Sam Harris and Ezra Klein venture within nano-metres of the gaslighting event-horizon

As I tweeted:

I was gripped by this 2 hour intellectual brawl

Would Ezra articulate compelling reasons for Sam Harris to rise to self-reflection?

Or would Sam keep him at bay with his magic “I’m just after timeless scientific truth that scales” wand?

Anyway, you may not be as fascinated by this as I am, by the limits of human explanation and comprehensibility as the interlocutors move ever closer to the gaslighting event-horizon, but if you’re half as fascinated as I am you’ll listen. And you’ll tell us all what you thought.

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Ingolf Eide
5 years ago

Hi Nicholas,

My first thought was they could have packed it into half an hour without losing much, other than the confirmation that both love talking!

More seriously, it was interesting but, for me at least, mostly as an illustration of how two smart people can relentlessly talk past each other. If I had to assign blame for that failure, Klein would be the marginal loser. He struck me as more ideological, and also as pretty judgemental under all his “reasonableness”.

Still, it’s probably also true that Harris made a fatal error in not emphatically agreeing at once that in the interview with Murray he should have zeroed in on the critical question of how multi-generational environmental influences can affect IQ. That seems to me the keystone of this whole issue; without rigourous and ongoing study trying to probe that question, isn’t it mostly hot air and conjecture? Seems to me Harris would also have been wise to acknowledge that Murray comes to the subject with an agenda. One can argue about whether it’s right or wrong but I got the impression his interest is not purely a dispassionately scientific one. I’m ready to be corrected on this point, not having listened to the interview or read anything other than a few superficial summaries of Murray’s writings.

Mike Waller
Mike Waller
5 years ago

Courtesy of the high tension build up, full of possibility of mutual enlightenment for the first 20ish minutes but thence into Oozlum Bird territory. Neither came out of the conversation with much credit. Tend to go with Ingolf’s critique of the protagonists’ relative performances. Harris is clearly very upset by the flaming he received following the Murray interview, something which (perhaps understandably) compromised his oft claimed objectivity. In all, certainly not one of his better Waking Up podcasts, which I generally find interesting and enlightening.

5 years ago

What an absolutely depressing listen. I’m a longtime lurker and it’s stirred me out of the shadows. Thanks.

I think Klein’s arguments were stronger than Harris’s, but he spent too much time psychoanalysing Harris (actually both spent too much time on each other’s supposed motives).

It’s clear that Harris actually has quite a naive view of how scientific knowledge advances, and that he hasn’t seriously engaged with the criticisms of Murray. Most of Murray’s critics, including Klein, do not dispute the data that show IQ differences across different groups. It’s the conclusions he draws from that data which are under fire. Harris’s repeated insistence that Murray is simply stating scientific findings demonstrates a failure to see the distinction.

Harris seems to passionately want a spirited public debate about Murray’s ideas. However whenever one of Murray’s ideas is discussed it seems to fall neatly into one of two categories: either it’s “a proven scientific fact and challenging its validity is dishonest and irrational” … or it’s “one of Murray’s personal opinions and therefore completely irrelevant to his scientific findings and bringing it up is bad faith and ad hominem and shame on you”.

Harris repeatedly brings up an undisprovable counterfactual where Ezra Klein would have been outraged at the scientists for discovering that Africans have neanderthal DNA instead of Europeans. It seems like a weak point to keep bringing up, other than that it carries the unspoken implication that Murray’s findings are just as scientific and legitimate. (That’s what you call begging the question.)

I can still remember reading ‘The Bell Curve’ for myself as an undergraduate, not even knowing about the controversy, and being shocked at the way the authors slide from fairly dry statistics to fairly monstrous conclusions, as if they were just the natural corollary. Here’s a beautiful quote from ‘The Bell Curve’ (which I’ve pulled tonight from Wikipedia). As Harris points out, this is definitely not part of a tradition of racist thought:

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.

Just a scientist doing science.

For a critique of Murray’s work that doesn’t pull punches like Klein does, I’d suggest this Current Affairs article.

Ingolf Eide
5 years ago

I found it a touch depressing too,Phutatorius. Or perhaps more accurately tiresome.

As you say, they spent far too much time and energy playing for points against each other. Early on, like Mike, I thought it showed promise but it soon became apparent that neither was really focused on the topic itself. At least not during this encounter. They badly needed to agree on the broad parameters of their differences, something they never really did. They made attempts from time to time, Harris slightly more than Klein in my view, but never nailed things down and so the whole thing became a sort of déjà vu all over again, with increasing pique.

It’s not a topic I’ve devoted much thought to but as far as I can tell from this podcast it’s made up of three relatively distinct levels: the actual IQ data; the need to puzzle out what that means and how it came to be so; and finally, the policy consequences, if any. The first doesn’t seem in dispute and the last, in my view, ought to be a separate conversation. It’s subjective and contentious and in any case probably naturally cuts across racial lines. After all, as one (or perhaps both) noted, the variation within races is far greater in the variation between races, whatever its cause.

No, presuming it’s a conversation worth having at all it seems to me it ought to focus on the second point. What do these race-based differences in IQ actually mean, and what sort of factors go into creating them? That discussion, if they brought their best game to it, could have been really interesting. Perhaps even illuminating.