Features, Philosophy, Politics, Top Stories

In-Groups, Out-Groups, and the IDW

Over the past year or so, Sam Harris and Ezra Klein spent several tweets, a dozen emails, and a two-hour podcast vehemently disagreeing with one another. The ostensible cause of this disagreement was a dispute about whether or not there’s a genetic component to the black-white IQ gap in the US. However, neither was willing to commit to a concrete position on the issue. Both danced around the actual claim while deferring to various experts who may or may not suggest that a genetic component is more or less probable.

Did they disagree about Charles Murray? In the podcast, Klein says that he opposes Murray’s social policies but allows that Murray is “a lovely guy interpersonally” who should not be silenced. Sam Harris agrees that Murray is a good guy who shouldn’t be silenced but caveats that “his social policies are not social policies I’m advocating.”

So, what are these men actually disagreeing about?

In a thorough analysis of the Harris-Klein controversy, John Nerst suggests that what is actually at issue is whether the discussion of the racial IQ gap is a matter of science or of politics. Harris sees Murray as a scientist whose arguments and conclusions fall well within the academic consensus of genetic and cognitive science. Klein sees Murray as a ‘policy entrepreneur’ who advocates for reprehensible conservative policies. The notion that racial differences are genetic (and, in Klein’s understanding, therefore immutable), Klein argues, has historically been used to support destructive policies of bigotry and discrimination.

This isn’t merely a difference in emphasis. Underlying this debate is a divergence in modes of thought so wide that the two men were left practically at cross-purposes.

Harris is a scientist by training, and scientists depend on what rationality researcher Keith Stanovich1 calls “cognitive decoupling.” Decoupling separates an idea from context and personal experience and considers it in the abstract. It is the approach used in the scientific method, when performing thought experiments, and when generalizing principles from individual examples. In decoupling thought, arguments follow one another according to the formal rules of deductive logic.

The contrary mode of thinking sees every argument embedded in a particular context. The context of an idea includes its associations, implications, and the motivations and identities of those who advance it. In a lengthy written response to Harris published before their podcast, Klein makes use of all of the above:

The belief in black deficiency has been instrumental. It was used to justify slavery and to quiet moral qualms over unyielding oppression and violence.


If the disparities we see in American life are the result of an intrinsic inferiority on the part of black Americans, then that diminishes the responsibility white Americans have to correct those disparities.


This also feeds into Murray’s proposal to devolve the entirety of the government’s social supports into a more regressive version of a universal basic income.


For two white men to spend a few hours discussing why black Americans are, as a group, less intelligent than whites isn’t a courageous stand in the context of American history; it’s a common one.


To put this simply: You cannot discuss this topic without discussing its toxic past and the way that shapes our present.


Klein is a political journalist. In politics, one rarely encounters an argument posed as a neutral thought experiment or research query. If a subject is under discussion, the arguments marshaled by both sides are usually advocacy in the service of one group or another. A political thinker always sees ideas in context, and the most important context is: who does this argument benefit and who does it disadvantage?

*     *     *

This pattern should be familiar to Quillette readers who have followed the adventures of the Intellectual Dark Web. The IDW is a nascent group of thinkers mainly composed of high- decoupling scientist types, like Jordan Peterson (Ph.D.), Steven Pinker (Ph.D.), Christina Hoff Sommers (Ph.D.), Bret Weinstein (Ph.D.), James Damore (dropped out of a Ph.D. program to join Google), and, of course, Sam Harris (Ph.D.).

IDW members attempt to discuss highly charged issues like gender and race differences, material progress, free speech, or religious belief in a dispassionate way. In response, contextualizing journalists (almost universally from non-science backgrounds) accuse the IDWs of being against some group or other: against trans people, against women, against blacks, against Muslims, and so on. The IDWs are indignant. “We’re not against anyone,” they retort, often from the pages of this very magazine. “We’re just looking at the data.”

If these were simply disputes over facts, there would be no need for vitriol: each side could just point to the evidence that has persuaded them to date, and describe the weight of future research needed to convince them otherwise. Instead, these conflicts create the impression of two alien species speaking different languages, utterly incapable of comprehending, let alone adopting, one another’s point of view.

There are two main reasons why contextualizers and decouplers clash: they each see the other’s mode of thinking as both hypocritical and self-defeating.

To a decoupler, contextualizers are fighting a losing battle against facts. If Klein’s stance on the racial IQ gap doesn’t depend on science, and his moral ideology depends on that stance, then science threatens his morality. Papers on the genetics of intelligence are published every other month. Who would defend a morality that can be discredited by a single study?

Defending a position without regard for the evidence supporting it is at best a failure to think straight, and at worst a naked power grab. It looks even worse when someone simply assumes that the research is on their side, but can’t be bothered to actually check. Back in late 2015, I published an analysis of an article in FiveThirtyEight in which Hayley Munguia had claimed that “Banning affirmative action hurts Hispanic enrollment.” But in making her case, Munguia managed to ignore two rather important points:

  1. The data presented in the article itself showed no effect of affirmative action on Hispanic enrollment.
  2. Hispanic high-school graduates enroll in college at higher rates than white graduates.

Munguia’s article offered no support to Hispanic students, it was simply a defense of affirmative action and, by extension, any political party prepared to support that particular policy. A contextualizer will usually invoke higher motives, such as aiding the oppressed. But, in reality, they are simply promoting their in-group. So runs the decoupler argument.

