'Bell Curve' Author Weighs In On Abortion and Crime Study

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

(CNSNews.com) - An academic duo caused a recent stir by suggesting a link between abortion, race and a drop in the national crime rate, offending a variety of activists on all sides of abortion and civil rights issues.

But Charles Murray, author of a controversial 1994 book that suggested a link between race and I.Q., urges calm.

"My view of that kind of controversial conclusion is that we ought to react by saying, 'Isn't that interesting,' and then exploring it some more," said Murray. "The appropriate reaction is not saying these guys are absolutely right or these guys are absolutely wrong."

Like Murray, University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt and Stanford Law School professor John J. Donohue III have insisted they were motivated purely by academic discovery when they published their study in the May issue of the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

The study used statistical modeling to investigate whether there is a link between a nationwide drop in the crime rate since the 1970s and legalized abortion, the theory being that fewer unwanted children mean fewer troubled children around to commit crimes.

Ever since a draft of the study was leaked to the media in 1999, Levitt and Donohue's study has provoked not only the usual round of academic quibbling over methodology, but more heated criticism from the political arena.

"Liberal academia. It doesn't surprise me that a big academic journal has picked it up and is now considering it," remarked David Alamsi, director of Project 21, an African-American group promoting a conservative alternative to the traditional civil rights establishment.

Project 21 has greeted the abortion study with suspicion and criticism, as have groups like the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the American Life League.

"Abortion is always something that has been looked upon favorably by academia," said Alamsi.

"So this study is yet another thing they can point to and say, 'isn't this a great thing; look at how we've helped improve these communities to give them the opportunity to alleviate themselves of the unwanted burden of pregnancy.'"

Murray, however, says such criticism from political and policy advocacy groups is unwarranted.

"Whether Levitt is right or not about crime does not dictate what your policy ought to be about abortion," said Murray.

"And that's true of all sorts of social science findings. I think sometimes it's the investigators themselves who make the mistake of saying, 'we find X and therefore we have to do Y' in policy. You must separate out the question of determining what is versus what ought to be."

"It is possible to believe that the Levitt article is absolutely, unequivocally correct in all its empirical findings, and still be against abortion for principled reasons," Murray added.

Murray's 1994 book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, was, as one observer put it, incendiary. Murray and co-author Richard J. Herrnstein said, in part, that I.Q. is a good predictor of success and poverty and that Asians and whites have scored higher on I.Q. tests than blacks.

"I watched the reaction to the Bell Curve, partly because I was personally involved, but some part of me stood apart with detachment and said, 'People have just gone nuts,'" Murray recalled. "The same kind of thing applies to some of the reaction to the Levitt article."

"It's not sufficient that one be wrong; one must also be evil," Murray said, referring to the vitriolic hatred of him that ensued in the aftermath of the Bell Curve.

"When you're using the kind of very complicated statistical modeling they (Levitt and Donahue) are doing, you can be extremely confident and there's still lots of room for arguing about what the results mean," he said.

"I don't think that process has worked itself out yet. The appropriate thing to happen is over a period of a couple of years people slice the data one way and another and take a look at what happens when you re-specify that model. Then we'll have a better idea of what it all means."

"Right now I don't think it has any policy implications," said Murray. His advice to political activists: "Calm down."