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.
You know how to tell that these IQists are racist? Because they refuse to focus on individual IQ. In their world view, white morons should receive preference over black geniuses.
This is one of the best discussions of the debate that I have read so far. I would like, respectfully, to take issue with the conclusion. It seems to be off target. The problem is that “politicizing” and “making a political point” can both denote something more and less than what Klein was doing (and Murray and Harris, and Turkheimer, Haden, and Nisbett), and may depart from what I think Wood intends. Unfortunately, such terms tend to numb the mind, because their meaning is so variable and plastic, meaning different things to different people, and not always understood in a way that is cogent. To illustrate the problem I see, Wood leads up to the conclusion with: >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… Read more »
Charlotte, I appreciate your kind words and agree John Wood, Jr. is an excellent writer. If I resided in the district he ran for a seat in Congress, I would’ve definitely voted for him. This article shows his ability and respectable, sane conscientiousness in his focus to “creating understanding between polarized groups around contentious social and political issues.”
Wood’ s article demonstrates the importance of diplomacy done right. But diplomacy cannot fix everything…because there’s no excuse for folks who promote deleterious false information which impugns character, reputation as Klein’s approval to publish three writers of an article unjustly did to Harris and then not apologize or own up to the subsequent damage of misinformation it continues to generate.
Science allows admission of mistakes whereas political stances are no different than religious beliefs and both stubbornly hold to biases whereas science moves forward in seeking change based on empirical data gathering…although early science regarding Race failed to muster other people’s added, doubtful research. Research statistics is the issue in the Ezra/Klein debate which is of ultimate concern and the crux of a debate in which Klein failed to acknowledge and dodged questions during communication with Harris. IQ and criminal behavior: Let’s look at the elephant in the room by research which informs incarceration stats. The NAACP is correct to observe drug related stats show black inmates are given longer sentences. This is indeed a red flag. Yet other sources on the internet such as Wikipedia show a crime stat of race distribution—devoid of drug related incidents—which shows a propensity of crimes done of people of color to people of… Read more »
Continuing on the path of the scientific revolution, led in physics by Newton and in biology by Darwin, equipped with the modern tools of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, we can now create a similar revolution in the social sciences and humanities to bring the next leap forward in human knowledge!
> “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.”
I’m glad you made special mention of the rise. I think it is important we always keep this at the back of our minds in debates such as this. Recent history has shown tyrannical regimes never rise from the left side of politics, so there was no need to mention that possibility.
And even if such a regime did arise, there is no way it would pervert science to help its rise to power. That would be crossing a line.
While I enjoyed the article I was a bit concerned with the original source of ”politicising science”. The trigger moment for the conflict was a podcast by Harris, where he discussed race and IQ with Murray – essentially a political scientist. Murray obviously took his points of view from a particular part of the scientific community emphasising the genetic role of IQ, but he himself did not conduct any research in the field. Taking this into account, Murray himself could be labeled a layman, as his original qualifications are not in this field. In this case he could be perceived as much of a relible source as Ezra. In that case, the conflict should not be perceived as a ”proxy war” between Murray (defended by Harris) and Ezra (defended by the opposing side of the scientific community. It should be perceived as a proxy conflict between the scientists that back… Read more »
Just noticed a mistake – “Nevertheless, they found themselves having to make due with one another.” Should be “make do”.
Postmodernists aren’t good at integrating science and politics, they are only good at subordinating science to politics. The actual scientific achievements of postmodern scientists are zero. There’s no postmodern polio vaccine or postmodern lunar landing or postmodern discovery of the Higgs boson.
The irony of course is that The Bell Curve isn’t really about race, its about class, hence its subtitle (class structure).
Their main arguments are:
a) the best predictor of most successful “life outcomes” is IQ, although of course it is still not a very strong predictor in individual cases.
b) the interests of the cognitive elite (their term) are increasingly coming into line with those of the rich and powerful, which is very bad news for people who belong to neither group.
Or in other words, the ruling classes have co-opted intelligent people, and together they are shafting everybody else.
They wrote this about 25 years ago, and predicted it would get worse. Good job that didn’t happen, then.
Klein’s argument rests on the assumption that any average difference in IQs necessarily mandates discrimination against individuals. This is incorrect on two grounds. One is the obvious fact that statistical differences in group averages aren’t a reliable indicator of individual abilities. Even if there is a statistical difference between two groups you still have to select based on ability. You can’t just think ‘Well, Asians score highly on ability X so I’ll hire an Asian.’ The other thing is that recognising people aren’t all the same doesn’t necessarily lead to discrimination. Having a formal diagnosis of Aspergers might have lead to discrimination in earlier years but now it not only means that learning material is tailored for my cognitive style but that I am now asked for my input into the design of learning material for others with my condition. If IQ tests are culturally biased as critics claim then… Read more »
Just another argument to decide who is in “my tribe” and who is not. Whereas all of humanity is the tribe.
The whole argument rotates around the issue of IQ; and that is pseudoscience, not science.
Thank you, John, for a well-written, coherent view of the Harris/Klein debate. Your point about the politicization of science is spot on. My take away from the Harris podcast-debate with Klein was that Harris felt particularly upset that the Vox article (which I have yet to read) essentially defamed him (and Murray) as a racist, thus rendering any public conversation around the scientific data of IQ (vis-a-vis racial groups) verboten and worthy of the Scarlett Letter ‘R’. Slander tactics only belie weak arguments. Still, your last sentence says it eloquently and is my take-away, too: “Ezra Klein is right to fight for a more equal, more just America. He does not have to politicize science to do it.”
This is more an issue of philosophy than say science, and an extension of the divide between the rationalists/continental school/postmodernists side vs. the empiricist/analyst/evolutionary psych side. This is why I somewhat have to disagree with the author of this post: if science is indeed based on the discovery of truth, and it is indeed true that Race and IQ, more so than any other determinant, dictate the success or failure of a society, then it’s a contradiction in terms, not to somehow apply that to society as a whole. This is inherently why postmodernists are currently winning, because they understand the importance of a. politics and b. more importantly the issue is one of integration as opposed to separation between science and politics. The problem is that even though the postmodernists have awful arguments, the evolutionary psych side seems to be either incoherent or worse evasive, in addressing those matters… Read more »