Book Review — Social Justice Fallacies by Thomas Sowell

'Tosin Adeoti
6 min readApr 2, 2024

Yesterday, I finished Social Justice Fallacies by Thomas Sowell. Sowell is an African American economist, social philosopher, and political commentator. He was a recipient of the National Humanities Medal in 2002. The book was published in 2023.

“Social Justice Fallacies” is an attempt to deconstruct how some of our best intentions in policymaking end up making the people we want them to help worse. For instance, say, you observe that at the University of Chicago, one of the most prestigous schools in the world, you find out that people of a particular race get the lowest admission. You say this is unjust, term it racism, and request that equal number of people from all races should be admitted as a way of reversing this trend of social injustice. On the surface of it, it is the right thing. We, humans, generally bark at injustice. And doing something about it is what always tugs at our hearts.

Something like this was done. Despite having SAT scores more than 200 points lower than their Asian and white classmates, black and Hispanic students were admitted to the top-ranked campus at Berkeley (at the University of Chicago). There has been a history of just using SAT scores to weed out those who do not meet up, so in the case, justice was served. Or was it? Years later, an analysis was done on the black students, and it was found out that most black students failed to graduate — and that as the number of black students admitted increased, the number graduating actually decreased. Even worse, they found out that many of them could not cope so they were dropping off from rigorous STEM courses into less rigorous ones. And it was found that a large percentage of those who graduated failed independent examinations like those conducted by medical and law schools to become licensed to practice their professions.

What’s particularly interesting was that those who went to schools where the cutoff marks were lower than those in Ivy league schools perform much better in these independent tests than those who got into top schools where teaching is done at a much higher level and where their classmates had much better pre-college educational backgrounds.

In other words, while social justice warriors say they were helping the students, evidence suggests that they were actually harming them. People see injustice and think they must do something immediately without examining how the injustice came to be. In this case, the problem isn’t the universities not admitting black students, but the pre-elementary schools, elementary schools, and parents not adequately preparing the blacks kids at a level at par with those of their Asian and white counterparts. Where an injustice is noticed is seldom where it originates.

Sowell exposes numerous such cases in his book, highlighting flawed assumptions and assertions prevalent in social justice discourse. For instance, when women are statistically “underrepresented” in Silicon Valley, some people automatically assume that to be due to sex discrimination by Silicon Valley employers. But, it so happens that the work done in Silicon Valley is based on an application of engineering skills, including computer software engineering — and women receive less than 30 percent of the degrees in engineering, whether at the college level or the postgraduate level. So, the trick is not lowering the bar at the employment level to hire women, but going to the primary and secondary schools to encourage girls to choose engineering courses.

Interestingly, not many people bat an eye in the education profession even though male representation is worse there than women representation in ‘tech’. Men receive less than 20 percent of the undergraduate degrees in education. So, is it really surprising that men are under-represented among schoolteachers and women are underrepresented in engineering occupations?

Thomas Sowell teaches to think about root causes and not just go with the flow and what is in vogue.

I think one of the problems we have as humans is that we confuse what Sowell calls complex or elegant knowledge with consequential knowledge. In other words, we think that because we are highly knowledgeable in a particular domain, it means we are equally sound in other areas. That’s why a professor of physics would come on television to say closing the border would be great for the economy and a professor of literature would say Twitter be banned. Unfortunately, we often listen to them because of their titles without asking if they are knowledgeable about the topics they are getting involved with. In a great analogy, Sowell said the officers in charge of the Titanic ship no doubt had much complex knowledge about the intricacies of ships and navigation on the seas. But the most consequential knowledge on a particular night was the mundane knowledge of the location of particular icebergs, because collision with an iceberg is what damaged and sank the Titanic.

The lesson is, be careful who you listen to about particular domains. This underscores the importance of critical thinking and evidence-based analysis over deference to authority.

#SurprisingDiscovery The Congressional Record shows that a higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964

The book’s opening chapter alone justifies its purchase, offering a wealth of facts and evidence. Sowell fearlessly challenges conventional wisdom, encouraging readers to question prevailing norms.

I have not hidden my liking for Thomas Sowell on this space and one of the things that drew me to him is how he is the kind of author that says what is prohibited for mere mortals. He is the one always examining the kind of things that challenges the thinking of the majority.

He is the one who will tell you that some emphasis on racism can even be counterproductive. He tells a story President Barack Obama related of an experience he had when talking with a black young man who wanted to become a pilot. This young man at first thought of joining the U.S. Air Force, in order to get trained to be a pilot. But then he said he realized that the Air Force “would never let a black man fly a plane.” The kid probably didn’t know but he was saying this decades after there was a whole squadron of black American fighter pilots during World War II — and, in later years, two black pilots went on to become generals in the U.S. Air Force. Sowell emphasized that whoever indoctrinated this young man did him more harm than a racist could have, by keeping him from even trying to become a pilot.

Racism exists, for sure. But what is the point of dwelling on it when racists today cannot prevent black young people from becoming pilots in the Air Force, or even generals in the Air Force, nor from becoming millionaires, billionaires or President of the United States.

“In a world where nobody believes that all racism has been eliminated, black married couples have consistently had a lower poverty rate than the national average, and less than half the poverty rate among white, female headed, single parent families. In other words, some behavior patterns seem to pay off.”

Social justice is a movement with several branches that grow without limit, beyond the fence. The problem is that reality is a finite terrain.

Sowell warns against the social justice advocates and the self-congratulatory politicians who are responsible for undermining the constitution and harming the selected groups they claim they are attempting to save in harsh terms.

You should read the book.

At 93, possibly on his last legs, Thomas Sowell refuses to accept any premise no matter how popular and looks to empirical data to test the premise true or false.

A treasure of a man. I am reminded of what Steve Forbes, the editor-in-chief of Forbes said in a 2015 column, “it’s a scandal that economist Thomas Sowell has not been awarded the Nobel Prize. No one alive has turned out so many insightful, richly researched books.”

The Sowellian truth shines forth once again in this book.