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Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Claire Lehmann seemed like natural allies: Both are contrarian, entrepreneurial free thinkers. But recently, Taleb started calling Lehmann names on Twitter.

Lehmann had defended behavioral genetics, especially claims about “intelligence”: that it is measured by IQ testing, is genetically based, and correlates with success in life. Taleb has extensively criticized all three claims—they exhibit some of his core themes: misuse of statistics and the difficulty of prediction in complex systems—and now he warned Lehmann to distance herself from the fraudulent field.

In addition to empirical and mathematical problems, behavioral genetics has a moral problem. Claims about IQ and genetics are historically associated with eugenics. In a culture where social science has outsize influence on public policy—another core Talebian theme—attempts to treat as empirical fact a “racial IQ gap” explainable by genetics seem to imply a ranking of races, a harmful rift in the human family.

Lehmann knows the allegation. In her Twitter defense of behavioral genetics, she objected to the claim that it disguises its racist agenda in “scientific” terms to claim the protections of academic freedom, intellectual diversity, and free speech—all watchwords of the publication Lehmann founded and edits, Quillette.

Quillette has a history of publishing reflections on race and IQ, and Taleb has criticized this tendency before. In May Taleb described a researcher, whom Lehmann and Quillette had defended, as “race obsessed.” Quillette soon thereafter published that researcher on “the return of race science,” and Taleb challenged Lehmann on some of the piece’s empirical assumptions and statistical claims. On this and other occasions, Taleb pushed Lehmann on questions of scientific method and mathematical rigor, but was always clear about his concern that Quillette was, at least inadvertently, promoting racism. In January he rebuked Lehmann for invoking “psychometric intelligence,” something Taleb said psychologists made up and which usually served to “put down some race.”

Taleb also took steps to test Lehmann’s priorities. (The value of action over words is another Talebian theme.) When in May he called the “race science” researcher a charlatan, Taleb announced he still supported the researcher on free speech grounds. As Taleb noted, Lehmann and Quillette seemed more upset about his criticism than happy about his support.

All this is the background to Taleb’s curt, but not unfriendly, warning to Lehmann on July 27: “Behavioral genetics is largely an intellectual fraud,” he tweeted. “Resist… promoting them.” Taleb was focusing on the scientific critique, not the moral one; but when Lehmann dug in, accusing Taleb of unscientific hand-waving, she shouldn’t have been surprised when Taleb escalated, calling her first a charlatan, then “clueless.” Rather than respond to the scientific critiques, Lehmann suggested that Taleb was a hypocrite for name-calling, to which Taleb responded: “Ms Lehmann, it’s not from your genetic background or the heritability of any trait that I am calling you utterly incompetent, but from your limited understanding of your own subject matter and your inability to conceal your neo-Nazi agenda.”

Probability theorists, biologists, psychologists, and others weighed in on the exchange. My own response drew attention to the coherence of Taleb’s Twitter behavior with his general philosophical project (which I previously described in First Things). I am convinced that Taleb’s name-calling should be understood not as an intemperate outburst, but as a carefully chosen tactic, exhibiting a larger strategy.

Taleb has a history of calling prominent social scientists “charlatans” and “imbeciles”: Sam Harris, Charles Murray, Richard Thaler, Michael Shermer, and Jordan Peterson—figures whose authority is based at least in part on over-confidence in the knowledge-claims of social science, especially psychology. (Lehmann was pursuing graduate studies in psychology before she launched Quillette.) This alone doesn’t justify his attacks, but suggests a method to the madness.

And Taleb’s name-calling can’t be taken in isolation as an indicator of character. By all accounts he is personable in other venues—friendly, generous, even humble. He says he finds Twitter combat fun, and one senses the belligerent social-media persona is consciously cultivated, a way for him to draw attention and put his authority in the service of society. In any case, he doesn’t punch down. By that standard, Lehmann should be flattered that he found her influential enough to draw fire.

Was it unfair to call Lehmann clueless and accuse her of having a neo-Nazi agenda? On the one hand, the former charge might mitigate the latter, if she’s giving succor to neo-Nazis only inadvertently. On the other hand, probably cluelessness about science is more damaging to her edgy, free-thinking brand than associating with racism. But in both cases, the charges summarize arguments Taleb had previously, and more gently, given Lehmann opportunity to answer—and she still has that opportunity.

Taleb can be a decent person with a valid criticism, and still rude—strategically so. Consider another extreme tactic in intellectual combat: hoax papers, such as those making fun of postmodernism and “grievance studies.” Hoax papers deceive, waste people’s time, cause embarrassment, and abuse a system of discourse—in that sense they, too, are rude. And yet, understanding normal academic discourse as conventional combat, the hoax paper is a kind of guerilla warfare, an effective tactic justified in rare circumstances. (Quillette has defended the tactic.) 

If a hoax paper is guerilla warfare, Taleb’s Twitter attack was a call to duel; the rude insult manifests the stakes of personal dignity. Lehmann understands this. In February, she quoted a passage about how in an honor culture insults are used to provoke a duel. She added: “Obviously @nntaleb’s Twitter feed is one of honor culture’s last holdouts.”

Progress in ideas and culture depends not only on formal civility and open debate, but on conflict and personal risk in defense of concrete choices. By staking out the limits of empirical science and the complexities of probability, Taleb had been describing the field of combat and the weapons of choice. With his name-calling, he threw down the gauntlet and called the racialist behavioral geneticists to the field.

Whether Taleb is right or not, the immediate responses on Twitter, played out for short-term point-scoring, matter a lot less than what we see over the coming weeks and months in the character of intellectual conversation from Lehmann, Quillette, and their allied behavioral geneticists. If they care about the truth, Taleb’s name-calling did them all a favor: He raised the stakes of their game.

Joshua P. Hochschild is Monsignor Robert R. Kline Professor of Philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s University.

Photo by Eirik Solheim via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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