To a contextualizer, decouplers are allowing themselves to be manipulated. Science is biased by the motivations of scientists, and decouplers betray their lack of morals when they surrender to odious ideologies cloaked in a veneer of scientific authority. The initial response to Harris published at Vox called him “the latest to fall for Murray’s junk science about race and IQ.”

Decouplers rarely admit to being driven by tribalism or identity politics, but the virtues of decoupled and ‘rational’ thought are promoted mainly by white and Asian men who are good at math. They congregate in places like Silicon Valley and Wall Street, which seem to enrich white and Asian men who are good at math while ignoring the concerns of the rest of the world. The libertarian policies they promote are also suspiciously attuned to the needs of rich, educated people like themselves.

A decoupler can always claim higher motives, like the objective pursuit of truth. In reality, they are simply promoting their in-group. So runs the contextualizer argument.

*     *     *

So who, then, are the real hypocrites?

Robin Hanson (Ph.D.) is a black-belt decoupler. He says his main drive in life is intellectual curiosity and insight, and his insights have in turn earned him the scornful ire of journalists. But according to Hanson’s recent book, The Elephant in the Brain, we are all hypocrites, and most of the time we’re not even aware of it:

Our brains are built to act in our self-interest while at the same time trying hard not to appear selfish in front of other people. And in order to throw them off the trail, our brains often keep “us,” our conscious minds in the dark.2

And what are these selfish motives? Sex, status, power—motives which often share the instrumental goal of allying people with powerful groups, and of convincing these groups of our loyalty.

To be persuasive, we need to send signals that are costly. Cheap signals can easily be faked by those who don’t actually possess the desired attribute in question, such as loyalty. Quietly expressing one’s admiration for the group is cheap. Instead, the best signal of commitment to an in-group is attacking the out-group, loudly and publicly. To understand people’s hidden motives, therefore, one must understand who their out-group is.

In an essential inquiry into out-group hostility, Scott Alexander noted that out-grouping isn’t purely reciprocal. The chart below offers a handy-if-simplified picture of groups and out-groups in America. Everyone’s out-group is, perhaps not surprisingly, the group just outside them. Anyone further than one layer outward isn’t important, and any hostile group inside one’s tribe is presumed to be in league with the external out-group.

In most parts of America, ‘American exceptionalism’ is a point of pride. These people prefer traditional American culture, American football, BBQ, and country music, and are hoping to conserve it. Conservatives’ main out-group is foreigners who threaten the American way of life, e.g., immigrants and Muslims. They accuse American progressives of conspiring with the outsiders to sabotage American culture, which is how they end up writing articles arguing that soccer is a sign of the nation’s moral decay.

America’s coastal enclaves are mostly populated by educated urban progressives. They prefer cosmopolitan culture: soccer, sushi, Despacito. Their out-group is American conservatives. Any enemy of those conservatives is their ally, which is why they end up writing articles arguing that the killing of Osama bin Laden was vigilantism rather than justice.

And now another tribe has found its voice, and it has emerged from within traditional bastions of progressive thought like academia. This tribe comprises the Intellectual Dark Web and those who follow its thinkers on YouTube, Twitter, and Quillette. The members of this tribe are often educated and live in coastal cities, but they have no love for progressives or their ideology. In fact, aside from a decoupling mindset, this distaste for progressives seems to be the main thing uniting liberal atheists like Sam Harris with conservative monotheists like Ben Shapiro.

Although a number of IDW members self-identify as liberal, this signals a fidelity to ideas and not to the liberal ‘tribe.’ About criticizing one’s own tribe, Scott Alexander had this to say:

People do not have fun writing articles savagely criticizing their in-group. People can criticize their in-group, it’s not humanly impossible, but it takes nerves of steel, it makes your blood boil, you should sweat blood. It shouldn’t be fun.

The IDW loves to criticize progressives, and they have fun doing it. It’s not a coincidence that every conflict in which they end up embroiled is with progressives. Ross Douthat has plenty of criticism for the likes of Harris and Pinker, but it doesn’t seem to sting quite as much as Klein’s does.

The progressive tribe’s journalists love to disparage members of the IDW as ‘conservative’ or even ‘alt-right,’ but that’s because each group understands the world mainly in the context of their out-group: if you’re not with us, you’re the out-group. These accusations are entirely off-the-mark; even the ideologically conservative members of the IDW have little to do with the football-BBQ-country tribe, let alone white nationalism. But the IDW’s out-group is, quite clearly, those journalists on the ideological Left.

The IDW isn’t against women, or blacks, or trans people, or Muslims. It is opposed to progressives and the doctrines that bind the progressive tribe together.

*     *     *

Having an out-group doesn’t make the IDW wrong or evil or conservative. But if the IDW’s calling card is an unflinching pursuit of truth, then picking fights isn’t necessarily helpful to that mission. This is what made Alice Dreger decline her IDW member’s card:

[The IDW] regularly made progressives angry with “politically incorrect” statements about gender, race, genetics, and so on. This troubled me the most—that one might think of pissing people off as an inherent good, a worthy end. […]

Opinion is not scholarship, it is not journalism, and we are dying for lack of honest, fact-based, slow inquiry. […]

I don’t see it as a sign of intellectual progress when a bunch of smart people find a way to make money off of niche political audiences by spewing opinions without doing much new research. 

Life would be a lot easier if discerning the truth of a complex scientific issue simply required someone to ask progressives for their opinion and then believe the opposite. Unfortunately, reversed stupidity is not intelligence. As Keith Stanovich noted in his own Quillette article, there isn’t much to distinguish the two political parties in their willingness to accept or deny scientific facts.

