(It's unfortunate that Fortune magazine doesn't appear in the chart: Back in 1984, Daniel Seligman's "Keeping Up" column in Fortune was outstanding. I can recall it occurring to me one day in the early 1990s while driving to work down Lake Shore Drive that Seligman's successor ought to be me.)
Has the accuracy of coverage declined over the last 29 years, as the graph suggests? I'm leery of drawing comparisons over time. It's the usual problem that social science instruments are pretty good at easy comparisons -- e.g., the quality of this blog vs. that of commercial networks -- but the kind of trend questions that everybody likes to obsess over -- Are things getting better or worse? -- require more methodological care.
Thinking back to my own memories 1984, I can't really come to a conclusion.
Consider the career of Charles Murray. In 1984, when he published Losing Ground, he didn't think much of IQ and therefore didn't know much about it. Over the next decade, he educated himself. But when he and the distinguished psychologist Richard Herrnstein proposed publishing The Bell Curve, Murray was dumped by his think tank. On the other hand, AEI snapped him up.
The New Republic published a big summary article on their book by Herrnstein and Murray in 1994, but it turned out that only publisher Marty Peretz and editor Andrew Sullivan didn't hate it. Fifteen staffers demanded to publish rebuttals, most of which were embarrassing. This suggests to me that back in the 1980s and 1990s passions were high , but the blanket wasn't so suffocating. My impression is that Peretz and Sullivan were kind of surprised that their staffers were such dopes on this subject.
My impression is that there are a few main differences between now and 1984.
- First, we have 29 years more of the accumulation of evidence of all types. And mostly things look pretty much as they did in 1984, just more so. It's a lot harder to argue today in good faith that Real Soon Now everything will be different, so the urge to crush dissenters and to control the past is even stronger.
- Second, back in 1984 the Orwellian practice of rewriting the past was only getting going. Stephen Jay Gould's bestseller The Mismeasure of Man was just three years old and hadn't yet been assigned to a generation of college students.
Obviously, Gould was in over his head in writing about intelligence testing. But he had a malign genius for appealing to modern college graduates' worst instincts. He grasped that what people want is not arguments based on data, but to be told who are the Bad Guys and who are the Good Guys: the professional wrestling version of the history of science. It's best to attack people who can't defend themselves and don't have any friends left to defend them. Thus, Gould got a lot of mileage out of smearing Samuel George Morton, who died in 1851. It was a brilliant innovation.
- Second, the last time Americans in general were interested in testing from a patriotic perspective was Post-Sputnik. There was a huge effort then to find and mobilize talent to out-think the Soviets.
And, guess what? It worked.
In 1984, the post-Sputnik era was a fading but still live memory. Today, it might as well be the bimetalism debate behind The Wizard of Oz.
- Third, neoconservatism has long since petered out as a dynamic interested in investigating domestic issues from a social science perspective. Back in the day, Norman Podhoretz and Martin Peretz commissioned a lot of intelligent articles on intelligence. But nobody with adequate funding has come along to replace the old neocons and neolibs who actually knew something.
- Fourth, media accuracy should have improved since 1984. We now have this thing called the Internet that let's you look stuff up without going to the library.