Is Andrew Sullivan beyond the pale?

August 31, 2020 • 11:15 am

by Greg Mayer

[Update: I’ve been informed by Sam Harris that Murray and Herrnstein did not make the quantitative genetics error I attributed to them: they did not suppose that in traits with high heritability mean differences between populations indicate genetic differences between populations. I wasn’t sure they did (not having read the book), hence my noncommittal “or at least their public proponents” caveat. I am happy to be corrected on this point. It makes the demonization of Sullivan even more perplexing.]

Sort of. We may read him, but we must find him “abhorrent”. Or at least so proclaims Ben Smith of the New York Times in “I’m Still Reading Andrew Sullivan. But I Can’t Defend Him.” The headline condemns Sullivan, in Smith’s voice no less, but then opens with Smith visiting Sullivan, apparently late at night, at Sullivan’s vacation home on Cape Cod. The whole piece contains these sorts of contradictions. Smith presents himself as a devotee of Sullivan, even an acolyte, and—maybe?—a friend. He goes on about how Sullivan pioneered political blogging, influenced a generation of writers, first made the case for marriage equality, presciently touted Obama’s importance before 2008, influenced votes in the Senate, and “helped lead America away from torture.”

But he is to be condemned. Why? Because in 1994, as editor of the New Republic, he published an excerpt from Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s book The Bell Curve, along with some other articles discussing and critiquing the book.

I haven’t read the The Bell Curve, nor the New Republic from 1994 (and neither are high on my reading list). It’s well known that Murray and Herrnstein, or at least their public proponents, made some basic quantitative genetics errors, vitiating their main point on IQ and heritability (see details below). For having published this collection of articles, Sullivan is irredeemable.

Three years ago, when Murray (and his faculty interlocutor) were assaulted by students during a campus lecture gone bad at Middlebury College, Sullivan commented on the 1994 publication, and this, I suppose, is his current view (Sullivan rarely writes about Murray):

[P]rotests against Murray are completely legitimate. The book he co-authored with Harvard professor Richard Herrnstein more than 20 years ago, The Bell Curve, included a chapter on empirical data showing variations in the largely overlapping bell curves of IQ scores between racial groups. Their provocation was to assign these differences to both the environment and genetics. The genetic aspect could be and was exploited by racists and bigots.

I don’t think that chapter was necessary for the book’s arguments, but I do believe in the right of good-faith scholars to publish data — as well as the right of others to object, critique, and debunk. If the protesters at Middlebury had protested and disrupted the event for a period of time, and then let it continue, I’d be highly sympathetic, even though race and IQ were not the subject of Murray’s talk. If they’d challenged the data or the arguments of the book, I’d be delighted.

Whether this reflects Sullivan’s view in 1994, I’m not sure. But I do know that Sullivan is a Voltairean proponent of free speech, and would publish things he disagreed with. Indeed, Sullivan’s willingness to entertain opposing views, and then to change his mind, is one of the striking things about him. It is thus curious that Smith, who claims that Sullivan was an “obvious influence” on his own work, misses this key element of Sullivan’s writing. Oddly, Smith goes on about how Sullivan never changes; but one of the most striking admissions of error I have ever seen in the public intellectual sphere is Sullivan’s owning up to the failures—not just in execution, but in conception—of the neoconservative project for Iraq that he had once so loudly cheered for.

Smith also writes about Sullivan’s departure from New York magazine, which Smith portrays as a preemptive firing before the “woke” staff at the magazine could organize against him. Sullivan’s publication of the New Republic issue—in 1994—was “a firing offense”— in 2020. If true, this is amazing, and damning of New York, its staff, and its editors. (Smith’s account is based on two anonymous “senior employees”.)

Smith’s piece is very Times à la 2020: you’re intolerable because I don’t like something you did more than 25 years ago. And in this case, it’s uber-Times à la 2020it’s not anything you said 25 years ago, but the fact that you let someone else say something that I don’t like 25 years ago. At the Times, editors must pay for the opinions of authors!

