02. Left-Wing Denialism

Objective Reality

Objective Reality

The Left’s War on Science

Essay about the denial of biologically-influenced gender differences by left-wing academics that was published in Standpoint in March 2019.

In March 2017, a retired 73-year-old maths professor called Theodore Hill was delighted when a paper of his was accepted at the Mathematical Intelligencer, an academic journal. The subject of the article, which he co-authored with another mathematician at Pennsylvania State University, was the ‘Variability Hypothesis’ (VH) which states that there is more variation among the male sex when it comes to some traits than the female sex. Dr Hill had constructed a mathematical model to show how this might have come about via a process of natural selection.

The greater variability of males than females is something that generally holds true across the animal kingdom and was first noted by Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man (1871). But there’s one aspect of the hypothesis which has always made it controversial: it seems to apply to human intelligence. When you look at scores in intelligence tests, there are more men than women at either end of the statistical distribution curve, meaning more idiots and more geniuses. For instance, among those scoring in the top two per cent of America’s Armed Forces Qualification Test, men outnumber women by a ratio of almost 2:1. Men also outnumber women in America’s federal prisons – 13:1. It’s possible that this gender imbalance is entirely due to sociocultural factors, but when you put it alongside Darwin’s observations it begins to look at least partly hard-wired.

Ted Hill must have known he was playing with fire by defending the VH, even if his model was intended to explain the greater variability phenomenon across a vast range of different species, not just homo sapiens. In 2005, Lawrence Summers, then the President of Harvard, got into trouble when he mentioned it as a possible explanation for why there aren’t more female professors in the maths and sciences at Ivy League colleges. This was at a conference on Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce and it wasn’t received well. Didn’t Summers realise that it was entirely to do with straight white men discriminating against women to perpetuate their privilege? One of the female professors in the audience walked out in disgust and it snowballed from there. Distinguished alumni withheld donations, Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences passed a motion of no confidence in Summers and he was forced to apologize – over and over again – like a supplicant at a Chinese re-education camp. At one particularly fraught meeting, Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor at MIT, said that if she had to listen to him say another word she would be physically sick. In the end he had to resign.

It didn’t take long for things to start going pear-shaped for Hill and his co-author. Between the Mathematical Intelligencer’s acceptance of his paper and its publication, a scandal erupted at Google when a software engineer called James Damore circulated a memo criticising the way the company goes about trying to eliminate gender disparities in its ranks. As in many large U.S. corporations, the focus is on eliminating bias – both implicit and explicit – and male employees are expected to attend diversity-and-inclusion workshops. (Diversity training is now an $8 billion-a-year business in the U.S.) Damore unwisely suggested that this might not solve the problem. He argued that the lack of gender parity in tech – only about 25 per cent of Google tech workers are women – is not primarily due to sexism, although that might play a part. Rather, the main cause is biological differences between the sexes. He stressed that he wasn’t making any essentialist claims about all men and all women, just flagging up average differences within male and female populations, whereby statistical distributions for certain personality traits overlap but don’t entirely map on to each other. He cited a number of scientific studies to illustrate the point – like the work of Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of developmental psychology at Cambridge, who has amassed evidence that females are more interested in people and males more interested in things, a difference known as empathising vs. systemising. In one experiment, Baron-Cohen found that the gaze of female new-borns lingers longer on human faces than mechanical mobiles, while the opposite is true for males, meaning this discrepancy cannot be due to sociocultural factors. According to Damore, neurobiological differences like this help explain why women outnumber men in fields like nursing and obstetrics while men outnumber women in tech.

Damore’s standing at Google, which prides itself on being a woke company, went into steep decline after he wrote the memo. It was as if a low-level functionary in the Ministry of Agricultural Machine Building of the USSR had written to Stalin pointing out that the reason for the over-supply of tractors was because no amount of central planning could replicate the efficiencies of the market. The fact that Jordan Peterson sprung up to attest to the scientific accuracy of Damore’s memo probably didn’t help. A few weeks later he was fired, with the CEO of Google explaining that Damore had crossed the line “by advancing harmful gender stereotypes”. He is currently suing the tech giant, claiming it discriminates against white conservative men.

