There’s a lot of backstory to this podcast, which is covered in more detail in this piece.
The short version is that Sam Harris, host of the Waking Up podcast, and I have been going back and forth over an interview Harris did with The Bell Curve author Charles Murray. In that interview, which first aired almost a year ago, the two argued that African Americans are, for a combination of genetic and environmental reasons, intrinsically and immutably less intelligent than white Americans, and Murray argued that the implications of this “forbidden knowledge” should shape social policy. Vox published a piece criticizing the conversation, Harris was offended by the piece and challenged me to a debate, and after a lot of back-and-forth, this is that debate.
But even if you’re not interested in the backstory, I think this discussion — which is also being released on Harris’s podcast — is worth listening to. Harris’s view is that the criticism he and Murray have received is a moral panic driven by identity politics and political correctness. My view is that contemporary IQ results are inseparable from both the past and present of racism in America, and to conduct this conversation without voices who are expert on that subject, and who hail from the affected communities, is to miss the point from the outset.
So that’s where we begin. Where we go, I think, is more important: These hypotheses about biological racial difference are now, and have always been, used to advance clear political agendas — in Murray’s case, an end to programs meant to redress racial inequality, and in Harris’s case, a counterstrike against identitarian concerns he sees as a threat to his own career. Yes, identity politics are at play in this conversation, but that includes, as it always has, white identity politics.
To Harris, and you’ll hear this explicitly, identity politics is something others do. To me, it’s something we all do, and that he and many others refuse to admit they’re doing. This is one of the advantages of being the majority group: Your concerns get coded as concerns; it’s everyone else who is playing identity politics.
Even if you’re not interested in the specifics of our debate, I think this discussion goes to some important questions in American life — questions that drive our culture and politics today. I hope you enjoy it.
A quick note: A transcript of the podcast is below, as per usual. But if you’ve read these transcripts before, you’ll know I typically edit them down for length and clarity. In this case, Harris and I agreed to post our conversation unedited save for vocal tics (“um,” “ah,” etc.), logistics, and sound issues, so I have left the transcript faithful to the original audio (and huge thanks to Emily Stewart for her help on this). If you have the time to listen to our discussion, I’d urge you to consume it that way instead.
Almost exactly a year ago, I had Charles Murray on my podcast. Murray, as many of our listeners will know, is the author of the notorious book The Bell Curve. It has a chapter on raising IQ and differences between racial measures of IQ that was extremely controversial. Murray is a person who still gets protested on college campuses more than 20 years later.
While I have very little interest in IQ and actually zero interest in racial differences in IQ, I invited Murray on my podcast, because he had recently been de-platformed at Middlebury College. He and his host were actually assaulted as they left the auditorium. In my view, this seemed yet another instance of kind of a moral panic that we were seeing on college campuses. It caused me to take an interest in Murray that I hadn’t previously had. I had never read The Bell Curve, because I thought it was just ... It must be just racist trash, because I assumed that where there was all that smoke, there must be fire. I hadn’t paid attention to Murray. When I did read the book and did some more research on him, I came to think that he was probably the most unfairly maligned person in my lifetime. That doesn’t really run the risk of being much of an exaggeration there.
The most controversial passages in the book struck me as utterly mainstream with respect to the science at this point. They were mainstream at the time he wrote them and they’re even more mainstream today. I perceived a real problem here of free speech and a man’s shunning and I was very worried. I felt culpable, because I had participated in that shunning somewhat. I had ignored him. As I said, I hadn’t read his book, and I had declined at least one occasion where I could’ve joined a project that he was associated with. I declined, because he was associated with it, because I perceived him to be radioactive.
So, I felt a moral obligation to have him on my podcast. In the process of defending him against the charge of racism and in order to show that he had been mistreated for decades, we had to talk about the science of IQ and the way genes and environment almost certainly contribute to it. Again, IQ is not one of my concerns and racial differences in IQ is absolutely not one of my concerns, but a person having his reputation destroyed for honestly discussing data — that deeply concerns me.
I did that podcast, again exactly a year ago. Vox then published an article that was highly critical of that podcast. It was written by Eric Turkheimer and Kathryn Harden and Richard Nisbett. This article, in my view, got more or less everything wrong. It read to me like a piece of political propaganda.
I reached out to you by email. I felt this article was totally unfair. It accused us of peddling junk science and pseudoscience and pseudo scientific racialist speculation and trafficking in dangerous ideas. Murray got the worse of it, but at minimum, I’m painted as a total ignoramus, right? One line said while I have a PhD in neuroscience I appear to be totally ignorant of facts that are well known to everyone in the field of intelligence studies.
I think you should quote the line. I don’t think that’s what the line said.
The quote is, this is the exact quote: “Sam Harris appeared to be ignorant of facts that were well known to everyone in the field of intelligence studies.” Now that’s since been quietly removed from the article, but it was there and it’s archived.
[I went back and looked into this and, as far as I can tell, the original quote that Harris is referring to is this one: “Here, too briefly, are some facts to ponder — facts that Murray was not challenged to consider by Harris, who holds a PhD in neuroscience, although they are known to most experts in the field of intelligence.” Here is the first archived version of the piece if you want to compare it with the final. — Ezra]
That’s what I was reacting to. I sent you an email. I was pretty pissed, because again, I felt I was treated totally unfairly, as was Murray. I was especially pissed that you declined to publish an article that came to us unbidden, that came to you unbidden. It was unbidden by me or Murray, but from Richard Haier, who is the editor-in-chief of the journal Intelligence, in a far more mainstream voice on this issue then Nisbett or Turkheimer or Harden. He came to our defense, and that would have done a lot to correct the record, but you declined to publish that.
We went round and round by email. I got increasingly exasperated over just how I perceived you in the email exchange. Well, there was some talk of us doing this podcast together, but then I pulled the plug on that, because I felt it would be totally unproductive. At the end of the email exchange I said, “If you continue to slander me, I will publish this email exchange.” Because I felt that people should understand the actual backstory here and how this happened and why I’m not doing a podcast with you.
Then you did actually publish one more article from Turkheimer that took a shot at us, but basically we went radio silence for a year about as far as I know. Then what happened is there was an article published in the New York Times by David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard, which made some of the same noises that Murray and I had made. Murray retweeted it saying, “Well this sounds familiar.” Then I retweeted it taking a snide dig at you, saying something like, “I hope Ezra Klein is on the case, racialist pseudoscience never sleeps.” Then you responded writing yet another article about me and Murray.
I felt this article was just as unfair as anything that had preceded it. In particular I felt that you had summarized our email exchange in a way that was self-serving and that I didn’t agree with. That prompted me to publish the emails. I will be the first to admit — and I think you will agree with this — that that backfired on me. The public perception of my publishing those emails was that it was not a good look for me at all. Most people who came to those emails cold thought I was inexplicably angry and that you seemed very open to dialogue and it just, people had to do a lot of work to understand why I was pissed, and most people didn’t do that work.
I’m not saying that everyone who did the work, who listened to the podcast and read all the articles would take my side of it, but anyone who didn’t do the work thought that I was somehow the aggressor there and somehow, in particular, the fact that I was declining to do a podcast with you was held very much against me.
That caused me to change my mind about this whole thing, because I realized this is not, I can’t be perceived as someone who won’t take on legitimate criticism of his views. I went out on social media just to see if, in fact, people really wanted us to attempt this. After 40,000 or 50,000 people got back, I think it was 76 percent said yes, I decided that I was up for a podcast with you and you had already said you were up for a podcast with me, so here we are.
Again, much of that is described from my point of view, but I think the timeline is accurate.
The only thing I would say here is that you didn’t email me. What happened is that this piece published out. I tweeted it out. You tweeted a public challenge to me to come on your show.
Okay, yes, that’s true.
Your producer emailed me to come on your show. I emailed your producer and said, “Hey can you connect me to Sam? We should talk about this.” Then our emails began.
That’s true the first contact was on Twitter.
Which is not a big deal I just want to note that.
Totally true. All right, let’s start with you. What don’t I get? Why is your criticism of me and Murray valid? Give me your take on all this.
All right, well, I appreciate that summary.
Obviously, and I’m sure we’ll get into this stuff, I have disagreements with which articles are fair and which aren’t, but I don’t think that that is where I want to begin this. I’m sure we’ll go through that. And people can read the original Vox articles — they’ll all be linked in my show notes, I assume, Sam, they’ll be linked in yours — they can read our emails to each other. They can read my article. They can listen to the original podcast. If you would like to be a Sam Harris and Ezra Klein completist, the option is very much there.
I listened to your housekeeping episode the other day, so I think I have some sense, Sam, of where you are coming into this, and I want to give you a sense of where I am in the hopes that it will be productive. Something you’ve said over and over and over again to me at this point is that to you, from the beginning, I’ve been here in bad faith. The problem is that I’ve come to this, coming to slander you, to destroy your reputation, to silence you. And I really take that as a signal failure on my part. I have not been able to persuade you, and maybe I will be today, that I really disagree with you strongly — I think some of the things you’re trafficking in are not just wrong, but they’re harmful — but I do so in good faith.
I’m here because I want to persuade you. One of the tricky things here is that I was not that involved in the original Vox article, I was editor-in-chief at the time, but I didn’t assign or edit it. I stand by it — things you publish when you’re editor-in-chief ultimately are on you — and I actually think it’s a good piece. But there are times when I can only speak from my perspective, not from the perspective of other people who wrote other things.
But the way I read the conversation you had with Murray, and I think you gesture at this in your opening here, you begin that conversation by really framing it around your shared experience responding to politically correct criticism.
You say, and I’m quoting you here, “in the intervening years,” — so the intervening years since Murray published The Bell Curve — “I ventured into my own controversial areas as a speaker and writer. I experienced many hysterical attacks against me and my work. I started thinking about your case” — your case being Murray’s 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.”
So you say explicitly in the opening to that podcast, that in the treatment of Murray, you saw the seeds of later treatment of you. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, because something that I’ve been trying to do here is see this from your perspective.
Here is my view: I think you have a deep empathy for Charles Murray’s side of this conversation, because you see yourself in it. I don’t think you have as deep an empathy for the other side of this conversation. For the people being told once again that they are genetically and environmentally and at any rate immutably less intelligent and that our social policy should reflect that. I think part of the absence of that empathy is it doesn’t threaten you. I don’t think you see a threat to you in that, in the way you see a threat to you in what’s happened to Murray. In some cases, I’m not even quite sure you heard what Murray was saying on social policy either in The Bell Curve and a lot of his later work, or on the podcast. I think that led to a blind spot, and this is worth discussing.
I like your podcast. I think you have a big platform and a big audience. I think it’s bad for the world if Murray’s take on this gets recast here as political bravery, or impartial, or non-controversial. What I want to do here, it’s not really convince you that I’m right. I don’t think I’m going to do that. It’s not to convince you to like me, I don’t think I’m going to do that either, I get that.
What I want to convince you of is that there’s a side of this you should become more curious about. You should be doing shows with people like Ibram Kendi, who is the author of Stamped from the Beginning, which is a book on racist ideas in America which won the National Book Award a couple of years back. People who really study how race and these ideas interact with American life and policy.
