The Sam Harris Debate

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There’s a lot of backstory to this podcast, most of which is covered in this piece. The short version is that Sam Harris, the host of the Waking Up podcast, and I have been going back and forth over an interview Harris did with The Bell Curve author Charles Murray about a year ago. In that interview, the two argued that African-Americans are, for a combination of genetic and environmental reasons, intrinsically and immutably less intelligent than white Americans, and Murray argued that the implications of this “forbidden knowledge” should shape social policy.

In response, Vox published a piece by three respected academic specialists on genes and IQ who argued Murray and Harris got both the science and its implications very wrong. Harris felt slandered by the piece we published and publicly demanded I debate him.

After failing to get Harris to debate the authors of the Vox piece instead, I agreed. Over email, he then revoked his invitation to debate me. Harris’s defenders published a few pieces, our authors published a second piece, and everyone moved on. That’s where things sat for months. Then, a few weeks ago, Harris reopened the discussion with me on Twitter, I published a piece on the subject in response, and he published all the private emails we’d sent each other along the way. As you’ll hear him say, that backfired, so he decided, at last, to debate me.

Whew. So here we are.

For all that, I think this discussion — which is also being released on Harris’ podcast — is worth listening to. Harris’s view is that the criticism he and Murray have received is a moral panic driven by identity politics and political correctness. My view is that these IQ tests are inseparable from both the past and present of racism in America, and to conduct this conversation without voices who are expert on that subject and who hail from the affected communities is to miss the point from the outset.

So that’s where we begin. Where we go, I think, is worthwhile: these hypotheses about biological racial difference are now, and have alway been, used to advance clear political agendas — in Murray’s case, an end to programs meant to redress racial inequality, and in Harris’s case, a counterstrike against identitarian concerns he sees as a threat to his own career. Yes, identity politics are at play in this conversation, but that includes white identity politics.

To Harris, and you’ll hear this explicitly, identity politics is something others do. To me, it’s something we all do, and that he and many others simply refuse to admit they’re doing. This is one of the advantages of being the majority group: your concerns get coded as concerns, it’s everyone else who is playing identity politics.

Even if you’re not interested in the specifics of our debate, I think this discussion goes to some important questions in American life — questions that drive our culture and politics today. I hope you enjoy it.

A few links mentioned in the discussion:

My piece on this whole debate, which links all the relevant articles.

Harris and Murray's original podcast

Vox's original response piece

The Haier piece Harris wanted us to publish defending him

Our authors' response to various criticisms

The emails between me and Harris

154 episodes available. A new episode about every 5 days averaging 74 mins duration .