Recently, I became involved in a discussion triggered by an article dealing with the alleged misconducts of Steven Pinker, Sam Harris and Michael Shermer. Since I have read most of Pinker’s and Harris books over the years, I will focus on their work.
Those who read the Salon article will immediately recognize the polemic tone of the piece. That wouldn’t be a problem in itself if Phil Torres, the author, didn’t end up in the same trap he blames the criticized people for. But first things first.
Many reactions to Torres’ statements were above all critical of the chosen language, without concentrating too much on the content.
Not surprisingly, some people felt attacked, especially by the polemics, since it is part of the nature of the human ego not liking to be told you belong to a group of annoying people. Of course, one then reflexively defends one’s own self-image.
However, this should not prevent you from naming behaviour worthy of criticism. If you don’t speak up about a fraud – you are the fraud.
The strongest criticism of Sam Harris refers to a quote he made in the course of this podcast:
“As bad luck would have it, but as you’d absolutely predict on the basis of just sheer biology, different populations of people, different racial groups, different ethnicities, different groups of people who have been historically isolated from one another geographically, test differently in terms of their average on this measure of cognitive function. So if you’re gonna give the Japanese and the Ashkenazi Jews, and African Americans, and Hawaiians … you’re gonna take populations who differ genetically – and we know they differed genetically, that’s not debatable – and you give them IQ tests, it would be a miracle if every single population had the same mean IQ. And African Americans come out about a standard deviation lower than white Americans. A standard deviation for IQ is about 15 points. So, if it’s normed to the general population, predominantly white population for an average of 100, the average in the African American community has been around 85.”
Torres now interprets this statement in a way that suggests that Harris is coquetting with racist ideas:
“In other words: black people are dumber than white people. Why? Because of genetic evolution, meaning that IQ is in the genes and the genes of white people are, well, just plain better. What a bold stance, especially amid the ongoing rise of white nationalism in the U.S. and Europe!”
Sam Harris has made valuable contributions to the debate on neuroscience, free will and mindfulness – yet this does not make him sacrosanct for all time, and if he errs on racist paths, then it is legitimate to criticize him for it. It is naive rationalism to derive fundamental statements about the distribution of intelligence from statistical fluctuations in the completion of an IQ-test and not about the ability to complete an IQ-test, and to do so believes that one can easily recognize causal relationships in a complex world. For example, for a long time ancient societies had no word for the colour “blue”, which is why some descriptions sound somewhat strange – is this an indicator of lower verbal intelligence or simply an artifact of the social context? Anyone who misinterprets statistics in this way has to put up with criticism. While the mere fact that such differences exist does not make anyone racist, it is legitimate to expect someone of Harris’ intellectual caliber to put them in context.
Yet that is exactly what he is doing. Torres shortens the quote dishonestly and thereby distorts its context in order to cast as bad a light as possible on Harris. For he also says:
“But any case this is an annoying finding. Now I happen to think there’s no reason to seek data like this, I think there’s nothing good to do with this data. There are some obviously wrong conclusions that people want to make on this – on the basis of these data and but Murray made none of those conclusions, in fact he was adamant he and his co-author who, Richard Herrnstein, who died, they said all of the cautious and ethical and politically prudent things you would want them to say in the book and it meant nothing.
So, for instance, it is in fact true that there’s so much more variation within any population for everything but in particular for intelligence than there is between populations, that you actually know nothing about a person’s intelligence by being told the color of his skin. So, to be told that someone’s white or black or Japanese tells you nothing about how good there are at anything that interests you. So, you have you have literally no information.”
That actually sounds a lot different than Torres represents it and such a distortion of meaning therefore speaks more against his methodology than against Harris. That alone is serious enough, but one of Torres’ most frequent accusations against Pinker is that he misrepresents the work of others.
You can’t blame people for pulling quotes out of context and misinterpreting them if you do exactly the same thing in the same breath. That is intellectually dishonest.
Of course, it is necessary and important to criticize the statements and work of public figures. However, this should be done in a fair, intellectually sincere manner and not by distorting these works.
A few more words about Steven Pinker.
Before I began to critically question my own statistical training, the data and graphs he presented seemed very conclusive.
By now I have a problem with the methodology used and the forecasts derived from it.
Yes, especially in the western countries we are currently living in a quasi golden age and also the standard of living in developing countries is rising higher and higher – entirely correct findings and a welcome change from a “the world is shit” narrative.
But I don’t share his optimistic interpretation that this trend will continue. Precisely because this is less about physical laws than about the behaviour of human societies, the degree of complexity is increasing exponentially.
While Pinker admits that his predictions may also be misjudgements due to events such as climate change or the strengthening of resentments and nationalisms embodied by Donald Trump or Viktor Orbán, he does not see this trend as important enough to challenge his fundamental assumption.
It seems somewhat questionable to acknowledge that trends exist that speak against his hypotheses, but to put them aside in a naive-rationalist argumentation and respond with the simple message “It will be all right”. If one knows that there are definitely contrary developments, one should be sincere enough to pay more attention to them in one’s own view instead of attempting statistical fortune-telling. This way of deriving future events on the basis of historical data is something that Karl Popper sufficiently criticized decades ago in “The Poverty of Historicism”.
In my opinion, Sam Harris is the least deserving of Phil Torres’ angry broadside. It is unfortunate that Torres ends up using the same methods that he accuses others of, which greatly weakens the legitimate criticism of Pinker in particular. It remains to be hoped that public disagreements will more often be carried out with a stronger focus on what is actually said within the right context and become less the victim of one’s own frustrated ego.
A naive wish, I know.