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The Derbyshire Dustup 
William Saletan, The Neo-Liberal Noah

William Saletan [1]

William Saletan

1,597 words

William Saletan has weighed in on John Derbyshire’s firing with what is perhaps the only serious attempt [2] 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 [3] by repeating the tired and flimsy canards about science having proven human equality. Wesley J. Smith even came right out and admitted [4] 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 [5]” [1 [5]|2 [6]|3 [7]|4 [8]]. 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 [9] 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 [10] 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 [11] and reports [12]. 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 [13]. 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.