Some weeks ago I stumbled upon a link to a collection of emails between Sam Harris and Ezra Klein. The two argued about an article that Klein’s site Vox had published in response to Harris’s podcast with controversial political scientist Charles Murray. While starting relatively well, it got worse. Whatever good will was there in the beginning had run out by the end, spent on failed attempts to get on the same page.
This sort of thing happens a lot, of course, but this was special: two intelligent, rational authors baffled about each other’s behavior in a disastrous misunderstanding regarding a complex, controversial issue. Thousands of words result, just counting that email exchange.
How disagreement works is my main theme on this blog, so of course this shit is catnip to me. I just had to look into it. I did and I’ve been obsessing about it ever since. Hence this 9,000 word article, cut down from twice as much material.
I came away from the email conversation with the impression that Harris got unhinged and retracted his invitation to have Klein come on his podcast for no good reason. And he had released this exchange himself, obviously thinking people would take his side and it’d reflect badly on Klein. That’s not what happened. Many thought Harris came off as the unreasonable party (and I can certainly see that). It’s quite remarkable how he could be so convinced that publishing the exchange would be primarily embarrasing for Klein. His anger also seemed out of character; I’ve listened to a few of his podcasts and he comes off as well-reasoned, balanced and rational. Nonetheless he appears to be the one responsible for the conversation deteriorating somewhere in the middle. Why this reaction from him? To find out one has to trace the conversation backwards.
He accuses Klein and the Vox article authors of slandering him and Murray. A “hit job” he says. I went back to read it. It didn’t exactly come off as a hit job to me, despite some inflammatory word choices. It seemed at least OK, if slanted in a normal-yet-regrettable journalistic fashion. So I realized this wasn’t enough. I’d have to listen to the two-hour-plus podcast too.
After that I thought that the validity of Murrays research is a big part of the disagreement. Ideally, in order to do this properly, I’d have to read Murray’s controversial book The Bell Curve, and after that all the research cited in it and all research on the topic as a whole, before and after.
I’m not going to that because it would be insane. Instead I’ll focus on the difference between Harris and Klein in how they see the issue and what caused the catastrophic breakdown of communication between them.
It’s worth pausing to note that the first draft of this article was written before Harris and Klein did a podcast together to discuss their spat. I was surprised at how quickly they arranged it and thought, hell no, now everything I’ve written might go down the drain because it won’t be relevant after the podcast clears things up. That’s not quite what happened. Some things did get less relevant and the target of some well-needed editing, but no one who’s heard their conversation can think they wrapped everything up. Some new information did come out which made me update some parts and write some new ones.
There have been a LOT of Discoursing on this whole affair and I haven’t been able to keep up with all the third party takes, response articles and the responses to their responses, but I read the emails a number of times, I read the Vox article by Eric Turkheimer, Paige Harden and Richard Nesbitt (“THN” from now on) a number of times as well, some responses to it, Klein’s articles etc. I’ve listened to the Harris-Murray podcast three times, Harris’s “Housekeeping” podcast once and the final Harris-Klein podcast twice.
Whew. Maybe I am insane. It’s just that if you’re interested in the philosophical, sociological and psychological underpinnings of disagreement this whole affair is the equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet that never closes.
It’s impossible to discuss all of it. Every single paragraph of the correspondence, the article it refers to, the final podcast and and the relevant parts of the Murray conversation deserve exegesis. But this is a blog post, not a book-length erisology dissertation. No matter how much I want to dissect hundreds of individual passages, I’ll by pure necessity focus on describing this conflict at a higher level of abstraction. I’ll interpret, compress and narrativize even though that’s the habit that got everyone into this mess in the first place. There’s no other way.
Occasionally I’ll speculate about what Harris and Klein are thinking. I want to stress that I don’t necessarily mean this literally. I’ll construct representations of them that embody opposing perspectives, and use them as tools to showcase various disagreements. This might sometimes overinterpret them or assign them opinions they don’t actually hold, and for that I apologize in advance and hope that the increased relevance for similar disagreements between others makes up for it.
Let’s dive in. We’ll start at the beginning: Sam Harris’s podcast with Charles Murray.
From Harris’s point of view
Harris starts his podcast (and his email prologue) with a list of what he says are scientifically uncontroversial facts. Paraphrased:
1) Human intelligence is a real thing and and a scientifically valid construct.
2) IQ tests measure it well.
3) It is strongly correlated with educational and economic success.
4) It is moderately to highly heritable among humans.
5) Test scores differ between races. Most notably and controversially, black Americans score between 10 and 15 points lower than white Americans on average.
What he says is correct. These five claims are broadly accepted among intelligence researchers.
Note that the list doesn’t include
6) The racial differences mentioned in (5) have a significant genetic component.
6-b) There are currently no effective means of permanently raising intelligence through environmental interventions.
It seems clear from the podcast that Murray also believes (6). If I understand him correctly, he doesn’t believe he can definitely prove it or that it’s completely certain. Rather, I get the impression it’s a judgment call he makes, eyeballing the evidence and finding that a significant genetic component to (5) is the most likely, and that the seeming irrelevance of shared environment (the environmental factor appears to be all nonshared according to behavioral genetics) makes effective interventions unlikely.
Harris separates 1-5 from (6), and this is important for understanding how Klein and the authors of the Vox piece interpret the podcast differently from how Harris does. In very condensed form, their disagreement is about the legitimacy of making that call. As we shall see, it depends on many factors.
Evidence that neither Harris not Murray considers the “dangerous” (6) definitely proven comes about 40 minutes into the podcast, where Harris devotes some time to saying explicitly that just because individual difference can largely be explained by genetics it doesn’t necessarily mean that 1) all individual difference in success or mental abilities or 2) all or even any of group differences are due to genetic differences. Murray agress and calls it “critically important”. Then they discuss the importance of environmental factors.
In Harris’s mind, the truth or falsity of (6) is not the issue. He does think that believing it is a reasonable extrapolation from 1-5. There are, as he says in the beginning of the Murray podcast, a series of “nested taboos” around intelligence research that concern all the claims from (1) to (6). Claims 1-5 are often wrongly treated as controversial or even wrong. But they aren’t, and from their non-controversialness, (6)’s legitimacy and status as reasonable hypothesis follows.
At the time Murray wrote The Bell Curve, these claims were not scientifically controversial, though taken together [my emphasis, JN], they proved devastating to his reputation among nonscientists. That remains the case today.
To Harris, Murray simply wrote a big, thick book about intelligence in which he put, as he himself puts it, a single paragraph saying that both environment and genetics probably matters for the black-white gap. And his treatment was horribly unfair. Harris reads an quote from a sociology professor (!) calling the book “Nazi propaganda” or a “scientific version of Mein Kampf”.
The Bell Curve (note that I haven’t read it, I’m going on reasonably reliable hearsay) is almost entirely about the uncontroversial 1-5. It’s in general quite careful in sticking to the established science, and race issues are only a very small part of it.
Similarly, (6) isn’t the topic for most of the podcast. Interestingly, this is far from obvious to a casual listener. I listened to the whole two-hour-plus shebang three times and I didn’t realize until the second listen how little time they actually spend on it. On the third listen it changed again and it became clear why I didn’t see it the first time. I now noted how (6)’s ghostly background presence colored the interpretation of everything said, whether it was Murrays otherwise mainstream opposition to affirmative action, the apparent irrelevance of home environment for intelligence as suggested by behavioral genetics research or the later discussion on class-based sorting and the election of Donald Trump.
Whether such subtext is “there” or not is matter of interpretation, and therefore of opinion. I don’t think Harris thinks of it as “there”, and therefore he doesn’t consider the topic of their whole conversation to be “the genetic underpinnings for racial differences in intelligence and its implications”.
Instead (and he says this many, many times) Harris considers the topic of conversation to be the tense political atmosphere around claims like (6) and by extension the conjunction of 1-5. He confesses he’s been complicit in shunning Murray for fear of the smell rubbing off on him. The recent events at Middlebury College, where Murray was deplatformed and attacked, changed his mind. In his introduction to the emails, he says:
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.
When they get to the “radioactive” (Harris’s word) parts of the conversation around the one hour mark he frames it as wanting to “slay the elephant in the room” so they could move on to what he really wants to discuss — Murray’s experience at Middlebury and the cultural atmosphere that led to it.
Considering this, it makes sense for Harris not to be particularly critical of Murray. The authors of the Vox piece says he “fails to ask a single challenging question”, which isn’t true, but it is true that he doesn’t push particularly hard.
From the other side
It looks a lot different to Ezra Klein, and I suppose the authors of the Vox piece. The first point of disagreement is that according to THN, Murray and Harris do claim that the truth of (6) is scientifically uncontroversial.
The consensus, [Harris] 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.
I think they’re mistaken about the last part but I see no reason to think it’s not an honest mistake (it’s uncertain what exactly “scientifically uncontroversial” means). This difference has a massive impact on how the two sides view the entire controversy.
While Harris considers (6) not to be the central load-bearing pillar of his conversation with Murray, Klein does see it that way. In his mind, Murray is pushing a whole narrative, centered on racial genetic differences, meant to justify his preferred social policies. Klein says in his own later Vox article, and further develops in his later conversation with Harris, that virtually all of Murray’s work throughout his career in political science and in conservative think tanks is aimed at dismantling the Great Society and abolish many social services. He’s not just a scientist who got politics thrust upon him.
Consequently, far from being noncentral and not the focus, everything Murray says to Harris is in service of a particular conclusion, namely that black people are of lower intelligence than white people and there’s nothing we can do about it. The carefully designed caveats and the (in THN’s words) “anydone” exhortations to not discriminate are there to make that message more palatable.
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.
“The overwhelming thrust” here includes things that go on past claim (6), from science into social policy. In his article, Klein has a section about how similar ideas has been used to justify policies exacerbating racial inequality, and sees this as Murray’s purpose:
It’s not just that inequality is so deeply embedded in our genes and environment that we don’t know how to make progress — it’s that it’s dangerous to even try:
HARRIS: I guess one thing that must be occurring to listeners now — and this is my misgiving about having this conversation and going into this area at all — the question is why talk about any of this? Why seek data on racial difference at all? What is the purpose of doing this?
MURRAY: Because we now have social policy embedded in employment policy, in academic policy, which is based on the premise that everybody’s equal above the neck, all groups are equal above the neck, whether it’s men and women or whether it’s ethnicities. And when you have that embedded into law, you have a variety of bad things happen.
Note that even if Murray’s policy proposals are logically independent of his beliefs on intelligence (which Harris considers them to be), bringing policy into the conversation is going to, narratively speaking, change its center of gravity. Instead of focusing, as Harris wants, on the truth of 1-5 leading to the plausibility and respectability but not the empirical certainty of (6) and the “moral panic” around just entertaining the hypothesis out loud, inclusion of policies that appear to be based on (6) is going to be seen as arguing for the correctness of (6) by making it a load-bearing part rather than something pointed towards close to the edge of the frame.
Klein makes some fairly convincing points that this is intentional by Murray, who he claims is more focused on both race and politics than he lets on. While most of The Bell Curve is silent about race, the publicity campaign apparently wasn’t. I’m not qualified to discuss the publicity campaign of a book that came out when I was ten, so I’ll take Klein’s word for it.
I work with authors on book excerpts, and I can testify it is a known fact that the portion of a book you excerpt and put on the cover of an influential national magazine is going to get more attention than the rest of the book. Often, authors will not let you excerpt solely a particularly controversial portion because they’re concerned it will overwhelm the rest of their argument.
If this applies to Murray and The Bell Curve — and Klein is convinced that it does — then that clashes with Murray’s version of events where he didn’t much care for race at all but more or less had to put a little about it in because it became an issue. I don’t know which is true, but it certainly explains why Klein thinks of Murray the way he does.
A case of motte-and-bailey?
Is Murray saying that it’s likely there’s some nonzero genetic component to racial differences, or that black people are dumber and this isn’t going to change so we need to stop aiming for equality?
Consider what Klein said in one of his emails:
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.
Harris responds badly to this, which is a shame because it’s a great opportunity to get to the bottom of their disagreement. He’s angry and doesn’t think Klein could possibly have such a different impression in earnest. But as I’ve tried to say, I think he does.
It’s not an ususual situation. I don’t know if Klein is familiar with the term (my guess is yes), but what he described is a motte-and-bailey — an argument structure based on a medieval warfare metaphor where there is one conservative (as in cautious) and easily defendable version of an idea (the motte), and another more bold, far-reaching version that’s the one you really want to push (the bailey). You promote the bailey (often by implication) to get what you want, but retreat to the motte version when challenged. “I was only saying…”
Does this describe the message? Structurally, yes (although I’m not convinced it’s intentional). The motte is the largely uncontroversial claims 1-5, and them making (6) plausible. The bailey is that (6) is true and genetic differences plus the lack of reliable methods to raise IQ’s by manipulating the environment implies that the racial gap can’t be closed and this justifies Murray’s preferred policies.
While Klein clearly understands the structure, he doesn’t seem to get that Harris anger makes sense if you think of only the motte as in play. Klein says in an email:
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.
Harris does think that. He correctly judges there to be no major disagreement about the motte. In his words:
[Murray] 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.