Finding the truth requires overcoming one’s own biases. Decoupling plays an important role in this process because it allows people to think past an intuitive and wrong answer. According to Stanovich, high IQ decouplers do well on a variety of rationality tests that require the ability to consider hypotheticals, think probabilistically, and evaluate arguments based on logical consistency rather than affect.3 However, decoupling doesn’t prevent smart people from succumbing to what Stanovich calls “myside bias,”4 or the tendency to evaluate evidence in a way that serves one’s pre-existing opinions, attitudes, and group affiliation.

High IQ decouplers are as vulnerable as anyone to anchoring, dogmatism, confirmation bias, and self-serving tribalism. These tendencies get worse when one feels that one’s own tribe or identity is under attack. On any issue—from microagressions to macroclimate—that has become politically polarized, people will face a strong temptation to defend their tribe instead of to think objectively.

Overcoming tribalism, especially in conflict situations, is a lot harder than simply denying it or wishing it away. Being biased towards one’s tribe or identity is a human universal; contextualizers simply accept it as immutable. But there are many ways to ameliorate the condition, and decouplers who care enough about arriving at the truth should pursue them.

The first suggestion comes from Paul Graham, who recommends “keeping your identity small.” If one self-identifies as ‘progressive’ or ‘anti-progressive,’ any dispute over policy and science on which an official ‘progressive position’ develops can become a threat to one’s identity. Alice Dreger sensed this when refusing the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ label—labels of any sort are a detriment to clear thinking. In the absence of a position forced on someone by their identity, a person is free to choose a position based on logic and the available evidence.

Scott Alexander has another useful suggestion—imagine that the tribal narrative on each question were reversed. Following Alexander’s method, one might re-imagine liberals embracing genetic differences and supporting their position in the following way:

IQ differences are purely genetic, a matter of luck for which neither the individual nor his community bears any responsibility. We should be generous with welfare and assistance towards those who lost out in the genetic lottery, just as we are towards the sick and disabled. Conservatives who argue that the IQ differences are ‘man-made’ are looking to shift the blame to the victims and excuse their own bigotry towards the least privileged.

And the conservative response:

IQ differences are purely environmental. According to evidence, the main environmental difference among blacks and whites is culture. We therefore need to replace the multicultural free-for-all that is hurting American children with traditional American family values, and limit immigration from countries with low-IQ cultures. We need to promote monogamy by cutting support for single mothers. We should probably outlaw hip-hop music too, just in case rap is what lowers black IQ.

If these narratives seem outlandish, consider this research that shows that genetic attributions are correlated with liberal attitudes and tolerance for vulnerable individuals. In any case, if anyone finds their opinion on a scientific question swayed by the tribal narrative in which it is routinely presented, they should notice this as a sign of bias and refocus on the actual data.

The final suggestion is the most painful of all to consider. Contextualizers like Ezra Klein are highly aware of identity biases, and to overcome these biases one has to concede that they may occasionally be right when pointing them out. From the podcast:

Ezra Klein: You have that bewildering experience because you don’t realize when you keep saying that everybody else is thinking tribally, but you’re not, that that is our disagreement.

Sam Harris: Well, no, because I know I’m not thinking tribally—

Ezra Klein: Well, that is our disagreement […] Right at the beginning of all this with Murray you said you look at Murray and you see what happens to you. You were completely straightforward about that, that you look at what happens to him and you see what happens to you.

Sam Harris: It’s not tribalism. This is an experience of talking about ideas in public.

Ezra Klein: We all have a lot of different identities we’re part of all times. I do, too. I have all kinds of identities that you can call forward. All of them can bias me simultaneously, and the questions, of course, are which dominate and how am I able to counterbalance them through my process of information gathering and adjudication of that information. I think that your core identity in this is as someone who feels you get treated unfairly by politically correct mobs.

It may be too much to expect anyone to cop to bias when directly accused of it on air, but the accusation merits reflection, nonetheless. The most pernicious biases are those of which we’re unaware. Having them noticed, even by people we dislike, is as good as any evidence one gets that they exist. Harris is well aware of the research on rationality; he hosted Robin Hanson on his show to discuss The Elephant in the Brain. The hardest lesson to learn from that research is that it doesn’t only apply to other people. It also applies to you. But it is also the most valuable lesson to learn.

Everyone in the IDW tribe would agree that seeking the truth is more important than sending Vox or the New Yorker into a tizzy. And that requires looking critically, not just outside one’s tribe, but also inside one’s mind.


Jacob Falkovich is a former tennis coach, soldier, and hedge fund trader; current math geek, rationalist, and effective altruist. He writes about numbers, rationality, and hedgehogs at Putanumonit.com. You can follow him on Twitter @yashkaf


1 Stanovich, K. E. “Rationality and the reflective mind” (2011)
2 Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. “The Elephant in the Brain” (2018)
3 Stanovich, K.E. and West, R.F. “Individual Differences in Rational Thought” (1998)
4 Stanovich, K.E. et al. “Myside Bias, Rational Thinking, and Intelligence” (2013)

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  1. Jeff says

    As a fan of the discussions going on within the IDW, I want to thank you for your well-thought, insightful article. Well done.

  2. Shane Byrd says

    Fascinating article. I listened to Klein/Harris conversation 3 times. An important detail missing from this article is Sam’s emphasis on ideas that can scale in our quest to achieve fairness. If we’re going to solve complex problems in our society, allowing dispassionate and “decoupling” thinkers to voice their understanding is a must. Ceding any conversation to an interest group, or to the concerns of an interest group, is an unstable strategy for a selfish primate species. Uh oh, did I just decouple into a tribe of scientific reductionism by asserting a fact about our ancestry in lieu of religious dogmatist considerations?
    Let’s grow up.

