The flawed logic of scientific racism
May 18, 2017 7:52 AM   Subscribe

Three behavioral scientists debunk Charles Murray's junk science on race and IQ, and take Sam Harris to task for showcasing them so uncritically on his podcast.
posted by AceRock (66 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
 
Sam Harris was uncritical about junk science that makes him look good? I'm shocked! Shocked!

Well, not that shocked.
posted by SansPoint at 8:00 AM on May 18 [26 favorites]


Sam Harris was uncritical about junk science that makes him look good?
It sounds like not so much that as "Sam Harris spent two hours on a widely-listened-to podcast endorsing grotesque white supremacy."
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:02 AM on May 18 [26 favorites]


@SurlyUrbanist on twitter makes the salient point that "science" podcasts that validate Murray by uncritically hosting him and letting him spew bullshit don't ever seem to host people talking about the immense social scientific evidence in favor of racial discrimination.
posted by dismas at 8:03 AM on May 18 [28 favorites]


I only know Harris from a couple(?) of his appearances on Very Bad Wizards, and I'm so surprised that he is well-regarded by anyone. His inability to support his own arguments against 2 friendly-but-critical questioners was almost embarrassing.
posted by He Is Only The Imposter at 8:10 AM on May 18 [2 favorites]


And this is why the academy treating Murray as legitimate is so dangerous - it opens the door for other people to treat him as such, and thus further legitimize bigotry with a thin veneer of scientific jargon.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:14 AM on May 18 [6 favorites]


I really wish New Atheism, with all its associated hatred, would just go away already. The rest of us non-evangelical atheists have a hard enough time without being tainted by the shitbags who excuse sexual assault and bigotry just because it comes from loudmouthed white dudes who wrote that book that time.
posted by zombieflanders at 8:17 AM on May 18 [67 favorites]


In reality, the racial groups used in the US — white, black, Hispanic, Asian — are such a poor proxy for underlying genetic ancestry that no self-respecting statistical geneticist would undertake a study based only on self-identified racial category as a proxy for genetic ancestry measured from DNA.

This right here. The fact that Murray asserts otherwise makes him a racist liar and propagandist. All the other stuff about genetics is just a distraction: sleight of hand to make his argument have more of an air of "science."

Look, scientists really don't deal well with active deception. Data may be tricky and complicated, but it almost never actively tries to lie to you. That's why people who fake results get punished so harshly, and there is absolutely no difference between what they do and what Murray is doing.

The only meaningful scientific engagement that needs to happen is to point out that when he claims that US racial groups are genetically meaningful, he is a liar, cite the best recent research showing it, then drop the mic and leave.
posted by Zalzidrax at 8:34 AM on May 18 [17 favorites]


Sam Harris is an utter fraud. He is not a scientist. His rich family essentially bought his way into Stanford and UCLA. The fact that he has developed this cachet among "skeptics" and "rationalists" is is maddening.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 8:34 AM on May 18 [11 favorites]


zombieflanders: Yes, this. I've made a few comments about this on MeFi lately. All the public faces of Atheism are New Atheists, and they're making us all look fucking terrible. Not like Atheism needs help with that, of course.

And shit like what Harris is pulling here is only making it worse. I'm still regretting spending however long it was listening to him uncritically promote Islamophobia.
posted by SansPoint at 8:35 AM on May 18 [3 favorites]


a very lucid demolition
posted by thelonius at 8:39 AM on May 18


If you want a thorough smackdown of this bullshit, let me point you toward Stephen Jay Gould's "The Mismeasure of Man," published 36 years ago and then revised in 1996 specifically to debunk the assertions of "The Bell Curve." Mismeasure addresses not only the spurious basis for IQ testing but also offers a history lesson in academic quackery, delving into the bullshit of phrenology for good measure.

Gould is one of my academic heroes, not least because he had a longstanding beef with Richard Dawkins over where and how evolutionary pressure was applied and responded to, i.e. whether it was confined to the genome or whether it could act upon groups of individuals or clades (and I'm sure I'm getting something wrong about that argument).
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 8:46 AM on May 18 [34 favorites]


I have, for reasons of insatiable curiosity, read several of Murray's books. One thing I appreciate about him is that e asks hard questions that my fellow progressives consider anathema: Are there people who, even in a hypothetical healthy and functioning society, will still be unable to function in that society in a way that brings them out of poverty? If so, how does a society deal with that?

In his book on education, he takes on the naively utopian idea that all children can achieve in the narrow academic way we have come to value, if they're given the right supports early enough. How, he asks, do we educate for the variety of aptitudes and interests that people have?

These strike me as good questions, and, coming off a period of painful disillusionment with progressive communities I'm a part of, I welcomed the questions.

