The Future of NASA
Michael Griffin is gearin...
More Features
Looking to apply for a Discover Credit Card? Members/Subscribers Log In      
My Problem with Big Pharma
Has Newsweek Sold Out to Big Pharma?
Dark Side of Green, Continued
The Dark Side of Green
The Green Bandwagon
Green Book Award: Nominations Wanted
Wilson Wins “Green Book Award”
The End of Total War?
Does the Desire for Peace Cause War?
[ Full Blog Archives ]
[ Who is John Horgan? ]
[ What is Horganism? ]
Mind & Brain
Ancient Life
All Newsletters
Discover Magazine  Blog  Archives

« Ten Worst Science Books | Main | More on Worst Science Books »

Worst Science Books, Continued

I must respond to readers’ defense of two books on my Worst Science Books list, Listening to Prozac by Peter Kramer and The Bell Curve by Murray and Herrnstein.

Re Listening to Prozac, it explores, yes, with great philosophical subtlety the implications of a drug that dispels despair and makes us "happy." Is this happy new me really me? And so on, blah blah blah. But the premise of the book is false! If you read the peer-reviewed clinical trials rather than the puffery of Kramer you would know that Prozac and other SSRIs are no more effective than earlier antidepressants, such as tricyclics, and antidepressants as a whole are no more effective than psychoanalysis and other talking cures. When I made this claim in The Undiscovered Mind in 1999, it was treated as highly controversial, but now it's been overwhelmingly confirmed. Moreover, Listening to Prozac's surge to bestsellerhood in the early 1990s coincided with a surge in Prozac sales. If you think this is just a coincidence, you should be on meds.

Re The Bell Curve, depictions of Murray and Herrnstein as champions of truth defying political correctness make my blood boil. Many studies have shown that if you repeatedly tell a group of people—girls or members of an ethnic group or whomever—that they are inferior and there is nothing they can do about it, they will perform at a lower level. In other words, Murray and Herrnstein made a serious social problem worse with their diagnosis and prescription. They are racists, who should be viewed with contempt, not admiration.


Hiro Protagonist


I'll do this in stages:

1.) As a member of an ethnic minority with a tragic history, I am especially sensitive to the idea that forays into territories such as a race and intelligence, even if they are sincere, might incur negative externalities onto society as a whole. The theory you are referring to is known as "stereotype threat" and was popularized by a social psychologist named Claude Steele (the brother of Shelby). However, Steele's work has been debunked by the American Psychological Association, who wrote:

""[R]ather than showing that eliminating threat eliminates the large score gap on standardized tests, the research actually shows something very different. Specifically, absent stereotype threat, the African American–White difference is just what one would expect based on the African American–White difference in SAT scores, whereas in the presence of stereotype threat, the difference is larger than would be expected based on the difference in SAT scores."

Paul R. Sackett, Chaitra M. Hardison, and Michael J. Cullen. American Psychologist, 2004.

Also, the "black-white" gap is something of a red herring, because it evades the issue of high average IQ scores among American Jews (particularly on the verbal section [126]).

2.) I never got the chance to meet Richard Herrnstein, who was the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and something of a traditional Jewish liberal, but I have met Murray at numerous economic seminars. It shouldn't matter, but his first wife was an Asian woman and he has 2 children from that marriage. Moreover, as a libertarian, he is a proponent of completely open immigration, as well as gay marriage. No one had ever described Murray as a racist before The Bell Curve, and his 1984 book, "Losing Ground" was publicly praised by former President Bill Clinton and served as the basis for welfare reform.

3.) As someone who has actually read The Bell Curve, I must have missed the part that described certain ethnic groups as "inferior" to others. Not only would such a claim be uncouth, but even worse, it would be demonstrably wrong. The book deals with averages and distribution rates, not platonic essences. No group is "superior" or "inferior" to another. Such a claim would be both racist and a blatant lie.

4.) In your book, The Undiscovered Mind, you described finding yourself "relieved" upon learning of the "Flynn Effect"; the rise in IQ scores over generations. The only problem was that anyone who had actually read The Bell Curve would already have been aware of the previously unheard-of Flynn Effect, because Murray and Herrnstein made it famous by bringing it up in the book specifically to debunk it. Yet alas, almost none of The Bell Curve's critics had actually read the book; hence the popularity of yelling "Flynn Effect".

5.) Creationists often argue that the idea that human beings evolved from a common ancestor helped pave the way to Nazism, Communism, teen pregnancy, and MTV. Even if such an asinine claim were true, are we better off with a lie? How can you raise the banner against creationists on the right and still take yourself seriously while ignoring the creationists among your own flock?

Roger Schlafly

You are against The Bell Curve because you think that it might be psychological hurtful to people. But why aren't you similarly against telling people that Prozac is ineffective? Studies have shown that people can be helped by drugs like Prozac if they think that they are effective. Why aren't you similarly making a serious social problem worse?


And here we see the difference between the (not so) humble journalist and the scientist.

The scientist requires evidence, while the journalist requires nothing more than a warm fuzzy, to justify a statement. You have a nasty habit of picking the 'truths' that you *like* and ignoring, scoffing at, and dismissing what you do not like. What is worse, you turn your dislike against the scientists themselves.

A scientist will attack the science with evidence. A journalist will apparently attack the scientist because he lacks the power to attack the idea. It's a wonder scientists continue to talk to you.

