Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Good News for Philistines

Rob Schaap's excoriation of the state of the Yartz, and avante gardism, has brought quite a few of the blogosphere's philistines out of the closet. I don't think I entirely share Rob's view of the state of the Yartz, particularly music. There's nothing wrong with the music of Karl Heinz Stockhausen, for example, that a good melody line wouldn't fix.

John Quiggin has posted briefly, endorsing Rob's position. Through a comment at John's blog from Jack Strocchi, I found this Washington Times article in which Steve Sailer interviews Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve:

It ignited controversy by arguing that IQ scores are one of the most overlooked tools for understanding how American society is structured.

You'd never know from this coy remark that Steve is actually a bit of a Murray fan (just as Jack Strocchi appears to be a bit of a Steve Sailer fan); however visit his website and it becomes clear where Steve stands on the relation between IQ and social status and that Steve is an energetic populariser of the "Science of IQ". He has little time for anyone who argues that IQ is mostly a load of bollocks, as this snide obituary for Stephen Jay Gould shows:

Gould's most famous and influential book was The Mismeasure of Man, which exemplified his trademark combination of antiquarianism and guilt by association in the service of character assassination. In it, he attempted to destroy the modern science of IQ by recounting the stumblings of 19th-century researchers working before the IQ test was even invented. Of course, that line of attack makes as much sense as trying to discredit modern astronomy by writing a book revealing that ancient astronomers thought the sun went around the Earth.

By the last decade of his life, Gould's moment had passed. His theories on human nature had proven sterile. Neo-Darwinism had triumphed. The bright young women on campus were flocking to evolutionary psychology, a field that the old leftist found deeply suspicious. Although Gould's slanders had slowed the scientific study of intelligence by helping starve it of funding, it continued to advance.

Murray has a new book out, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950. It sounds like the sort of book you might buy if someone gave you an Amazon gift certificate and Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin was out of stock. Murray's book is an attempt to rank the top 4,000 artists and scientists in human history. Steve seems to be fairly keen on the idea of top people; as well as being a working journalist, he's:

the founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute, which runs the invitation-only Human Biodiversity discussion group for top scientists and public intellectuals.

I don't know whether Murray is a member of the Human Biodiversity Institute but it's clear that Steve considers him a top public intellectual, so his line of questioning in the interview is far from aggressive. This works in his favour; his fawning approach allows Murray space to explain his work, and his approach to identifying the world's greatest artists and scientists in a little detail:

Murray meticulously measured how much attention the leading scholars in their fields pay to the top creators and discoverers. Reading "Human Accomplishment" is a little like browsing through the statistics-laden "Baseball Encyclopedia," except that instead of being about Ruth, Di Maggio, and Bonds, Murray's book is about Picasso, Darwin, and Edison.


Q. Can you truly quantify objectively which artists and scientists were the most eminent?

A. Sure. It's one of the most well-developed quantitative measures in the social sciences. (The measurement of intelligence is one of its few competitors, incidentally.)

My indices have a statistical reliability that is phenomenal for the social sciences. There's also a very high "face validity" -- in other words, the rankings broadly correspond to common-sense expectations.

So there you go; thanks to Murray we now have an objective, statistically reliable catalogue of history's intellectual greats. Murray makes it clear at the outset that he didn't allow his own opinions to influence his analysis of the data:

Q. Who came out on top of big categories like Western Literature, Western Art, Western Philosophy, and Combined Sciences?

A. Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aristotle, and Newton -- the people you'd expect.

In Western music, Mozart and Beethoven were in a dead heat, with Bach third. A rather vocal minority is upset about Bach not being on top. I'm not. I love Bach, but it's awfully hard to listen to Beethoven's later symphonies and string quartets and figure out how anybody could possibly be ranked above him.

However, let me stress: I'm not the one who made those decisions. And occasionally I had to grin and bear it when things didn't come out according to my druthers. Rousseau and Byron are way too high in Western literature for my taste, for example.

You have to admire Murray's intellectual integrity here; a lesser person might have been tempted to fudge the figures, on the basis that Rousseau and Byron receive a lot of attention from leading scholars because their work is great in being bad (like the poetry of William Topaz McGonagall, poet and tragedian of Dundee).

For some reason, I'm skeptical of the idea that by surveying lit crit, music crit and other fields of scholarship you can arrive at an objective list of the world's brightest and best. It reminds me too much of past attempts to assign IQs to historical figures; a topic Gould covers The Mismeasurement of Man. But it's probably better to reserve judgement until I've at least had the chance to flick through the book in a public library or remainder bin somewhere.

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