    • Sean Earl says

      Extremely well-said, Shane- exactly my thoughts.

  3. derek says

    Vox goes off in a tizzy no matter what anyone says. They live off manufactured controversies.

    It was a remarkable discussion. Harris was trying to convince Ezra, Ezra was only interested in maintaining his bona fides in his community. The whole thing started with Ezra painting Harris for his audience, telling them how they were to think of him. That is what he has always done, back to the journolist days where setting the narrative was paramount.

    The discussion started with Ezra berating Harris for not saying the racism catechisms appropriately, telling him to disregard what an african american man had told him to do.

    It went downhill from there.

    Ezra represents everything that I despise about the Washington media.

  4. Josh says

    > The IDW isn’t against women, or blacks, or trans people, or Muslims. It is opposed to progressives and the doctrines that bind the progressive tribe together.

    This doesn’t ring true to me. Bret Weinstein describes himself as “deeply progressive.” Eric Weinstein, who coined the phrase “Intellectual Dark Web” praises his brother’s progressive values.

    I think what unites the IDW is opposition to the *authoritarianism* that dominates modern progressive thought. If progressives cooled it with the call-out culture, no-platforming, words-are-violence, everyone-is-alt-right, etc., I think the IDW coalition would fizzle and go back to being a politically diverse group that doesn’t agree on much.

    I consider myself an IDW fan. I take no pleasure in making progressives angry per se. However what I appreciate about the IDW is that they are willing to state their genuine beliefs, even if they are things that progressives will attempt to inflict high social cost for saying. The IDW acts in defiance of progressive attempts to police discourse, and that is what I appreciate — not the fact that they make progressives angry.

    • Jack B. Nimble says

      I agree with Josh re: Bret Weinstein, who supported Occupy Wall Street a few years ago:


      As far as intelligence goes, I think that most geneticists today would agree with the statement ‘Variation in human intelligence has a genetic component.’ I can’t speak for journalists or pundits.

      The above statement is pretty weak, and does not [by itself] mean what most fans of the IDW think it means. In particular, this statement has NO necessary implications for understanding the importance of intelligence in the evolution or contemporary structuring of human societies or cultures. People who use the above statement to justify [1] measuring and ranking intelligence by means of ‘IQ tests’ and [2] using ‘IQ scores’ to guide public policies are guilty of what I call IQ-dolatry.

    • Jack Danzey says


      In a way, you are correct. One of the key differences between the IDW and those that they oppose is authoritarianism. I believe that the IDW has an above-average level of libertarian inclinations. However, they are also sort of against progressives, generally, as well. I get that Bret says he is a progressive, but he does not seem to be in many ways.

      Think about it like this…if the difference was merely about authoritarianism versus libertarianism, IDW members could believe in all of the progressive lunacy that you just listed; the difference would only be that they would not want to legislate against it, or form protests and the like. This does not seem to fit the IDW at all. They do not seem to simply think that “words-are-violence” is true but not worth legislating or protesting against, they think that the idea that words are violence is ridiculous; and I agree.

  5. Emerson says

    This was an excellent article. Perhaps similar examples of such in-group criticism can be found among traditional right/left ideological chatter, but those examples would be abberations, certainly less definitive as is with the IDW (there I go with the in-group exaltation).

    Moreover, my sense of elation this article activated speaks to a very interesting phenomenon smuggled into the psyche of the IDW fan: learning to value, indeed enjoy self (or in-group) criticism. This mode of mind would do the world a damn sight better than has traditional groupthink modalities, hitherto dominating human discourse. In this way the IDW does seem fundamentally new and pivotal (however fallible).

    I would like to see Sam Harris respond to this piece (“a bit of housekeeping”). Considering the public nature of the Klein / Harris saga, some concession on his part to the points of this article would be commendable.

    • Carl Wolfson says

      This opening paragraph of this article gets the Harris/Klein dispute wrong in an important way. It was only derivative of the controversial black-white IQ gap – a subject Harris has often explained he has no particular interest in and would rather avoid. Harris’s motivation was defending his reputation against Klein’s accusations (or implications if you prefer) that Harris is a racist.

      The hallmark of tribalism is defending in-tribe positions and members no matter what. Harris will appreciatively change his views when confronted with a compelling counter argument.

  6. NickG says

    There is little progressive about self identifying Progressives, it’s a miss nomer. Call a spade a spade – faux-liberal fascists is closer to the mark.

    • Designer says

      I also wonder who defines what is “progressive”. It seems to be a matter of faith, while there is no discussion about it. There should be more research and evaluation on what is social progress for society as a whole instead of ‘felt’ progress for some in-groups. Before that question is not answered the discourse is hollow.

  7. Ray says

    Given IQ is the strongest predictor of economic success, what about this context?
    Steven Pinker cautions against “blank slate” ideologies that can lead to “Persecution and even mass murder of the successful who are assumed to have gained unfairly. This includes not only individuals but entire successful groups who are assumed to have become successful unfairly and by exploitation of other groups. Examples include Jews in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust; kulaks in the Soviet Union; teachers and “rich” peasants in the Cultural Revolution; city dwellers and intellectuals under the Khmer Rouge.” (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Blank_Slate), as well as “Armenians, Lebanese, Ibos, and overseas Chinese and Indians, who have also been targets of vicious persecution because of their economic success.” (https://newrepublic.com/article/77727/groups-and-genes)

  8. Andre says

    Interesting, particularly the concentric groups, and how “inside” groups get lumped in with the outside enemy.

