Hard truths


A recent guest on Sam Harris’s podcast was Charles Murray, best known for being the author of The Bell Curve, in which he argued that there are racial differences in intelligence and these differences are genetically based. Here’s how Harris prefaced the conversation:

Human intelligence itself is a taboo topic; people don’t want to hear that intelligence is a real thing, and that some people have more of it than others. They don’t want to hear that IQ tests really measure it. They don’t want to hear that differences in IQ matter because they’re highly predictive of differential success in life, and not just for things like educational attainment and wealth, but for things like out-of-wedlock birth and mortality. People don’t want to hear that a person’s intelligence is in large measure due to his or her genes, and there seems to be very little we can do environmentally to increase a person’s intelligence, even in childhood. It’s not that the environment doesn’t matter, but genes appear to be 50 to 80 percent of the story. People don’t want to hear this, and they certainly don’t want to hear that average IQ differs across races and ethnic groups. Now, for better or worse, these are all facts. There is almost nothing in psychological science for which there is more evidence than these claims.

Again, this is what a dispassionate look at decades of research suggests. Unfortunately the controversy over The Bell Curve did not result from legitimate good-faith criticisms of its major claims. Rather it was the product of a politically correct moral panic that totally engulfed Murray’s career and has yet to release him. His co-author Richard Herrnstein died just before the book was published some Murray weathered the storm alone and it rages to this day.

What I found when I began reading Murray’s work was a deeply rational and careful scholar who is quite obviously motivated by an ethical concern about inequality in our society. This is not a person who was in favor of discrimination.

The purpose of the podcast was to set the record straight because I find the dishonesty and hypocrisy and moral cowardice of Murray’s critics shocking and the fact that I was taken in by this defamation of him and effectively became part of a silent mob that was just watching what amounted to a modern witch burning that was intolerable to me. So it is with real pleasure and some trepidation that I bring you a very controversial conversation on points about which there is virtually no scientific controversy and it’s with a man who could not have been a more genial and well-spoken guest.

But the slobberfest wasn’t over. In his opening statement to Murray, Harris said,

[I’ve] ventured into my own controversial areas as a speaker and writer and experienced many hysterical attacks against me and my work and so I started thinking about your 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 and seeing your recent treatment at Middlebury which many of our listeners will have heard about where you were prevented from speaking and your host was physically attacked, I now believe that you are perhaps the intellectual who was treated most unfairly in my lifetime, and it’s just an amazing thing to be so slow to realize that and at first I’d just like to apologize to you for having been so lazy and having been taken in to the degree that I was by the rumors and lies that have surrounded your work for the last 20 years and so I just want to thank you doubly for coming on the podcast to talk about these things.

The man Harris thinks evinces such great “ethical concern about inequality in our society” is also the man who celebrated the explosion of inequality during and after the Reagan era, because the concomitant rise in inequality of political power it “ma[de] it harder for politicians to bash the rich than it used to [be]”. He also wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Why Capitalism Has an Image Problem”, where he explained that we must “return to the vocabulary of virtue when we talk about capitalism” and that “it is necessary to remind the middle class and working class that the rich are not their enemies”. The logical conclusion, of course, is supporting Mitt Romney’s presidential bid: after all, “Who better to be president of the greatest of all capitalist nations than a man who got rich by being a brilliant capitalist?”

And the idea that Murray is “not a person who was in favor of discrimination” and that Murray’s “goal…is to find some way for us to get to a truly colorblind society” is risible. Are we talking about the guy who wrote that “Latino and black immigrants are, at least in the short run, putting some downward pressure on the distribution of intelligence.”? Or the one who hoped his book would inspire a conversation about “manipulat[ing] the fertility of people with high and low I.Q.’s.”? (We both know which people he’s talking about.) And if Murray is truly interested in a “colorblind” society, why did he bother investigating a possible connection between race and IQ in the first place?

And, finally, Harris’s claim that there is “virtually no scientific controversy” over Murray’s facts or arguments is also truly bizarre. Richard Nesbitt, professor of social psychology at the University of Michigan, wrote, “By conventional academic standards, Herrnstein and Murray’s review of the evidence on the heritability of the IQ difference between blacks and whites is shockingly incomplete and biased.” Leon Kamin, professor of psychology at Northeastern, wrote, “To pretend, as Hernstein and Murray do, that the 1,000-odd items in their bibliography provide a ‘scientific’ basis for their reactionary politics may be a clever political tactic, but it is a disservice to and abuse of science.” Murray’s arguments have been disputed by respected scientists from Stephen Gould to conservative “scholars” like Thomas Sowell (who noted that Murray doesn’t even appear to fully grasp the problem of multicollinearity in multiple regression, his favorite statistical tool).

So Harris is either lying or being willfully ignorant. But why? Let’s play armchair psychologist for a moment. Harris obviously sees Murray as a kindred spirit. Harris was criticized by Ben Affleck on Bill Maher’s show for being a “racist” (the criticism was prompted by Harris’s bigoted statements about Islam). Murray was criticized at Middlebury College, and has been criticized since the publication of The Bell Curve, for being a racist. Harris sees Murray as a victim of a “politically correct moral panic” and liberal “hysteria”. So too does he see himself. In Harris’s view, Murray has been treated “very unfairly”, subjected to a “modern day witchhunt” and a “silent mob”. So too has Harris (although how exactly a “silent mob” inspires fear is still unclear to me). And all of this despite the fact that Murray is a “deeply rational and careful scholar who is quite obviously motivated by an ethical concern” (much like Harris). Every single point of praise for Murray or attack on his critics could be read, plausibly, as a point of praise for Harris himself or an attack on Harris’s critics. While listening to the podcast (before I gave up after the 30 minute mark), I began to wonder if Harris was actually engaging in a solipsistic exercise: if he was commiserating with Murray or with himself; slavering over Murray’s dick or his own.