If you read closely, THN don’t reject this. They still say Murray is “peddling junk science”, by which they apparently don’t mean bad science but bad interpretation of science. To them (and to Klein) the message coming from the podcast, the “overwhelming thrust” of it, and the “consistent argument being made”, is the bailey. Claim (6) was not the end but the beginning of the important part. It was the seed of a narrative explaining racial inequality in America, and as such it was deficient, dangerous and worthy of some strident criticism.
Of course the disagreement is going to seem invented to Harris. It’s extremely small with regards to what he finds important (Murray’s policy prescriptions are largely beside the point and later Harris says he doesn’t endorse them), and he finds it intellectually dishonest to act as if at least the legitimacy of (6) as a likely hypothesis doesn’t follow from what they all agree upon. They’re making a huge deal out of nothing, and this is precisely in line with the problem (“moral panic”) he’s trying to draw attention to.
Of course he’s pissed.
Of course they think they’re justified in reading between the lines.
Science, politics and identity politics
One consequence of the motte-and-bailey difference is that Harris and Klein disagree on whether it’s a scientific or political question they’re discussing, and by extension whether scientific or political debating norms apply.
The difference is best illustrated by looking not at the muddled semi-rational practice of political debate, but at the purified rejection of scientific debate norms that is identity politics. They discuss identity politics a fair bit on their final podcast. Harris hates it and considers it prima facie illegitimate, while Klein insists that Harris is in fact engagin in it himself.
It’s clear that they don’t mean the same thing by the phrase, and Klein’s defintion is much more generous (there’s a motte-and-bailey structure here too). An unproductive conflict results, where Harris is too resistant to Klein’s quite obvious point that what you think might happen to you personally affects what you find important. He calls Harris’s concern over the treatment of Murray (his main motivation, according to himself) “identity politics” because according to him, Harris’s identity as a (white) public intellectual makes such problems feel greater than the problems (racism, sexism) such behavior is meant to address.
In this view, your identity affects your emotional responses and therefore what you consider good-bad, important-unimportant, interesting-uninteresting or valid-invalid. Hence what you argue for is inseparable from identity. This obviously applies to Harris, as it applies to everybody. He’s makes a mistake when he flatly denies Klein’s description instead of pointing out how it differs from what he means by identity politics.
In traditional scientific-philosophical debate, the content of what anyone says is evaluated according to agreed-upon, impersonal standards like logical coherence, empirical evidence and commonly accepted values. Motivations, personal history, possible consequences or hurt feelings are not considered to be on the table. Bringing them there, in the form of ad hominems, guilt by association, or non-sequiturs (in this case, extrapolation beyond someone’s literal words) are considered foul play.
The kind of identity politics Harris is referring to is a result of people rejecting the idea of impersonal standards and the practice of separating the argument from its social context into a sandbox-like logical-empirical domain. Instead of logical coherence, empirical evidence and appeals to commonly held values, we get credibility by victimhood, subjective experience and appeals to empathy and vulnerability. Its essence is the idea that claims should be accepted not because they’re logically and empirically sound or morally agreed upon, but because the people making them are owed it.
Harris isn’t doing identity politics in this sense. He doesn’t expect his identity to be an input to his arguments’ evaluation function, and from what aspects of his psyche they’re coming isn’t relevant. Not according to tradition Rational Style debate rules anyway, where evaluation functions only take the content of the argument. Identity politics means refusing to stay in this sandbox and the result is Activist Style, based on traditionally disallowed moves.
Ordinary politics and political journalism play dirty too, because when you really want to win you get out of the sandbox as soon as you think it benefits you. I think strategic use of Activist Style techniques is so normal in politics and political journalism (and frankly, everywhere except among philosophers, scientists and technologists who I, in a fit of typical-minding and wishful thinking, want to see as the norm) that members of those professions don’t think of it as playing dirty at all. At least not as playing dirtier than generally accepted and expected.
This is likely why Klein appears so surprised at Harris anger (to the extent that his surprise is honest). To him, political logic and its tactics are a fact of life and Harris being angry about him using it feels bizarre, like it would feel bizarre for a regular person just having a job to hear an anarchist yelling at them about “collaborating with the system”.
In support I’ll note that Klein several times says things like “you wanted debate, this is debate” or “this is well within the bounds of acceptable discourse” (about the Vox piece) or “this is how it goes” in response to Harris complaining about lack of charity. He doesn’t seem to object to Harris calling the Vox piece “propaganda”, nor does he see any problem with THN saying that Murray is peddling junk science and he himself implying that Murray is fixated on the black-white difference for murky reasons, when he apparently knows Murray and says that “he’s a lovely guy interpersonally”. To me, there’s a clear “this is war, not personal, the ends justify the means, and this is what happens” sort of attitude coming through here. In a former campaign worker it’s not that surprising.
Harris isn’t a political journalist and former campaign worker but a scientist, so to him lots of what’s considered normal in politics is disallowed and counts as dishonest. Applying political logic to an issue is by itself bad faith if you expect Rational Style.
One small step for science, one giant leap for politics
It’s okay to have different norms in different contexts, as long as everyone is on the same page. But sometimes we get to an issue two paradigms want to claim as their own: “My rules apply here!” plants flag. Except we don’t get that explicitly, which is a shame because then those claims could be discussed. Instead we get people assuming that their rules apply and go right ahead and apply them.
I discussed a similar situation in Science, the Constructionists and Reality, where the sociology of science and related research programs builds an account of science modeled on other idea-generating processes, making it incompatible with science’s account of itself. It didn’t go well then and it doesn’t go well this time.
Harris and Klein are champions in a turf war where science and politics (as thought styles and debate styles) want to lay claim to the question of racial differences in intelligence. The mismatch is simple: different reference frames assign different importance scores to different issues, and the political frame is here assigning an earth-crushingly large magnitude to an issue that’s not that big of a deal scientifically.
This transparadigmatic dissonance is well captured in an important passage from THN:s article:
Murray presents himself as coolly rational and scientific as he proceeds to his conclusion of genetically based racial differences: People differ in behavior, groups of people differ in behavior, people differ genetically, groups differ genetically. One way or another, genes are associated with behavior, so of course some group differences in behavior occur because of genes. No big deal. “This is what a dispassionate look at decades of research suggests,” Harris blithely says.
It is a big deal. 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. Is it simply that we now have better psychological tests, or more sophisticated genomics?
Note the frame shifting as we move from the first to the second paragraph. It’s right in front of your eyes.
It’s completely true that it’s not a big deal scientifically, for the reasons they mention — even if they mention it specifically to show how wrong it is to be cool and rational about this. At the same time it has massive political implications. So is making that call, like Murray does, a small thing or a big thing? Either something is a big deal or it isn’t, right? We humans aren’t good at dealing with this kind of dissonance. We think “bigdealness” should be an inherent property of the issue.
This isn’t the case. You need a whole system of interpretation to make judgments like that.
Harris, using the scientific paradigm, discusses the non-bigdealness of the dangerous claim a fair amount: given what we know about genetics and intelligence it wouldn’t be surprising at all, scientifically, if it was true because we know that many genetic traits like appearance and some medical conditions differ systematically by race and it would be unexpected if no mental traits (that we already know are heritable) did. Harris defends Murray by arguing that to assume a priori that no mental traits have such differences is instead a very strong claim that doesn’t represent the consensus in the field. This is true. Richard Haier, editor-in-chief of the scientific journal Intelligence mentioned in his defense of Murray and Harris’s podcast something called The Default Hypothesis:
I explained in a series of subsequent emails to the editors about the Default Hypothesis — whatever the factors are that influence individual differences in IQ, the same factors would influence average group differences. Since there is overwhelming evidence that genes influence the former, it would not be unreasonable to hypothesize that genes at least partially influence group differences.
To Harris, its location merely an inch off the mainland of uncontroversial science means you should be able to discuss, entertain and perhaps give this hypothesis some credence without being called either a pseudoscientist or a racist (even by implication). And since there’s no scientific reason for privileging a strict environmental hypothesis over the alternative, they should be treated equally. In the minds of the critics however, they should not be treated equally, and crossing that inch constitutes junk science and, in their words, “pseudoscientific racialist speculation”.
While Turkheimer apologized for “junk science” on Twitter, he also reiterated that “it’s just wrong to be neutral” (or “agnostic” that Murray claims to be) between genetic and environmental explanations.
This is obviously for moral and historical reasons. Note that Turkheimer and the others write “the burden of proof is surely on them” above, a phrasing suggesting they find this so obvious that it barely merits mentioning. They treat it as a strong argument in favor of their position instead of the very point under dispute, which is what it actually is.
Klein appears to agree, judging by how he seems almost shocked by Harris saying on the podcast that Murray’s ideas shouldn’t be considered part of a racist lineage. He thinks history justifies giving black people the scientific “benefit of the doubt”, as it were, as reported by Andrew Sullivan in yet another articleon the topic:
In an email exchange with me, in which I sought clarification, Klein stopped short of denying genetic influences altogether, but argued that, given rising levels of IQ, and given how brutal the history of racism against African-Americans has been, we should nonetheless assume “right now” that genes are irrelevant.
On pure substance, there’s not a lot of difference between this and Murray’s statement that he’s agnostic on the issue (but does seem to believe it). Only their opinions on what counts as a permissible interpretation differ. They differ because the interpretive frames they use assign different sizes to the jump from Uncontroversial Science to Dangerous Interpretation. Everyone agrees that small jumps are ok and big jumps are the hallmarks of cranks and pseudoscientists, but not on the size of the jump. That’s because it gets much bigger once you allow political and historical considerations to influence the size estimate.
High decouplers and low decouplers
The differing debating norms between scientific vs. political contexts are not just a cultural difference but a psychological and cognitive one. Beneath the culture clash there are even deeper disagreements about the nature of facts, ideas and claims and what it means to entertain and believe them.
Consider this quote from an article by Sarah Constantin (via Drossbucket):
Stanovich talks about “cognitive decoupling”, the ability to block out context and experiential knowledge and just follow formal rules, as a main component of both performance on intelligence tests and performance on the cognitive bias tests that correlate with intelligence. Cognitive decoupling is the opposite of holistic thinking. It’s the ability to separate, to view things in the abstract, to play devil’s advocate.
Speculatively, we might imagine that there is a “cognitive decoupling elite” of smart people who are good at probabilistic reasoning and score high on the cognitive reflection test and the IQ-correlated cognitive bias tests. These people would be more likely to be male, more likely to have at least undergrad-level math education, and more likely to have utilitarian views. Speculating a bit more, I’d expect this group to be likelier to think in rule-based, devil’s-advocate ways, influenced by economics and analytic philosophy. I’d expect them to be more likely to identify as rational.
This is a conflict between high-decoupling and low-decoupling thought.
It’s a member of a class of disagreements that depend on psychological differences so fundamental that we’re barely even aware they exist.
High-decouplers isolate ideas from each other and the surrounding context. This is a necessary practice in science which works by isolating variables, teasing out causality and formalizing and operationalizing claims into carefully delineated hypotheses. Cognitive decoupling is what scientists do.
To a high-decoupler, all you need to do to isolate an idea from its context or implications is to say so: “by X I don’t mean Y”. When that magical ritual has been performed you have the right to have your claims evaluated in isolation. This is Rational Style debate.
I picture Harris in my mind, saying something like “I was careful approaching this and said none of it justifies racism, that we must treat people like individuals and that general patterns say nothing about the abilities of any one person. In my mind that makes it as clear as can be that as far as I’m concerned none of what I’m saying implies anything racist. Therefore I’ve earned the right not to be grouped together with or in any way connected to nazis, neo-nazis, Jim Crow laws, white supremacy or anything like that. There is no logically necessary connection between beliefs about intelligence and racist policies, and it should therefore be possible to discuss one while the other remains out of scope.”
But “decoupling as default” can’t be assumed in Public Discourse like it is in science. Studies suggest that decoupling is not natural behavior (non-WEIRD populations often don’t think this way at all, because they have no use for it). We need to be trained to do it, and even then it’s hard; many otherwise intelligent people have traumatic memories of being taught mathematics in school.
While science and engineering disciplines (and analytic philosophy) are populated by people with a knack for decoupling who learn to take this norm for granted, other intellectual disciplines are not. Instead they’re largely composed of what’s opposite the scientist in the gallery of brainy archetypes: the literary or artistic intellectual.
This crowd doesn’t live in a world where decoupling is standard practice. On the contrary, coupling is what makes what they do work. Novelists, poets, artists and other storytellers like journalists, politicians and PR people rely on thick, rich and ambiguous meanings, associations, implications and allusions to evoke feelings, impressions and ideas in their audience. The words “artistic” and “literary” refers to using idea couplings well to subtly and indirectly push the audience’s meaning-buttons.
To a low-decoupler, high-decouplers’ ability to fence off any threatening implications looks like a lack of empathy for those threatened, while to a high-decoupler the low-decouplers insistence that this isn’t possible looks like naked bias and an inability to think straight. This is what Harris means when he says Klein is biased.
But Klein is a journalist, and as that he belongs with the literary intellectuals. To him, coupled ideas can’t just be discharged by uttering a magic phrase. The notion is ludicrous. Thinking in moral and political terms is not a bias, it’s how his job works and how his thought works. Implications and associations are an integral part of what it means to put forth an idea, and when you do so you automatically take on responsibility for its genealogy, its history and its implications. Ideas come with history, and some of them with debt. The debt has to be addressed and can’t be dismissed as not part of the topic — that’s an illegal move in Klein’s version of the rules.
