The Vox Smear

There are few debates more rife with political landmines than the conversation surrounding race and IQ. It’s a conversation plagued by misunderstanding, and deliberately distorted by those with different ideological agendas. Critics of the facts surrounding IQ distort the science to undercut its validity. These critics believe that by dismissing science, they can pin current racial disparities solely on past injustices whether that be Jim Crow, discrimination and even internalized racism. On the opposite side, there’s an equally ideological group that uses the facts of IQ to endorse a racist philosophy — a philosophy that falsely claims that you can replace individual merit by simply looking at someone’s skin color. Both are flawed propositions that are totally unsupported by the evidence, but remain eternally seductive. However, the skeptics of IQ literature cite those who misuse these facts as a reason to ignore or delegitimize anyone who acknowledges the facts themselves exist.

It’s for these reasons that the podcast between Sam Harris and Bell Curve co-author Charles Murray was named “Forbidden Knowledge.” In the podcast, Murray and Harris wade into the controversial topic of how IQ varies between racial groups. This podcast caught the attention of Vox, which published an article scornful of their discussion. The three authors repeatedly insinuate throughout that Murray is a “racialist”, which is a thinly veiled slur designed to convey to casual readers that he’s racist, and that Harris is his ignorant stooge at best, and perhaps even a fellow “racialist” at worst.

Charles Murray is the bizarrely controversial author of the infamous Bell Curve, a book which had a small section dedicated to the topic of Race and IQ. That comparably small segment has undeservedly come to define it. Defining it as a work about race and IQ as though that’s its (or Murray’s) main focus isn’t just a lie, but it misses the point entirely. The point being: identifying the largest stratification of society we’ve seen since feudalism — one not based necessarily on race or bloodline, but cognitive ability. This means he’s concerned with solving the issue of growing social inequality, not justifying it. The inequality caused by this fact isn’t something he’s celebrating, as racists or “racialists” might. It’s a problem. And yet this is how he’s been cast ever since the book was published in 1994, even despite repeated affirmations from scholars that his writings were completely aligned with mainstream science — both then and even more so now.

Recognizing that IQ differs across groups is an observable and accepted fact, one that not even the academics who wrote the piece criticizing Murray and Harris challenge. You might disagree with Murray’s policy answers to these facts, but instead of doing that his media critics, like Vox’s Klein, have far too often preferred to tell those unfamiliar with the science that they’re motivated by either racism or heartlessness by discussing it.

More important than the disagreement on the science itself, Sam Harris took issue with the way the conversation was framed by Klein in the first place. The rebuttal written by Klein was subtitled “This is not ‘forbidden knowledge.’ It is America’s most ancient justification for bigotry and racial inequality.”Something like this nakedly suggests that this is what Harris and Murray are doing: justifying — in the most ‘ancient’ way bigotry and racial inequality. In his view, “white men” like Murray and Harris are trying to apologize for these racial disparities, using the supposedly innate and immutable nature of IQ as justification. In the Voxian universe, Murray is motivated to assure fellow whites they’re not responsible for inequality, whereas Harris is personally motivated by his fear of political correctness and identity politics. To Klein, Harris hasn’t arrived at his belief in the partially genetic nature of IQ, he’s been duped into it by his experience with anti-speech SJWs and those who’ve lied about him in the past.

Both in his article and the podcast with Harris, Klein plainly says that those who acknowledge IQ differences must view those who fall further south on the IQ distribution as being “inferior.” Except, it’s only him (and the actual racists he cites) inserting that value into the conversation. It’s not a discussion revolving around group or even individual self-worth, it’s one that recognizes the value of every human life, but isn’t willfully ignorant of the fact that we live in a world which rewards some traits more than others. In this particular stage in human progress, that trait is IQ. No, that’s not fair, but meritocracies offer the best way of handling this unfortunate reality — a reality that whites and even more so Asians certainly can’t be blamed for. It’s certainly not “fair” that Klein has the physical wellness to run a successful publication while another man, through not fault of his own, is born with a serious life impediment like schizophrenia. Of course, not even this approaches some more hellish existences that some have to endure.

Say in an alternate universe, where one group is marginally more visually impaired, at the far end of the distribution there will be an underrepresentation of pilots in that group. Maybe they’re visually impaired because they are prone to book reading or computer programming, and instead they’re overrepresented there. Nobody is being systematically and actively disadvantaged. Refusing to acknowledge that this disparity exists won’t make it disappear. Without honestly identifying why it exists, you can’t even begin to think about how to fix it.

If a society is structured properly, that means the most useful within it will end up with the largest share of the continually-expanding pie. It can never mean that individual or group differences will be flattened or erased, but this also doesn’t mean that individuals or groups should be mistreated on the basis of those differences. For Klein, this is a very difficult thing to resolve. Maddeningly, the world around him stubbornly refuses to conform to the image of his preferred one. Which is a common thread that can be seen everywhere his philosophy is put into application: all of the failed “remedies” he advocates for such as affirmative action are never once directly linked to the narrowing gap between blacks and whites IQs that he champions. That’s because we still don’t fully understand the cause for the Flynn-effect period, never mind something so specific as what it means for racial divergences. But yet, he insists we have to double down on these policies, while never making a substantive case that links them to this effect.

