Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Sam Harris and Ezra Klein on intelligence and race

Recently atheist activist Sam Harris and journalist Ezra Klein had a discussion about intelligence and race. The background is that Harris had Charles Murray, the author of The Bell Curve, as a guest on his podcast, Klein's Vox site published an article critical of that interview, and Harris felt that that article was unfair.

Having read through the transcript of Harris' and Klein's conversation, I must say that it went reasonably well, considering the topic. Harris' discussion with Noam Chomsky, for example, was much worse, as his first argument went completely over Harris' head, and they just went in circles from that moment on.

The frustrating thing is that at the bottom of what Harris is trying to argue there are quite a few ideas that are valid. Yes, scientific results should be accepted for what they are instead of being pushed aside for fear of being politically incorrect. But his otherwise reasonable points are completely overshadowed by his tendency to make it all about how mean his critics are to him for calling him biased and his inability to see that making it all about how his critics are mean to him while bracketing out how this discussion fits into its historical and political context in the United States is his own unacknowledged bias at work.

What is in my eyes particularly ironic, however, is that while Harris makes it all about how unfair his critics are, he argues at the same time that the science should be the focus. So I tried to have an eye on how the scientific evidence was discussed, and as far as I can tell it seemed to go as follows:

Klein sometimes brings up evidence that shows that intelligence (as measured by IQ or similar tests, which is another whole can of worms) is strongly influenced by the environmental conditions under which somebody grows up, e.g. when children from disadvantaged backgrounds are adopted by affluent families, and cites, by name, relevant scientists who argue that at the very least there is at this moment no evidence yet for any significant genetically determined IQ difference between groups. (And I have no idea where such evidence could even potentially come from, unless there is behind this the usual misunderstanding of what heritability means.) Harris never addresses those arguments, as far as I can tell. His counter-arguments appear to be:

(1) "genes are involved for basically every[thing]". But that is so trivially true as to be meaningless. Genes are involved for the development of fingers, still there are no differences in the number of fingers between different populations. And even if we are talking about traits that vary, it gets us nowhere, because it doesn't necessarily follow that the genes determine more than, say, 5% of the variation. And even if intelligence is strongly heritable it says nothing about significant differences between groups either, as he readily admits that variation within is much stronger than between.

(2) Then there is Harris' sports example, where he says that West Africans dominate certain running sports. He argues "if you have populations that have their means slightly different genetically, 80 percent of a standard deviation difference, you’re going to see massive difference in the tail ends of the distribution, where you could have 100-fold difference in the numbers of individuals who excel at the 99.99 percent level". Now I get that this might be a valid argument to explain the underrepresentation of a group with a hypothetically slightly lower mean at excelling at the >99.9% level under the Utopian assumption of complete equality of opportunity, but then we would be talking about Field Medal winners or Nobel laureates. As an explanation for lower societal achievement on average, i.e. why members of a group are vastly overrepresented in prisons and have vastly lower household wealth than the majority, it is a non-starter and thus irrelevant to the discussion from the get-go.

(3) Harris cites unnamed scientists who, he says, do not want to have their names published because of fear of being called racist, but who are said to agree with him. Not knowing who they are one is, of course, unable to confirm what they said or meant as well as to assess their qualifications, their potential agendas and biases, and if they are even from a relevant field of research. (Note that according to Wikipedia Charles Murray, with whom that whole discussion started, is a "political scientist, author, and columnist" working for a conservative think tank. That is, he is not an expert in the areas of population genetics, human cognitive development, comparative assessments, or any other field of relevance.)

I find that a bit disappointing. For all Harris' claims that the science is clearly on Charles Murray's side, it rather looks to me as if his argumentation runs simply as follows: There are differences in IQ between groups, and these differences must obviously have a genetic component, because everything has a genetic component. And that's it, at least as far as one can tell from the conversation with Klein.


  1. >But his otherwise reasonable points are completely overshadowed by his tendency to make it all about how mean his critics are to him for calling him biased

    We all have bias. That's not waht Harris complained about. He complained about being characterized as racist. But for you to downplay such a crucial and obvious aspect of this argument, suggests some strong bias on your behalf. To the extent that I'm inclined to interpret most of what you you write after that as largely the byproduct of misinformation.

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    2. Hm. I just reread the Vox piece that Harris found unfair, and I am not sure I can even see where he is characterised as racist. The authors go out of their way to characterise him as a critical thinker who may have overlooked how weak Murray's case is. In fact they argue a lot of the same things about how one needs to freely and objectively discuss the science that Harris argued.