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Human Accomplishment 620

Posted by timothy
from the rule-of-graphs-and-charts dept.
Joel Eidsath writes "Imagine that you found yourself in a position to write a resume for the whole human species. It is a metaphor that Charles Murray uses several times in his book, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950." Murray not only collects such examples in this book, but attempts to explain why and how they emerge. Murray obviously courts controversy with this book; expect reactions similar to the ones drawn by The Bell Curve, which he co-authored. (Do 97% of the world's significant scientists come from the West? Can personal eminence be objectively measured? Is "accomplishment" really amenable to description by charts and graphs?) Read on for Eidsath's review.
Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950
author Charles Murray
pages 688
publisher HarperCollins
rating Thought-provoking
reviewer Joel Eidsath
ISBN 006019247X
summary A statistical history of human accomplishment.

For our species' resume, you probably would not list to put "Defeated Hitler" as one of humanity's accomplishments, because it sounds too much like 'Beat my Heroin Addiction.' You would want to include things like 'Painted the Roof of the Sistine Chapel' or 'Discovered General Relativity.' In other words, you would want to include examples of human excellence throughout the ages.

Not only has Murray set out to compile this resume, but he sought to do it for a reason that is at the same time both interesting and audacious: once you have compiled a list of the several thousand most important creators and discoverers of all time, you can stick it into a database. The idea is that with this database a person can spot trends in accomplishment; he can identify regions and cities where excellence has clustered; he can evaluate qualities of political systems that spur innovation and those that stifle it. Murray's book is a stunning profusion of graphs and plots that do much more to teach us about accomplishment that most narrative histories.

For this to work, however, Murray first had to tackle the problem of differing opinions on who exactly deserves a place in the database. Everybody's list would differ -- yours, mine, and Charles Murray's. There would be substantial similarities between our lists, to be sure; nobody is going to leave out Newton, Darwin, Goethe, Shakespeare, Confucius, or al-Mutanabbi. But when it comes to lesser achievements, the arguments would be endless. Does Hooke make it into the list of the top 20 physicists of all time, or does Pascal make it into the list of the top 10 mathematicians?

So what Murray has done is to split up accomplishment into a number of fields and tried to take a neutral measure of each person's respective 'eminence' in the field. He measures 'eminence' by taking a number of comprehensive sources on each field and counting the references to each person and how many paragraphs they get. The sources are from as many different languages as possible and Murray does a good job of avoiding the distorting effects of ethnocentrism. He uses sharp cutoff dates at 800 B.C. and 1950 A.D. to limit the data.

What Murray winds up with is a procedurally neutral measure of human accomplishment that is stable when new sources are added or taken away, and also has good face validity. In Medicine, for example, Pasteur is first with an index score of 100, Koch is third with 90 and Freud (for clinical descriptions of mental illnesses) is 18th with a score of 34.

The Lotka Curve

Murray's other major work made a certain kind of statistical curve a household word, and Human Accomplishment prepares a second candidate for improving public statistical awareness: the Lotka Curve. In the mid-1920s, Alfred Lotka noticed an interesting pattern in scientific journals. About 60% of people publish only one article for a journal. The number of people publishing more that this falls off very fast with the number of articles. This makes up a Lotka curve and is almost L shaped.

It turns out that in just about every field of human accomplishment significant figures fall along a Lotka curve. In Western literature, Shakespeare is far out along the horizontal part of the curve, Goethe a bit less so, and a whole host of lesser figures make up the nearly vertical part of the data set.

Dead White Males

Despite using several data collection techniques that wind up exaggerating the influence of non-Western cultures, Murray's data shows a strong majority of Westerners among the significant figures of world history.

Fully 97% of significant figures in the sciences come from the West. The same figure is arrived at from looking only at significant events. Even America is dwarfed by European accomplishment in the sciences, hosting less than 20% of significant figures before 1950 compared to Europe's nearly 80%. Europe's dominance over America is even greater in the arts. And though Murray makes sure to calculate what is an upper limit for artistic accomplishment in non-Western parts of the world, the graph is substantially the same as that for the sciences.

One of the astonishing parts of Murray's data is how it demonstrates the significant effects of legal equality. Jewish achievement after 1850 skyrocketed due to their newfound position before the law. Between 1910 and 1950, Jewish achievement tripled despite even the Third Reich and the Holocaust.

The graph of the achievement of woman displays a different pattern, despite their having gained substantial legal equality in the past century. Though there are slight increases in the numbers, women only represent a few percent of Murray's significant figures after 1900. Nor does the data available for the years beyond 1950 bear out any substantial increase in women's achievement during the second half of the twentieth century. Murray provides several possible explanations. Despite legal equality, women did not gain the same degree of immediate social equality that other groups did. Moreover, the substantially greater demands of parenthood upon women make achievement harder.

Decline

The last section of Human Accomplishment is somewhat surprising. When adjusted for population, Murray's numbers show a decline in accomplishment after 1800. When numbers are used that take not only total population in account, but also urban population and educated population, the decline has brought us down to nearly pre-Renaissance levels. For example, we have 65 playwrights alive today for every one in Elizabethan England. Yet do we have dozens of Shakespeares? The picture is even more stark when the 12,000 members of the screen Writers Guild are taken into account.

As a percentage, the number of significant figures in the sciences compared to the total population has dropped a great deal; this is despite a far greater percentage of working scientists and far more science and technical journals being published.

Murray goes through the data and shows why he believes that the decline is real and is not explicable by any procedural artifacts brought about by his methods. It is a somewhat disturbing conclusion to a great work.


You can purchase Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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Human Accomplishment

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  • by rsfpc (717694) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @12:36PM (#7348300) Homepage
    The numbers are without a doubt skewed. Come on... Saying 97 percent of the significant figures in sciences come from the west is like saying 90 percent of shark bite victims happen within 100 meters of the shoreline. Where did Murray receive his education? I suppose I'll have to read this book now. hmmmm, what to do this weekend, what to do...
    • Saying 97 percent of the significant figures in sciences come from the west is like saying 90 percent of shark bite victims happen within 100 meters of the shoreline.

