Columnist Steve Sailer

Why this new book will pass unnoticed

Columnist Steve Sailer’s views on genetics and IQ have placed him beyond the pale for bien pensant reviewers


This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

One of the most influential and widely-read opinion columnists in the Western world is never published in mainstream outlets. Despite being read by major commentators and politicians, he is almost never named, let alone discussed. Steve Sailer, a 65-year-old Californian, has haunted mainstream discourse for decades.

You can see his name popping up in New York Times columns by David Brooks and Ross Douthat. He is occasionally published in the American Conservative. Yet the extent to which he is perceived as being politically unmentionable has made him the closest thing that opinion commentary has to an outlaw figure.

The once-edgy comedian, Patton Oswalt, quoted Sailer’s line that “political correctness is a war on noticing” on Twitter in 2014 (and has since deleted the tweet). The now-edgy comedian Tim Dillon referenced Sailer’s characterisation of American policy as being “Invade the World, Invite the World” on a recent episode of The Joe Rogan Experience. Online, there is a running joke about how liberal pieties posted on “X” (formerly Twitter) will attract Sailer’s responses like a crime scene attracts Batman.

Noticing: An Essential Reader, Steve Sailer (Passage, £24)

Reading Sailer’s new collection Noticing — out on March 26 but unlikely to be reviewed in the New York Times or the London Review of Books — reveals that readers of Sailer’s blogs and columns over the years have at least to some extent been put ahead of the political curve.

He predicted the Iraq War would be a disaster. In the early 2000s he laid out the populist framework that Trump adopted in 2016. He wrote in 2014 that the next big culture war conflagration would be over transgenderism. You don’t have to like his opinions to appreciate that this is a record of analytical substantiveness.

You will encounter many undeniable facts that the journalistic mainstream politely flows around. Whilst everyone was agreeing that black lives mattered in 2020, for example, it was Sailer more than anyone else who pointed out that the American “racial reckoning” had coincided with a massive yet largely ignored spike in murders and road accidents amongst African Americans which claimed thousands of lives that had mattered.

True, the presentation of such facts might be acerbic — Sailer has described H.L. Mencken as a “role model” — but that does not make them less relevant and troubling.

Yet we are dancing around the real question here — why is Sailer unmentionable? It is almost entirely because he is a leading proponent of the view that Arthur Jensen stirred academic controversy with in his 1969 article for the Harvard Educational Review, “How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?” Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein all but upended American intellectual life with this view when they authored The Bell Curve in 1994.

This is the contention that human populations have different innate cognitive faculties. In more direct terms, Sailer believes that different races are on average more and less intelligent than each other, and that this probably has a deeply rooted genetic component. I don’t need to spell out why this is controversial. Yes, these are suggested to be average differences, not reflective of individual abilities. (Taller people are, on average, better at basketball than shorter people, but I am a 6’3 uncoordinated mess.) True, this kind of “hereditarian” belief system tends to hold that Jewish and Chinese people, not white people, are the world’s brainiest.

But the argument that racial disparities are more the result of inherited biological differences than structural dysfunction or injustice has depressing implications when it comes to the future, and morbid resonance when it comes to historically oppressive and eliminationist political movements.

The sociologist Noah Carl was dismissed from a fellowship at Cambridge for his similar belief

So controversial is a belief in what is often called “hereditarianism” that believers are excluded from mainstream intellectual life. This year, the philosopher Nathan Cofnas stepped down from his position at Cambridge University amidst protests against his claim that “the equality thesis is based on lies”. (“There is blood on the hands of Nathan Cofnas,” one student protester was reported to have said, though it is unclear whose blood it was.) The sociologist Noah Carl was dismissed from a fellowship at Cambridge in 2019 for his similar belief in what an open letter called “the discredited race sciences”.

