Ezra Klein: Editor-at-Large

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In April of 2017, I published a podcast with Charles Murray, coauthor of the controversial (and endlessly misrepresented) book The Bell Curve. These are the most provocative claims in the book:

  1. Human “general intelligence” is a scientifically valid concept.
  2. IQ tests do a pretty good job of measuring it.
  3. A person’s IQ is highly predictive of his/her success in life.
  4. Mean IQ differs across populations (blacks < whites < Asians).
  5. It isn’t known to what degree differences in IQ are genetically determined, but it seems safe to say that genes play a role (and also safe to say that environment does too).

At the time Murray wrote The Bell Curve, these claims were not scientifically controversial—though taken together, they proved devastating to his reputation among nonscientists. That remains the case today. When I spoke with Murray last year, he had just been de-platformed at Middlebury College, a quarter century after his book was first published, and his host had been physically assaulted while leaving the hall. So I decided to invite him on my podcast to discuss the episode, along with the mischaracterizations of his research that gave rise to it.

Needless to say, I knew that having a friendly conversation with Murray might draw some fire my way. But that was, in part, the point. Given the viciousness with which he continues to be scapegoated—and, indeed, my own careful avoidance of him up to that moment—I felt a moral imperative to provide him some cover.

In the aftermath of our conversation, many people have sought to paint me as a racist—but few have tried quite so hard as Ezra Klein, Editor-at-Large of Vox. In response to my podcast, Klein published a disingenuous hit piece that pretended to represent the scientific consensus on human intelligence while vilifying me as, at best, Murray’s dupe. More likely, readers unfamiliar with my work came away believing that I’m a racist pseudoscientist in my own right.

After Klein published that article, and amplified its effects on social media, I reached out to him in the hope of appealing to his editorial conscience. I found none. The ethic that governs Klein’s brand of journalism appears to be: Accuse a person with a large platform of something terrible, and then monetize the resulting controversy. If he complains, invite him to respond in your magazine so that he will drive his audience your way and you can further profit from his doomed effort to undo the damage you’ve done to his reputation.

Since then, Klein has kept at it, and he delivered another volley today. I told him that if he continued in this way, I would publish our private email correspondence so that our readers could judge him for themselves. His latest effort has convinced me that I should make good on that promise.

Below is our unedited email exchange. I believe patient readers will learn the following from it: (1) I can still get angry; (2) Klein gave me very good reason to be angry.

The list of prominent people on the Left who are willing to behave unethically in order to silence others continues to grow. If nothing else, readers of this exchange will understand how much harm these people are doing to honest conversation, both in public and in private.

*   *   *

 

NOTE (3/28/18)

Judging from the response to this post on social media, my decision to publish these emails appears to have backfired. I was relying on readers to follow the plot and notice Ezra’s evasiveness and gaslighting (e.g. his denial of misrepresentations and slurs that are in the very article he published). Many people seem to have judged from his politeness that Ezra was the one behaving honestly and ethically. This is frustrating, to say the least.

Many readers seem mystified by the anger I expressed in this email exchange. Why care so much about “criticism” or even “insults”? But this has nothing to do with criticism and insults. What has been accomplished in Murray’s case, and is being attempted in mine, is nothing less than the total destruction of a person’s reputation for the crime of honestly discussing scientific data. Klein published fringe, ideologically-driven, and cherry-picked science as though it were the consensus of experts in the field and declined to publish a far more mainstream opinion in my and Murray’s defense—all to the purpose of tarring us as racists and enablers of racists. This comes at immense personal and social cost. It is also dishonest.

Many readers also fail to see how asymmetrical any debate on this topic is. Whatever I say at this point, no matter how scientifically careful, appears to convey an interest in establishing the truth of racial differences (which I do not have and have criticized in others). Does it matter that Stephen J. Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man was debunked long ago, or that James Flynn now acknowledges that his eponymous effect cannot account for the race-IQ data? No, it doesn’t. This is a moral panic and a no-win situation (and Klein and my other “critics” know that). I did not have Charles Murray on my podcast because I was interested in intelligence differences across races. I had him on in an attempt to correct what I perceived to be a terrible injustice done to an honest scholar. Having attempted that, for better or worse, I will now move on to other topics.

—SH

 

NOTE #2 (3/30/18)

It seems that my declining to do a podcast with Klein has been widely interpreted as my failing to answer serious criticism of my views. Needless to say, I don’t see it that way. But I’m very uncomfortable leaving any significant percentage of my audience with the impression that I’ve dodged a hard conversation, or otherwise shirked an important responsibility.

I’ve put it to a vote on Twitter, and it seems that a majority of podcast listeners want to hear Klein and me discuss these issues (76 percent, with 24,000 votes in). So I’ve changed my mind, and I’m now willing to record a conversation with Klein whenever convenient. If he agrees, I propose we release it unedited, on both our podcasts.

In the meantime, Andrew Sullivan has written an eloquent, accurate, and (unfortunately, I must add) brave response to the controversy:

http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/03/denying-genetics-isnt-shutting-down-racism-its-fueling-it.html

Also, the original version of this post described Klein as Editor-in-Chief at Vox. He is now Editor-at-Large.

—SH

 

NOTE #3 (4/10/18)

I’ve now done two more podcasts on this topic, in the hopes of finally putting it behind me.

