Status anxiety

Race, gender and a terrifying witch hunt

3 June 2017

9:00 AM

3 June 2017

9:00 AM

A leading article appeared in Nature last week in defence of intelligence research. It lamented the fact that it is not included on the undergraduate psychology curricula of many leading US universities, and attributed this to its association in the minds of students and faculties with elitism and racism. That, in turn, is due to the misuse of intelligence research in the past by eugenicists and ‘race scientists’ to justify their poisonous beliefs. The article expressed the hope that this toxic baggage can be discarded and intelligence rehabilitated as an important strand of psychology.

This optimism is often shared by academics who study the genetic basis of human differences; not just variations in intelligence but in other personality traits too. Among evolutionary psychologists, sociobiologists, neurobiologists, biosocial criminologists, and so on, there is a widely held belief that the only reason their disciplines are looked on with suspicion is due to ignorance and prejudice. Clearing up these misunderstandings simply involves them mastering some elementary PR skills, after which they will be welcomed into the bosom of the academy.

It would be nice if that were true, because in today’s academic climate many of the leading researchers in these fields are finding it difficult to pursue their careers. Earlier this year the sociologist Charles Murray was shouted down by student activists as he tried to give a talk at Middlebury College. His sin was to have co-authored a 1994 book on intelligence called The Bell Curve that includes a section on ethnic variations in average IQ. The book doesn’t claim this is partly due to genetic differences, but it does include a measured discussion of the evidence for and against that point of view. For this, and this alone, Murray was branded a ‘white supremacist’ by the protestors.

That incident at Middlebury College, which ended with an assault on Murray’s host, Professor Allison Stranger, as she sought to protect him from a violent mob, implies that campus hostility to scholars of human differences is based on a misreading of their work. But I’m not so sure. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt, writing about this and other similar episodes for the Heterodox Academy, has identified a ritualised quality to these protests. They often involve chanting, as well as call and response, and bear a resemblance to the witch hunts of an earlier period of American history. Haidt believes that this is no ordinary manifestation of politically correct censoriousness. Rather, it is the birth of a new fundamentalist religion.

One of the core tenets of this new belief system — by no means confined to American universities — is the view that nearly all important human differences, particularly group ones, are environmentally determined. This certainly applies to all discussion of racial variation, where it is forbidden to even entertain the idea that race is a valid biological concept, and it’s also true of gender differences. Both are ‘social constructs’ and the notion that they have any genetic basis is a ‘fiction’ designed to protect ‘white male privilege’. A Swedish professor of sociology called Charlotta Stern, writing in an academic journal last year, echoes Haidt’s analysis. She says the idea that gender floats free of biology is ‘sacred’ to her colleagues. ‘Most gender sociologists have a sacred cause to reduce gender differences, as though the only gender differences that should emerge are those where physiological differences are both relevant and highly apparent, such as in sports,’ she says.

The sad truth is that any academic who dissents from this orthodoxy, and that includes nearly everyone studying human variations, is a heretic. To point out the role that genes play in people’s behaviour, even if you stress the contribution of the environment as well, is to commit blasphemy. The fact that there is overwhelming scientific evidence in support of your point of view just strengthens the resolve of the witch hunters. As a student protestor said to Bret Weinstein, a biology professor at Evergreen State College in Washington and the latest victim of this new dogma, reason and logic are the tools of white privilege. It’s a characteristic of religious fundamentalists that the more at odds their beliefs are with reality, the more fanatically they adhere to them.

I’m afraid the editorial in Nature is wrong. We shouldn’t be thinking about how to make intelligence researchers more respectable. We should be thinking about how to protect them.

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