      They're alike in that they're both...what?...true?
      I don't get your point. I'm sure there will be a huge onslaught of (possibly) valid criticisms from cultural relativists like Jared Diamond, but yours isn't one of them.
      • by rsfpc (717694) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @12:55PM (#7348559) Homepage
        The point is this... metrics are compiled based on reported statistics. If one ascertains from reported numbers that 90 percent of all shark bite victims happen within 100 meters of the shoreline it gives a false indication of where the sharks actually are and why they bite. Everyone swims within 100 meters of the shoreline! Back to the article: In a per-capita sense I'd wager than America has a significant advantage over hmmm... everyone in that its population did not exist during the time period Murray specified. The metrics being reported are most assuredly skewed. Also, based on where Murray received his education, his conciseness is biased towards that culture and the curriculum he paid attention to during his id years.
        • It's not really. What he is looking for is what conditions promote these accomplishments, not what culture produces the smartest or most capable people. Europe was stable and relatively wealthy through a large part the time period examined. Stability and money make for leisure time which gives rise to these kinds of accomplishments.

          It is very much like the shark bite statistic: If you want to avoid shark bites, stay out of that 100m region of the the water, that's where they happen. Of course, he's gone a s

    • Saying 97 percent of the significant figures in sciences come from the west is like saying 90 percent of shark bite victims happen within 100 meters of the shoreline

      Consider, for example, gunpowder. Invented in China, but they only ever used it for fireworks to amuse the aristocrats. In the West, sure it was used as a weapon, but it was also used in mining. Western lateral thinking meant that Western mines were more efficient, which accelerated all forms of technological development.

      Or mathematics is ano
      • by NearlyHeadless (110901) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @01:22PM (#7348910)
        Consider, for example, gunpowder. Invented in China, but they only ever used it for fireworks to amuse the aristocrats.
        Robin D. S. Yates, Professor of History and East Asian Studies at McGill University on Nova's web site [pbs.org]:

        " In my own research, I have been able to refute the common notion that the Chinese invented gunpowder but only used it for fireworks. I'm sure that they discovered military uses for it. I have found the earliest illustration of a cannon in the world, which dates from the change-over from the Northern Song to the Southern Song around 1127, which was 150 years before the development of the cannon in the West. The Song also used gunpowder to make fire lances - actually flame throwers - and many other gunpowder weapons, such as anti-personnel mines, which are thankfully now being taken out of general use."

      • by jwsd (718491) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @03:43PM (#7350826)
        As an Chinese living in the Western Culture for the past 10 years. I can testify that there are major differences between the two cultures. But I'm not convinced that Western culture is inherently better. In fact, I argue that the Western culture was able to take full advantage of science and technology because their societies evolved slower than the Chinese society. It is a well known fact in China that one of the major reasons China lagged behind Western societies in terms of science and technology in the past 300 years because the brightest people in the society were only encouraged to become managers of the country for the past 2000 years. Engineers were considered managers' tools and were looked down upon. Chronic lack of talented scientists and engineers eventually made China pay the price of defeat and humiliation in the hands of Western powers. What I have observed in America is that engineers are tools of upper management, especially in big corporations. It is human nature to pursue the best position within your society even though in the long run the society will fail. Everyday in America, corporate politicians back-stab each other to fight for their next promotions until the company fall apart under external pressure. Because China has been highly institutionized for a long period of time, the entire Chinese society have developed a culture of only pursuing management career track and avoiding engineer career track at all cost. Can you say this is not happenning in America right now? America has only achieved world dominance in the past 100 years. To dominate the world, America has to remain a big institution as a country just like China did since 2000 years ago. In the long run, the smartest Americans will learn to avoid science and engineer career tracks and pursue corporate executives and governments officials positions just like Chinese did for thousands of years. So the only reason the Western culture is ahead of other cultures in science and technology is that it was much less organized until recently. And this culture will evolve into the Chinese culture as the American government maintains its world's most powerful institution status in the future. FYI, ever since the Chinese were defeated by Western advanced technologies, its culture had made a 180 degree turn. Today all smart people are encouraged to pursue engineering degrees. Actually most top Chinese officials today graduated from engineering schools.
    • I spent several years living in Korea among the Koreans. I've studied their culture and personality up-close and personal.

      Ask a Korean where all the science development occured, and they will point to Europe. Ask them what they have done to further humanity's knowledge and they might mutter something about a great world vision and system called Confucianism, but not much else.

      It is true that recently (like in the past 50 years) Korea has experienced a rennaissance in that only now are their thinkers and artists truly free to express themselves. They understand that at this point, they are by no means pioneers. But soon their society will have "advanced" to a level that will be comparable with the European societies. They look to the West to find examples of great scientists, artists, political leaders (think American Revolution, Economic policy, etc...), in their effort to obtain the great wealth in all areas of life that we experience.

      They are even now adjusting their entire education system to become like the Greek /Roman / European system we inherited. It used to be, "Do as the teacher says, memorize, and repeat". Now it is becoming, "Question the teacher, and when the teacher can't answer your questions, turn to other sources, or discover the answer for yourself." This is going counter to almost 5,000 years of history in that region.

      The same holds true for Japan, China, and other Asian countries. It probably holds true for most of Africa, Australia, and even pre-1800's North and South America.

      They literally contributed very, very little to humanity while the West was changing the world every 50 years or so. This is not racism, or me being and egotistical white male American, this is solid fact.

      If you want to look at true human achievement, look at what the world is becoming. Only now do Asian, African, and other non-European begin to contribute to the arts and the sciences. Only now do you see advances in political and economical thought coming from there as well. This is all due to our natural sharing attitude, where we would rather teach and lift and bring others to our level than maintain our superiority with an iron fist. We understand that we are much more "wealthy" in true human achievemtn when we have two well-educated, intelligent people, than one well-educate and the other mis-educated.
      • by SeattleGameboy (641456) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @02:20PM (#7349698) Journal
        As a Korean-American, I find your condenscending, ignorant view of Koreans to be offensive.

        Koreans were the first to develop printing blocks, water clocks, submarines, etc. Not to mentions the most scientific and graceful written languauge in the world - Hangul.

        Koreans are very proud of their scientific and artistic achievements. And you if actually spent ANY time learning about their 4000 years of culture and achievements, then you wouldn't be spewing your little ignorant diatribe.