I think the fact that we are two white guys talking about how growing up nonwhite in America affects your life and cognitive development is a problem here, just as it was a problem in the Murray conversation. And I want to persuade you that that some of the things that the so-called social justice warriors are worried about, are worth worrying about, and that the excesses of activists, while real and problematic, they’re not as a big deal as the things they’re really trying to fight and to draw attention to. Maybe I’ll take a breath there and let you in.
All right. Yeah, okay that’s a great start.
I guess there’s a lot to respond to there. I guess the first thing I want to say there are two things I regret here, both in our exchange and in my podcast with Murray. I should just put those out first I think.
The first is that I was, as you said, very quick to attribute malice and bad faith to you in the email exchange. I may have done, it’s quite possible I did this when it wasn’t warranted. The reality is, the background here, which you alluded to, is that I am so battle-scarred at this point, and I’ve dealt with so many people who are willing to consciously lie about my views and who will just play the evasion game endlessly.
I’ve got people who edit the contents of my podcast to make it sound like I’ve said the opposite of what I’ve said. Then people like Glenn Greenwald and Reza Aslan forward these videos, consciously knowing they’re misrepresenting me. There’s been so much pushback about this. There’s been so much correction that at this point the possibility that it’s not conscious is just, the chance of that is zero. So, I’m dealing with people on daily basis who are just happy to smear me dishonestly simply to see what will sticks. In fact, when I published out emails, the tipping point for me was to see that Glenn Greenwald, Reza Aslan, and you in a single hour on Twitter had all hit me with the stuff that I perceive to be totally dishonest.
My fuse is pretty short. I am the first to admit that. If I treated you unfairly, attributing bad faith when you were just led by a sincere conviction that I had made an error, or that you were arguing for something that was so important and that I wasn’t seeing it, that is on me.
Now that said, I think your argument is, even where it pretends to be factual, or wherever you think it is factual, it is highly biased by political considerations. These are political considerations that I share. The fact that you think I don’t have empathy for people who suffer just the starkest inequalities of wealth and politics and luck is just, it’s telling and it’s untrue. I think it’s even untrue of Murray. The fact that you’re conflating the social policies he endorses — like the fact that he’s against affirmative action and he’s for universal basic income, I know you don’t happen agree with those policies, you think that would be disastrous — there’s a good-faith argument to be had on both sides of that conversation. That conversation is quite distinct from the science and even that conversation about social policy can be had without any allegation that a person is racist, or that a person lacks empathy for people who are at the bottom of society. That’s one distinction I want to make.
The other thing that I regret, which I think is, this is the thing you are taking me to task for, and I understand it, but I do regret that in the preface to my podcast with Murray, I didn’t add some full discussion of racism in America. The reason why I didn’t, or certainly at least one reason why I didn’t is that I had, maybe two months before that, done a podcast with Glenn Loury, the economist at Brown, who happens to be black. Glenn is fantastic. He’s got his own podcast, the Glenn Show, which everyone should watch. Glenn was on my podcast, and we were talking about race and violence in America. And I prefaced the conversation with a fairly long statement about the reality of white privilege and the past horrors of racism. When I got to the end of it, Glenn pretty much chastised me for thinking that it was necessary for me to say something like that just because I’m white. The fact that any conversation about race and violence, especially coming from a white guy like me, has to be bracketed with some elaborate virtue signaling on that point.
I mean, he basically said — these aren’t his words, but this was his attitude — he basically said, “Obviously, since you’re not a racist asshole, it can go without saying that you think that you understand that slavery was bad and that Jim Crow was bad and that you totally support civil rights.”
His take on my saying that was not a total surprise, given who Glenn is. But the fact that he viewed it as fairly pathetic that I felt the need to do that and that it couldn’t just go without saying, I remembered that.
Obviously, your point is well taken. I mean, two white guys talking about differences in IQ across races, or across populations. I mean, if ever there is a time to signal that you understand that racism is still a problem in the world, that’s it. While we did say some things that I think should still have been fully exculpatory — I mean, for anyone paying attention, I think it should be obvious, with a modicum of charity extended to us, that Murray and I are not racist, and that what we were saying was not coming from a place of racial animus. But that is, I mean, that is the backstory for why I didn’t have some kind of elaborate framing of the conversation.
This is good, because I think this gets much closer to the meat of where we actually disagree. Something I want to be clear about is what I think was wrong in that podcast is not that you didn’t virtue signal. It’s not that you didn’t come out and say, “Hey, listen, just before I start this up, I want everybody to know I’m not a racist.”
And by the way I’m not here to say you’re racist, I don’t think you are. We have not called you one. I actually think we should talk later about literally just what racism is, how we use that word in this conversation.
But my criticism of your podcast and, by the way my criticism also of Murray, and this is useful, because I can work backwards through your answer here, is not that you didn’t excuse yourself. It’s that in a conversation about an outcome of American life — How do African Americans and whites score on IQ tests in America today? What happens when somebody sits down and takes the test today? — that is an outcome of the American experiment, an experiment we’ve been running in this country for hundreds of years. You did not discuss how race and racism act upon that outcome. You did not discuss it.
I mean, amazingly to me, you all didn’t talk about slavery or segregation once. What I’m saying here is not that you lack empathy — although in a different space, I think you have a sense of what Murray is going through that is different from your sense of what other people who are hurt in this conversation go through, I do believe that — but as it comes to the way you actually conducted the conversation, I’m arguing that you lacked a sense of history, that you didn’t deal in a serious way with the history of this conversation, a conversation that has been going on literally since the dawn of the country. A conversation that has been wrong in virtually every version, in every iteration, we’ve had in America before.
The other thing I want to say about this, and this gets very importantly to Charles Murray’s work. You’re a neuroscientist. And so I get that you look at Murray and you look at The Bell Curve and what you see are the tables and the appendices and the scientific version of Charles Murray.
I’m a policy journalist. My background is I live in Washington, DC, I cover politics. Charles Murray — not just to me, what he literally is — is what we call a policy entrepreneur. He’s somebody who his entire career has been spent at Washington think tanks. He’s at the American Enterprise Institute, where I have a lot of friends, and I respect that organization quite a bit. He argues in different ways and throughout his entire body of work for policy outcomes.
His book before The Bell Curve is called Losing Ground. It’s a book about why we should dissolve the Great Society programs. By the way, when he was selling that book, he said, “a lot of whites think they’re racist, and this is a book that tells them they aren’t.”
Then he came out with The Bell Curve and we’ll go through this. I’ll quote this back to you, but in The Bell Curve’s final chapter, he says, Why did I do any of this? Why did I talk about any of this? Him and Richard Herrnstein, obviously the co-author of that book. He says, The reason I did it is because we in America need to re-embrace a politics of difference. We need to understand that we are cognitively different from each other, not just by race, but other folks too, but by race as well, and that understanding that changes what we should do in social policy.
He literally says, and again I can quote this to you if you’d like, he says, for one thing, we have all these low cognitive capacity women giving birth, and by having the social supports for poor children in this country, we are subsidizing them to give birth. What we need to do is take those subsidies away. These women, who according to his book are disproportionately African American, their poor children should not get as much federal support when they are born, so they are disincentivized to have as many children.
He also says that we have all these folks who are Hispanic coming up over the border, that our immigration policy is letting in too many low-IQ people. While he’s not quite as prescriptive in that part, he’s pretty clear that he wants us to change our immigration policy, in order to resist dysgenic pressure.
The other thing you brought up his UBI work. The reason I bring this up is that, the reason Charles Murray’s work is problematic, is that he uses these arguments about IQ — and a lot of other arguments he makes about other things — to push these points into the public debate, where he is very, very, very influential. He’s not by any means a silenced actor in Washington. He gives Congressional testimony. He won the Bradley Prize in 2016 and got a $250,000 check for it. His book on UBI, it is completely of a piece with this. I reviewed that book when it came out. It’s an interesting book, people should read it, but it is a way of cutting social spending. According to Murray’s own numbers, he says it would cut social spending by a trillion dollars in 2020. To give you a sense of scale, Obamacare costs two trillion dollars over 10 years.
This is another book in a different way that is a huge argument for cutting social spending, which in part he justifies by saying, we are trying to redress racial inequality based on an idea that it is a product of American history, when in fact it is some combination of innate and environmental, but at any rate, it is not something we’re going to be able to change, and so we should stop trying, or at least stop trying in the way we have been.
Okay. Ezra, again you can’t conflate his views on social policy with an honest discussion of empirical science. Those are two separate conversations. You can agree about the data, or disagree in a good faith way about the data, and have a separate conversation about what to do in response to the data and then disagree in a good faith way about that.
Now I’m not defending Murray’s view of what the social policy should be. I’m open-minded about universal basic income. I think there can be a good faith debate about many of these topics. It’s a completely separate conversation, and I totally share your concern about racism and inequality.
Again, I have no interest in using science to establish differences between races. But the problem is, and I have publicly criticized people who do have an interest in using science that way, and one of my critical questions of Murray was why pay attention to any of this stuff? I’ve said publicly that I didn’t think his answer was great on that. I’m not interested in paying attention to this stuff, and yet I have to, in order to have conversations like this.
But the problem is the data on population differences will continue to emerge whether we’re looking for it or not. The idea that one should lie about these data, or pretend to be convinced by bad arguments that are politically correct, or worse that it’s okay to malign people, or even destroy their reputations, if they won’t pretend to be convinced by bad arguments. That’s a disaster. Morally and politically and intellectually, that is a disaster, and that’s where we are.
That’s my criticism of what you have done at Vox and what Turkheimer and Nisbett and Harden have done. The truth is, for whatever reason, however noble it is in your head, you’ve been extraordinarily unfair to me and Murray. Now especially to Murray.
I just want to give you a couple of examples here. I think we have to go in to this issue of, you just claimed you didn’t call us racist, right? You didn’t use the word racist, I’ll grant you that. You used the racialist, which you know most people will read as racist. But even if that is an adequate way to split the difference, everything else you said imputed, if not an utter racial bias and a commitment to some kind of white superiority, you say again and again that, here’s a quote from your article. This is actually the subtitle of the article. I called the podcast with Murray “Forbidden Knowledge.” You said, “it isn’t forbidden knowledge, it’s American’s most ancient justification for bigotry and racial inequality.” This is what, we’re shilling for bigotry and racial inequality.
Then you convict Murray and, again this is a quote, “being engaged in a decades-long focus on the intellectual inferiority of Africa Americans.” Now honestly, okay that is a smear. Murray has not been focused on African-Americans. He’s been waging a decades-long battle to survive being scapegoated by people who insinuate that he’s a racist. The nature of that battle is to continually try to, you have to keep touching this issue to get the slime off of you.
But, as you know, The Bell Curve was not focused on race. There’s just one chapter on race, and the truth is that, and you almost eluded this in what you just said, the truth is that Murray is just as worried about unearned privilege as you are. I mean, he’s just worried about a different kind of privilege. You could call it IQ privilege. The Bell Curve is an 800-page lament on this type of privilege. Again, it has nothing in principle to do with race. Murray is just as worried about the white people on the left side of the IQ distribution as black people, or Latinos, or anyone else.
It would be just as true to describe him as having been involved in a decades-long focus on the superiority of Asians over white people, because that’s also part of the story. You might ask yourself why you didn’t do that.