Smith at times seems conflicted in carrying out his hatchet job on Sullivan—having praised him, even defended him, he seems reluctant to bring the dagger down, but ultimately he does. Smith is, perhaps, afraid for his own job. The Times has shown itself to be all too willing to force out or fire those who do not toe the line—just ask James Bennett.

I had read some of Ben Smith’s writing before he moved to the Times last spring, and I thought that this move would be a good thing. But it may be that rather than Smith being good for the Times, the Times has been bad for Smith.

h/t Eli

Very brief quantitative genetics lesson: The basic error is to mistake heritability, a within population measure of the proportion of phenotypic variation in the population attributable to genetic differences, for a measure of the degree of genetic differentiation among populations; it is not. As a simple example, suppose we had two populations of a grass that have the same distribution of genotypes, and that heritability of height is high (and furthermore, to be absolutely explicit, there is no genotype X environment interaction). One population is grown with fertilizerm and the other without fertilizer. Although height has high heritability in both populations, the difference in mean height between populations is entirely environmental.

66 thoughts on “Is Andrew Sullivan beyond the pale?

  1. “Very brief quantitative genetics lesson:”


    I recall a similar mini tutorial here using corn – originating with Lewontin, I think.

  2. I did read the book. The point of discussing heritability had basically nothing to do with race. Rather, they were speculating on the consequences of classes based on merit rather than the fixed classes of times past. Given a tendency to marry (or at least mate) within ones own class, could we produce upper and lower classes that diverge genetically as well as socially? Whatever you think the answer, and its implications, might be, it seems like a legitimate scientific question. The issue of racial differences was really a minor aside, but those who have not read the book (most people commenting on it) seem to think that was the main, if not sole, subject.

    1. I have read the book and while I think race was not the primary focus, it certainly was not, nor could it have been, a decent part of it. That said, the greater focus was on “white” people, with a chapter on racial difference between “white”, “black”, and Asian Americans, with small bits on these groups in other nations. I understand why some of a certain political or racial bent would be offended, especially if they only read snippets rather than the whole book. Chapter 13 in particular, Ethnic Differences in Cognitive Ability gives stats like “In discussing IQ tests, for example, the black mean is commonly given as 85, the white mean as 100, and the standard deviation as 15.” (p. 276) and if you were to quit there, you’d scream racism. There’s also some graphics (yes, bell curves) showing the overlapping IQ distribution of white and black (p. 279), discussions of SAT scores, digit span tests, testing bias, and much more. It’s not always pretty if you are searching for a certain outcome to suit your political ideology but white don’t always come out on top either. It’s a far more complex and nuanced chapter than the detractors lead one to believe. I’m not a social scientist or a geneticist so I can not argue about methods but it reads far more like a liberal book against class bias than anything like a racist manual for the klan or whatever. Murray claims to be a center-right libertarian but he doesn’t often sound like one to me in this book.

      And as always, I retain the right to be wrong or to have missed the point completely.

  3. I usually do not chime in on Sullivan. I have never been a fan of his. Probably primarily because of his catholicism. Which I think stems from the sheer number of priests and church higher ups who are gay. Somehow, Sullivan thinks this makes the RC church salvageable. Actually, it is inherently corrupt.

    And Sullivan’s pseudo liberal conservatism. His admiration of Margaret Thatcher. His tolerance of his school chum Boris Johnson. I don’t think he has anything worth listening to. Americans are too fascinated by his English accent.

    1. Americans are too fascinated by his English accent.

      (Oh, those, poor, simple-minded Americans!)

      Sorry, but I’m not. I’ve never heard him speak; I’ve only read his written words.

      I can look past our disagreements in specific areas (not a supporter of Thatcher) and still appreciate his clear writing style and his clear vision and criticism of what’s going on these days.

      I also appreciate his posting of readers’ opposing opinions on his web site (and admitting his errors in public).

