It’s all about Sam Harris’s reputation

So, as you’ve probably seen already via comments, Sam Harris retorted to Ezra Klein’s Vox piece yesterday. He retorted in his usual prickly, self-righteous, mind-blind, egomaniacal way.

Most of the (nearly 900 so far) replies to that tweet point out that he doesn’t come across as well in that piece as he clearly thinks he does. Did I mention mind-blind? Yes I did. He reminds me of Trump in his helpless inability to perceive his own presentation of self from the point of view of not-SamHarris.

Exactly so. He’s always done that though – this isn’t some new thing. Remember that time he tried to make Chomsky do a dialogue with him? And posted their email exchange as if it would show what a putz Chomsky had been and it simply showed what a putz he, Harris, had been? This is like that.

So, on to his response:

In April of 2017, I published a podcast with Charles Murray, coauthor of the controversial (and endlessly misrepresented) book The Bell Curve. These are the most provocative claims in the book:

  1. Human “general intelligence” is a scientifically valid concept.
  2. IQ tests do a pretty good job of measuring it.
  3. A person’s IQ is highly predictive of his/her success in life.
  4. Mean IQ differs across populations (blacks < whites < Asians).
  5. It isn’t known to what degree differences in IQ are genetically determined, but it seems safe to say that genes play a role (and also safe to say that environment does too).

At the time Murray wrote The Bell Curve, these claims were not scientifically controversial—though taken together, they proved devastating to his reputation among nonscientists.

That would leave most readers with the impression that Murray is a scientist, presumably one who specializes in whatever fields those are that agree with the claim “human ‘general intelligence’ is a scientifically valid concept.” But he’s not. His PhD is in political science. Ok so he’s a social scientist but that’s not how Harris is using “scientifically” in that passage. Harris is implying that Murray is a neuroscientist or intelligence scientist or cognition scientist of some kind, a white coat scientist, a lab scientist, a hard scientist – not a political scientist. In particular “they proved devastating to his reputation among nonscientists” implies that Murray is hot shit to real scientists, the ones who know everything there is to know about brains.

At the time Murray wrote The Bell Curve, these claims were not scientifically controversial—though taken together, they proved devastating to his reputation among nonscientists. That remains the case today. When I spoke with Murray last year, he had just been de-platformed at Middlebury College, a quarter century after his book was first published, and his host had been physically assaulted while leaving the hall. So I decided to invite him on my podcast to discuss the episode, along with the mischaracterizations of his research that gave rise to it.

That “so” doesn’t do the work he wants it to. There is no “so” there. De-platforming is not automatically a reason to invite people onto one’s podcast. It depends. It could be the case that the ruckus at Middlebury was outrageous and that there’s no particular reason to boost Murray’s fame. Murray has a niche at the American Enterprise Institute, so he’s ok. The naughty lefties haven’t pushed him out into the snow to die while clutching his little box of matches.

Needless to say, I knew that having a friendly conversation with Murray might draw some fire my way. But that was, in part, the point. Given the viciousness with which he continues to be scapegoated—and, indeed, my own careful avoidance of him up to that moment—I felt a moral imperative to provide him some cover.

But that’s what doesn’t follow. Viciousness is, broadly speaking, wrong, but it doesn’t follow that everyone who meets vicious opposition is deserving of “some cover.”

In the aftermath of our conversation, many people have sought to paint me as a racist—but few have tried quite so hard as Ezra Klein, editor in chief of Vox. In response to my podcast, Klein published a disingenuous hit piece that pretended to represent the scientific consensus on human intelligence while vilifying me as, at best, Murray’s dupe. More likely, readers unfamiliar with my work came away believing that I’m a racist pseudoscientist in my own right.

How interesting that Harris puts that in such a misleading way – that he makes it look as if Ezra Klein wrote a hit piece on him. “Published” can be just another way of saying “posted” or “wrote” or “issued” in the world of online writing and publishing. Funny how Harris forgot to remind us that Klein is an editor at Vox, and to mention the actual authors of the “hit piece” – Eric Turkheimer, Kathryn Paige Harden, and Richard E. Nisbett, actual researchers in the field.

What do they say?

In an episode that runs nearly two and a half hours, Harris, who is best known as the author of The End of Faith, presents Murray as a victim of “a politically correct moral panic” — and goes so far as to say that Murray has no intellectually honest academic critics. Murray’s work on The Bell Curve, Harris insists, merely summarizes the consensus of experts on the subject of intelligence.

The consensus, he says, is that IQ exists; that it is extraordinarily important to life outcomes of all sorts; that it is largely heritable; and that we don’t know of any interventions that can improve the part that is not heritable. The consensus also includes the observation that the IQs of black Americans are lower, on average, than that of whites, and — most contentiously — that this and other differences among racial groups is based at least in part in genetics.

Harris is not a neutral presence in the interview. “For better or worse, these are all facts,” he tells his listeners. “In fact, there is almost nothing in psychological science for which there is more evidence than for these claims.” Harris belies his self-presentation as a tough-minded skeptic by failing to ask Murray a single challenging question. Instead, during their lengthy conversation, he passively follows Murray to the dangerous and unwarranted conclusion that black and Hispanic people in the US are almost certainly genetically disposed to have lower IQ scores on average than whites or Asians — and that the IQ difference also explains differences in life outcomes between different ethnic and racial groups.

In Harris’s view, all of this is simply beyond dispute. Murray’s claims about race and intelligence, however, do not stand up to serious critical or empirical examination. But the main point of this brief piece is not merely to rebut Murray’s conclusions per se — although we will do some of that — but rather to consider the faulty path by which he casually proceeds from a few basic premises to the inflammatory conclusion that IQ differences between groups are likely to be at least partly based on inborn genetic differences. These conclusions, Harris and Murray insist, are disputed only by head-in-the-sand elitists afraid of the policy implications.

But that’s not true, and they explain why, showing their work as they do. It’s not really about Harris, in fact, it’s about Murray’s claims and what is wrong with them. Yet to Harris it’s a “hit piece” about him, and Klein published it at Vox (did he?) for the clicks:

After Klein published that article, and amplified its effects on social media, I reached out to him in the hope of appealing to his editorial conscience. I found none. The ethic that governs Klein’s brand of journalism appears to be: Accuse a person with a large platform of something terrible, and then monetize the resulting controversy. If he complains, invite him to respond in your magazine so that he will drive his audience your way and you can further profit from his doomed effort to undo the damage you’ve done to his reputation.

It’s all about Harris’s reputation. It’s not at all about the harm that can be done by peddling bad false wrong claims about race and intelligence, it’s simply about Harris’s reputation.

So he published their email exchange without permission.

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