In Defense of Charles Murray
with Sam Harris
Maybe you don’t agree with Charles Murray’s views about differences in human ability laid out in Human Diversity. Maybe you don’t agree with his analysis of the legacy of the Great Society laid out in Losing Ground. Maybe you even shudder when it occurs to you that someone somewhere is reading The Bell Curve. That is, of course, your right. Charles Murray is controversial, and reasonable people can disagree about his various positions. Reasonable people can even choose not to read him.
But whether you like him or not, Murray is a tremendously consequential figure. You cannot understand the changes in American welfare policy that began in the ‘90s if you don’t read Losing Ground. You cannot understand the growing class divisions among white Americans that gave us the Trump presidency without reading Coming Apart. And, sorry, you cannot understand the public debate about race and intelligence if you don’t read The Bell Curve. Attempts to make Murray persona non grata, to paint him as a racist and a hollow ideologue, simply don’t hold water. Attempts to deplatform him and hound him out of the public sphere are even worse. When we shut down the tough, important debates because they’re politically inconvenient, we set ourselves on the path to ruin.
Luckily, some people are willing to push back, even at their own expense. Sam Harris had Murray on his podcast, not because he necessarily agrees with him about everything, but because he was appalled that Murray had been deplatformed. Sam took some heat for it, but he hasn’t backed away from his position, which is to his great credit.
In the following excerpt from our recent conversation, Sam and I discuss attempts to deplatform Murray, the possible consequences of Murray’s ideas, and whether some things are better off not being known. As always, I want to hear from you. Are there some kinds of knowledge that are simply too dangerous? Is it always wrong to deplatform a speaker? Let me know what you’re thinking!
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GLENN LOURY: Now, you mentioned Charles Murray, and you said, whether it's culture or a biological or whatever, and I'm aware of your big debate with Ezra Klein some years ago about Murray. You take any of it back? Or are you still still holding out for whatever you want to hold out for?
SAM HARRIS: The positive part of his thesis, apart from the necessity of being able to talk about these things without being branded a racist, when it's obvious that you're not a racist, that was the hill I was prepared to die on. The truth is, I have as close to zero interest in racial differences in anything as I think you can have. I'm just not interested in the topic. What I am interested in is the silencing effect of the perception that if you violate any one of [an] increasing number of taboos erected on the left and by our most prestigious institutions, journalistically and academically, you risk defenestration.
So when Charles Murray stands up, 25 years after he wrote his infamous book, which I hadn't read at the time because I had been convinced by all the bad PR that this was just racist moral pollution, essentially. When he stands up 25 years after having written that, having written many other books in the interim on different topics, at Middlebury and gets deplatformed semi-violently, such that his host gets a concussion, I think, or a neck injury.
I think it was a neck injury.
I perceived a real problem there that I wanted to talk about. And so, in the course of talking about it, we spoke about his actual thesis, which again is routinely misrepresented. I mean, when you look at the most controversial paragraph in The Bell Curve, which I then went and read in advance of speaking with him.
I have read The Bell Curve cover to cover.
The worst paragraph in there is a paragraph where he and Herrnstein say, “We don't know what contribution biology and environment make to these differences. It seems rational to assume that both are involved.” I'm paraphrasing here.
They are “resolutely agnostic.” Excuse me for interrupting, but the words are important. They're “resolutely agnostic.”
“And if you interpret us to have made the claim that one or the other accounts for the whole story, you have misunderstood us. We just don't know.” And for that, he has been burnt as a witch, figuratively speaking. But reputationally, it has been the case repeatedly for a quarter of a century. Obviously, there are many other cases of people touching far less radioactive topics where now, we're seeing the cancellation of people. He I perceived in hindsight to be a kind of canary in the coal mine.
So anyway, I had him on my podcast, and that proved to be every bit as controversial as I had reason to fear it would be.
After what book? Excuse me again for interrupting.
It wasn't actually in reference to book. I don't know when he had published his last book. I think probably the book before had been Coming Apart.
Yeah. Okay. It was before Human Diversity.