  4. “it’s not anything you said 25 years ago, but the fact that you let someone else say something that I don’t like 25 years ago.”
    Surely we all know by now that fully woke political correctness is both proscriptive and retroactive. This feature, by the way, is particularly like the culture enjoyed by a former, large Eurasian country between the 1930s and the 1960s.

  5. The Catholic church has been caught red handed knowingly protecting pedophiles. Sullivan, knowing this, not only remains in the Catholic church but promotes it as integral to humanity’s survival.

    I tend to agree with many of the points Sullivan makes in the articles he writes but I’d still rather not hear from him ever again. There’s plenty of other rational voices on politics I can read who are not promoters of a pedophile ring.

    I can forgive belief in God. I can not forgive alignment with the Catholic church.

    1. I do not understand, much less seek to defend, Andrew Sullivan’s commitment to Roman Catholicism. But he has been a frequent and scathing critic of the Church’s handling of its sexual abuse scandal, see, e.g., here, so I’m not sure it’s fair to criticize him on that count.

    2. Is the Catholic Church particularly bad in that respect or is it just larger and more centralized than other religions?

  6. Andrew Sullivan affirms that his Catholicism is rooted in his own childhood—just as St. Ignatius of Loyola explained in the aphorism: “Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man.”

    Another take on this matter is the following story.

    “While walking along the sidewalk in front of his church, a minister heard the intoning of a prayer that nearly made his collar wilt. Apparently, his 5-year-old son and his playmates had found a dead robin. Feeling that proper burial should be performed, they had secured a small box and cottonwool, then dug a hole and made ready for the disposal of the deceased.
    The minister’s son was chosen to say the appropriate prayers and with sonorous dignity intoned his version of what he thought his father always said: ‘Glory be unto the Faaather, and unto the Sonnn, and into the hole he goooes.”

  7. All I can hear is Mark Antony insisting “Brutus is an honorable man!” I am not sure why a friend would write a piece like that, nor why anyone would publish it.

    1. Maybe he just looking for his friends, NYT subscribers, and countrymen to lend him their ears (or eyes, as the case may be).

  8. I read the Ben Smith article in its entirety. I cannot accept the characterization of it as a “hatchet job” on Sullivan. I found it taking a detached view of Sullivan’s career and how his 1994 article on the “Bell Curve” still has an impact on him today. Smith notes that others have criticized Sullivan for it, but Smith himself barely condemns, if that at all. The closest Smith comes to directly criticizing Sullivan is to say: “I wish Mr. Sullivan would accept that the project of trying to link the biological fiction of race with the science of genetics ought, in fact, to be over.” This is not much of a hatchet.

    I realize that based on Professor Coyne’s writings that Smith is wrong in describing race as a biological fiction, but, despite this, Smith is very far from viewing Sullivan as some evil person worthy of cancellation as a racist.

      1. Yes, I realize that Greg wrote the post. I was simply noting that although Smith considers race a biological fiction, which you dispute and perhaps Sullivan (I’m not sure of this), his piece was not really unkindly to Sullivan.

  9. I recall reading the lengthy excerpt of The Bell Curve that appeared in The New Republic in 1994 when Sullivan was TNR‘s editor. I also recall reading a subsequent issue of TNR, also published under Sullivan’s editorship, devoted to rebuttals of The Bell Curve by leading opponents.

    I recall Sullivan’s catching a lot of criticism at the time for publishing the original Bell Curve excerpt — maybe deserved, maybe not. But credit due him for publishing BOTH sides of the issue.

    Hell’s bells, that’s what free speech is all about.

  10. Hi Greg,

    “It’s well known that Murray and Herrnstein, or at least their public proponents, made some basic quantitative genetics errors, vitiating their main point on IQ and heritability (see details below).”

    Are you actually sure that they make the error you attribute to them, or are you just presuming they did because of what their critics said?

    Sullivan: “Their provocation was to assign these differences to both the environment and genetics.”

    As I understand it (from quotes from the book), that chapter arrived at no conclusion, saying it was impossible (on the data they had) to say what the relative effects of genes and environments were.

