The Harris-Murray two-step

An article published in Vox by Eric Turkheimer, Kathryn Paige Harden, and Richard E. Nisbett, three academic psychologists who specialize in studying intelligence, critiqued a podcast hosted by Sam Harris, where he invited Charles Murray to discuss the question of the relationship between race and intelligence. The article (which is well worth reading for its detailed analysis of this issue) criticized Murray for assertions that they felt were unjustified and Harris for not pushing back hard enough and asserting the existence of a mainstream consensus on statements that were in fact highly contentious.

Harris was once again outraged at being ‘defamed’ and angrily complained to Ezra Klein, editor of Vox. In the subsequent exchange, Klein kept pointing out statements that Murray had made that were extreme and Harris kept replying that Murray’s position was far more nuanced and that he was being maligned by people who disliked his conclusions. At one point during the email exchange that Harris published, Klein said the following:

I was very prepared, reading this piece, for Murray and you and others to disagree with it. What’s confused me is the argument that the disagreement is invented, that this is all a misunderstanding. Something here is very off, and I am struggling to figure out what it is. My working theory is that there’s a strong version and a weak version of Murrayism, both are represented in the conversation, but though the strong version is emphasized in the presentation, there’s been a retreat to the weak version upon challenge. But perhaps that’s wrong.

Klein has hit the nail on the head. As I wrote in my detailed review of Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve way back in 1995, that book has a very curious structure. Each chapter began with one-page that purportedly provides a summary of the chapter’s contents. But it isn’t a balanced summary. Instead, it contains very strong claims that are simply not supported by the evidence. These chapter summaries contain the ‘strong Murrayisms’. It was these ideas that the odious Andrew Sullivan, then editor of equally odious The New Republic seized upon to publicize in his magazine.

But if you actually read each chapter, you find the strong Murrayisms watered down with all manner of backtracking and qualifications and caveats that greatly undermine those claims but whose consequences for their thesis are simply ignored. Thus the chapter contents contain the ‘weak Murrayisms’ that Murray retreats to when challenged by critics. The authors had to know that most journalists and politicians would read only the summaries and seize on its highly ideological conclusions, but that they could retreat to the chapter contents to defend themselves when attacked by scholars.

But Klein’s criticism of Murray can be leveled at Harris as well. Harris is a master of the same two-step, where he makes a strong statement that proposes something outrageous and then inserts caveats that he (and his numerous supporters) retreats to when challenged. Does Harris support torture, the profiling of Muslims, the killing of people for thought crimes, and a US nuclear first strike? He has said all these things at various times but then added caveats. When his statements are taken at face value, he becomes angry and says that his critics are acting in bad faith by deliberately distorting his words.

In a follow up article, Turkheimer, Harden, and Nisbett point out the similarities in the rhetorical strategies that both Harris and Murray use and after giving several examples, conclude:

With statements like these, Harris executes the same move Herrnstein and Murray made in The Bell Curve: They acknowledge all the reasons why the heritability of intelligence doesn’t necessarily mean that group differences are due to genes. They then proceed to draw their conclusions as if those reasons don’t really matter.

Harris and Murray are made for each other so it should not be surprising that they find themselves on the same side on this issue. They both pretend to be clear logical thinkers, unafraid to go where the evidence leads even if it results in ‘politically incorrect’ conclusions. But in reality, they are merely adept at using rhetorical shiftiness to say many different things and thus create hatches to escape through when challenged.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Reportedly, Murray was born in 1943 and Harris in 1967, so we probably can’t pull a “separated at birth” schtick … but demanding DNA tests (and, of course, IQ scores) might be fun anyhow…

  2. anat says

    Either Harris believes really terrible things without sufficient evidence (or despite contradicting evidence) or he really enjoys being provocative. But if the latter is the case, then the things he chooses to be provocative about tell us something about which groups of people he does not care much about.

  3. Mano Singham says


    Thanks! I had never herd of the term ‘motte and bailey’ to describe this rhetorical move but it fits perfectly and I shall use it!

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