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The Derbyshire Dustup 
William Saletan, The Neo-Liberal Noah

William Saletan

William Saletan

1,597 words

William Saletan has weighed in on John Derbyshire’s firing with what is perhaps the only serious attempt to deconstruct his arguments. There have been thousands of blog posts expressing dismay, disapproval, and disgust. Some have even made fumbling attempts to refute Derbyshire’s infamous article by repeating the tired and flimsy canards about science having proven human equality. Wesley J. Smith even came right out and admitted that the entire Enlightenment liberal worldview is pinned on the myth of human equality:

Humans beings are one species, e.g., we are all Homo sapiens. Race is a fiction that has been used to divide us and which has served us profoundly ill since the supposed differences among the “races,” such as skin color or eye appearance, are utterly superficial and morally irrelevant.

Racism is a form of eugenics-type thinking, or to put it another way, it accepts ubber menchen [sic] and unter menchen [sic] attitudes. Racism denies the equal value and moral worth of all humans. Denying the equal value and moral worth of all humans is a rejection of human exceptionalism. Denying human exceptionalism destroys the fundamental foundation of universal human rights. And that divides us from our brothers and sisters, leading to violence, oppression, and exploitation.

In summary, if we can prove that there are non-superficial and morally relevant differences, then Mr. Smith’s entire worldview and moral framework will fall like a house of cards.

Saletan jumped with both feet into the debate at the neo-liberal shark tank of Slate Magazine in 2007 with a four-part series entitled “Liberal Creationism” [1|2|3|4]. The series was in response to Nobel laureate James Watson’s declaration that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa because all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really.”

The octogenarian co-discoverer of DNA, a founding father of genetics, found himself fired from his own research laboratory, viciously attacked and ridiculed by the popular media, and bullied into offering a craven apology.

Saletan sent shock waves through the liberal blogosphere, boggling countless self-satisfied doctrinaire liberals with a sober and measured series concluding that people of African descent are indeed less intelligent than Whites and Asians.

Saletan suffered dearly for his decision, nearly losing his job and being subjected to a series of hysterical attacks from his colleagues. But he did not, as his colleagues imagine, write the series because he was somehow confused. When he apologized, he didn’t apologize for being incorrect. Nay, Saletan’s one of a handful of Leftists who is neither confused nor incorrect. He didn’t write his series out of a Steve Sailer-ish fetish for reveling in uncomfortable truths. He definitely wasn’t “one of us,” attempting to expose a wider audience to racial realities and nationalist ideology. He was more like the biblical Noah. He was aware of an existential threat that nobody else could see and committed to doing whatever it takes to survive the coming flood — the coming flood of scientific facts confirming dramatic racial differences in intelligence, inclination, and behavior.

He was trying to convince his fellow Leftists to join him in the pivotal work of reconciling their Jacobin ideology with scientific facts. The hive-minded buffoons did what hive-minded buffoons do, and succeeded in silencing him. He stopped speaking openly about racial differences, but he didn’t stop building his ideological ark. While the flare-up of discussion about race and morality surrounding Derbyshire’s termination is hardly the flood Saletan’s expecting, it’s a skirmish he’s uniquely trained for. After an obligatory nod of support to Rich Lowry for concluding that Derbyshire crossed the line, Saletan begins the important work of explaining where that line should be drawn.

Lowry is a good man and a solid editor. But he hasn’t explained where the line is on race, and how Derbyshire crossed it. Calling the piece nasty isn’t enough. We need to understand what Derbyshire got wrong.


Derbyshire thinks his data warrant his conclusions. But all his data references include the crucial term “mean” or “average.” They don’t tell you about the person walking toward you. They tell you what you can assess about the probability of danger when the only information you have is color. Look at Derbyshire’s point 10: “where you have nothing to guide you but knowledge of those mean differences. . . . Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally. . . . If accosted by a strange black in the street . . .” The common premise in all this advice is ignorance. Not ignorance of data, but ignorance about the person you’re facing.

Saletan’s point here is that race is merely one data point. He is making a salient point. After all, there’s little need to cross the street if Carlton Banks is crossing your path, and it may be wise to cross the street if Eminem is crossing your path. There’s often additional information we can either implicitly or explicitly process to arrive at an estimate of the relative safety of engaging a specific human being.

