Sam Harris vs. Ezra Klein: A Critical Look at What Went Wrong

As outlined in my recent post, Sam Harris vs. Jordan Peterson, I’ve long admired Harris’s brilliant mind, clarity of expression, and political courage. However, I must admit I felt a bit torn when listening to his contentious podcast with Ezra Klein, the editor-at-large of Vox.

Unlike some of Harris’s die-hard supporters, I found myself sympathizing with both sides of this debate, as well as wondering how this sort of gridlock might be transcended. In this post, I will unpack what I see as the hinge points of this debate, including clarifying the respective positions, motivations, and blindspots of both Harris and Klein.

Harris has long been a champion of science and shown little patience for those who distort or ignore what he considers to be incontrovertible scientific data. In his conversation with Klein, Harris also emphasized that science and social policy are two distinct domains that can be discussed independent of one another. In theory, this should allow us to objectively appraise and discuss scientific data, including that involving race and IQ, without concern for pesky political bias.

Klein responded with three basic retorts:

1) Science and its interpretation are often affected by personal bias.

2) The science pertaining to race and IQ is equivocal, controversial, and ultimately unconvincing.

3) Historical / social factors must be considered when discussing race and IQ.

Of course, Harris is far too adroit not to at least give lip service to the potential role of bias and environmental factors in science. But his primary argument, in concert with what he sees as a majority of scientists familiar with this issue, was that the data nonetheless demonstrate the reality of, and probable genetic basis for, racial differences in IQ at the group level.

Before discussing this issue further, I think it is important to say that I am entirely confident that Harris is not a racist. His primary aim in this podcast, as in others, was to argue for scientific and intellectual honesty in the public forum. While he could certainly have done some things differently in this debate, his arguments were and never have been racially motivated.

Epigenetics: The Missing Link between Science & History?

Not being a scientist, it is unsurprising that Klein never invoked epigenetics to buttress his position. Despite repeatedly emphasizing the importance of historical and contextual factors, he failed to convincingly demonstrate how they link up with the scientific data on race and IQ. Instead, he labored to cast doubt on the state of the science or employed various debate tactics to dodge Harris’s points. Consequently, Harris saw no good reason to stray from his argument that science can be conducted and interpreted independently of historical context. To be fair to Harris, many scientists tend to operate with this sort of mindset as well.

Like Klein, I am not a scientist, but I think referencing epigenetics could have bolstered his argument and potentially opened up a more fruitful discussion with Harris. Epigenetics, or more specifically, epigenetic inheritance, seems a likely link (among others) between the historical experiences of a given race / group and its collective performance on IQ tests.

According to Wikipedia, epigenetic inheritance involves:

The transmission of information from one generation to the next (i.e., parent–child transmission) that affects the traits of offspring without alteration of the primary structure of DNA… For some traits, the epigenetic marks can be induced by the environment and some marks are heritable, leading some to view epigenetics as a relaxation of the rejection of the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

In other words, epigenetics provides a scientific / theoretical basis for how physical changes induced by socio-historical conditions (i.e., acquired characteristics) are transmitted and come to affect future generations. While not addressing racial differences in IQ, the 2014 Atlantic piece, Epigenetics: The Controversial Science Behind Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, makes a similar argument for the role of epigenetic inheritance in health differences among various ethnic groups. Epigenetics has also been implicated in the transmission of certain conditions to descendants of Holocaust survivors.

If we grant that epigenetic inheritance is a valid scientific theory that may, at least to some extent, explain IQ disparities, then Klein’s employment of historical arguments would appear to be scientifically relevant. Namely, could it not be the case that, irrespective of current cultural conditions or attitudes, generations of slavery and oppression induced epigenetic changes that are still being felt to this day?

In many respects, the epigenetic argument shoots the middle between Harris and Klein. On the one hand, it doesn’t deny or ignore extant IQ data, which Klein seems disposed to do. But it also doesn’t dismiss or downplay the deeply-engrained, physically-embodied effects of history, which some scientists, including Harris, may wittingly or not be guilty of.

If liberals like Klein could see that their historical concerns are being heard and incorporated into scientific methods and interpretations, perhaps they’d be less disposed to censoring or dismissing certain scientific findings. Likewise, if Harris and others paid more attention to the potentially impactful role of epigenetics, they might do a better job presenting scientific data in a more nuanced and contextualized manner.

Harris vs. Klein: Different Core Values

Another central feature of the Sam Harris vs. Ezra Klein morass was salient differences in their core values. While Harris is a self-proclaimed moral consequentialist (i.e., the practical benefits of a moral theory are what matter most), he adopts a more principled approach when it comes to truth, believing that intellectual honesty is almost always the best practice.

Klein, by contrast, like many on the far Left, seems more comfortable with dismissing or obfuscating certain truths that don’t comfortably align with their political concerns. Thus, as Harris was quick to point out, certain facts about Whites that have gone largely unchallenged by the Left (e.g., Whites having Neanderthal DNA or lower IQs than Asians) would be handled very differently if Blacks or women were being discussed. For Klein and Leftists alike, the potential risks of engaging with politically-delicate data seem to outweigh those associated with intellectual dishonesty.

Whichever approach one personally prefers, supportive arguments could certainly be made for either of them. Unfortunately, Klein and Harris spent little time discussing their own fundamental values / assumptions, preferring instead to talk passed each other for two solid hours.

To be fair, unless one is fortunate enough to have no special interests or public commitments, openly disclosing one’s foundational assumptions can be a dangerous endeavor. What if Klein had decided to admit, for instance, that he prioritized political ideology or his position at Vox over telling the truth? While he would certainly score intellectual honesty points with Harris and Harris’s followers, doing so might well have put his career in jeopardy. Lying or dodging is thus perceived by most as a safer bet than admitting that you’re purposely ignoring or obfuscating the truth.

Of course, this is where Harris has the upper hand over many of his adversaries. In many respects, he gets paid to value, investigate, and profess truth; that’s what his supporters want. While I still think Harris has a few blindspots and could do a better job of empathizing with certain perspectives, he greatly benefits from having the freedom to openly seek and disseminate truth in a way that Klein probably doesn’t.

Additional Reading:

Sam Harris vs. Jordan Peterson: Key Philosophical & Personality Differences

My Bio (on my Personality Junkie website)