Here is my view: Research shows measurable consequences on IQ and a host of other outcomes from the kind of violence and discrimination America inflicted for centuries against African Americans. In a vicious cycle, the consequences of that violence have pushed forward the underlying attitudes that allow discriminatory policies to flourish and justify the racially unequal world we’ve built.
To put this simply: You cannot discuss this topic without discussing its toxic past and the way that shapes our present.
I think Klein takes the historical background’s obvious relevance as a given to the extent that he sees Harris’s lack of focus on it as either an intentional attempt at pretending like nothing is wrong or an instance of gross negligence and ineptitude in failing to acknowledge it. Making that point isn’t slandering in Klein’s mind. Pointing out a connection to Nazism and slavery isn’t guilt by association because THN aren’t making that connection: it’s already there, obvious to everyone not in denial. That Harris gets upset by them mentioning it is just weird.
Klein focuses a lot on historical context in this whole conflict, to an extent that’s similarly “just weird” to a scientist (Harris responds to one of his discussions of America’s racist history with a simple comment that it’s irrelevant). But it’s not weird at all. It makes perfect sense, and Klein getting audibly upset at Harris’s brush-off is telling. The archetypal literary intellectual doesn’t see isolated facts, but narratives and gestalts.
To the archetypal scientist, the effects of a horrific history of slavery and discrimination can be summed up as “environmental factors” — a bloodless abstraction without the emotional punch offered by detailed accounts of the crimes. And that isn’t good enough. No matter how much Murray and Harris admit whenever asked that “yes, environment matters” and “yes, racism exists, which did and do affect the environmental factors” it’s not enough. Klein doesn’t want it acknowledged in some subordinate clause, he wants them to give it the spotlight. He wants equal time, because he knows that if you say that two things matter but only discuss one of them then it’s going to, in effect, grant support to narratives focusing exclusively on that even if other factors aren’t denied. In narrative logic, the point isn’t what facts you believe are true but what narratives you support and what images you evoke.
They get close to what appears to be the core of Kleins’s motivation towards the end of their podcast, when Harris uses an analogy about the racial makeup of world-class sprinters to argue that the possibility of genetic differences means we should not automatically assume racism as the sole reason for aggregate racial differences in outcome. It is to protect a narrative threatened by (in Klein’s earlier words)
the idea that America’s racial inequalities are driven by genetic differences between the races and not by anything we did, or have to undo.
Klein fears that Murray’s ideas will absolve white people for the historical crimes against black people so they no longer feel that racial inequality is their responsibility to correct. In other words it’s important that we do automatically view aggregate racial inequality as a product of racism. Otherwise justifications for anti-racist policies become, while not void by any means, weaker and an order of magnitude more subtle, complex and difficult (the same effect sex differences have on the justifications for feminist policies). That’s why he insists so forcefully that slavery and discrimination is what we’re supposed to be talking about, not genes. Eyes on the ball.
Harris of course has a narrative of his own to protect. He fears that politicization of whole intellectual fields (including sometimes science), pushed by identity politics activists using their norms, will lead to the displacement of Rational Style as the norm. Klein would say that Harris fears this because it would hurt him personally, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. Harris cares about things besides himself, just like Klein. He cares about protecting Rational Style and the high-decoupled thinking it runs on because it is tremendously valuable for finding out the truth and for ensuring civility in the public sphere. Unlike identity politics activists, he doesn’t think such rules lose their legitimacy because power differentials exist.
UPDATE: This section has a follow-up in Decoupling Revisited.
How to tie this together? I think by bringing us back to my entry point: Harris and Klein’s email conversation.
I’ve reread it after having finished this article and my final impression is that both of them fall short of ideal disagreement conduct in different ways.
Harris lets his anger get the better of him, at least near the middle of the conversation. He accuses Klein of cynically engineering the controversy for clicks and insists that Klein knows what he means and is just feigning ignorance, which I’m doubtful of. I also think he made a mistake and overstated his case in his Housekeeping podcast where he insisted the Vox article was intentional character assassination. I don’t think that was its primary purpose, and being so strident about it hurts his case by offering an easy way to dismiss him.
Another problem is his handling of important clues. When Klein says “something is very off” he answers with:
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.
That was a thread that could’ve helped unravel the conflict. Instead of pulling it he doubles down on confrontation. He does this social equivalent of trying to fix a tangled cord by yanking it really hard, getting himself stuck in discussing the scientific evidence instead of the differing interpretations of his podcast what led to them.
I’m being a bit tough on Harris here because as a fellow high-decoupler he has my sympathies by default and I’m trying to be fair, but Klein doesn’t come off well either. He seems to have a better grasp of the situation and remains cooler and appears to be the better communicator — at least in the beginning. But as the exchange continues, the accusation that Klein dodges and stonewalls seems more and more valid. Since he does seem to have some idea of how Harris sees the situation it’s all the more frustrating how he refuses to give an inch and grant any validity to the view that Harris (and Murray) has been dragged through the mud. “They’re still successful, so it doesn’t matter” seems to be his attitude. His reasons for refusing to publish the Haier piece also remain weak and transparently partisan.
Their later conversation on the podcast wasn’t much better. They spent two hours talking past each other. Harris says in his intro that he did his best, but it didn’t work.
The roots of their disagreement are different ideas about what’s acceptable conduct in debates, and whether we should be treating politically relevant scientific ideas in a high-decoupled or low-decoupled way. I’m disappointed in them for not honing in on this during the podcast. Both make slight movements in the right direction, but nothing comes of it.
They might just be so enmeshed in their respective spheres that it’s become difficult for them to bring their unstated assumptions up explicitly, so instead they engage in indirect proxy-argumentation. This is a common pattern: you think your interlocutor implicitly believes something you disagree with, so you try to disprove that with counterexamples (like Harris did with his rhetorical “do you think I’m inferior to John von Neumann?” that didn’t land). It doesn’t work, because as long as it’s implicit people dodge it and focus on the specific point instead of the idea it’s meant to adress. It has to be tackled head on. Make it the subject.
This requires that you focus specifically on dissecting the disagreement, and not on pushing your own points. Someone suggested to me that they’re bad at this because they have big egos. Maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s also true that they know they have an audience, which damages the quality of their conversation because good disagreement requires stepping out of rhetorical, point-scoring mode, which is difficult when there’s something at stake.
Truth be told, most people just aren’t big enough nerds to disagree about complicated things effectively. You need to be much more literal, much bigger sticklers with semantics (because semantics are important) and much more eager to spend time pinning down exactly what the other person thinks — even if this is boring, pedantic and doesn’t lend itself to monologuing the way both of them spent too much time doing during their talk.
They use more advanced argumentation than the situation permits. When people are nearly on the same page complex arguments work because they are understood and received correctly, but when people don’t understand the subtleties of their differences that well and good faith is in short supply, you need to advance incrementally and with quick, tight feedback loops to make sure you don’t go off the rails. Harris and Klein went flying into the countryside shrubbery way too many times.
In the end these problems plagues all complex communication. Perhaps full comprehension is not possible when a message becomes too big for us to fit the whole of it in our short term memory. A two hour podcast, an article of a few thousand words or and often even something as short as a few paragraphs of speech cross that line. Selective, lossy compression through interpretation and narrativization becomes necessary. With that comes inevitable bias.
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.
Klein’s right, except that there’s no “or”. Things certainly did land differently with many people than Harris expected, and Klein is a terrible listener. Both are true because we’re all terrible listeners.
Including me. This account, as long as it is, is far from complete. I’ve ignored some things, cherry picked my examples, connected my dots and filled in the blanks with my own projections, all in the service of creating a narrative. I’ve tried my best to be fair.
• • •
This controversy is so large and sprawling and touches on so many separate disagreements that it’s impossible to do it justice even if you restrict yourself to just applying high-level abstractions. There were many relevant issues I had to leave out, including:
The difference between criticism and discrediting, whether the second amounts to silencing, and the implications for free speech.
The trolley problem-like distinction between putting forth words that end up hurting someone and hurting someone with words.
The justifications for Activist Style vs. Rational Style argumentation in relation to identity politics.
How, like I’ve said before, it’s essential to productive disagreement to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other party’s views before criticizing them.
The difference between judging conclusions by their arguments and judging arguments by their conclusions.
The question of whether Harris is being hypocritical when not wanting Murray’s ideas to be seen as part of a larger pattern but doesn’t mind making Vox responsible for the moral panic it’s part of.
How the mechanics of partial narratives explain some of the dysfunction of genetics vs. environment debates.
The difference between science and the interpretation of science and its intersection with the difference between science and pseudoscience.
The symmetry and asymmetry between Harris blaming Klein for indirectly suggesting things about him and Murray, and Klein blaming them for indirectly suggesting things about black people.
That while preference for high or low decoupling is a cognitive style, most people are capable of either when it’s in their interest.
What high decoupling looks like in the political realm.
What responsibilities sender and receiver have when they disagree on the proper interpretation of a message.
How individually innocuous ideas can add up to dangerous gestalts, and what that means for responsibility attribution.
I understand it better in retrospect. It’s been clear that Harris is extremely aware of the dangers of getting yourself connected to something connected to something connected to racism, and he likely thought it was wisest to talk about this as little as possible.
The closest thing that exists is a book I never tire of recommending. Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate by Ullica Segerstråle is a fantastic and very thorough discussion of the fights around EO Wilson’s book Sociobiology in the 1970. It’s very much still relevant today and I can’t recommend it enough to anyone who enjoyed this article.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous case study, the word “race” weirds me out. In my mother tongue it’s an archaic term (outside some unsavory circles), except when referring to breeds of domesticated animals. Words like “ethnicity” or “people group” are used instead. I’ll still use “race” here since it’s used in English and can’t really be avoided.
In support of this Harris notes that claims 1-5 have often been attacked, sometimes for the the purpose of undermining (6). Criticisms asserting that intelligence isn’t even real, that IQ tests don’t measure anything or that they’re are culturally biased and that environment is all that matters have been and still are common (and Harris and Murray spend some time talking about them). The popularity of these arguments suggests that (6) is considered at least somewhat implied by 1-5 by others as well.
The APA statement Intelligence: knowns and unknowns released in 1995 referenced by Murray confirms this.
I learned and extremely important lesson from this: Anything contentious, anything that’s an even slightly complex or subtle argument with ambiguous implications has to be read several times. Everything here that I’ve read more than once has felt distinctly different the second time. When you don’t have to take in the surface level information you can observe yourself reading or listening, and this makes for a different experience.
I don’t think Harris agrees this is the reason for the title, his “nested taboos” comments suggests he considers the whole range of 1-6 to be “forbidden” to some extent. I also don’t think Harris agrees about what the “thrust” of the argument (or that there’s a single overarching argument going on at all) is either — because this is highly subjective; the “long discourse” mentioned is under one minute long, less than a third of the length or their later discussion of how immoral and irrational it is to treat people as members of demographic groups rather than as individuals — a point Murray refers to as shockingly difficult to get to stick.
What I want to bring up here that no one appears to have mentioned about this, is that there’s a difference between 1), policies that assume everyone is equal above the neck, 2) policies that assume demographic groups are unequal above the neck in some defined way (which would be genuinely discriminatory) and 3) policies that assume neither of those things. I think many who advocate 3 over 1 are read as advocating 2 over 3.
This part in particular was interesting to write. Because of how convincing both Klein and Harris are on this point (Murray’s focus and motivation) I’m genuinely uncertain about what to think of it, what to think of him and which account should come first — in other words, which should be the signal and which should be the corrective. It was an unpleasant feeling at first and I know people, me included, will do anything to quell such uncertainty. But then I told myself I didn’t need to make a judgment here, that it’s fine, even virtuous, to simply remain agnostic (and it might be more accurate than anything else). The unpleasantness disappeared right away. I recommend doing this.
I agree with Harris that there’s something dishonest and evasive about Klein’s conduct. It just think there’s genuine conviction underneath it that I prefer to focus on.
Transparadigmatic dissonance is a common reason for particularly tricky disagreements, particularly on topics we’re not willing to nor good at discussing openly. Like sex. Transparadigmatic dissonance about the nature and purpose of sex and relationships gives rise to incompatible ideas of the moral significance of promiscuity, abortion, contraception, pornography and infidelity etc.
Harris accused Klein and the others of being biased here and he has a point. Klein calls the Murray podcast “curiously ahistorical” for not mentioning slavery, segregation or past racism in science, but I very much doubt he’s call a similar discussion focusing exclusively on the historical background “curiously abiological”. It’s a common pattern. I remember taking introductory psychology and hearing some people loudly complain that the chapter on the biological basis of behavior ignored culture. When we got to the chapter on cultural factors, they did not complain that it ignored biology. The justification for this asymmetry is of course political implications. Whether this counts as a bias or a valid concern is the difference between scientific and political thinking.
THN are of course scientists and thus not typical literary intellectuals. I still think the distinction holds, as they don’t rely as much on low-decoupling as Klein does in their argumentation. Even if they would have, it wouldn’t fully disqualify the model since even among scientists there are lots of people who are quite capable of using low-decoupling when they find it justified — it’s our natural mode of thinking, after all. Note that Stephen Jay Gould, author of the (in)famous (and historically focused) anti-IQ book The Mismeasure of Man is known for his unusually ‘literary’ style for a scientist, which contributes to his popularity among nonscientists (and nonpopularity among scientists).