    That said, I think you work too hard to portray the IDW as a group.

    There is an assault on the scientific method by a substantial portion of the left, and this process has metastasized to mainstream media. The IDW is a collection of people with different, heterodox beliefs, largely grounded in facts, who are a “group” only insofar as they object to

    a) the shrinking of the Overton window to exclude truth and its pursuit

    b) the demonization of those pursuing truth.

    • AC Harper says

      Quite so. I can’t help feeling that the IDW is identified as a group by those who wish to smoosh all their political opponents into a handy chunk to demonize. Building your own out-group for target practice so to speak.

      We’ve seen it before in another corner of the interwebs where people were lumped together as ‘New Atheists’ irrespective of the details of each individuals’ opinions. That backfired in as much as people started to willingly identify as ‘New Atheists’ – proudly choosing to move into an out-group that others had created.

  9. asdf says

    If someone has IQ deficiency that make it unlikely they can do Calculus, paying teachers to teach them Calculus is a waste of time and money. You would do something else with that time and money. The same could be said for redoing the entire way math is taught or schools are run (say common core, no child left behind) to try and achieve certain disparate impact outcomes that ignore IQ. This is just one example of something where facts about IQ clearly have policy implications that aren’t a matter of opinion.

    It’s a little silly to say that the implications of this knowledge are policy neutral. There are tons of policies and social attitudes that are obviously wasteful or harmful that are part of our society today, and its no surprise that those who are a part of that gravy train don’t want facts that undermine their interests getting out into the public.

    Murray was nice enough to put in a paragraph saying that facts don’t dictate politics or policies…but then had a book full of statistics basically proving that fact X implied policy Y and that policy Z is doomed to fail because of statistic A…

    “his social policies are not social policies I’m advocating.”

    Which ones? Why? What’s your reasoning? Make the case…

    I think the progressives correctly recognize that a lot of their money and power (not just political, but social) rests on the idea that they can achieve X via Y. However, if Z (blank slate isn’t true) then its obvious that Y won’t achieve X (maybe nothing will achieve X) and that therefore Y should end (especially if Y negatively impacts people, which progressive policies often do).

    IDW types are a disingenuous in saying these facts don’t have policy implications. They do! If they didn’t they wouldn’t be worth talking about. Its precisely because these facts undercut progressive policies that are hurting people and leading to a worse world that they need to be said. If the IDW doesn’t accomplish real world policy goals it hasn’t accomplished anything meaningful.

    I think that has brought the IDW out is that progressives are nearing a point of total victory. And in total victory there is no longer any excuse for only partially following the implications of your assumptions about the world. There used to be all sorts of “unprincipled exceptions” to blank statism that allowed for IDW types to operate. Those exceptions are being taken away, and the full implications of these bad assumptions are being followed to their logical and disastrous conclusions. The progressive beast is no longer tamed by pragmatic restraint, it can do what it always wanted to do.

    • ga gamba says

      I gotta say you haven’t pulled your punches. And I’m glad you haven’t. Your final sentence sums up the environment succinctly and accurately.

    • Skip says


      If you believe progressives are nearing a point of total victory, how do you account for Trump or, for that matter, Clinton’s candidacy?

      • If you believe progressives are nearing a point of total victory, how do you account for Trump or, for that matter, Clinton’s candidacy?

        If it wasn’t for ‘progressives’ demonising anyone not on board with their identitarian agenda you might have had Bernie Sanders as president.

        Instead you had them calling anyone who didn’t think Clinton should get a ‘turn’ simply based on her gender a misogynist and you ended up with Trump.

  10. ga gamba says

    I enjoyed this read. In fact, I’d consider it a must read for anyone trying to make sense of the debate and understand the lenses of each side.

    One tiny objection.

    The libertarian policies they [Silicon Valley] promote are also suspiciously attuned to the needs of rich, educated people like themselves.

    After the Damore debacle and reading of the great difficulty he has finding work in tech, plus all the nonsense being perpetrated by Twitter, Facebook, and Google/Youtube, I can’t accept the idea Silicon Valley is a bastion of libertarian values whose companies promote or enact libertarian polices.

    Again another thing ruined by the progressive identitarian Left.

    • Casey Carlisle says

      Agreed. If Silicon were a bastion of libertarian values, would Peter Thiel have left? Doubt it.

      Also, the author has a severe misunderstanding of libertarianism, which, in fact, does not cater to anyone, including the rich or the educated.

    • Have you ever considered that Damore can’t get a job because he is an asshole and not because there is some hydra-headed conspiracy of feminist harpies bent on ruining his life? He said women were inferior to men, which is not exactly a brave novelty in the 5,000 year history of men writing about women.

      Of course, I am an Evil Vicious Contextualizer, but humans think in context and stories and generalities, and then enact policies that make those generalities quite painfully specific. One of the commenters above said that if IQ research shows that Certain Groups — and let’s be honest here, he meant blacks and women — are genetically too stupid to learn calculus, then it is a waste of money to pay for teachers to attempt the impossible. In the actual, um, CONTEXT, in which the policy plays out, students are assigned to the public school nearest them, unless they can ace the entrance exam for the nearest magnet, if such a thing exists in their district. The United States has almost the same level of residential racial segregation as it did in 1963, so that means that most students will attend schools nearly entirely populated by people of the same race, and this tendency is much worse for black students than any other group. (Most black kids attend almost-entirely black or black and Hispanic schools.) If black people are, as Murray and Harris think, genetically dimwitted, then it is a waste of money to pay for anyone to teach higher math at predominantly black schools. This has result of absolutely ensuring that only a vanishingly tiny number of black kids ever even get the first chance to demonstrate skills at higher math, thus confirming Murray and Harris in their belief that black people are genetically stupid.