    The critics then lambasted them because they wanted genes to be ruled out on ideological grounds, whereas Murray & Herrnstein treated the issue as an empirical matter.

    1. I’ve bought The Bell Curve and read most of it. Certainly some of the criticism at the time was politically motivated and arguably about stuff the book didn’t say.

      I’ve thought that it would be really interesting to produce an up to date version of The Bell Curve using the latest scientific evidence, because the science has moved on.

      But who would be brave enough to write it, or publish it? And that’s one reason to push back against those who thoughtlessly support a Woke culture.

      1. Robert Plomin”s “Blueprint” might be a start. He even mentions that he waited many years to write it because it would have killed his career off, or words to that effect.

    2. Coel–

      You are correct, they did not make that error. I was apprised of this by Sam Harris earlier today before I saw your comment here, and posted the update above. Your correction (like Sam’s) is appreciated.


  11. “beyond the pale” has an interesting etymology, with the “pale” or stake marking the civilized (English) part of Ireland from the barbarian hinterland. Given Sullivan’s Irish ancestry, he might be.

    1. Dang, if birth in Blighty, a degree from Oxford, and support for the Tory Party won’t do it, I reckon there’s not much chance of an Irishman anywhere clawing his way inside the pale. 🙂

  12. I guess I’m with the consensus here, Sullivan is a paradox of views. Some essays seem very interesting, but there is the background of delusion as a Catholic. Smith? I just don’t know what’s going on in his head.

    1. I find myself more or less agreeing with everything Sullivan writes (I subscribe to his Weekly Dish). Except the clinging to Catholicism. (And this continues to puzzle Sam Harris as well.)

      But I can look past that.

  13. It fascinates me that so many commenters here dismiss Sullivan entirely based mostly on his Catholicism. Even if we don’t approve of his religion (which I do not), is this really enough to dismiss everything he says? I suppose it would if he suffused all his opinions with religion but, noticeably, he does not.

    1. Hey, Paul. I, for one, do not dismiss Sullivan’s opinions, “entirely based mostly on his Catholicism”—but only mostly on the entirety of his Catholicism. Sure, he has his reservations, expressed here and there, about Catholic doctrine and practice. But he’s always struck me as an unwavering and unwaverable Believer—his rhetoric perhaps not always “noticeably”/explicitly informed by Faith, but none-the-less detectably “suffused”. I refer tediously again to the on-line debate between Sullivan and Sam Harris. There(!) take the measure of the man’s rhetorical and intellectual integrity.

      1. How do you make the connection between Sullivan’s religion and “the man’s rhetorical and intellectual integrity”? Do you feel his religion automatically lowers his integrity to the point where you no longer care what else he says?

        We could say that his religion shows his poor judgement generally but, if we do that, there’s a lot of other people we shouldn’t listen to. I can see taking a few points off for religion but Sullivan has proved himself in many other ways. In general, I’m against using religion as some sort of litmus test. I take his arguments at face value. That said, if he leans on religion to make an argument, I would have some doubt.

        1. “We could say that his religion shows his poor judgement generally ”

          I would say that Sullivan is a victim of religion and it shows how powerful religion is, having grown its grip so deep in the human mind with thousands of years head start, that an exceptional intellect still cannot resist.

        2. I’d say his opinion on many issues is very well worth hearing. But, in some cases he will be strongly biased, and it’s a bit hard to see where that swerve is taking place. But I see your point and agree. He should not be dismissed because of one insidious flaw. But, you want to be watchful.

        3. If Sullivan is willing to dissimulate, intellectually and rhetorically, in defense of what he holds especially dear (as he clearly is willing in the Harris debate), and what he holds especially dear is ostensibly committed to the highest ethical and intellectual degree of ingenuousness in open debate, then I would expect him freely to dissimulate in defense of anything else he holds dear (or otherwise). Always appreciate your Comments.

            1. Oh, lord, just read the debate. Sullivan’s responses to Harris’s questions are the very flower of evasiveness. I know that Labor Day weekend is coming up, and that, in honor of the Day, I ought really to labor in defense of my opinion—but I think I’ll have a beer and a brat-wurst instead. No harm done.