Yeah. And so I did pay quite a reputational price for even having that conversation with him and giving him as much aid and comfort as I did in that podcast. But I viewed it as morally important to do, because it just seemed insane what was happening at that point around him, and around everyone. J.K. Rowling and anyone else who's getting pilloried for having said something that seemed blasphemous.
Murray is a special case. I actually teach the Murray case in my course on free inquiry in the modern world at Brown, where [I'm] resolutely not agnostic about the issue of whether or not you should be able to investigate such questions. Of course you should. What are we doing, putting our heads in the sand? What are we doing to science, which is the foundation of our civilization? It's a kind of corruption of our intellectual life to foreclose the discussion of important questions based on evidence. Murray doesn't have to be right or wrong about that.
But clearly the question doesn't answer itself. It's not a priori obvious what the answer to the question is. The question being, to what extent does biogenetic inheritance influence the expression of intellectual ability as measured by cognitive ability tests in modern society? That's a hard question. It's an important question. You get to ask that question. That's not a moral question. That's a question of cause and effect, and so on. And what manner of society will we have become if not only asking the question is forbidden but defending the asking of the question is forbidden?
I mean, like right here right now, I'm black. Everybody expects me to give a certain speech and I'm not giving that speech. That speech is “Charles Murray, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, is a white supremacist.” That speech is that the line from Charles Murray to Jared Taylor is a short, straight line. Jared Taylor being American Renaissance guy, and he's a white supremacist. Jared Taylor is Jared Taylor. He gets to have his views, too. I don't have to agree with them for him to be able to have his views too, but that's a separate question.
Charles Murray? Losing Ground was probably the most important book about social policy written in the second half of the twentieth century. It was published in 1984. It was Murray's first big book. And it shaped the discussion about welfare policy to a very significant extent, especially on the right, but also in the center-left. The Welfare Reform Acts of 1996 that Bill Clinton signed into law were substantially influenced by the work of Charles Murray and that critical assessment of the impact of the Great Society social policy on inequality in America. That's the author of Losing Ground.
Coming Apart? Coming Apart is very, very prescient. I mean, Robert Putnam, the very esteemed and distinguished Harvard political scientist, in his book Our Kids, is basically following in Charles Murray's footsteps, pointing out that there's an opioid epidemic coming and there are deaths of despair right around the corner and we had better pay attention to the separation and quality of life clash amongst white people in this country, or else we're going to miss the boat.
Donald Trump became president in part because of the forces that Charles Murray was putting his finger on in Coming Apart. You're gonna relegate him to the margins because he dared to ask a question about intelligence and class structure in American life, of which only one small part of the big compendium had to do with race? And now he's a racist and he's a white supremacist? You know-nothing, anti-intellectual thugs. I mean, the people who want to shut up a discussion about this question and who want to make it a sign of your decency and your legitimacy for membership in society to castigate and ostracize Charles Murray, which I am not going to do, those people are a threat to civilization, in my opinion.
Yeah, although there is one aspect to this which I am a little conflicted about. Because I don’t know where to draw the line here. I don’t even know where to draw the line with respect to Murray, who I don’t know well. I mean, my only conversation with him, I believe, was on that podcast. And I certainly don’t think he’s a racist. But I do question why he’s given so much attention to this issue. This was the one question I asked him in my podcast which I felt like I didn’t get a satisfactory answer to. Why go there? Or why go there this much?
Let me ask you a question, Sam. I’m sorry, I interrupted you. I just want to know why he has to have an answer to that question, why an investigator has to justify to anybody why they’re investigating something. Because that’s ad hominem. When you ask him why, it’s because you suspect his motives are somehow impure. And his motives have nothing to do with the validity of his statements about the question. You may say that you’re not interested in the question, but whether or not why he’s interested, I don’t understand how that’s pertinent.
Because I just think you can make a larger argument here. You need to make a larger argument or at least assume you’re on the right side of this argument when thinking through the social consequences, or just the sheer consequences of finding out certain facts. I think there are certain forms of knowledge that are, in fact, dangerous and are best not sought. And if sought, best not published widely.
