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.

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