              1. Well, that’s not the Courtier’s Reply exactly. The CR is when the other party’s argument is dismissed unless they have read an endless list of writings. It is common among the theologically inclined.

                This is a simple refusal to provide the evidence that is claimed to exist. (FWIW, I suspect it does in fact exist, but that is neither here nor there.)

              2. Yes, you’re right. It isn’t really the Courtier’s Reply.

                I grant that Sullivan could have been evasive. Everybody is bound to be guilty of that at some point. Of course, it may also just be that Sullivan didn’t make the point George Sepso would have wished, which is not crime at all. Or that the evasion was justified.

    2. I don’t dismiss his opinions because of his Catholicism but I do dismiss his opinions ON Catholicism, and religion in general. I can even read a fox news article without uttering expletives, well, sometimes. That’s the best I can do for now. It takes practice and patience, both are needed as I’m surrounded by the religious right in my town and part time job, and “anti-racist” left at my full-time work.

  14. Interesting that people like, say, Representative Keith Ellison, get a pass for writing articles in support of Louis Farakhan in the 90’s, or the professors in academia who expressed racist views and even engaged in terrorism in the 60’s and 70’s, or people like Sarah Jeong, who engaged in racism and sexism in the last couple of years.

    Sullivan is being targeted because he is both opposed to the excesses of the Left and is an extremely persuasive and popular writer. The more prominent and persuasive someone is while opposing the extreme parts of the Left, the more they will be targeted. Steven Pinker knows this well.

    1. BJ, you are so confused!

      As long as your target has a lower victimhood quotient, it is impossible for you to racist towards them,in word or in deed.

      (I hope it’s clear I am being sarcastic!)

      1. Don’t worry. One of the nice things about commenting on this site is that I know most of the people here by their handles (and also that the level of commentary is much higher and more civil than e.g. Reddit or PZ Myers’ slog). I grokked your sarcasm 🙂

  15. The amount of anti-Catholic bigotry on this thread is astounding.

    BTW, many of those pedophile priests are gay men. Which is why so many of the abused are young males.

    Gay and pedophile are not, alas, mutually exclusive categories.

    1. It’s not clear what point you are trying to make.

      You’ve certainly come to the wrong shop for any sort of sympathy towards religion. This where many come to criticize it. One of the themes of Jerry’s site is atheism.

      1. Oh please, enough of the knee jerk self-righteousness.

        1. I am gay myself.

        2. I didn’t say anything about “homosexuality”. I was speaking about gay males. The pedophile scandal overwhelmingly did not involve abuse by nuns, some (and not just a few) of whom are lesbians.

        3. That the abused were so often young males tells you alot about the sexual orientation of the abusing males.

        4. Interesting how my noticing the “anti-Catholic” bigotry turns into a comment by one of you about religion in general. I am well acquainted with Dr. Coyne’s disdain of all religion. But the reader comments were aimed at A religion: Catholicism.
        Try to find that much negativity about any specific religion outside of Christianity in prior reader comments.

        1. Being anti-Catholic and being a bigot are not synonymous.

          There is plenty (including the pedophile scandals, misogyny, support for fascism etc.) to be anti-catholic about based on data not prejudice.

        2. 4. Interesting how my noticing the “anti-Catholic” bigotry turns into a comment by one of you about religion in general. I am well acquainted with Dr. Coyne’s disdain of all religion. But the reader comments were aimed at A religion: Catholicism.

          Is it dd or df?

          Many religious trolls visit this site and comment. Your comment and anonymous handle suggested a religious troll. Apologies if you are only sensitive about the RCC issue.

          Sullivan is a Catholic; and, if you read many of the comments on this thread, you will see that many of us agree with AS on almost everything and are puzzled by his continuing Catholic faith. Despite the way the RCC has acted towards gay people and, based on everything else he says, how he fits the atheist mold pretty well.

          Hence the focus on Catholicism. (This seems pretty obvious to me.)