I want to read a quote from Murray on my podcast, because this is, again, I’m not at all arguing for his social policies. I just want us to be fair to the man. This is a quote:
If there’s one thing that writing The Bell Curve did, it sensitized me to the extent to which high IQ is pure luck. None of us earn our IQ. Whether it’s by nature, or by nurture. We aren’t the ones who did the nurturing. Hard work and perseverance and all those other qualities are great, but we can’t take credit for our IQ. We live in a society that is tailor-made for people with high IQs. The people who got the short end of the stick in that lottery deserve our admiration and our support if they’re doing everything right.
That’s the end of the quote. So he is worried about a world where success is determined by a narrow range of abilities, and these abilities, whether they come from nature or nurture, are distributed unequally. That’s guaranteed to be true. We just know that that they can’t possibly be equal, both among individuals and across groups, and when you’re talking about the averages in groups.
He’s totally committed, as I am, and, again, I don’t know how many times you have reiterate this in a podcast to make it stick, that the punchline here is that everyone has to be treated as an individual, that we have to get past thinking about groups. I mean, there’s more variance within a group than between groups, and everyone has to be encountered on their own merits. He’s totally clear about that.
So to paint him as callous and as racist and as essentially a white supremacist. Again, you’re talking, he’s fixated on the inferiority of blacks on your account. It is irresponsible and unethical, and that’s the kind of wrong that I was trying to address by giving him a platform on my podcast. That is what produced so much outrage in me in our email exchange.
When I hear this. I actually really wonder how much ... I want to be careful here. I know Charles Murray. When I wrote my very first piece as a journalist in Washington, it was a piece about poverty, I interviewed him for it. I’ve reviewed his books. I’ve talked with him. My wife is writing a book about UBI actually. He’s quoted in the book. I do not want Charles Murray silenced, and he’s a lovely guy interpersonally. There’s no doubt about that. The quote you read from him about luck, I want to put a pin in that, because there’s a whole conversation I want to have with you about that quote. If Charles Murray followed what that quote implies, I think things would look very different with him and with my view of his career.
But I do think I need to go through some of what you said here. First, I don’t know how much you understand Charles Murray’s career. As I said, his first book is Losing Ground. It’s a book about the Great Society. It’s a book —
But wait, just in the interest of time and basic human sanity. I’m worried that you’re going to do is, all the stuff you’re going to cover is irrelevant, because one, I’ve said —
Sam, I’ve let you had your say. I’m just going to —
No, I just want to. Okay that’s fine, but I just want to prevent your and listener frustration here, because if you go on for 10 minutes, for me to only say well again his social policies are not social policies I’m advocating —
Don’t worry. We’re going to go through all this, and I don’t mean this to be sharp, but you don’t give short answers yourself. We’re just going to have to indulge the other one here.
His first book is Losing Ground. It’s about dissolving the welfare state. Again, he says about that book, a lot of whites think they’re racists, I’m going to show them they’re not.
The next book is The Bell Curve. The way Murray often defends The Bell Curve is by saying, “Hey, look it only had this one chapter on race and IQ.” He’s completely, or actually a couple of chapters, but he’s completely right about that. The chapters where that is mentioned, they are not the bulk of the book.
But I’m actually a publisher of pieces. I work with a lot of authors on book excerpts. The furor around The Bell Curve is not around the book, which it’s a long book, most people haven’t read it. It’s that the part of the book that he had excerpted on the cover of the New Republic under Andrew Sullivan — the cover of the New Republic, it just says in big letters, “Race and IQ.” The reason that is the part people focus on is that they pulled the most controversial part of the book and made it a huge deal. I know that authors, when they don’t want their most controversial part to define the work, they don’t let you excerpt that. So one, I don’t think Murray’s blameless there.
His next book is honestly weirder. I don’t know if you’ve read, or even got familiar with Human Achievement, the next book?
I’ve read, just to be on the record here, I’ve read The Bell Curve, and I’ve read Coming Apart, and that’s all. Coming Apart just spells out his concern about the cognitive stratification of society.
So Human Achievement is a book where Murray, and this comes right after The Bell Curve — and when I describe this book I almost feel like people are not going to believe me, but go look it up — Murray wants to quantify the human achievements of different races. The way he does that is he looks in a bunch of encyclopedias and he literally counts up the amount of space given to the accomplishments of artists and philosophers and scientists from different places. He uses that to say white Europeans have done the most to push forward human achievement. One criticism that I and other people have of Murray is that he often looks at indicators that reflect inequality and uses them to justify inequality. That book is one of the most massive correlation-causation errors I can possibly imagine.
So now the next thing you said is that in doing this that I’m conflating two things. I’m conflating just a calm discussion you two ha about the science with the social policy agenda. I want to read you actually what was said in your discussion with Murray about this, because this is actually why I’m interested in it.
When you were talking with Murray, one thing — I think to your credit — is you repeatedly asked him, why do this at all? Why have this whole discussion about race and IQ? What are we doing here?
You say, “Why seek data on racial differences at all? What is the purpose of doing this?” Murray responds, and, again, I’m quoting:
Because we now have social policy embedded in employment policy, in academic policy, which is based on the premise that everybody is equal above the neck, whether it is men, or women, or whether it is ethnicities. When you have that embedded that into law, you have a variety of bad things happen.
Then you ask it again. You say, “Needless to say, I’m sure we can find hate supremacist organizations who love the fact that The Bell Curve was published and admonish their remembers to read it at the first opportunity. Why look at this? How does this help society get more information about racial difference?”
Murray, again, I’m not going to read the whole thing, because I think that would be dull, gives a long answer about affirmative action and why it is bad. So, I am not the one conflating this, number one. I am listening to the conversation you had. I’m listening to the conversation you had, I’m a close reader of Murray’s work, and the reason I care about this stuff is I care about what the actual social policy outcomes are. The final thing —
Ezra, then you don’t know what I mean by conflate. I got to clarify this. This confusion. This is just ...
You can respond to everything when I’m done, I promise. I will shut up and let you talk.
The final thing that you did in your answer to me here, what you said again and again, is people “pretending” to believe politically correct ideas. People pretending to believe bad evidence.
A couple things on that. I don’t doubt your sincerity in this, but I can assure you that Nisbett and Paige Harden and Eric Turkheimer and me, we actually believe what we believe. One of the things that has honestly been frustrating to me in dealing with you is you have a very sensitive ear to where you feel that somebody has insulted to you, but not a sensitive ear to yourself. During this discussion, you have called me, and not through implication, not through something where you’re reading in between the lines, you’ve called me a slanderer, a liar, intellectually dishonest, a bad-faith actor, cynically motivated by profit, defamatory, a libelist. You’ve called Turkheimer and Nisbett and Paige Harden, you’ve called them fringe. You’ve said just here that they’re part of a politically correct moral panic.
I do think that you need to do a little bit more here to credit the idea that there just is a disagreement here. It’s a disagreement in part because people are looking at different parts of this with different emphasis, but also a disagreement because people look at this issue and see different things. I often hear you on your podcast talk about how it’s important to try to extend the idea of the sincerity. One thing I’ve not done is assume that you don’t believe what you believe. Everybody here is trying to have an argument about something that is important, that in Murray’s words should feed into how we order society, what we do to redress racial difference. That’s not just a high stakes conversation. It’s also one where people just disagree.
Yeah, okay. So untangling a bit of confusion here. I guess there is two topics here that I should address.
I think we have to talk about what it means to insinuate that someone is racist, but, the conflation issue. My claim is that you’re conflating — I get that you hate his social policies, I get that you see that he thinks his social policies are justified by what he thinks empirically true in the world of data and facts and human difference. There’s a connection there, and you’re worried that if one takes the data seriously in the way that he takes it seriously, or if one endorses his interpretation of the data from psychology, or psychometrics, or behavioral genetics, that that will lead to social policies that you find abhorrent, or that you think will produce a massive amount of inequality, or suffering, or something wrong.
I get that. But the conflation is, is that talking about data is one thing. Talking about what should be done in light of the facts that you acknowledge to be true, or are likely to be true, is another. There can be good faith disagreements in both of those conversations. Those conversations are not inextricably linked. What I am noticing here is, and what I’ve called a moral panic, is that there are people who think that if we don’t make certain ideas, certain facts, taboo to discuss, if we don’t impose a massive reputational cost in discussing these things, then terrible things will happen at the level of social policy. That the only way to protect to our politics is to be — again, this is a loaded term, but this is what is happening from my view scientifically — is to be intellectually dishonest. To be led by confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is a real thing. This is the situation I think we’re in. Everything you’ve said about the politics and the historical wrongs of racism, which you wrote about a lot in your last piece, I totally agree with, and I’m probably more aligned with you politically than I am with Murray, which is to say that I share your biases. I share the bias that is leading you to frame the matter the way you’re framing it.
Again, I probably should have spelled this out in the beginning of my podcast with Murray, and I didn’t for reasons I described. I don’t think it would’ve made a bit of difference, but I still should’ve have done it. I think it would’ve been called anodyne the way Nisbett et al. called our talking about individual difference anodyne. But I think everything you say about the history of racism is true. I think you are probably, you could well be on the right side of a good debate about social policy, and your concerns here are totally understandable. I get all of that. So, I get why you feel, this goes to the charge of bad faith against you, which in this conversation I admitted might have been unfair. You might not be the Glenn Greenwald character I read you to be at a certain point in that email exchange.
Let’s just assume, as you say, that you feel intellectually scrupulous and ethically righteous, okay? I know what it’s like to feel that. You feel this way because you’re concerned about racism. You’re horrified by the history of racism, and you feel that the kinds of social policies that Murray favors would be disastrous. Again, I’m not arguing for those social policies, but your bias here and your connection to the political outcomes, when you’re talking about the empirical science, is causing you to make journalistic errors. It’s causing Nisbett and Turkheimer to make errors of scientific reasoning. These are obvious errors.
I mean, your last piece, you have this whole section on the “Flynn effect” and how the Flynn effect should be read as accounting for the black-white differences in purely environmental terms. Well, even Flynn rejects that interpretation of the Flynn effect. I mean, he had originally had hoped, he publicly hoped, that his effect would account for that, but now he has acknowledged that the data don’t suggest that. There are many errors of this kind that you and Nisbett and Turkheimer are making when you criticize me and Murray. You criticize Murray for errors that he didn’t make.
And in order for you to imagine that I’m equally biased, because you must imagine bias on my side, why am I getting it so wrong? Why am I looking at the same facts that Nisbett and Turkheimer and Harden are looking at and I am getting it absolutely wrong? You have to imagine that I have an equal and opposite passion, that I feel equally righteous, but it’s pointing in the opposite direction. I would have to be a grand dragon of the KKK to feel an equal and opposite bias on these data. You’ve already said you don’t think I’m a racist, but that’s what it would have to be true of me to be as biased as you are, again, understandably, given the history of racism on these data. It’s just not the case.
I mean, what you have in me is someone who shares most of your political concerns and yet is unwilling to — again, a loaded word — lie about what is and is not a good reading of empirical data and what is and is not a good argument about genetics and environment and what is reasonable to presume based on what we already know.
