He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Waking Up Half-Asleep: Scientific Racism and Sam Harris

The latest controversy surrounding Sam Harris has been generated by his willingness to admit that he was wrong about Charles Murray, who earned great notoriety for his book The Bell Curve.  Others disagree, and continue to claim that racism is either Murray's motivation for the research and the policies he supports or something he conveniently ignores.

I think the question of Murray's views on race have been beaten to death, re-animated, and beaten to death again so many times that it's largely a futile effort to address it again.

What interested me more was the subject of scientific racism, and Harris' response to Ezra Klein's points about it.  You can see the transcript here at Vox if you prefer not to listen to the podcast version.

I want to look at a portion of the conversation and quote the transcript to address the issue of scientific racism:

Ezra Klein: Something you brought up a couple times is something I wrote in my piece, and I am actually very happy to talk about this. I say that the belief that African-Americans are genetically less intelligent than whites, and then also inferior in other ways, which I’m not saying you guys said, is our oldest, most ancient justification for racial inequality and bigotry. Do you disagree with that? When you look at American history, when you look at what we said at the dawn of this country and all the way through the 1950, the 60s, when I say that, am I wrong?
Sam Harris: In a sense you’re wrong. I agree with the spirit of it. I think you could say the Bible is just as much of a justification, the notion that the race of Ham came under a curse and that these races have a separate theological stature. You had Bible-thumping racist maniacs defending slavery and without any reference to science. That’s a great American tradition.
I think tribalism is at the bottom of it and perceiving other people who look different and sound different from yourself as ineradicably different. I think that is a problem we must outgrow, and I fully agree with the social concerns that follow from noticing how far we have to go in outgrowing that.
Ezra Klein: One of the things I detect in this conversation, this maybe gets to something we discussed that we would talk about later and maybe we’ve hit that point. Something I detect here is the idea that, and I want to think about how to phrase this carefully, because I want to do it without making you defensive, is that ideas can only fit into this lineage if they are being said with racial animus, if they are being said by someone who doesn’t like the people they’re talking about.
I think an important thing when we study the history of racism in this country is that it has always had a scientific wrapper. It has always been not something people thought they were doing because they were hateful, it was something they thought they were doing, because it was true.

This is the area where I think Sam Harris' tribalism (which Ezra Klein accused him of ignoring) is actually a factor.  Sam Harris has a fundamental commitment to science and scientific values.  He's a neuroscientist himself.  He's part of the tribe of scientists and pro-science public intellectuals.  He's gone so far as to claim that morality can be grounded in a scientific framework.

My sense is that Harris's self-perception is that he's taken his tendencies toward tribalism into account and mitigated those already.  Also, he doesn't pretend that no one has ever used science to support racist ideas.  He acknowledges this, albeit briefly.

I don't think the tribalism is a problem for him here in a straightforward and obvious way.  It's more roundabout, and by way of his views on religion.

Even very rigorous philosophers who regularly take into account their own biases, when they happen to be religious, can easily tilt the way they interpret the strength of the arguments against their religious views to avoid dealing with the full strength of those arguments.  I'm sure Harris is familiar with this process from long experience.

What I would suggest is that the same tilting of the way the strength of the arguments is interpreted is happening here.  The strength of the arguments regarding the extent to which the Bible was used to rationalize slavery in the U.S. is given a bit greater weight because Harris is committed to opposing religions generally and for that reason the various religious tribes (who generally oppose him).

At the same time, he is unlikely to weight the strength of the arguments regarding the extent to which scientific research was used to rationalize slavery and eugenics and so on in the U.S. so heavily because his view of science is that it is helping us leave those ideas behind rather than keeping us in those ideas as he believes religion does.

My view of the issue is that religious views rather than scientific views played a larger role in maintaining slavery, and that religious views rather than scientific views played a larger role in ending slavery (and the Jim Crow laws and segregation which followed) in the U.S.

It was much more the American moral sense formed by Christianity that motivated the change in views on the issue of slavery and the issues of Jim Crow laws and segregation.  The scientific evidence we have now does indeed support the view that traditional racial categories are not very accurate as a description of intra-species differences in humans, but this evidence was not yet well-established and popularized during the colonial era or the Civil War era.

What was well-established at that point were the Christian moral arguments for slavery and the Christian moral arguments against slavery.  And it was those religiously-motivated moral arguments that carried the day, and still inoculate us against a return to slavery.

Scientific research doesn't, by itself, produce moral progress in a society.  It's typically used in a self-serving way by both sides of any given controversial moral issue, but it's not what motivates societies to change.  And that's for a very simple reason: science is generally not what motivates people to change (religion is much more motivating), and it's the people who need to do the changing for societies to change.

Now, I would feel safe betting that Sam Harris would agree with me that people ought to be more motivated by scientific findings.  He and I would likely reach an accord quickly on that point. 

Certainly more quickly than an accord could be reached by Harris and Klein on the question of whether or not Klein's publishing of articles contra Murray and Harris poisons the space for debate on important issues.

I think it's probably true that Klein's behavior has contributed to poisoning the space for public debate on the policy implications of IQ score differentials, but only ever so slightly.  It was a poisonous space for debate long before Klein was involved, and I don't see his contribution being a very large one.

I would also say that Klein is dead wrong about the most ancient justification for racial inequality and bigotry being the belief that folks with dark skin are less intelligent than those with light skin.  The roots are deeper than that.  Bigotry based on physical characteristics is much older than any of the recorded history for the colonial era (or even the medieval era), and likely much older than any recorded history...period.

We need to look deeper for the roots of bigotry, and even slavery, which is older than any of the religious traditions or scientific findings that have recently been used to rationalize its continuance.  We can and should do this while still guarding against future uses of moral reasoning grounded in those religious traditions and scientific findings to bring slavery back or to continue other kinds of ongoing injustices.

I think Klein is exactly right, however, that racism in the United States has consistently had a scientific wrapper.  And that we ought to be skeptical of our ability to claim today that we can be reasonably sure that the scientific data showing differences in average IQ scores among populations represents a real innate difference in IQ due to heritable traits.

I can acknowledge that the data exists while remaining agnostic as to the exact causes and their implications (which I do).  This curious agnosticism with regard to the question would probably have been a better approach for many people who used scientific research to prop up their racism in the past or the people who continue to use it that way today.

I think we need to make sure that we are not waking up to the problem of racism, still half-asleep and stumbling around while unable to see that the same old pitfalls are still there.

It is probably better to give ourselves a chance to wake up fully before we attempt to leave our resting place too boldly, and then we can make our way more safely while avoiding those old pitfalls.

Sadly, I'm not sure any of us are fully awake at this point.

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