      Do you see how that works? It is not possible to have thought experiments about whether one group of humans is inferior to another without actually reifying that inferiority. Your thought experiement has pernicious consequences in the real word.

  11. Taliesyn says

    The problem with this article is that relies on tribalism (GROUPS) as being more important than individuals. This is one of the things the IDW fights AGAINST most strongly. Trying to organize everyone into groups that make you feel good is a Rousseau-ian minefield that goes against the very logical and enlightened thinking that built our modern liberal civilization.

    • asdf says

      The counter is that individuals lose to groups every time. You need a group to counter another group. If your lucky, once your group wins its the kind of group that likes individual freedoms. The contradiction of individual rights is that only groups can bring them into being.

      • James says

        Excellent insight asdf, Deneen echoed this in his recent book but your last two sentences extend his point further.

  12. Chris Groom says

    Using the excerpt from the Harris/Klein discussion where Sam asserts he is not suffering from tribalism reminds me of the logic conundrum of AA. “The first sign of alcoholism is denial and the first step is to admit you have a problem (or something like that). EXCEPT let’s say you really aren’t an alcoholic, but you are labeled one because you show a characteristic of it…No basis of criticism.

    • Jim says

      I thought the exact same thing.
      a) If you admit it, you have the problem. I win.
      b) If you deny it, you still have the problem and just can’t admit the problem yet. I win. CHECKMATE!

      It isn’t biased to talk about things you are interested in or care about. You just have to double, then triple check and heavily scrutinise your conclusions when they conform to what you would like them to be. Which anyone worth their salt does to avoid confirmation bias. The easiest person to fool is yourself.

  13. SkyPanther says

    I think this article makes a lot of good points. Tribalism is part of human nature, no matter the person. But I think you can take that in two clear ways. Acknowledge you are tribal, and “join the tribe”, we see this most clearly in Prison where race is the predominate tribe that you belong to, like it or not, for protection. Or you can acknowledge you are tribal and try to be mindful of the fact when dealing with people. Essentially use “free will” (or choice) and sublimate the effect the tribal drive has in society. Right now, the left, mostly, is the one that acknowledges, knowingly or unknowingly that the world is tribal, and instead of mindfully letting it be, accentuate the tribe even more. The right, for its part is just playing along. White straight men are the problem? The white straight men will form their own tribe and fight. It is the yin/yang concept playing out.

  14. Adam says

    I also think a lot of what binds the IDW is that they have all been victims of progressive witch hunts and accused of saying, believing and doing things that weren’t even true or at best massively twisted out of contecxt. Jobs lost, harassment etc.

    It’s all very well criticising them for poking progressives but if you’d been the victim of that, would you not be justifiably a bit mad at them?

    If you try to ruin and harass someone, don’t complain if they bite back. Especially if the harassment was unjustified.

    • Skip says


      Absolutely! It’s a common situation for many of the IDW’s academics. I view the others as grasping provocateurs. I blame the situation on coddled students, who’ve come to be viewed as customers by university administrations, and the customeris always right. Sad.

  15. Sam Lindholm says

    To say that the Klein/Harris disagreement is due to tribal identities seems a rather divergent argument. The fundamental and most worrying narrative is in the application of fact. Is it acceptable to hide or alter facts to suit a social means? I agree with Harris, in worrying for a people who seem happy to use facts and truths as political weapons.

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  18. Emblem14 says

    Thanks for spreading the word on the work of John Nerst and Scott Alexander. The more people become familiar with them, the better.

    Getting to the root causes of frustrating problems in human behavior and figuring out ways to overcome them, is perhaps the most valuable thing people in the IDW orbit can do.

    There is obviously a political/tribal dynamic at play between social justice progressives and liberals of various temperaments. Per Alexander, each group’s premises and theories threaten the validity of the others’ – which is why there is a fever pitched PR war between representatives of each camp for control of the Overton Window. left-liberals and right-liberals can coexist, perhaps even require each other (in a yin-yang sense) for proper calibration of social norms and policy. Authoritarians, left or right, are fundamentally incompatible with liberals and liberal values – which is why the battle lines have emerged as they have.

    Collectivism – the sublimation of the nuances of the individual to the broader interests of the group, is the glue of identity or class politics that gives it its political force. This necessitates a regulation of the group members’ thoughts and behavior to maintain cohesion lest internal fractures undermine solidarity. This easily leads to authoritarian disregard for personal autonomy and intolerance of dissent.

    This is in fundamental conflict with liberal notions that the freedom of the individual is paramount and necessary, not only for the the defense of liberty and conscience of every person, equally and indivisibly but indispensable to the process of seeking the truth, without which, we are mere puppets of circumstance.

    Social Justice is the heir to the Civil Rights/Women’s Rights struggle of the 60s, and benefits from the precedent that those in favor of expanding rights and liberties to marginalized groups were vindicated, and currently valorized as heroes. Ergo, any perceived continuation of that struggle is automatically imbued with the same righteousness of purpose and moral certitude by default.

    This is another reason why social justice advocates are prone to authoritarianism. Their goals have already been validated by history and culture as moral progress. Who would oppose them except those against moral progress i.e. the same kind of troglodytes and bigots who opposed the earlier iterations of this struggle?