Again the problem is that even if we never look for these things again, even if we follow this taboo and decide that it’s just, there is no ethical reason to ever look at population differences, we will be continually ambushed by these data. They’re just going to spring out of our study of intelligence generically, or human genetics generically. It’s happened on other topics already, and people try to keep quiet about it, because again the environment journalistically and politically is so charged.
My criticism of you has been from day one that you are contributing to that political charge, and it’s totally unnecessary, because the political answer is so clear. The political answer is we have to be committed to racial equality and everyone getting all the opportunities in life for happiness and self-actualization they can use. We’re nowhere near achieving that kind of society. The real racists are the people who are not committed to those goals.
There is so much there.
I actually really appreciate that answer, because I think it helps open this up. So let me say a couple things here.
One of the things I’ve come to think about you that I actually did not come into this believing is, you’re very quick to see a lot of psychological tendencies, cognitive fallacies, etc. in others that you don’t see applying to yourself, or people you’ve written into your tribe. You say words in there like confirmation bias, etc., to me about how we’re looking at Murray. The whole thing I just told you is that Charles Murray is a guy who works at conservative think tanks, whose first book was about why we should get rid of the welfare state, who is, his whole life’s work is about breaking down social policy.
To the extent that I have any biases that flow backwards from political commitments, so does he. We’re all —
Okay. But what’s my bias?
Hold on Sam. I’m going to go through this.
But what’s my bias?
I promise you I will get to your bias very quickly.
I do want you to know, you mentioned James Flynn here. To prepare for this conversation, I called Flynn the other day. I spoke to him on Monday. His read of the evidence right now, and this is me quoting him. He says, “I think it is more probably than not that the IQ difference between black and white Americans is environmental. As a social scientist, I cannot be sure if they have a genetic advantage or disadvantage.” That is what James Flynn thinks of Monday.
Then you asked me — and I think this is a good question, because I think this gets to the core of this and it gets to where I tried to open us up into — your view of this debate is that to say that you have a bias in it is to say, in your terms, that you’re like the grand dragon of the KKK. That the only version of a bias that can be influencing what you see here is a core form of racism. That’s actually not my view of you, but I do think you have a bias.
I think you have a huge sensitivity, let’s put it that way, and you have a lot of difficulty extending an assumption of good faith to anyone who disagrees with you on an issue that you code as identity politics. There’s a place actually where I think you got into this in a pretty interesting way. I went back and I read your discussion with Glenn Loury.
At the beginning, when you’re talking about why you chose to have Glenn on the show, you say, “My goal was to find an African American intellectual, who could really get into the details with me, but whom I also trusted to have a truly rational conversation that wouldn’t be contaminated by identity politics.” To you, engaging in identity politics discredits your ability to participate in a rational conversation, and it’s something, as far as I can tell, that you do not see yourself as doing.
So here’s my question for you: On that specific quote, what does it mean to you, particularly when you’re talking about something like race, to have your ideas contaminated by identity politics?
Well, what I mean by identity politics is that you are reasoning on the basis of skin color, or religion, or gender, or some particular trait, which you have by accident, which you can’t change — you fell into that bin through no process of reasoning on your own, you couldn’t be convinced to be white or black — and to reason from that place as though, because you’re you, because you have the skin color you have, certain things are true and very likely incommunicable to other people who don’t share your identity. I view this as this as the most unhappy game of Dungeons and Dragons ever. People have these various stories of victimology that if you do arithmetic one way, one group trumps another. Another way it gets reversed.
This strikes me as a moral and political and intellectual dead end because the things that are really true, the things that will really move the dial with respect to human wellbeing — I view my career as being totally committed to amplifying good ideas and criticizing bad ideas, insofar as they relate to the most important swings of human wellbeing. My concern is, how can the future be better than the past? How can we get to a world where we cancel the worst effects of bad luck, given that some people are hugely lucky and some people aren’t? How can we cancel this, with respect to wealth and health and everything else? How can we get to a world where the maximum number of people thrive?
I view identity politics as among the worst pieces of software you can be running to try to get there. I want to get to a world where, I mean, it’s Martin Luther King’s claim about the content of your character, rather than the color of your skin. That is the goal, and if you want to reverse engineer that goal, giving primacy to identity is one of the worst things you can do. That is my, that’s how I would frame it.
That’s super helpful. Here’s my criticism of you. I don’t think you realize that the identity politics software is operating in you all the time and, I think it’s strong.
When you look at literature on the conversation about race in America, you often see the discussion broken into racists and anti-racists. That’s something that you’ll read often in this debate. I think there’s something else, particularly lately, which you might call anti-anti-racism, which is folks who are fundamentally more concerned, or fundamentally primarily concerned, with the overreach of what you would call the anti-racists. And, actually that’s where I think you are.
One of the things that I hear in you is that, whenever something gets near the questions of political correctness — the canary and the coal mine for the way you yourself have been treated — you get very, very, very strident. They’re in bad faith. They’re not being able to speak rationally. They’re not being able to have a conversation that is actually going forward on a sound evidentiary basis. The thing that I don’t think that you’re self-reflective enough about — and I apologize, because I know that “I” statements are better than “you” statements, but I do want to push this idea at you for you to think about it — is that there are things that are threats to you. There are things that are threats to your tribe, to your future, to your career, and those threats are very salient.
You see what happens with Charles Murray, the kind of criticism he gets, and that sets off every alarm bell in your head. You bring him on the show and you’re like, “We’re going to fix this. I’m going to show that they can’t do this to you.” You look around and you say, “Ezra, you think we shouldn’t take away all efforts to redress racial inequality? But that’s a bias. You’re just being led around by your political opinions, where I am standing outside the debate acting rationally.”
To me that’s actually not what’s happening at all. I think you’re missing a lot, because you are very radically increasing the salience of things that threaten your identity, your tribe — which is not the craziest thing to do in the world, t’s not a terrible thing to do, we all do it — without admitting, or maybe even without realizing, that’s what you’re doing.
I think that there is a lot of discussion like this in the public sphere just generally at the moment. There are a lot of white commentators, of which I am also one, who look at what’s happening on some campuses, or look at what happens on Twitter mobs, or whatever, and they see a threat to them. The concern about political correctness goes way, way, way, way up. Then the ability to hear what the folks who are making the arguments actually say dissolves. The ability to hear what the so-called social justice warriors are actually worried about dissolves. I think that’s a really big blind spot here. I think it’s making it hard for you to see when people have a good faith disagreement with you, and I also think it’s making harder for you to see how to weight some of the different concerns that are operating in this conversation.
You’re so concerned about Murray and what has happened here, when again, he’s an extremely successful scholar in Washington.
That’s actually confusion. That’s a point of confusion.
I mean, in your whole show, Sam, you’ve had 120-some episodes, and — I could have miscounted this, I totally take that as a possibility here — but you’ve had two —
It’s amazing you would think this is relevant, but yes, you can give me the numbers.
I think you’ve had two African Americans as guests. I think you need to explore the experience of race in American more and not just see that as identity politics. See that as information that is important to talking about some of things you want to talk about, but also to hearing from some of the people who you’ve now written out of the conversation to hear.
So this is the kind of thing that I would be tempted to score as bad faith —
In someone else, but actually, I think this is a point of confusion, but it is, nonetheless, confusion here.
Your accusation that I’m reasoning on the basis of my tribe here is just false. I mean, I spend, this is the whole game I play, this is my main focus in just constructing my worldview and having conversations with other people. When I’m thinking about things, that are true that stand a chance of being universal, that stand a chance of scaling, these are the kinds of things that are not subordinate to a person’s identity. They’re not the things that will be true by accident of birth, because you happen to have been born in India and are Hindu, right? I mean, this is the problem I have with religious sectarianism. This is the problem I have with nationalism or any other kind of tribalism that can’t possibly scale to a global civilization that’s truly cosmopolitan, where when you’re reasoning among strangers, you have to converge on solutions to problems that work independent of who you happen to be.
I mean, this is why John Rawls’s veil of ignorance thought experiment was so brilliant. To design a just society, a great heuristic, is to think of the society you would want, not knowing who you’re going to be in it. That’s the perfect nullification of the logic of identity politics. You have to figure out what would be good for everyone before you realize what the color of your skin is.
The reason why I’m defending Murray to the degree that I have been is not because I have this incredible sympathy with him because he’s a white guy like me.
I defend Muslim reformers who are not white and ex-Muslims who are not white. I’ve spent way more time defending Ayaan Hirsi Ali than Charles Murray, and she’s the victim of the same kind of leftist stupidity, frankly. Her demonization has the exact same structure that Murray’s does. I have spent an enormous investment of time and money, frankly, defending Ayaan. So your charge is false with respect to my motivations.
There are so many layers of confusion here. I mean, this is just a, again it’s not just yours, it’s everybody’s. It’s got to be a majority of both our audiences. I want to say something about this notion of what’s at stake here, because in your recent piece you talk about Murray’s focus on the inferiority of blacks.
But you also use just inferiority of blacks are inferior as well. Go back and look at the piece.
But this notion of inferiority, I mean, no one talks about inferiority who’s actually having a dispassionate argument on this topic of IQ testing. It absolutely does not map on, I can only, I’m not going to pretend to be a mind reader, but it certainly doesn’t map on to my view of this situation.
I mean, for instance, I would bet my life that my IQ is lower than John von Neumann’s was. The chances of that being true are 100 percent. Of course this is mere speculation, but this is speculation that you could bet the fate of the world on. Despite what Turkheimer says in his article, in his tweets, you can make very high probability speculations. Do you think I’m inferior to John von Neumann? Do you think I think I’m inferior to John von Neumann?
Two things here. One, when I talk about what Murray says specifically I do use intellectual inferiority. I got the piece out in front of me.
I do think, 100 percent, without doubt, that when we have, in American life, over and over and over again, said that African Americans are intellectually less capable than whites, that has been — yes, that is a way of saying that they are inferior and it has been a way of treating them as if they are inferior. It is been a way of justifying social outcomes that are unbelievably unequal and unfair that have been going on until, I mean, they’re going on in the present day.
You know, something that you said in here, Sam, I think is important, because, while you called it confusion, I still am not clear on which part is actually confused.
What I would argue about this is recognizing that there are folks who it is easier for us to hear from and harder is part of gathering the information about the world for us to understand what is true. During our email exchange, let me use this as an example. You wrote to me, again quoting here, “If James Flynn is right, if Flynn is right, than the mean IQs of African-American children, who are second- and third-generation upper middle class, should have converged with those of the children of upper middle class whites. But as far as I understand they haven’t.”
I think that sentence right there, that is not having enough experience, or having thought hard enough, or dug into the literature. I mean, there are different ways of learning about the world, of course, but about people who’s experience is different than yours.
I mean, I’ll give one example that I actually said to you in these emails. African American families making $100,000 a year tend to live in neighborhoods with the same income composition as white families making $30,000 a year. To say that you have an African-American family that is middle class or upper middle class and that their experience is now so similar to that of whites that somehow the environmental atmosphere around them has equalized, I think that is something that is being missed and that, the way you—
But Ezra what’s being missed—
I’ll just finish on this point. The way you leverage identity politics here is a way of not forcing yourself to see some of that.
Okay, but this is something you’ve done by implication, more or less every time you’ve touched this topic. You’ve suggested that Murray is trying to establish that the differences between the mean IQs in various groups are genetic, right? He’s not. He’s simply suggested that there’s good reason to believe that genes and environment both play a part.
