To hear the press—and especially the conservative press—tell it, Charles Murray is an embattled conservative whose ideas can get no quarter because the liberal elite hate them. His difficulties at speaking events are a product of a campus atmosphere hostile to “free speech”. This is part of a worrying rise in anti-intellectualism on the left.
The problem with all that? Charles Murray’s ideas are garbage.
The Southern Poverty Law Center details Murray as someone who is on the intellectual fringe. The linked piece establishes that Murray relies on, in their words, tainted sources. His theory relies on “dysgenesis”, an idea that was on its last legs when my grandparents were in high school. Essentially, having children with “inferior” races will lead to a breakdown in the welfare system as the pressures created by the “regression” of the gene pool lead to too few people supporting the victims of dysgenesis. There are a bunch of problems with both the assumptions and methodology of his research, not to mention that the logical conclusion of this work is another Holocaust. Make no mistake, the foundation of Murray’s work are uncontroversially pseudo-science.
At this point Murray’s defenders like to trot out a Voltaire quote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Even taken out of context, Murray’s right to make these assertions is not in question. In context, these are not Voltaire’s words. A historian summarized summarized Voltaire’s position on a controversial book that way. The book faced formal censorship by the government and church culminating in a book burning and, ironically, Voltaire felt the work was unoriginal and not worth all the fuss. As near as I can tell, the Federal Government is not looking to burn to burn Murray’s work, but I admit I did not check.
Indeed, the preoccupation of the much-vaunted Enlightenment folks was with government intrusion. In the American context, we have erected a strong framework opposing Federal and State intervention against most speech; Congress may not pass a law preventing Murray from spreading his pseudo-science. There is a wrinkle when talking about public institutions of higher learning, which after all derive their authority from popular election. Courts have held (in my view, correctly) that institutions have the right to limit who has access to a platform, but must provide a public space for all views. In other words, Murray is not legally entitled to a stage, but he can go stand next to the Evangelists and hawk his outmoded “science”. Can you imagine the chaos if we were all entitled to speak at any public university we chose!
The second broad line of objection is that the best way to defeat ideas is by meeting them head on. I demur a bit to the broad point; suppression by Universities hardly serves the purpose of intellectual foment. But does giving charlatans a stage serve that goal either? Students, even those giving a more clunky objection to Murray than I, are not calling to ban critical engagement with Murray’s work. Giving people the chance to speak in a forum that limits questions, like a speech at a university, works fine if the ideas are prima facie defensible. Who, besides Murray and the literal neo-Nazi outfits who fund him, is asserting that Eugenics still deserves a careful public hearing? What, precisely, is Murray offering that one could not find in a history text?
The best way to critically engage with debunked, half a century old science is not to treat it as a cutting edge theory which deserves to have its contours fleshed out. Murray’s ideas aren’t being dismissed for lack of engagement, but because experts concluded the preponderance of the evidence came down against a generation ago. Murray’s baldly false assertion that “most” experts agree with his premise should be enough to disqualify him from University speaking engagements. It is bad enough that his science is trash, but he is flatly lying about his colleagues’ positions to worm his way onto campus. Courts have a high standard for retrying legal cases, as do academics for intellectual ones and for the same reason: these debates are time consuming. Those interested in retrying Eugenics should have to prove that the field has something new to offer. Murray’s lies reveal that he does not think he can meet that burden.
Ironically, it is those who would shoehorn Murray onto the stage who are showing the most wanton disregard for the goals of the academy. Voltaire and his cohort correctly worried that the whims of popular pressure would bring the force of the state against them. Today, conservative commentators worry that an idea that only lives in the popular imagination is not being forced into the academy.
Is this the current state of conservative intellectualism? That they give quarter to any idea, no matter how plainly indefensible, so long as it opposes the welfare state? I hope not! Conservative ideas like Burkean anti-radicalism, Hayek’s information problem, and Hicks’s marginalism temper my progressive values. I am a better, more well-rounded critic because conservatives have historically offered a vibrant response to the liberals of their time. But rather than looking critically at Murray’s ideas and acknowledging they come up short on the burden of proof, they are openly worried that Murray is not being paid to shill yesterday’s junk science. When liberals pull the tricks Murray does—pulling on outdated methodology or claiming a consensus that does not exist—I use this platform to write them a cease-and-desist letter. I do so because I am genuinely worried that poor discourse hurts our understanding of the world. Can conservatives defending Murray say the same?
Murray’s speech rights are not under siege. As far as I know, there is no credible threat to his right to propound these ideas. What is under siege is his lucrative deception that his ideas are scientifically debatable; they are not.
And so, we should not debate them.