The trouble is, Murray's answers are terrible. He ignores social forces of racism and classism, instead treating the cultural status quo as a universal truth. This is obvious in The Bell Curve, where he writes as if the forces of racism that have created the problems of urban black communities don't exist, so that the questionable IQ research that seems to show that black people, on the whole, are less intelligent (by a certain very questionable measure of intelligence) reflects innate racial characteristics rather than entrenched social, economic, and cultural forces.

In his book on education, he advocates for a model of education that allows for a variety of options besides the academic track we think every kid can and should be on, so that young people can pursue their areas of strength rather than being forced into a model they can never succeed in. He actually has a pretty good analogy for this, where he asks his non-athletic readers to remember the hell of gym class, where they were constantly being asked to do things they weren't good at or interested in, and then were graded on how well or poorly they did them. For some young people, he said, college-prep academic classes are like this. The difference is that they can't escape those classes, and they are given the added pressure of being told that success in these classes is essential to their future success and well-being, as well as being a measure of their current worth. This analogy made sense to me, since I suffered through PE in exactly the way he described.

But! What he's advocating is basically a form of tracking, where students can enter an academic track or be encouraged to follow another track more suited to their abilities and interests. The infuriating problem here is that he acts like he's never heard of "tracking," or of any of the biases that shunt poor and working-class children and children of color into the non-academic tracks. That's his unforgivable blindness and bias, because without that awareness, the only thing ideas like his can really do is perpetuate systems of inequality and injustice. You can see this in the people who take up his banner, as we see happening here.

I met Murray's wife a few years ago, at a Quaker conference I attend. A friend of mine who is a Republican Quaker (rarer than hen's teeth) hosted an interest group for politically conservative Quakers, and I attended. I had no idea Murray's wife was a Quaker, and was very surprised by it. Quakers in my vein of Quakerism are generally both theologically and politically liberal. Murray's wife was less interested in talking about her own conservative politics and values (if she even had any). She seemed, rather, to want and need to talk about the difficulties it caused her to be married to a notorious and reviled conservative writer. She was very hesitant to name him, fearing the judgment of those in the room. I see by the discussion of her on his wikipedia page that she is still married to him, however, and that Murray attends her Quaker meeting. That must be a very interesting experience.
posted by Orlop at 8:49 AM on May 18 [39 favorites]


In his book on education, he takes on the naively utopian idea that all children can achieve in the narrow academic way we have come to value, if they're given the right supports early enough. How, he asks, do we educate for the variety of aptitudes and interests that people have?

These strike me as good questions, and, coming off a period of painful disillusionment with progressive communities I'm a part of, I welcomed the questions.


Agreed that these are very important and urgent questions, and that they have nothing to do with race. The other thing that goes undiscussed is the way that the "narrow academic way we have come to value" is inflated over time. What passed as a suitable level of education or general intellectual ability in 1950 is different from what passes now. People really do have differing levels of ability, even when all things are made equal—of course, they haven't been made equal, and they SHOULD be made equal, but the range of abilities will remain.

The liberal mainstream embraced meritocracy: the hollow dogma of "retraining," education, "opportunity." That's the text. The subtext is that the non-intellectual don't deserve anything besides a path to improve their intellectual capabilities. The first problem is that even in a best-case scenario where every former union coal miner "learns to code," there's not going to be a job waiting. The second problem is that not everybody wants to learn to code, or can learn to code, or ought to learn to code. The Democrats' response to this fact has been to shrug. "That's your problem. That's progress."

The sub-sub-subtext is that intellectual ability (whether innate or earned through academic toil) is identical to a person's worth as a human being. Their relative right to participate in a humane society. Dummies starve, and it's their own fault for being dumb. And they have backward social beliefs and they vote for Republicans so they deserve it even more.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 9:04 AM on May 18 [37 favorites]


> zombieflanders: Yes, this. I've made a few comments about this on MeFi lately. All the public faces of Atheism are New Atheists, and they're making us all look fucking terrible. Not like Atheism needs help with that, of course.

Yeah the New Atheists are a big part of why I upgraded from atheism to ontological nihilism. I'd say it's the only reliable surefire way to pull rank on them — oh, you think you're tough for not believing in a God? Lemme show you what real thoroughgoing skepticism looks like! — but there are no surefire ways to do anything, because despite appearances neither things nor ways exist.

but wait, you may be thinking, appearances exist! I thereby refute your ontological nihilism! To which I respond (or would respond, if either of us existed): appearances only appear to exist.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:07 AM on May 18 [33 favorites]


You Can't Tip a Buick: Your ideas are intriguing to me, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.
posted by SansPoint at 9:19 AM on May 18 [9 favorites]


Can we knock of the atheism derail?

