half by Leon Kamin, with a final rejoinder from each. The best summary I'm aware of remains, despite its age, H.J. Eysenck's The IQ Argument (Race, Intelligence and Education in the U.K.); but good luck getting hold of it!

*UPDATE 2007

I should have said that although the APA report could not (or at least did not) explicitly rebut any of Herrnstein & Murray's data, or their logic, it refused to endorse their conclusions.

I haven't changed the body of the review because that would make nonsense of the discussion in the Comments.

For a more detailed factual account of the tactics of Gould et al, I recommend Ullica Segerstråle's Defenders of the Truth, although I'm not sure I'm convinced by her psychological diagnosis.

Probably the best survey of the various issues and viewpoints that I'm aware of is The Race Gallery by Marek Cohn (1995).
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on August 1, 2013
I heard about this book when it first came out. Many people heard about it but refused to read it or acknowledge its findings. As a Chicano activist-intellectual I was compelled to read it and digest whatever truth it brought forth.
Okay so I read it. The crux of the book is that there is a tangible intellectual difference between the four races. Whites, Blacks, Asians and Latinos in the USA. I am not proud to acknowledge that Latino people living in the USA have a lower IQ than others groups but as a teacher how can I ignore this finding-suggestion-allegation?
By definition Latino, my own ethnic group, Mexican immigrants tend to come from the bottom social class of their nations. (Kind of obvious isn't it? Why else would someone leave the comfort of their homes if they were comfortably middle class back home.)
The last 100 years of Mexico shows lots of social upheaval and a lack of culture building institutions i.e. schools. I have written elsewhere that uneducated working class people simply do not value education and prefer active physical labour to school. So therefore if anyone told me, my ethnic group, Mexican people, scored low on the IQ scale; I would not be surprised.
If IQ tests judge a person's intelligence and years in school and a group of people have done without schooling then of course they would not score high on those tests. And yes, of course those same people would build lives and families of lesser quality than more educated people would build. Garbage in, garbage out.
The book is painstakingly and often boringly pedantic in its explanation of fact finding. Poor, uneducated whites are used as the whipping boy in this comparison of intellect lest the writers be labeled racist.
Yet the real culprit who should receive the blame for this unequal outcome is cold hard reality. But then what does that say about America? How is this book unfit for reading? Isn't America based on one's ability to improve? An unskilled, uneducated immigrant whether from another country or from backwater Appalachia seeks to improve his lot; only through a frank discussion of where that person is academically/intellectually is the way to get there.
Instead of lambasting the writers of this book people should seek to improve the general quality of American Life. Let's improve the school system by maintaining high standards, increase assimilation by teaching foreign language in the early grades therefore foreigners would feel they can seamlessly merge into America. A return to high standards is the way to improve things not by dumbing down the curriculum.
Somewhere in the book they wrote, American parents really don't want their children to do more homework instead preferring to cast childhood as a perceived time of sweet indulgence. If students studied too much they couldn't perform well on their sports teams etc.
Crowds of angry historians won't be found picketing a school board's decision of a textbook's choice but angry, slighted parents will indeed take umbrage at any heavy handed move by the school.
Don't believe me? Just do an internet search on the San Diego CA high school that sought to suspend a number of girls for performing a "twerking video" on campus. The outcry by the parents and community proves teh lack of seriousness w/ which a community views the high school experience.
Read the Bell Curve accept the unpalatable findings and just move on.
As a Mexican-American I am eager to improve things instead of denying that the Titanic is sinking.
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This book has been both celebrated and damned. The Amazon reviews proved to be very helpful to me, since they led me to other commentaries on the book, commentaries which helped to put the book in perspective.

The authors have been subjected to virulent ad hominem attacks for their efforts, while others have proclaimed the book to be of inestimable importance. The subject--IQ and its ramifications--is highly flammable, of course, and has resulted in some outraged charges which are so extreme that one is surprised and perhaps gratified to see that they are easily countered by simple references to the text.