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73 thoughts on “A Deep Dive into the Harris-Klein Controversy”
I really enjoyed this piece, thanks. This helped me understand Harris’s and Klein’s perspectives more than anything I’d read, and I think an analysis this detailed of where communication can break down is interesting, valuable, and rare.
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Thank you! That’s what I tried to do, good to hear it worked for someone.
First time reader, first time commenter — I’ve also found that the entire Harris/Klein exchange has stuck with me, and that I keep puzzling over it, and was excited to see a link to this post, and it didn’t disappoint at all. I think you do a good job of summarizing the exchange and highlighting the ways in which it broke down.
I also disagree slightly, and would give different weights or emphasis to some points than you do, but as you say in your closing comments, that’s inevitable. But I very much appreciate your emphasis on, “how do we understand each of them to have an internally consistent position” over, “what are the points at which they disagree, and who wins”
With your permission I’d be interested in bouncing some of my thoughts about the exchange off of you (in other words, I’m tempted to write a much longer comment here, but don’t want to impose on your hospitality if that’s too much).
Go ahead and write, pixels are free 🙂
Sure there are other points to bring up, I wasn’t kidding when I said this post could be a book. I generally prefer to just try to explain exactly how and why people disagree instead of focusing on who’s right or wrong – everyone else already does that all the time and it doesn’t even make much sense without common standards, which often aren’t available.
Excellent work. I too was fascinated by everything about this exchange, and all that it revealed. Being much less ambitious, my twitter-length summary https://twitter.com/contrarivariant/status/983384397251424256 was:
In a nutshell (my view, not actual quotes)
Harris: It is important that we be able to discuss what is true. This is a separate matter from what the speaker might like to be true, and from any consequences of the discussion itself.
Klein: Those things cannot be separated.
What you wrote about decouplers is exactly what I meant.
I had to speed read for a bit so forgive me if you made this point more than I saw, but a factor I consider to be fundamental as to why Harris was so persistently irritated by Klein is that they are fighting an asymmetric war and Klein refuses to acknowledge the unfairness of it. It is a fact of life that it is far easier to tar someone else with one of the standard set of toxic X-ist labels than it is for anyone so tarred to clear their name. This asymmetry drives the entire victim-industrial complex. Klein can be cavalier about the impact of calling someone a “racialist” because he knows that on “his” team one is inoculated against such labels through extensive virtue signaling. The gun only points in one direction, so he feels free to use it, and then to deny it has any effect on the discourse. There is a direct effect, and an even greater indirect effect: everyone with eyes and ears has learned from the experiences of Murray and Harris what happens to people who wade into these waters.
I believe this chilling effect to be produced with full intention. That those who would normalize using implicit reputational threats to shape “the narrative” would also so glibly deny that there is a massive chilling effect and that they prefer it that way: this is what might lead a person to eventually give up on the principle of charity and conclude one is dealing with a bad faith actor.
Thanks for stopping by. You’re entirely correct that I don’t focus so much on what you’re describing, even though it’s entirely accurate. There’s absolutely enough material here for a book-length discussion.
I’m not so sure that Klein and others on his side so much deny the asymmetry of the situation as they deny that it’s unfair. If I read Klein correctly he finds it weird that anyone could think you should be “fair” here – good and evil shouldn’t be treated equally.
It’s funny in that you could turn this back onto Klein with a similar charge he levies at Harris: he is cavalier about this problem because it isn’t likely to happen to him. I actually think the “privilege” discourse can be quite good at identifying this sort of problem (you don’t take things seriously if they don’t happen or risk happening to you or people like you), but goes wrong when it insists it can only occur in one direction across a demographic distinction.
Reblogged this on Quaerere Propter Vērum.
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Whew! I stayed up past my bedtime last night first reading the sequence of emails and then listening to the full Harris vs. Klein podcast (which IMO is really good listening, less negative and more productive than their prior email exchange and with both sides giving me enriching food for thought), then reading your longest-ever post after having thought out my own opinions beforehand. Just now I listened to the full one-year-earlier podcast with Harris and Murray. I have a bunch of scattered thoughts in semi-direct response to your piece, and although I don’t have time to write all of them, I hope you don’t mind if this comment still turns out to be long in proportion to the material I’m responding to.
1) On Sam Harris in general: apart from reading The End of Faith some years ago, I wasn’t that familiar with Harris’ work and views until a few weeks ago when I listened to the full three-hour debate between Harris and Cenk Uyghur on Islam. I came away with a very positive impression of who Harris is as a person and an intellectual — even if I’m skeptical of many of his object positions (I lean against him on Islam but mostly have to remain agnostic out of ignorance of the Koran and middle eastern history), he absolutely seems to have the right fundamental values and is acting in genuine good faith throughout. I saw one major weakness in him though, which he tries but doesn’t completely succeed in compensating for — the one place where Cenk really seemed to have the upper hand, especially right near the end: Harris doesn’t quite seem weigh strongly enough the probable way his words will be taken outside the sphere of top-tier intellectuals.
I believe Harris’ strengths as well as that one weakness show very consistently in the material I listened to today and last night as well. Your way of characterizing that weakness is that he refuses to acknowledge quite how easily (6) will be inferred by many from (1)-(5). The way I would put it is that Harris frequently says that he’s speaking out the way he is out of concern that we need to be able to address these issues “as adults”, when the fact of the matter is that much of his audience is not wired to do that no matter how much he may wish them to be, and he needs to consider the consequences of his statements given human nature as it is rather than how he would like it to be.
I also agree with you on much of your other criticisms of Harris’ conduct throughout: he got angry too quickly and it blinded him to the full nature of the misunderstanding; and he too easily attributed dishonesty to Klein and his associates (one positive thing for me about the podcast was that Klein managed to come across about as sincere and intellectually honest as Harris, although I believe there still is more tribal bias beneath Klein’s expressed views).
2) One of the most rewarding things for me about listening to the podcast was that as someone who tends towards Harris’ side of this kind of controversy, Klein’s speculation on Harris’ personal biases struck me as highly incisive and quite possibly applying to me as well. I’ve heard that suggestion hinted at before but never expressed as clearly as Klein did. Now I’ll have to do a little of my own soul-searching about it, and I hope Harris will as well (he was pretty dismissive in the moment).
3) On identity politics: your characterization is one of the best I’ve seen. I’ve always characterized it in terms of a discussion norms based in a sort of purist low-agency-ism which (as I argued in my essay on low-agency-ism) when taken to enough of an extreme must necessarily pick and choose some identities as more deterministic than others and if not tempered with a certain amount of objective awareness will descend into a rhetorical quagmire. While our descriptions are perfectly compatible (an example of partial narratives perhaps?), yours might hit more directly on the nose what identity-political rhetorical tactics are as opposed to the ideology/rhetoric of the surrounding culture in general.
4) On decoupling: I don’t think I’d seen quite this description before. I’ve always referred to it as an ability to “separate levels” (e.g. consider object-level and meta-level disagreements separately; you’ll remember I wrote essays on this as well), which for me is the strongest indicator of someone being what I would consider a rationalist. In response to your suggestion that this is more prevalent in certain hard sciences because of the nature of the work, as opposed to the humanities, I have to say that one source of fascination to me for years is just how many people I’ve known in mathematics, engineering, etc. are apparently low-decouplers, often despite being super pro-scientific-method, anti-religious, and other positions strongly associated with rationality and objectivity. In particular, I’ve known more people in mathematics than in any other field, and for pure math there’s a particular need for decoupling slightly differing from what you described for empirical experimentation: I guess I’d describe it as “forgetting” certain obvious properties in order to better understand what results from particular sets of axioms which will then be applied in different, often more abstract contexts. You’d think that mathematicians would be excellent decouplers, yet I know a surprising number of people who appear to be stronger mathematicians and also lower-decouplers compared to me. This could be explained by my not being able to compare different disciplinary groups due to my skew towards knowing math and hard science types, or due to my unfairly diagnosing our disagreements as cases of low-decoupling on their parts. But I tend to lean towards the explanation that within math/science disciplines we are taught decoupling well, but socially and especially in the context of politics we are not.
5) From your comment on the word “race”, I finally picked up on the fact that Swedish is your first language; for some reason, I’d had the impression you were an Australian who happens to be living in Sweden. If English really isn’t your primary language, that certainly makes the quality of your writing all the more impressive.
6) On a meta note, this lengthy commentary by you further cements my impression of us having extremely similar personalities in particular ways. I love consuming complex disagreements — provided the subject material is interesting enough for me — considering all sides and dissecting them into what I view as their component parts and then expressing a full-length commentary; I even sort of thrive on it. One thing I’ve noticed about myself is that this holds equally for political disagreements such as the Harris/Klein one and for purely personal conflicts that I see unfolding between people in my life. Indeed, one of the themes I try to push on my blog is that both political and personal disagreements can be dissected into very similar units of misunderstanding. It makes me wonder about whether you operate in a similar way when it comes to personal disagreements you witness, modulo stressful emotions that most of us naturally experience in those situations (you’re under no obligation to address this, of course; it’s just something I’m curious about).
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I do wonder why you thought I was Australian 🙂 No I’m actually not a native English speaker, although after about 15 years of reading almost exclusively in English (for the last ten years it’s 99%+) I’ve started to feel like it comes first for some topics (the kind of topics I discuss here, basically). English is my preferred medium for artistic and intellectual reading while Swedish is for everyday, personal matters. I code-switch pretty hard.
I don’t have that much to add to what else you said, I agree with it generally. A few thoughts:
I do think Harris knows that 1-5 easily leads to 6, that’s part of his reason for saying that 6 must be considered a legitimate hypothesis, as I read it. He does make sure NOT to say that 6 is uncontroversially agreed upon – something THN don’t acknowledge. There’s a question here: what does “scientifically uncontroversial” mean? It can mean either generally believed or generally considered a plausible hypothesis. They aren’t the same thing and that distinction got lost here.
I think what Harris doesn’t want to acknowledge as his responsibility is how accepting 6 as a valid hypothesis will lead many to infer some seriously bad things. I mean he tries by saying that it doesn’t justify anything like that, which in his mind (and I do agree with him but I see the other side too) absolves him of responsibility. The question is if this is at all possible and what responsibility you have for likely misinterpretations. As you say:
“Harris doesn’t quite seem weigh strongly enough the probable way his words will be taken outside the sphere of top-tier intellectuals.”
Whose responsibility is it when someone draws bad conclusions from an intellectual’s nuanced (and often decoupled) reasoning? There’s no easy answer. What I get from Harris is that he wants to de-dramatize the issue because we’re likely to get more potentially uncomfortable data like it in the future. But simply decoupling like he wants to do isn’t going to work for most (like you also say) because politics abhors a narrative vacuum. There needs to be new and politically positive narratives that such results can be comfortably integrated into, and I think we’re going to get that. Eventually.
Many have liked the low-high decoupling thing and I’m pleased with that (even though it’s not my idea obviously) but I also regret I wasn’t clearer in the original piece that I was talking about The Scientist and The Literary Intellectual as archetypes representing different styles, and not two categories of people – because it certainly isn’t true that all scientists decouple all the time and all nonscientists never do. It happens on a case-by-case basis (which I think depends on what things you have connected in your head in the first place, if they aren’t connected you don’t need to do decopuling to separate them) somewhat influenced but not determined by personality traits.
I wish I was better at personal disagreements than I am (doesn’t everyone?). When arguing with my wife I get defensive and such even if I shouldn’t. I do try to frame our disagreements in terms of fundamental personality/value differences sometimes and it works occasionally (she doesn’t always buy my relativist arguments about what is and isn’t acceptable bathroom dustiness etc.) but it’s hard to argue well verbally when the message you’re trying to convery is more suited to a 3000 word essay – bringing up theoretical concepts in everyday speech can sound a little insane. I avoid most politically contentious topics IRL for that reason unless I know the person I’m talking to really well. If you don’t it’s hard to both know what they mean and to feel confident that they’re going to understand you back.
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” I also regret I wasn’t clearer in the original piece that I was talking about The Scientist and The Literary Intellectual as archetypes representing different styles, and not two categories of people – because it certainly isn’t true that all scientists decouple all the time and all nonscientists never do.”
Let me extend comment because I think it’s important and I think that one thing that makes this whole encounter so fascinating is that each of them are on both sides of several of those dichotemies, at different points in the argument.
This reflects the fact that people are not completely consistent, and a person can be high-decoupling at one point and low-decoupling at another, and it also reflects the fact that each of those describe rhetorical as well as intellectual styles. Both of them are skilled speakers and are happy to happy to argue on multiple levels which involves bringing in different styles of argument.
To give some examples, here are the categories offered in the Original Post: (1) Science Vs Identity Politics, (2) Rational vs Activist style, and (3) High vs Low Decouplers.
I’d not that the original post rhetorically tilts in favor of one side of each of those. Just looking at the words, “high” is better than “low”, “Rational” is better than (implied) Irrational and Science is better than something which is, “purified rejection of scientific debate norms that is identity politics.” Let me suggest some slightly more symmetrical ways of framing those same issues.
1) Science = “the strongest conclusions are based on evidence which can be collectively examined and treated as objective facts. Arguments based on personal experience or belief should be treated with suspicion.”
Identity Politics = “knowledge is often situated — which is to say based on personal and collective experience — and arguments based on personal experience are important and should be treated on par with arguments based on ‘objective’ data. They can be argued against, but shouldn’t be inherently treated with suspicion.”
