In about 1993, two Harvard-educated intellectuals, Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, published The Bell Curve, which described, among other things, racial differences in IQ and the social policy implications.
Less than 10% of the book is about race. I haven’t read the rest, as I understand it, they have a lot of Libertarian social policy prescriptions that liberals naturally hate.
The liberals threw a hysterical shit storm over the book and vilified the authors as “white supremacists”, which was strange, given that the book reported that Asians have, on average, a higher IQ than whites, not something one would normally expect from a “white supremacist”.
Herrnstein passed away, and Murray became a pariah to the left. He works for some right-wing think tank. In about 2011 he wrote a book “Coming Apart”, which I read and is quite good. In that book he bends over backward to avoid discussing race — he makes no mention of anyone other than white people, and the focus of the book was on the growing cultural divide between lower-class and upper-class whites. It is a very useful book to read if you are an upper-class intellectual having difficulty fathoming the mindset of the Trump voter.
Sam Harris is one of the 4 most famous Atheists in the world, he was dubbed one of the “4 Horsemen” of the New Atheists. As an atheist, his job is to criticize religion, and he feels that Islam is one of the most dysfunctional and destructive religions around. 10 years ago, he belonged firmly to the political left, but since then, the left has decided that no one should criticize Islam for any reason, and he’s gotten a lot of flak.
When the Bell Curve came out and the liberal shit storm happened, Harris thought “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. That must be a terrible, maliciously racist book.”. But when he came under criticism from the left, he started seeing parallels between the left’s treatment of Murray and their treatment of himself. He read The Bell Curve for himself, and invited the author, Charles Murray, onto his pod cast and introduced him as “The most misunderstood and unfairly treated intellectual of our time.”.
Vox published an article critical of Harris’s interview. The authors of the article were Eric Turkheimer and Richard E. Nisbett, who are both authorities on the subject of intelligence and particularly the relative influence of genes and environment. They are both very extreme on the environment side, while Murray is very extreme on the genes side.
I have read Nisbett’s book “Intelligence and How to Get It”. I thought it was disingenuous in that it mentioned many ways that environment can influence IQ, but never, ever, brought up a very important point — studies have found that when a child born to dumb parents is adopted and raised by smarter parents (something that happens a lot), when the kid is about 12 years old, the high IQ of the parents rubs off on the kid in a pretty significant way, but as the kid approaches adulthood, their IQ converges on the IQ of the biological parents. So it’s important to distinguish between short-term and long-term effects, which the whole book never even touches on.
I have also read some of Turkheimer’s published papers (he has them all on the web). Prior to him, adoption studies were generally finding that there was very little difference in IQ between kids adopted into homes of different incomes. The problem with this research is that there are very few really bad adoptive homes. Adoptive homes are rarely poverty stricken — they range from solid lower middle-class to upper class, and many researchers found that the difference between the two makes little difference to the kid. Turkheimer’s work establishes that a god awful home can really negatively effect the kid’s IQ. But his papers were dishonest in that they showed a lot of graphs that weren’t plots of experimental data, but rather artist’s depictions showing IQ raising steadily as income raised across the spectrum from poor to rich, which conflicts with everybody’s else’s research on the subject and which Turkheimer’s research did not establish.
Murray, on the other hand, is extremely on the “genes rule the day, environment has little impact” end of things.
So after these two wrote the article critical of Harris’s pod cast, labeling The Bell Curve as “Junk Science” and “pseudo science”. Harris felt that this was extremely unfair, and had an email exchange with Ezra Klein, the editor of Vox about it.
Calling something “Junk Science” and “pseudo science” is very extreme, and I think Harris had a good point. The racial differences described by “The Bell Curve” are facts. While Murray’s position that these differences are genetic in nature is on the extreme side, he is not far from the consensus of psychologists in the field of intelligence testing in this regard. Few rule the possibility out.
So Harris and Klein had an argument over email, and eventually Harris got so annoyed that he put the whole email conversation on the web, which I and a lot of other people felt was not good form.
So now, a year after the Harris/Murray podcast, Harris had Klein on his podcast, which was over 2 hours.
Harris felt that race and IQ was something that people should be able to talk about and have honest disagreements without either side getting vilified. He felt that the search for truth was paramount.