        Koreans are adopting to some (NOT ALL) western culture and methods because that makes them competitive in the modern economic world. And if you really want to nitpick, they are modeling themselves after Japan more than any other western country (yes, Japan modeled much from US, but I would argue they have improved much upon the original).

        What a nimcompoop...
      • If you want to look at true human achievement, look at what the world is becoming. Only now do Asian, African, and other non-European begin to contribute to the arts and the sciences. Only now do you see advances in political and economical thought coming from there as well. This is all due to our natural sharing attitude, where we would rather teach and lift and bring others to our level than maintain our superiority with an iron fist.

        Teach and uplift and bring others to our level? This is certainly
  • Yeah, Right ... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 30, 2003 @12:36PM (#7348307)
    The first spin is the fact that he chose the cutoff dates he did. If you chose cutoff dates of 2000 bce - 800 bce and 200 ad - 1200 ad, you'd decide that 97% of scientists and artists were Chinese, Arab, or Persian, and that Europeans were the giggling idiots of the planet.

    The second spin is how he defines "significant."
    • The first spin is the fact that he chose the cutoff dates he did.

      Well, I know I wouldn't welcome a resume from a species that basically said: "no noteworthy accomplishments for the past eight centuries; too busy with politically correct infighting."
    • Actually, I like the cutoff dates. They start at a time when the human race was reasonably present all over the planet, and end before the massive inrush of technology forces us to be arrogant and pleased with ourselves.

      But that could, of course, help account for the slowing of progress between 1800 and 1950. After 1950, our information infrastructure made progress in leaps and bounds.
      • Re:Yeah, Right ... (Score:3, Insightful)

        by pVoid (607584)
        You may like them, but as the parent poster pointed out, it's because you look from a Westerner's point of view. Arabs are known to have had very advanced mathematical techniques very early on.

        I won't link to (and destroy) a particular site, but just check this [google.ca] google search out. Also, of great importance was the discovery of 0...

        Also, don't forget the great library of Alexandria, and also the Incas and Mayas.

        In the end, those cultures are lost, and maybe even their fruits are lost, but that doesn't

      • Re:Yeah, Right ... (Score:2, Interesting)

        by benzapp (464105)
        But that could, of course, help account for the slowing of progress between 1800 and 1950.

        My god man, that was the period of time where human civilization changed the most. Life today is scarcely different than it was in 1950 except now we have television and personal computers. Our work is the same, our homes are the same, our military is the same. The post-war world has been about refinement of technology invented in the time period you mention. I would argue that there haven't been ANY ground break
    • Re:Yeah, Right ... (Score:5, Informative)

      by jgardn (539054) <jgardn@alumni.washington.edu> on Thursday October 30, 2003 @01:17PM (#7348837) Homepage Journal
      The reason he probably chose the cutoff dates like he did is because we don't have much of a record of the achievements of humanity in those periods. Most of what we know is closer to legend and myth than anything else. The only thing we do know for a fact is that there are a couple of pyramids in the middle of a desert with mummified remains inside them, and other such things. But outside of that, the best historical record is the Bible.

      I agree with you -- there were great societies that probably may have been far greater than the Romans back then. But we know nothing about them. We don't know even a fraction of their inventions, their theories, their political structures, their governments, or their societies. For all we know, they could've driven around in automobiles or flown around with wings. They could've had complex governmental structures that were at least as fair as the Roman system, and they may have had inventions that we would find quite significant.
      • Re:Yeah, Right ... (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        The only thing we do know for a fact is that there are a couple of pyramids in the middle of a desert with mummified remains inside them, and other such things. But outside of that, the best historical record is the Bible.

        Unforutnately, the Bible is a mediocre historical work at best: some bits are good, solid history, others are fantastical at best. In some places it fits perfectly with the archaeology and is backed up by other texts, in others it is contradicted by other texts which in fact are backed

  • 800 BCE? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Sebastopol (189276) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @12:37PM (#7348315) Homepage

    I would think the author would go back to at least 2,000 BCE or even 10,000 and identify the collosal leap made in farming. For a species to go from forraging to agrigulture seems like an enormous effort of overlapping memes (and luck).

    Can't wait to read the book.
    • Re:800 BCE? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Thursday October 30, 2003 @12:44PM (#7348417) Homepage Journal
      I strongly suspect that the cutoff at 800 BCE is due in part to the quantity of data available. Such a thoughtful author would not choose the date arbitrarily or based on simply one factor; I would hope that in the book somewhere he will tell us why he picked that particular time to begin, but the quantity of available trustworthy data is always significant.
    • I would think the author would go back to at least 2,000 BCE or even 10,000 and identify the collosal leap made in farming. For a species to go from forraging to agrigulture seems like an enormous effort of overlapping memes (and luck).

      1. Agriculture developed independently on many places of the planet.

      2. The purpose of the study was not to have a cool ranking list but to identify how society and institutions should be run to foster innovation in various fields. It seems unlikely that trying to squize
    • And how many journals would contain references to the person that made the leap to farming?
  • ....this line:

    "Moreover, the substantially greater demands of parenthood upon women make achievement harder."

    The problem is that it's difficult to quantify the contribution of a stay-at-home Mom to her childrens' education, welfare, development, etc. It's very significant; it's just difficult to measure with numbers. "Achievement" means different things to different people.
    • by Khomar (529552) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @12:44PM (#7348421) Journal

      Amen! This is one thing that has bothered me in today's society. It is assumed that because women do not make money or invent new technologies or lead successful companies that they are somehow inferior. The fact is that men and geared biologically and mentally to strive for what is commonly referred to as "achievement", but nearly every achievement can probably be traced back to the man's mother and her wise care and raising of him. Man affects the present. It is the teaching of the mother in the home that affects the future.

      • I don't think there is quite as much of an assumption that mothers are "inferior", rather society as a whole does not recognize people in support positions. There is only so much attention to go around and it tends to fall on the people who do flashy and unusual things. For instance, we all know about Neil Armstrong, but how many people can name the names of the ground crew? Does this mean we consider the ground crew to be inferior? I don't think so, but there are just too many of them to recognize prop
      • "women do not make money"

        My SO makes more than me. However, she's not in IT. To a certain extent the glass ceiling is starting to give way, but there is the problem of maternity that tends to make employers 'female-shy'.

