In a long-anticipated match-up, Ezra Klein, editor-in-chief at Vox, and neuroscientist and atheist thinker Sam Harris sat down for a debate.
The subject? The science behind race and IQ in America.
They framed the conversation around the work of Charles Murray, who argues in his book, The Bell Curve that:
“…African Americans are, for a combination of genetic and environmental reasons, intrinsically and immutably less intelligent than white Americans, and Murray argued that the implications of this ‘forbidden knowledge’ should shape social policy.”
Here’s how we got here:
- Sam Harris gives Charles Murray a sympathetic interview on his podcast.
- Vox publishes a piece written by three intelligence psychologists excoriating Murray, and calling Harris irresponsible for presenting Murray’s ideas as scientific consensus.
- Harris feels he was misrepresented, and publicly challenges Ezra Klein to a debate.
- Klein declines, and they begin emailing each other.
- Harris challenges Klein to publish a piece by a scholar of his choosing; Klein refuses.
- Vox publishes a couple more pieces on the matter.
- Eventually, the two agree to an over two-hour-long debate, in podcast form.
Here is that debate, distilled.
Harris’s Big Argument
Truth Is Not Dependent On Identity
The point that the “truth is not dependent on identity” is true, but it’s unclear whether or not Harris realizes that no one is debating him on it.
Klein’s rebuttal point on this issue is that while the truth does not change, your ability to see the truth can vary wildly depending on your identity, and your capacity to recognize it as such can be hampered by that it, or even your proximity to danger.
“I think you’re missing a lot, because you are very radically increasing the salience of things that threaten your identity, your tribe — which is not the craziest thing to do in the world, it’s not a terrible thing to do, we all do it — without admitting, or maybe even without realizing, that’s what you’re doing.”
Furthermore, Klein’s point is that while Harris views himself as a rational outside observer, he’s just as likely to engage in identity politics like other people; a claim Harris vehemently denies.
“I know I’m not thinking tribally.”
“You have a lot of difficulty extending an assumption of good faith.”
Near the beginning of the podcast, Klein lays out his concerns with how Harris chose to engage these topics. He argued that Harris is likely to assume that his critics are all dishonest detractors, rather than that they have genuine disagreements with him.
“During this discussion, you have called me, and not through implication, not through something where you’re reading in between the lines, you’ve called me a slanderer, a liar, intellectually dishonest, a bad-faith actor, cynically motivated by profit, defamatory, a libelist. You’ve called Turkheimer and Nisbett and Paige Harden, you’ve called them fringe. You’ve said just here that they’re part of a politically correct moral panic.”
Harris’s argument tends to be that if someone does not agree with him, they do not understand him, and he doesn’t give much credit to the idea that they actually understand his arguments – yet disagree with them.
“I would have to be a grand dragon of the KKK…to be as biased as you are.”
In a particularly testy moment in the conversation, Harris expresses his frustration, because he shares similar political makeup to Klein, but argues that unlike Klein, he is not blind to data for political considerations.
“I mean, what you have in me is someone who shares most of your political concerns and yet is unwilling to — again, a loaded word — lie about what is and is not a good reading of empirical data and what is and is not a good argument about genetics and environment and what is reasonable to presume based on what we already know.”
Harris is arguing that Klein is cynically conflating the data with the implications of that data. To say factually that black Americans are, in aggregate, less intelligent than white Americans, is, to Harris, not intrinsically bad or racist. Only the attendant suggested social policy prescriptions can be judged like this, but the science remains solid, steady, pure, and unbiased.
“Do you doubt that people are different?”
“Well, what if, someday, we find out that black people just are less intelligent than other peoples of the earth?”
Klein instead, chooses to attack the assertion that that is something that can be reasonably known at this juncture in history:
“I doubt that we have, given the experiment we have run in this country, given the centuries of slavery and segregation and oppression, given locking people out of jobs, out of good schools, out of building wealth, out of going into top professions, out of being part of the social networks that help you advance; the amount of violence and terror and trauma that we have inflicted on African Americans in this country, I absolutely doubt — I truly, to the core of my being, doubt — that we are at a place where any of us should have confidence saying that the differences we see in individuals now reflect intrinsic group capacity.”
It’s important to note that Harris claims Klein argues from a place of identity, but the above argument has nothing to do with it. The argument is this: Social science is not a blank slate.
To include the history of black people in America into our quantitative judgments about IQ based on that same identifier is good science. To not do so – or more specifically, to pretend that when studying social phenomena, one can do so in a vacuum without respect to such history – is bad science.
What’s Missing From The Debate
Klein is careful to note near the beginning of the debate that he thinks:
“…The fact that we are two white guys talking about how growing up nonwhite in America affects your life and cognitive development is a problem here.”
Missing from the conversation was any serious discussion of the shaky ground on which the idea of “intelligence” stands in the first place. Raging debates over the effectiveness of state-issued exams and school placement tests, as well as experts that warn that schools are not about knowledge at all, but the needs of the state, show that neither the science surrounding intelligence nor the concept itself is nearly as straightforward as Harris presents.
Further, the debate could have benefitted from a thorough discussion of the ways that IQ has been weaponized against various peoples of the United States, and more precision regarding exactly the consequences of defending the kind of rhetoric that Charles Murray produces.
The full podcast and conversations related to it are available here.
Image provided via YouTube screenshot.