A recently online slap fight has emerged between progressive but critical, atheist and philosophy Sam Harris and Ezra Klein a progressive media figure, and former head editor of Vox.
Both of these are men who express nuanced and thoughtful opinions, and I admire and respect both.
The slap fight started as a result of Sam Harris interviewing Charles Murray, a controversial author who co-authored The Bell Curve, a book about intelligence, that controversially expresses the view that it is likely that there is some innate, gene based difference in intelligence between ethnic groups.
Vox then published a piece written by three scientists who criticised Murray’s views, and Harris’s facilitation of the interview; there was more back and forth, and the ordeal culminated in Harris publishing the email exchange between himself and Klein – one where Harris gets progressively more agitated, something he acknowledges himself.
The essence of the dispute, in my view, boils down to two main disagreements:
- Whether the science that Charles Murray espouses is correct.
- Whether the criticisms of Charles Murray are based on dogmatic identity politics and liberal taboos.
Having listened to the original podcast, and mostly read several of the blogs posts and the emails, I don’t actually feel qualified to comment on the science one way or another, and I think this demonstrates the difficulty in discussing topics such as this.
I can however weigh in on how information has been presented, or at least express how it all looks to me – a fairly intelligent non-expert, with no dog in the race.
Ultimately I’m of the opinion that Harris is guilty of what he is accusing his critics of – he dismisses criticisms as a conspiracy against him, rather than on their merits and he makes disingenuous arguments or neglects context.
At this point, I think it’s worth taking some time to talk about what I’m doing here. I was reluctant to start writing this piece – I think a big part of what’s wrong with the world is a culture of outrage addiction, and the feeling of needing to judge who’s right and who’s wrong.
It’s ironic then, that my previous paragraph includes ‘Harris is guilty of…’.
But instead, lets instead use this case as an exercise in ‘How do we decide the truth of some complex claim? Who do we decide to trust?’.
The way I’ll present this – is looking at the sources as they’re presented in Harris’s blogpost/email.
The Waking Up Podcast #73 – ‘Forbidden Knowledge’ with Charles Murray.
You can listen to the podcast here. The podcast is two hours long.
On my first listen certainly Harris and Murray sound like reasonable people. This isn’t a conversation where someone is out and out suggesting that there is a biological justification for race based class strata.
Here’s a few notable points made that I can remember:
- IQ is considered a good predictor of success, and the notion that is culturally biased is fallacious.
- Intelligence, like other traits like height, is a product of both environment and genetics.
- For example: being tall is highly heritable, but if you are malnourished you won’t grow to be tall.
- If you can observe differences between corn grown in the same area, the cause is probably genetics. If you take genetically identical corn and grow it in different areas, they will grow differently.
- Success (eg academic success in high level physics) requires a high baseline of innate intelligence, but then the right circumstances and character on top of that. (ie. Innate intelligence is necessary, but not sufficient for success).
- Affirmative action can backfire, where transplanting some black students in to an elite school may cause them to have less success than they might have had a lower level school, because they simply don’t have the higher enough level of innate intelligence.
- Murray makes the point that in criticising his book, some of the critics he knew personally must have been lying, and knew they were lying.
Essentially – Harris and Murray acknowledge that a lot of intelligence is likely the result of environment, but make the argument that ‘but some of it is still innate’.
They make a point of offering the caveats that on an individual level – one shouldn’t discriminate, and assume that someone is less intelligent because they’re black for example, because that would be making error – at an individual level there would likely be more variance in intelligence determined by factors other than race.
There’s a couple of observations I’d like to make here:
- The tone of the interview I thought was deceptive in that he’s presented as a biologist/sociologist, but the conversation moves to more discussions of policy, (eg, the note on affirmative action). Perhaps this criticism is unfair – after all Murray’s point may more be ‘given that there are these innate differences between races, public policy should reflect that’.
- Sam could have done his audience a favour in talking about some of Murray’s credentials – the work he has done has been for conservative think tanks. Though, again, perhaps this is an unfair criticism – criticise the merits of the argument, not who’s saying it. But I would argue that who is saying it, is paramount in determining whether you trust what that person is saying.
- When I first heard the point about his critics lying, I thought ‘Oh, that’s awful!’. But on reflection – perhaps it’s Murray that is lying here?
The first blog response – ‘Charles Murray is once again peddling junk science about race and IQ’ by Eric Turkheimer, Kathryn Paige Harden, and Richard E. Nisbett.
You can read the post here.
In the Sam Harris post, he characterises this post as ‘a disingenuous hit piece’. This is a bunk characterisation. This post is mostly addressing Charles Murray on the science, but also making observations on how Harris agrees with him.