The first describes my view of the controversy and my decision to do a podcast with Klein:

#122 – Extreme Housekeeping Edition

The second is a 2-hour conversation with Klein:

#123 – Identity & Honesty

 

Let that suffice.—SH

 

*   *   *

5/19/2017

Hey Sam,

Honestly sorry to meet under these tense conditions. I’m interested in doing the podcast sometime, though I think that if you want to do a discussion deep on intelligence, you should bring on Nisbett, or one of the other experts in the article. I’m not sure how much light will really be shed by you and I debating this subject.

I do want to back up a bit though and try to understand this disagreement better. For what it’s worth, I’m a listener of your podcast, and I heard your interview with Murray when it first came out. I didn’t commission or edit this piece (I only saw it as it went up on the site), but when I read it, it rang true as a commentary on the discussion I had heard, which I found — again, as a listener and admirer of your show — frustrating in places. (Also, apologies in advance for the length of this email — I’m also trying to work my way through this, and it’s a tricky topic!)

I’m perplexed by the criticism, which I’ve seen some make and I think you’re implying, that there actually isn’t much daylight between the case you and Murray present and the one the authors present, and what disagreement exists is a matter of dishonest framing. In your response to me, it’s clear you thought I couldn’t possibly have heard the original discussion to think that this piece was fair, which means I’m either a terrible listener, or the discussion landed differently on some listeners than you think it did, or both.

The overwhelming thrust of your discussion features Murray arguing that racial IQ differences are real, persistent, significant, driven by genetic racial differences (he has a long discourse on how strong that signal must be to make it through the noise of racial mixing), and immune to virtually every intervention we’ve thought of. Yes, there are caveats sprinkled throughout, but there’s also a clear and consistent argument being made, or so it seemed to me. That was, as I understood it, the Forbidden Knowledge referred to in the title: you can’t just wish away the black-white IQ gap as a matter of environment and history and disadvantage.

And these authors are saying, no — racial IQ differences can be seen on tests, but they are mutable, their relationship with genetics is much more complex than Murray lets on (his argument that this would all be genetically understood shortly seems really wrong, given what I’ve seen in this area, and just given how hard we generally find it to untangle genetic relationships in spaces far less complex than intelligence), that we’ve seen both interventions and time create massive differences, that heritable qualities exhibit massive changes all the time, etc.

Another way of putting it is I think the takeaway that one would fairly have from your convo — certainly the takeaway I had — is that the racial IQ gap cannot plausibly be closed, and instead needs to be managed. That’s definitely the Bell Curve takeaway. The central conclusion of this piece, it seems to me, is that we are far, far, far away from being able to conclude that, and the progress made on IQ (and other heritable qualities) in recent generations should make us optimistic, not pessimistic, and deserves much more emphasis than Murray gives it.

The Flynn effect discussion seems significant here. You’re right that the authors could be read to say you didn’t mention the Flynn effect, when you did, and that’s misleading — they’re going to clarify that (and I’m upset that that happened). As I read that paragraph from the authors, they were asking why you didn’t push Murray harder on points like this, which on relistening to the 5 minutes you sent me, I think holds:

One way to put that into perspective is to note that the IQ gap between black and white people today is only about half the gap between America as a whole now and America as a whole in 1948. Murray’s hand-waving about g does not make that extraordinary fact go away.

What they were trying to say, and what I thought when I heard the interview as a listener, is the Flynn effect and some of this other counterevidence was gestured towards as an interesting curiosity with little bearing on the underlying question, rather than used to challenge the narrative and conclusions drawn in the conversation. You do nudge Murray on an interesting quote from Flynn, one that seems to deeply challenge the rest of the discussion, but he just shrugs that he can’t answer it, and you just move on…given the early statements on how much consensus there was around Murray’s views, I found that strange when I heard it the first time, and now.

To the piece’s authors, the Flynn effect, and various other kinds of accelerated IQ changes we’ve seen in different societies, upends the whole discussion, and should make us far less confident about what we’re looking at when we see some of these racialized differences, particularly given the history and culture they come out of. If that’s what you and Murray believe, I can say, in all honesty, it is very much not what I walked away with.

I was very prepared, reading this piece, for Murray and you and others to disagree with it. What’s confused me is the argument that the disagreement is invented, that this is all a misunderstanding. Something here is very off, and I am struggling to figure out what it is. My working theory is that there’s a strong version and a weak version of Murrayism, both are represented in the conversation, but though the strong version is emphasized in the presentation, there’s been a retreat to the weak version upon challenge. But perhaps that’s wrong.

It’s important to me that pieces on Vox fairly represent the arguments they’re assessing. And I recognize that in a 2-hour plus conversation you can find a lot of different arguments, and so people with different priors will hear different things. But if Murray was just saying what these scholars are saying, there would be no massive controversy over his work, in much the way there isn’t a massive controversy over their work. Or to put it differently, you called the podcast Forbidden Knowledge, but nothing Nisbett says is forbidden — he writes books on his views all the time, and I don’t think you would’ve named a podcast with him “Forbidden Knowledge.” So then what’s forbidden here?

For the record, I’m not someone who believes Murray should be exiled from society. I’ve read his books and interviewed and quoted him myself numerous times for pieces. But I don’t think all the controversy around him is simply a misunderstanding or a witch hunt.

Anyway, apologies for the long email. There are various ideas swirling around here about next steps (a podcast with you, the authors writing a follow-up piece, etc), but before I take any of them, I want to make sure I understand what’s going on. And I hope we’re able to chat sometime in less charged circumstances — there are certainly places where I disagree with you, but I’ve learned a lot from your work.

Best,

Ezra

5/21/2017

Ezra —

Yes, I’d prefer meeting under different circumstances too. You and I clearly have a lot to talk about, and most of it has nothing to do with race or IQ.