2) Rational = “it is charitable to treat other people’s statements as pure claims about truth values of various claims.”
Activist = “people speaking on political issues are not only making isolated truth claims they are also trying to influence people rhetorically, and to support and strengthen various existing political factions. Evaluation of their statements should include not only truth values but also an analysis of what rhetorical space they are claiming”
3) High-decoupler =”the ability to block out context and experiential knowledge and just follow formal rules”
Low-decoupler = “the interest in applying context and experiential knowledge”
You can see that there’s overlap and the high/low decoupler distinction describes the combination of the two previous items.
__Looking at how each of them are on both sides of the science/identity divide __
Sam Harris on Science/Identity. Consider Harris’s opening statement, “While I have very little interest in IQ and actually zero interest in racial differences in IQ, I invited Murray on my podcast, because he had recently been de-platformed at Middlebury College. He and his host were actually assaulted as they left the auditorium. In my view, this seemed yet another instance of kind of a moral panic that we were seeing on college campuses. It caused me to take an interest in Murray that I hadn’t previously had. I had never read The Bell Curve, because I thought it was just … It must be just racist trash, because I assumed that where there was all that smoke, there must be fire. I hadn’t paid attention to Murray. . . . ”
This is clearly a rhetorical device, but look at the framing. It’s entirely about his own experience, he says that he hadn’t paid attention to Murray prior to Middlebury, he had casually assumed that The Bell Curve was “racist trash” but that, after seeing the way Murray was treated he, “felt a moral obligation” to reconsider.
This is explicitly inviting the listener to take his entire conversation with Murray has happening in a context, and to believe that the context is important for understanding and interpreting what was said.
Again, this is completely standard in terms how rhetoric functions, but it’s still worth noting.
Here’s Harris arguing for the scientific perspective, “Your accusation that I’m reasoning on the basis of my tribe here is just false. I mean, I spend, this is the whole game I play, this is my main focus in just constructing my worldview and having conversations with other people. When I’m thinking about things, that are true that stand a chance of being universal, that stand a chance of scaling, these are the kinds of things that are not subordinate to a person’s identity.” 
Here’s Ezra Klein arguing in favor of science (which I quoted earlier), “And so in terms of how all this helps us have a more sophisticated discussion, a discussion that makes us more ready to absorb these findings as they come down the line, I actually don’t really understand it and I don’t think I ever have. If you want to have discussions about very precise population categories, I think that we should come up with good language for doing that. I think that if you read a lot of these studies, people do. / That isn’t what your conversation was about, and it’s not what the conversation in this country has generally been about.”
Here’s Klein in defense of Identity/ situatuated knowledge “What I want to convince you of is that there’s a side of this you should become more curious about. You should be doing shows with people like Ibram Kendi, who is the author of Stamped from the Beginning, which is a book on racist ideas in America which won the National Book Award a couple of years back. People who really study how race and these ideas interact with American life and policy. ”
__Looking at how each of them are on both sides of the rational/activist divide __
Harris on the importance of considering the political effects of one’s speech, “The original Vox article landed on the hate watch page at the Southern Poverty Law Center website. In a stream that talks about neo-Nazi hate groups and the Atlanta bomber, there’s me and Murray. That’s not an accident. ”
Harris on the importance of separating speech from effects, “My claim is that you’re conflating — I get that you hate [Murray’s] social policies, I get that you see that he thinks his social policies are justified by what he thinks empirically true in the world of data and facts and human difference. … / But the conflation is, is that talking about data is one thing. Talking about what should be done in light of the facts that you acknowledge to be true, or are likely to be true, is another. There can be good faith disagreements in both of those conversations. ”
Klein on the importance of being able to separate out people’s comments from the political environment in which it takes place (emphasis mine): There are a lot of white commentators, of which I am also one, who look at what’s happening on some campuses, or look at what happens on Twitter mobs, or whatever, and they see a threat to them. The concern about political correctness goes way, way, way, way up. **Then the ability to hear what the folks who are making the arguments actually say dissolves. The ability to hear what the so-called social justice warriors are actually worried about dissolves.** I think that’s a really big blind spot here. I think it’s making it hard for you to see when people have a good faith disagreement with you, and I also think it’s making harder for you to see how to weight some of the different concerns that are operating in this conversation. ”
Ezra Klein in favor of looking at things in a political context, “[A]s it comes to the way you actually conducted the conversation, I’m arguing that you lacked a sense of history, that you didn’t deal in a serious way with the history of this conversation, a conversation that has been going on literally since the dawn of the country. A conversation that has been wrong in virtually every version, in every iteration, we’ve had in America before. ”
I think that’s a good reminder to avoid pigeon-holing either of them as purely occupying one side of the high/low decoupler standard. They both go back and forth.
 As I said before, I think this is a statement by Harris that I find very appealing. My criticism is that I don’t think he’s living up to standard in this discussion.
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Much to unpack here so I’ll just make a few comments:
First, I agree we you that both of them do both coupling and decoupling.
Second, consider that your own clear low-decoupling (or high-coupling if you prefer that) makes you non-neutral here. Your framings are not, in my mind, more symmetrical – they clearly favour the “coupled” viewpoints as more sophisticated. And I make no secret of the fact that I don’t like Activist Style debate, but I don’t think describing it as a purified rejection of scientific debate norms is incorrect or even unfair.
Third, I think you’re not appreciating the distinction between two conceptions of what “identity politics” means that I described. You’re simply using Klein’s version, as far as I can tell.
It’s funny. I think even some identity political claims get misunderstood just like Murray’s do, but in the other direction. In one direction, a ‘decoupler’ says something factual and is surprised and annoyed that ‘couplers’ think all kinds of policy implications follow, in the other, “couplers” say something factual and are surprised and annoyed that “decouplers” *don’t* think their preferred policies follow from this. I think that’s a common misunderstanding in social justice-related disputes: that disagreeing with policy implications also means you deny the basic factual claims.
Thanks for responding. I think there’s some differences that are worth hashing out here, and hopefully they’re worth your time as well (and, in response to your other comment in which you apologized for taking a while, I’d much rather feel like this is something that we can each mull over and respond to at leisure rather than feeling a obligation to reply, or a desire to just score points).
First, I admit, I was trying to make the definitions more “fair” but I was also trying to make them more inclusive. In order to make the point that both of them make a variety of arguments I wanted to avoid definitions that might descibe 30% of behavior as [X], 10% of behavior as [Y] and leave 60% as neither. But in some cases that might be the better defintion.
I’m curious though, having read my attempt, whether you would suggest any edits which would make a more neutral definition?
Second, demonstrating my own point about the rhetorical impacts of the labels my immediate reaction to seeing you describe me as low-decoupling was to bristle — even though I know you intended it as descriptive rather than pejorative.
I was avoiding getting into the discussion of “identity politics” because I think that’s a complicated topic but I think your summary is basically correct. I’d also note that Kelin doesn’t use the phrase “identity politics” much (until the end). I’ll double check but my sense is that he refers to Harris’ use of the phrase “Identity Politics’ and then, when talking about Harris’s biases he uses the word “identity” rather than the phrase “identity politics”. I don’t claim that Klein is completely precise in his usage, but I think that distinction gets at the two definitions you offer. “Identity” isn’t necessarily a group identity, it’s something that’s an important sense of one’s self-conception and how one relates to the world. “Identity politics” generally, refers to either (a) organized interest group politics or (b) political rhetoric which is designed to appeal to people’s identity as members of a group and to strengthen people’s attachment to that identity.
There’s another tangent that I’ll mention but not get into which is that there’s been much written around the 2016 election about the ways in which “identity politics” is often defined to mean “minority identity politics” and that’s an incomplete way of looking at it (Klein I think also alludes to that without trying to explain it — in part because it does come up near the end and they’re running out of time).
I will throw out one more tangent related to your final paragraph (which I’ll pick up again when I have more time). Consider DSquared’s classic post — http://crookedtimber.org/2009/10/22/rules-for-contrarians-1-dont-whine-that-is-all/ To what extent do you think that describes the dynamics that Harris is experiencing? (I’d say maybe 20%. I don’t think Harris is primarily doing that sort of contrarian schtick, but I think that there are often cases in which the “suprise” at people reading in policy implications is, in fact, faux surprise. Again, I don’t think that’s exactly what’s happening hear but it’s enough of a related phenomonon that I want to throw the idea into the discussion).
More later . . .
Most likely I was introduced to someone else on the internet who is Australian back around the same time that I met you, and I confused some aspects of your personal backgrounds :). At any rate, your writing is indistinguishable to me from that of a native English speaker (and I consider myself pretty sharp at noticing the kinds of subtle errors made by non-native speakers).
I’ll try to be brief in addressing the personal bit at the end of your response, as I don’t want to stray too far from the general discussion. I think you might have misunderstanding what I was curious about: not how you handle disagreements you’re personally involved in, but how you handle disagreements you witness between other people and whether it’s anything like your processing of arguments between well-known intellectuals. I asked because it is with me, except that my reaction to drama within my personal vicinity comes with (very understandably) strong emotions and stress to varying degrees. Disagreements that I’m directly a part of are another matter.
I 100% relate to you on two of the things you allude to in that paragraph: (1) “bringing up theoretical concepts in everyday speech can sound a little insane”; and (2) the conflicts that can arise when others refuse to acknowledge different preferences coming from personality/value differences. (2) has been the common denominator of my difficulties with a long series of roommates and part of the reason for my having sworn off living with other people for the moment. However, perhaps the biggest reason why I fantasize about getting into a real-life rationalist social group one day is my expectation that the rationalist community is an exception to both (1) and (2), so there’s probably more potential in those spaces for me to find a rewarding roommate / close friend / romantic partner relationship.
If English isn’t your mother tongue, you might be unaware that the word is “infamous”, not “imfamous”. Otherwise, easy typo to make.
Oh right, yes I know. Thanks for spotting the typo.
It’s probably worth mentioning that there are other Default Hypotheses to be had here. One would be that every time in the past people have said bad things about minorities, it has been for untrue reasons, even if they were highly respected scientists trying very hard to be objective.
That would be a Default Hypothesis coming from the political side, yes. That’s a nice, symmetric phrasing that well illustrates the “coming at something from two directions” that’s going on here.
I started a long comment yesterday, but I think it got eaten by WP, so I’m trying again, and I’ll break it into sections (many apologies if this double posts. My first comment on Thursday posted without any issues, so I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong).
__Introductory throat clearing__
1) I’m much more familiar with Ezra Klein than I am with Sam Harris and for that reason I find it much easier to extrapolate from his statements and believe that I know where he’s coming from. For Harris, I can understand his arguments but my ability to flesh out his position is less than it is for Klein. I am more sympathetic overall to Klein’s argument but that could just be a corollary to the fact that my mental model of Klein’s position is richer and more detailed.
2) I’ve paid the most attention to the e-mail exchange and their shared podcast. Embarrassingly (for the amount of time I’ve spent thinking about their exchange) I haven’t listened to the original Murray podcast (and should at some point). For the Klein/Harris podcast I read the transcript and listened to it all the way through twice, and was surprised at how much my impression shifted over that. I agree with you that it rewards sustained attention.
3) I haven’t spent that much time with the THN articles; I read both of them at the time, but haven’t gone back to them again. They are clearly part of the whole story but, at the same, Klein neither wrote nor edited them and so trying to include them makes the whole exchange much more complicated, and I’m not sure how important they are. But, again, I say this to highlight my biases and say that I’m open to an argument that I’m not weighing them heavily enough.
4) I agree with you that it’s more informative to look at, “exactly how and why people disagree instead of focusing on who’s right or wrong” but I do want to look at some of the ways in which their arguments are stronger or weaker — in part to highlight my differences from your summary.
5) As you say, it would be easy to write a book. I’m going to start by throwing out a handful of ideas. I’d be very interested if you want to respond to them, and whether or not you do I may pick this up again as I have more time. I’m excited to see some other discussion on this post.
6) I’ll also add that, while I think there are areas in which both of them failed to make their argument as clearly or as strongly as they might have, I respect that it’s really difficult to sound coherent talking off the cuff with a somewhat hostile party, and that both of them really do quite well (and much better than I would have).
__What I Think Each Of Them Are Trying To Argue__
There are a variety of threads, so any summary is incomplete so for each of them let me try a minimalist version, moderate, and maximalist version to suggest what I think are both the most defensiveble core parts of their positions, and where they start to extend into less safe ground.
__ Sam Harris __
Minimalist position: I am not a racist, I object to having my motivations called into question, and nothing that either Murray or I said on the podcast warrents the level of criticism or personal attack that we’ve received. Additionally I believe that the five basic claims (quoted in the OP) about the research are all well-supported and true.
Moderate position: I also believe that there is too little space for free exchange of ideas in this country; that it is wrong to de-platform speaker who are engaged in civil discussion based on a dislike of their positions, and that it’s wrong to impugn the motives and and character of somebody who is speaking in good faith about factual matters, and people have tried to impugn my character.
Maximalist postition: You, Ezra Klein, have engaged in and defended journalistic malpractice. You have misrepresented my position eggregiously, and dodged the question when I have tried to challenge you on it. Charles Murray is, “probably the most unfairly maligned person in my lifetime.” There should be a presumptive protection of debate that (and thank you for this formulation), “all you need to do to isolate an idea from its context or implications is to say so: ‘by X I don’t mean Y’. When that magical ritual has been performed you have the right to have your claims evaluated in isolation.”