The authors are at pains (nearly 900 pp., with elaborate scholarly apparatus) to press home the results of their research. The overriding bottom line is that IQ is very important in our lives. High intelligence correlates with a large number of `successes' in life and low intelligence correlates with a great deal of dysfunctionality. In many cases we expect the behaviors under examination to correlate more highly and more directly with other factors--socioeconomic status, e.g.--but the higher and more direct correlations are with IQ.

We know that IQ is a result of both genetics and environment and the specific levels of influence continue to elude us. Obviously, the notion that genetics are very important and that mankind is far less malleable than we would like would be a particularly flammable conclusion, since it runs counter to generations of public policy, to specific political ideologies and, ultimately, to specific conceptions of the nature of man. The authors do not push this view, because they do not assert the `balance' between heredity and environment (which is now undecidable), but their success in demonstrating the thoroughgoing importance of IQ in human behavior and their reminding us of its heredibility has lead some to overreact to the book, seeing it as some sort of right-wing, racist tract.

Commentators who I find rational and fair argue that much of the social science in the book is quite straightforward, quite established and largely above challenge. Writers on IQ are often reticent individuals, because they undergo constant attack. Hence, we have a situation in which the science is more or less settled, but not talked about very much with general audiences because of the heat generated. Thus, Herrnstein and Murray are, in a sense, performing a public service by discussing, at length, the results of modern studies of human intelligence.

The devil, of course, resides within the details, which is to say, the implications seen upon examination of the science and the sorts of public policies that might be developed to both ameliorate society and the conditions of the individuals who constitute it. These parts of the book are less `settled' than the science, though it is very important to raise the issues so that they might be discussed dispassionately and solutions to problems be sought and found.

The most important response to the book that I have seen is Thomas Sowell's review ("Ethnicity and IQ") in The American Spectator. Sowell confirms the value of the `science portion' of the book and treats the authors and their arguments (and speculations) with scholarly respect. At the same time, he raises cogent exceptions to important portions of their argument. He agrees with the authors that the `cultural bias' of tests has been overstressed in some respects. The `bias', if you will, does not come so much in experiential and linguistic items as it does in more abstract questions. Individuals outside of the cultural mainstream tend to do poorly on the more abstract sections of standardized tests. This is not just true of individuals of African descent, but also of a whole host of individuals of European descent. (One of the strengths of Sowell's writing is the fact that he draws on the entire globe whenever he talks about issues of race and ethnicity.)

Even more important is the fact that as individuals become part of the cultural mainstream their test scores can rise dramatically. The crucial example concerns Russian Jews at the time of the first world war. Their scores were extremely low, so low as to make individuals doubt the validity of the tests. Now, Jews tend to score in the upper reaches of intelligence tests. Herein lies the core of Sowell's argument. He does not see the Jews' low scores as oddities to be dismissed. He sees them as authentic results, results which, eventually, became subject to dramatic change. Thus, he argues for the possibility of radical improvement in IQ, over time, something of which Herrnstein and Murray are more sceptical.

I had wanted to read The Bell Curve for some time and while impressed with the erudition of the authors and the labours involved in the book's creation, I found it a somewhat ponderous read. The problem, of course, is that they are treading dangerous ground throughout and are forced to be cautious, conservative and extremely detailed in their arguments and adducing of evidence. For me (neither a psychologist, sociologist nor a statistician) this was a bit too much social science and a few too many standard deviations. This was not so much their fault as it was mine. They include in the book a mini- crash-course in statistics (Appendix I), for example. Their argument is not opaque; there is simply a lot of it.