The conversation I propose we have wouldn’t be narrowly focused on the science of intelligence. I stand by what I said in my intro to the Murray podcast: The science that I claimed was uncontroversial is, in fact, uncontroversial. What I propose we discuss is this atmosphere wherein many otherwise sane and ethical people reliably become obscurantists and attack anyone who demurs as an enemy, fit only to be silenced.

However, I doubt that any such discussion could be had with the authors of the paper you published. It is a shoddy piece of work, and they appear to be part of the moral panic I was describing. Again, my desire to speak with Murray was not based on a prior interest in the genetic basis of intelligence—much less a fascination for racial differences in intelligence. Rather, it was out of my growing concern over how fraught our conversations on politically charged topics have become. The publication of this paper has simply added more fuel to the machinery of defamation that I have been trying to resist.

But for the fact that Vox and your own social media presence have amplified this paper, it would be beneath comment. Consider the following paragraph as emblematic of its quality:

The consensus, he says, is that IQ exists; that it is extraordinarily important to life outcomes of all sorts; that it is largely heritable; and that we don’t know of any interventions that can improve the part that is not heritable. The consensus also includes the observation that the IQs of black Americans are lower, on average, than that of whites, and — most contentiously — that this and other differences among racial groups is based at least in part in genetics.

Read that last phrase again, leaving IQ aside for a moment: Are the authors really suggesting that “other differences” between racial groups are NOT “based at least in part in genetics”? Is it really “most contentious” to say that a person’s skin color “is based at least in part in genetics”? You must see the problem with this sort of writing (and thinking).

I’m not familiar with the other authors, but most of what I’ve seen from Nisbett on the topic of IQ betrays his prior ideological commitments. He knows what he wants the data to say, and he will twist them until he gets the answer he finds consoling. For what it’s worth, I’d much prefer to read the data his way too—it would be far easier, and require absolutely no moral or intellectual courage, to just blame the environment (read: the consequences of persistent inequality and white racism). But I find that impossible. For a critical review of Nisbett’s book, see:

http://laplab.ucsd.edu/articles2/Lee2010.pdf

I’ve responded to a few of your points below:

Hey Sam,

Honestly sorry to meet under these tense conditions. I’m interested in doing the podcast sometime, though I think that if you want to do a discussion deep on intelligence, you should bring on Nisbett, or one of the other experts in the article. I’m not sure how much light will really be shed by you and I debating this subject.

I do want to back up a bit though and try to understand this disagreement better. For what it’s worth, I’m a listener of your podcast, and I heard your interview with Murray when it first came out. I didn’t commission or edit this piece (I only saw it as it went up on the site), but when I read it, it rang true as a commentary on the discussion I had heard, which I found — again, as a listener and admirer of your show — frustrating in places. (Also, apologies in advance for the length of this email — I’m also trying to work my way through this, and it’s a tricky topic!)

I’m perplexed by the criticism, which I’ve seen some make and I think you’re implying, that there actually isn’t much daylight between the case you and Murray present and the one the authors present, and what disagreement exists is a matter of dishonest framing. In your response to me, it’s clear you thought I couldn’t possibly have heard the original discussion to think that this piece was fair, which means I’m either a terrible listener, or the discussion landed differently on some listeners than you think it did, or both.

The overwhelming thrust of your discussion features Murray arguing that racial IQ differences are real, persistent, significant, driven by genetic racial differences (he has a long discourse on how strong that signal must be to make it through the noise of racial mixing), and immune to virtually every intervention we’ve thought of. Yes, there are caveats sprinkled throughout, but there’s also a clear and consistent argument being made, or so it seemed to me. That was, as I understood it, the Forbidden Knowledge referred to in the title: you can’t just wish away the black-white IQ gap as a matter of environment and history and disadvantage.

Yes, it is very hard to wish it away. That doesn’t stop people from trying—and doing their best to destroy the reputations of others in the process.

And these authors are saying, no — racial IQ differences can be seen on tests, but they are mutable, their relationship with genetics is much more complex than Murray lets on (his argument that this would all be genetically understood shortly seems really wrong, given what I’ve seen in this area, and just given how hard we generally find it to untangle genetic relationships in spaces far less complex than intelligence), that we’ve seen both interventions and time create massive differences, that heritable qualities exhibit massive changes all the time, etc.

It is certainly more complex than the straw man the paper’s authors constructed. No one is talking about a single gene for intelligence. And neither I nor Murray denied that environment contributes to the differences we see across groups and between individuals. In fact, we used the same analogy to height that the authors used. Height is highly heritable, but you can surely stunt a person’s (or a whole population’s) growth through malnutrition. So, merely seeing a group of short people, one can’t be sure to what degree environment determined their height. And yet it remains a fact that if a person doesn’t have the genes to be 7 feet tall, he won’t be. It is also utterly uncontroversial to say that while there are many ways to prevent a person from reaching his full intellectual height, if he doesn’t have the genes to be the next Alan Turing, he won’t be that either.

Among the many uncontroversial facts that the Vox paper elides is that once we make environments truly equivalent (equally enriched, stable, motivating, etc.) ANY difference we notice between people (or between groups) will be due to genes. What’s more, we should EXPECT such differences for most things we care about (along with most things we don’t care about). It would be a miracle if the mean value for any heritable trait were precisely the same across two genetically distinct populations, generation after generation. Does this matter? I don’t think so. As Murray and I spelled out repeatedly, we still need to treat people as individuals. This is not an “anodyne” claim meant to conceal our white supremacy (as the authors suggest) but the only ethical and reasonable thing to do. The authors write as though any proven genetic difference in intelligence between races would be morally and politically catastrophic—and so the only remedy is to lie about the state of our knowledge and defame anyone not taken in by these lies as a “racialist” (really “racist) who is peddling “pseudoscience.”