        "invent new technologies"

        Lady Ada Byron?

        "lead successful companies"

        Anita Roddick? Carly Fiorina?

        "Man affects the present. It is the teaching of the mother in the home that affects the future."

        *cough* so the single parent families are screwed, then?
      • I agree with you women, that women are indeed better than men. ... here's the punchline ... So if you're better than us, why are you trying to lower yourself to our level?

        Another way of looking at the world is that for every great achievement of every great person, there were at least one and perhaps two women who can claim a large portion of the credit:

        1) Their mother. (Who else nurtured them and prepard them for greatness?)

        2) Their wife. (Who else encouraged them and supported them?)

        So next time you h
    • While raising a prodigy could definitely be considered an achivement, it's difficult to measure because you simply don't know what part of someone's upbringing is responsible for their achievements, and ultimately it could even turn out to be some physical trait. As you are no doubt aware, these people come from quite diverse backgrounds and led all sorts of lives.

      I strongly suspect that it has to do with some sort of societal pressure, though, that explains the decline of overall per capita achievement.

      • I strongly suspect that it has to do with some sort of societal pressure, though, that explains the decline of overall per capita achievement. The world has simply become an easier place to live in. You can walk through parks at night in many major cities, for example, without being part of an armed party.

        I tell you, I feel like I am living in opposite-land today. Do you really believe this??? What city do you live in???

        My god, people used to sleep in Central Park at night during the summer to stay coo
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 30, 2003 @12:38PM (#7348346)
    1. The west embraces the free marketplace of ideas more than others.

    2. Western dead white males write the history books that most of us read.
    • 1. The west embraces the free marketplace of ideas more than others.

      yet the idea of free market is quite young. Adam Smith published Wealth of Nation in 1776. How do you explain all the innovations during the reneissance when merchantilism ruled? Or perhaps during the height of Greeks?
      • by benzapp (464105) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @01:25PM (#7348959)
        yet the idea of free market is quite young. Adam Smith published Wealth of Nation in 1776. How do you explain all the innovations during the reneissance when merchantilism ruled? Or perhaps during the height of Greeks?

        Thats easy.

        Capitalism and Communism both fail because they measure value in materialistic terms only. When a society is directed by dedicated leaders, value is imposed. Florence doesn't have such beautiful architecture because the free market encouraged it, but because the leaders of the city demanded it. To a capitalist and a communist, ornate architecture is inherently inefficient and serves no real purpose. It isn't necessary for survival, but it feeds the soul. This cannot be quantified by a capitalist accountant, or a banker, or a communist bureaucrat. It is outside their realm of understanding.

        When you realize this, it makes perfect sense that culture is destroyed by capitalism and communism.
        • by TKinias (455818) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @01:39PM (#7349156)

          scripsit benzapp:

          Capitalism and Communism both fail because they measure value in materialistic terms only. ... When you realize this, it makes perfect sense that culture is destroyed by capitalism and communism.

          I don't know if you realize this, but you just about quoted Mussolini there. This is exactly the Fascist critique of socialism and liberal democracy -- they are solely materialistic and therefore soulless.

          This is not a flame, by the way -- I in no way am suggesting you would agree with any other fascist ideas.

          Out of curiosity, what would your `third path' be? How would your antimaterialist order work? Is it simply traditional conservatism (of the throne-and-altar type), or something different?

          • by benzapp (464105) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @02:33PM (#7349848)
            I don't know if you realize this, but you just about quoted Mussolini there. This is exactly the Fascist critique of socialism and liberal democracy -- they are solely materialistic and therefore soulless.

            This is not a flame, by the way -- I in no way am suggesting you would agree with any other fascist ideas.


            Yes, I do realize it. Mussolini had some interesting ideas, but failed to impliment them very well. In reality, it is easy to identify the problem of modernity. It is much more difficult to find a reasonable solution.

            And, no need to apologize. I admit that I am a fascist, in that I believe in the leadership principle, cultural standards, and I disagree with egalitarianism.

            Out of curiosity, what would your `third path' be? How would your antimaterialist order work? Is it simply traditional conservatism (of the throne-and-altar type), or something different?

            I believe in a system of social organization similar to that of Plato's Republic. It involves a hierarchical social structure based on philosophical education and eugenics. The best must be allowed to lead, not because they are popular or powerful, but because they are the most wise and the most excellent. The right to rule wouldn't come from God or popularity, but ethical superiority. This wouldn't be a dictatorship per se, but a new kind of aristocracy. Democracy and popular elections, along with the media structure which maintains such a system, must end however. Especially when the democracy is clearly a fraud, what advocate is simply honesty, and a leadership driven by clear ideals.

            Further, any political system of class warfare must end. The purpose of the state is to facillitate class cooperation for the betterment of all. Artisans need to be allowed to flourish , and only when they are not treated as second class citizens can cultural art truly exist again. In some cases, it will be difficult. There are few stonemasons left in this world, but that is one trade I want to see improve. The economic system I advocate is very close to that suggested by the Green Party, which I look at as something of an intermediate step to a fully idealistic state. Without cultural unity or standards however, none of it matters.

            As far as cultural renewal, this would be done on a local scale. Each culture should be allowed to thrive and exclude that which does not conform with its culture. In the US, after years of cosmopolitanism, this would very difficult... but I believe it could happen. It would probably be less like an actual state, and more like seperate districts within a state. You could even create a zone for the so called non-conformists where they could non-conform with each other, but visit other unified cities when it suits them.

            Another important aspect of the future leaders would be the furthering and appraising of technological innovations. Technology is changing the world far more quickly than current bureaucratic governments can react. A prime role of the future leaders would be to ensure that technology is not abused, both in ways which harm people or the environment. Society must be careful that technological innovation does not weaken our people by reducing the impact of natural selection, thus eugenics is a necessary part of this future society.

            I also believe that the warrior ethic should be a major part of this future society. Military service should be mandatory, and combat training should be a part of life from a very young age. In addition to standard militarism, a return to dualing as a legal means of conflict resolution would be beneficial.