Gould demolished Murray a decade ago and I don't understand why that guy is accepted into discourse. I believe that pundits give him a stage to show how balanced, fair, and very, very serious they are. "I am so open minded I interviewed a racist! Look at me!".

Wankers all.

I listened to Harris' "keto diet" interview with Taubes. At the end of it I was no further enlightened and couldn't tell if keto was BS or not. To be clear, I lost 70 pounds on a keto diet! Harris appears to be utterly incapable of self reflection and has no ability to ferret out the truth and BS from his guests.

I wouldn't bother with his podcast again. CWOT as the youth are want to say.
posted by pdoege at 9:22 AM on May 18 [6 favorites]


He actually has a pretty good analogy for this, where he asks his non-athletic readers to remember the hell of gym class, where they were constantly being asked to do things they weren't good at or interested in, and then were graded on how well or poorly they did them.

Honestly, the gym analogy might more closely align with the race stuff than you realize. I was a chubby nerd and so I wasn't very good at gym class. But here's the thing: looking back I was in no way an unathletic person. I played rec soccer, I skiied, I was in boy scouts, climbing mountains and canoeing rivers and kayaking islands. I was pretty decent at these things! But somehow I was still terrible in gym class, and the only reason for it is that I was socially expected to be terrible.

Except with race, you're still trapped, even when you catch on that it's bullshit.
posted by Zalzidrax at 9:33 AM on May 18 [5 favorites]


Gould demolished Murray a decade ago and I don't understand why that guy is accepted into discourse.

Because AEI is in the business of retreading discredited conservative academics (see also: Lott, John), and the academy is all too eager to help enable them in the name of "academic freedom".
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:33 AM on May 18 [4 favorites]


I think that we must think more about the questions we ask.

Consider that the question

Are there people who, even in a hypothetical healthy and functioning society, will still be unable to function in that society in a way that brings them out of poverty?

assumes both that poverty can exist in a healthy and functioning society and that it is the responsibility of a poor individual to bring themselves out of poverty.
posted by congen at 9:34 AM on May 18 [37 favorites]


He's accepted in discourse because people decided racism and white supremacy are just some other opinions, and are as worthy of consideration and discussion as any others, and that if you disagree you are a censorious fascist.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 9:35 AM on May 18 [26 favorites]


In his book on education, he advocates for a model of education that allows for a variety of options besides the academic track we think every kid can and should be on, so that young people can pursue their areas of strength rather than being forced into a model they can never succeed in. He actually has a pretty good analogy for this, where he asks his non-athletic readers to remember the hell of gym class, where they were constantly being asked to do things they weren't good at or interested in, and then were graded on how well or poorly they did them. For some young people, he said, college-prep academic classes are like this. The difference is that they can't escape those classes, and they are given the added pressure of being told that success in these classes is essential to their future success and well-being, as well as being a measure of their current worth. This analogy made sense to me, since I suffered through PE in exactly the way he described.

But! What he's advocating is basically a form of tracking, where students can enter an academic track or be encouraged to follow another track more suited to their abilities and interests. The infuriating problem here is that he acts like he's never heard of "tracking," or of any of the biases that shunt poor and working-class children and children of color into the non-academic tracks. That's his unforgivable blindness and bias, because without that awareness, the only thing ideas like his can really do is perpetuate systems of inequality and injustice. You can see this in the people who take up his banner, as we see happening here.


This is all just so dumb. I was one of those kids in gym class. A 5' 2" 96lb weakling until grade 11 when a way late puberty struck. Gym class was a nightmare of jocks not throwing me the football. It sucked. I hated it. The rest of high school was likewise torture. I was a D student all the way through. I was placed in general level (vocational) going into high school.

Things completely turned around when I went to community college and did well in a liberal arts program - then went to university and honor rolled all the way through and went on to grad school.

I'm 50 now with more post-secondary qualifications than anybody I know. I run 5 miles 3-5 times a week and hit the weights 2-3 times a week.

So the things i hated and sucked at high school are about 90% of what I love now and have for the last 25 years.

I'd be dismissed by Murray or any other streamer as a statistical outlier but the truth is that every single person is going to be an outlier in some way. If your societal plans don't allow for that then you need to go back and re-watch Star Trek.
posted by srboisvert at 9:36 AM on May 18 [11 favorites]


I'm enjoying the format/point by point breakdown of the posted article. Thanks for sharing it.

I was left feeling uncomfortable by how uncritical Sam Harris was of Murray. I'm sympathetic to the possibility that sometimes there are academic witch hunts and certain figures may be mis-represented. Unfortunately, once a reputation has been made, it's on that individual to disprove it. Sam merely stated beliefs as if they were indisputable facts; I wish he'd included citations for such controversial assertions.