__ Ezra Klein __
Minimalist position: I support the free exchange of ideas. I think deplatforming should be discouraged. I do not think that either Harris or Murray are racist, and have said so repeatedly. I think there is a long history of junk science on the subject of “Race and IQ” and, for that reason, I think that it’s import that anybody discussing the issue should be very explicit about what they think the implications of their work are, and make an effort to convey to their audience how one can distinguish between reasonable and unsupported claims. To do otherwise is irresponsible because there are so many unsupported claims within the broader cultural context and perceptions about “race” (I’m putting that word in quotes because, like the OP, I think it’s a problematic term and one that should be used carefully.
Moderate Position: I think Charles Murray, specifically, has a long history of writing books which present research and then argue for policy positions which are not well supported by that research. I think it’s appropriate for there to be strong pushback when he tries to present himself as just a modest searcher for truth, since he is, throughout his career, a political actor trying (and succeeding) to influence American politics. I think that Sam Harris errs in how he handled the dicussion because he’s not well atuned to the broader conversation. Harris is quick to recognize the ways in which his interests (or interests he supports) are at stake, but much less conscious of other people with interests at stake. I speculate that Harris would develop a better “ear” for those concerns if he spent more time talking to people with different perspectives (not merely differing positions, but different experiences and different senses of what is or isn’t relevent), particularly when it comes to conversations about “race” in Americs. I also think it’s important for people to be self-aware about the ways in which a given position and exchange “activates” biases based on a personal identity. “We all have a lot of different identities we’re part of all times. I do, too. I have all kinds of identities that you can call forward. All of them can bias me simultaneous, and the questions, of course, are which dominate and how am I able to counterbalance them through my process of information gathering and adjudication of that information. ”
Maximalist Position: It’s impossible to have a good converation about “Race and IQ” without talking about, at least the last 150 years of racial history in this county. ” I think you [Harris] have a big platform and a big audience. I think it’s bad for the world if Murray’s take on this gets recast here as political bravery, or impartial, or non-controversial.” “One of the things that I hear in you [Harris] is that, whenever something gets near the questions of political correctness — the canary and the coal mine for the way you yourself have been treated — you get very, very, very strident. They’re in bad faith. They’re not being able to speak rationally. They’re not being able to have a conversation that is actually going forward on a sound evidentiary basis.”
__ How I think Each Of Them Would Respond to That Position From the Other_
Klein On Harris Minimalist — Klein agrees that science and free speech are important. Doesn’t think Harris is racist, doesn’t think that the vox articles _do_ impugn his motivations and character, and thinks they are concerned with the substance of the debate.
Klein on Harris Moderate — Thinks that Harris’s concerns are not without reason, but that they’re overstated, and that he’s signifiantly overestimate the level of threat to free discussion.
Klein on Harrist maximalist — “During this discussion, you have called me, and not through implication, not through something where you’re reading in between the lines, you’ve called me a slanderer, a liar, intellectually dishonest, a bad-faith actor, cynically motivated by profit, defamatory, a libelist. You’ve called Turkheimer and Nisbett and Paige Harden, you’ve called them fringe. You’ve said just here that they’re part of a politically correct moral panic. ” I’d add that Harris doesn’t give much credence to other people saying, “by X I don’t mean [to imply that you’re racist]”.
Harris on Klein Minimalst — Notes that the Vox columns have been used by other people (including SPLC) to attack Harris’ character, thinks Klein hasn’t done enough to repond to those attacks or apologize for them.
Harris on Klein Moderate — thinks most of this is irrelevent. Is mostly concerned with defending the abstract right to speak freely, not Murray specifically (Note: I feel like there’s a progression of H: “Murray is terribly maligned” K: “Here are reasons why people object to Murray” H: “Setting Murray aside I think it’s important that other people be able to discuss statements of scientific fact without getting backlash.”)
Harris on Klein Maximalist — Thinks this is an eggregious defense / example of identity politics. Thinks that Klein is part of the “far left”, that he willfully ignores Harris’s points, and that there’s no point in even trying to communicate.
As you can see I think that part of what makes the conversation so dramatic is that there’s significant entanglement between big important social issues and their personal disputes and frustrations with each other. It makes the discussion less coherent, if one is only interested in the abstract issues, but also much more animated and it has real stakes. I think it is, again, to their credit that they are able to operate at both the personal and intellectual levels at the same time, and I think it would be a mistake to reduce it to merely an intellectual back-and-forth.
__ Where I Get More Critial Of Harris __
I am very sympathetic to Harris’s positions that (a) it should be possible to discuss “what evidence do we have about a given question” separately from the question of what should be done, or what is implied by those findings and (b) that it’s worthwhile to try to think about big questions from as universal a perspective as possible However, in this particular discussion I find the way in which he represents those positions really frustrating, and lacking. He never acknowledges that those are both really difficult things to do and that it’s important to have humility and to be open to challenges. I think that both of those positions should ideally go along with a willingness to listen and think carefully about criticisms and he just doesn’t do that in this conversation (and I’m certainly open to hearing from people who know more of Harris’s work than I do that he does better in other contexts).
As far as the question of looking purely at the science, I think Harris does a poor job of representing how science operates. Harris seems to equate good science with statements of fact (and he does this in both directions, he implies that anything produced by scientists in the field should be taken as a statement of fact and that anything he says which is factual should be taken as good science). Klein’s response comes late in the conversation but is, I think a good one. He describes Murray as, “way, way, way out in front of the data.” And says, of Harris’ summary that he’s speaking in generalizations which aren’t a useful way to summarize the discussion, “If you want to have discussions about very precise population categories, I think that we should come up with good language for doing that. I think that if you read a lot of these studies, people do. / That isn’t what your conversation was about, and it’s not what the conversation in this country has generally been about. Again, I think that if you read someone like Reich or talk to folks in this field, they are precise in a way that American politics often isn’t.”
I think if somebody wants to claim that they’re going to separate out facts from interpretation they have to also be willing to separate out facts from their own intuitions, and to be very specific about what they’re saying.
Both of those criticisms call for more effort than is standard in normal conversation. It’s perfectly acceptible, in most cases, for somebody to say, “I’ve looked up X, I can find plenty of scientists agreeing with it, I assume that it’s true.” But I think in a situation in which the topics under discussion is, specifically, “is this science controversial or not?” “what are the limits of what the science can tell us, and what questions is it well suited or not well suited to answer?”, and “when is ‘I’m not trying to insult somebody, just acurately reflect the science’ an appropraite defense?” When it comes to all of those questions I feel like Harris is not doing enough work and is presenting a very simplified version of what “science” entails (and is using it as a cudgel against his opponents, rather than as a prompt for serious inquiry).
Ok, some loose thoughts on this (forgive me for not engaging more, I’ve been talking about this so much already):
I think the THN article is absolutely central here. It’s what made Harris upset in the first place, and it’s their different attitudes to whether it’s legitimate or not that fuels the entire conflict.
While I complained about them not disagreeing well in the main article, I was impressed as well by how good they both were at making cogent arguments off the cuff. I wouldn’t be able to do that without a whole lot of um-ing and er-ing.
Your minimalist-to-maximalist position descriptions are broadly correct, except that (and you say this yourself) your internal model of Harris is slightly less developed. I think you’re missing some key aspects of his position, like the idea that policy must be strictly downstream from science and facts, and evaluating facts (including interpretations of facts) based on political considerations is simply not allowed – the public sphere recieves those ideas and gets to turn them into policies as it pleases – science has no say there – but it doesn’t get a say in what ideas it receives in the first place. From a certain hardline position I’m quite sympathetic to (but it has correctives, of course – like you point out), and I think Harris is as well, this arrangement is simply not negotiable: you can’t legitimately disagree with it. And much of Harris argumentation is aimed at Klein doing just that.
“I think if somebody wants to claim that they’re going to separate out facts from interpretation they have to also be willing to separate out facts from their own intuitions, and to be very specific about what they’re saying.”
Very much agree with this, but it’s paired with the responsibility to not extrapolate too much beyond someone’s own words even if that is your own intuition.
See my comment elsewhere that “is this controversial or not” has more than one meaning and this has caused a lot of problems. Also, whether Murray is way out in front of the data or not is actually a major part of the disagreement, and I had a full section on what that means and why they disagree. There’s definitely an idea here that “evil” theories has a higher burden of proof than “good” ones, and while that seems like an obvious truth from one perspective, personally I’m highly ambivalent.
I read the THN article again and I can definitely understand why it would have pissed off Sam Harris, but I also don’t think it’s just a “hit piece” or “propaganda” it is trying to represent their view of the science.
But let me hold that thought for a moment. I glad that I ended up being too busy to write a response more quickly because I ended up mulling it over for a while and I think that it’s worth stepping back a meta level and then circling around, and I think that, in doing so, I can provide a perspective on the burden of proof question that you raise at the end of your comment.
Let’s think for a moment about whatever ideas that you have about what makes for productive discussion, how people _should_ address each other, and the issues, etc . . .
For example, let’s say that you wanted to argue for any or all of the following (not all of these apply in this case, I’m just throwing out some example).
1) People should make an effort to avoid turning up the rhetorical “heat” of a conversation unnecessarily.
2) In cases of disagreement, people should be charitable to their opponents and make an effort to understand the core meaning of what the other person has said, rather than going on tangents or quibbling over framing or word choice.
3) If challenged people should provide evidence to support their claims.
4) “the content of what anyone says [should be] evaluated according to agreed-upon, impersonal standards like logical coherence, empirical evidence and commonly accepted values.
5) “Motivations, personal history, possible consequences or hurt feelings [should not] be considered.
6) “policy must be strictly downstream from science and facts, and evaluating facts (including interpretations of facts) based on political considerations is simply not allowed”
It’s worth asking “what are the reasons people should do this?” What would convince somebody else that they should behave and communicate in this way.
Thinking about it, I would (broadly speaking) separate out the arguments into three or four categories. These overlap, and in many cases more than one will come into play, but it’s worth thinking about them with some precision and rigor because depending on which reason on is highlighting at any given time it will point the argument in certain directions and will have strengths and weaknesses.
Here’s how I’d separate them out in order from narrower to broader claims.
0) I’m not trying to convince anybody else to behave in this way. I just find, for myself, that practicing these habits cultivates useful mental discipline.
1) Politness and respect. All of these are ways to demonstrate that one is treating the other person as “a member of the kingdom of ends” (as Kant would say) — an equal in the exchange.
2a) Utilitarian: These rules have social value. If people follow them it will generate social goods (perhaps greater production of knowledge, better integration of minorities views, less confusion, fewer mistaktes, etc . . . ).
2b) Epistemological value — this will help us identify the truth. Like (2a) this is an instrumental reason, we’re valuing these rules because they help us achieve something but, rather than being concerned about standard measures of utility (happiness, health, wealth, etc . . . ) we’re just concerned with generating truth.
3) Human rights. Perhaps we think that everybody has a right to express themselves as part of their being human. I think of E.E. Cummings defending Ezra Pound (who was accused of treason after supporting Mussolini during WW II. “Every artist’s strictly illimitable country is himself. An artist who plays that country false has committed suicide; and even a good lawyer, cannot kill the dead. But a human being who’s true to himself—whoever himself may be—is immortal; and all the atomic bombs of all the antiartists in spacetime will never civilize immortality.”
[Note: I’m leaving aside arguments towards authority like “our elders have told us to do this and so we should” or “following these rules is a matter of professional or guild standards” but feel free to flag that if you want to include them.]
Broadly speaking the strengths and weaknesses of each of them are:
1) Politeness is most often the clearest reason and the most directly applicable, but it’s also something people ignore all the time. Standards of politeness are quite often “more honored in the breech than in the observence.” Not only that, there’s a slight tension in telling people to ignore “hurt feelings” in the name of politeness.
2) Utilitarian arguments are inherently political because everybody is going to have a different sense of what trade-offs they think are valuable, or what are the best ways to persue utility [Note, however, that a utilitarian argument doesn’t have to be situational. It’s possible to say, “from a utilitarian perspective it’s important to have simple, straight-forward rules that everybody can recognize so that we do have a shared standard.”].
As far as epistemology goes, it’s worth thinking about the paired questions of “what counts as truth” and “what methods of producing knowledge are epistemologically privileged.” The original post treats scientific knowledge as occupying a position of epistemological privilege, and I think that’s generally appropriate, but it’s worth being precise about the nature of the privilege, and what it entails.
Consider that any discipline makes its own claims to epistemological values. Obviously religion has for a long time claimed that matters of religious faith should be strictly upstream from policy and that evaluating theological claims based on political considerations is “simply not allowed.” But even setting that aside people could make the same argument about Engineering, specialized military knowledge, economics, law, history, literature, or art. Part of what defines any profession, in fact, is that there are standards of truth and knowledge within the profession which differ from a casual or “lay” treatment of the issues. If you want to grant deference to all of them it impoverishes politics and any concept of democratic decision making.
Secondly, it’s worth noting that when it comes to controversial issues, scientists don’t necessarily do a better job of convincing each other than anybody else does. As Max Plank said, “science advances one funeral at a time.” So, if you want to argue that these standards to make it easier for people to arive at a sense of shared truths (and I think that they would) we should also acknowledge that they may not work quickly.
