Sam Harris Whitewashes ‘The Bell Curve’ During Interview With Charles Murray

In the 73rd installment of his podcast Waking Up With Sam Harris, the famed neuroscientist and “New Atheist” author made the curious choice of interviewing right-wing political scientist Charles Murray. Murray co-authored the infamous 1994 book The Bell Curve, an 845-page paean to scientific racism which posits that, on average, whites are more intelligent than blacks or Hispanics.

Harris is no stranger to staking out controversial positions on subjects from gun rights to torture, but an endorsement of “race realism” is new territory even for him. Harris began the podcast with an apology to Murray, whom he believes was unfairly maligned. Harris called The Bell Curve “the most controversial book in the last 50 years” because of Murray’s willingness to tackle “a set of nested taboos” on race and intelligence:

People don’t wanna hear that intelligence is a real thing, and that some people have more of it than others. They don’t wanna hear that IQ tests really measure it. They don’t wanna hear that differences in IQ matter, because they’re highly predictive of differential success in life. And not just for things like educational attainment and wealth, but for things like out-of-wedlock birth and mortality.

People don’t wanna hear that a person’s intelligence is in large measure due to his or her genes, and there seems to be very little we can do environmentally to increase a person’s intelligence — even in childhood. It’s not that the environment doesn’t matter, but genes appear to be 50 to 80 percent of the story. People don’t want to hear this. And they certainly don’t want to hear that average IQ differs across races and ethnic groups.

And, Harris said, “for better or worse, these are all facts,” and “there is almost nothing in psychological science for which there is more evidence than these claims.” He attacked the critiques of Murray’s work as byproducts of a “politically correct moral panic that totally engulfed Murray’s career.”

Indeed, Murray was listed as a “white nationalist” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and his speech to Middlebury College in Vermont — allegedly the first American university to grant a Bachelor’s Degree to an African-American — was met with fierce resistance. All of this, Harris believes, is unwarranted overreaction to a “dispassionate” look at the prevailing scientific literature.

And the discussion between the two was largely congenial, with Harris allowing many of Murray’s claims to go unchecked or agreeing with them outright. Exchanges such as this were both typical of the two hour interview and quite revealing:

Murray: We had to present the story of IQ tests as applied to African-Americans and other minorities, and make the case that, actually, the tests measure the same thing in various populations. So we set out to do so. And we tried to work into the topic sequentially. The first, simplest thing being are the test scores different for whatever reasons. And the answers for that are yes. They are — for blacks and whites, there’s about a standard deviation is the usual size of the difference.

I’m assuming, by the way, that an awful lot of your listeners are statistically literate and they know roughly what I mean by a lot of these terms. But just to put it in more traditional terms, if you are one standard deviation below the mean, that means you’re at the 16th percentile. If you’re one standard deviation above the mean, you’re at the 84th percentile. That’ll give you a sense of what a standard deviation is.

Harris: IQ is normed so that the average in the whole population is always 100 or as close to 100 as possible. Although we’ll get into this, IQs have been — those scores have been creeping up, decade by decade for reasons that are not totally understood. So what you’re talking about is, if the average —

Murray: And a standard deviation of 15.

Harris: So what we’re talking about, if the average for white America was 100 at the time you wrote that book, the average for black America was 85 IQ.

Murray: Right.

Murray went on to say that there is a “difference between whites and East Asians” as well — “probably three or four points” in his opinion — with East Asians having “elevated visual-spatial IQ.” As for Latinos, Murray claims that the mean IQ is in the “low 90s.” Harris objected to none of these points, and sought only to clarify that the white-East Asian disparity favored East Asians.

In fact, Harris didn’t bat an eye when Murray accused critics of race realism — or human biodiversity, or whatever the alt-right calls its racist junk science nowadays — of elitism and compared them to modern-day flat Earthers. As Murray put it: “But at this point, Sam, it’s almost as if we are in the opposite position of conventional wisdom versus elite wisdom that we were, say, when Columbus was gonna sail to America. … It’s the elites who are under the impression that, oh, IQ tests only measure what IQ tests measure, and nobody really is able to define intelligence, and this and that, they’re culturally biased, on and on and on and on. And all of these things are the equivalent of saying the Earth is flat.

And those aren’t the only points during which Sam Harris could have, even for the sake of being a respectable interviewer, challenged his interviewee’s beliefs — or even asked follow up questions. He could have, for example, asked Murray why galley proofs of The Bell Curve were not widely circulated prior to the book’s publication. In a 1997 piece for Slate, Nicholas Lemann noted that Murray took the unusual step of sending them only to people handpicked by him and his publisher.

