Belling Sam Harris

I wrote off Sam Harris long ago, and currently ignore him as best as I can. Still, this seems worth the exception.

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Charles Murray about the controversy over his book The Bell Curve, the validity and significance of IQ as a measure of intelligence, the problem of social stratification, the rise of Trump, universal basic income, and other topics.

For those unaware, Charles Murray co-wrote The Bell Curve, which carried this explosive claim among others:

There is a mean difference in black and white scores on mental tests, historically about one standard deviation in magnitude on IQ tests (IQ tests are normed so that the mean is 100 points and the standard deviation is 15). This difference is not the result of test bias, but reflects differences in cognitive functioning. The predictive validity of IQ scores for educational and socioeconomic outcomes is about the same for blacks and whites.

Alas, it was written with dubious sources, based on the notion that intelligence is genetically determined (I touch on the general case here), supported by dubious organizations, and even how it was published was designed to frustrate critics.

The Bell Curve was not circulated in galleys before publication. The effect was, first, to increase the allure of the book (There must be something really hot in there!), and second, to ensure that no one inclined to be skeptical would be able to weigh in at the moment of publication. The people who had galley proofs were handpicked by Murray and his publisher. The ordinary routine of neutral reviewers having a month or two to go over the book with care did not occur. Another handpicked group was flown to Washington at the expense of the American Enterprise Institute and given a weekend-long personal briefing on the book’s contents by Murray himself (Herrnstein had died very recently), just before publication. The result was what you’d expect: The first wave of publicity was either credulous or angry, but short on evidence, because nobody had had time to digest and evaluate the book carefully. [..]

The debate on publication day was conducted in the mass media by people with no independent ability to assess the book. Over the next few months, intellectuals took some pretty good shots at it in smaller publications like the New Republic and the New York Review of Books. It wasn’t until late 1995 that the most damaging criticism of The Bell Curve began to appear, in tiny academic journals.

Entire books have been written debunking The Bell Curve.

Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray argued that intelligence largely determined how well people did in life. The rich were rich mostly because they were smart, the poor were poor mostly because they were dumb, and middle Americans were middling mostly because they were of middling intelligence. This had long been so but was becoming even more so as new and inescapable economic forces such as global trade and technological development made intelligence more important than ever before. In a more open economy, people rose or sank to the levels largely fixed by their intelligence. Moreover, because intelligence is essentially innate, this expanding inequality cannot be stopped. It might be slowed by government meddling, but only by also doing injustice to the talented and damaging the national economy. Inequality is in these ways “natural,” inevitable, and probably desirable. [..]

Yet decades of social science research, and further research we will present here, dispute the claim that inequality is natural and increasing inequality is fated. Individual intelligence does not satisfactorily explain who ends up in which class; nor does it explain why people in different classes have such disparate standards of living.

So why was Sam Harris resurrecting this dead horse?

[9:35] HARRIS: The purpose of the podcast was to set the record straight, because I find the dishonesty and hypocrisy and moral cowardice of Murray’s critics shocking, and the fact that I was taken in by this defamation of him and effectively became part of a silent mob that was just watching what amounted to a modern witch-burning, that was intolerable to me. So it is with real pleasure (and some trepidation) that I bring you a very controversial conversation, on points about which there is virtually no scientific controversy. […]

[11:30] HARRIS: I’ve- since, in the intervening years, ventured into my own controversial areas as a speaker and writer and experienced many hysterical attacks against me in my work, and so I started thinking about your case a little – again without ever having read you – and I began to suspect that you were one of the canaries in the coal mine that I never recognized as such, and seeing your recent treatment at Middlebury, which many of our listeners will have heard about, where you were prevented from speaking and and your host was was physically attacked – I now believe that you are perhaps the intellectual who was treated most unfairly in my lifetime, and it’s, it’s just an amazing thing to be so slow to realize that. And at first I’d just like to apologize to you for having been so lazy and having been taken in to the degree that I was by the rumors and lies that have surrounded your work for the last 20 years, and so I just want to end- I want to thank you doubly for coming on the podcast to talk about these things.


Tell me, Robert Plomin, is intelligence hereditary?

Genes make a substantial difference, but they are not the whole story. They account for about half of all differences in intelligence among people, so half is not caused by genetic differences, which provides strong support for the importance of environmental factors. This estimate of 50 percent reflects the results of twin, adoption and DNA studies.

It’s deja-vu all over again; there are good reason to think twin studies overstate inheritance, and adoption studies are not as environmentally pure as they’re thought to be. As for DNA studies,

The literature on candidate gene associations is full of reports that have not stood up to rigorous replication. This is the case both for straightforward main effects and for candidate gene-by-environment interactions (Duncan and Keller 2011). As a result, the psychiatric and behavior genetics literature has become confusing and it now seems likely that many of the published findings of the last decade are wrong or misleading and have not contributed to real advances in knowledge. The reasons for this are complex, but include the likelihood that effect sizes of individual polymorphisms are small, that studies have therefore been underpowered, and that multiple hypotheses and methods of analysis have been explored; these conditions will result in an unacceptably high proportion of false findings (Ioannidis 2005).[1]

Ah yes, the replication crisis. I know it well. Genetic studies can easily have millions of datapoints yet only draw from less than a few hundred volunteers, and are particularly ripe for false correlations. But according to Angry White Men, Sam Harris was ignorant of all of the above.

Harris didn’t bat an eye when Murray accused critics of race realism — or human biodiversity, or whatever the alt-right calls its racist junk science nowadays — of elitism and compared them to modern-day flat Earthers. As Murray put it: “But at this point, Sam, it’s almost as if we are in the opposite position of conventional wisdom versus elite wisdom that we were, say, when Columbus was gonna sail to America. … It’s the elites who are under the impression that, oh, IQ tests only measure what IQ tests measure, and nobody really is able to define intelligence, and this and that, they’re culturally biased, on and on and on and on. And all of these things are the equivalent of saying the Earth is flat.

By now, I’m convinced he doesn’t want to hear the counter-arguments. He’d rather pretend to be rational and scientific, because then he can remain bigoted without fear of challenge.

[1] Hewitt, John K. “Editorial Policy on Candidate Gene Association and Candidate Gene-by-Environment Interaction Studies of Complex Traits.” Behavior Genetics 42, no. 1 (January 1, 2012): 1–2. doi:10.1007/s10519-011-9504-z.