          Oh please, enough of the knee jerk self-righteousness.

          Please point out to me where I have been self righteous in our exchange.

          Try to find that much negativity about any specific religion outside of Christianity in prior reader comments.

          Again, AS is a Catholic (publicly; apparently a practicing one).

          Read the comments on any thread about (search on these in Jerry’s search window at top, left) Jews behaving badly, Christians behaving badly, or Muslims behaving badly (these are convenient key phrases that Jerry uses on his posts). You’ll find the same kind of criticism that is leveled here at the RCC and Catholicism.

          Hank knows, we’re not very gentle with imaginary friends.

        3. Well, dd, had Andrew Sullivan been claiming that only by turning to Islam can the world be made a better place you would see lots of comments about Islam. So you would then be blaming us of all being anti-muslim bigots, I presume.

          On what basis would you expect anti-religious comments about non-catholics when the subject is Catholicism of an author?

  16. The basic error is to mistake heritability, a within population measure…

    Sorry, in the US IQ group differences are mostly genetic, which is why the B/W difference hasn’t changed in 100 years. (Nor the Asian > White difference, IIRC).

    And anyway, with the use of modern genetic analysis –

    “We, however, found a strong, significant association between European genetic ancestry and cognitive ability, confirming the recent results of both Kirkegaard et al. [24] and Warne [25].”

  17. Sullivan has an article in The (London) Times today:

    Unfortunately it’s behind a paywall, but the gist is clear: the Dems run the risk of losing the election for as long as they can be portrayed as failing to support law’n’order or to condemn violence and looting. Joe had better step up.

    The article may have already appeared in the US (maybe on Sullivan’s blog), although The Times gives no accreditation. Whatever: if he’s going to be writing regularly in the UK press, it’ll be our gain.

      1. From the part of the article that is open to the public, it appears to be a condensed version of his Weekly Dish article.

  18. From Ben Smith’s NYT piece:

    He [Sullivan] takes particular pride that a leading local drag queen, Ryan Landry, wrote him into a song, with a description of a sex act so enthusiastic that Mr. Sullivan told me, accurately, “you can’t print this in The New York Times.”

    Therein lies the difference, I suppose, between “all the news that’s fit to print” and printing the news about all that fits. 🙂

  19. for a measure of the degree of genetic differentiation among populations;

    I should clarify that assuming two populations is assuming two distinct environments different enough to affect outcome, which is refuted by the facts that improved and more equalized education and nutrition have no measurable effect, as well as by twin studies.

  20. Seems to me that most of the stuff written about The Bell Curve has been written by people who have not read it, and most of the rest by those who read but did not understand.

  21. I did read the Bell Curve.

    It does not state anywhere that group differences in intelligence are the result of genetics. Here is a quote:

    “If the reader is now convinced that either the genetic or environmental explanation has won out to the exclusion of the other, we have not done a sufficiently good job of presenting one side or the other. It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences. What might the mix be? We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not justify an estimate.”

    In terms of the actual crimes committed by the authors, they are basically two:

    1. Pointing out persistent racial testing gaps and noticing that those testing gaps are predictive of long-term markers of success such as graduation rates, income, wealth, etc., and associating what those tests measure with intelligence.

    2. Pointing out that differences in intelligence (or at least, the capacity to score well on standardized tests) has a moderate-to-strong correlation to heredity.

    The actual point of the book was a sociological argument about assortative mating based on IQ turning American society into something like a caste system.

    No one wants to discuss point 1 or point 2 because its like trying to argue against the world being round. Its easier to create a straw man and refute the straw man.

    I have no issue with people seeking to criticize the Bell Curve. However, they should read it first. Second, it would be more persuasive if the criticism were couched in rational arguments buttressed by data, rather than theological denunciations. [On the other hand, the book that Herrnstein and Murray are alleged to have written sounds much more exciting than the one they did write, so maybe stick with Salmon Rushdie if you are pursuing authors who hired body guards because of death threats from fanatics based on books they wrote.]

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