            Life should be centered around ordered art, combat, honorable behavior, personal excellence, technological innovation, and exploring the unknown.

            thats all I can think of at the moment...
    • Scientific Method (Score:3, Insightful)

      by bstadil (7110)
      On a more serious note the invention of the Scientific method by Francis Beacon el al is the real cause of the dominance.

      The whole concept of progress, not just looking back to a Golden Age coupled with a purpose of study of the Natural Sciences as it was called.

      The Purpose was still framed in Christian ethics of Charity ie Betterment of the life of fellow human beings, but this was enough to "shovel off this religious coil" that has keept man's progress down.

      The problem with the rest of the world i

    • Yet the rise of Islam between 700-1200 in the common era was spread by the capitalist and free market practices of the predominantly urban members of the new faith. While Europe was struggling through the dark ages, Muslims were responsible for combining the Hindu concept of zero with more commonplace numeral systems to produce place-value and the easily recognizable 0-9 Arabic numbers which we use worldwide 1000 years later. A Muslim from this era define algorithms and algebra. Arabs in this era translated the ancient Greek works and snatched them from the very brink of obscurity; without those translations the West would very likely have no idea who any Greek philosophers were, or more importantly, what they said and accomplished.

      I too find it peculiar that the author says 97% of anybody comes from the West. I would tend to place a far higher importance on the people who gave the world the foundations of modern science and slightly less importance on the people who explored those tools further. Surely there's a Jewish physicist or two who turned the universe on its ear, but to lump all these medieval Muslim scientists - many of whom had just as much impact (in context) as Einstein - into less than 3% makes me skeptical.

      (Not that these Muslims were world famous or well received for their contributions, but place-value number systems and algebra were just as phenomenally world-shattering in the year 1000 as the theory of relativity in 2000.)

      • scripsit back_pages:

        (Not that these Muslims were world famous or well received for their contributions, but place-value number systems and algebra were just as phenomenally world-shattering in the year 1000 as the theory of relativity in 2000.)

        I think you've backed into an important problem with the methodology of this study -- it priveleges the work of individuals who get credit as individuals. Who invented zero? Ahmed Cipher? We don't have his name, so even though he (it probably was a he...) in

    • With the exception of the Far East, the rest of the world simply didn't have the technology the Europeans had - Native Americans were still using stone knives and bearskins when we crossed the Atlantic, and bloody likely still would be today if we hadn't showed up (been doing it for 1500 years, no need to change for the next 500). Ditto Africa. Now..that has nothing to do with skin color, or eye color, or anything as silly and superficial as that - but the unfortunate fact is Europe and the DWMs came up wit
    • 1. The west embraces the free marketplace of ideas more than others.

      What has that got to do with anything? What about the Chinese overlords (from waaaay back) that had well fed advisors to do research and science. What about the Tao Te Ching... What about the Chou-pei from 1105 B.C. which contained among other things a section on the Pythagorean triangle...

      Free market place is a very very young concept, you might be happy to see Stalin fail, and Castro made to fail, but the free market place still has

    • scripsit an AC:

      Western dead white males write the history books that most of us read.

      Oddly, every textbook I've read recently was written by a non-dead author. Some died after they wrote the books, of course, but none before.

  • by DrEldarion (114072) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @12:38PM (#7348348)
    Fully 97% of significant figures in the sciences come from the West. The same figure is arrived at from looking only at significant events. Even America is dwarfed by European accomplishment in the sciences, hosting less than 20% of significant figures before 1950 compared to Europe's nearly 80%

    Wow, that's surprising! I would have NEVER expected that Europe, with LOADS more people than America, would have more significant figures! Especially before 1950, when America hadn't really gotten up to full speed yet.
    • by DG (989) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @12:53PM (#7348529) Homepage Journal
      More to the point, given that his date range is 800 BCE to 1950 CE, and the Americas were colonies struggling to be self-sufficiant (with little time for art or science) up until about 1800 or so, that gives Europe a much larger time window.

      And then there's a classification problem related to the increase in global travel post 1900-ish. Is Einstein American, or European?

      As for the decline in achievement post 1800... that's probably because all the low-hanging fruit are gone. The remaining problems tend to be "hard" in some non-trivial sense.

      DG
      • Low hanging fruits are gone?

        That's gibberish. What is a low hanging fruit now was a pipe dream 100 years ago and unimagineable 200 years ago. The digital watch seems a trivial enough device, but many hundreds of years ago people spent extraordinary amounts of time and money to track what time it was. They might have considered the digital watch or maybe even a clockwork pocket watch of 150 years ago to be the final culmination of mankind's achievement.

        We are constantly changing the definitions of wha
      • As for the decline in achievement post 1800... that's probably because all the low-hanging fruit are gone. The remaining problems tend to be "hard" in some non-trivial sense.

        I think new advances are going, for the large part, to less dramatic. Our view of the universe doesn't need substantial, fundamental corrections anymore (well, I could be wrong--pre-1904 physicists thought that, too), and our advancements have largely been in applied science.

        Also, the dropoff could be partly because we haven't recog
      • Another interesting thing is, why cut it off at 1950, the point at which American technology really took off? It would seem that Murray suffers from the same Europhilia plagueing high society. Perhaps this book was written like an undergraduate paper: decide what you want to prove, then prove it, choosing your sources to back up your thesis.

        Think about it: Murray, who wants to see Europe as the center of civilization, would practically HAVE to cut off at 1950. Accepting later data would show that the Ameri
  • If Lotka Curves were known since early last century, why do I find just one occurance of "Lotka Curve" (in quotes) on Google?
    • If Lotka Curves were known since early last century, why do I find just one occurance of "Lotka Curve" (in quotes) on Google?

      Not everything that's worth knowing is available on the Internet, no matter what Microsoft thinks.
  • Time will tell (Score:5, Interesting)

    by BWJones (18351) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @12:44PM (#7348407) Homepage Journal
    The other significant problem with assigning "value" to more current achievements is that we have yet to find out what the implications of much research is. For instance, many people do not know who Mario Capecchi is, as he has yet to win a Nobel prize (but he will given his contributions to genetics). Furthermore, folks like Shakespeare were not recognized as the geniuses they were until long after their time on earth had passed.