The effect, Lemann said, was that the “first wave of publicity was either credulous or angry, but short on evidence, because nobody had had time to digest and evaluate the book carefully.” Yes, it seems that anyone who might be critical of Murray’s methods or findings did not receive a galley proof in advance. Instead, “Another handpicked group was flown to Washington at the expense of the American Enterprise Institute and given a weekend-long personal briefing on the book’s contents by Murray himself (Herrnstein had died very recently), just before publication.”

He could have brought up the fact that Murray and Herrnstein relied on research from some of the world’s most prominent academic racists when writing The Bell Curve. In the December 1, 1994 issue of The New York Review of Books, Charles Lane dissected Murray and Herrnstein’s sources at length, and dug into their unsavory backgrounds. Lane wrote that the “most curious of the sources [Murray] and Herrnstein consulted” was a journal of anthropology called Mankind Quarterly. He pointed out that no fewer than five articles from Mankind Quarterly were cited in the book’s bibliography, and 17 researchers cited by The Bell Curve contributed to the journal.

Of Mankind Quarterly‘s white supremacist roots Lane wrote:

Mankind Quarterly was established during decolonization and the US civil rights movement. Defenders of the old order were eager to brush a patina of science on their efforts. Thus Mankind Quarterly‘s avowed purpose was to counter the “Communist” and “egalitarian” influences that were allegedly causing anthropology to neglect the fact of racial differences. “The crimes of the Nazis,” wrote Robert Gayre, Mankind Quarterly’s founder and editor-in-chief until 1978, “did not, however, justify the enthronement of a doctrine of a-racialism as fact, nor of egalitarianism as ethnically and ethically demonstrable.”

Gayre was a champion of apartheid in South Africa, and belonged to the ultra-right Candour League of white-ruled Rhodesia. In 1968, he testified for the defense at the hate speech trial of five members of the British Racial Preservation Society, offering his expert opinion that blacks are “worthless.” The founders of Mankind Quarterly also included Henry E. Garrett of Columbia University, a one-time pamphleteer for the White Citizens’ Councils who provided expert testimony for the defense in Brown v. Board of Education; and Corrado Gini, leader of fascist Italy’s eugenics movement and author of a 1927 Mussolini apologia called “The Scientific Basis of Fascism.”

The connections become even more disturbing as Lane revealed that Mankind Quarterly “published work by some of those who had taken part in research under Hitler’s regime in Germany,” while the academic mentor of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele served on the group’s editorial board.

Several of Murray and Herrnstein’s sources were recipients of grant money from the Pioneer Fund — a eugenicist think tank founded by multimillionaire and white supremacist Wickliffe Draper (1891-1972). The liberal watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) pointed out in a 1995 report that Richard Lynn — whom Murray and Herrnstein relied on for their conclusions on the IQs of East Asians — received at least $325,000 from the Pioneer Fund. Lynn’s work had been featured in Mankind Quarterly and he had made cryptic statements about “phasing out” what he called “incompetent cultures.”

Arthur Jensen (1923-2012) received $1,000,000 from the Pioneer Fund, and once remarked that eugenics “isn’t a crime.” Jensen also worried that “current welfare policies, unaided by genetic foresight, could lead to the genetic enslavement of a substantial portion of our population.” Murray and Herrnstein, of course, lavished praise on Jensen, claiming that they “benefited especially from” his work, and called him a “giant in the profession.”

And then there’s the effect The Bell Curve has had, and will continue to have, on social policy. As Claudia S. Fischer et al pointed out in their 1996 rebuttal Inequality By Design: Cracking the Bell Curve Myth, the upshot of Murray and Herrnstein’s book was that “intelligence largely determined how well people did in life.” “The rich were rich mostly because they were smart, the poor were poor mostly because they were dumb, and middle Americans were middling mostly because they were of middling intelligence.” And, as we have already seen, their view on race and IQ is that blacks and Latinos “were by nature not as intelligent as whites; that is why they did less well economically, and that is why little can or should be done about racial inequality.”

In other words, no amount of affirmative action can raise the standard of living for black and Latino Americans, since they are mainly being held back by genetics. In addition, with lower than average IQs come other social consequences: violent crime, petty theft, out-of-wedlock births, and so on.

These talking points — which should be familiar to anyone who’s viewed one of American Renaissance’s white nationalist gatherings — also yield disastrous consequences for welfare programs and efforts to reduce America’s prison population. It’s already being used — including by Murray himself — to argue in favor of a moratorium on low-skill and often non-white immigration.

And all of these points — unwillingness to engage with critics, connections to white supremacists, consequences for poor and non-white Americans — would have been worth bringing up in Harris’ conversation with Murray. As an interviewer, he should have done more than toss softballs and whitewash Murray’s record. As a skeptic, he should have been more willing to examine Murray’s beliefs. His unwillingness to do so will only bolster racist pseudoscience and toss more red meat to Murray’s white nationalist fans.