I wonder whether, in the case of doing a deep dive on intellectual differences between various groups, we’re on similar ground. Why seek this knowledge? What are we going to do with the knowledge, and why seek it? Now, I agree that we may be ambushed by this knowledge anyway.
Let me interrupt again, Sam. Excuse me. I mean, the primary question is not about groups. The primary question is about individuals. The group question, it seems to me, to be only a derivative or a second-order question that arises once you’ve undertaken the primary investigation, which is understanding the foundations of human intelligence and its distribution in populations. So I don’t know how you police the investigation of the determinants of human intelligence so as to avoid the politically disquieting group comparative undertaking. And that’s precisely my problem with this moral management of scientific inquiry. It presumes a kind of omniscience.
Do you think it might be possible that it might be better if we didn’t have group-level data on all of these differences, and we just had individual data? We never took an inventory of what race you were or ethnic background you were. Obviously every individual had to jump through all these hoops academically in order to get where they get. But at the end of the day, we weren’t in a position to say, “Oh, we just looked at the MCAT scores for blacks and Asians, and it turns out that there’s a vast gulf between them. What do you want to do with that factoid?”
Well, I know what Charles Murray’s answer to your question is, and I think it would be mine as well. Sure, we can do that. As long as you promise that we don’t have a politics driven by the inequality in the representation of groups in these very activities. I tell you what. You give up your racial justice weapon, where whenever the number of doctors who are black is low or the number of people who are promoted to partner at a law firm who are black or the number of people who get into the Bronx High School of Science is low, you give that up, you stop collecting those statistics, and I’m happy to do away with investigating group disparity and the determinants of human behavior that influence whether or not people excel at these activities. It seems to me you can’t do one without the other.
I’m open to argument on this point, but the world I think I want to live in is the one where race and other differences between groups has the moral and political status of hair color, currently. So we just simply don’t have the data on how many blondes got into Harvard last year. And nor would anyone think to have that data. We don’t want the data, nobody cares. How do we get there with respect to skin color and religion and anything else? That’s where I think I would want to be. The path open to us there is to cease to pay attention to these variables.
Even though I am a subscriber for 7 bucks a month I am seemingly unable to access the full lenght version of this podcast episode/Youtube video even though I am logged in here. Any ideas?
At the beginning of the podcast, Sam notes that he mostly agrees with you, Glenn, about Affirmative Action and the position of Blacks in US society.
You come back with the idea that he should "think for himself".
Sam is being more realistic - nobody can become an expert on everything. Everybody ends up choosing WHO to believe, more than deciding for themselves WHAT to believe. Listeners & readers who don't write comments even more so - and those who have too much life to spend much time on the internet at all even more so.
Tribal beliefs are important for normal folk to reduce their own cognitive load. We sort of get to choose our intellectual leaders, mostly, but once chosen it's mostly accepting what those leaders say and see how it solves your own problems.
A few of us, and only a few, are able to rationally criticize the leaders in our own tribe. You are one of the few, and like Sam, I start with the assumption that you're right.
Except ... a week or two ago when John said "Trump is an idiot", and you replied "Trump is an idiot." Do you really believe that Trump is a bigger idiot than Biden? What was Trump's bad policy?
Worse than Biden's reducing US oil production (sending prices higher, and more cash to Russia)? Worse than running away from Afghanistan, with essentially no plan after trashing the plan Trump's guys were drawing up?
Worse than inflation causing $1.3 trillion extra stimulus cash?
Worse than Biden telling Putin it would be OK for Russia to have a small incursion into Ukraine?
Really, John still criticizes Trump, like his famous NY Times employer seems to require - but you don't have to fully accept evidence free insults, nor agree with them if you don't. If you do, you should give an example, like:
Obama is a liar - "you can keep your doctor".
Or Bush 41 "Read my Lips".
But in general, normal folk look for believable, mostly honest folk, that they can believe in. Then they do believe in those folks.