Philosophy of science and free speech

Here’s a link to an article I wrote just published in FEE.

I consider this part of an ongoing, gradual effort to incorporate Paul Feyerabend into the liberty canon. It’s probably a mistake, but I’m doing it anyway.

I also want to give a shoutout to the person that commented I’m “pretending that Ayn Rand didn’t exist.” Of course I know what Ayn Rand is, that’s the island next to Great Britain.

Stifling Charles Murray

Since I’ve been concerned with the status of speech on university campuses, I started looking into the actual speakers who have received the most flak. I’ve been familiar with Milo Yiannopolous for quite a while, and there’s really nothing to comment on there. Ann Coulter is nothing unique. Charles Murray, however, does prove an interesting case; with professional credentials, connections to indicate his in-group status, and the high-profile articles written to counter him, his utter condemnation is a little more peculiar.

I haven’t had time to read The Bell Curve, but I did tune into the podcast with Sam Harris and some of the counterarguments online. Based on the two hour conversation alone, Murray seems honest, well-informed and humble. His field is a controversial one, and so one should expect these qualities. His field is also an academic one with empirical and statistical methods, and for that very reason alone, without an extensive treatment the general population is going to lag behind in comprehension. Lots of the viewpoints Murray espouses are not so easily countered or adopted without background knowledge in psychometrics, and so most of the audience for Waking Up probably walked away with a predestined opinion.

When I listened to the episode, knowing beforehand only that Murray had been subject to endless criticism and condemnation on campus and in research (e.g. by Stephen Jay Gould), I was surprised by how lucid he sounded. The man seems far from a white nationalistracist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist; instead, he presents himself as interested in the same concerns as those on the left (his findings, he says, indicate the need for a basic income. He also supports gay marriage). Sam Harris is also constantly derided, often for his criticism of Islam, and after hosting Murray received some of the same ugly labels. One critique of the podcast is that Harris was too charitable and unquestioning on Murray’s presentation, and I can agree with that, but that may have been because Harris was already familiar with his work. (Also, around the hour-fifteen mark, Murray launches into a domain Harris is clearly less comfortable with, and Harris does explore his guest’s views a little more critically — though it could be said, not enough.)

The experience, for me, made concrete a maxim often championed by defenders of speech. Inaccurately attaching our most powerful labels of evil — fascism, racism, sexism, Nazism, supremacy — means that when faced with the real thing, we will be powerless. Placing genuine bigots and totalitarians in the same word pool as controversial scientists is a bad move for critique. I listened to Murray and thought: so this is the big bad wolf? These are the opinions of the man orthodoxy has eschewed? The man could be wrong about everything, as the internet says, but he does not seem to be motivated by something other than obtaining the facts. If he is wrong, by God, let us challenge his and Herrnstein’s methods and underlying assumptions; let us not push this into a dark corner of human thought it does not fit in with. Some well-established professors writing for Vox say Murray argues from insufficient evidence and this debate ought to be over with already (having gone on since 1994); but they explicitly advocate calling out incorrect ideas rather than stifling them by violent protests.

That is indeed the way to go, because not only did I experience the solidification of the above maxim, but by the end of the interview I was experiencing a curiosity that could easily turn morbid. I imagine it is even stronger for younger people tuning in to Harris. The thought arises, “If this is ‘forbidden knowledge’ — this reasonable, ostensibly well-grounded argument — then what else is there? What else do our global intellectuals call pseudoscience that might be true? If the community labels this racist, what other things do they label racist which are not?” We need to be able to trust each other to keep labels in check. Is it too much of a slippery slope to fear that, once people discover Murray is not a racist, they will seek out other less savory iconoclasts who have also been dubbed white supremacists, looking for what knowledge they might have?

Yiannopolous presents no arguments. Murray does: shutting him down without confrontation only creates an allure of forbidden knowledge, leading those explorers who find Murray digestible to trust established scientific facts less and less. I am not versed in cognitive studies enough to come to an opinion on who is right in this matter; it’s only clear that Charles Murray is arguing from what he thinks is scientifically-validated information. Placing his research into the same domain as David Duke’s ramblings can only lead the curious into an unpleasant trap when they realize their intellectual elders lied to them.