Another way of putting it is I think the takeaway that one would fairly have from your convo — certainly the takeaway I had — is that the racial IQ gap cannot plausibly be closed, and instead needs to be managed. That’s definitely the Bell Curve takeaway. The central conclusion of this piece, it seems to me, is that we are far, far, far away from being able to conclude that, and the progress made on IQ (and other heritable qualities) in recent generations should make us optimistic, not pessimistic, and deserves much more emphasis than Murray gives it.

We didn’t spend much time on social policy, but it depends on what you mean by “managed.” My view (once again) is that people should be treated as individuals. I also think that we should do whatever we can to maximize human intelligence across the board. But doing everything we can to help every person reach his or her full potential will not guarantee that all groups have precisely the same mean IQ. Again, it would be very surprising if this turned out to be the case.

Reflect for a moment, in this context, on how little you or anyone else cares about the data showing that Asians have a higher mean IQ than whites. How do you feel about this? Are you inclined to defame anyone who reports those data? Does this disparity need to be “managed”?

The Flynn effect discussion seems significant here. You’re right that the authors could be read to say you didn’t mention the Flynn effect, when you did, and that’s misleading — they’re going to clarify that (and I’m upset that that happened). As I read that paragraph from the authors, they were asking why you didn’t push Murray harder on points like this, which on relistening to the 5 minutes you sent me, I think holds:

One way to put that into perspective is to note that the IQ gap between black and white people today is only about half the gap between America as a whole now and America as a whole in 1948. Murray’s hand-waving about g does not make that extraordinary fact go away.

What they were trying to say, and what I thought when I heard the interview as a listener, is the Flynn effect and some of this other counterevidence was gestured towards as an interesting curiosity with little bearing on the underlying question, rather than used to challenge the narrative and conclusions drawn in the conversation. You do nudge Murray on an interesting quote from Flynn, one that seems to deeply challenge the rest of the discussion, but he just shrugs that he can’t answer it, and you just move on…given the early statements on how much consensus there was around Murray’s views, I found that strange when I heard it the first time, and now.

There are two points here: how the authors treated me, and how they treated Murray. I used that quote from Flynn in precisely the way they said I neglected to use it, so their attack on me is totally unfair. I now see that you’ve corrected the text, after I called your attention to it on Twitter. But this error was so extraordinarily clumsy on their part that it should be seen as a symptom of an underlying problem. Nisbett et al. are not thinking honestly here or treating the targets of their criticism fairly. Their article betrays an avenging zeal to tarnish reputations and close down discussion. This is not a good-faith search for the truth.

As for Murray’s answer, I agree that it was not very satisfying. And there wasn’t much I could do when he cited work he claimed was over his head statistically, because I was unfamiliar with the work he was referring to. But the authors are simply ignoring the hard case. If Flynn is right, then the mean IQs of African American children who are second- and third-generation upper middle class should have converged with those of the children of upper-middle-class whites, but (as far as I understand) they haven’t. I’m not saying we should do anything with facts like these—indeed, I’m not even saying we should study them—but to spend a quarter of a century trying to destroy the reputation of a careful scholar who merely discussed these issues is morally and intellectually abhorrent.

To the piece’s authors, the Flynn effect, and various other kinds of accelerated IQ changes we’ve seen in different societies, upends the whole discussion, and should make us far less confident about what we’re looking at when we see some of these racialized differences, particularly given the history and culture they come out of. If that’s what you and Murray believe, I can say, in all honesty, it is very much not what I walked away with.

I was very prepared, reading this piece, for Murray and you and others to disagree with it. What’s confused me is the argument that the disagreement is invented, that this is all a misunderstanding. Something here is very off, and I am struggling to figure out what it is.

The thing that is “very off” is the highly moralistic/tribal posture some people take on every topic under the sun, which makes rational conversation on important issues nearly impossible. If we do a podcast, that should be the central topic of conversation.

My working theory is that there’s a strong version and a weak version of Murrayism, both are represented in the conversation, but though the strong version is emphasized in the presentation, there’s been a retreat to the weak version upon challenge. But perhaps that’s wrong.

Actually, there is a real version and a fictional one. Here’s an article on that:

http://quillette.com/2017/03/27/a-tale-of-two-bell-curves/

It’s important to me that pieces on Vox fairly represent the arguments they’re assessing. And I recognize that in a 2-hour plus conversation you can find a lot of different arguments, and so people with different priors will hear different things. But if Murray was just saying what these scholars are saying, there would be no massive controversy over his work, in much the way there isn’t a massive controversy over their work. Or to put it differently, you called the podcast Forbidden Knowledge, but nothing Nisbett says is forbidden — he writes books on his views all the time, and I don’t think you would’ve named a podcast with him “Forbidden Knowledge.” So then what’s forbidden here?

For the record, I’m not someone who believes Murray should be exiled from society. I’ve read his books and interviewed and quoted him myself numerous times for pieces. But I don’t think all the controversy around him is simply a misunderstanding or a witch hunt.

The thrust of the Vox piece is to distort Murray’s clearly stated thesis: He doesn’t know how much of interracial IQ difference is genetic and how much is environmental, and he suspects that both are involved. His strongest claim is that given the data, it’s very hard to believe that it’s 100 percent environmental. This could be said about almost any human trait. Would you want to bet that anything significant about you is 100 percent environmental? I would take the other side of that bet any day, as would any other honest scientist. (The truth is, it’s not even clear what it means to say that something is 100 percent environmental. All the environment can interact with is our genes and their products.)