It also highlights the Flynn effect, which shows that IQ across the board has been increasing, and uses this to make the case that environmental factors are largely what determine intelligence. They criticise Harris for not strongly enough challenging Murray on this point.
Finally, they conclude with why they see Murray’s views as dangerous – because endorsing those views mean to say ‘therefore we shouldn’t do anything about racial inequality’. (And in fact, Murray’s criticism of affirmative action does seem to lend itself to that policy position).
Another post – ‘There’s still no good reason to believe black-white IQ differences are due to genes’ by Eric Turkheimer, Kathryn Paige Harden, and Richard E. Nisbett.
You can read the post here.
Harris characterises this post as Ezra Klein ‘keeping at it’. It’s curious that Harris’s beef is with Klein here. He’s not the author of these posts – he’s the former editor of Vox.
Again, this post is challenging Murray on the science, and criticising Harris for not challenging Murray.
In this post they address some criticisms of their earlier post.
What frustrates me about Harris’s views here – is he that he argues that these posts dogmatic identity politics, when it’s clear that they’re not. They’re comprehensively talking science.
A post by Ezra Klein ‘ Sam Harris, Charles Murrary, and the allure of race science’.
You can read the post here.
Finally a post by Ezra Klein. Harris characterises this as ‘another volley’.
In this post we’re getting into the mud.
It starts by quoting a tweet by Harris: (note that the tweet quotes a tweet by Charles Murray, who is quoting another person, who is quoting another person. For full context it’s best to click through.).
At the risk of sounding like one of the very people Harris is accusing the Vox writers of being – Harris sounds like an alt-right troll here – using hyperbole to suggest that criticisms of Harris and Murray are akin to accusations of thought-crime.
This post doesn’t get into the science, but instead talks about how the conversation of race and genetics has been used in history.
Some thoughts about Harris’s tone so far.
I think it’s clear that Harris had an agenda from the start. He feels that Murray had been unfairly treated in the reception of his book, and then in recent events at Middlebury College where Murray’s host had been assaulted.
I think then, Harris felt the need to give a safe platform the even the scales as it were.
I should be clear – I agree with Harris and others, that there is a toxic element amongst progressives, that favours narrative over the truth and has a dogmatic or authoritarian element. The assault is an example of this.
However, I think Harris makes the mistake of conflating these toxic elements with the criticisms by the Vox writers.
In a way, Harris is doing the same thing he is criticising toxic identity politics of. Where identity politics might take a genuine legitimate grievance, for example, racism, and then use that label to shut down any narrative they’re uncomfortable with, Harris does the same with accusations of identity politics. He now faces of positions of being the boy who cried wolf. Or in this case, the boy who cried identity politics.
The emails are really where this turns to shit.
The first email is a long email from Klein, where Ezra, to my professional admiration, goes to lengths to create a conciliatory tone. Now that I think about it, the whole thing feels a little bit like tip toeing around the eggshells of an abusive partner.
Klein reiterates the argument, as he sees it, as presented by Murray, and then reiterates what it is that the Vox writers disagreed on. He acknowledges one mistake they made, in saying that the Flynn effect wasn’t discussed at all.
Harris’s response is curt.
He describes the writers’ work as shoddy, and says that it’s part of a moral panic. He acknowledges that his interest in talking to Murray isn’t so much about the genetic basis of intelligence, but addressing this moral panic:
Again, my desire to speak with Murray was not based on a prior interest in the genetic basis of intelligence—much less a fascination for racial differences in intelligence. Rather, it was out of my growing concern over how fraught our conversations on politically charged topics have become.
He accuses on of the writers of manipulating the data to fit a narrative:
but most of what I’ve seen from Nisbett on the topic of IQ betrays his prior ideological commitments. He knows what he wants the data to say, and he will twist them until he gets the answer he finds consoling.
(To his credit: the book review he mentions is worth at least reading the abstract of. )
He uses more sarcasm:
Yes, it is very hard to wish it away.
He constructs a strawman:
This is not an “anodyne” claim meant to conceal our white supremacy (as the authors suggest)
(I saw no claim that Harris and Murray were attempting to conceal their white supremacy).
Sam clearly feels like he’s a victim:
There are two points here: how the authors treated me, and how they treated Murray. I used that quote from Flynn in precisely the way they said I neglected to use it, so their attack on me is totally unfair.
This is where I’m perplexed. I didn’t feel like Harris was particularly harshly criticised. The worst he gets is the suggestion that he’s naïve or that he’s intellectually lazy, or unable to hold Murray to account. They’re hardly vicious attacks.
He makes a point on my first read stood out as a gross underappreciation of systemic racism:
If Flynn is right, then the mean IQs of African American children who are second- and third-generation upper middle class should have converged with those of the children of upper-middle-class whites, but (as far as I understand) they haven’t.