It's similar to his recent Gary Taubes interview. I wish he'd call out his guests more. It seems intellectually lazy not to at least play the devil's advocate when your guest stating beliefs that seem to go against the current consensus. That being said, Taubes comes off as having a much stronger messiah complex than Murray. At least Murray was respectful of other people in the field.

I did finish that interview with the feeling that I should at least read some of Murray's work. I realized that I'd never read any of The Bell Curve even when I'd read criticisms of it in University. It does seem as though a lot of the reaction against the piece never actually engages with the points directly. I'm glad VOX took the time to really address it. I'm also happy that the authors admitted that many respected researchers share views somewhat similar to Murray's. I'm not at all convinced my Murray's racially charged statements in The Bell Curve, but they don't seem as vitriolic as I'd imagined they would be.

Murray did make some interesting points that have nothing to do with race. In the interview he mentions that modern society selects for a very narrow type of intelligence. He claims that IQ is at least a very good proxy for a cluster of abilities that seem highly predictive of success in modern society. (Nothing controversial there.)

The point that I found interesting was that people generally select partners of roughly similar intelligence. (Call it IQ, G, education level, inherent privilege, whatever you want.) As Murray put it, you want to date someone who laughs at your jokes and someone who you find funny. Humor does seem to be tied to at least a type of intelligence/educational background.

Even if we allow for the the possibility that intelligence isn't heritable at all, it is troubling that we are further filtering ourselves into multi-generational in groups sorted by intelligence. He goes on to talk about coastal cities and brain drain. I think if you divorce the source of the argument from idea itself, it's something worth discussing.
posted by Telf at 9:37 AM on May 18 [2 favorites]


Honestly, the gym analogy might more closely align with the race stuff than you realize. I was a chubby nerd and so I wasn't very good at gym class.

It does align with race! I was literally a black belt when I was a kid, and I won badminton tournaments, and I was bad at gym class too, getting Cs and Ds every semester. The only role models I had were either a) the stereotype of the nerdy Asian with glasses who was good at math but bad at anything physical, or b) the stereotype of Jackie Chan, who was good at punching, but otherwise pretty brick-headed. So I picked a) because I didn't want to be dumb, and that meant I had to pretend I was bad at anything athletic in school.
posted by Conspire at 9:41 AM on May 18 [2 favorites]


As a separate point, I really wish that Sam Harris would do a better job of following up his controversial guests with countering ideas. It seems irresponsible to give voice to one side and then not allow a representative of the consensus a good faith rebuttal. As dismas stated above, there are so many important thinkers who should have a chance to challenge Murray's statements.
posted by Telf at 9:42 AM on May 18


That's his unforgivable blindness and bias, because without that awareness, the only thing ideas like his can really do is perpetuate systems of inequality and injustice.

Your confusion here arises from mistaking his post-hoc rationalization of his prejudices for a principled inquiry from first principles. He's not blind to problems of bias; rather, his theories are built to find some other, any other, way to explain and excuse their consequences.
posted by praemunire at 9:42 AM on May 18 [11 favorites]


Don't forget that Sam Harris seriously believes that racially profiling anyone that "looks Muslim" is a sound national security policy.

Also, granting that job retraining has its problems, calling it "learn to code" is a strawman. Democratic job retraining plans largely consist of grants for improving vocational, community college, and apprenticeship programs, exactly the kinds of "options besides the academic track we think every kid can and should be on" that Murray supposedly supports.
posted by muddgirl at 9:42 AM on May 18 [8 favorites]


Metafilter: upgraded from atheism to ontological nihilism.
posted by sammyo at 9:49 AM on May 18 [5 favorites]


That's a good article, thanks for posting. I'd have liked to have seen it more closely referenced, but I realise that's a slightly unfair expectation for a Vox article. It seems convincingly argued, and useful to have in the back pocket for when asshats start up on this topic.

I think this comment towards the end is useful, too:
Liberals need not deny that intelligence is a real thing or that IQ tests measure something real about intelligence, that individuals and groups differ in measured IQ, or that individual differences are heritable in complex ways.
It's depressingly common to see left-leaning people dismissing not just the incorrect and racist ideas around IQ, but the entire idea of IQ (or g, or other measures of intelligence) as something that can be measured, is fairly repeatable over most people's lives, seems to be partly heritable, and, regardless of whether there's any causal relationship, has some predictive power for life outcomes. In our enthusiasm to reject harmful pseudoscience, it's easy to get carried away and deny the whole thing. We (correctly!) criticise the right wing for ignoring scientific evidence on predictable topics, and hear the old saw that "reality has a liberal bias". But there are certainly topics, IQ included, where quite a few people on the left are just as prone to ignoring the scientific consensus for the sake of political expediency, and we need to be careful of that.
posted by metaBugs at 9:50 AM on May 18 [11 favorites]


the naively utopian idea that all children can achieve in the narrow academic way we have come to value, if they're given the right supports early enough

neither naive nor utopian, as clearly laid out in the Vox essay, referring to the various ways in which IQ gains propagate over time. fuck both these guys.
posted by mwhybark at 9:53 AM on May 18 [3 favorites]


(Having complained about the referencing: from a quick skim of the (free access!) review paper they link at the end of the article, it looks like most or all of their assertions are covered and referenced in there. Looks like an interesting read.)
posted by metaBugs at 9:57 AM on May 18 [2 favorites]


Can we knock of the atheism derail?

