Power

So-called ‘intellectuals’ can’t let go of “The Bell Curve”

Racism — they just love it!
Power

So-called ‘intellectuals’ can’t let go of “The Bell Curve”

Racism — they just love it!

It has been 24 years since Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein first published The Bell Curve, their 800-page attempt to reboot discredited race science for the Clinton era. The 1994 book, which argued that differences in hereditary IQ, not opportunity, can largely explain away American social and economic hierarchies, was the latest in a long series of efforts by privileged groups to use pseudoscience to explain their station in life as natural and immutable. Like the fraudulent race science used to justify slavery in the 19th century, this thesis was highly attractive to those at the top of the social ladder. Whenever arbitrary hierarchies exist — from feudalism to modern structural racism — those who benefit will always grasp at straws to cast their good luck as personal merit. Although Murray and Herrnstein’s conclusions were quickly revealed to be hokum by more competent researchers, the book’s remaining fans have yet to get over it. Unfortunately, many of The Bell Curve’s remaining fans are prominent thought leaders writing for some of the largest publications that still exist, proving that middle-aged white male “intellectuals” think very little of resorting to racism to justify their privilege.

One of the most consistent, committed defenders of the race-IQ link is Andrew Sullivan, formerly of the New Republic and The Atlantic and now of New York. As TNR’s editor in the early ‘90s, Sullivan published excerpts from The Bell Curve and defended Murray and Herrnstein’s conclusions, causing a backlash among the staff that eventually led to him resigning. Despite the damage to his career, Sullivan remains convinced that white people are genetically superior to other races, and every so often he recapitulates this stance in increasingly wishy-washy terms. Last year, he compared protests against Murray’s appearance at Middlebury College to the Salem Witch Trials. Last week, he jumped into an existing argument over The Bell Curve between Vox’s Ezra Klein and the militant atheist podcaster Sam Harris. Yet again, he defended Murray and himself against charges of racism, all while cosigning The Bell Curve’s conclusion that some races are genetically superior to others. Hilariously, he accused Klein of racism for (accurately) describing Charles Murray as a “white man.” “Where I do draw the line is the attempt to smear legitimate conservative ideas and serious scientific arguments as the equivalent of peddling white supremacy and bigotry,” Sullivan wrote.

The controversy Sullivan is referencing is convoluted and exhausting, but here’s a relatively brief summary: Sam Harris is a sort of store-brand American Richard Dawkins who somehow survived the mid-2000s heyday of pedantic New Atheism. He rose to prominence with his 2004 book The End of Faith, a critique of fundamentalist religion that reached number 4 on the New York Times bestseller list. He now expresses his opposition to religion — and, curiously for someone living in a one-percent Muslim country, Islam in particular — on his podcast “Waking Up,” which is currently the 7th-most popular podcast in iTunes’s “Science & Medicine” category. In May 2017, Harris had Murray on the podcast after the latter was shouted down during an appearance at Middlebury. While other campus-PC obsessives like Sullivan and The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf wrung their hands over Murray’s right to be heard, Harris lauded Murray’s ideas themselves and slammed his critics as being politically motivated in their dismissal of the research cited in The Bell Curve (much of which was bankrolled by the Pioneer Fund, an SPLC-listed hate group tied to both the original Nazis and their modern counterparts in the white nationalist movement).

Nearly a year after that incident, Harris apparently decided it would be a smart career move to revive the controversy and again align himself with long-since-discredited studies on race and IQ. Apropos of nothing, Harris prodded Ezra Klein of Vox — who had written a measured critique of Harris’ fawning interview with Murray a year prior — into responding to him in mid-March by tagging him along with a link to a New York Times op-ed about human genetics. Klein took the bait and wrote another article taking on the flawed logic and flimsy science behind The Bell Curve, to which Harris responded by accusing Klein of engineering the whole “fake, defamatory controversy” that he deliberately provoked. Harris then published an enormous blog post on his website that included several thousand words of personal correspondence between himself and Klein after the initial spat in 2017. The gist of it was that Harris demanded to appear on Klein’s podcast, Klein acquiesced, and then Harris chickened out and wrote back: “Given how you’ve conducted yourself thus far, that strikes me as the professional equivalent of a suicide bombing.” By all accounts — including those of Harris’ own fans — Harris came off looking like a moron in this exchange. As he wrote himself in an update, “my decision to publish these emails appears to have backfired.”