Many well-known scientists, academics, and public intellectuals have privately celebrated my podcast with Murray and bemoaned how he’s been treated all these years, but they won’t go on the record about it because they don’t want their names dragged through the mud. Needless to say, I find their attitude increasingly understandable.

This problem, of course, is much bigger than what has been done to Murray. It connects with the problem of “fake news” and the horrible emergence of Trumpistan, from which we all now seek an escape. I suspect that a podcast would give us the opportunity to shed some light on these wider issues as well.

However, I’m mindful of the fact that further discussion with you on these topics runs the risk of conveying the wrong impression: that I have a special interest in the study of racial difference. As I hope I’ve made clear, I do not. And I share many of the social concerns that lead you and your authors to think the topic best left unexplored. But, as biology advances, we are bound to discover more facts about ourselves that are politically charged in this way. Everything turns on how we treat one another when this happens. And the truth is that, on this occasion, you, Nisbett, et al. have treated Murray and me rather badly.

Sam

Anyway, apologies for the long email. There are various ideas swirling around here about next steps (a podcast with you, the authors writing a follow-up piece, etc), but before I take any of them, I want to make sure I understand what’s going on. And I hope we’re able to chat sometime in less charged circumstances — there are certainly places where I disagree with you, but I’ve learned a lot from your work.

Best,

Ezra

Hi Sam,

Appreciate the thoughtful reply. Reading it, it appears to me that there are two questions at issue here, and part of the confusion is we’re focused on different ones:

  1. A dispute over the quality of and consensus about the science Murray discusses and the conclusions drawn from that science
  2. Whether the article we published was part of some “machinery of defamation,” or in Heier’s terms, whether it framed the conversation “as inherently racist and malevolent.”

I’ve read your reply to me a few times, and gone back to read the article itself a few times (and after drafting this note earlier last night, read the Haier piece you forwarded a few times). I think part of the problem here is that the authors of the piece believe the debate is about question one. In that case, the article published makes sense and, in my view, is pretty well within the boundaries of acceptable discourse: It is respectful of you and your show in general, it takes a strong stand in favor of the idea that Murray should be allowed to speak, it asserts that the proper response to Murray is debate, it is arguing interpretation of the science and the implications of that science, etc. It just disagrees, strongly, that Murray is right on the merits, and that your interview was a sufficient tour of the issue.

On any other issue, I don’t think a piece framed like this one, whether you agree with it or not, would seem shocking. What people asked, post-Middlebury, was that there be debate on these issues. This is debate. Indeed, I was surprised to read you say that the authors are trying to silence Murray, because they pretty explicitly end with an argument against silencing Murray.

But your view, as I understand it, is that there really is no valid dispute here, or at least no valid dispute the article brings up. In that case, the relevant question is number two. This is a moral panic, an effort to silence, a refusal to follow where the evidence goes, an issue where people lose their critical faculties and fall into a braindead feel-goodism, etc. In some ways, which side of the debate you fall on seems to be taken here as a test of legitimacy: The academics who agree with you are taken seriously, whereas you dismiss someone like Nisbett, who has done a lot of research in this space, very quickly.

Reading the debate here, I am convinced #1 remains valid. Even within your email, I think there’s much you underplay in their piece, or interpret ungenerously. Your point, for instance, about a world with equal environments being a world in which the remaining differences are genetic seems correct to me — but where you see it as a point they miss, I read it is a central argument in their piece, and a hinge of the debate. We are so far from that world, and there is so much that environment has already appeared to do to IQ, that the strength of the conclusions drawn by Murray seems unfounded.

Similarly, the point about middle-class African American families reads the same to me — we know, for instance, that African American families masking $100,000 a year tend to live in neighborhoods with the same income demographics as white families making $30k a year, which is a reminder of how far our society is from offering equality even as incomes rise. (Interestingly, Malcolm Gladwell relays a debate between Flynn and Murray where Flynn makes basically this case, perhaps in a way that is clearer.)

All that said, one of my rules as an editor is that if people don’t understand why you disagree, then that fault is always at least partly on you, and so this exchange has persuaded me it would be good to have the authors revisit their argument in a clearer way.

Which brings me to the podcast. I really think that core discussion over the scientific dispute here is the important one, and I don’t want to present myself as the best person to have it. So to the extent I can persuade you that the disagreement is legitimate and good faith, I still think an actual expert in this field would be a better guest than me. The Heier note and Flynn piece only underscores the point: there are clearly experts on both sides of this, and I think there is something in the non-Murray side’s presentation you are having trouble hearing as serious, or as honest, and I think finding the boundaries of that disagreement would be the most interesting and enlightening conversation here. I am not a race and IQ expert and don’t play one on podcasts, so I don’t want to be the other side of that debate.

That said, if you want to do a broader discussion on how these questions are covered, on issues of motivated reasoning in charged debate, and perhaps on the broader political climate (including Trump), I’m open to it. I’d need a few weeks to get to a lull in the current pace of Trump news (assuming there ever is a lull in Trump news), and get through a bit of travel. But I think there’s a lot we could talk about, and it would be a fun conversation.