  • by nanojath (265940) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @12:47PM (#7348451) Homepage Journal
    The principle of academy comes through european civilisations. Doing basic science is a luxury of people who don't have to go and scrape some kind of survival out of the dirt - if you look at the resumes of natural philosophers of yore you can't help but notice a preponderance of gentlemen of leisure - they had the means and the opportunity. And of course, any system (be it political, academic, ideological) ends up defining what is "significant" to some degree, how much being debatable to a well-nigh infinite degree. That these definitions tend to group within the boundaries of the system is hardly surprising.


    It sounds like an interesting read, perhaps, but I tend to need to take these kinds of things with a whole shakerfull of salt. Human civilization is something that is occurring over a timescale of millions of years, not a couple thousand, and it is the seemingly inescapable tendency of every age to think it can see past the cultural and temporal blinders and set down the "objective" view of the way things are. If you believe anyone really has it, I've got a bottle of phlogiston to sell you.

  • For example, we have 65 playwrights alive today for every one in Elizabethan England. Yet do we have dozens of Shakespeares? The picture is even more stark when the 12,000 members of the screen Writers Guild are taken into account.

    We have a reasonably good count of the writers and actors who are waiting tables for a living while awaiting their big break. We do not have a good count -- I'd be surprised if we have any count at all -- of similar people in Elizabethan England.

  • Here is a poem by al-Mutanabbi: "Glory and honour were healed when you were healed, and your pain passed on to your enemies. Light, that had left the sun, as if it was sick in its body, came back to it. By race, the Arabs are supreme in the world, but a foreigner will take part with the Arabs of good heart." And I wondered why I've never heard of him.
  • I've always felt like the world is in a period of decline despite the amazing advances in the sciences and arts. If asked, I would normally frame that decline as somehow moral or spiritual in nature. I'm going to seek out this book to investigate this idea of decline more carefully.

    • Maybe the decline is a result of other factors external to the creative types. Like a Patent office, Copyrights, red tape for businesses, and a hugely burdensome legal system that can take the incentive out of creating something due to potential liability problems.
    • scripsit under_score:

      I've always felt like the world is in a period of decline despite the amazing advances in the sciences and arts.

      This is hardly an uncommon view, now or through history.

      There really isn't a good way to measure this sort of decline, since it is by nature not measurable (How do you quantify `moral and spiritual'? With apologies to my social sciences colleagues, I say you don't...) The interesting thing to me is not whether some decline is occurring, but that there is a persistant

      • True enough... although there is some seemingly obvious ebb and flow: the height of the Roman empire, the Renaissance, the height Islam, etc. Although I am not a history expert, I have the sense that these heights were characterized by strong religious, spiritual and moral impulses.

        Modern society in the West, over the last couple of centuries, has become progressively more materialistic and less religious/spiritual etc. Does that lead to decline? How is decline defined? I don't really have good answers

  • I found this last part the most intriguing, and it is something that I have suspected for a long time. When you consider that in ancient times it took 9 out of every 10 people just to produce enough food to feed everyone, it makes the accomplishments and inventions of those times even more astounding.

    We are building our new technology on the backs of the inventiveness of our ancestors. We don't have to re-invent the wheel... or the combustion engine... or depth perspective art. It has already been don

    • I found this last part the most intriguing, and it is something that I have suspected for a long time.

      Don't let the fact that he's telling you what you already believed cause you to not investigate the claims. He's measuring his decline based on the number of "significant" individuals. That "significant" is defined by how much they are talked about, and that achievments by groups of non-famous people are ignored, should show that even if the claim of a decline is true, he isn't conclusively proving it.
      • You make some very good points, and I agree with everything that you said. I am intrigued, but not necessarily sold on his proofs. I would have to read the book (and I might just do that if I can find the time) to make a better decision on that, but I found it interesting in that it supports my own observations and theories -- though I have admittedly little factual proof at this time.

  • Another one (Score:3, Informative)

    by Otter (3800) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @12:49PM (#7348491) Journal
    One of my favorite books, with a less controversial orientation -- The Discoverers [amazon.com], by Daniel Boorstin. It reviews the progress of science, engineering and invention from ancient times until recently.

    (And to head off the inevitable complaining: no, there is no referrer tag in that URL. Whatever you're bitching about, it's Amazon's, not mine.)

  • Are we supposed to believe that "how many paragraphs were written about person X" is a reasonable measurement of how good a scientist person X is? It might be something of a indication, but it is almost certainly not enough to rank people in a meaningful order.

    If he had just chosen his favorites (and defended his choices), that would be reasonable, but claiming that this method is objective is ridiculous.
  • by NightWulf (672561) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @12:55PM (#7348551)

    Human Race

    humanrace@earth.com

    Third Planet from Sun

    Sol, Milky Way 90210

    (555)0000001

    MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENTS

    Sucessful downsizing of pesky animal and plant problem on planet.

    Created science, religion, and McDonalds.

    Created bureaucracy.

    We're the ones sending out 50 year old "I Love Lucy" episodes in space.

    Created the atomic bomb.

    QUALIFICATIONS

    Ability to split everything in to groups, reduce them to superficial views then discriminate.

    Can eradicate anything you want in a quick, effeciant manner.

    We laugh, we love, we play, we're like sea monkeys except we breathe air.

    Terraforming.

    Created computers, then made them useful enough to take over the jobs of 80% of our species, smart eh?

    EMPLOYMENT HISTORY

    Stone Age, Earth: (10KBC - 2000BC)

    Mostly went around grunting at eachother.

    Occasionaly raped and pillaged another cave.

    Created art using feces and cave walls.

    Dark Ages, Earth: (500AD- 800AD)

    Not too much happened. We did kill off a shitload of our own people cause we lived like pigs and ended up catching the black plauge.

    Technology Age, Earth: (1900AD - Current)

    Created manned flight, space travel, robotics, computers, cloning and bio terrorism. Job seems risky right now and looking for new oppurtunities before recently created AI becomes new manager.

    EDUCATION

    Graduated first in class of 1,000,000,000,000 species on planet.

    Top 1% of tool using monkeys.

    HONORS

    Created especially by this God fellow.

  • For example, we have 65 playwrights alive today for every one in Elizabethan England. Yet do we have dozens of Shakespeares?

