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What do you do when someone says, “The quote is, this is the exact quote”—and then misquotes you?

Ezra Klein, editor of the news/opinion website Vox, reports on a recent debate that sits in the center of the Venn diagram of science, journalism, and politics:

Sam Harris, host of the Waking Up podcast, and I [Klein] have been going back and forth over an interview Harris did with The Bell Curve author Charles Murray. In that interview, which first aired almost a year ago, the two argued that African Americans are, for a combination of genetic and environmental reasons, intrinsically and immutably less intelligent than white Americans, and Murray argued that the implications of this “forbidden knowledge” should shape social policy. Vox published a piece criticizing the conversation, Harris was offended by the piece and challenged me to a debate, and after a lot of back-and-forth, this is that debate. . . .

These hypotheses about biological racial difference are now, and have always been, used to advance clear political agendas — in Murray’s case, an end to programs meant to redress racial inequality, and in Harris’s case, a counterstrike against identitarian concerns he sees as a threat to his own career. Yes, identity politics are at play in this conversation, but that includes, as it always has, white identity politics. . . .

You can follow the link and read the discussion and follow more links and read more, etc.

I’ve never met any of the people involved in this discussion, but I’ve written for Vox and corresponded a couple times with Klein, and I’ve had a few interactions with Murray: some emails, also I reviewed one of his books and arranged for him to have the chance to reply to my review in the journal. The topics of genetics, intelligence, race, and identity politics didn’t really come up in any of these discussions.

A trivial thing but it really annoys me

There’s lots here to think about in the above conversation between Harris and Klein, but this is the part that jumped out at me:

Sam Harris:

One line [of Klein’s earlier Vox article] said while I have a PhD in neuroscience I appear to be totally ignorant of facts that are well known to everyone in the field of intelligence studies.

Ezra Klein:

I think you should quote the line. I don’t think that’s what the line said.

Sam Harris:

The quote is, this is the exact quote: “Sam Harris appeared to be ignorant of facts that were well known to everyone in the field of intelligence studies.” Now that’s since been quietly removed from the article, but it was there and it’s archived.

Klein follows up, not in the conversation but in his post:

[I went back and looked into this and, as far as I can tell, the original quote that Harris is referring to is this one: “Here, too briefly, are some facts to ponder — facts that Murray was not challenged to consider by Harris, who holds a PhD in neuroscience, although they are known to most experts in the field of intelligence.” Here is the first archived version of the piece if you want to compare it with the final.]

This really bugs me. Harris says, “The quote is, this is the exact quote”—and follows up with something that’s not the exact quote.

I mean, really, what’s the point of that? How do you deal with people who do this sort of thing? I guess it’s related to the idea we talked about the other day, the distinction between truth and evidence. Presumably, Harris feels that he’s been maligned, and he’s not so concerned about the details. So when he says “this is the exact quote,” what he means is: This is the essential truth.

Kinda like David Brooks, who publishes checkably false statements and then, when people call him on it, refuses to make corrections and instead expresses irritation. I assume that Brooks, too, believes that he is true in the essentials and considers the factual details as somewhat irrelevant.

As a statistician, I find this attitude sooooo frustrating.

22 Comments

  1. Mark Pawelek says:

    An entire blog post just to bitch about someone you dislike. Oh dear!

    • Andrew says:

      Mark:

      1. I don’t dislike Harris. I know nothing about the guy. I just dislike this thing he did, where he said, “The quote is, this is the exact quote” . . . and then misquoted someone. That’s not cool! But it doesn’t mean I dislike the person; I don’t know enough to like or dislike him. We all do things we shouldn’t do, sometimes. That’s not by itself enough to dislike someone.

      2. Are you saying it’s a bad thing to “bitch about someone”? Cause I think that’s fine. If someone like Harris wants to go in the public arena, get into a public argument with someone, and then misquote them while saying he’s not doing that, then, sure, that’s worth bitching about. More generally, this is a problem in public discourse all the time, that people misrepresent other people’s positions. This sort of thing is the kind of muck that gets in the way of clear thinking, and clear discussion, and I have no problem calling people out when they do such things.

      If you’re looking for a blog with no bitching and all happy faces and sunshine, you’ve come to the wrong place!

  2. Jonathan says:

    I assume that when someone says, ‘This is the exact quote’, they’re performing some sleight of hand (or mouth) because that’s what every illusionist says in an act. A statement to that effect is a trust statement meant to distract and guide you.