I don't think it's a derail at all. Murray was hosted by Sam Harris, who is only a notable figure because of his status as one of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism. And he got to be one of the Four Horsemen by writing vile screeds against Islam and Muslims. It's exactly like the way that Murray earned his status by writing vile racist apologia against black people. They're peas in a pod, and discussing the origin of these men is directly relevant.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:59 AM on May 18 [30 favorites]


metaBugs,

I sometimes teach courses on sports science and I used to show a TED Talk clip of David Epstein explaining advances in modern sports. He starts talking about tibia to femur ratios, fast twitch/slow twitch muscle fiber distribution, height etc.

I had to stop showing it because the implication that the biomechanics of an individual's anthropometry might affect sports performance became too fraught in the classroom. Obviously, a person's build will affect what sports they're good at. Scouting agencies and government sports programs spends millions of dollars a year using this information to predicts sports performance. Quite simply, you're not going to be a world class weightlifter if you have the wrong femoral neck shape or abnormally long limbs. Unfortunately, any talk of measurements is besmirched by understandable fears of phrenology or eugenics.

It's strange because these sorts of measurements can be helpful and definitely have predictive value. At the same time, I understand why it feels icky. I'm not even talking about this on a racial level. I don't believe that races are real, genetic distribution obviously works on a continuum. Making set categories is silly at best and extremely dangerous at worst.

This issue will continue to pop up again and again as medicine and dietary advice start to become prescribed on an individual level. Is it ok to assume that an Asian patient might have issues processing certain anaesthesia? Should we tell patients that blood pressure might affect people with different ethnic backgrounds differently? Can we generalize that people whose ancestors came from a specific area might have issues digesting wheat or dairy? I'm not sure. There's certainly not a clear cut line. If generalizations can save people's' lives, surely they're ok? On the other hand, is that conceding that other generalization are also possible?

It's a sticky topic and I think it's best to err on the side of avoiding even the appearance of racism. As you said though, we shouldn't ignore good science if it can help people. Obviously Murray's work doesn't really have that same potential to help. At least not according to my very limited familiarity with it.
posted by Telf at 10:10 AM on May 18 [5 favorites]


I believe that pundits give him a stage to show how balanced, fair, and very, very serious they are.

More like, Murray gives them intellectual cover for their own racism, as well enables the survival of white supremacy, of which pundits profit more than some.

Sam Harris is just this decade's Andrew Sullivan, up to and including the Islamophobia.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:12 AM on May 18 [14 favorites]


Re: the gym analogy: I was always extremely unathletic in school, I could never run a mile, I almost failed gym class, but in my twenties I decided I would teach myself how to run a mile and just kept it up, eventually becoming extremely involved in a local running club and running a couple marathons.

One day it hit me that if, in school, just one of my PE teachers hadn't totally written me off as not worth their time, if just one of them through the years had actually given me the tools to improve myself rather than just deciding that I was lazy and not worth teaching, I could have become a somewhat athletic person much more quickly. No, I was never going to go to the olympics, but I could have worked my way up to decently fit.

Then I realized that this same thing must apply to so many other kids in academics - kids who weren't the top students academically, who were written off as lazy or incapable (and internalized that idea) but who could have succeeded much more than they did if they had had small class sizes, with teachers who paid attention to them and who had given them the tools and materials to succeed. This is why this stuff is so dangerous- teachers who believe that some students just won't succeed academically will not give those students the attention they need, and it creates a vicious cycle where that idea is reinforced when they, indeed, do not succeed, for want of support and attention and resources.
posted by matcha action at 10:20 AM on May 18 [27 favorites]


A quick question for those who have read Murray's work, how does he define Hispanic? There are people of all races and ethnic backgrounds who are considered Hispanic. It's why it's in a separate area on the US Census. It's why when talking about White people, if they want to be accurate, they usually write "White (Non-Hispanic)." Given that the label Hispanic tells you much more about language than race, is he actually implying that growing up speaking Spanish makes you less intelligent?
posted by Hactar at 10:22 AM on May 18 [2 favorites]


In almost any discussion of Murray and The Bell Curve, his defenders will claim that his critics have "not read the book", and will point to quotes from the book that they think prove that Murray does not believe the awful things critics (i.e., anti-free speech PC bullies) claim he does.