T Bruce McNeely

Re: Talking to Prozac
You are correct in your statements about SSRIs but misleading. True, the SSRIs are not more effective against depression than tricyclics, but they are much better tolerated because the side effects are much milder. In addition, they are much safer in overdosage. Tricyclic ODs are deadly, while it is very difficult to kill yourself with SSRIs. Not a minor consideration when the risk of suicide is high. In addition, you state that SSRIs are only as effective as talk therapy. However, a combination of SSRI and effective psychotherapy is more effective than each one alone.
I also question your expertise in commenting in this area when you tout psychoanalysis as your example of talk therapy. Psychoanalysis is expensive, time consuming and its claims are based entirely on anecdote. Effective talk therapy would be more along the lines of cognitive therapy and other scientifically validated therapies.

Crusty Dem

Your attack on the Bell Curve is incomplete without mentioning that it was funded by a right-wing cabal (the Bradley Foundation - see One can easily despise the book on it's complete lack of merit alone (leaving aside the offensive nature of it's attack on minorities and the poor).

Mike Cook

Stephen J. Gould would say that Europeans, Asians, and Native Americans are under-represented in professional basketball because of a lack of effort, or local cultural conditions, or both. I've lived in a variety of cultures, including being a drug and alcohol counselor on a Native American reservation in Montana where high school basketball was a passion that almost surpasses description amongst Indians and non-Indians alike. These kids loved the game, they trained hard, they had great coaches, and they had access to college scholarships.

You know what, they still couldn't jump.

Gould basically told the liberal elites what they wanted to hear. That's pandering, not science.

John Horgan

Ah, this is just what I'd hoped Worst Science Books would do, provoke howls of outrage and calumny from the books' defenders. Just a few points, which will surely be lost on these benighted souls:

Hiro, you say the APA "debunked" Steele's work on stereotype threat, and The Bell Curve "debunked" the Flynn effect. Wrong on both counts. Steele's findings have been corroborated by many other researchers studying women and other groups that suffer from discrimination, as an article in Scientific American in February 2005, "Performance Without Anxiety," points out. As for the Flynn effect--the upward creep in IQ scores discovered by the psychologist James Flynn in the 1980s--Murray and Herrnstein merely dismissed it as trivial without offering any reasons. In fact, the Flynn effect undercuts the whole premise of The Bell Curve, that IQ scores are largely fixed and cannot be budged through interventions such as Head Start. Flynn documented that IQ scores have risen around the world by 30 points over the last century and by as much as 15 points--the size of the gap between black and white IQ scores--in some regions in a single generation.

I don't claim that the work of Steele and Flynn entirely accounts for black-white performance differences. But these findings show that at the very least there are serious uncertainties and deficiencies in The Bell Curve analysis, which make it quite easy for me--politically correct, bleeding-heart liberal that I am--to dismiss its morally noxious policy prescriptions.

Bruce offers a view of Prozac/SSRIs much more subtle and less dramatic than that of Peter Kramer in Listening to Prozac. Kramer claimed that Prozac is initiating an era of "cosmetic psychopharmacology" in which we can become "better than well." That's bullshit, and that's why his book deserves condemnation.

Roger accuses me of inconsistency for attacking The Bell Curve because it's hurtful to blacks while criticizing Prozac in a way that could be hurtful to depressed people (I prefer to think of the hurt inflicted on Big Pharma). He might have added that I also criticize religious belief in a way that could be hurtful to the faithful. Here's the big difference: You don't have to take Prozac or pray to the Virgin Mary. You can take a homeopathic pill or consult a witch doctor instead. You have a choice. When it comes to your race or gender, you have no choice. That puts racism and sexism in a different moral category than attacks on religion or quasi-religions like psychopharmacology.

Now, time for tofu turkey!

The comments to this entry are closed.

Wishful Seeing
Shiny Happy People
20 Things You Didn't Know About... Sleep
Can New Neurons Teach an Old Mouse?
The Woman Who Never Forgets
Why We Get Diseases Other Primates Don't
Vital Signs: Trouble in the Nursery
Natural Selections: The Potential Pandemic You've Never Heard Of
20 Things You Didn't Know About... Death
Natural Selections: The Potential Pandemic You've Never Heard Of
Recently Covered in Discover: The Man Who Finds Planets
Sky Lights: The Dark Side of the Universe
20 Things You Didn't Know About... Meteors
Sky Lights: The Dark Side of the Universe
Islam Hits International Space Station
Neighborhood Watch Goes High Tech
Going Atomic... Again
Jaron's World: The Murder of Mystery
How to Make Anything Look Like a Toy, Round II
Raw Data: The Rigorous Study of the Ancient Mariners
Will We Ever Clone a Caveman?
This Month's Ask Discover
How Life Got a Leg Up
Mammals Stake Their Place in Jurassic Park
You Say "Ook Ook," I Say "Aak Aak"
Guilt-Free Gossip for Greens
A Greener Faith
Whatever Happened To... the Exxon Valdez?
Life After Oil
The Next Katrina
  Full access to all site content requires registration as a magazine subscriber.
© 2005 Discover Media LLC. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
Privacy Policy / Your California Privacy Rights | Terms and Conditions | Educator's Guide | Subscribe Online Today | Online Media Kit
Customer Care | Contact Us