The publicity the Damore case attracted – and the media coverage was almost universally hostile – meant that elite companies and institutions suddenly became hyper-vigilant about any white males in their midst peddling “junk science” to justify gender imbalances, which was bad news for Ted Hill. His collaborator was contacted by some female colleagues in the maths department at Penn State who had read a draft of his “offensive and upsetting” paper and were concerned that it “could be used to justify discrimination and support bias against women in mathematics” and “might discourage young women from choosing mathematics as their career”. Some said the paper reminded them of “scientific racism.” The beleaguered co-author, who was more vulnerable than Hill because he was a university employee, was then contacted by the National Science Foundation (NSF), a powerful grant funding body which was supporting his research, to ask that he not acknowledge the organization in the published version of the paper. He later discovered via a freedom of information request that the NSF had done this after receiving a letter from two Penn State professors – the Chair of the Climate and Diversity Committee and the Associate Head for Diversity and Equity. “Our concern,” they wrote, “is that [this] paper appears to promote pseudoscientific ideas that are detrimental to the advancement of women in science, and at odds with the values of the NSF.”

It got worse. The editor of the Mathematical intelligencer contacted Hill and his co-author to inform them that with “deep regret” she had changed her mind about publishing the paper. “I have received concerned messages from several colleagues, warning of extremely strong reactions,” she wrote. “Their concerns include the very real possibility that the right-wing media may pick this up and hype it internationally.” It turned out she’d been contacted by Amie Wilkinson, a professor of mathematics at the University of Chicago, as well as other academics, complaining about the article. Needless to say, they proclaimed their allegiance to the principles of academic freedom and free speech, but gave various reasons as to why this paper was beyond the pale. Hill’s collaborator reluctantly concluded that being listed as the co-author of the article would be career suicide and he asked him to remove his name.

***

On the Left, it is a commonplace that scientific denialism is a problem for people on the other side of the political divide, not them. Whether it’s Christian evangelicals urging schools to teach Creationism, climate change sceptics refusing to recycle or anti-Vaxxers putting their neighbours’ children at risk, hostility to science and data is supposed to be an exclusively right-wing vice. Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution is George W Bush’s refusal to fund embryonic stem-cell research and his one-time aide, Karl Rove, is often singled out as a typical Republican denialist, with his famous dismissal of people in the “reality-based community.” As the American talk-show host Steven Colbert said at the Whitehouse Correspondent’s Dinner in 2006: “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

But the rough treatment meted out to Ted Hill, not to mention Lawrence Summers and James Damore, suggests that Margaret Thatcher may have been closer to the mark when she said, “The facts of life are conservative.” Why would left-wing academics and their outriders in the media go to such lengths to quash research into the causes of gender differences if they didn’t think it might reveal something that threatens their progressive agenda? It was the same story when Alessandro Strumia, a professor of physics at Cern, presented some research findings at a workshop on gender equality last year. Like Damore, he appealed to some elementary scientific facts to explain why women, on average, were less interested in physics than men. He was immediately turned on by more than 1,600 woke academics, who signed a petition condemning his remarks and in March of this year Cern cut all ties with him.

There cannot be much doubt that some broad brush gender differences are innate. Not only are they cross-species, as Darwin pointed out with respect to trait variability, but they’re cross-cultural as well. Richard Lippa, a psychology professor at California State University, wrote a paper in 2000 showing that sex differences in interests – such as women being more-people-oriented and less-thing-oriented than men – hold true across cultures and over time. Some die-hard feminists accept this data, but refuse to abandon their social constructivist dogma, claiming it still has something to do with “the patriarchy”. The problem is, if that was true you’d expect these gender differences to be least visible in those parts of the world that have the most gender equality, like Scandinavia. In fact, the opposite is true. In Sweden, for instance, the percentage of women in STEM fields is lower than it is in Algeria, suggesting that the more opportunities women have, the less likely they are to pursue careers as, say, software engineers at Google. That finding, which has been replicated numerous times, is known in social psychology as the ‘gender-equality paradox’, but, of course, it’s only a paradox if you think all sexual disparities are socially constructed. If you accept that some differences are hardwired, like empathizing vs. systemizing, it makes perfect sense.