For example, this excerpt from the book:
A good place to start is by correcting a common confusion about the role of genes in individuals and in groups.

Most scholars accept that I.Q. in the human species as a whole is substantially heritable, somewhere between 40 percent and 80 percent, meaning that much of the observed variation in I.Q. is genetic. And yet this information tells us nothing for sure about the origin of the differences between groups of humans in measured intelligence. This point is so basic, and so misunderstood, that it deserves emphasis: that a trait is genetically transmitted in a population does not mean that group differences in that trait are also genetic in origin. Anyone who doubts this assertion may take two handfuls of genetically identical seed corn and plant one handful in Iowa, the other in the Mojave Desert, and let nature (i.e., the environment) take its course. The seeds will grow in Iowa, not in the Mojave, and the result will have nothing to do with genetic differences.

The environment for American blacks has been closer to the Mojave and the environment for American whites has been closer to Iowa.
They will leave it that. On its face, this quote seems entirely reasonable, not racist at all, and seems to repudiate all of the claims that Murray is a scientific racist. But the intellectual dishonesty becomes apparent when you read the quote in proper context, and you see that Murray is not drawing a conclusion here. He is setting up an argument. The sentence "The environment for American blacks has been closer to the Mojave and the environment for American whites has been closer to Iowa" is not at the end of a chapter... it isn't even the end of a paragraph. It's the beginning of one.

Murray goes on to make the exact argument that his critics claim he makes, that the proper interpretation of the evidence he presents is that genes do explain differences in IQ scores between racial groups.
posted by AceRock at 10:36 AM on May 18 [17 favorites]


AceRock,
Thanks for sharing that. These are the direct criticisms I want to see. Would love for people to share more points that address the content of the book.

For those who consider themselves to be part of the Skeptic community, it does look as there Skeptic magazine attacked the book from multiple angles. Doesn't look as though a lot of the links are available. Think it would be worth poking around for some of these articles though. Might be a nice antidote for those uncomfortable with Harris' position in all this.

From the magazine:
THE SKEWED LOGIC OF THE BELL-SHAPED CURVE
A PLACE IN THE SUN by Carol Tavris of Mistakes Were Made (But not by Me) fame.
posted by Telf at 10:47 AM on May 18


All the public faces of Atheism are New Atheists, and they're making us all look fucking terrible.

Curious that so many of the loud straw-man atheists share so many political leanings with the right-wing Christians who love to rally their base with articles about how dumb the loud straw-man atheist critiques of religion are.
posted by straight at 11:34 AM on May 18 [3 favorites]


The environment for American blacks has been closer to the Mojave and the environment for American whites has been closer to Iowa.

Cool- if they believe this, certainly Murray or his followers have devoted some energy to reducing environmental contaminants and improving nutrition in predominantly black communities. I haven't seen any examples of this but I bet someone could come up with a link... right?
posted by Jpfed at 11:38 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]


I agree with this sentence, which seems to be the core of the article:
There is currently no reason at all to think that any significant portion of the IQ differences among socially defined racial groups is genetic in origin.

But this 2016 survey article in Frontiers in Psychology "Based on expert opinions, the genetic-evolutionary factor was the single most important cause of international differences in cognitive ability. Experts attributed about one-sixth to one-fifth of international ability differences to genes." suggests that at least a significant number of other intelligence researchers disagree.

(obviously "international differences" are not quite the same as "socially defined racial group differences" but if you thought genetics was important to one I can't think why you wouldn't think it important to the other)
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 12:09 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]


That survey had 71 respondents, just a little higher than 10% that of similar surveys, all of whom self-selected. So we're talking all of 12 people here, out of a population that the survey team estimated to be almost 1350 (and which is probably considerably lower than the actual number).
posted by zombieflanders at 12:22 PM on May 18 [5 favorites]


Another Fine Product - The argument is not that IQ does correlate with heredity/genetics, the argument is that IQ does not correlate with racial classes as historically defined by our society in the United States. Eg. IQ does not map onto skin color.
posted by pdoege at 12:23 PM on May 18 [5 favorites]


Your confusion here arises from mistaking his post-hoc rationalization of his prejudices for a principled inquiry from first principles. He's not blind to problems of bias; rather, his theories are built to find some other, any other, way to explain and excuse their consequences.

Yeah, it bears mentioning that this is a guy who *burned a cross* in high school. He pretended he had no idea why anyone might find that racist too -- his "poor old innocent me" act is just that, an act.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 12:25 PM on May 18 [13 favorites]


Jpfed: I don't have any direct links, but there are almost certainly people who accept Murray's ideas and work to improve the cognitive environment in disadvantaged communities. Many of those belong to the effective altruism movement, an offshoot of the rationalist community, which is more open to the idea of human biodiversity than more mainstream ideological movements. Effective altruism groups support parasite eradication and iodine supplementation efforts, both of which help prevent developmental delays.