While Saletan carefully words his argument to escape the dragnet of political correctness, he implicitly concedes that there are dramatic statistical disparities in intelligence and inclination to violence. He implies that the subset of Blacks who otherwise look and behave like the average White are roughly as safe and intelligent as the White average. Conversely, Whites who look and behave like average Blacks are roughly as safe and intelligent as the Black average.

Having made a thoughtful point, he takes a break from thinking to take some sloppy potshots, first pouncing on a hypothetical flaw in a specific throwaway point Derbyshire makes…

To me, the most telling passage in Derbyshire’s talk is this weird observation: “There are, for example, no black Fields Medal winners.” Derbyshire calls this fact “civilizationally consequential.”

He knows and we know that there’s an entire haystack behind that straw man. While it can be tempting to offer anecdotal examples like this one about Fields Medal winners to illustrate the reliably consistent nature of the difference in intelligence, it created the opportunity for Saletan to deliberately deceive his audience with the implication that this example could be an exception. It’s not, and he knows it. He’s exhaustively read the studies and reports. He knows damn well that the counter-arguments he’s inviting his audience to conjure up have been exhaustively disproven.

Then Saletan wallows even deeper into the pit, resorting to name-calling:

The list of Fields Medal winners tells you nothing about blacks. But it tells you a lot about Derbyshire. It tells you he’s a math nerd who substitutes statistical intelligence for social intelligence. He recommends group calculations instead of taking the trouble to learn about the person standing in front of you.

We race realists can’t win. First, they accuse us of being  thugs and simpletons. Then, if we’re statistical gurus with a mastery of the facts, they accuse us of being nerds.

After that childish indulgence, Saletan climbs back into his ark to reformulate his original point:

You can believe in group differences in performance (by race, sex, religion, or any other category) on any measure, including intelligence. You can argue that such differences are partially heritable, as long as you’re clear that heritability patterns are ultimately genetic, not racial or ethnic. I’ve defended such arguments before. Egalitarian fundamentalism — the idea that the right to be treated as an individual depends on the strict equality of group averages — is a dangerous mistake.

Did you catch that? If you blink, you might miss it: “heritability patterns are ultimately genetic, not racial.” This masterful nugget of rhetorical sophistry works on multiple levels. To the casual reader looking to confirm his biases, the statement reads that heritability patterns are not racial. To the careful reader who spots the weasel word “ultimately,” he’s stating that heritability patterns are more strongly genetic than they are racial (as if race weren’t primarily a genetic construct). Technically, he’s not denying that heritability patterns are racial.

Happy Little Trees

Happy Little Trees

After you take the time to unpack it, the statement he actually made is the asinine one that you’re more closely related to your parents than you are to your extended family of racial cohorts. This apparent filioque is of immense importance to Saletan because he has relied on it to reconcile his liberal conscience with the facts he can’t ignore.

There are no forests for Mr. Saletan, only trees. By concluding that the “forest” construct is dangerous and immoral, he can ignore the blighted nature of one forest relative to another. After all, there are healthy trees in even the most blighted of forests, and blighted trees in the healthiest of forests. According to his tortured logic, we must consider and treat all forests identically, since we have yet to inspect each individual tree.

A forester with such an outlook would be utterly unable to make the decisions he needs guarantee the healthiest possible forests. Public policy decisions made by people who pretend that race is an invalid construct in order to silence the voices in their heads will only exacerbate racial tensions, making things harder for everybody of every race.

Saletan is technically correct that there are exceptions to statistical patterns, but John Derbyshire already acknowledged that in his original article. The functional difference between these men who are aware of human biodiversity is that Derbyshire arrives at his conclusions in light of the evidence while Saletan arrives at his conclusions in spite of the evidence.



  1. Posted April 12, 2012 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    Oh for Christ’s sake — my impatience directed at Mr. Saletan, not Mr. Parrott, for whom thanks is due for bringing this to our attention, and sparing us the trouble of reading the original — Noam Chomsky made the same argument about two decades ago, during the big “sociobiology” dust up. He defended genetic research, including IQ research, against the attacks of his MIT colleagues like Lewontin. I’ve used it myself on occasion to say “See, Chomsky agrees with me!”

    Chomsky argued that genetic research established statistical truths about groups, not individuals, and ‘racism’ arose only on the one on one level.

    Thus, “Blacks are less intelligent than Whites” was both true and, pace Lewontin etc., not racist.

    “Therefore, a black man is unlikely to be qualified for this job” was a reasonable inference, not evidence of racism.