I found that I much preferred Murray's books Real Education and the most recent, Coming Apart. The social science evidence is always crucial, of course, but the analysis and policy implications are more center-stage in those books and, thus, more accessible for the general reader. Nevertheless, The Bell Curve remains a very important, controversial book. We need not fear it, nor malign it. We simply need to consider it at length and welcome multiple scholarly voices in examining the important issues which it raises (which is, finally, the authors' core intention).
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on October 22, 2013
I read the Bell Curve when it first came out about twenty years ago. Among a number of assertions made by the authors was one that claimed blacks had inferior IQs (which they said was mostly genetic) compared to other non-black groups. The difference was said to be one standard deviation on a bell curve, hence the title of the book. It was immediately attacked by a host of liberal sources including scientists, psychologists, educators, politicians, media pundits, and many of types of learned or unlearned people. These attackers included people like well-known scientist Steven Jay Gould who had written a book called "The Mismeasure(ment?) Of Man" where he purported to disprove IQ as a means of measuring intelligence. Most of the attackers had a hard liberal persuasion. Herrnstein and Murray were accused of being racists in pseudo-scientists clothing and accused of abetting white supremacist and other racist orgs's views about black intelligence. Undoubtedly, many white racist orgs. were more than happy to publish and spread the book's conclusions about black genetic inferiority compared to white intelligence.
Nowhere in the book did the authors say that black people on whole were inferior to other groups categorized by racial differences or that there weren't many black people with superior intelligence. And the section on black intelligence was actually only one chapter of a very long book. But that was the part that stirred the hornets nest. So the race industry set about to try to refute the conclusions of the book concerning black intelligence and throw more mud on the authors. But as nowhere in the book did the authors claim that all intelligence is genetic, nowhere did the subsequent attacks on the authors prove them wrong. I also read "The Bell Curve Wars" which shortly followed "The Bell Curve," and the former mostly consisted of irrelevant or ad hominem attacks on the authors of "The Bell Curve."
Why was TBC attacked so fiercely? For one thing, if true, TBC would explain the vast disparity between the intellectual and physical achievements of the people who are called white compared to the people who are called black. In large part the conclusions of TBC were attacked because liberals and race hustlers desperately wish it not to be true. The truth is too hard for them to digest. It would destroy their own nutty theories about why blacks are on the bottom of virtually every measure of intellectual and civilization achievement. To wit, blacks are on the bottom because evil white people have oppressed them throughout history and are still oppressing them. But what then of African countries with little white involvement or whites having been virtually kicked out many decades ago? Except for South Africa and Zimbabwe (with very small white populations) most sub-Saharan countries are virtually all-black. They are also the poorest countries in the world with the lowest rates of prosperity and the highest rates of crime. A similar country in the western hemisphere is Haiti with a virtually all-black population. Haiti kicked out or slaughtered most of the white French population about two hundred years ago. It quickly devolved into an ungodly pesthole with high rates of poverty, crime, and disease. Like most all-black African countries, Haiti is virtually hopeless.

My point is: the proof is in the pudding. If I make a statement that a certain group of people, blacks, on average have less genetic intelligence than other groups who are not black, I should be expected to have some evidence. There is a mountain of's just that the race hustlers and scientific frauds like Steven Jay Gould cannot believe what is in front of their eyes. IQ corresponds with academic achievement and intellectual achievement. Americans with the highest IQs are Jews at number one and east-Asians at number two. Jews have the highest rates of scholastic and financial success. East Asians have the second highest rates of academic and financial success. White Americans are in the middle as far as IQ. (Actually Jews are white people too but are frequently separated from other whites in surveys or studies like these.) Non-Jewish white Americans also fall in the middle as far as scholastic achievement and financial success.
Blacks and Hispanics are in the last and second to the last positions as far as IQ. Their scholastic and financial successes directly correspond to their respective IQs.

So basically the authors of TBC simply reiterated what has been borne out by real world circumstances and events. They (and other IQ researchers) didn't simply publish their findings and guess at the outcome. The book simply reaffirmed what many scientific and non-scientific people have suspected for hundreds of years: namely different groups of people on the planet do not have identical intellectual gifts. Again, that is a very uncomfortable fact for all the well-meaning and not so-well-meaning believers in the identical intellectual abilities of all humans. In fact, I'm sure many of them still believe in the "tabula rasa" theory where everybody is born with zero intellectual capabilities. That fraudulent theory has been long disproven. If IQ means next to nothing as far as achievement in life, I expect that I could examine the IQs of nuclear physicists, rocket scientists, and mathematicians and find many with substandard IQs. I think we know what we'd find...we'd find these people have very high IQs. And as for the argument that people being kept in a state of subservience or deprivation for hundreds of years, what are we to make of the Chinese? They were heavily discriminated against in many western and eastern countries but became successful despite the hardships and discrimination. And when the iron yoke of communist economics was finally smashed in 1979 and free-market economics were allowed, China quickly vaulted to near the top of the most successful and wealthy countries in the world after suffering being one of the poorest for hundreds of years.