3) Is the broadest, and the only one of the reasons which is entirely content-neutral. It offers a defense of somebody who may be saying complete nonsense. As such it’s not a very good argument for saying that anything should be set aside as irrelevant or out of consideration. It is, in fact, a defense of cacophony.
I want to mostly stop there, because I’m curious for your response, and to find out whether you would offer a different reason than any of the ones I’ve described or if you would situation yourself based on a mix of those arguments. But I would point in the direction of two ways in which I might apply these ideas to the original conversation.
First, you raise the question of whether “evil” theories should have a higher burden of proof. I’d suggest that there are (at least) two ways in which one might answer that in the affirmative. One could argue that, if our reasons for protecting certain sorts of discussion are utilitarian ones then arguments which, themselves, have a negative impact on utility should have a higher standard for claiming those protections. Alternately, one could argue that it isn’t so much “evil” theories that have a higher burden of proof, but theories which fall into one of three categories (a) arguments for which there are well-known counter-arguments should have a burden of engaging with the counter-arguments, (b) arguments which point in the same direction as well-known cognitive biases, or the self-interest of large groups of people should have a higher burden of proof to protect ourselves from not requiring sufficient proof for things which flatter our prejudices.
Second, I’d suggest that whatever arguments one wants to make about the Harris/Murray conversation, I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t also apply to the THN article. So, for example, if somebody wants to argue that Harris/Murray may have said things which were politically troubling it’s worth setting those aside (perhaps remarking on them separately) and being sensitive to the details of exactly what factual claims they were or were not making, then we should do the same for THN. If you want to argue that Harris/Murray were having a conversation which included some science but also some amount of them flattering themselves about their own correctness, then I think you can make the same argument against THN.
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Finally, while I was working on that I noticed that William Saletan had a good post about the question of how to characterize the science on the subject: https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/04/stop-talking-about-race-and-iq-take-it-from-someone-who-did.html
I’ll get to your comments when I have more time, but I’ll just start by saying that I found several of them in the spam filter, so it might have something to do with the link? Idk
Playing around with it, I think it was other html tags. I had originally made the section headers bold, and when I removed that it posted without any issue.
I really enjoyed this post, and I’m now following your blog. Two thoughts I had while reading it:
– I think point 2 is a bit more controversial than it’s made out to be. James Flynn has to be considered a mainstream IQ researcher, I think, and I believe I can summarize his position as “IQ test scores correlate very well with intelligence within any given culture and time period, but they’re questionable when it comes to measuring intelligence across cultures and time periods.”
– The thing you discuss in the 10th footnote puzzled me as well. The take I’m most comfortable with is “Charles Murray really doesn’t care about race very much; he’s overwhelmingly concerned with class. But even though he doesn’t like being called ‘racist’, the notoriety stemming from that issue drives book sales and speaking engagements, and he’s never objected to that benefit, so it’s disingenuous for him to say the race issue isn’t a big part of his argument.”
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You’re likely right about 2, it seems like it should perhaps be changed to include “in WEIRD societies”. The second point too – Murray probably has benefited from a certain notoriety, which he doesn’t mind, and the race angle plays into that even if it isn’t his focus.
Thorough and accurate, well done! I would leave a further comment, but I’m going to peruse your archive right now 🙂
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” rule-based, devil’s-advocate ways, influenced by economics and analytic philosophy. I’d expect them to be more likely to identify as rational.”
Rationality is when you’re a satanic bug man, makes sense.
i’d never heard of you or your blog before, but i’m glad that i have now. what a great post! thanks!
Loved this essay!
I think an important part of the conflict between low and high decouplers is how they interpret each other’s strategy in their own terms. Basically, each one sees the other as a total hypocrite.
To Klein, the scientific/rational style of thinking is something that has always benefited the powerful / rich / white / male groups. Klein sees the promotion of rational thinking while being a rich white male as a naked power grab on behalf of those groups, one that has little to do with improving the world through science.
To Harris, the idea that Klein knows the correct policy before knowing the data is lunacy. After all, if there’s no way to change IQ past childhood, then affirmative action for college applicants does nothing to help black people at all – we should do early childhood interventions instead, or something. So Harris also sees Klein’s pre-scientific commitment to affirmative action as nothing but a naked power grab for his own coalition, one that has little to do with improving the lives of black people.
Of course, as a rationalist high-decoupler, I disagree with the first part. We should be able to study affirmative action objectively, and then pre-commit to enacting the policy that is supported by the data. But a low decoupler would note that in practice, this doesn’t seem to happen.
In other words: To a mistake theorist, there’s no conflict between mistake and conflict theorists. To a conflict theorist, there is.
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I’m not sure Klein subscribes to the idea you describe that much, it seems more a characteristic of a more radical kind of identity politics enthusiast. (But I don’t know that much about Klein).
You’re certainly on to something with your third paragraph. One difference here (maybe this is “decoupling” and maybe it’s not) is between those who think that policy should follow knowledge and the right policy isn’t known from the start, and those who think the promulgation of knowledge is driven by ideology from the start. These are incompatible, because with the latter, knowledge can’t be trusted while in the former, political convictions can’t be trusted.
I thought this too in relation to the recent controversy around Robin Hanson: many don’t understand that some people enjoy exploring ideas for fun without being driven by a political agenda, and others don’t understand this lack of understanding.
Fascinating piece! I haven’t listened to or read any of the Harris-Klein controversy, but I found your final point about the fraught nature of complex communication really interesting. Have you expanded on this elsewhere?
I can imagine a spectrum of communication where the public objects of communication range from zen koans to mathematical proof, and a muddy world in between. Koans are notorious for the amount of cognitive work (searching through the space of interpretations) required for the receiver to actually get the communicated concept, while mathematical proof is in some sense very different (and this definitely has caused some debate over the validity of math proofs). Given that we can’t really turn off our complex web of associations that function to lossily decompress discourse, I wonder what exactly can be said on how to leverage this to communicate well.
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I haven’t expanded on that specifically, but of course there’s plenty of discussion of disagreement on the rest of the blog.
“The question of whether Harris is being hypocritical when not wanting Murray’s ideas to be seen as part of a larger pattern but doesn’t mind making Vox responsible for the moral panic it’s part of.”
I feel as if this is an aspect of Harris’ identity that is stowed away but needs more critical analysis. While you speak to the descriptive claims of identity politics in both Harris and Klein’s usage, we actually have some evidence to back up Klein’s claim.
Klein and the authors of the Vox articles perform science on 1-5. It absolutely is not forbidden knowledge. Likewise, the silencing that Harris fears from publications like Vox are based on his feeling that they pander to a more emotional crowd but, like Harris, they state explicitly, with his same style decoupling, they disagree with deplatforming and silencing. They said a “magic phrase” which Harris ignores. Likewise, we don’t see Klein or Vox viciously attacking other intellegence researchers for “doing science.” Harris’ identity, as described by Klein, is in full effect throughout much of this ordeal. Harris’ worry is an identity.
While decoupling is an important aspect of performing a particular scientific study, much of the hypothesis generating and relevant discussion is not. Contemporary science is morally justifiable or useful in some manner, otherwise it wouldn’t be done. The findings of any study isn’t useful unless it fits into or provides evolution to some larger narrative. We study IQ because it is useful. Murray is a policy figure using IQ to make prescriptive claims. Any prescriptive claim based on empirical evidence needs a heavy dose of contextualization. That claim is not based on table 1. of study a, but a myriad of work interpreted to for a coherent narrative.
Harris professed he had no interest in the actual science and therefore forfeited the right to be use a dispassionate decoupling frame of reference. Harris and Murray are continually calling back to prior events to in a contextual way exactly opposite of this style. If Harris wanted to speak to a particular study’s claims, he can use a non-contextualized style.
I find the conclusion unsatisfactory but the entire write up, brilliant. It seems Harris does play into his identity and only uses his decoupling mind set for questionable reasons. Klein, on the other hand, is playing politics where admitting one small defeat admits defeat of a large premise. Excellent write up, but in the end I would have like to see a focus on how a resolution might have worked.
Thanks, this was wonderful!
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Thanks for doing this! Your essay was very well done and I’ll be following you now.
One thing I’d like to tentatively test is instead of thinking in terms of a low decoupling/high decoupling dichotomy, that we try out thinking in terms of the landscape of information that each party considers relevant in a disagreement. Almost all of us, once we are discussing controversial subjects, are going to be wrestling over which pieces of information we think matter to what’s being discussed. In looking at this wrestling over what evidence is relevant, I don’t see the use of high and low decoupling as a neutral way of depicting it.
The desired relationship between scientific inquiry and social policy is yet a separate question for me from low or high decoupling tendencies. I heard Harris accusing Klein and others of wanting to censor/punish scientists because their work might lead to uncomfortable conclusions. What I heard Klein arguing instead is that Harris and Murray should be aware that if you are a scientist who makes a career of translating your not-fully-confirmed science into controversial policy agendas, that you don’t get to hide behind being a scientist when people find your policy recommendations repugnant. I heard Klein saying there are real-world consequences to becoming a political player in the real world. I think it’s worth debating what constitutes “fair” and “unfair” consequences for being a political player in the real world, but we can observe all around us that many political players pay a much higher price for their participation than either Murray or Harris. The threat to “science” in this debate was serving as a rhetorical shield for Harris, it seemed to me, but behind that shield was mainly a bunch of non-scientific moral and emotional claims about threats to reputation and income.
I found it ironic that Harris expressed little interest in the science part of this debate, but in discussions on Twitter and elsewhere, people kept attributing to him a virtuous interest in “only the data” (ie, being a high decoupler). Harris, to me, seemed much more interested in litigating his grievance for having been mistreated by Klein after bringing Murray on his podcast because he felt aggrieved on Murray’s behalf for being mistreated by the world at large. The bulk of Harris’ motivation seemed to be personal. His trouble containing his anger at every turn seemed to be evidence of this. It doesn’t matter to me so much whether we call that identity politics, but it did very much seem to be about defending his public identity from what he saw as unfair attacks, and that’s what he was there to debate, not the science.
And in some ways, Klein is not the best partner for that debate because he is one of the people accused of mistreating him/them. It’s almost like we needed two other people, experts in the role of science in society or moral philosophers or something, to debate the question of which appraisals of Murray and Harris constitute unjust treatment.
The whole debate to me seemed mostly like the 700th round of culture war, in which X person rages about being badly aggrieved, demands attention for feeling aggrieved, also on behalf of their larger group, and accuses the other person/group of violating their rights. Yes, the backdrop was research into race and IQ, but Harris seemed interested in that as “just the latest instance” rather than for its own merits. All ends of the political spectrum do this. When leftists do it they get called out for playing the political correctness game or wrecking freedom of speech or doing identity politics. When non-leftists do it, what do we call it?
I realize as I write this that I show little sympathy for Harris. I read one of his books previously and found it sloppy (I am a practicing Buddhist and a psychologist, so some of his writing is in my wheelhouse that way). My impression of him before this debate was that he seems dispositionally to overstate things, to make more of his ideas than they merit. I don’t trust people intellectually who have a high bluster factor and he seemed that way to me. These interactions with Klein only reinforced that. I don’t feel one way or another about Klein or Vox. I do wish that Klein and Harris had agreed either to talk about the merits of Harris’ personal/professional grievance or about the merits of Murray’s science and its policy implications; mixing the two got them nowhere.
I think there is a big motte-and-bailey in the way that Harris summarizes Murray by saying “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”, a framing which you seem to accept with your own comment “many genetic traits like appearance and some medical conditions differ systematically by race and it would be unexpected if no mental traits (that we already know are heritable) did”. But if you pay close attention to what Murray is saying, it’s clear he’s not just making the case that it’s likely genetic group differences in intelligence are nonzero, it’s that he thinks it’s likely they contribute some non-trivial amount to the measured 15-point gap in the black/white average. If in the future a greater equalization of environments caused the gap to narrow to only 1 IQ point (say), and there was good evidence that the 1-point difference in average IQ was a consequence of population differences in gene frequencies, that would hardly be a vindication for Murray! For one thing, it would go against his arguments (which he made in the Harris podcast as well as the book) to the effect that it’s a waste of money to fund policies to try to make environmental conditions more equal. And policy issues aside, consider the segment which starts a little after 59 minutes into the podcast, where Murray said:
“It seems to us highly likely that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences. And we went no farther than that. There is an asymmetry between saying “probably genes have some involvement” and the assertion that it’s entirely environmental. If you’re going to be upset at The Bell Curve, you are obligated to defend the proposition that the black/white difference in IQ scores is 100% environmental, and that’s a very tough measure. … Here’s the thinking that Dick and I had that led us to write that sentence. And it starts out with simply the very high demands that the environmental hypothesis places on you. If you say, for purposes of just thinking through the arithmetic, that genes and environment is a 50/50 split in explaining variance in IQ in a whole population, that means that in order for the environment to explain 100% of a standard deviation difference mean between blacks and whites, the average black would have to be at an environment that is about 1.5 standard deviations below the white mean. That’s a really big difference. And if you take all the measures like income, and educational attainment, and occupational distribution, and a variety of other measures of environment, one and a half standard deviations is way way bigger than any of the observed differences [that] are there. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t unmeasured differences in the environment that are also at work, it just is you start off with a really big question in your mind, is that plausible that it could be 100% environmental.”
