Herrnstein, Richard Julius

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Herrnstein, Richard Julius

(b. 20 May 1930 in New York City; d. 13 September 1994 in Belmont, Massachusetts), psychology educator and vigorous advocate of the intelligence quotient (IQ) test as an indicator of future personal development.

Herrnstein was the son of Hungarian immigrant parents, Rezso Herrnstein, a housepainter, and Flora Irene Friedman. Herrnstein attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan and City College of New York, graduating with a B.A. in 1952. He went immediately to Harvard University to do graduate work in psychology and received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1955. His dissertation is entitled “Behavioral Consequences of the Removal of a Discriminative Stimulus Associated with the Variable Interval Reinforcement.” On 28 May 1951 he married Barbara Brodo. They had one child before they divorced in February 1961.

Serving as a research psychologist in the U.S. Army from 1955 to 1958, Herrnstein rose to the rank of first lieutenant and was stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. While in Washington, in 1957–1958 he was also a lecturer at the University of Maryland, in College Park.

In 1958 Herrnstein returned to Harvard to teach psychology. On 11 November 1961 he married Susan Chalk Gouinlock; they had two sons. Between 1965 and 1967 Herrnstein was the director of Harvard’s psychology laboratories. In 1967 he became a full professor of psychology and began a four-year term as the chairman of the Department of Psychology. From 1975 to 1981 he was the editor of Psychological Bulletin.

Herrnstein, a prolific writer, published textbooks, scholarly articles, and books for the general public. His three textbooks are A Source Book in the History of Psychology, with Edwin G. Boring (1965); Laboratory Experiments in Psychology, with Joseph C. Stevens and George S. Reynolds (1965); and Psychology (1975). His three books for the general public are I.Q. in the Meritocracy (1973); Crime and Human Nature, with James Q. Wilson (1985); and The Bell Curve, with Charles Murray (1994).

Herrnstein was also the author of two controversial articles in Atlantic Monthly. The first, entitled simply “I.Q.” (1971), was a somewhat popularized review of the arguments in favor of IQ as the best early indictor of future life achievement. The concept was difficult for many people to accept in an era of radical protest against the Vietnam War and of social policy designed to improve the lot of the dis-advantaged. Herrnstein was surprised by the opposition his ideas generated, particularly in the press, and in 1982 he published another article in Atlantic Monthly entitled “I.Q. Testing and the Media.” In this article he accused the major newspapers and news magazines of reporting stories critical of the value of IQ testing but of failing to report developments that supported the value of such tests.

Herrnstein, who described himself as “incurably addicted to quantification,” was a strong advocate of gathering data on various social and psychological indicators that could be used to foretell the outcomes of social interventions for categorized groups. His ideas were closely associated with those advanced by Arthur Jensen of the University of California at Berkeley, who also valued the IQ test as a marker of future outcomes. Jensen and Herrnstein were considered conservative social thinkers for their view that intelligence was largely hereditary. In Crime and Human Nature, Herrnstein maintained that IQ was the best indicator of future criminal activity. Those who scored low on IQ tests as young children were substantially more likely to commit crime as juveniles or young adults.

Because these ideas were advanced in an era of social activism, they ran counter to the beliefs of many student protesters as well as the views of the education establishment, which was engaged in numerous programs designed to improve the social outcomes of the disadvantaged. Thus both the student activists and the professional education interests sought to discredit Herrnstein’s ideas.

As Herrnstein related in IQ in the Meritocracy, he had difficulty presenting his argument to university audiences, and his repeated attempts to publish in large newspapers were rebuffed. Yet the reaction of the early 1970s was mild compared to the firestorm that erupted with the publication, within a month of Herrnstein’s death, of The Bell Curve. After Herrnstein died of lung cancer and was buried in Warsaw, New York, his coauthor, the sociologist Charles Murray, was forced to defend the book alone. It was assaulted both in the press and in various professional publications and conclaves especially for its suggestion that black Americans were less intellectually endowed than white Americans. Much of the criticism dealt with the implications of Herrnstein and Murray’s findings for social policy, but a good deal also accused them of manipulating the quantitative data. A number of books were published specifically to refute the conclusions and the methodology of The Bell Curve.

Herrnstein’s passionate belief in the value of quantification underlay many of his views. He had investigated virtually all the data sets that had been gathered both in the United States and in Europe in great quantity in the era following World War II, and he believed they justified the conclusions he and his various collaborators drew from them. That his conclusions tended to coincide with conservative political opinions at a time when liberal positions dominated the intellectual world left Herrnstein open to verbal assault and occasionally to physical constraints on his ability to express his opinions. The issues he raised remained controversial at the onset of the twenty-first century in the academic and public policy worlds, where the question of “nature versus nurture,” or genetic endowment versus environment, had not been conclusively decided.

Personal details about Herrnstein are in his entry in Who’s Who in America 1992–1993 (1992). The preface in I.Q. in the Meritocracy (1973), details the battles Herrnstein fought with the radicals and the liberal establishment in the early 1970s. Charles Murray, in “The Bell Curve and Its Critics,” Commentary (May 1995), defends his and Herrnstein’s book. Chief among the books that attack Herrnstein’s dedication to IQ tests as indicative measurements are Stephen jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (1981, 1996); Steve Fraser, ed., The Bell Curve Wars: Race, Intelligence, and the Future of America (1995); Russell Jacoby and Naomi Glauberman, The Bell Curve Debate: History, Documents, Opinions (1995); and Bernie Devlin et al., eds., Intelligence, Genes, and Success (1997). The most balanced critique of The Bell Curve is provided by the economist and Nobel laureate James J. Heckman in “Lessons from the Bell Curve,Journal of Political Economy 103, no. 5 (October 1995). Obituaries are in the Boston Globe (15 Sept. 1994) and the New York Times (16 Sept. 1994).

Nancy M. Gordon