Brave heroes of Whites Are Smarter Ltd

Ezra Klein on Sam Harris and “we brave awesome white guys are going to talk Forbidden Truth about race now, so suck it up, cowards.”

It starts with a typically smug taunt by brave awesome Sam himself.

Klein explains:

The background to Harris’s shot at me is that last year, Harris had Charles Murray on his podcast. Murray is a popular conservative intellectual best known for co-writing The Bell Curve, which posited, in a controversial section, a genetic basis for the observed difference between black and white IQs.

Harris’s invitation came in the aftermath of Murray being shouted down, and his academic chaperone assaulted, as he tried to give an invited address on an unrelated topic at Middlebury College. The aftermath of the incident had made Murray a martyr for free speech, and Harris brought him on the show in part as a statement of disgust with the illiberalism that had greeted Murray on campus.

Harris’s conversation with Murray was titled, tantalizingly, “Forbidden Knowledge,” and in it, Harris sought to rehabilitate the conversation over race and IQ as well as open a larger debate about what can and cannot be said in today’s America. Here is Harris framing the discussion:

People don’t want to hear that a person’s intelligence is in large measure due to his or her genes and there seems to be very little we can do environmentally to increase a person’s intelligence even in childhood. It’s not that the environment doesn’t matter, but genes appear to be 50 to 80 percent of the story. People don’t want to hear this. And they certainly don’t want to hear that average IQ differs across races and ethnic groups.

But Brave Sir Sam is here to do what those cowardly people who Don’t Want To Hear It refuse to do – he’s here to assure us that yes white people really are smarter than everyone else, and that’s Science.

Harris returns repeatedly to the idea that the controversy over Murray’s race and IQ work is driven by “dishonesty and hypocrisy and moral cowardice” — not a genuine disagreement over the underlying science or its interpretation. As he puts it, “there is virtually no scientific controversy” around Murray’s argument.

But even if he’s right that there’s no scientific controversy (Klein says in fact there’s plenty), it doesn’t follow that not wanting to go around shouting WHITE PEOPLE ARE SMARTEST OF ALL is necessarily dishonesty and hypocrisy and moral cowardice. I can think of several other things it could be. It strikes me as quite typical of Sam Harris to think dishonesty and hypocrisy and moral cowardice are the only explanation.

Subsequently, Eric Turkheimer, Kathryn Paige Harden, and Richard E. Nisbett — three academic psychologists who specialize in studying intelligence — wrote a piece for Vox arguing that Murray was peddling pseudoscience and Harris had been irresponsible in representing it as the scientific consensus. (You can read their piece here, a criticism of their piece here, and their response to their critics here.)

Harris responded furiously to their article and publicly challenged me, as Vox’s editor-in-chief at the time, to come on his show and debate the issue. Over email, after failing to persuade Harris to have Turkheimer, Harden, or Nisbett on instead, I accepted Harris’s invitation. Unfortunately, our exchange seemed to only make him angrier. He ultimately refused to have me on his podcast on the grounds that a conversation between the two of us would be “unproductive,” pivoting to a demand that I instead publish an op-ed supporting his views (you can read that piece here) or suggesting instead he simply publishes all our emails to each other (I rejected that because my emails were attempting to set up a podcast between Harris and Vox’s authors, not arguing my position on this issue).

The linked op-ed supporting his views is at Quillette. Of course it is.

Here is my view: Research shows measurable consequences on IQ and a host of other outcomes from the kind of violence and discrimination America inflicted for centuries against African Americans. In a vicious cycle, the consequences of that violence have pushed forward the underlying attitudes that allow discriminatory policies to flourish and justify the racially unequal world we’ve built.

Generations of poverty will do that to people. It’s pretty gruesome to see privileged (yes, privileged, in just about every sense you can think of) guys like Sam Harris falling over themselves to push the “whites just are smarter, it’s Science” line.

The conversation between Murray and Harris, one not unique to them, is particularly important right now because it shows how longstanding, deeply harmful tropes are being rehabilitated across the right as a brave stand against political correctness, and as a justification for cutting social programs and giving up on efforts to foster racial equality.

So he explains where Harris goes wrong.

H/t Screechy Monkey

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