Response to “Walk out on Charles Murray”

Jonathan Anomaly, Duke Chronicle, October 24, 2013

In his polemical column in the October 21 edition of The Chronicle, Prashanth Kamalakanthan calls for students to stage a “walk out” at the upcoming Charles Murray talk on Monday, October 28. But the arguments he offers to support his recommendation mix misleading empirical claims with misguided moral assumptions.

The author clearly suggests (though does not explicitly say) that if scientists find data indicating statistically significant differences between human groups, these scientists must be racist or sexist and that the best explanation of the findings is that racist, sexist financiers funded the research. There are several reasons this is a fallacious and dangerous leap of logic.

First, there is quite a bit of convergence among geneticists and psychologists on the idea that there are biological differences between groups of human beings. We’re all familiar with the fact that people from certain tribes in East Africa tend to dominate long distance running events, while West Africans (and their descendants in Jamaica and the Americas) fair better at sprint events. A fascinating new book by David Epstein titled “The Sports Gene” explores the biological basis of this and many other physical differences. Less familiar, perhaps, is the robust finding among intelligence researchers like Charles Murray’s late co-author, Richard Herrnstein, that IQ is partly heritable and that certain groups have higher average IQs than other groups, even when education and other environmental factors are accounted for.

Who are these groups? It’s not the white Europeans that fit so neatly with Kamalakanthan’s conspiratorial narrative. In fact, nearly all IQ researchers—including Herrnstein and Murray—have argued that East Asians and Ashkenazi Jews have the highest IQs in the world. So much for the idea that Murray’s findings support his privileged position as a (non-Jewish) white male.

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Finally, the author’s insidious slide between science and morality makes our commitment to the equal worth of human beings depend precariously on empirical findings. But as Peter Singer argued many years ago, equality as a moral principle should not be predicated on equality of ability. There are differences between individuals, and average differences between groups of individuals. Evolution works by generating different combinations of genes and sifting out those that create bodies and behaviors that are relatively bad at making more copies of themselves, so it would be bizarre if people were biologically identical in all relevant respects. If equality is a moral ideal rather than a scientific claim, research into individual or group differences—whatever it finds—is no threat to equality. Denying people the opportunity to speak about controversial research does little to promote the equal right of persons to express unpopular views.

[Editor’s Note: For more on the staged walkout of Charles Murray’s lecture, see yesterday’s posting.]

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