I guess one thing I’d want to be sure of is that while I recognize we disagree, I’m interested in this as an opportunity to build some understanding — I’d like to try to give you a better sense of why I think some of your criticisms of coverage around these charged questions (not just Murray, but to some degree, the broader climate of questions that get dismissed as PC nonsense) misses some points, as I’m sure you want to give me a better sense of why you see the coverage as unfair and un-empirical. But to the extent this would be some kind of showdown where we prep to humiliate each other and score points around IQ science, I’d prefer to avoid that, as on these issues, I’m really not the right person to represent the other side of it.

So those are my thoughts! Let me know.

5/24/2017

I’m not quite sure what to do with this, Ezra. It’s very hard for me to believe you see it this way. Your own framing of the piece on social media — calling Murray “dangerous” and my singling him out as a free speech case “disastrous”— belies most of what you’ve written here. As do many things in the Nisbett piece.

As a point of comparison, you can see how Siddhartha Mukherjee handled Murray in his book The Gene, and in my most recent podcast with him. As I told Mukherjee, I don’t think he was fair to Murray, and I think he is bending too far in his definition of “intelligence,” but the discussion was far more respectful and balanced (and honest) than what you published in Vox.

Why not publish Haier’s rebuttal? His presentation of the science is far more mainstream that Nisbett’s (or Mukherjee’s, for that matter).

Sam

5/25/2017

Hmmm. Given this thread, I’m not sure much more will be accomplished with another long email trying to explain where I’m coming from on this. I’m genuinely sorry you see my views as inconsistent and the piece as less than honest — I obviously disagree, but at this point, I don’t think this is a position I can dislodge you from.

This is clearly an important debate, and one I expect we’ll revisit on the site in different ways, and with different authors. Our Big Idea section, which is where the initial piece was pitched and published, is always open to pitches, including from Haier.

As I said at the start of this conversation, I disagree with you on this issue, and regret that I couldn’t persuade you your critics are operating in good faith, but I’ve enjoyed your podcast, and sometime, I hope we get the opportunity to interact in a less charged, and more friendly, space.

Best,

Ezra

5/26/2017

Hey Sam,

Just heard your call-out to me in your podcast. In your last email to me, it had seemed like you moved away from the idea of the podcast — at least that was my impression, as you didn’t mention my offer to schedule it, and instead asked for another remedy — but perhaps I misunderstood. But given the public challenge, and the heat with which it was delivered, I think this is something that makes sense to do.

Since we both have podcasts and audiences that would be interested in this discussion, I think what makes the most sense is to dual record (or we can record, if it’s easier — we have dedicated staff for it, and I know you’ve said before that the logistics are a pain for you) and we can both release it, if we so choose. Who’s the best person on your end to connect my producer with to set up dates and work through technical questions?

5/27/2017

Ezra—

Well, that podcast intro was recorded after our first volley. You have begun to seem far less reasonable on this issue in the meantime. If I spoke about it publicly now, there would be much more heat.

I’m always up for having hard conversations on my podcast, but I do my best to avoid boring ones. And I worry that we run the risk of boring our listeners, because our disagreement is centered on a text. We can’t keep going back and reading the relevant passages aloud.

And we appear to be at a total stalemate. Here are two things that you seem to deny, which I think are not debatable (at all):

  1. You published an article (and tweets) that directly attacked my intellectual integrity. At a minimum, you claimed that I was taken in by Murray, because I didn’t know enough of the relevant science. Consequently, we peddled “junk science” or “pseudoscience” on my podcast.
  2. You published an article (and tweets) that directly attacked my moral integrity. Murray is “dangerous,” and my treating him as a free speech case is “disastrous.” We are “racialists” (this is scarcely a euphemism for “racist”). There is no way to read that article (or your tweets) without concluding that Murray and I are unconscionably reckless (if not actually bad) people.

In your email, you seem to deny both these points—but they are not deniable. What’s more, you have declined to publish a truly expert opinion (from Richard Haier) that rebuts both of them—as though Vox has suddenly run out of pixels. I don’t know how we will have a productive conversation if you are going to stonewall me on these points.

The article you published will stay online until the end of time, damaging my and Murray’s reputations. I have seen it circulated by otherwise intelligent people as though it were the definitive takedown of us—where it is a dishonest, ideological, and sanctimonious cherry picking of the available evidence. Needless to say, I find this very annoying. But inflicting a bad podcast on the world isn’t the remedy.

And, as I believe I said in a previous email, there is a further liability in my continuing to talk about this with you: it can’t help but convey the sense that I am committed to establishing (or am at least interested in) differences between races. To spend any more time on my podcast reminding the world that blacks and whites perform differently on IQ tests can’t help but make me look bad. So, if we were going to have a conversation, it would have to be at a level higher than debating the science. There really isn’t much science to debate: Certain things are clear, others are still opaque. But as far as the current consensus goes, Haier is mainstream (and Nisbett isn’t). Again, I’ve been contacted by people who are far more famous than Haier, who won’t go on the record because of how poisonous this atmosphere is. You have now played a role in making it so.

So it would really be a conversation about public conversation—publishing, politically-charged debate, moral panics, scapegoating, free speech, click bait, etc.—not about intelligence and race. But I would need to receive a reasonable response to this email in order to attempt it. Otherwise, life is too short…

Sam

5/28/2017

Hi Sam,

We do disagree on the underlying text here. Without belaboring the points, the authors didn’t call you a white supremacist, or imply you were one, as you suggested in your podcast. They didn’t call you a racialist, much less a racist. To the extent any motivating lens was suggested for your discussion, it is “a reflexive defense of free academic inquiry,” and a post-Middlebury concern over “liberal intolerance” — hardly the most malign intentions.