Also, I believe much mainstream international development aid is also tacitly about improving the cognitive environment, but if major donors are influenced by Murray, they would be more reluctant to publicize it.
posted by Small Dollar at 1:07 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]


Yeah the New Atheists are a big part of why I upgraded from atheism to ontological nihilism.

Ditto, but apatheistic agnosticism. I'm not sure the point in getting away from religious dogma if it just leads to newer, equally shitty dogma.
posted by mordax at 1:19 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]


Small Dollar, I think you're making a pretty big leap there. They don't donate to those projects because they believe it will raise the IQ of black children (which Murray doesn't appear to believe either), but because in the abstract, if they passed a drowning black child they would risk their shoes to save its life (regardless of its IQ), so utilitarianism dictates that they should do the same with their income or they're not acting ethically according to their very algorithmic rules.
posted by muddgirl at 1:43 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]


A while back someone posted on twitter (I can't recall who and can't be bothered to sort through my timeline from weeks ago to find it) that one of the problems with education at all levels as it exists now is that it is trying to do two fundamentally opposing things simultaneously: equalize achievement and measure relative performance. You can't simultaneously raise everyone to the same level and also rank them.
posted by quaking fajita at 2:33 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]


Effective altruism is about doing the most good per dollar spent. The "good" an intervention does is generally determined in EA circles by something called a "quality-adjusted life year", which includes both quantity and quality of life - a long life spent in misery is in this measure equivalent to a short, healthy life. Part of the quality of life part of the calculation includes IQ, somewhere, presumably (I am not an EA) - a person who is intellectually capable of caring for themselves has a better quality of life than someone who is not. Thus, interventions that raise IQ cheaply are worthwhile because they are efficient at adding quality of life. The donations are not "about" IQ, they are about QALYs, which include IQ.
posted by Small Dollar at 2:59 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]


Thus, interventions that raise IQ cheaply are worthwhile because they are efficient at adding quality of life.

This only follows if you believe that monetary interventions can increase IQ, which as far as I can tell, Murray and his supporters are extremely skeptical of to various degrees.

If you DON'T believe that monetary interventions increase IQ, you can still believe that interventions will drastically increase Quality of Life for populations with a low IQ score.
posted by muddgirl at 3:23 PM on May 18


Don't forget that Sam Harris seriously believes that racially profiling anyone that "looks Muslim" is a sound national security policy.

Did he seriously not change his mind after his debate with Bruce Schneier?
posted by GenericUser at 4:11 PM on May 18


Nope. His argument appears to be largely unchanged.
posted by muddgirl at 4:33 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]


> You Can't Tip a Buick: Your ideas are intriguing to me, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

you can't it doesn't exist
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 5:22 PM on May 18 [12 favorites]


But this 2016 survey article in Frontiers in Psychology "Based on expert opinions, the genetic-evolutionary factor was the single most important cause of international differences in cognitive ability. Experts attributed about one-sixth to one-fifth of international ability differences to genes." suggests that at least a significant number of other intelligence researchers disagree.
Logically, the percentages across all factors should sum to 100%. However, experts did not always rate all factors, and their ratings did not always sum to 100%.
What was that about flawed logic again
posted by XMLicious at 5:58 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]


Nope. His argument appears to be largely unchanged.

It is an axiom in the atheist and skeptical communities that you can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:46 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]


That's a good article. Murray is a conservative turd who uses science to push fairly disgusting social policies, but the science of IQ is not against him in a way that is super easy to explain. Being equipped with those arguments is a good thing.

My favorite bit from The Bell Curve:
Of all the uncomfortable topics we have explored, a pair of the most uncomfortable ones are that a society with a higher mean IQ is also likely to be a society with fewer social ills and brighter economic prospects, and that the most efficient way to raise the IQ of a society is for smarter women to have higher birth rates than duller women. Instead, America is going in the opposite direction, and the implication is a future America with more social ills and gloomier economic prospects...

The technically precise description of America's fertility policy is that it subsidizes births among poor women, who are also disproportionately at the low end of the intelligence distribution. We urge generally that these policies, represented by the extensive network of cash and services for low-income women who have babies, be ended.
In his defense, he is very compassionate for a eugenicist.
posted by fleacircus at 11:08 PM on May 18 [7 favorites]


Out of curiosity, do either Murray or Harris even know about epigenetics or the inheritabilty of phenotype expression? Or do they just handwave away any complexity that obscures the simplicity of their arguments? It doesn't seem like they even start from the right place in building their arguments, like they still believe in a much more rigid and deterministic model of genetic inheritance than the complex interactions of genetic legacy and environment we now understand to be the case supports.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:07 AM on May 19 [4 favorites]


Charles Murray is not a scientist. His theorizing starts with his axioms (inequality is inherent, therefore welfare, affirmative action, and immigration are detrimental since they all encourage bad genes) and then work back to find the data that supports them. It is the literal meaning of "lies, damned lies, and statistics."