Harris’ defense of Murray’s debunked claims, which mostly involved accusations that Murray was silenced by the PC police, employed familiar tactics. Like James Damore, the former Google employee who was fired (or “Fired4Truth,” as he put it in his Twitter handle) after sending his coworkers a lengthy, incoherent memo on the genetic inferiority of women last summer, Harris insisted that a few cherry-picked controversial studies represented objective truth. On Murray’s assertions, Harris said on the podcast that “these are all facts. In fact, there is almost nothing in psychological science for which there is more evidence than these claims.” Any scientific writing that contradicts Murray and Herrnstein’s nonsense from 1994 — and there is a lot — must be “the product of a politically correct moral panic.” In his mind, it simply cannot be that their research on IQ was flawed and designed to retroactively justify racist views. The Bell Curve is eternal truth, pure and unfalsifiable.

Despite the copious use of scientific terminology and the word “facts” in Harris’ apologia, he presents a fundamentally anti-scientific outlook, clinging to the conclusions of a dusty old tome that confirms his prejudices and ignoring any and all research that contradicts them. Harris’s attempt to portray dubious and highly controversial views on race as incontrovertible “scientific consensus” does a disservice to the actual scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change and the theory of evolution — both of which are a lot more important to the survival of the human species than a supposed IQ gap between arbitrary and heavily intermixed racial groupings.

Jordan Peterson, another figure beloved by young men who seem to be averse to showering, had a similar meltdown in March — albeit over his own Murrayesque pseudoscience. Peterson, a Canadian psychology professor who became a hero of the alt-right in 2016 after needlessly attacking students who used gender-neutral pronouns, markets a particular brand of misogynistic self-help pablum on YouTube. In his videos and in his bestselling book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Peterson alternately gives “feminized” young men obvious advice (“Clean your room,” “stand up straight”) and applies a wide array of pseudoscientific theories to the politics of gender and race. In one frequently-lampooned passage, he cites the existence of dominance hierarchies in lobsters — from which humans diverged evolutionarily several hundred million years ago — to defend the very much man-made hierarchies of 21st-century capitalism. Based on the theories of the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, Peterson argues in 12 Rules that men represent “order” and women “chaos.” This, not structural flaws in capitalism, is why the gender pay gap exists, and all attempts to remedy it will apparently end in an absurd scenario Peterson tweeted about in late 2016: “Women: if you usurp men they will rebel and fail and you will have to jail or enslave them.” Like Harris and Murray, he assumes the mantle of scientific truth for unscientific nonsense and tars all his enemies as members of a postmodern Marxist cult of political correctness.

As one might expect from someone so divorced from reality, Peterson is less than gracious when critics dismantle his tortured arguments in favor of male chauvinism. When author Pankaj Mishra wrote in the New York Review of Books last month that Peterson “presents some idiosyncratic quasi-religious opinions as empirical science, frequently appealing to evolutionary psychology to support his ancient wisdom,” the self-appointed mouthpiece for Order got a bit disorderly: “You sanctimonious prick. If you were in my room at the moment, I'd slap you happily,” Peterson tweeted, echoing Mishra’s description of his “predominantly male and frenzied followers, who seem ever-ready to pummel his critics on social media.” People assured of the scientific validity of their theories tend not to threaten their critics with assault at the slightest provocation.

Murray, Sullivan, Harris, and Peterson are all enamored with the authority imbued in the word “science,” but they balk at the reality of scientific research, which includes empirical testing, transparency of methods, and a lengthy process of peer review. If the science were truly as established as they seem to think it is, they wouldn’t need to rely on sophistry, deflection and debunked studies by neo-Nazi affiliates whenever critiques arise. Oddly enough, given the numerous parallels between their belief systems, Murray and Harris are agnostic and atheist, respectively, while Sullivan and Peterson are committed Christians. Peterson even once gave a lecture criticizing Harris’ militant opposition to religion titled “The Problem with Atheism.” It would seem that religious belief or lack thereof is largely irrelevant to what really motivates all these men and their overwhelmingly white and male fans — a desire to defend an indefensible status quo from which they psychologically and materially benefit. As long as they get there, the path they take to that conclusion is unimportant.

Alex Nichols is a contributing writer at The Outline.
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