    Progressives are impatient and frustrated at having to deal with resistance to a cause whose obvious goodness is already reflected in the official civic narrative. Opposition must be the product of timeless evil forces that cannot be reasoned with, only defeated and crushed. The people who tried to stop equal rights for blacks and women couldn’t be persuaded by reason or argument, they had to be coerced by government power into accepting new legal and cultural norms against their will. A direct parallel is made to those who seem to oppose the rights of gays, trans people or various new projects of anti-racism.

    SJWs don’t consider the possibility that there is any problem, or danger, to what they’re doing – they have already been told by their high school textbooks and the moral heroes of our civic religion that they are on the right side of history, and merely continuing an approved path to progress that others started a long time ago.

    There was a grotesque notion during the Vietnam era that you could “destroy a village in order to save it”; the implication being, annihilation was preferable to being assimilated by the Communists. I think the social justice movement, in its embrace of Marcusian “repressive tolerance” has a similar attitude about liberalism. If liberalism means entities like NeoNazis, the Alt-Right, the KKK and other moral monstrosities are allowed to grow and thrive under a naive regime of individual liberty and “free speech”, then liberalism is the village in which the enemy hides, and better to destroy the village than allow the evil forces it shelters threaten the march of progress.

    liberalism faces several problems confronting this attitude.

    –liberals can be useful idiots for dangerous, illiberal people who hide in the village and receive shelter and safety as a matter of principle. They exploit its’ protections when weak, but would happily burn the village down if they ever got strong enough. In this sense, liberals are stupidly aiding the “enemy”.

    –liberals can’t offer protection or solutions to people who are systematically treated badly under conditions of free, voluntary association and social interaction. If rights to person and property are not being violated, liberalism is impotent to help anyone who bears the brunt of culturally driven social hostility or marginalization. It has no answers for the kind of unfair social forces which often define people’s everyday experiences. Freedom cuts both ways.

    –Being a meta-structural solution to the destructive potential of a heterogeneous society comprised of tribal factions of differing value hierarchies, different cultural sensibilities, preferred ways of life and metaphysical assumptions, the wisdom of liberal pluralism is not immediately apparent. A high-level analysis of how to get a collection of diverse competing interests to interact peacefully and productively requires a level of dispassion and impartiality, or the right game-theoretic conditions, to become plausible. Most people’s default framework, (and emotional bias) on the problem of competing interests is zero-sum conquest.

    –liberalism cannot address the crisis of meaning that has been spreading through post-industrial western democracies, leading people to become more receptive to illiberal, but meaning-driven ideologies.

    If it has any chance at beating back the forces of authoritarianism, liberalism will need to keep making strong, simple arguments as to why it is a preferable state of affairs, for everyone, and why abandoning it will lead to catastrophe, for everyone. People are used to hearing high-minded liberal bromides that don’t seem to hold any relevance to their concerns. Proselytizing authoritarians of the left and right will argue that liberalism is either a threat, or an inadequate defense of the things their audience really cares about.

    I firmly believe that if liberalism can continue to find the right proponents, from various backgrounds and personal perspectives, who are able to articulate WHY it’s important to preserve these principles, and why rejecting them would be a horrible mistake, those arguments will resonate. They will resonate on both a personal level (as everyone has a deeply personal stake in protecting their own freedoms), and beat any counter-argument for illiberal alternatives, by showing how anything that negates individual freedom is not only an existential nightmare but ultimately a war-torn dead end for humanity.

    • asdf says

      –liberals can’t offer protection or solutions to people who are systematically treated badly under conditions of free, voluntary association and social interaction.

      That’s because all progressive examples systematic mistreatment inevitably just boil down to “didn’t control for IQ (or other key variable) in regression”. And all of their programs to fix the mistreatment that doesn’t exist involve hurting people to accomplish basically nothing.

      After civil rights MLK moved onto “social justice” in the late 60s. MLK had something like a 75% disapproval rating at the time he was assassinated. Once people learned that “civil rights” meant massive redistribution from white to black, school busing, etc they didn’t like what they were hearing anymore. Like every other civil rights leader it was just a stepping stone to identity politics based socialism.

    • Emblem, I really enjoyed reading your comment. I’m hoping that this is what this community can offer: a positive vision of liberalism, instead of just pointing out the faults of authoritarians on both sides.

      I’m personally an optimist, and I see a lot of good responses that liberals can offer to the things you mentioned. I’m not saying these are all *great* solutions, and my main argument for liberalism is “everything besides liberalism ends up making everyone miserable all the time, so liberalism only needs to improve on that”. Still, it’s a start:

      > dangerous, illiberal people who hide in the village
      Yes, liberals will support a Nazi’s ability to march like an idiot under a swastika banner, but not to pass laws that require Jewish businesses to be marked. Liberals offer some breathing room for illiberals, but they won’t let them get too dangerous without a fight.

      > solutions to people who are systematically treated badly
      Welfare and safety nets aren’t opposed to liberalism, quite the opposite. The Niskanen Center, for example, promotes libertarian policy that looks to reduce government intervention (regulations, licensing) but is agnostic-to-positive on welfare. The “freedom to keep 70% of my earned income instead of 50%” is pretty low on the list of freedoms I care about.

      > heterogeneous society comprised of tribal factions
      The liberal solution here is the archipelago model: let people live together with their tribesmen, and reduce the things that tribes have reason to fight over. In the US this would take the form of supporting states’ freedoms to be weird and reducing the number of decisions that are made centrally in Washington DC. If you’re a pro-life Christian in Brooklyn, you could switch houses with a SJW hipster born in Iowa.