Do I believe blacks and other people with lower than average IQs are inferior? No. I believe any group of people on the face of the earth can improve their average IQ by simple eugenics. If only the black people with IQs above 100 were allowed to have children, blacks would quickly gain on other groups. That would mean sterilization of more than half the population of black Americans. The end result would be a group of Americans who would be able to compete very ably with the rest of citizens of the U.S. I am not hopeful that such a program will ever begin.
So rather than attacking the authors, the critics should examine their own prejudices and accept facts. The differences are real. The differences cannot be overcome with the variety of social programs instituted fifty years ago that have failed to lift most blacks out of their lives of poverty, crime, and dependence on the government. Deep down, I suspect most white liberals know the authors are correct, but for obvious reasons of position in the liberal society cannot admit the truth. Maybe some day they will. Because if nothing is changed, fifty years from now blacks will still be on the bottom of every standard of achievement.
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on December 30, 2005
I used to work for a major IQ test publisher and can say that -- assuming the data here is true -- this seems to be a balanced assessment of how our country is being stratified according to intelligence. The author doesn't say that is correct, merely that it is happening. One of the best parts of the book is the discussion of possible societal implications in the back. Some scenarios are worse than others and one is horrible; all are food for thought. Unfortunately, the horrible one seems most likely at present. I would give 5 stars except I've heard rumors the data might be tainted. I see no evidence of that and would like details.
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on September 24, 1999
Perhaps the most important part of this book, from a public policy standpoint, is not what everyone wants to focus on, but rather Chapter 18, which discusses the shift in public education away from a (partially) elitist model to a decidedly dumb one. As politically incorrect as it is to say, we are committing the public-policy equivalent of a felony in not offering a truly world-class education to the majority of that percentage of public school students who might otherwise be the deep thinkers we will need.
(It should go without saying that this does NOT mean that we shouldn't also educate everyone else to the best of their abilities. We CAN do both; these are not mutually exclusive goals.)
We instead *deny* nearly everyone the *chance* to excel. How can we be surprised at what we have wrought. The *students* aren't dumb, but, in all honesty (I teach at the university level), there's just no *reason* for them to bust their butts. The game is rigged, and they know it. We all lose, including especially those minority students who should be kicking intellectual ass. Instead, we pamper them with pablum, bore them to tears, and then take away the true *accomplishment* that should attend whatever medals (admissions, jobs, etc.) they might otherwise earn.
As someone involved in education for many decades, I can attest to the accuracy of this chapter, and I look with sadness as we create new generations of bored, marginally educated rebels-without-causes. To be honest, most of my generation (even in university) were dullards, too. But at least those who weren't had the opportunity (and pressure) to truly learn, and not just get by. ...And there wasn't quite the same assumption that if you were a plumber, or whatever, you were nothing. Instead, we now tell *all* students that if they don't get *at least* a Bachelor's, they *are* nothing. Worse than nothing.
Why are we surprised when we end up with a system filled with people who just shouldn't be there. Let them in, of course, but make them earn their stay.
One example of this dumbing down, which I suppose shouldn't surprise me, but does, anyway: In recent news, at least two *national* newscasters reported that the earthquake in Taiwan was "about equal" to the one in Turkey. Apparently, even the folks in the *highest newsrooms in the land* didn't (1) know the Richter scale is *logarithmic* and thus 7.6 is **2 1/2 TIMES** more powerful than 7.4 (although they're both serious), or (2) think enough to ASK someone, like a mathemetician or geologist, who *does* know. That's just pathetic.
What should be basic knowledge...doesn't even occur to them.
Also, it's apparent from several of the reviews that the reviewers either didn't read the book, or are so caught up in their own psychodramas that they simply cannot read objectively.
If you disagree with the conclusions, fine. If you think We the People just can't handle the conclusions, and thus they shouldn't be printed, fine. But don't make stuff up. At the very least, *learn about thine enemy*: Faking it will only strengthen the enemy's hand in the future.
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on December 23, 1999
This is a profoundly disturbing book. A lot of books that take on tough subjects are disturbing, but make their point; this one almost invariably bothers readesrs, but for the wrong reasons.
Several reviewers complained about the welter of statistical arguments. Unfortunately, the argument used by the authors is based on statistical reasoning -- it couldn't have been stated in any other way. Others complained, much more reasonably, about the conclusions with regard to race, which I personally believe the authors emphasized, not because of its overwhelming importance, but because the argument would be read that way and they might as well get it out of he shadows themselves.
The arguments that are hard to resist are:
(1)Intelligence is real. I recall when I started teaching general psychology in the 70's (at West Point), the text gave great weight to a ppoorly supported and largely pointless argument that intelligence is the result of learning, and hence doesn't exist -- it is merely a score on a test designed to differentiate learning. We (most of us) toook this feeble argument at face value because it was fashionable at the time to do so. The authors debunk this interpretation; however, many readers will be unwilling to convert.
(2) More than ever before, economic well-being depends on intelligence. The big money requires education, which depends on educability, and (here is where the problem lies) educability depends on intelligence.
(3) The result will inevitably be a division in developed nations between intelligent, educated haves and less intelligent, less educated have-nots. Whether intelligence is the core issue or not, we see this happening even now. How large a proportion of any population can fry hamburgers?
(4) By the way, there are ethnic differences. They speculate that the differences are influenced by the mechanisms of genetics -- an ethnic group that values education, for example, will create pairs that self-select for intelligence and so procreate in ways that produce brainy offspring. If your ethnic culture suggests other reasons for mating, the offspring will TEND to reflect that preference.
If you are innocent of statistics (as most people are), it is easy to reject this book. I suffered through many a semester; this book disturbs my sleep.
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on February 10, 2013
VERY interesting book. It focuses mainly on general intelligence (measured IQ) and the consequences for those with low and high IQ. It is quite controversial in what it reports about differences in "races". It was published over 10 years ago and I just became aware of it. The research seems very well done and the conclusions seem valid even though disquieting for those with low IQ. I consider this a very important book.