    Does Murray actually argue about race? I don’t follow that dead end of a road. He and Hernstein were correct about a ‘cognitive elite’: just look at the rampant growth and salaries accorded to the ‘cognitive elite’ and the disconnection between them and, well, the less cognitively elite. When we read The Bell Curve in a book group decades ago, we wondered why that race chapter was in; it weakened the argument that intellectual work and thus intellectual capacity was segmenting across societies. It was obvious then that bright people from India or wherever had more in common with bright people from Ohio or wherever than with the rest of any of these societies and that the world was encouraging them to group. A form of diversity that is also less diverse. When Murray comes up, I don’t see how his concepts actually advance public policy debate; they poke at ideas of ‘equality’ but then so does the existence of Google, along with the rest of the various tech markets, from biotech to robotics to blockchain.

  3. Paul Alper says:

    I strongly recommend reading the entire transcript of the debate:

    https://www.vox.com/2018/4/9/17210248/sam-harris-ezra-klein-charles-murray-transcript-podcast

    As always, when biological racial differences comes up for discussion, fog can ensue–Here is Harris stretching the meaning of race:

    “We could’ve been talking about anti-Semitism, and we could have the same conversation. Some of the switches would be flipped because of the different histories of Jews and African Americans, but much of it would be the same. We’re both Jewish. We both have standing to talk about the history of the way Jews have been treated and the future of how they may be treated in coming years. Presumably, we both would acknowledge that anti-Semitism is a problem, but both, I think, would acknowledge that there are places where you could detect it where it in fact doesn’t exist.”

    An interesting place where it does exist may be found at:

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/dc-politics/dc-lawmaker-who-said-jews-control-the-weather-visits-holocaust-museum/2018/04/19/0b69ddde-4329-11e8-8569-26fda6b404c7_story.html?utm_term=.acd3bb782d7f

    [Trayon White Sr., a D.C. Council member] “drew widespread criticism last month [March, 2018] when he asserted that wealthy Jews control the weather.”

    • someone says:

      Harris (quoted by Paul): “We’re both Jewish. We both have standing to talk about the history of the way Jews have been treated.”
      Does just being Jewish give you “standing” to talk about the way Jews have been treated?

      • jrkrideau says:

        Not unless you actually know some history. Otherwise you are bullh*ting or relating myths. It is a bit like all sorts of people “know” Columbus proved the world was round. Except any educated person in Anceint Greece, the Roman Empire or Western Europe was well aware the world was round since, at least, the time when Eratosthenes of Cyrene measured the circumference of the earth sometime, very roughly, around 200 BC.

        An interesting discussion of some of Sam Harris’ historical knowledge, at least Western historical knowledge, can be found here, https://historyforatheists.com/2018/08/sam-harris-horrible-histories/.

      • anon says:

        jrkrideau, thanks for the link.

        I wouldn’t trust Harris on neuroscience, let alone history.

  4. Hi Andrew,

    It looks like a type/form of cognitive dissonance. In this Wiki below, there are four types listed. One of them may apply, although the descriptions of each could use refinement.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance

    I hate when people try to weasel their way out of answering me directly. In response, satire works sometimes. LOL

    • Andrew says:

      Sameera:

      It just seems weird to me.

      Who says “The quote is, this is the exact quote” and then doesn’t actually give the exact quote?

      What kind of behavior is this? Is it some sort of debating strategy, where you introduce a statement that’s transparently false, just to distract your opponent and make him waste time refuting it?

      A couple years ago, I was dealing with someone online who was just making things up about me. He never said, “The quote is, this is the exact quote,” but he made things up, just to look bad, I guess under the reasoning that his followers would never check. I did not respond, though: my feeling was that anyone who would just make stuff up like this was a madman, and I didn’t want to tangle with him: who knows what he would do next? He was able to win the exchange by escalating and making me afraid to stay in the discussion.

      So perhaps that’s what Harris was doing in the exchange quoted above? By blatantly lying, he was demonstrating his willingness to violate the usual norms of civilized discourse, which perhaps could be effective at intimidating people into avoiding conflict with him.

      David Brooks is another story: my guess is that he doesn’t not correct his errors just because he thinks that would mar his image as an expert. Brooks has millions of readers so I guess he does a cost-benefit calculation that it’s ok if he’s discredited among the few thousands of people who hear about his error, as long as the masses never hear about it.

      • Hi Andrew,

        Some people count on your not taking them on for their goofball or manipulative antics. I haven’t come across Harris. And I haven’t followed David Brooks much. I am sure that public celebrities engage in cost-benefit calculation as you suggest. I came to the insight that I want to devote time to my family and my own intellectual interests. And I love reading your substantive, ethical, and interesting work and the work of other academics posting on your blog. I have learned a lot visiting your blog. So thank you.

        I consider myself a generalist. I don’t consider myself an expert in a traditional sense.