That is a safe assumption for basically everything we care about physically and mentally. That is as safe an assumption in behavioral genetics as can be made. It’s an assumption that Turkheimer, Nisbett don’t want to make for patently political reasons, I would argue, but it is, I mean, I can’t tell you, every single scientist I spoke to before I did my podcast with Murray who’s close to these data, scientists who don’t want to publicly defend him, because they don’t want to have to have conversations like this, agreed that what had been done to him was absolutely disgraceful and that his reading of the science is fine.
Richard Haier, who came to our defense, again unbidden, put his reputation on the line to argue for that. My experience as a person who is getting ready to have a conversation with Murray, wondering whether or not he should do it, wondering whether or not this is just, maybe this guy is a racist who’s distorted the science, my experience was of encountering scientists who were basically in hiding on this topic, scientists who’s names would be well known to you, people who have stellar reputations, but who don’t want to go near this for all the trouble it causes them.
Just to give you another sense of the picture, of the context in which we’re having this conversation. The original Vox article landed on the hate watch page at the Southern Poverty Law Center website. In a stream that talks about neo-Nazi hate groups and the Atlanta bomber, there’s me and Murray. That’s not an accident. That’s not a gratuitous misreading of the article. That is the taboo I’m talking about. We are now purveyors of hate.
Let’s take this off race and IQ for a second, because this is something that would’ve been probably just as radioactive and it just happened to break the other way and nobody noticed.
I think it was three years ago, or four years ago. I think it was 2014 where there were some, there were reports about Neanderthal DNA. I think it’s David Reich whose op-ed in the New York Times kicked off our latest skirmish, I think it’s based on his work. It was found that most human beings are walking around with around 2.7 percent Neanderthal DNA. At the time, but it was found that the only people who don’t have Neanderthal DNA are black people, people who directly descend with some isolation from Africa, from the rest of the human community.
At the time I tweeted, this is now 2014, I tweeted, “Attention all racists, you are right. We are special, or whites are special. We’re part Neanderthal. Blacks are just human.” It just was a trolling of the world’s racists.
Now the fact that I tweeted that should give you as a journalist some indication of what I think about white supremacy. But what if the data had broken the other way? What if the only people on Earth, who were part neanderthal, were black? What then? What would have happened to anyone who reported those data? What would’ve, would that have been an example of trafficking in the most deeply harmful tropes? It’s just pure good luck it broke the other way. And yet, this is the kind of thing that will keep coming at us. This is the problem that you appear to be unprepared for, okay? It’s a problem that you, in the face of which you appear to be willing to believe people who are not speaking with real integrity about data, because it serves political ends. You appear to be willing to help destroy people’s reputation who take the other side of these conversations.
The problem is this: We know that we will discover things about populations that can appear invidious and appear politically inconvenient. And we don’t know when we will discover them. We know that there is enough variation both genetically and environmentally that if we looked at differences among the Inuit and the Koreans and people from Latin America, we’re going to find differences, and again, these differences don’t always make white people look good. The Asian IQ data is the reverse of the black-white difference thus far, psychometrically, and no one is worried about Asian privilege.
We’ve got Asians suing Harvard University today, because they’re being excluded from Harvard, and that’s the other side of this affirmative action question. We have to figure out some way to solve this. The political response, the basic political response, I mean the policy response, is open to good-faith debate. But the basic one has to be not identity politics but a commitment to basic fairness for all individuals, no matter what nominal group they seem to be a part of, because, again, these groups are poorly defined. Most of these groups are defined based on people’s self-identification, and then you can find out genetic analysis that they don’t even come from where they thought they came from.
Whatever, however you define a group, you will find difference, and to treat those differences as in principle radioactive, that is just a bad strategy going forward. It will produce political harm. It will produce intellectual harm and it is what explains the fact that I have people, reputable scientists in my inbox, who have totally taken my side in this, but who are too afraid to say so publicly. The reason why they should be afraid is proven by the fact that I’m now on the Southern Poverty Law Center website as a hate monger.
A couple things here.
One, I just want to call out that you keep doing this thing where you say, “There all these people who disagree with me, and they disagree me because they’re not willing to read the data with integrity.” I am not telling you you’re not reading the data with integrity. You keep telling others that and I think —
No, you called me a pseudoscientist and a junk scientist over and over again.
The scientists, Nisbett and Paige Harden and Turkheimer, said that they believe Murray’s interpretation of this, ultimately, is pseudoscience and is way, way, way out in front of the data. I
But you know Turkheimer has apologized for that. What do you with the fact that he’s apologized for that?
I spoke with him yesterday. He holds all the same views on this, but that he feels that that wasn’t helpful to the debate, which is nice of him. He may be, you know, it’s good to keep the debate’s temperature down, but that doesn’t change his view.
Okay, but if it’s junk science, then it’s disagreement about the actual science.
I think you’re going to have to ask Turkheimer what he thinks on this. I think you’re misreading him. At any rate, I think it would be not useful for us to spend our time on that.
David Reich, in the very article that you sent to me, his view on this is that whatever we think now is going to be proven wrong, that whatever confidence we have now, is going to be shown to be incorrect. The ideas and the information coming down the pike are going to surprise us. So, the argument of Turkheimer, Paige Harden, Nisbett, in the piece that, again, people should go to the show notes and read these pieces, is that, who knows? Maybe some time in the future we’ll find this, but right now there’s no reason to believe it.
I don’t know what “it” is in this case.
That there is a negative IQ difference that is in part genetic for African Americans. That is the “it.” Now one thing that you say I say is that I keep saying Murray calls this genetic. He does, he’s pretty clear there’s a genetic component. So you are in the piece. I can quote it back, but it’s completely true that he says, I don’t know what the numbers are.
What is interesting about the move Murray makes, and this is the thing that I call out in my piece and have talked about a bit, is that what Murray is intent on showing is that genetic or environmental, it can’t be changed, it’s immutable.
He says, “There is this notion” — this was in your podcast — “there is this notion that if traits were genetically determined that’s bad and if they’re environmentally determined that’s good, because we can do something about them if they’re environmental. If there’s one lesson that we’ve learned from the last 70 years of social policy, it is that changing environments in ways that produce measurable results is really, really hard. We actually don’t know how to do it, no matter how much money we spend.”
If you go read both the original and the second Vox pieces, they are primarily about this claim. They are primarily about the claim that we cannot change these outcomes. They are primarily about the claim that if you move people into adoption into high-income families, they have a 12 to 18 point IQ change. There is tons and tons of evidence — now we’re getting into my world again — in the realm of social policy, of not just effects from social policy on one generation, but multi-generational effects from things like Medicaid and so on.
One place where I think this is important is that, a lot of the debate here and the reason people care about it, is that if you’re saying things are immutable, often people say they’re immutable because they’re genetic. Murray actually says they’re immutable really no matter what.
If you say they’re immutable, that’s actually a way — and this is what Murray does, again explicitly and repeatedly both on your show and in other places — is say that because they’re immutable, that really means that this is not on us. This is not on us, white America, or America broadly, and we don’t have to kind feel so bad. We can embrace the politics of difference. We can begin removing some of these social supports. Don’t need to have as much affirmative action. Don’t need this employment nondiscrimination stuff. We can cut the size of the social welfare state.
He wants to do things that stop pushing people up as much and then, of course, and this is where this has always gone in American history, then when people don’t advance, folks will look at that and say, “Hey look, they’re not advancing. They’re not closing the gap quickly enough. That just goes to show the problem is innate.”
This is something you brought up earlier when you brought up that quote from Murray about luck, and I think it’s an important conversation. I think that if you follow Murrayism on this, if you were doing it without the political commitments he brings to it, it actually takes you to a very radical and interesting place.
If you say that our IQ is genetic and environmental, but at any rate, it’s not our fault, because we don’t choose either one of those, and there’s not much we can do about it. Not just our IQ, but something you’ve said is that, you know, a lot of traits come down like this — the big five personality traits, determination. Look, you can connect genetic inheritance to divorce. I think it’s a .2 or .4 correlation. So, if you begin to believe that, actually you begin to ask the question of, should, do we deserve what we have?
Should society be vastly more redistributed than it actually is? Should we be much less within this construct that what we’re getting, we’re getting because of hard work and determination and intelligence and the application of our talents? In fact, we need to move to something that is, I’m not literally advocating this, but more in the range of full socialism.
What I think is so interesting about the way he takes this debate — and I recognize this is not somewhere you took the debate, but I do think this is a useful thing to talk about — is that if you really did believe things immutable, if you really did believe that this was our inheritance both environmental and genetic and we can’t do much about it, then I think the implications of that are radical, and the implications aren’t that you take away help from people. It’s that you say pretty much what all of us has is primarily illegitimate. We didn’t do anything to earn it. I just happened to be born with the collection of talents that got me where I am. And as such, what we should spread around in society is much more vast.
Funnily enough, I don’t ever see people take that attitude on this. Again, the history of these ideas in America is they tend to be used to justify the status quo, not radically more generous versions of the status quo, but I do think that’s interesting, and I don’t understand why people don’t take that leap. I think that the implication of this is, it’s luck, and if you want to believe that — and, again, I don’t believe they’re immutable, I don’t think that’s what the evidence shows — but if you do believe they’re luck, I don’t think it takes you where he went in your conversation.
Okay, there is some more confusion here.
I’m sorry, but I think your representation of the state of the science is very Nisbettian, and that’s not an accident. Then one wonders why you wouldn’t publish the other side of a good faith scientific debate, especially when you have someone like me complaining about the harms reputationally that come with publishing only one side.
Do you want a quick answer on why we didn’t publish Haier?
During this, and people heard your explanation at the beginning, but we publish a Vox piece. The Vox authors were getting a lot of criticism from you and others, which is reasonable, it’s a debate. During this, you were emailing me and you publicly challenged me to a debate.
There’s no guaranteed response from somebody’s handpicked expert and I mean, that’s not how the New York Times op-ed page works or the Washington Post. But, it’s a reasonable ask to make. If you had come to me and you had said, “Hey look I don’t think this piece was fair to me. I think this guy Haier wants to write something, take a look at it.” I might have open to that, but what you did was you came to me and you said, “Let’s debate.”
I had agreed to do it, and not only that, I’d agreed to release the debate to Vox. So people were going to hear you defend your position. Now you were backing off of that and demanding instead that I publish a handpicked expert, and that’s just not the way this works.
But it wasn’t handpicked. This guy came out of the blue. I didn’t even know who he was at that point.
Well, somebody you preferred who had your views. I thought that I was giving you the opportunity to respond that you wanted, and now you were privately trying to pull that back and do something different. That to me was just actually bad faith, for the record.
Okay, what you should understand, and I’ve said this many times, is that the opportunity to respond is no opportunity at all. It’s the opportunity to continually to be slimed by association with these seemingly radioactive ideas. It’s the opportunity to seem to care about racial difference, even though you don’t, just in an effort to prove that you were not guilty of a racially biased misreading of the empirical data.