This would assume that being upper middle class is the only variable that affects intelligence, and not, you know unconscious racism on the parts of their teachers, etc.
Harris does make a point that I think is reasonable:
The thrust of the Vox piece is to distort Murray’s clearly stated thesis: He doesn’t know how much of interracial IQ difference is genetic and how much is environmental, and he suspects that both are involved.
This is what how I heard the interview too. My understanding is that this view can be criticised in two ways:
- That even this is overstating how much biology plays
- That the general tone of the discussion is a dog whistle for tolerating racism. More on this later.
He frames the disagreement the same way I do:
1. A dispute over the quality of and consensus about the science Murray discusses and the conclusions drawn from that science
2. Whether the article we published was part of some “machinery of defamation,” or in Heier’s terms, whether it framed the conversation “as inherently racist and malevolent.”
He acknowledges Harris’s claim that the criticism are the result of a moral panic, but criticises the way he selectively chooses his sources.
This is a moral panic, an effort to silence, a refusal to follow where the evidence goes, an issue where people lose their critical faculties and fall into a braindead feel-goodism, etc. In some ways, which side of the debate you fall on seems to be taken here as a test of legitimacy: The academics who agree with you are taken seriously, whereas you dismiss someone like Nisbett, who has done a lot of research in this space, very quickly.
And Ezra suggests regarding the interaction between themselves, that Ezra isn’t the best person to talk to regarding race and IQ, but that talking about the problem identity politics might be something they could discuss.
After this the exchange gets to a ‘we can’t seem to agree here’ stage.
Harris says that Klein is seeming less reasonable.
I think we get into the nuts of why Harris seems offended:
You published an article (and tweets) that directly attacked my intellectual integrity. At a minimum, you claimed that I was taken in by Murray, because I didn’t know enough of the relevant science
You published an article (and tweets) that directly attacked my moral integrity. Murray is “dangerous,” and my treating him as a free speech case is “disastrous.” We are “racialists” (this is scarcely a euphemism for “racist”). There is no way to read that article (or your tweets) without concluding that Murray and I are unconscionably reckless (if not actually bad) people.
And he also suggests that Klein in the emails is putting on a polite show, but is remaining deceitful, an obseravation he repeats in his notes about the emails.
In your email, you seem to deny both these points—but they are not deniable.
There’s some back and forth about whether Harris was called a ‘racialist’. Ezra quotes the text:
We hope we have made it clear that a realistic acceptance of the facts about intelligence and genetics, tempered with an appreciation of the complexities and gaps in evidence and interpretation, does not commit the thoughtful scholar to Murrayism in either its right-leaning mainstream version or its more toxically racialist forms. We are absolute supporters of free speech in general and an open marketplace of ideas on campus in particular, but poorly informed scientific speculation should nevertheless be called out for what it is.
Some final thoughts
I have to wonder whether Harris was having a bad day(s) when he exchanged these emails, and then decided to publish them.
It’s something that I’m self-conscious of myself – that sometimes I’ll blurt something out and be less diplomatic than would be helpful to my cause. And I’m not an already successful podcaster or author.
But it does I think point to something I suspect about the identity-politics-critical movement – the iconic example being Jordan Peterson, where a legitimate criticism of identity politics can morph into giving a pass to equally disingenuous alt-right politics. It’s not the first time I’ve noticed it on Sam Harris’s podcast – there was another episode that gave me pause too, but I’m not sure which one it is.
An irony is, at the time this feud was going down Harris published podcast #121 – White Power – an interview with former white supremacist Christian Picciolini.
In it, they discuss the changing rhetoric of white supremacists, moving from ‘white supremacist’ to ‘white nationalist’ or ‘alt-right’, from ‘global Jewish conspiracy’ to ‘globalism’ – all in an attempt to make their politics sound more innocuous.
It’s ironic then, that Harris wittingly or not, fails to appreciate that context that discussions of race and IQ occurs in, and doesn’t seem to seriously consider that he’s taking part in this toning down of racist rhetoric.
This isn’t to suggest that Murray is infact a secret white supremacist. But certainly it’s reasonable to ask if he is.
Overall – I hope that this was just Sam Harris having a bad week. The alternative to consider that he’s becoming more cynical.
It’s something I wonder about myself – I imagine, that but for that I have older sisters with strong personalities and that I live in a fairly safe and forgiving society, I could easily be alt-right kind of person. Yet, for all my own criticisms of identity politics, I remain optimistic, and not cynical asshole. What is it that causes some intelligent men to go the path of alt-right, and others to remain progressive, like Ezra Klein has? I’d argue the difference is cynicism – but what causes one to become cynical?