Thomas Roe
Los Angeles
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on September 18, 2015
Concise, technical and not bias. 4 stars for not being brave enough to tell what the number really say.

I cannot understand why so many reviews talk about opinion or about cultural approaches or about races. This book is not about what you or I think or about socio-political correctness or in-correctness. It is about how things are seen from the perspective of serious professional statistics.

It is not about what we want, but about what nature does with human nature and its most distinctive feature / evolutionary advantage. If one does not like it, one should not be reading this book in the first place and should put a complaint claim to mother nature.

Not everything that happens in this planet is about human society. Way too much human protagonism!!! What really bothers many readers and many more opinionated none-readers of this book, is the fact that nature does not care what they think, and shall never consult with them.
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on January 19, 2002
I remember the big brouhaha this book caused when it was first published (circa 1994).
I was intrigued, but I didn't bother to read it because (based of the reviews I read) I thought it was just too racially antagonistic. Besides, I thought, even if some of it's true, what good does it do to belabor a point that causes pain to so many and would likely exacerbate racial tensions.
To my surprise the book is actually very well written and has a clear purpose. The book is about IQ in general and how one's IQ shapes the individual and the society at large. It is scholarly in its use of statistics, facts, references and lengthy explanations. The book goes to great length to be sensitive in all references to racial differences. Actually the issue of race is only a small part of the book, and the author repeatedly reminds the reader that the difference in IQ among individuals is far greater than the differences in IQ among the races. Based on numerous studies, it puts the hereditability of IQ to be in the range of 60%. Of course that still leads 40% for environmental factors. And of course IQ doesn't necessarily translate into success. Ambition, work ethic, personal disposition, socioeconomic status of the parents, etc., all play a role in determining a persons place in society.
The book stresses that IQ must be considered in drafting public policy to address social problems like unemployment, welfare, crime, poverty, job training etc. Much of the material will continue to be debated, but the book at least opens up a discussion that has been closed for too long.
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