Sam Harris is also starts with an axiom - inflammatory opinions are important, if not true. The more inflammatory, the more important.
posted by muddgirl at 6:46 AM on May 19 [9 favorites]


There is a response. Sam Harris has tweeted it out, though it was written by a third party on Medium.
posted by Telf at 7:46 PM on May 19


The very first source cited in that response is the "Survey of Expert Opinion on Intelligence: Causes of International Differences in Cognitive Ability Tests" from Frontiers in Psychology linked to above by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory, where the answers the "expert" respondents gave "did not always sum to 100%".

Possibly one might assume, for the cases adding up to less than 100% rather than more, because the survey didn't offer all of the factors that the expert believes determine intelligence despite being confident about how to weight the available ones.

The journal article authors also note "The sample consisted of 71 respondents", "The main limitation can be seen in the low response rate (20%)", "There are perhaps no more than 50 experts in the world who specialize in international ability differences", and "Based on our experience, we suggest that future surveys more carefully preselect who is invited to participate."
posted by XMLicious at 8:54 PM on May 19 [1 favorite]


Another thing to keep in mind when looking at surveys of experts in the field of measurement in psychology is that measurement attracts a disproportionate number of racists and funding from racist organizations is easily available to them.
posted by srboisvert at 5:37 AM on May 20 [6 favorites]


The fact that he has developed this cachet among "skeptics" and "rationalists" is is maddening.

Although not hugely surprising.
posted by running order squabble fest at 1:47 PM on May 20 [1 favorite]


Nell Painter's The History of White People does the deep dark dive into horrific "scientific" enterprise of eugenics.

She discusses how the concept of "race suicide" -- which was taken up by Theodore Roosevelt -- was in fact coined by the sociologist Edward A. Ross in his 1901 article "The Causes of Racial Superiority." Ross was no fringe figure, he "was elected president of the American Sociological Assocation in 1914 and 1915. He also excelled as a popularizer of social scientific truth; his books sold half a million copies during his lifetime."

So Murray is in good company I guess with the historically b.s. racist arguments of American academia.*

*Also I can't goddamn even with the academic FREEEEEEDOM argument.
posted by spamandkimchi at 2:03 PM on May 20 [3 favorites]


There's a lot of ways that "rebuttal" is horrible, but the core flaw is simply this - it tries to make the argument that Murray actually isn't that far off from the consensus of the field, but never once considering that the rebuttal to that argument would simply be "and what do you suppose it means for your field that the work of a bigot would be considered mainstream for it?"
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:43 PM on May 20 [3 favorites]


This guy who posted the rebuttal is really scary.

https://twitter.com/HoustonEuler

Frankly, he seems able to work through statistics and has a passing familiarity with the material. I am simply not equipped to debate someone like that. Can someone break it down for a simpleton like me?
posted by constantinescharity at 5:22 PM on May 21


And can someone explain g? I understand that it is considered the essential, static trait of intelligence. What I don't understand is how g can be measured. In the sources he cites, it is separated from the scores on the intelligence tests themselves. How exactly do researchers believe they can separate g from test scores?
posted by constantinescharity at 5:26 PM on May 21


To respond you have to blow up their argument and stop looking at the statistics, because statistics has to depend on a careful examination of your base assumptions, and their base assumptions are rotten. Just look at the final paragraph of the rebuttal:
This July, behavioral geneticists will announce over 600 SNPs statistically associated with educational attainment — and IQ by proxy.
Their argument is entirely circular with no external references. It goes something like this (1) People with higher educational achievement are more successful than people without higher educational achievement. (2) Higher IQ correlates to higher educational achievement. (3) These genes associate with educational achievement and higher IQ. (4) Therefore IQ measures something important, and is largely hereditable. (5) There is an IQ gap between blacks and whites in America. (6) Therefore, advocate for some form of soft or hard eugenics, depending on how openly racist you are willing to be.

The problem comes in step (1) of their argument. Educational achievement and economic success in our country is something that we, a racist society, have defined. It's not something you can just separate as an independent factor. We set the curriculum! We reward certain types of students and punish others. We define the rules of the game and then say that African-americans and Hispanics are the losers. The fact that economic success correlates to a factor that WE invented to track that success (IQ) is self-referential.
posted by muddgirl at 5:34 AM on May 22 [4 favorites]


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