With all of the hullabaloo about the recent lectures given by Charles Murray at Middlebury College and Villanova University that drew vociferous and disruptive protests, one might be inclined from the headlines to infer that Mr. Murray’s addresses were filled with little else than unsubstantiated hate-inducing, violence-fomenting opinions. Curiosity prompted a couple of Cornell University professors to conduct their own social experiment based on the actual words of Murray’s Middlebury speech and the reaction of 70 college professors to see how extreme it really was.
As described by Professors Williams and Ceci in this recent New York Times op-ed column, 57 of the 70 surveyed professors responded to questions about the on a scale of 1-9 ranging from “very liberal” to “very conservative.” What did the researchers find?
American college professors are overwhelmingly liberal. Still, the 57 professors who responded to our request gave Mr. Murray’s talk an average score of 5.05, or “middle of the road.” Some professors said that they judged the speech to be liberal or left-leaning because it addressed issues like poverty and incarceration, or because it discussed social change in terms of economic forces rather than morality. Others suggested that they detected a hint of discontent with the fact that Donald Trump was elected president. No one raised concerns that the material was contentious, dangerous or otherwise worthy of censure.
The score increased to 5.77 (rather than 5.05) when the respondents were primed and told that the speech was by Charles Murray. Definitely some bias at work, but that is still in the moderate range.
When asked about 10 specific portions of the Middlebury speech on various topics, the average range was between 4 and 6, and the precise average was yet another moderate 5.22.
What do the Cornell social scientists conclude about Murray’s actual content at the Middlebury event where the protests landed a Middlebury professor in the emergency room?
Our data-gathering exercise suggests that Mr. Murray’s speech was neither offensive nor even particularly conservative.
But you wouldn’t know it by all of the resistance movements, open letter writing and signing, and hand-wringing on college campuses.
At Middlebury and Villanova, according to media reports, protesters claimed to be aggrieved because of Murray’s prior book The Bell Curve. It was refreshing that the op-ed authors note explicitly what is apparent quickly when protesters are pressed by reporters about their actual knowledge of Murray’s writings:
…only a small fraction of the people who have opinions about that book have actually read it. (Indeed, some people protesting Mr. Murray openly acknowledged not having read any of his work.)
And then they proceed to summarize what is the state of research in the social sciences in relation to the data and arguments in The Bell Curve:
“The Bell Curve” has generated an enormous literature of scholarly response and rebuttal, a process that is still underway. Many scholars have deemed the book’s most provocative argument — that differences in average I.Q. scores among races may have genetic as well as environmental causes — to be flawed and racist. Some have judged it to be judicious and reasoned, if still controversial. But its academic critics have nonetheless treated it not as hate speech to be censored but as a data-based argument with which they must engage in order to disagree.
The conclusion that these two professors reach — and that we hope that their readers in The New York Times’ opinion pages, as well as students and educators across the country, take to heart — is a basic point about liberal education that we think self-evident but others apparently do not:
Not everyone deserves to get to speak at a college campus. But those like Mr. Murray who use reasoned, evidence-based approaches to investigate matters of scholarly concern shouldn’t be forcibly silenced after they have been invited to do so.
We couldn’t agree more.