The year long feud between cognitive neuroscientist Sam Harris and Editor-at-Large of Vox Ezra Klein is one that has pitted advocates for a group identity based approach to politics against those who are sensitive to the tendency of this approach to be suppressive of freedom of speech. There have been many such flash points in western societies in recent years. Yet this particular debate stands out not only for its having see-sawed from platform to platform (from the pages of Vox, to Twitter, to a private then public email exchange, back and forth to Twitter, to Harris’ podcast, back to Twitter and Vox and at last culminating in a riveting 2 hour podcast event). This debate stands out for having probed the depths of difference in some of the moral assumptions made about political conversation by these two sides, even when the policy preferences of the two sides are largely aligned (as is in fact the case with Harris and Klein). As fascinating as this dynamic is however, there is a related yet under-remarked upon component at the core of this argument that has been overshadowed by the discussions over political correctness, intellectual honesty, moral panic and genetic science that was, arguably, the central pillar of the entire dispute. That element is the politicization of science itself, a sin from which so many other dangers seem to spring.
At bottom, the controversy between Sam Harris and Ezra Klein is a controversy over what exactly it means to politicize science, though at no point in their exchanges was the issue ever quite framed as such. Nevertheless, each side of this tumultuous dialogue accused the other, in ways implicit and explicit, of framing the presentation of scientific data to illustrate a view of the state of genetic science so as to serve a particular political end, irrespective of what the actual implications of the data might be.
Harris and Klein both have many partisans who would support their respective views regardless of the strength of the opposing party’s claims against them. But an honest attempt to closely track who is right and wrong in this debate is complicated by several factors. One is the fact that the direct debate between Harris and Klein is in fact something of a proxy dispute between several credible scientists on both sides of the argument who were in fact the ones responsible for the scientific substance of the conversation.
For those still not familiar with the roots of this argument, it began with an article published in Vox by Ezra Klein (who was then editor-in-chief) but authored by three prominent professors of psychology: Eric Turkheimer, Kathryn Paige Harden, and Richard Nisbett. The article in question was titled “Charles Murray is once again peddling junk science about race and IQ” and attacked Sam Harris for giving credence to the scientific claims Murray first made almost 25 years ago in his book The Bell Curve including, in the article’s words, “the unwarranted conclusion that black and Hispanic people in the US are almost certainly genetically disposed to have lower IQ…and that the IQ differences also explains differences in life outcomes between different ethnic and racial groups.”
Murray is a highly credentialed political-scientist with a Bachelors of Arts from Harvard and a PhD from M.I.T. (his coauthor on that book, the late Richard Herrnstein, was a highly regarded sociologist and professor of psychology). Sam Harris is himself a credible scientist in a highly relevant field, but he is not the author of the research that he has felt himself forced to defend in these confrontations with Ezra Klein and others. And Klein, while very educated and able to speak fluently on the subject of genetic science, is a laymen who relied upon the scientific authority of Turkheim et al. in publishing and then defending the Vox piece. In other words, the true scientific argument here is really between Murray on the one hand, and the Vox professors on the other. Or perhaps one might say that there was a scientific argument taking place between Harris and the Vox professors who he felt were distorting the science on the one hand, and another argument of a more clearly political nature (as will soon be evident here) taking place between Ezra Klein the progressive policy analyst on one end and Charles Murray the conservative political scientist on the other. In listening to their debate it is clear at various points that some of Harris and Klein’s arguments are really with other people. Nevertheless, they found themselves having to make do with one another.
There are a couple of other obscuring dynamics that make it harder to see who is and is not politicizing science here. One is the simple fact that for as dramatically as Klein and the Vox authors denounce Murray for peddling pseudo-science — and as emphatically as Harris insists that they are in fact the ones with an arguably fringe view — both sides agree that intelligence is at least partially determined by genetics. (The Vox authors concede as much in the original article.) This not only makes it slightly hard to see how the tone of the scientific disagreement could be so extreme on the subject of whether or not genetics might influence IQ, but it makes it harder to see where the politicization may lie given that it is not reflected in any dramatic difference in anyone’s factual understanding of the data itself. The other issue is that Harris frames the dispute as being over both the substance of the science itself and, even more importantly, over whether or not the Vox authors and Klein had demonized him and Murray as essentially racist. (There were other issues at play, but it is probably fair to say that from Harris’ perspective these were the main two).
