All of us strive to be rational. We believe that reality does not contradict itself, that something cannot exist and not exist at the same time. So when we encounter a contradiction we believe in, we discard it to align ourselves closer to reality. But there’s another, more human reason to weed out contradictions in our views.
Charles Murray, in his interview with Sam Harris, was grilled a bit on universal basic income.
[1:53:17] HARRIS: I’ve heard you talk about it and this is a surprise because, in “Coming Apart” you are fairly critical of the welfare state in all its guises and you- you just said something that at least implied disparagement of the welfare state in Europe, as we know it, so tell me why you are an advocate for universal basic income.
[1:53:40] MURRAY: Well, I first wrote [a] book back in two thousand five or six, called “In Our Hands,” but I did it initially for the same reason that Milton Friedman was in favor of a negative income tax, the idea is that you replace the current system with the universal basic income and, that, you leave people alone to make their decisions about how to use it.
And yet, back in 1984, Murray was singing a different tune.
In Losing Ground, Charles Murray shows that the great proliferation of social programs and policies of the mid-’60s made it profitable for the poor to behave in the short term in ways that were destructive in the long term.
Murray comprehensively documents and analyzes the disturbing course of Great Society social programs. Challenging popular notions that Great Society programs marked the beginning of improvement in the situation of the poor, Murray shows substantial declines in poverty prior to 1964-but slower growth, no growth, and retreat from progress as public assistance programs skyrocketed.
If we truly want to improve the lot of the poor, Murray declares, we should look to equality of opportunity and to education and eliminate the transfer programs that benefit neither recipient nor donor.
Murray was influential in Reagan’s war on the poor, which argued poor people would unwisely spend their government assistance cheques, yet now he’s arguing that the poor should be given government assistance without strings attached?! He never acknowledges his about-face, but I think this part of the interview is telling.
[2:00:11] MURRAY: There will be work disincentives, but we are already at a point, Sam, where something more than 20 percent of working-age males with high school diplomas, and no more [education than that], are out of the labor force. So we already have a whole lot of guys, sitting at home, in front of a TV set or a gameboy, probably stoned on meth, or- or opioids, doing nothing. We got a problem already and I see a lot of ways in which the moral agency that an income would give could make the problem less.
[2:00:46] HARRIS: Did the dysfunction you, you see in white and largely rural America now, is it analogous to the dysfunction that we were seeing in the in the black inner-city starting a few decades ago? Are there important differences, or- or how do you how do you view that?
[2:01:05] MURRAY: In some ways it followed pretty much the same trajectory. Way back in nineteen ninety two, or three it was, I had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal called “Becoming a White Underclass,” and I was simply tracking the growth in a non-marital births among white working-class people, and I said to myself, along with Pat Moynihan who said it better and first, that if you have communities in which large numbers of young men are growing to adulthood without a male figure, you asked for and get chaos. And I assume that what had happened in the black community when non-marital births, uh, kept on going up is going to happen in the white community. So in that sense they follow pretty much a predictable trajectory.
In the 1980’s, the face of poverty was black and addicted to drugs. Now, it’s white and addicted to drugs. Changing the race of those impoverished may have changed Murray’s views of poverty.
We dug into a contradiction Murray held, and found bigotry hiding underneath. This is no coincidence, persistent contradictions in your worldview are fertile ground for bigotry. All the atheists in the crowd know this.
To evade the charge of bigotry, you need to do more than say that you sincerely believe that the Bible is against gay marriage. You need to explain why you take the clobber verses as something important and relevant to today, while the statements like “Let the man with two tunics share with him who has none,” aren’t.
There are arguments against taking the missional verses and the poverty verses and trying them to apply them today. Of course, many of those arguments could be turned against the clobber verses as well. Can it be shown that there is a consistent means of interpretation that would lead to the clobber verses being taken literally while the charity verses should be basically ignored?
Or think of it this way: would the hypothetical “man from Mars” who was innocent of Christianity and the culture wars really look at the Bible and come away saying, “Wow, we’ve really got to do something to stop gay marriage”?
Think about how this looks from the outside. The parts of the Bible that you believe apply today are the ones that require other people to make sacrifices. The parts of the Bible that would require YOU to make big sacrifices are not considered relevant. Look at it this way, and you’ll see why “bigot” is one of the nicer things you could be called.