I won’t waste your time by re-summarizing the substance of the dispute from my perspective. Suffice to say, if you share my view of the substance, then of course it’s a problem if endorsing Murrayism becomes a way for people to signal intellectual courage. This is, I think, a view you would recognize easily in another context: You’ve often criticized liberals — and I think you now believe this about me — for holding incorrect opinions about various matters for reasons of virtue signaling, and you’ve often outlined the dangers inherent in that.

This has been frustrating on both sides, and I’m sorry for it. I wish it had gone differently. The impasse we’re at is you’ve repeatedly publicly challenged me, rather than the experts your disagreement is really with, to do a podcast on this topic. I’ve agreed to do it, and remain open to doing it. If that’s no longer your preference, that’s fine with me — we can say that I accepted, but after emailing, we decided it wouldn’t be a productive conversation, or I was not the right counterpart to debate the underlying science with you. Just let me know your preference.

Hope you’re having a great weekend,

Ezra

5/28/2017

Ezra—

Perhaps some of this is due to the weakness of email as a channel of communication, but I find your responses increasingly flabbergasting. The authors didn’t call me a “racialist”? They describe my conversation with Murray as “pseudoscientific racialist speculation.” On your reading, this must be an example of them not calling me a “pseudoscientist” either.

We seem to disagree about everything at this point, including the nature of our impasse. My main grievance isn’t with Nisbett et al.—again I consider their article so weak that I would never have considered responding to it, but for the fact that you published it and tweeted about it. No, my grievance is with you as a publisher. Clearly, you’re the right person to debate the ethics of publishing articles like this, but I think you’re probably right that it’s unlikely to be a productive conversation. The only question is whether it would be interesting to listen to. It might be.

In any case, assuming we’re not doing a podcast, there’s one thing I need to know: Why aren’t you publishing Haier’s response (if, in fact, you aren’t)?

Sam

5/28/2017

The paragraphs you are citing are, as far as I can tell, these:

We hope we have made it clear that a realistic acceptance of the facts about intelligence and genetics, tempered with an appreciation of the complexities and gaps in evidence and interpretation, does not commit the thoughtful scholar to Murrayism in either its right-leaning mainstream version or its more toxically racialist forms. We are absolute supporters of free speech in general and an open marketplace of ideas on campus in particular, but poorly informed scientific speculation should nevertheless be called out for what it is. Protest, when founded on genuine scientific understanding, is appropriate; silencing people is not. 

The left has another lesson to learn as well. If people with progressive political values, who reject claims of genetic determinism and pseudoscientific racialist speculation, abdicate their responsibility to engage with the science of human abilities and the genetics of human behavior, the field will come to be dominated by those who do not share those values. 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.

If you believe that you are endorsing “the more toxically racialist” forms of this argument, rather than the right-leaning mainstream version – which is not my interpretation of you — then I guess that “pseudoscientific racial speculation” could apply to you. But this simply is not calling you a racialist or white supremacist.

I agree email isn’t getting us any closer to a productive resolution here. The editor of the Big Idea section has his own thoughts about how to continue addressing these questions. I forwarded him Haier’s email, but he’s under no more obligation to print it than you are to have Nisbett on your show. In terms of the podcast, happy to do it or not do it, just let me know.

Best, Ezra

Ezra—

Well, you do not cease to amaze… “Junk science” is in the title of the article, and I “fell for it” (subtitle), because I didn’t do my homework (the thrust of the entire piece). Whereas in reality, you have been shown ample evidence that the science is mainstream, that I represented it accurately, and that your authors were cherry-picking it for ideological reasons.

And Vox is under no more obligation to print Haier’s rebuttal than I am to have Nisbett on my show? That strikes you as an apt comparison? I didn’t write an article about Nisbett packed with falsehoods, and outside experts haven’t contacted me to complain about it. Really, Ezra, intellectual integrity doesn’t need to be this hard…

How can you pretend to be unaware of the way Vox has tarred Murray and me? Consider this passage:

The conviction that groups of people differ along important behavioral dimensions because of racial differences in their genetic endowment is an idea with a horrific recent history. Murray and Harris pepper their remarks with anodyne commitments to treating people as individuals, even people who happen to come from genetically benighted groups. But the burden of proof is surely on them to explain how the modern program of race science differs from the ones that have justified policies that inflicted great harm.

The word “anodyne” makes sense only if you assume that our commitment to political equality is insincere and that we are, in fact, advancing a program of racial discrimination. And what are those “programs of race science” that have “justified policies that inflicted great harm”? Surely we’re in the company of the Nazis now. Apparently “the burden of proof is on [us]” to establish that we’re not genocidal racists! But by your account, this is all a reasoned debate about the science.

Throughout this exchange, you’ve dodged every substantive point I’ve raised. What’s more, you continue to ignore the context in which you published that defamatory piece. Nisbett et al. say that Murray “was recently denied a platform at Middlebury College. Students shouted him down, and one of his hosts was hurt in a scuffle.” This is an obscenely euphemistic way to describe what actually happened. Hurt in a scuffle? A professor received a neck injury and a concussion. The car in which she and Murray fled was smashed with a stop sign still attached to part of the sidewalk from which it had been wrested. Murray was set upon by a mob—at Middlebury.

And while we’ve been having this exchange, fresh instances of such madness have emerged. Consider the case of the biologist Bret Weinstein:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2017/05/26/professor-told-hes-not-safe-on-campus-after-college-protests-at-evergreen-state-university-washington/?utm_medium=twitter&utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_term=.d07a3abdbc76

He wrote an email as devoid of racism as yours to me have been—and now he has a mob of imbeciles howling for his head. This breakdown of civil society is the product of precisely the sort of intellectual dishonesty that you and Vox are now peddling—and yet, as you’ve been at pains to demonstrate, your editorial conscience remains clear.