It’s not an opportunity that I want. It’s not an opportunity that I’m happy to take in this conversation. Again, I would just take it back to something as superficial as the Neanderthal data. Had that broken the other way and the factual claim to make is that black people are part Neanderthal and white people aren’t, right? It’s the opposite, but had it gone the other way, you look like a racist asshole even paying attention to that, right? There’s just no way to talk about it, given all of the associations with race and Neanderthals and all the rest.
What I’m saying is that we have to grow up. We have to treat our audiences like adults and not like dangerous children who will plunge into some toxic politics if you talk about the science in a disinterested and dispassionate way. And we have to stop sliming people with the worst motives when they find themselves in the possession of these kinds of facts, or even when they argue for social policies that you don’t agree with.
Now again, I’m not defending Murray’s social policy. I don’t happen to agree with socialism, because I think it doesn’t interface with human selfishness in the right way so as to leverage human energy in the right way, so as to produce good societies. I think we know that socialism doesn’t work. But I am very sympathetic with some engineering of a tide that lifts all boats. I don’t know if that’s universal basic income or some other way to redistribute much more than we do. And as we get into a world of more and more abundance, I think that has to be the solution. I’ve written a lot about wealth inequality. I’ve worried about wealth inequality. You can Google up, I think my first article on the topic is titled “How Rich is Too Rich?” You can go down the rabbit hole after that. But this is something that I’ve spent some time on.
If you know my views on free will, you’ll know that I think it’s all luck, even if these things about us are changeable. The problem is, yes, it’s hard to change your IQ. We don’t know of an environmental intervention that reliably changes people’s IQ. Murray is right about that. We don’t know how much, I’m not saying that we know that the differences between various groups in IQ is all genetic, or even mostly genetic. But it’s certainly prudent to assume that genes are involved for basically every difference we’re going to find.
That is an argument that I could have with Turkheimer. It’s a losing argument, because everybody thinks this is toxic to even talk about, but I don’t think Turkheimer is being honest about the science there. There is no scientist I’ve spoken with in a sidebar conversation who thinks he’s being honest with the science there. Again, these are names that would be well known to you, but who don’t want to touch this with a 10 foot pole.
Sam, you said already, in this answer, that the thing you can’t do and this discussion just slime people’s motivation. I would say, and again, I really urge people to go read these pieces. Nobody tried to slime your motivations. They said you were wrong, and they actually said this is really wrong. It’s dangerous.
You said our conversation was of a piece with the worst crimes, social crimes in American history. The onus was on us to prove we’re not Nazis. I mean, that was the implication of what Turkheimer wrote.
They did say something actually about that.
No they didn’t use the word Nazi, yes.
Something you brought up a couple times is something I wrote in my piece, and I am actually very happy to talk about this. I say that the belief that African-Americans are genetically less intelligent than whites, and then also inferior in other ways, which I’m not saying you guys said, is our oldest, most ancient justification for racial inequality and bigotry. Do you disagree with that? When you look at American history, when you look at what we said at the dawn of this country and all the way through the 1950, the 60s, when I say that, am I wrong?
In a sense you’re wrong. I agree with the spirit of it. I think you could say the Bible is just as much of a justification, the notion that the race of Ham came under a curse and that these races have a separate theological stature. You had Bible-thumping racist maniacs defending slavery and without any reference to science. That’s a great American tradition.
I think tribalism is at the bottom of it and perceiving other people who look different and sound different from yourself as ineradicably different. I think that is a problem we must outgrow, and I fully agree with the social concerns that follow from noticing how far we have to go in outgrowing that.
One of the things I detect in this conversation, this maybe gets to something we discussed that we would talk about later and maybe we’ve hit that point. Something I detect here is the idea that, and I want to think about how to phrase this carefully, because I want to do it without making you defensive, is that ideas can only fit into this lineage if they are being said with racial animus, if they are being said by someone who doesn’t like the people they’re talking about.
I think an important thing when we study the history of racism in this country is that it has always had a scientific wrapper. It has always been not something people thought they were doing because they were hateful, it was something they thought they were doing, because it was true.
I quoted in my piece Thomas Jefferson, who, brilliant man, like a brilliant genteel man —
But a slaveholder, too.
Not just a slaveholder but a particularly vicious one. But one of the reasons I quoted him is that the end of The Bell Curve, one thing Murray does is endorse the idea that a correct understanding of stratified cognitive capacity, which operates racially and in other ways, should make us re-embrace what he calls a Jeffersonian politics of difference.
He quotes Jefferson talking about how important it is to understand that people in society are fit for different uses, they’re fit for different places. I think now we look back at Jefferson and say, “That’s ridiculous the way you’re talking about it. It is grotesque.”
But when Jefferson was doing it, he felt himself being genteel when he was saying that African Americans cannot compose thoughts above the level of plain narration. We now look at that and say, in the country that created James Baldwin, you think that? But Murray — and I’m not accusing of holding Jefferson views on race, he clearly doesn’t — but he then, in a very different way, comes out and says, “Look, we just need to accept that people are different, as Thomas Jefferson taught us.”
Do you doubt that people are different? I just said that I’m not as smart as John von Neumann, do you think maybe secretly I am as smart as John von Neumann?
I doubt that we have, given the experiment we have run in this country, given the centuries of slavery and segregation and oppression, given locking people out of jobs, out of good schools, out of building wealth, out of going into top professions, out of being part of the social networks that help you advance; the amount of violence and terror and trauma that we have inflicted on African Americans in this country, I absolutely doubt — I truly, to the core of my being, doubt — that we are at a place where any of us should have confidence saying that the differences we see in individuals now reflect intrinsic group capacity. I think that at every other point in America history where we have said that —
But even Murray wouldn’t say that.
That is exactly what Murray says. That at every other point in American history.
Again, there is confusion creeping in here.
There is not confusion.
Okay, I’ll try to sort it out in my next volley.
You’ll sort it out. Of course. At every point in American history where we have made that argument, we now look back — and, I mean, this is not going way back. Segregation, my mom was alive in segregation. Charles Murray was alive during segregation. We’re talking, I think, it’s within the week of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination. This is not ancient history, it is recent history.
I think we look back and say, “Man, they really had it wrong.” You quoted back at me something that I think either I say it, or the Vox authors say it, now I don’t remember, but that, yeah, if you’re having a version of this conversation again, then it is incumbent on you to say why you’re so sure it will be different this time.
Murray does say he thinks that some combination of genetic and basically immutably environmental characteristics make it so we can’t do much about this and there just are big differences between the groups, and it’s just going to remain that way, and American politics need to rearrange itself around that reality.
Yeah, I strongly disagree, and I disagree because of American history. That is why my fundamental criticism of that conversation was that you needed to deal more with the history of this conversation and the history of this country.
Okay, but even in this conversation you are unwilling to differentiate scientific fact and scientific data and reasonable extrapolations based on data, from past injustices in American history, these are totally separate things —
No, we disagree on what a reasonable extrapolation from the data is.
Okay, but what we can’t disagree about is that one, that the two sides of that conversation about scientific data appear to be given a very different moral treatment by you. Turkheimer and Nisbett are well-respected scholars. Murray and I are people who need to be conjoined with this horrid history, where our conversation is described as disastrous and dangerous and horrific and trafficking in the most harmful tropes, where we land on the hate speech page of — not even speech, just the hate page — of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Where I have scientist who are effectively in hiding telling me we’re right about the scientific conversation. That is just the status quo here.
I’m saying that’s dysfunctional, and I’m saying it is unethical. That’s one point. That is a completely separate problem from the problem of racism and the problem of racial inequality. You feel that somehow this status quo problem of just how hard it is to talk about these things is justified, because of how bad racial inequality has been in the past and I’m saying that it’s —
I think there is what you would call confusion here. I do think it’s just important to say this. I have not criticized you, and I continue to not, for having the conversation. I’ve criticized you for having the conversation without dealing with and separating it out and thinking through the context and the weight of American history on it.
The weight of American history is completely irrelevant to—
It can’t possibly be irrelevant on something that even you admit is environmental!
No, the only thing that is relevant. Yes, but that part of the conversation has been had. You don’t have to talk about slavery. You don’t have to talk about the specific injustices in the past to have a conversation about the environmental factors that very likely keep people back. I completely agree with you that it is right to worry that the environment for blacks, or for any other group that seems not to be thriving by one metric or another, that the environment almost certainly plays a role. And the environment, we just know that the environment plays a role across the board in behavioral genetics. There’s no one who’s arguing that any of these traits — forget about intelligence, anything we care about — is 100 percent heritable. It’s just that nothing that complex is 100 percent heritable.
And again, I have zero interest in establishing differences among races, and my reading of Murray and, again, he said this on my podcast several times, his focus is not on groups, his focus is on individuals. It’s just a fact that individuals find themselves with whatever cognitive toolkit they have, however they got it, based on genes and environment, and we have a society that is massively rewarding specific tools.
No one on Murray’s side of this debate is saying that all social self-worth is indexed by IQ scores. No one is saying that, and this is the point I was trying to make when I said, “Look I am inferior to John von Neumann?” I don’t think so and I don’t think you think so.
What’s at stake here is not a person’s intrinsic worth, right? And using words like inferior completely loads the dice here. It’s a highly charged, moralistic assertion, which just does not map onto any sane person’s thinking about this. Yes it mapped on to Thomas Jefferson’s thinking about this, but to summarize what I’m doing with the slaveholders of our distant past and talk about these things as though it’s a single set of ideas, it’s completely unfair journalistically, and it has the consequence that I’ve described.
Let me ask you a question on this. Let me try to think about how to phrase this question.
You say that it is unfair, journalistically, to put your conversation within the lineage of the conversation going all the way back in American history and all the way, as you say, the pre-American history — in fact, in my piece, I quote Voltaire and Hume and others — that at each point European-descended white men of scientific mind looked around them, looked at the society they saw, looked at the outcomes people had in the society they saw, looked at the science pulled from those outcomes, right? And it was called science back then too. And said, “You know what? What we are seeing here is a result of innate differences between the races.”
We’ve not even talked through questions of what it even means to talk about races and the way that has changed over time, but I’ll just bracket that. It’s been justified in different ways with different kinds of science, but now we look back and we say, “Oh man, they did not know what they were talking about. That was ridiculous. I mean, look at what was going on in their society.” They looked and they ran their studies and they ran the numbers and they said, “You know, there’s just a difference here. There’s a difference here and that is why things are turning out the way they are.”
Tell me why it is unfair to put your conversation in that lineage. Why the burden of proof is not actually on you to say here is why it is different this time. Here is why we are at a point, either in American history, or science, or whatever, where we are certain that nobody in 50 years is going to look back at us and say that. Because scientifically what, the scientists who are on my side of this argument, think, and they include James Flynn and many others, they say that’s where we are here.
Not quite, but okay.
I just quoted him to you. Again, I just spoke to him two days ago.
No, but it was still a misleading summary of what he said. I know what he’s on record saying here. You’re interpreting it in a way that you like, I understand that.
James Flynn just said to me two days ago that it is consistent with the evidence that there is a genetic advantage or disadvantaged for African Americans. That it is entirely possible that the 10-point IQ difference we see reflects a 12-point environmental difference and a negative-two genetic difference.
