No. I just couldn’t do it. Sam Harris interviews Charles Murray in his podcast (but of course it is a friendly, chummy interview, because two white guys are not going to criticize each other when it comes to talking about the inferiority of other races), but I was unable to listen to it. I tried. I got a few minutes in, but listening to that calm, soothing, rational monotone setting up a conversation in which the capabilities of the majority of the human race were going to be dismissed with cold, clinical detachment was just too infuriating. I just shut that fucker down.
I knew someone would have the ability to listen to it all and distill it down to the key points, so I wouldn’t have to suffer through the insufferable for two and a quarter hours. Thank you, Angry White Men blog, for taking the bullet for the rest of us.
I did have a pretty good idea of what was to come, just from the title of the podcast:
Forbidden Knowledge: A Conversation with Charles Murray. There was the assumption right there that what the ol’ bigot was dispensing was “knowledge”, rather than racist junk science. And, as usual, they’re going to set themselves up as martyrs, holding “knowledge” they’re “forbidden” to share, despite the fact that these scum have elected a president, have police forces that functionally act to enforce discriminatory oppression, that the internet is crawling with slimy advocates for their ideas, and that this crap is routinely published. Murray’s The Bell Curve was actually published and promoted by major media sources like the New York Times, you know, and it’s not as if Nicholas Wade was unable to get his trash fire of a book published recently. It’s not as if you have to obtain this stuff as bootleg samizdat, in the form of smeared photocopies distributed by a clandestine network of shadowy men in trenchcoats.
AWM recommends you read Lane’s article on the tainted sources of The Bell Curve — it’s poisonous garbage through and through. It’s bad science, something Harris should have brought up. He doesn’t. Instead, he just assumes that all of his biases are true, and that, once again, he and Chuck are the brave souls who are willing to accept the Forbidden Knowledge you peons are too cowardly to believe.
People don’t wanna hear that intelligence is a real thing, and that some people have more of it than others. They don’t wanna hear that IQ tests really measure it. They don’t wanna hear that differences in IQ matter, because they’re highly predictive of differential success in life. And not just for things like educational attainment and wealth, but for things like out-of-wedlock birth and mortality.
People don’t wanna 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.
That was a revealing phrase:
there seems to be very little we can do environmentally to increase a person’s intelligence — even in childhood, Sam. Sam. Sam, I want to introduce you to a word that seems to be unfamiliar to you. It’s kind of amazing that a neuroscientist hasn’t run across it before.
That word is education.
Boom. Mic drop. Done.
Now of course Harris does actually know that common English word, but what it reveals is that he has a different understanding of intelligence than most of us do. He want’s to believe that children are born with different capacities for learning, that education is something that just fills that capacity with knowledge. This is, obviously, not true — any educator should be able to tell you that brains grow in ability with use, and that the key to expanding its ability is practice.
He and his ilk like to use the phrase “blank slaters” to address a favorite straw man, the idea that we are born with no inherent patterns of behavior at all (which no one holds, unfortunately for their rhetoric), while they are confident that we’re born with a certain degree of hard wiring for the abilities of the brain.
I have a different phrase for them. They hold to an “empty bucket” theory of human intelligence. They discount education because, you see, it’s a different propery. People are born with an empty bucket for knowledge, which varies in capacity by race and ethnicity and sex, limited in its volume by genetic factors. IQ is a magically objective number for the size of your bucket, fixed by your history and ancestry, while education and knowledge are more variable products of your environment.
What Sam and Chuck want to argue (no, sorry, there was no argument between them) is that black people are born with a 9 gallon bucket, while white people are born with 10 gallon buckets. They have no evidence for this. They only have the assumption that IQ is a measure of maximum potential, and that the statistical average of a deeply flawed metric that doesn’t measure what they think it does is sufficient to allow them to condescend to the poor, intellectually-constrained brains trapped in black bodies.
What makes it even more appalling is that these are two conventional, conservative white men slapping each other on the back while telling each other how superior they are. You would think Harris would have learned by now that the perception that he is racist, which he decries, is only fanned to a white-hot heat when he engages in this kind of self-congratulatory behavior.
He doesn’t. He can’t. I guess his social awareness bucket is very, very tiny.
AWM concludes with a comment about Murray’s flaws that should have been brought up in a competent interview.
And all of these points — unwillingness to engage with critics, connections to white supremacists, consequences for poor and non-white Americans — would have been worth bringing up in Harris’ conversation with Murray. As an interviewer, he should have done more than toss softballs and whitewash Murray’s record. As a skeptic, he should have been more willing to examine Murray’s beliefs. His unwillingness to do so will only bolster racist pseudoscience and toss more red meat to Murray’s white nationalist fans.
Oddly, though, those criticisms of Murray — “unwillingness to engage with critics, connections to white supremacists, consequences for poor and non-white Americans” — also apply perfectly to Sam Harris, so I’m not at all surprised that he wouldn’t bring them up. I knew that about him well ahead of time.
And that’s why I wasn’t going to listen to him.