    I hardly think Shakespeare was considered an icon in his time. Similarly, If there are "dozens of Shakespeares" running around today, we wont know about it. Maybe our grandchildren will turn them in to icons. Or their grandchildren.

    It's not uncommon for "greatness" in (literature, painting, scupture -- "the arts") not to be generally recognized until well after the artists death

    • For the record, William Shakespeare was well regaurded in his own time and wrote plays his monarch. His abilities alone got him accepted into the royal court with a position of favour. Yes he was considered an icon.

      Many other "masters" were also recognized in their own time including, but not limited to:

      • Motzart
      • Michalangelo (spelling?)
      • Leonardio da Vinci
      • Beatoven (spelling?)
      • Goethe
      • Edgar Allen Poe
      • Christopher Columbous (surprized, no he didn't die in poverty, and he knew he discovered a new world, sorr
      • The same goes for modern "playwrites", actors and "artists". But none of them have the "icon" status that's associated with Shakespeare. I think you missed my point.

        How many "Knights" are there? Sir Roger Moore? Sir Alec Guiness? etc...

        The point is, the type of "fame" associated with Shakespeare is quite different. How many others had similar life-time achivements yet ended up in obsurity after their death?

        Seriously, will J.K. Rowling be studied 300 or 400 years from now? Will she be a "Shakespear
  • This L-shaped Lotka curve bears a suspicious resemblance to the Zipf distribution [useit.com], which describes the popularity or prominence of objects in a wide range of fields. It is better displayed on a logarithmic scale, where the L shaped curve becomes a straight line. It would be interesting to see if Murray's data also showed that effect.
  • I for one welcome our new Western overlords...

    Um...

  • Read "Guns Germs and Steel" (as Bill Gates has ;p ) to understand why this may be the case.
    http://www.wwnorton.com/catalog/spring99/gunsgerms .htm [wwnorton.com]
  • by Chris Burke (6130) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @01:04PM (#7348667) Homepage
    was that blacks are inherently stupid, I'm not surprised that he comes to the conclusion in this book that Westerners do all the great work. Does George Washington Carver (presumeably an outlier on the Bell Curve) make the list?

    Are there a dozen Shakespeares? Maybe! How would you know? There are dozens of great playwrights in the world today, and dozens of authors, etc. Which are today's Shakespeare? Ask me in three hundred years when can see which authors are still talked about and studied in school. Was Shakespeare hailed as "the Homer of today" at the time? No!

    "Significant" figures in science are decreasing? Maybe it's because more science is being done by groups of scientists collaborating. If a dozen papers come out of one university research group, but each has a different author's name on the top, then is that less accomplishment than six papers with one author? I guess the accomplishments of groups of scientists working together isn't significant.

    Frankly, I think the absence of "significant" figures is a sign of progress. It shows that our scientific base is widening, so that contributions come from a greater number of individuals. Contrast for example Galileo, one of the only people doing astrological work at the time. Whereas now there are observatories around the world with thousands upon thousands of individuals studying the stars, each making their own contributions.

    This book sounds like crap, which I base half on the review and half on my opinion that the Bell Curve was crap. Knowing the way he covers his crap assumptions and the resulting crap conclusions with statistics and charts that seem reasonable at first, I'm seeing heavy potential for the same kind of thing here. Starting with taking whatever statistical feature he's actually looking at and calling it "Achievment", a mirror of taking scores from a military aptitude test and calling that "Intelligence".

    But he'll probably get a lot of book sales from people who want to hear about how white folk from the west are the producers of all human achievment.

    • "...since the conclusion of his last book was that blacks are inherently stupid..."

      That's not what he concluded, now was it. The conclusion of The Bell Curve was that you can find IQ trends amongst races, and if you recall correctly, Asians had the highest rate of geniuses. Murray is White, so where is his bias?

      He stated you will find geniuses in ALL races, but you will find higher proportions in certain races.

      Just because GWC was a genius does not mean every other Black person will be or can be.

      I al
      • by Chris Burke (6130) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @01:57PM (#7349394) Homepage
        That's not what he concluded, now was it.

        It was that as a race blacks have lower average intelligence and a much lower chance of producing a geniuses. The Bell Curve for blacks is shifted to the left. So yes, that is pretty much what he concluded: blacks are dumber than other races.

        Just because GWC was a genius does not mean every other Black person will be or can be.

        What's your point? That applies to everyone. I wasn't saying GWC proves all blacks are geniuses, I was questioning whether Carver was considered "significant" by Murray.

        The conclusion of The Bell Curve was that you can find IQ trends amongst races, and if you recall correctly, Asians had the highest rate of geniuses. Murray is White, so where is his bias?

        What, because he didn't put Whites at the top of the I.Q. Totem Pole that means he didn't have a bias? That's ridiculous. Particularly if his "bias" was against certain races less than for others. And "Asians are smart" is simply the parallel stereotype to "Blacks are dumb". Neither one was a new idea to the crowd the Bell Curve was written for, he was just providing them "proof".

        I always find it astounding how people will readily admit that certain breeds of dogs have undeniable traits (Jack Russel Terriers are smart, Bloodhounds have highly sensitive noses, etc.) but then look at humans and refuse to admit any bio-level distinctions might be there.

        I'm not denying the possibility of differences between races -- there are, obviously. I'm denying that his book was anything but overhyped shit designed to appeal to what rich white fucks already thought with sloppy science.

        I guess that's why 75+% of the NBA is Black - because Asians and Whites are every bit as athletic, right?

        I guess that's why 90+% of the NFL is White - because Asians and Blacks are every bit as athletic, right?

        But that's the Bell Curve way, isn't it? Find the metric that tells you what you want to hear, then use that and ignore all other factors.

        If you ask the question, "Are there really differences between races?" and eliminate "Yes" as a possible answer, you aren't being intellectually honest.

        True. But if you cherry pick your data and measuring methods (one military aptitude test that was never even intended to measure "intelligence", number of paper references, percentage of one race playing a particular sport) to get the answer you have already assumed is true, then that's intellectually dishonest as well.
    • Aside from saying "I agree", which I do, the review started with such promise. The idea of trying to learn something about the kinds of social forces which spark real innovation is an interesting idea...

      Until the review described the book as a race/sex list of the "top individual contributors" of mankind. That stuff is just fodder for the white supremicists.

