IQ, Skepticism, and the Failure of Debate

O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
My tables!—Meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain. [Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5]


Should I even try to explain this Twitter meme in a figure caption? No, I should not. Click for the original. [Source/credit: Matt Yglesias, ]
IQ as a measure of intelligence is widely embraced by people across the political spectrum. It’s also among the most weaponized scientific concepts, used heavily against marginalized populations. IQ has been used to justify immigration restrictions from certain parts of the world, segregation of schools into “tracks” or separate facilities, and elimination of social programs. Because it’s based on testing and research, IQ has the cachet of “objectivity”. “You can’t argue against it,” say the IQ absolutists, “because it’s scientific. You can’t fight data.”

Of course, anyone who has studied the history and philosophy of science knows data isn’t just data. The questions we ask to get that data, the way we analyze the data, the use to which we put our analysis when it’s done … we bring biases into all of those things. When the data comes from particle physics, those biases are largely harmless.[1] When the data involves human lives and explicitly touches on issues in history and culture, it becomes imperative to expose our biases.

All of this came up recently thanks to a conversation between atheist philosopher Sam Harris and political writer/editor Ezra Klein, on Harris’ podcast. (The transcript of the conversation is long, but I recommend reading it, particularly if you think my obvious dislike of Harris is biasing my assessment of his arguments.) The spark for this debate came when Harris interviewed arch-conservative social philosopher Charles Murray, best known for his 1994 book The Bell Curve, written with Richard Herrnstein.

Harris has a PhD in cognitive neuroscience, but he is best known for his writings on atheism, which include strong anti-Islam sentiments. In his conversation with Murray, he states

People don’t want to hear … that average IQ differs across races and ethnic groups. Now, for better or worse, these are all facts. In fact, there is almost nothing in psychological science for which there is more evidence than these claims. About IQ, about the validity of testing for it, about its importance in the real world, about its heritability, and about its differential expression in different populations. [partial transcript here]

In other words, some racial groups score higher on IQ tests than others, and no amount of social engineering will improve that. To be polite, Harris is putting it too strongly when he says these are facts, and no scientific controversy over IQ and its interpretation. Klein — along with many others, including psychologists who study intelligence — took issue both with Harris’ conclusions and with his hosting of Murray. Harris demanded a debate with Klein, rather than with actual experts in the field of intelligence and IQ. Klein agreed, after some fraught back-and-forth argument, which Harris posted on his website.

I don’t want to rehash everything Klein and Harris discussed, because 1) you can read it yourself and 2) in many ways it doesn’t matter. My point here is that, however well-intentioned, Klein was wasting his efforts. Harris will not be convinced by debate, because he’s not willing to accept his conclusions are wrong. He didn’t want to talk to white experts on intelligence who draw different conclusions, much less thinkers of color in any discipline who have written extensively about the weaponization of IQ; that tells us a lot about Harris’ position.

That’s a major reason why I don’t think debating these topics is worthwhile. We have white guys debating the value of entire ethnic and racial groups, and even though Klein (in my opinion) gets things pretty much right, he recognizes this is not really the way things should be. Meanwhile, Harris puts on his superhero costume to defend Murray, who is a well-known and influential thinker, someone whose writing has shaped policies and (I’ll say it right out) hurt a hell of a lot of people. Harris defends a powerful white man against black people whom he doesn’t respect enough to engage, as though Murray is an aggrieved party.

Klein (to his credit) recognizes that he’s the wrong person to debate Harris, but he does it anyway. I think he did a pretty good job under the circumstances, but reading the transcript, it’s obvious to me that Harris thinks the only reason someone would disagree with him is because of their personal bias. In other words, anyone examining the same evidence would draw the conclusion that IQ is an objective measure of intelligence, and that some racial/ethnic groups are just smarter than others. To phrase it more bluntly: everyone is biased on this issue unless they agree with Harris, so black folks who rightfully resent being categorized and dehumanized by this whole discussion are too irrational to be included. Let that sink in.