Contradictions allow you to pick and choose which rules you follow, allowing you to benefit while others fall into harm. It also provides a great shield against criticism.
[59:06] MURRAY: Dick and I, our- our crime in the book was to have a single, solitary paragraph that said – after talking about the patterns that I’m about to describe – “if we’ve convinced you that either the environmental or the genetic explanation has won out to the exclusion of the other, we haven’t done a good enough job presenting the evidence for one side of the other. It seems to us highly likely that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences.” And we went no farther than that. There is an asymmetry between saying “probably genes have some involvement” and the assertion that it’s entirely environmental and that’s what the, that’s the assertion that is being made. If you’re going to be upset at “The Bell Curve,” you are obligated to defend the proposition that the black/white difference in IQ scores is 100% environmental, and that’s a very tough measure.
Hit Murray with the charge that he’s promoting genetic determinism, and he’ll point to that paragraph in “The Bell Curve” and say you’re straw-personing his views. Argue that intelligence is primarily driven by environment and he’ll either point to the hundreds of pages and dozens of charts that he says demonstrates a genetic link that’s much stronger than environment, or he’ll equivocate between “primarily driven by environment” and “100% environmental.” Nor is this an isolated incident. Remember his bit about “large numbers of young men are growing to adulthood without a male figure, you asked for and get chaos?”
[40:23] MURRAY: … the thing about the non-shared environment is it’s not susceptible to systematic manipulation. It’s … idiosyncratic. It’s non-systematic … there are no obvious ways that you can deal with the non-shared environment, in the way that you could say “Oh, we can improve the schools, we can teach better parenting practices, we can provide more money for – …” [those] all fall into the category of manipulating the shared environment and when it comes to personality, as you just indicated, it’s 50/50 [for genes and environment] but almost all that 50 is non-shared.
[41:02] HARRIS: Yeah, which seems to leave parents impressively off the hook for … how their kids turn out.
[41:10] MURRAY: Although it is true that parents – and I’m a father of four – uh, we resist that. … and with the non-shared environment and the small role left for parenting, I will say it flat out: I read [the research of Judith Rich Harris] with *the* most skeptical possible eye. I was looking for holes in it, assiduously. …
[41:57] MURRAY: … the book was very sound, it was very rigorously done, and … at this point I don’t know of anybody who’s familiar with literature, who thinks there’s that much of a role left of the kind of parents thought they had in shaping their children.
[42:15] HARRIS: Right, well I’m not gonna stop trying, I think, it’s [a] very hard illusion to cut through… as I read Harry Potter tonight to my eldest daughter.
[42:23] MURRAY: … You know that, but I think that it’s good to reflect on that: reading Harry Potter to your eldest daughter is a good in itself.
[42:32] HARRIS: Yeah.
[42:35] MURRAY: And the fact that she behaves differently 20 years from now is not the point.
[42:38] HARRIS: No, exactly, and it is an intrinsic good, and it’s for my own pleasure that I do it largely at this point.
Murray also thinks that nothing a parent will do will change their child’s development. His ability to flip between both sides of a contradiction is Olympic.
[43:12] HARRIS: That’s the one thing that it just occurred to me people should also understand is that, in addition to the fact that IQ doesn’t explain everything about a person’s success in life and … their intellectual abilities, the fact that a trait is genetically transmitted in individuals does not mean that all the differences between groups, or really even any of the differences between groups in that trait, are also genetic in origin, right?
[43:41] MURRAY: Critically important, critically important point.
[43:42] HARRIS: Yeah, so the jury can still be out on this topic, and we’ll talk about that, but to give a clear example: so if you have a population of people that is being systematically malnourished – now they might have genes to be as tall as the Dutch, but they won’t be because they’re not getting enough nourishment. And, in the case that they don’t become as tall as the Dutch, it will be entirely due to their environment and yet we know that height is among the most heritable things we’ve got – it’s also like 60 to 80 percent predicted by a person’s genes.
[44:15] MURRAY: Right. Uh, the comparison we use in the book … is that, you take a handful of genetically identical seed-corn, and divide it into two parts, and plant one of those parts in Iowa and the other part in the Mojave Desert, you’re going to get way different results. Has nothing whatsoever to do with the genetic content of the corn.
It’s no wonder that when Harris asks him if anything discovered since publication has changed his claims, his response was no. As he inhabits both side of a contradiction, nothing could falsify his views.