      But it could just be a bad review.

  • by InsaneCreator (209742) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @01:06PM (#7348693)
    write a resume for the whole human species

    Tastes great with ketchup...
  • The graph of the achievement of woman displays a different pattern, despite their having gained substantial legal equality in the past century. Though there are slight increases in the numbers, women only represent a few percent of Murray's significant figures after 1900. ... Murray provides several possible explanations. Despite legal equality, women did not gain the same degree of immediate social equality that other groups did. Moreover, the substantially greater demands of parenthood upon women make ach
  • When adjusted for population, Murray's numbers show a decline in accomplishment after 1800. When numbers are used that take not only total population in account, but also urban population and educated population, the decline has brought us down to nearly pre-Renaissance levels.

    Stand that argument on its head and it becomes interesting. The modern rate of accomplishment puts the Renaissance to shame, yet the per-capita rate of accomplishment is Dark Ages or worse. That means that the modern impact of each
  • The whole point of a resume is to highlight a persons accomplishments and experiece that might have prepared you for some new position. Therefore most recent experience and accomplishment is most relevant. But an intelectual exercise to come up with a resume for humanity is pointless unless you determine who your reader would be... It might be a good exercise if one were to think of an alien race looking at a resume or God, but isn't a list of individuals pointless and even a list of ideas and discoveries

  • I'd boast of our "less likely being a random occurence", like this [vub.ac.be]

  • ...'Mostly Harmless'

  • No good (Score:2, Funny)

    by S. Baldrick (565691)

    While the Human Race's resume is certainly impressive, without an MCSE we cannot accept it for this position. Best of luck in your future endeavours.

  • by David Leppik (158017) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @01:20PM (#7348885) Homepage
    For example, we have 65 playwrights alive today for every one in Elizabethan England. Yet do we have dozens of Shakespeares? The picture is even more stark when the 12,000 members of the screen Writers Guild are taken into account.


    Simple reason: increased competition leads to decreased fame. If you have dozens of Shakespeares, no single one of them is going to be as famous as if you have just one. Since the measure of success is necessarily some form of popularity contest, you cannot fairly compare Shakespeare's talent to modern talent. It's like saying Perrier is better than tap water when you tasted the former at noon on a hot day in Death Valley and the latter on a cold and rainy October day in Minnesota.



    Nor can you say "I saw a Shakespeare play today and a Tom Stoppard play yesterday, and X is better." We have a culture that primes you for Shakespeare starting before Kindergarden, with all of those "Romeo and Juliet" references, among other things. Stoppard, on the other hand, writes for a post-Shakespeare audience, and builds on Shakespeare. You can't isolate one from the other, nor either from its environment.

    • Nor can you say "I saw a Shakespeare play today and a Tom Stoppard play yesterday, and X is better."

      I gotta throw the flag on this one. You make good points, but this is not one of them. People in society today are so damn phobic of making judgments. I _can_ say that X is better. Just because nothing can exist in isolation does not mean that I can't decide how good it is. If enough informed people say that X is better, well then by any reasonable metric, X is better. There is nothing wrong with makin
  • by elwinc (663074) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @01:24PM (#7348936)
    Hah! According to the review,
    So what Murray has done is to split up accomplishment into a number of fields and tried to take a neutral measure of each person's respective 'eminence' in the field. He measures 'eminence' by taking a number of comprehensive sources on each field and counting the references to each person and how many paragraphs they get. The sources are from as many different languages as possible and Murray does a good job of avoiding the distorting effects of ethnocentrism. He uses sharp cutoff dates at 800 B.C. and 1950 A.D. to limit the data.
    Are these "comprehensive sources on each field" written in russian or arabic or chinese or sanskrit or swahili?

    I don't think so! I'll bet the great majority of sources are english and the rest are western european. Guess what? People tend to reference works written in their own native language! This is bias up the wazoo! So much for a neutral measure!

    I've only spent about 5 minutes thinking about it, but a slightly less biased (but not neutral) measure would involve counting works translated into multiple languages. The idea being that if a work is worth the effort of importing from another language/culture, then it's more significant than an untranslated work.

    The fact that Murray could build this obvious fundamental bias into his metric is laughable. Then to proceed blithely with the whole book pretending his metric is neutral is just absurd. A whole book about measuring science, and it's based on a warped ruler!

    Truly, Schiller was right: against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain.

  • What's the job? Who is the target audience of this resume? It's not a resume.
  • It is hardly surprising that most of the accomplishments of value to certain societys were done by members of that society.

    If painting is not meaningful to a society, it will not be likely to produce a major figure in this fine art. And Murray, who comes from a society that values paintings, will think the "others" are somehow inferior because they've not created any Picassos.

  • The problem with comparing art and events from the 20th Century is that they haven't weathered the cruelest judge of all: Time.

    Mozart and Shakespeare didn't create in a vacuum. There were other composers, playwrites, and poets running around during their days yet their material not only survives but thrives. It is because their ideas captured a timeless quality. How do you measure that on recent creations?

    It seems slightly unfair to say that the world is in decline just because we don't have 12 Shaeksp
  • Nonsense (Score:4, Insightful)

    by duffbeer703 (177751) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @01:52PM (#7349329)
    The Bell Curve (the book not the concept) has pretty much been completely discredited.

    I imagine that this book will be as well. Measuring "achievement" is easy to skew since it is a moving target that you can define to suit your opinion.

    If you asked a Chinese scholar a couple of hundred years ago about the meaning of achievement, he would probaly stress cultural and social stability.

    If you asked a Sioux in 1750, he'd probaly describe a great buffalo hunt.

    Mr. Murray has undoubtably done a great job describing how citizens of Western societies have done a great job of advancing western civilization.

    What a revelation! Maybe in his next book he'll statistically analyze swimming and discover that fish are the best swimmers!
    • Re:Nonsense (Score:3, Informative)

      The Bell Curve (the book not the concept) has pretty much been completely discredited.

      Not really. There was of course much politically-motivated agitation against it, but most of what the book said was already well-established science. After the Bell Curve controversy, the American Psychological Association formed an expert panel to produce a consensus statement on what is known about IQ. I think most people who read it will be surprised to find out that what they think are the most controversial parts

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