There’s a romantic ideal in scientific and intellectual life of being the lone voice in the wilderness. Such a scholar has discovered the truth, but is surrounded by enemies who either ignore him (at best) or persecute him (at worst) for it. Think of Ludwig Bolztmann, who committed suicide after his theory of statistical mechanics was disbelieved; or the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, who discovered that handwashing helps prevent the spread of disease but was (apocryphally) ignored by the medical establishment. The struggle of such an individual is titanic, requiring great fortitude to “weather the storm alone”, as Harris puts it. It’s almost too much for one man to bear, which is, I guess, why podcasts were invented.

Related is the romantic ideal in politics of uttering the “hard truths” that “people don’t want to hear”. Breitbart Senior Editor Joel Pollak wrote a book called See No Evil: The 19 Hard Truths the Left Can’t Handle. During the 2012 RNC, Chris Christie bellowed,

Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to put us back on the path to growth and create good paying private sector jobs again in America. Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to end the torrent of debt that is compromising our future and burying our economy. Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to end the debacle of putting the world’s greatest health care system in the hands of federal bureaucrats and putting those bureaucrats between an American citizen and her doctor.

(Presumably, all of those hard truths involved more money for corporations and the rich and less money for the poor.)

And Alan Simpson, co-chair of Obama’s former debt commission, praised Paul Ryan in 2012 as a “spokesman of hard truth against fakery”, probably because Ryan, like Simpson, supports telling Grandma the hard truth that she’ll have to survive on cat food till she dies.

The trope combines both noble and paranoid aspects. The nobility lies in sacrificing one’s own reputation, almost becoming a martyr, at the altar of truth. Milo nobly subjects himself to torrents of abuse so that he can appear on Bill Maher’s show. Sam Harris bears the cross so that he can set fire to the crescent. Charles Murray gives speeches at universities out of the goodness of his heart, knowing full well the pain he will later endure. After Andrew Sullivan published an excerpt of Murray’s book in The New Republic, he praised himself, remarkably, for “speak[ing] truth to power”.

The paranoia lies in believing that the other side is all-powerful and hysterical, with the power of a “mob” marshalled to hunt witches and silence dissenters. There is almost a transgressive thrill involved in breaking the “rules” that society has imposed. Sullivan described the other side as “liberals [who] are determined instead to prevent and stigmatize free research and debate on this subject.” Against these forces, the only sensible course of action is to collect mountains of facts and footnotes, to present the evidence dispassionately, but mostly to complain about how unfair everyone is being.

(Here’s Harris again:

I mean again I just want to just reiterate this is one of the reasons I was so eager to have you on. I find it so galling that an obviously sober and ethical and well-intentioned scholar such as yourself has to live under this cloud of notoriety so that every time you’re introduced people have to apologize in advance for the fact that you’re even on the stage in the first place. It strikes me as an incredible injustice that academics everywhere should be able to see through immediately, and they should not pander to defamatory misconceptions that have grown up around your work. It’s really annoying.

Truly, the ones who suffer the most “incredible injustices” are the racist old white men who receive think tank salaries.)

But are conservative scholars who discuss race and IQ, or New Atheists who rag on Islam, or conservatives who want to cut social programs truly the noble souls they claim to be? Of course not. Here’s an excerpt from an outstanding profile of Charles Murray in The New York Times Magazine (it should have been the final nail in his coffin):

When “Losing Ground” first appeared in 1984, Murray’s views were too radical even for Murray — the book couches them as “a thought experiment,” and not even Ronald Reagan would actually propose such a thing. But this spring a dozen Representatives stood in front of the Capitol and called for an end to benefits for mothers under 21. They would send the children of those who could not manage to state-run orphanages.

Similar proposals are backed by such glamorous Republican names as Jack Kemp and William Bennett. Murray may even be the first welfare analyst to see his work on the multiplex screen. When the makers of the Joe Pesci film “With Honors” wanted to depict the tough-minded undergraduate of the 90’s, they showed a Harvard student with “Losing Ground” tucked under his arm.

Without undue armchair psychology, it is possible to see in this outcome the satisfaction of two of Murray’s deepest, if contradictory, yearnings. With his speaking schedule, book sales and Congressional appearances, he has captured the respectability so valued in his childhood home. At the same time, he manages to remain the pool-hall outlaw with shocking views, luxuriating in the clucking disapproval of polite society.

And the paranoia is equally unjustified. There is no all-powerful mob, loud or silent, facing down Charles Murray or Sam Harris. They have loud critics, but also loud supporters. They speak their “hard truths” against an elite in service of a different elite. They are paid handsomely and attract wide audiences. There is no nobility here. What they are doing is what every provocateur has done since the dawn of time – make an argument that arouses strong feelings and subsequently rack up “views”, whether good or bad, and criticism, whether fair or hysterical. Just remember that Harris was attacked on Bill Maher’s show – the guy who used to host a show called “Politically Incorrect”. There will always be an audience for political incorrectness, contrarianism, conservatism, atheism, or any other ideology. Harris is not an iconoclast, a breaker of idols and “taboos”. He is simply catering to a different audience that embraces a different set of them.

In fact, Murray gave away the game himself in the NYT Magazine profile I referenced earlier. When attempting to sell his book to a publisher, he wrote that it would be a success because “A huge number of well-meaning whites fear that they are closet racists, and this book tells them they are not. It’s going to make them feel better about things they already think but do not know how to say.”

Murray also called his book “social science pornography”, a term the reviewer finds highly revealing (albeit unintentionally). I do too. It reveals that all of this talk about “hard truths” is really just about the “truths” that make oneself hard.


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