Contradictions are also a way to change your views without acknowledging you did. Consider this small bit of trivia Murray throws out (emphasis mine):
[1:40:53] HARRIS: If my life depended on it, I could not find another person [besides Christopher Hitchens] who smoked cigarettes in my contact list, you know, and let’s say there’s a thousand people in there, right?
[1:41:04] MURRAY: Hmm mm-hmm.
[1:41:05] HARRIS: That’s an amazing fact in a society where something like 30% of people smoke cigarettes.
[1:41:12] MURRAY: That’s a wonderful illustration of how isolated [we are within our classes]… because, in my case, I do know people who smoke cigarettes but that’s only because I go play poker at Charleston West Virginia casino and there, about 30% of the guys I played poker with smoked. But that’s ok. In terms of [the] American Enterprise Institute, where I work, [I] don’t know anybody who smokes there, I don’t… social circles, no.
If you had a long memory, that small tidbit packs quite a punch.
Let’s begin by referring to the basic objectives of the program:
- To show that the basic social cost changes are bad economics.
- To illustrate how smoking benefits society and its members.
- To show that anti-smoking groups, who are promoting the social cost issue, have self-serving ends, and are not representative of the general society.
In short, we took as our goals a defense which would undermine the concepts of the social cost issue, and an offense which would stress the social benefits of smoking and freedom to smoke.
In 1980, the American Enterprise Institute was preparing reports and training videos that argued smoking is a net benefit to society. Among other things, worker productivity was better when people took regular smoke breaks, and restrictions on cigarettes harm personal liberty.
In 2017, the number of smokers at the American Enterprise Institute is far less than in the general population. If you value being free of contradictions, a reversal like this should cause you some tough introspection about who you allow into your think-tank. If you don’t, no introspection is necessary. There’s no need to criticize yourself, no need to submit yourself to annoying audits, you can just carry on being awesome.
Like Sam Harris. Emphasis mine.
[1:39] HARRIS: Human intelligence itself is a taboo topic; people don’t want to hear that intelligence is a real thing, and that some people have more of it than others. They don’t want to hear that IQ tests really measure it. They don’t want to 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 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. Now, for better or worse, these are all facts.
[5:32] HARRIS: Whatever the difference in average IQ is across groups, you know nothing about a person’s intelligence on the basis of his or her skin color. That is just a fact. There is much more variance among individuals in any racial group than there is between groups.
If the mean IQs of people grouped by skin colour are different, then you must know something about a person’s intelligence by knowing their skin colour. Head over to R Psychologist’s illustration of Cohen’s d and keep a close eye on the “probability of superiority.” For instance, when d = 0.1, the fine print tells me “there is a 53 % chance that a person picked at random from the treatment group will have a higher score than a person picked at random from the control group (probability of superiority),” which means that if I encounter someone from group A I can state they have a higher intelligence than someone from group B with odds slightly better than chance. There’s only one situation where knowing someone’s skin colour tells me nothing about their intelligence, and that’s when the mean IQs of both groups are equal.
You could counter “so what, that 53% chance is so small as to be no different than 50/50,” and I’d agree with you. But if Murray demonstrated group differences of the same magnitude, his conclusion should not have been “IQ differs between races,” it should have been “IQ is effectively equal across racial lines.” By taking this counter, you’ve abandoned the ability to say mean IQ varies across groups. “Average IQ differs across races” and “skin colour conveys information about IQ” are equivalent statements, so Sam Harris is contradicting himself.
A few of the subjects I explore in my work have inspired an unusual amount of controversy. Some of this results from real differences of opinion or honest confusion, but much of it is due to the fact that certain of my detractors deliberately misrepresent my views. The purpose of this article is to address the most consequential of these distortions. […]
Whenever I respond to unscrupulous attacks on my work, I inevitably hear from hundreds of smart, supportive readers who say that I needn’t have bothered. In fact, many write to say that any response is counterproductive, because it only draws more attention to the original attack and sullies me by association. These readers think that I should be above caring about, or even noticing, treatment of this kind. Perhaps. I actually do take this line, sometimes for months or years, if for no other reason than that it allows me to get on with more interesting work. But there are now whole websites—Salon, The Guardian, Alternet, etc.—that seem to have made it a policy to maliciously distort my views.
This, then, is a strong second reason to examine yourself for contradictions. Don’t just do it to stay in line with reality, do it to help rid yourself of bigotry against your fellow person.