Sam Harris “Debates” Ezra Klein
Sam Harris and Ezra Klein had a debate with each other for over two hours about… To be honest, I don’t know what it was about. It was supposed to be about the connection between intelligence and race. It was also supposed to be about Harris’ new BFF Charles Murray and how badly he is treated.
Let me get the elephant in the room out of the way right now: poor Charles Murray. It’s certainly true that Murray gets attacked a lot. But it really has little to do with The Bell Curve where he argued that blacks are dumber than whites, that there is nothing we can do about it, so we should just get rid of affirmative action and all those programs that try to make the nation more economically fair.
The Bell Curve was co-authored by Richard Herrnstein. He was the scientist and I believe that he was responsible for all the science in the book. He also died of lung cancer the year the book came out. So it was really Murray’s book. And like all Murray’s book, it was political. All of his books push a radical libertarian ideology. He is in favor of the universal basic income (UBI), but only because he’s a pragmatist. Like many libertarians, he’s for the UBI as a way of getting rid of all other social programs and has even said that the UBI would allow the nation to spend 10 percent less on helping the poor.
Sam Harris: Repetition Machine
What was most interesting in the debate was that Sam Harris would make a comment like, “All these people don’t want to deal with race and IQ because it makes them uncomfortable.” Ezra Klein would respond insightfully. And then Sam Harris would just repeat what he had already said in different words.
I’ve had debates with people like this. They don’t really understand the subject they are talking about at a deep level. What they think is really just emotional. So they think that if they just repeat what they believe enough, others will agree. Because they don’t actually have a rational argument. They just believe. This is hilarious coming from New Atheist Sam Harris.
The Sam Harris Cult
Of course Sam Harris leads a kind of cult. There are many young men (Yes: men!) who hang on his every word and fight with anyone who disagrees with him. So as soon as the podcast was out, I saw reddit and blog posts with titles like, “Sam Harris Destroys Ezra Klein.” Ah, no.
In fact, I had a reasonably favorable opinion of Harris before this debate. Now I think he’s kind of a dullard who within 5 years will be a conservative and frequent guest on Fox News. And it won’t matter to his cult members, most of whom now believe themselves to be liberal.
John von Neumann
I was very tickled by something that Sam Harris said about the great mathematician (among other things) John von Neumann:
The Inferiority Argument: von Neumann Edition
What he’s getting at is that just because he thinks blacks are stupid doesn’t mean he thinks they are inferior. There are many problems with this. I figure that Harris’ IQ is something like mine: in the low genius area. And that means that even though he knows he’s no von Neumann, he’s smart. He’s a guy who people look up to. He has many fans. He’s rich. Any book he wants to write will be published.
Now compare this with a black man who is also a genius. But he’s looked down on in society. If he ever got in trouble with the law, he’d probably be lucky to have a job as a janitor. He wouldn’t get all the social perks of a white man of his intelligence.
And that’s true of black people at every intelligence level. As Ezra Klein noted, black families with $100,000 incomes live, on average, in neighborhoods where the median income in $30,000. Sam Harris ignores the question.
Charles Murray Isn’t a Scientist
Harris wants to make it all about science. But it’s not about science for Murray. But it makes Harris feel good to pretend that Murray is in the business of science. Because if he is, it means that Sam Harris lives in a meritocracy. And it means that he deserves the excellent life that he has.
Of course, Sam Harris doesn’t believe in free will (I agree with him). He got lucky! But given that luck, he deserves his wonderful life.
And for the record, I do think Sam Harris is inferior to John von Neumann. Von Neumann made the world a better place and Sam Harris is making it a worse place.
By the way, Harris used that example many times in the debate. Ezra Klein ignored it because it’s stupid.
Sam Harris Doesn’t Like Neanderthals
Another of Sam Harris’ repeated examples had to do with Neanderthals. He noted that Europeans had Neanderthal genes but that Africans did not. His point was that had it been the other way around, everyone would have freaked out. This is very strange. First, Africans do have Neanderthal genes — just less than Europeans. Second, where did he get his education abut Neanderthals? The Flintstones? Neanderthals had a larger brain to body ratio than humans, indicating that they might have been smarter. What they didn’t have were well developed parts of the brain used for communication.
Now it’s true that Neanderthals as a going concern went extinct. But humans went one person from going extinct. We are all the descendants of a single woman. As I recall, the total world populations of humans got down to less than one thousand. So the fact that humans are alive today and Neanderthal are not is a simple matter of luck.
King of the Subgeniuses
I can see why all these relatively bright but not terribly bright guys love Sam Harris. First, he’s a lot smarter than they are and so can convince them with plausible but facile arguments. Plus, he feeds their prejudices in a way that allows them to think that they aren’t prejudiced — just “rational” and “scientific.”
There is no point in listening to Sam Harris. His debate with Ezra Klein showed that he has nothing to add to the public debate. He’s actually starkly closed minded. I can see why Noam Chomsky didn’t want to debate him. Chomsky would have had to stop Harris after every sentence to correct him.
If you are a Sam Harris fan, I beg you: read some real intellectuals. Harris is a pretender.