In reference to affirmative action, he writes, “There’s a debate about the evidence on mismatch, and I can imagine how you might fall on the other side of it. But even if you do, it still seems to me that given America’s history, that would lead you toward more radical solutions for bridging racial divides…”

There are legitimate arguments to be made against policies like affirmative action, such as the phenomenon of “mismatch” — which is where an unqualified student is admitted to a university on the basis of race only to drop out when they can’t meet the demands. Of course, this isn’t just to the detriment of the students who were excluded because of it, but those who otherwise could have been admitted and would have succeeded. Tellingly, Ezra himself says he can understand why someone would take this position, but thinks that we ought to lean in favor of wasteful and dubiously evidenced policies because of “our history,” which requires “radical solutions” to set right.

Beyond the debate surrounding the science itself, a number of things emerge as character flaws for Klein throughout both the podcast and the e-mail exchange. He presents the front of a genteel, curious commentator, and manages to make the frustrated Harris appear unreasonably angry by contrast. This is how many reacted when the emails in question were released by Harris. Klein is apologetic, communicative and cordial, whereas Harris comes across as combative and accusatory. It so happens that this is the very tone Klein’s Vox has modeled itself as: an inquisitive, explanatory outlet that appears impartial even while it routinely suggests those who don’t neatly accept hard-left doctrine are “extreme” — wading not in regular “science,” but “race science, “the “ancient justification for bigotry and racial inequality.” For Klein and his apologists, i t’s puzzling why subjects of coy smear campaigns would react in such an exasperated fashion.

Harris points out that the three researchers who penned the arguments against he and Murray are, in fact, on the fringe of the debate. Which wouldn’t be a problem, except that Ezra declined to publish Dr. Richard Haier — the much more respected and mainstream expert in the field, and editor-in-chief of the scientific journal, Intelligence and author of the 2016 book The Neuroscience of Intelligence.

The Vox founder skirted the question when pressed, until at the end of the podcast where he relented and offered the weak defense that he was going to until Harris wanted to debate. Harris wanting to debate, apparently, made him think Haier was “handpicked.” The listener is left to think that Haier would not have been “handpicked” in Ezra’s view until Harris wanted to debate, or something?

Ezra’s bizzare contortions of logic aside, Harris points out that Haier wasn’t “handpicked” any more so than the the three fringe critics who popped up to assassinate the character of he and Murray. As Editor-in-Chief of the journal Intelligence and as someone who’s been heavily involved in academic journals on intelligence for the last decade this hardly makes him a lesser voice than Turkheimer, Harden or Nisbett. You could even say that without “handpicked” experts to lend credibility to an ideological narrative Vox couldn’t exist. Because of this, Klein should probably be the last person to accuse anyone of handpicking experts to make his case.

Klein has yet to answer as to why he allowed such uselessly incendiary remarks to go up on his website in the first place. And even after publishing such an attack, why he didn’t allow a respected voice in this field to make a case in their defense. When you allow the conversation to be mired in transparent insinuations of racial prejudice, it becomes forbidden knowledge. It produces a climate of science denial that has been a constant theme throughout human history, only because it upsets the cherished narrative of the time. It goes without saying that the luck-of-the-draw nature of genetics is a depressing fact to consider and that we should do whatever is within our power to fix it, while not allowing it to define us. But when you claim that people who recognize these fact are are celebrating them to justify the existing power structure, nobody reasonable will want to approach them as Harris revealed, and the challenges they present can’t be seriously addressed in an adult fashion.

Unlike furry K9s and felines, humans are capable of conscious reasoning. However, rendering it too toxic to talk about our very nature, as Vox’s Klein has done, sidesteps any potential remedy. Pretending that these differences can be entirely accounted for by environment doesn’t change the realities we face, like the reality that there’s no known intervention that can improve individual IQ, and we still aren’t certain of what drives generational improvements in intelligence.

Discussing these increasingly important matters isn’t to traffic in “junk science” or “racialist pseudoscience” as our friends at Vox would have you believe. And Klein himself is expressly unconcerned with the reputational risks Voxian insinuations create for even talking about them. That’s why he waves away the legitimate concerns of Harris that Murray had been quietly blacklisted for fear of being associated with him. The Vox founder waves these concerns away because Murray still has book deals and a job. In his view, being repeatedly and publicly tarred as a racist for asking hard questions that are grounded in fact is acceptable so long as you don’t lose your career. As charitable as that may sound to his own ears, it doesn’t change that it is wrong, and it doesn’t make Klein or his cohorts any less dishonest. It furthers the already intolerant environment that prevents even reasonable voices from talking about these issues. It’s fair to say that the Vox editor and his fellow media compadres are allowed to monopolize this conversation — shielded by a left-wing privilege that leaves them free of academic accountability and protects them from the consequences of discussing these ideas publicly. Klein and those in his camp have no sense of what it means to be perceived publicly as a racist for making valid arguments grounded in mainstream science. Even if Murray and Harris already have successful careers, what about the rest of the intellectually curious who don’t already have that capital? By writing off IQ inquiry as a racist enterprise, Klein allow malicious interpretations of facts to stand alone — as those who would challenge these falsehoods are shamed into silence.