    However, if a qualified black man applied, and was turned down ‘because he’s black, and they’re not smart enough’ that would be ‘racism.’ And also, irrational. [At lease, on the micro level. As with Jews, there are other arguments to support the idea keeping down their numbers to benefit society even if an individual is the best qualified for the job. E.g., look at what the Jews do as soon as they ‘take over’ a profession].

    I don’t have any citations for all this, but it was all fairly public, as part of the aforementioned ‘controversy’ so unless L. fesses up, I’d have to say either L. is just ignorant of the history of this discussion, or his liberal readers are. Or has Chomksy gotten so far out of the Liberal mainstream that he isn’t read any more?

  2. Posted April 12, 2012 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    Also, Saletan looks like “Andrew the Whorehouse Guy” from Reno 911, even the creepy boney finger pointing.

  3. Posted April 12, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    But all his data references include the crucial term “mean” or “average.” They don’t tell you about the person walking toward you. They tell you what you can assess about the probability of danger when the only information you have is color. Look at Derbyshire’s point 10: “where you have nothing to guide you but knowledge of those mean differences. . . . Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally. . . . If accosted by a strange black in the street . . .” The common premise in all this advice is ignorance. Not ignorance of data, but ignorance about the person you’re facing.

    Dear Mr. Saletan,

    It is Saturday evening and the doorbell rings. You open it to find a member of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang on you porch. He is there to take your 16-year-old daughter to a party. All that you know about him is that he’s a Hell’s Angel. You don’t know anything about his individual virtues and vices.

    Do you let your daughter go with him or do you conclude rationally that the probability of him being a gentleman is too low to allow her to go? In the absence of perfect knowledge, probabilities matter.

    And you know that!

    Sincerely yours, Burrhus

  4. Silver
    Posted April 12, 2012 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    Very well said, Matt Parrott.

    Race is a fiction that has been used to divide us and which has served us profoundly ill since the supposed differences among the “races,” such as skin color or eye appearance, are utterly superficial and morally irrelevant.

    Be that as it may, race is a biological reality that can also be used (and, I would argue, has often been used) to unite people, not merely to divide them. The argument that race only divides rests on the assumption that people are naturally predisposed to care about other people. Since societies, civilizations and moral philosophies (particularly those committed to paper) grew and evolved within basically homogeneous racial settings this assumption is understandable. But the assumption is probably incorrect. Humans in history have cared about other people because they understood themselves to part of the same group, with common group interests.

    Robert Putnam found that in racially diverse settings in America not only do people not care much about (“trust”) people of other races, they don’t care much about people of their own race, either. Putnam attributed this to racial diversity per se, but it’s probably also attributable to “diversity” ideology: the idea that our existence as individuals matters vastly more than our belonging to racial/ethnic/national groups, and that living as individuals among tremendously racially variegated others is fun, fun, fun. No longer seeing ourselves as belonging to racial groups with common interests, we see little reason to care much about other people; without much reason to care about others — to actually care, not merely to pretend to — we tend not to.

    Clearly the effect is not the same across the board. While some people do not seem to care much at all, others of us continue to care greatly about other people with whom we share (or believe we share) something profoundly important in common with: race. While it’s true that there are no clear-cut racial dividing lines (at least no longer, even if there once were), we still respond to “racial distance.”

    Saletan might argue that racial belonging is a recipe for racial conflict. There are two responses to this. The first is that racial conflict is already here, and no doubt exacerbated by demanding whites believe “race is a myth!” while simultaneously encouraging other races’ racial identities. The second is that racial conflict can be avoided or diminished, and ultimately mutually satisfactorily settled by adherence to a “Racial Golden Rule”: treat other races as you’d have them treat your own. It’s my belief that most racialists (aside from a handful of aggressive expansionists) would like nothing more than to be apart from other races and left in peace, and would therefore be content to allow other races to remain apart and in peace. In such a scheme, racial aggression against one group would mean racial aggression against all groups, thus not only are the prospects for racial peace and goodwill high, but are much better than what currently obtains.

  5. Fourmyle of Ceres
    Posted April 12, 2012 at 11:18 pm | Permalink


    Is it me, or is it that when “CONservatism” has removed all that derives from the White race from its ideology, you are left with, effectively, a national libertarianism acting as a facade for a ruthless, de facto plutocracy?

    You have simply replaced all that is “moral,”with a worship of all that is “market”; effectively, your Invisible God’s Invisible Hand can be seen in “market clearing prices.”

    What’s In YOUR Future? Focus Northwest!

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