      > liberalism cannot address the crisis of meaning
      It’s not like anyone else is doing so well on this topic either. I think a lot of meaninglessness has to do with modernity (more money, but also old ways of life are destroyed) that’s not unique to liberal societies. It’s not like people in Soviet Russia swam in oceans of transcendent meaning. For modern liberals I would recommend: having kids, investing in small local communities based on shared interests, effective altruism, mindfulness.

      • asdf says

        The “freedom to keep 70% of my earned income instead of 50%” is pretty low on the list of freedoms I care about.

        It depends what kind of money you make and what tradeoffs that extra 20% represents. If your well off that 20% doesn’t necessarily mean the difference between affording a house in a safe neighborhood or not. Or having to have both parents work at jobs they hate instead of just one.

        I recently tried to run the numbers on having my friends live in the city versus longer commutes from the county. The city has double property tax to fund all those welfare services (which are of far lower quality then the county despite the extra taxes), and it became apparent that middle class people just couldn’t afford to live in the city. Going out into a county was the only financial option, probably why the city has been losing population for fifty years. We can even see this happening with entire states (California).

        When your middle class taxes mean a real difference in your freedoms because it involves important tradeoffs that the well off won’t necessarily face. Bill Gates isn’t going to change his routine in any meaningful way if his tax rate goes up. A middle class family might need to sell their house.

  19. teacup says

    I may be wrong, but I don’t believe that Stephen Pinker has ever claimed to be part of the IDW, and the linked site of IDWebbers includes Alice Dreger who has written about how she doesn’t want to be considered part of the IDW.

  20. augustine says

    One message I got from this article is that it suggests the possibility, or desirability, of a neutral “anti-group” (the IDW) that is in a magical position to say to all the other groups, “here is your bias, let’s talk about that and see if we can (all) do better”. Within certain limits that’s fine and helpful. But a strenuous aversion to bias may be seen as self-assignation to a group status of disinterested overlords of rationality and reason. I know at least one person like that and after a while it was evident that they would not openly take any stand or philosophical position that is meaningful or revealing of what they cared about personally– parsing data and mulling over viewpoints seemed to be the game and the end goal all in one for them. In the end every person and every group must stand for something that is meaningful or at least subjective. If your message suggests that you somehow stand outside of the game, that you have no stake in the very things you claim to be concerned about, eventually others lose interest.

    • There is actually a group that cares about overcoming tribalism with reason: rationalists and effective altruists. It’s a community where you actually gain status by doing rationality-promoting things: publicly changing your mind, finding cruxes and middle ground in debate, steel-manning arguments by your opponents etc. I think there’s some evidence that tying group status to rationality actually works to make us incrementally more reasonable.

      But this isn’t a philosophy of disinterested non-commitment, quite the opposite. Effective altruists are trying to save the world, and saving the world effectively requires “a strenuous aversion to bias”. Signaling rationality is not the end goal. Rationalists often have more interest in meta-level issues (why Harris and Klein don’t get along) than in the object-level (what’s the black IQ gap), but it’s not because they’re afraid to commit to contrarian views.

  21. Paula Connelly says

    Jacob, with all respect, this: “The ostensible cause of this disagreement was a dispute about whether or not there’s a genetic component to the black-white IQ gap in the US.” is not at all what the debate was about. Your premise is flawed. It was about whether science and scientists should be repressed and their careers ruined for reporting unfortunate news based on evidence-based studies. Murray was unfairly attacked and stigmatized, but there was a larger question afoot regarding science being the messenger of unwelcome news. I look forward to your future writing. Cheers.

  22. Paolo says

    Amazing article indeed, these are gems of honesty and insight, thanks to the author and to Quillette.

  23. X. Citoyen says

    I think you’ve mistaken a rhetorical strategy for a cognitive disposition. You’re right that Klein behaved like an “embedder” (in some sense of the word) in the debate with Harris, but he did not in the original Vox piece you cited. There he made the empirical claim that the lower average IQ of American blacks was caused by years of slavery and oppression. So Klein has no general problem decoupling facts from judgement. He only developed one in the Harris debate when his empirical claim magically became the “historical context” with which any good and decent person would preface a discussion of race and IQ. In other words, Klein dropped the scientific argument in favor of a moral indictment, giving the appearance that his concern all along had been embedding.

    If one’s only concern is winning (or, at least, not losing face), then Klein’s embedding strategy was the best option. He probably predicted that going toe-to-toe with a scientist on the facts didn’t exactly put the odds in his favor, so he decided to accuse Harris of a moral failing (i.e., insensitivity). To the extent that he kept Harris on his heels–Harris dutifully ruminated over his every decision and his possible biases and blind spots–Klein succeeded in avoiding having his decoupled scientific claim cross-examined. I doubt he won any converts, however, because the podcast offered little more than a cringe-inducing demonstration of how moral criticism can work when it targets a soft, self-conscious spot. I am sorry I wasted my time listening to it.

  24. Gjjd says

    The second tip for decoupling, I believe, is the best. One gets very good at decoupling if one has the natural creativity to imagine scenarios where the facts could support the opinions of any given “tribe.”

    The observation that the strength of one’s identity is often proportional to the hostility one feels for groups opposed to one’s identity group is also important.

    If a person combines low-strength identity with high-IQ and high-creativity, one should be capable of productive discussion of facts.

    Of course, those on the postmodern SJW left will remain as close-minded to the above argument in favor of the possibility of productive fact-based discussion as they are to anything else I’d say, since they already assume I am so hopelessly biased that everything I say is a word-salad meant to serve my group interests.

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