Well, if you really believe that you have treated Murray and me fairly, and that you have been reasoning honestly throughout this exchange, why don’t we publish it? I’m confident that any reader who takes the time to follow the plot will draw the right conclusions.

Sam

Hi Sam,

I’m done arguing this article over email with you. It isn’t productive. You challenged me to do a podcast with you. If that’s still operative, please tell me who my producer should contact to set it up. If you’re rescinding the invitation, please tell me so I can tell the people asking me to go on the podcast that that’s what happened. If I don’t hear from you today, I’ll assume it’s the latter.

Thanks.

Ezra–

You’re right—this email exchange has been unproductive. And a podcast would be even less so. But I believe I detect your main concern: You want to be able to say that you didn’t back down from a challenge. In fact, that appears to be such a priority for you, you’d be willing to do a podcast, wasting more of our time as well as that of our listeners, if only I decide we should. Given how you’ve conducted yourself thus far, that strikes me as the professional equivalent of a suicide bombing.

You’ve dodged and stonewalled throughout this conversation, and while that is tiresome in print, it would be excruciating in a podcast. So I’m cutting both our losses now by rescinding my invitation (and declining yours). You can represent that fact however you wish. But if you put the onus on me and spin it to your advantage, I will be forced to publish this email exchange, showing people exactly why I think a podcast with you would be a painful waste of time.

Is it safe to assume that you don’t want this exchange published? (You’ll notice that you dodged that point too.) I can understand why you wouldn’t. However, unlike a podcast, it requires no more of our time, and it could be presented in a way that wouldn’t make any false promises to our audience. While neither of us was writing for publication (the typos attest to that), I believe our failure to converge, even slightly, has educational value.

Let’s leave it here: Unless I hear from you, I won’t publish it, and we can go our separate ways. However, I’ve noticed that you tend to see symmetries where none exist, so let me be clear about what happened here: You and Vox publicly attacked my reputation, and in ways that even you have been forced to acknowledge weren’t warranted (e.g. the Flynn effect). You have also neglected to do something trivially easy that could help set the record straight (publish Haier’s piece). In the aftermath, we’ve both wasted an impressive amount of time sorting through the rubble. You should be under no illusions that our grievances against one another are the same.

You’ve proven to be someone who is better spoken about than spoken to. However, if you want to encourage me to stop speaking about you, here is what I recommend: Tell people that after a long email exchange, it became obvious to both of us that a podcast would be pointless… and then stop publishing libelous articles about me.

Sam

 

NOTE (3/28/18)

Judging from the response to this post on social media, my decision to publish these emails appears to have backfired. I was relying on readers to follow the plot and notice Ezra’s evasiveness and gaslighting (e.g. his denial of misrepresentations and slurs that are in the very article he published). Many people seem to have judged from his politeness that Ezra was the one behaving honestly and ethically. This is frustrating, to say the least.

Many readers seem mystified by the anger I expressed in this email exchange. Why care so much about “criticism” or even “insults”? But this has nothing to do with criticism and insults. What has been accomplished in Murray’s case, and is being attempted in mine, is nothing less than the total destruction of a person’s reputation for the crime of honestly discussing scientific data. Klein published fringe, ideologically-driven, and cherry-picked science as though it were the consensus of experts in the field and declined to publish a far more mainstream opinion in my and Murray’s defense—all to the purpose of tarring us as racists and enablers of racists. This comes at immense personal and social cost. It is also dishonest.

Many readers also fail to see how asymmetrical any debate on this topic is. Whatever I say at this point, no matter how scientifically careful, appears to convey an interest in establishing the truth of racial differences (which I do not have and have criticized in others). Does it matter that Stephen J. Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man was debunked long ago, or that James Flynn now acknowledges that his eponymous effect cannot account for the race-IQ data? No, it doesn’t. This is a moral panic and a no-win situation (and Klein and my other “critics” know that). I did not have Charles Murray on my podcast because I was interested in intelligence differences across races. I had him on in an attempt to correct what I perceived to be a terrible injustice done to an honest scholar. Having attempted that, for better or worse, I will now move on to other topics.

—SH

 

NOTE #2 (3/30/18)

It seems that my declining to do a podcast with Klein has been widely interpreted as my failing to answer serious criticism of my views. Needless to say, I don’t see it that way. But I’m very uncomfortable leaving any significant percentage of my audience with the impression that I’ve dodged a hard conversation, or otherwise shirked an important responsibility.

I’ve put it to a vote on Twitter, and it seems that a majority of podcast listeners want to hear Klein and me discuss these issues (76 percent, with 24,000 votes in). So I’ve changed my mind, and I’m now willing to record a conversation with Klein whenever convenient. If he agrees, I propose we release it unedited, on both our podcasts.

In the meantime, Andrew Sullivan has written an eloquent, accurate, and (unfortunately, I must add) brave response to the controversy:

http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/03/denying-genetics-isnt-shutting-down-racism-its-fueling-it.html

Also, the original version of this post described Klein as Editor-in-Chief at Vox. He is now Editor-at-Large.

—SH

 

NOTE #3 (4/10/18)

I’ve now done two more podcasts on this topic, in the hopes of finally putting it behind me.

The first describes my view of the controversy and my decision to do a podcast with Klein:

#122 – Extreme Housekeeping Edition

The second is a 2-hour conversation with Klein:

#123 – Identity & Honesty

 

Let that suffice.—SH

 

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