Klein felt that a perception that blacks had lower IQ’s and that the cause of this was genetic is so harmful, and has enormous potential to justify injustice, that it was a pernicious belief and that was the dominant concern. He also felt it was objectionable for privileged whites to be passing judgment on the lack of talent of vulnerable people. And he felt that a scientific discussion of race and IQ should include a lot of discussion of the history of racial injustice.
Harris replied that the history of injustice and the potentially harmful social policies that a perception of genetic racial differences in IQ are irrelevant. To him, the discussion was about science, and he felt that people should be allowed to focus on getting to the truth of the matter.
The claim that discussion of race & IQ should spend a lot of time on history reminds me of when I read Steven Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, which claims to debunk the assertion that IQ varies with race. Gould spent half the book quoting 19th century white male non-scientists saying racist things, which I felt was totally irrelevant, and I was frustrated that Gould got through the whole book without giving any biological reason why populations that had been isolated long enough to develop obvious genetic cosmetic differences could not also have evolved genetic cognitive differences.
Harris also said that it was counter-intellectual to say that the race of the speaker had any bearing on the truth of a statement.
Klein made several arguments to the effect that The Bell Curve was wrong, but he never denied that truth was not his top priority.
One point Harris made was that the article said that The Bell Curve said blacks were “inferior“, and he objected to that use of the word. Harris pointed out that there was almost no doubt that he personally had a lower IQ than John Von Neuman, one of the brightest minds of the twentieth century. He asked Klein if it was therefore fair to say that Harris was “inferior” to John Von Neuman. Klein really didn’t answer that question.
A couple of times, Harris made the point that he had spoken to well-known, well-respected intelligence researchers who told him, off the record, that they agreed with Murray, but they weren’t willing to say so publicly because they didn’t want to be treated the way Murray had. Klein didn’t have a response to that, and I think that he probably felt that this level of intimidation was a good thing.
Harris made an excellent case that the Vox article was intellectually dishonest, and Klein was pretty clearly of the opinion that the potentially pernicious policy implications of the truth was of more importance than intellectual honesty as an ideal.
There were some points that neither of them mentioned:
- The dogma that there are no cognitive or behavioral differences between ethnic groups could itself be pernicious, particularly if it is inaccurate. Social policies based on science that is wrong are not going to work very well.
- Even if there are no genetic differences in IQ between ethnic groups (which I feel is a possibility, but not a strong one), everyone agrees that significant differences currently exist. And if the cause of the differences is not genetic, we really aren’t sure what it is. If we can honestly discuss race and IQ, we might be able to identify the cause and fix it. If we can’t have that discussion, we’ll never identify the cause, and the tactics we employ to fix inequality of outcomes will be the wrong ones and those differences will persist.
- Even if the causes of the observed differences in IQ are entirely environmental, these differences should have a profound impact on how we should interpret observed differences in outcomes. Liberals have a habit of citing unequal outcomes as proof of discrimination, but it is well established that differences in talent do exist, regardless of their causes. Given that differences in talent do exist, perhaps egalitarian efforts would be better invested in eradicating the causes of the talent gap, rather than constantly vilifying whites for discrimination that is not really the driver of differences in outcomes. This is extremely relevant to charges of discrimination made against STEM fields, which are very meritocratic and where a high IQ is a key ingredient of success.
- Do the liberals really believe that they can conceal the intelligence gap from everybody? A lot of American students are in integrated schools, and they can tell who is contributing intelligently to class discussion, and they see who is in honors classes and who is in the remedial classes, and they can see whether observed group differences are because of any great injustices being imposed by the school faculty. Isn’t the liberal policy of telling everybody that they are terrible people if they believe their own eyes and ears going to backfire at some point? Isn’t the current state of American politics, where much of the public has become anti-intellectual and revolted against the intellectual leadership of the highly educated, due to the fact that liberals have been indulging in obvious lies?
- Liberals have been saying, very loudly, that discrimination and historical injustices perpetrated by the whites are responsible for all the suffering of blacks. This is not only an excuse for the poor performance of blacks, it’s also an accusation against the whites. And isn’t the right of the accused to speak in self defense and offer alternative explanations, even in the form of insults, a fundamental human right?