Is there anyone who is more misunderstood and persecuted than Sam Harris? Once again he charges that he has been unfairly maligned, something that seems to happen to him with remarkable frequency. The occasion this time was that he invited Charles Murray to appear on his podcast after the latter’s talk at Middlebury college had to be cancelled due to protests. The title of the podcast was Forbidden Knowledge, suggesting that Harris was giving a platform for ideas that are true but are too politically incorrect to be allowed to be expressed openly. What is this dangerous knowledge that dare not raise its head in public? It is the old idea that when in comes to intelligence, the black community just does not have it to the same degree as whites and that this largely explains the socioeconomic disparity between the two communities. (I wrote yesterday my views on Murray and the shoddy way that he exploits people’s racial prejudices about intelligence in pursuance of truly regressive social policies.)
In response, Eric Turkheimer, Kathryn Paige Harden, and Richard E. Nisbett, three academic psychologists who specialize in studying intelligence, wrote a piece in Vox in which the title pretty much sums up their position: Charles Murray is once again peddling junk science about race and IQ: Podcaster and author Sam Harris is the latest to fall for it. The opening passage lays out their thesis.
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.
Harris was outraged by the way he was portrayed in the piece and complained to Ezra Klein, the editor of Vox, that he had been defamed and libeled and that led to an exchange of emails between the two of them that did not mollify Harris. So Harris published the exchange on his blog to show people how lacking in journalistic ethics Klein was, saying:
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.
Ah, yes, the perennial Harris problem. People are either too stupid to understand his subtle and brilliant arguments or deliberately distort them to further their own agendas. Klein also gave his version of the events and it provides an excellent history of the various forms that arguments about black inferiority have been presented over time, with IQ being one. I recommend reading it.
One odd point is Harris’s decision to publish a private email exchange. If Harris expected the people who read his blog to share his outrage at Klein, he was disappointed. The general consensus seemed to be that Klein was being perfectly reasonable but that Harris was petulant and intransigent. Harris expressed his surprise at the reaction, that anyone could possibly disagree with his position.
Judging from the response to this post on social media, my decision to publish these emails appears to have backfired. I was relying on readers to follow the plot and notice Ezra’s evasiveness and gaslighting (e.g. his denial of misrepresentations and slurs that are in the very article he published). Many people seem to have judged from his politeness that Ezra was the one behaving honestly and ethically. This is frustrating, to say the least.
Klein never explicitly agreed to have the emails published and Harris did so unilaterally. I am surprised that Harris is surprised by the negative reaction to such an act because this is not the first time this has happened to him. He did the same thing after having an exchange with Noam Chomsky and then too he was widely mocked (including by me) for having been trounced by Chomsky. Chomsky expressed bemusement at the desire of someone who wanted to publish a private email correspondence, calling it “a strange form of exhibitionism”.
But this is vintage Harris. As Glenn Greenwald, who has also been accused by Harris of deliberately distorting his views, sarcastically tweeted about the Klein-Harris exchange,
I’m really surprised that Sam has announced that someone who criticized his views is dishonest, deceitful and arguing in bad faith – and then released their private email exchange in vengeance. This is so uncharacteristic of Sam.
It must be tough to be Harris with so many people deliberately out to defame you. Or could it be as Robert Wright said, that he is either a muddled thinker, a muddled writer, or both?
But a word to the wise, if any one you ever have the need to have an exchange with Harris, be warned that if for whatever reason he gets angry with you and you refuse to do what he wants, he will publish your private correspondence.