But if this argument is intended to show it’s unlikely environmental differences could create a 15-point difference, it seems obvious that it also implies it’s nearly as unlikely it could create 14 points worth of difference, with genetic differences supplying the additional point. (I have also never seen Murray address the fact that there are plenty of IQ studies which seem to show populations experiencing swings of 10-15 points in relatively short periods, for example studies of Irish students in the late 60s and early 70s with large sample sizes showed them behind English students by amounts like this, but nowadays they have caught up and even seem to be a little ahead.)
Another issue is that once you consider the possibility that genetic differences might themselves be responsible for a small amount of average IQ difference while environmental differences make a much larger contribution, there’s no reason to assume the genetic differences would necessarily go in the same direction as the environmental ones. Is a scenario where the black population has a genetic 1-point advantage over the white population but a 16-point environmental disadvantage significantly more implausible then a scenario where the black population has a 1-point genetic disadvantage and 14-point environmetnal disadvantage? (this point was emphasized in a good piece about The Bell Curve by analytic philosopher Ned Block at https://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/philo/faculty/block/papers/Heritability.html ) And Murray and Herrnstein’s phrasing in The Bell Curve, that “both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences” suggests they meant genes have something to do with the black deficit relative to whites (an impression reinforced by all Murray’s subsequent comments on the issue like the one I quoted above), not just that there’s some nonzero genetic difference which might possibly lessen the deficit.
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I don’t think we’re disagreeing much. There’s a definite motte-and-bailey structure to this and I’ve been fairly clear in my assessment that Murray’s beliefs, as in his impression from examining the gestalt of the evidence, go further than he is willing to state definitively.
Can you do a similar deconstruction for the Harris-Chomsky e-mail exchange please?
Haven’t read it. At this point I’m skeptical it could be done as well considering all the extra material there way to supplement the emails with it this case. And this was a lot of work. But maybe some time, who knows?
I don’t think background material is necessary or even helpful in the Chomsky-Harris e-mails: the context is much simpler than the interpretation of Murray’s statistical research.
I also wouldn’t expect an in-depth piece, I’m more interested in comparing the two exchanges. I think Harris’ approach in the Chomsky e-mails is very different than in the Klein debate. In the Klein debate he seems, as you point out, want to stick to a narrow expression of facts, whereas in the Chomsky debate he insists on imputing unknowable motives.
Maybe you have a different take, I would appreciate hearing it if you do ever read the emails.
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Seeing the news today that Alan Turing will be on the 50-Pound note, made me think about this conversation and a different way to frame the point about coupling vs decoupling.
I think one problem that can befall people with a high interest in decoupling is that they can end up engaging in a Motte and Baily type argument (often inadvertantly). Considered abstractly it would look like this.
Motte: “If we assume X to be true (and there is scientific evidence for X) then Y follows”
Bailey: “We should do Y”
We can see an example, thinking about the cae of Alan Turing. Consider somebody in the 50s making the following argument about homosexuality.
“Homosexuality is a mental disorder; engaging in homosexual acts is harmful, therefore chemical castration is a good treatment.”
That’s an entirely logical statement and defensible (given the positions of the psychological and meditcal establishment of the era). But it does contain within it, two separate propositions:
1) “If it is true that homosexuality is a menatal disorder then chemical castration could be a good treatment.”
2) “It is true that homosexuality is a mental disorder, and than chemical castration is a good treatment and, therefore, homosexuals should be chemically castrated.”
The first statement is a purely logical proposition and clearly true. The second is a claim that depends upon the strength of the evidence, and also one’s judgement about how much evidence should be required to take action.
What’s clear, looking back on the debate with the benefit of hindsight, and massive changes in the popular and medical perception of homosexuality is that not only was the psychological and medical community of the day mistaken, but that the evidence that was being considered was based on a whole host of unexamined cultural beliefs and assumptions.
I argued, in my previous comment, that being able to engage in this sort of conversation is an import skill, and an important tool to have, but one should recognize the limitations of the tool.
I was amused when you called me a high-coupler because, as I said, I think my temperment is towards a high-docoupling style of communication but, over time, I’ve come to see the problems in that. When I look back on arguments that I made in the past I can see many examples in which I inadvertantly engaged in that sort of Motte and Bailey argument. I would make the purely logical statement “if X then Y”, and proceed to tentatively believe Y without ever having engaged with the consequences of that belief.
In your original post you write, (emphasis mine)
“In traditional scientific-philosophical debate, the content of what anyone says is evaluated according to agreed-upon, impersonal standards like logical coherence, empirical evidence and commonly accepted values. Motivations, personal history, possible consequences or hurt feelings are not considered to be on the table. Bringing them there, in the form of ad hominems, guilt by association, or non-sequiturs (in this case, extrapolation beyond someone’s literal words) are considered foul play.”
To use that phrasing, I would argue that referencing “empirical evidence” and “commonly accepted values” often has the effect of (unknowingly) bringing in someone else’s personal history or hurt feelings (as filtered through a body of scientific or philosophical debate) and that one of most important parts of the high-coupler argument is to recognize that ad hominems, guilt by association, or non-sequiturs are problematic, but that even if you rule them out you still aren’t working with a clean slate.
It gets trickier to apply that insight to the debate about Race and IQ. But I think that’s an important point to make about the tension between high-decoupling and low-decoupling argumentation.
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I’ve become less enamored with the decoupling concept over the last year. It is useful and it captures something real but it’s also abstract and broad enough that it becomes hard to be clear about what we’re discussing.
In this article I used it in the sense that you could decouple factual beliefs from their implications by saying that you don’t intend to support those implications (in logical terms this would be by denying some implicit premises required for the implications to follow).
It can definitely be used as a rhetorical strategy to get people to accept conclusions they don’t like, that is true. I guess I’m at least a little bit sympathetic to that, like I am to the related idea that you’re not “entitled” to reject a factual belief because you don’t like the implications (bad implications can’t reach back across causality and make something untrue).
I’m not so convinced about your Turing example though, because the terms involved are so vague. What counts as a mental disorder is famously subjective and pretty far from natural category and objective science. “Harmful” (and “good treatment) as well: to whom? Under what circumstances? Are there benefits as well? How do we compare them? Etc. I think there’s a lot of more leeway there.
And I’m also, in general, skeptical of the idea that we can have a strict set of argumentation rules that guarantees that 1950s Britain come to the conclusion that Turing’s homosexuality is fully acceptable as it is. I see no reason to believe that a more rather than less generous attitude towards heavily contextualizing arguments is an asymmetric principle in favor of good.
Regarding your second to last paragraph… I kinda see that as a pretty bad excuse in the vein of “it’s practically impossible to clean a house perfectly, which means all cleaning methods are flawed and corrupted and we don’t need to follow them and I can be a pig as much as I want. We’re all pigs but I’m not deluded about it like you.” Yeah, I’ll clean, thanks. That being said I completely support making the argument that somebody is biased or mistaken in some specific way for a specific reason they might not think of. But that’s very different from throwing out a *general* accusation. It actually pushes someone to hold a more objective standard, not declare objective standards a sham in favor of different ones that help you better.
Thanks for the reply. I’d been thinking about this, and considered posting a follow-up to my own comment but didn’t want to spend too much time on an old thread unless it was of interest.
I was thinking about some of the same issues you touch on in your reply.
But, before I get to them, I just want to say again, that I didn’t drop in just to be argumentative. I really have continued to reflect on this post. I think my comments could have been clearer, and I occasionally think about how I could re-frame them. In this case the news about Alan Turing did prompt me to come back to this conversation.
I had also realized that my comment could be taken as an argument for unlimited skepticism, “we can’t be sure about everything, so you can’t make me believe anything I don’t want to nyah, nyah.” Which isn’t what I intended.
So it’s worth thinking about how to define what level of skepticism would be appropriate.
One way to think about it is that, when trying to asses the scientific evidence on a given question, the standard will be different depending on how much the question itself reflects cultural or folk categories.
In the case of Alan Turing the cultural categories in question are “homosexuality” and “mental disorder.” In the case of a question like, “are there inherent racial differences in IQ?” Both “race” and “IQ” are culturally loaded categories.
The skepticism could take three forms:
1) Is the science being done well, or is it importing the assumptions or biases of the researchers?
2) Is the person asking the question (and consulting the scientific literature) bringing their own assumptions or biases to their understanding of the question? (One way to phrase this is to say that there’s a significant possibility that people doing good research may produce scientifically valid results which are still unable to answer the questions that most concern other people)?
3) Is the person asking the question doing so to advance a political agenda.
Let’s try a thought experiment that involves a less controversial topic. Imagine that I start doing research on the question “are brave people happier?” (I could imagine either result. Perhaps brave people are happier because they feel less fear and anxiety. On the other hand brave people may be less happy because they are less likely to avoid or shy away from difficult things which reduce their happiness).
I note that both “bravery” and “happiness” are categories for which there is significant pre-existing cultural beliefs and assumptions.
I spend a couple years coming up with robust techniques for assessing bravery, and start accumulating evidence for the question. After a while I find that there are reliable results that brave people are less happy.
I argue that this reflects a social problem. Bravery is a social good; we would like to encourage people to be brave and yet that makes them less happy. Perhaps there should be policies to address that.
You could argue with my research. You could argue with the proposed policy and say that it would be a bad idea for various reasons.
But there’s another reason for skepticism and that is, “why ask the question with those categories? Is that really the best place to start when thinking about happiness?”
Consider that, no matter how scrupulous I’ve been in my research, I may have inadvertently created problems for myself which would look somewhat like the problem that Daniel Kahneman identified as “What You See Is All There Is?” I’ve looked in one direction; I found answers, but that doesn’t mean I was looking in the right place. The only way to tell if I’ve made that error is to take a step back and look at the larger context. I need to assess not only whether the connection between bravery and happiness is robust and repeatable, but what other questions I could be asking about bravery and happiness and whether I’ve actually identified the crux of the issue.
In this version I’d say that one question that could be asked of Charles Murray (and Sam Harris) is, “does the way that you’ve framed this issue reflect a certain myopia?” There’s some connections between that question and the issue of, “are you trying to serve a certain political agenda?” Because having an agenda would be a reason why somebody might be myopic. But there’s also the question of, “you have a question, you’ve identified data that applies to that question, but why is bravery your starting point?”
Think of the process of formulating a question as shining a spotlight on certain parts of the data. I’m saying that it’s worth having some skepticism about, “is the spotlight illuminating an important character or have I actually centered the spotlight on part of scenery on the set . . .?”
[Okay, that last phrasing may be an unnecessary rhetorical flourish, but hopefully that adds some structure to my original thought.]
Because of weeks of enforced domesticity, coupled with the peculiar paths that YouTube leads one down, I recently found myself relistening to the Harris/Klein podcast. I then sought out the responses it generated. As a listener to both their podcasts for many years before this joint effort, I was not interested in who ‘won’ etc. (neither came out well). I was more interested why, as Sam commented, they probably agree about 95% of issues yet spent two hours of them talking past each other. This is the only commentary I have read that explains the reasons *why* this happened, so thank you very much.
Thank you! Knowing it’s appreciated makes it worth the work.
You are a bright guy, you should read “The Bell Curve.” You’d learn a lot from it.
I was reminded of the existence of this article by a post on Twitter, and so took the time to re-read being as I had (more-or-less by accident) re-listened to the entire folderol with Harris/Klein last month. Some thoughts.
The Klein Tribe in this situation are being deeply intellectually dishonest. Why is that? Because underneath the surface features of this argument lurk some of the left’s most valued shibboleths. In this case, merely conceding 1-5 does vast damage to their ability to maintain a relatively blank-slatist worldview which allows for a near infinite malleability of human nature. Forget 6. 1-5 pointing to the practical inevitability of 6 would nuke that shibboleth from orbit irrevocably, so 1-5 and anybody who advocate for them must be destroyed. Note how resistant Klein is to even concede basic biological realities; pointing out the fact that genetics and its inheritance control almost entirely relevant aspect of an individual’s morphology seems anathema to him, let alone the idea that a person’s behaviors or personality might be so influenced. Making these concessions in the case of individuals is hard enough, and this is before we even touch the concept of average group differences.
But, in reality Klein is merely defending the outer boundary of a much larger construct without saying so.
Now we get to the part where the intellectual dishonesty kicks into high gear. Assume for a moment that people’s personalities or psychology were unaffected by their genes and that group differences were entirely controlled by environmental factors – for the most part, this is what the blank-slatists are claiming – and think about those implications. This means that group difference is entirely dependent upon upbringing, culture, and the non-shared environment in children whose groups under-perform economically, academically and criminally.
What an indictment of their culture the blank slatists are making. Of course, these people are cultural relativists as well, and can’t have that be the narrative which dominates the discussion either for multiple reasons – although certainly because that would be “victim blaming”, so they invent the concept of institutional racism as a means of spackling shut the holes in their narrative – like a sort of “god in the gaps” thesis – when the reality that confronts them can’t be squared with readily available evidence.
It’s unfortunate for your argument that every single one of your assertions is false and unsupported.
Thanks for this. I never understood Ezra Klein’s point of view before. (I’m a decoupler)
On almost a completely different subject: After listening to the Sam Harris podcasts, I read “The Bell Curve”. It was a tough slog for me. And I would recommend Murray’s “Coming Apart” as a better read, with the same ideas, and no race discussion. One idea (from Murray) that I find most interesting is that selecting the high IQ people and sending them all to the same elite colleges, (where they are likely to marry and have kids), we are promoting a class divide in our country based on IQ. That seems true to me, but I don’t see it discussed much.