“Discredited” is the important adjective here. The controversial nature of a belief is not necessarily determined by its truth or falsity. Is what Sailer argues true? Many experts in the fields of human intelligence and genetics maintain that is not. Richard E. Nisbett’s Intelligence and How to Get It argues that environmental factors rather than genetic factors are the dominant influence on human intelligence. The philosopher and intelligence researcher James R. Flynn encountered Jensen’s arguments about racial differences in 1969 and dedicated much of his career to arguing against them. Flynn did much to document the “Flynn Effect”, which refers to long-term improvements in IQ scores around the world (though its effects appear to have stalled if not reversed in many places more recently).

Still, Flynn had kind words for Jensen even as he disagreed with him. “I never suspected Arthur Jensen of racial bias,” he said, “Over the years, I have found him scrupulous in terms of professional ethics.” He credited Jensen with “showing that the most cherished environmental hypotheses have been sheer speculation”, even as he took on his hereditarian beliefs. (He would later have his book — In Defense of Free Speech: The University as Censor — pulled for discussing free speech in academic life.)

Unfortunate as it might be, there is simply no comparison between Sailer’s views and the ideas of the Flat Earth Society and Answers In Genesis. There would be no “Mainstream Science on Intelligence” — an open letter signed by 52 academics in relevant fields in support of Murray and Herrnstein’s conclusions in The Bell Curve — for the ideas of creation science, because they could no more get the names than I could form a cricket team in a Polish village.

Certainly, that does not mean that such views are correct. Eminent people have been wrong about many things before. But it does make it impossible to reduce the fact of someone possessing these views to malicious or perverse intentions. There is no partition in academic history over the existence of Nazi genocide.

The question will persist: is Sailer a Confederate or fascist partisan, peddling ethnic supremacism under the bland term “human biodiversity”? If he is, then he is hiding it well. Granted, not all fascists are dumb enough to roam around in an “I 💘 Hitler” t-shirt. But Sailer has always advocated equal rights for American citizens and opposed militarism. I can well imagine someone arguing that an essay like “How to Help the Left Side of the Bell Curve”, collected in Noticing, is paternalistic, patronising, reductionist and simply wrong. What I cannot imagine is Alfred Rosenberg not dismissing it as a load of soppy liberal mush. Certainly, he would have had a hernia over “Counting Jewish Achievement”.

Yet Sailer does swim in waters that would have got brownshirts’ blood running. A recent article on one of the outlets that regularly hosts him argues that “the overriding concern of the day, and the primary moral imperative, is to be anti-Jewish” (the author’s italics), and that all Jewish people should be encouraged to leave the USA (call it a “final solution” if you will).

I say this not to suggest that Sailer agrees with it or had anything to do with its publication. I say it to suggest that the sensitivity which informs “political correctness” did not emerge ex nihilo. Claiming that my Norse-style tattoo is a fascist symbol does not become fair if I live around a bunch of people with swastika tattoos, but it becomes less inexplicable.

Still, one has a far greater incentive to move to more unpleasant parts of town if it becomes almost impossible to live anywhere else. We have developed a peculiar model for inclusion and exclusion on the right. An abstract belief in inequalities between different peoples provides the grounds for absolute excommunication. But people who supported, and still support, policies which have got insane amounts of non-white people killed are perfectly respectable.

There are prescriptive beliefs that should make someone persona non grata (as everyone believes, whilst disagreeing on exactly what they are). If someone believed that all people named “Ben” should be killed, I would not be interested in learning about their other curious opinions on the world.

Yet whilst we should be careful in delineating the boundaries of such prescriptive beliefs, we should be even more careful when it comes to descriptive beliefs. Yes, science and philosophy are never pure fields and will always be corrupted by human biases. But to make certain conclusions socially untouchable is to introduce a thick, impenetrable layer of bias.

I hope Noticing will be read and reviewed. If Sailer is wrong, then he has expressed his errors in clear terms, not with the caginess of an intellectual opportunist who hides in the thickets of detail and doubt. In a world of dim columnists poking at the surface of the issues, it seems useful to engage with knowledgeable and ambitious voices even if you think that some of their opinions are erroneous or obnoxious.

I suppose it’s simple for me to say that. But that does not make it untrue.

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