Klein for his part describes the core of his disagreement with Murray as based on his certainty that Murray’s motivation for presenting this research was to justify rightwing social policies that would undo the political effort to build an equitable society for marginalized racial minorities. His core critique of Harris was his sympathizing with Murray while not acknowledging the history of racial pseudo-science that had been used to justify such policies in the past, and for ignoring the modern context within which rightwing forces seek to use genetic science to justify such policies in the present:
“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.”
Harris, while forthrightly denying any lack of empathy for society’s most marginalized groups, did in responding to this assertion express his “regret that in the preface to my podcast with Murray, I didn’t add some full discussion of racism in America.” To the larger thrust of Klein’s criticism however, Harris had this to say:
“…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.”
According to Harris then, the conversation about social policy and a person’s beliefs about the policy implications of an area of science “is quite distinct from the science” itself. Harris and Klein cover a great deal of terrain in their two-hour conversation. Yet ultimately this is the impasse that they continually return to. Beneath all the other points of contention between them, each of them is in essence accusing the other of politicizing, or enabling the politicization, of science. So the question for those who care about this subject becomes what does it mean to politicize science? The answer not only properly frames how observers ought to perceive the right or wrongness of the parties involved in this argument – it must also inform the way we examine political arguments about and based upon science as a general proposition.
Ezra Klein is correct that there is a malicious history with respect to race and science (or pseudo-science) in the United States of America (to say nothing of western society generally). Men like Samuel George Morton, a 19th century anthropologist, developed elaborate schemes of racial classification based on questionable claims as to the average cranial capacity of different races, linking this capacity to intelligence. This notion supported the concept of polygenism, the idea that human racial groups arose from completely different points of evolutionary origin as opposed to sharing a common human ancestry, and was also useful as a justification for American slavery. The misapplication of the Binet intelligence test (an early French intelligence assessment) in the early 20th century by men like Henry Goddard seeming to show that Italian, Jewish and Eastern European immigrants to the United States were mentally inferior and was seemingly used by politicians to justify restrictive immigration policy such as the federal Immigration Act of 1924. In the 1950’s men like writer Carleton Putnam made the case for segregation by arguing that innate biological differences between the races threatened to destroy society through miscegenation (inter-marriage) while still others argued that there were compelling psychological and sociological bases for preserving the separation of blacks, whites and others.
Ezra Klein is right to be concerned about this history. And as the rise of the alt-right in recent years has reminded us, there are forces in America that would pervert science towards the service of racist and tyrannical ends.
It would seem evident that Sam Harris agrees with this. Yet in seeking to preempt this sort of an abuse of science the Vox article and much of Klein’s subsequent arguments seem to justify the abuse of science in a different direction. That is to characterize a particular and relatively well subscribed interpretation of scientific data as being one that by nature, whether actively or passively, must lend itself to the advancement of a racist agenda.
The fundamental weakness of the original Vox article, a weakness that seemed to be amplified by the tenor of Klein’s arguments in the Harris podcast, was that it ultimately sought to make a political point out of what was fundamentally a scientific question. In so doing the article mixes defensible responses to some of Murray’s assertions regarding the meaning of the data (i.e. “Murray takes the heritability of intelligence as evidence that it is an essential inborn quality…This interpretation is much too strong – a gross oversimplification. Heritability…is a description of the human condition, according to which we are born with certain biological realities that play out in complex ways in concert with environmental factors…”) and mixes them with attacks possessing a fairly ad hominem flavor (i.e. peddling junk science, “claims of genetic determinism and pseudoscientific racialist speculation,” etc.). The intent behind these phrases seems meant to make it seem as if Murray’s perspectives place him on the edges of the scientific community with regards to genetic science. Yet simply observing the fact that people with fairly unimpeachable scientific reputations such as Richard Haier (Professor Emeritus in the Pediatric Neurology Division at UCI and editor-in-chief of the esteemed scientific journal Intelligence), cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, geneticist David Reich, Harris himself and many others have either defended Murray directly or defended essentially comparable points of view would seem to belie this impression rather blatantly. In fact, the very same Vox article that condemns Murray as a purveyor of pseudo-science itself concedes towards the very top of the piece that “some well-informed scientists hold views closer to Murray’s than to ours.” Does this fact mean that these other “well-informed” scientists are also peddling junk science? Or does it mean that Murray is in fact closer to the scientific mainstream than the language of the article otherwise implies?
This sort of politicization of science — well meaning at least inasmuch as it seeks to head off the spread of racist doctrines built upon the misapplication of scientific data — prevents us from actually being able to have clear conversations about the state of a given science in the first place. More broadly speaking, it obscures the difference between science and politics — a difference that should always be crystal clear.
Ezra Klein is right to fight for a more equal, more just America. He does not have to politicize science to do it.