Sure, sure, many things are possible. We’re trying to judge on what is plausible to say and, more important, I am worried about the social penalty for talking about these things, because, again, it will come back to us on things that we don’t expect, like the Neanderthal thing. That comes out of left field. Had it gone another way, all of a sudden we can’t talk about Neanderthal DNA anymore.
There’s no point in having our politics be hostage to these kind of tripwire effects, where you say something that seems politically invidious, merely talking about the data as they are — unless every population of human beings has exactly the same mean and the same variance for every trait we care about, we are guaranteed to be blindsided by these differences that seem important to people who care about differences among groups.
The end game here is to not care about differences among groups, to treat individuals as individuals, and to realize that, yes, people have different sets of gifts and competences and we can change them. We can give people whatever advantages we can, and we should. We’re moving into a future where we’ll be able to change these things about ourselves in very intrusive ways. We’ll be able to change our genes. We’ll be able to change the genes of our kids. We’ll be able to put technology directly into our brains and not everyone will have access to this technology at the same time. This will open a door to another aspect of inequality that could be hugely consequential.
This is all stuff that we have to get ready for, but the way to be ready is to be willing for good and intellectually honest people to be willing to talk about the facts of biology and various things we understand about things like intelligence without losing sight of our political and ethical commitments to one another. Those commitments just have to be to make the world better and to treat everyone fairly and to treat one’s political opponents fairly. There’s a real shortage of people who can do this right now, Ezra, and your style of dealing with this is part of that problem.
It is why, again, you haven’t commented on this. I’ll give you another example, because you don’t like the examples I’ve given. I’ve given you Southern Poverty Law Center. I’ve given the fact that I’ve got scientists contacting me, who won’t go on the record, who fully support me and Murray.
But, I mean, take Andrew Sullivan. I think he’s a mutual friend of ours. I mean, he’s certainly a fiend of mine. He came to my and Murray’s defense. I assume you don’t think Andrew is a racist. He — merely for coming out down on our side of the particular contretemps — he’s being slimed as a racist now. That is the environment in which we’re having this conversation. That’s why I call a moral panic, and it’s not good.
Again, we’re going to be continually played by new data. The basic principle here, scientifically, which Turkheimer has elided in and you seem to want him to elide it, or you seem to be happy that he elided it, is that, yes, it is safe to say that are genetic differences among genetically isolated populations — your point about the conceptual coherence of race is well taken — but based on the ancestry of all the seven billion human beings that currently exist, there are differences among groups. I mean, the fact that you can look at someone — the fact that you can look at me and know that I’m not Korean just by looking at me is a sign of my genetic ancestry — the fact that you can make a best guess as to where someone’s ancestors came from is a sign.
Whether we’re looking for differences among groups or not, we’ll be surprised by things. Yes, it’s true that as Turkheimer said, or, sorry as Reich said, we may have things completely backwards. We’ll find out that certain stereotypes are the opposite of being true. But we might find out that certain stereotypes are true. I mean, Turkheimer used an example in one of his pieces. I think it was this second one where he said, “What if someone does a genetic analysis of materialism, or finds multivariate genes that co-vary with a person’s materialism, and we find that these genes are over expressed among Jews what then?”
He put this out as though like this was going to be radioactive that it’s just going to bowl me over, or bowl anyone over who didn’t care about the black-white data, but all of a sudden care about the Jewish data. But that’s a perfectly legitimate question. I’m not suggesting anyone study that. Again, I would worry about the ethics of anyone who wanted, in the wilderness of all possible things to study, wanted to devote his or her life to studying that.
But that’s the kind of thing that could just emerge from the study of hoarding behavior. Someone studies the psychological problem of hoarding and they study the genetics of it, and then they just happen to discover that the genetics are represented differently in different populations, and Ashkenazi Jews, of which half of my ancestry is, have more of the hoarding genes than other people. Do we deal with that like adults? Or do we vilify the person who merely spoke about the data? That’s the bright line I’m trying to get you acknowledge.
So, I think this is actually a good place, as you said, you mentioned end games. I think this is a good place to get the end game, and I’ll let this be my final comment.
Something that you said in there as you can look at you and know you’re not Korean. This where you get into the question of race being a social category that does have, in some cases biological markers, but on which we are now overlaying early genetic science. It’s often not true, of course, for people who are African American, you can look at someone there, and maybe they’re actually from the Caribbean, or maybe they’re half-white, or maybe all kinds of things happen. A hundred years ago, I’m not white, now I am.
You don’t seem to see a lot of people saying, “Hey, like, let’s resuscitate the mid-20th century versions of white races.” Instead, we group what we now think of as white people together. And then there are Hispanics, which are another strangely constructed category, over here.
And so in terms of how all this helps us have a more sophisticated discussion, a discussion that makes us more ready to absorb these findings as they come down the line, I actually don’t really understand it and I don’t think I ever have. If you want to have discussions about very precise population categories, I think that we should come up with good language for doing that. I think that if you read a lot of these studies, people do.
That isn’t what your conversation was about, and it’s not what the conversation in this country has generally been about. Again, I think that if you read someone like Reich or talk to folks in this field, they are precise in a way that American politics often isn’t.
Look, you talked about the stakes of this conversation, and there are stakes to it. Some of them are policy stakes. Those are the ones Charles Murray is fundamentally interested in, ones that when you asked him why you should have this conversation he kept bringing up. There are stakes in how we treat each other and what kind of groups we see in each other. I think using these conversations to become more precise, as opposed to less precise — using these conversations to begin to question social categories that we build for political purposes in this country, as opposed to validate them in strange ways that don’t have consistency across them — I think we could be doing a better job on that.
In all this, what I would say, and I’ll let this be my final point, and I appreciate the time you’ve given to this conversation today, is I think that to have this conversation well, to be ready for what may or may not come down the pike, to be able to talk about this, as you say, like adults, I think that you would be doing your audience a service to let go of some of the feelings you have about what you call identity politics and what you see in others with identity politics and have more conversations about race in America and the way it is built and they way it is seen and the way it acts on people’s life chances.
I think that there is room to have conversations about genetic findings, but because we are mapping those conversations onto social-political realities, having more conversations where you deliver more nuance and more understanding, where you yourself get more understanding of the social-political realities — I feel uncomfortable being the person on the other side of the chair here. I don’t think — I’m not an expert on race and IQ — but I’m also not someone who I think is the right spokesperson for the experience of other races in this country. And I don’t think that is me falling into a trap of identity politics. I think that is me being honest about what are the limits of my own perception. There’s a lot I can learn, but, you know, I’m a political journalist and I’ve only learned so much.
I continue to think that the way you handled the conversation with Murray, framing it as a question of political correctness, did too much to ignore what this conversation has meant to people, for whom the dangers is not that Charles Murray will be — and I think this was bad — be de-platformed and even have his chaperone assaulted at Middlebury, or what has been more normal in his career, be extremely successful but widely criticized. I think that a conversation with a broader range of experts would give you more texture and more empathy for the people whom this conversation and its imprecision and the way it gets leveraged in American life really hurts them.
I’ll end by noting what you said about Andrew Sullivan. Andrew is a friend of mine. I do not think he’s a racist, and I take his honesty seriously, and I appreciate the conversations he wants to have. I think that was one of the more misguided pieces I’ve seen. The fundamental argument of that piece was that in order to have a better conversation about race, we need to have a conversation about Murrayism. We need to have a conversation that front-loads the idea that there are intrinsic differences between these groups and that will somehow heal our racial conversation.
What I would say to you, what I would say to him, is our history as a country shows the exact precise opposite, that at—
I don’t think anyone. I certainly don’t think Murray would say that focusing on the intrinsic differences between groups is a way of —
That is what Andrew said, and you brought up Andrew’s piece, so I’m just noting that.
Andrew said that focusing on the intrinsic differences between groups is a way to heal racial divides?
Let me hold our conversation for one second, and I’ll just call up the headline piece of you don’t mind.
Sure. That will be helpful.
The headline of Andrew’s piece is, “Denying genetics isn’t shutting down racism, it’s fueling it.”
Okay, wait, stop, stop, stop. You summarize that as focusing on intrinsic differences.
I think that if you read that piece, that is exactly what that piece does.
Well no, then you don’t. The implication of being honest about genetics is not that we focus on the intrinsic differences between groups. I mean, first of all, again, every individual as their own genetics. You could sample groups on the basis of really dumb ideas and find different means and they would either be entirely genetic, or entirely environmental, or a mix of both, depending on how you would pick groups and what you were studying. It’s just the reality is that we are going to be running into differences among groups no matter how you define them.
Here’s the key of what Andrew says in the piece, and I’ll just quote it. “At the same time if we assume genetics plays no role” — he’s talking here about intelligence — “and base our policy prescriptions on something untrue” — so now he’s saying that we’re pretty sure genetics does play a role in group intelligence differences. “We are likely to overshoot and overpromise in social policy and see our rhetoric on race become ever more extreme and divisive. We may even embrace racial discrimination as an affirmative action that fuels deeper divides.”
What I keep seeing in this conversation is white conservative men who want to say that we are at a point where we can say with reasonable confidence that there are intrinsic intellectual differences between the groups that are at least partly genetic, that that is a reason to look at the racial inequalities in American society and say, “Hey look, that is not just a consequence of our history. That is just something that is innate to us an we should not be overreaching.”
Let me be clear. You haven’t heard that for me.
You’re right, that’s fair enough.
You haven’t heard that from me.
That’s a totally fair point. I would criticize you for not calling it out more, but you are right, you have not said that. But I’ve been careful on who I’m saying I’m hearing that from. That will somehow lead to a better conversation. I think a conversation that included more African-American voices and more people who have specialization in the history of race in America, in the history of these ideas in America, in the history of how these ideas and social policy in America interact, would lead to a better, more fruitful, more, as you put it, adult, and also a more constructive, debate.
Okay, okay, well I realize we’re getting to the end of our studio time here. As much as I think we probably could use more time, I think it’s probably good that we don’t have the choice to grab more time.
I can’t shake the feeling that our audience will feel that we have been talking past one another impressively here, because I do feel that, and I feel like I know why, but spelling that out sounds somewhat invidious, and we don’t really have time to clean up the mess. But I think in my view you seem, you won’t acknowledge how toxic the status quo is and how unnecessary the status quo with respect to.
I apologize, I didn’t respond to that, you’re right. Let me give you my quick response on that.
You’ve said a couple of times that there are scientists in your inbox who refuse to be named, but who agree with you, and that there’s a link to one of the Vox pieces on, was it the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate site? Was that who it was?
The reason I’ve not focused on this, as you know, it’s something you say in your conversation with Murray, there are tons and tons of unbelievably serious racists who find a lot of succor in Murrayism. I’m not grouping you with them, but they love what he says. You say yourself, “I’m sure all these hate supremacist groups are ecstatic about The Bell Curve, why should we even be talking about it?”
The reason I’ve not really responded to that is I’m here to defend what I think and to talk about the piece we published at Vox. I’m not going to make you answer for everyone who you did not have on your show, but who has a more sinister view than the person you did have on your show. I think that in this conversation, there are a lot of folks who take it in directions I wouldn’t. I think that’s true basically in every political conversation I’ve ever seen and been part of. Whenever I open my Twitter feed, which lately I’m not doing, because I’m on book leave, mentions are always, if you go into them a shit show, which is why I don’t do it anymore. I just don’t find that that compelling.