Power, politeness, and the false god of objectivity

The various controversies around IQ are particularly fraught, because there are many nesting issues surrounding “intelligence”, race, gender, national origin, and so forth. For many, it’s an article of faith that relatively low IQ indicates criminality, or that someone with a high IQ is automatically going to be a better scientist than someone with lower IQ. People assume someone who has a “smart” image must have a high IQ, and the reverse.[2]

All those stereotypes are harmful to varying degrees, especially when you start using IQ test results as a proxy for other factors. If you identify one group as having lower IQ on average and declaring there’s no point in educating them (or at least shunting them into “vocational” programs), or assuming they’ll just end up in prison, you’re playing a very dangerous game. Using IQ to engineer society is an experiment on people’s lives where false positives, false negatives, and lack of ability to run controls does irreparable damage.

Much of Charles Murray’s work is focused on his belief that social programs are wastes of money, that the US Department of Education should be eliminated, and that rehabilitation of prisoners is pointless. (Yes, this article actually praises versions of segregation and apartheid. There’s a reason he’s listed as an extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center. [NB: the first draft said “criminals” instead of prisoners.]) You don’t have to go back to The Bell Curve to find strong social engineering arguments that are frankly white supremacist both in argument and in consequence. The main difference between Murray and neo-Nazis is politeness. He doesn’t want to kill black and brown people; he just wants to wall them off away from the white people.

I began this essay with a quote from Hamlet: “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain”. “Politeness” is a luxury afforded to those in power; polite racism is still racism. I frankly don’t care if Murray or Harris are racists in their heart and soul. “Racist” is primarily useful as an adjective, not a noun. Thanks to its construction on the backs of enslaved Africans (not to mention persecution of the First Nations here before Europeans arrived), American society is racist, and most white people hold racist views at least on a subconscious level. That doesn’t mean they act in racist ways all the time, only that they need to consciously combat internalized racism. It’s racist to look at American society and conclude that white people are on top because we’re smarter than everyone else; correlation doesn’t equal causation.

Murray’s problem isn’t that he thinks the status quo is bad toward black people: it’s that he thinks the status quo is too kind to them. Harris’ critique of the student protesters who fought against Murray’s invitation to campus was that they’re “afraid of opposing views”, but let’s face it: IQ-based racism is not a new concept. It’s nothing Americans haven’t been exposed to regularly. We don’t need Sam Harris to lecture us about it or to invite Murray to campus to talk about how horrible social services are, because that’s been much of social policy from President Reagan’s time forward.

The United States is guilty of many sins against its population; treating African-Americans too well is not one of those. The Civil Rights era was not in the distant past. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have turned 89 this year had he not been assassinated, well within normal life expectancy for a man in good health; Ruby Bridges and John Lewis are still alive and working. The town where I lived in Tennessee just a few years ago was still fighting a decades-old desegregation lawsuit, spending millions of taxpayer money while the schools suffered from under-funding.

The United States has not yet tried the experiment of truly treating all our citizens equally. The US is laughably far from overcompensating for its past mistreatment of African-Americans, Natives, and others. To pretend otherwise is to ignore the facts at best, or give aid and comfort to white supremacists at worst.

I’m glad the scientific community is gradually identifying and exposing sexual harassers, though it’s a long slow process.[3] We’re still a long way from dealing with racism among scientists and those, like Harris, who claim the mantle of rationalism.


  1. With a HUGE caveat: physics as a field decides which questions are important to research, and who is worthy of doing that research. There are many unpleasant reasons for why theoretical physics is heavily dominated by white men even in 2018. But that’s a story for another day.
  2. I know I personally took two IQ tests in school, which were part of the standardized testing battery. Thankfully, my parents and teachers never told me what score I got. To this day, I don’t know what my IQ is, and I don’t really want to.
  3. In fact, some people argue that we’ve already Gone Too Far (whatever that means) and want to throttle the burgeoning movement to expose harassment. Two steps forward, one step back.
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