        I’ve been researching what is referred to as’emotional blackmail’ culture. Susan Forward wrote a book on it, back in the 90s. People seem to engage in emotional blackmail different degrees. Each case of it is unique. The milder expressions of it are not easy to address. Your examples above seems like expressions of it.

        When one is faced with a more extreme case of emotional blackmail, it is difficult to know what to do. Generally, I avoid such situations b/c they take a long time to resolve. But when it is your reputation, then it makes sense to seek legal advice.

        Social media is rife with trolling blackmailers. I haven’t experienced any real problems with them on Twitter. I avoid going off on anyone to begin with. Try to stick the merits of an argument in public forums.

        The best antidote in such situations is to keep one’s cool. That is easier said than done. LOL

      • Erin Jonaitis says:

        I wonder whether, when people have a strong emotional response to the gist they remember from a message, they are less good at remembering details of that message that were not relevant to the emotional response, or at self-assessing their accuracy regarding those details? I don’t know this to be true but it seems worth considering before assuming malice.

        I agree with you that asserting that something is an exact quote when it isn’t is bad form, at best.

        • Martha (Smith) says:

          Jeez, this reminds me of something I heard on radio yesterday — one of those NPR things of questionable scientific validity. I don’t recall exactly what it was saying, but it was something like two different pathways of memory, and people who had one were more likely to do something that seemed irrational (or perhaps unethical?), but this trait also gave them some positive (in the sense of feel good) quality.

  5. Jordan Anaya says:

    I’m not sure if you were aware of this little tantrum Dan Gilbert went on when someone quoted him but capitalized a word: https://twitter.com/DanTGilbert/status/857816991008251904

  6. Torquemada in Training says:

    For a variety of outlets I have been interviewed once and my boss half a dozen times. He advised that I record the session because in his words, “Reporters never get it right.” And he was correct. But these were working stiffs on deadline and they never shattered the main message and they never doubled down by asserting “exact quote.” In this instance I can’t tell if it’s a case of malicious or just sloppy. Either way, I’m with Andrew: It’s frustrating, especially when you’ve taken care to prepare and to express yourself unambiguously.

  7. static says:

    That Klein-Harris conversation was so painful to listen to. Klein cares little for the truth, he is merely seeking power and status by making claims of guilt by association. Harris was just unprepared for the level at which Klein was coming at him, and just sounds like a whiner that wants people to think he’s good. Klein gets status from making Harris looks bad, so how he actually feels about Harris is beside the point. It seemed like a debate between someone who wanted to win (Klein) and someone who wanted to be liked (Harris). They both came off really badly. For example, the quote of Klein’s you pulled “that African Americans are, for a combination of genetic and environmental reasons, intrinsically and immutably less intelligent than white Americans” is clearly not what Murray or Harris stated, so they are both guilty of misquoting. I find that statement of Klein’s particularly ugly, as it takes a statistical difference between the populations and turns it into an absolute statement. When we say something like dogs are bigger than cats, it is often interpreted as a logical statement that all dogs are bigger than all cats, not one of overlapping distributions with different medians.

    Overall though, the general point of Harris in support of open and free inquiry seems much more scientific than that of Klein who wants to suppress ideas that he deems dangerous. I just find them both insufferable.

  8. Eric Rasmusen says:

    It’s simpler than all the commenters are saying, and Prof. Gelman is right to be bothered by it. It’s sloppy thinking, rather than lying, but sloppy thinking is bad. It’s the same problem as irritated me today as I listened to Sean Hannity on the radio. He said something like “The Democrats are literally moving the goal posts in the Cavanaugh confirmation”. But they aren’t literally doing that, they’re figuratively doing it. Lots of people misuse the word “literally”, and I bet those same people say,”The exact quote is …”. Trump is much like the common man in this, which is not a compliment.

    • Mikhail says:

      The word “literally” is a little bit different. It was misused so often that it gained a second meaning. “Literally” is “Used for emphasis while not being literally true”, see dictionary. So using “literally” as “figuratively” is correct in colloquial language. Languages evolve this way sometimes.

      As for “The exact quote is”, it is not yet codified in language to mean “As far as I can remember”

    • anon says:

      No, it’s far worse than being “sloppy”. And far worse than the use of “literally”, which is a very common grammatical mistake.

      When he said what he said, Harris was basically just doubling down & not caring about the truth. He just wanted the last word in his argument.

  9. Matt says:

    Why would someone with a PhD in neuroscience know anything about IQ research? You might think that’s something neuroscientists study but they don’t (with extremely rare exceptions). IQ research is applied psychometrics and very, very few neuroscientists have even a basic grasp of psychometric theory and methods. (BTW, Klein’s “facts… known to most experts in the field of intelligence” are largely false or beside the point.)

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