I think that we are having a debate. I don’t think anybody has been silenced or de-platformed. From the beginning, I’ve been willing to have this discussion with you in public and put it out on Vox and put it out on your side as well. I think a lot of what we just have had from the beginning here is a debate. It’s a debate that you felt has been in bad faith and been done by people on our side who don’t have integrity, but obviously that is not my view.
This is just how this goes. Charles Murray still has a great job and makes a ton of money and goes on speaking tours and all the rest of it. You have a popular podcast with 9,000 Patreon supporters. I am an editor at Vox. I just don’t think that we are the losers in this.
I think you’re very sensitive to the possible cost of a backlash framed around what you would call political correctness and a lot less sensitive — which is what I keep coming back to — to the cost this idea has actually had for African Americans in this country throughout American history. And the cost, by the way, that Charles Murray wants it to have.
But it’s not this idea. First of all, it’s not this idea. Genetics is not this idea. There’s nothing I’ve said here that discounts the history of racism and pseudoscience and the fact that it’s quite possible to be a racist scientist. That is true in every generation, but scientific data can’t be racist.
The data is whatever the data is, presumably, assuming it was collected adequately. I mean, yes, there were the Nazi doctors. They were real doctors. They were real Nazis. They were doing real unethical things, and, paradoxically, they probably found some true things in their diabolical experiments. You can separate these different variables, and my experience in talking to you is that you want to run it all together and give it this moral valence, which is, I have argued and will continue to argue, highly counterproductive.
My sensitivity is not to the personal slight against Murray or me. My sensitivity is to the consequential, intellectual dishonesty. When I say intellectual dishonesty, I don’t mean that everyone is consciously lying, although there are people who are consciously lying. There’s actually evidence that Steven J. Gould, when he wrote The Mismeasure of Man, was consciously lying and was a true bad actor here and actually faked data. I mean, that is not a crazy allegation given the evidence. But clearly, there are people who are massively biased when they have this conversation. Your notion that our ability to have this conversation is subordinated to the color of our skin doesn’t make any sense to me.
We could’ve been talking about anti-Semitism, and we could have the same conversation. Some of the switches would be flipped because of the different histories of Jews and African Americans, but much of it would be the same. We’re both Jewish. We both have standing to talk about the history of the way Jews have been treated and the future of how they may be treated in coming years. Presumably, we both would acknowledge that anti-Semitism is a problem, but both, I think, would acknowledge that there are places where you could detect it where it in fact doesn’t exist.
I give you a crazy example, and this actually strikes a tangent of what we’ve been talking about in terms of population differences and their, in many cases, impressively genetic underpinnings.
You have the fact that — this is actually in Reich’s recent book, of which that op-ed was a crib — the finalist in the 100-meter dash in the Olympics, the male finalist, every single finalist since 1980 has been of West African descent, right? That does not appear to be an accident, and it doesn’t matter what country they came from. It does not appear to be best explained by environment. There’s a very similar story that it can be told about East Africans with respect to the marathon. There’s this shocking disparity in this particular type of athletic ability that is segregated in this way based on population ancestry. It happens to be a great ability, and it’s all good for those sprinters.
But imagine if you and I as Jews decided to worry that maybe there was some underlying anti-Semitism that kept Jews out of the finals of the 100-meter dash in the Olympics. Do you think there is a Jew on earth who thinks that? I would doubt it, but it’s certainly possible to think.
What is the analogy you’re drawing exactly here?
This is to rehabilitate the statement that Andrew made in his piece that you cast off as being somehow ethically or politically deranged. The idea that understanding the facts of genetics in this case might inoculate us against false charges of bigotry. I’ve seen bigotry where it doesn’t exist. In this case, if we as two Jews—
I’m sorry, I want to make sure I understand this here. Are you comparing the idea that there are not Jews in the finals of the New York City or Boston Marathon or whatever, to the conversation about whether African Americans, after what has gone on in this country’s history, are scoring worse in IQ?
I’m trying to sharpen.
I want to make sure I’m understanding what you’re saying.
No, no, it sounds like you want to try to give some politically correct slam-dunk of this.
You call it politically correct, but you’re bringing it up in this conversation. I didn’t make you do this, just as I’ve not made you talk about race and IQ.
No, no you didn’t. It’s a point that clarifies it. I’m trying to sharpen up Andrew’s point that you seem to not see the point of.
If you go looking for bigotry as your explanation for every difference you see — you can read about this in Reich’s book — if you have populations that have their means slightly different genetically, 80 percent of a standard deviation difference, you’re going to see massive difference in the tail ends of the distribution, where you could have 100-fold difference in the numbers of individuals who excel at the 99.99 percent level. This is just something you will see by virtue of statistics.
Therefore, that is the kind of thing, a shifting of the mean in a specific ability relevant to track and field, in this case, could explain why you just see this massive overrepresentation of West Africans in the 100-meter final.
It would be possible to be so paranoid about anti-Semitism and to want be so disinterested about a biological understanding of human difference, or to think that any biological understanding of human difference is so intrinsically toxic that it can’t be discussed, so that two Jews like us could be worried that anti-Semitism is the explanation for why Jews aren’t represented there. I take Andrew to be saying there, that that would be nuts, frankly. I think we both know in our gut it would be nuts. And yet we’re in danger of doing that elsewhere.
I think this is Murray’s concern. Again, I don’t agree with his social policies, and frankly, I don’t know what the right answer on some of these questions of social policy. His concern, as he stated to me on the podcast, is that he is worried about attributions of racism where racism doesn’t in fact exist, and that we are ill-prepared to study and correct for the consequences of human difference. I can tell you, we’re not going to get rid of human difference until we’ve all just uploaded ourselves into the matrix. There will be differences that we’re continually trying to correct for. All we have is intellectual honesty and ethical goodwill as tools to do that. What you are adding to that equation is a really indissoluble kind of tribalism, which I keep calling identity politics.
It’s showing its dysfunction even in this conversation, in the way you’re thinking about this, in the kinds of things you’ve published, in the consequences to me and Murray and Andrew Sullivan and others for you having published it. That is what I’ve been complaining about.
I do think this is a good place to close, because I do think this is our bedrock disagreement. I think you look at me, you look at the folks who you see as engaging in identity politics, which is something other people do, but not you, and you see tribalism.
You see on my part a social justice warrior tribalism of some sort or another, someone who is looking for evidence of racism and bigotry. I look at our society, and I see society that, even now, on every study we run, shows huge, huge, huge racial bias. I mean, I look at a study done just a couple of years ago, showing that if you send employers a résumé and everything is equal except for the name, one name is African American-coded and another name is European-coded, you get 50 percent fewer callbacks [for] the African-Americans.
I look at evidence of it, when African-Americans go into the hospital, they do not get treatment for pain at the same rates as white Americans, because doctors do not believe them. They think they’re trying to scam the drugs or something.
I see us a society that is not 100 years or 1,000 years or 10,000 years away from a long, long, long legacy of not just racism, but violence and oppression of the worst kind, a society where we did things that even now to just go through them, it chills you. But that was 50 years ago. Some of it still goes on today.
I look at that and I say, a society like that, where you’re having these conversations between white men, where the implication of these conversations is that the white majority is going to have to give up a lot more to bring about the equality that we like to believe that America is committed to, that is going to enact a profound tribalism on that majority.
It doesn’t mean there’s not tribalism among the minorities, or anyone else, but it’s going to enact a profound tribalism on the majority. When Charles Murray is asked why he’s talking about this and he says, “Because I don’t like affirmative action.” When Andrew Sullivan, in the segment I just gave you, says why should we talk about this? He says, because I don’t like affirmative action, it might make everything worse? Yeah, that’s the society I see. It doesn’t mean I couldn’t be talked out of it. It doesn’t mean if we get evidence in 25 or 50 years of genetic discoveries we have not had yet, that I couldn’t change my view.
But right now, when I look at that evidence — and I’ll tell you, Sam, like I do so with integrity and trying to think through the right answer just as I imagine you do, whatever you believe about me — I just put my understanding of where the blind spots are likely be differently than you do. I think that’s where to leave it. I think that is fundamentally our dividing line. You look at people in this debate and you say, “They’re looking for examples of racism. They don’t want to believe this other stuff. It’s just science.”
I look at that and I say, it’s not actually. The science is not showing that yet. We have a society that is still, that is way, way, way, way far away from where it should be. I don’t know. I see this differently than you do.
I get that, but not in precisely the ways you think you do. I’m in the, once again, having the bewildering experience of agreeing with virtually everything you said there, and yet it has basically no relevance to what I view as our underlying disagreement.
You have that bewildering experience because you don’t realize when you keep saying that everybody else is thinking tribally, but you’re not, that that is our disagreement.
Well, no, because I know I’m not thinking tribally —
Well, that is our disagreement.
In this respect because, no, because I share your political biases there. I would line up with you completely. If I gave into my bias, my social bias I would become, I can’t tell you what a relief it would be to recognize that Nisbett and Turkheimer are reasoning better than anyone else in this field. I can’t tell you what a relief it would be to realize that Gould’s book, The Mismeasure of Man, was right on the money.
I don’t think it would be a relief to you at all. Because the thing that you said when you, I feel like now we’re just getting back to the beginning and we should let this go and I’ll let you get the last word after this, but right at the beginning of all this with Murray you said, you look at Murray and you see what happens to you. You were completely straightforward about that, that you look at what happens to him and you see what happens to you. I think the really.
It’s not tribalism. This is an experience of talking about ideas in public.
We all have a lot of different identities we’re part of all times. I do, too. I have all kinds of identities that you can call forward. All of them can bias me simultaneous, and the questions, of course, are which dominate and how am I able to counterbalance them through my process of information gathering and adjudication of that information. I think that your core identity in this is as someone who feels you get treated unfairly by politically correct mobs and —
That is not identity politics. That is my experience as a public intellectual trying to talk about ideas.
That is what folks from the dominant group get to do. They get to say, my thing isn’t identity politics, only yours is. I will tell you, Sam, when people who do not look like you hear you telling them that this is just identity politics, they don’t think, “God he’s right. That is just identity politics.” They think this is my experience and you don’t understand it. You just said it’s your experience and they don’t understand it.
You think that’s Glenn Loury’s view of it, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s view of it, or Maajid Nawaz’s view of it?
I think that you have said publicly that you would not have a conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates, because you think he just plays identity politics.
Yes, I think he’s, it’s the same reason why I didn’t want to have a conversation with you, honestly, because I think that it doesn’t become fruitful. This is a postmortem on our collision, and I think it was useful to do, and I can only hope our audience sorts it out for themselves in ways that I think will be accurate.
I think that’s a good place for us both to end.
Yeah, but it is, my experience is, again, one of you saying things that you’re quite convinced are relevant to this debate, and it just becomes yet another example of conflating two totally separate conversations that should be separate, and the fact that you think I’m denying that racism is still a problem indicates that you’re not understanding how the science gets done and how the science needs to be talked about to be science.
It’s not, again, there is no part of me that is advocating for racial differentiation by science. I am just saying that we are going to be ambushed by data that will have a political charge, and we have to be in a position to talk about it without demonizing people. That’s not my identity politics talking, that is just a human being who is worried about the future talking.