WomeninStem

All this is Kryptonite to feminist intellectuals. Cordelia Fine, a history and philosophy of science professor at Melbourne University, devoted a section of her book Delusions of Gender (2010) to debunking Simon Baron-Cohen’s research – the new-borns in his experiment were influenced by the researchers’ unconscious bias, apparently. In a review of the book, Baron-Cohen pointed out that couldn’t be true because he assembled a panel of independent judges who were only able to see the eye-region of the babies’ faces and it was impossible to tell what sex they were.

In Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story (2017), the science journalist Angela Saini does her best to shoot down the VH. She argues that the reason there are more men than women on the far right-hand side of the IQ bell curve is because intellectually gifted boys receive more encouragement from their parents than their female equivalents. She quotes Melissa Hines, a Cambridge psychologist, who came up with this explanation. “I think in some social environments they don’t get encouraged at all, but I think in affluent, educated social environments, there is still a tendency to expect more from boys, to invest more in boys,” says Hines.

But if that’s true, you would expect to see more variability in this trait among males from rich backgrounds than from poor backgrounds and, to date, that anomaly has never been detected. Even putting that to one side, there’s the problem of how to account for the fact that there are more males in the left-hand tail, too. Do boys with learning difficulties receive less encouragement than girls? How does Hines square that with her claim that in patriarchal societies parents have higher expectations of boys? There are only so many intellectual somersaults you can do before you have to accept that sociocultural explanations just aren’t going to work.

Why put all that effort into denying the science of gender differences? On the face of it, the behind-the-scenes attempt to suppress Ted Hill’s paper seems completely over the top. The VH doesn’t posit that women are less intelligent than men on average – it is a claim about variability, not means – or that there are no women in the upper and lower tails. So defending the hypothesis is not tantamount to arguing that women shouldn’t study STEM subjects at university or be hired as software engineers. After all, it would be irrational to assess an applicant for a university place or a job by looking at the statistical properties of the group they belong to. Why, then, the hysterical opposition?

***

To understand this – and the phenomenon of progressive denialism in general – it’s worth looking at another scientific hypothesis that provoked a similar reaction. I’m thinking of the meltdown among left-wing academics when E.O. Wilson published Sociobiology in 1975. Wilson is a mild-mannered entomologist famous for his work on ants, yet his attempt to bring evolutionary biology to bear on the understanding of human societies was greeted as if it were Mein Kampf by a group of liberal scientists who had assembled under the banner of ‘Science for the People’. The biologists in that organization, several of whom Wilson had counted as friends up until this point, formed the ‘Sociobology Study Group’ and started firing off venomous letters to newspapers. For instance, a letter in the New York Review of Books signed by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin – both colleagues of Wilson’s in the Harvard Biology Department – accused him of peddling the same junk science that had led to the murder of six million Jews:

The reason for the survival of these recurrent determinist theories is that they consistently tend to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex. Historically, powerful countries or ruling groups within them have drawn support for the maintenance or extension of their power from these products of the scientific community…These theories provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws by the United States between 1910 and 1930 and also for the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.

Wilson was dubbed the “Right-Wing Prophet of Patriarchy” and subjected to vicious barracking whenever he crossed Harvard Yard or attempted to speak in public. The most famous protest occurred in 1978 at a symposium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. that had been convened to bring Wilson and his critics together. The sociologist Ulicia Segerstrale takes up the story in Defenders of the Truth (2000), her account of the sociobiology controversy:

The session has already featured Gould, among others, and Wilson is one of the later speakers. Just as Wilson is about to begin, about ten people rush up on the speaker podium shouting various epithets and chanting: “Racist Wilson you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide!” While some take over the microphone and denounce sociobiology, a couple of them rush up behind Wilson (who is sitting in place) and pour a pitcher of ice-water over his head, shouting “Wilson, you are all wet!”

Why such a visceral, aggressive reaction to a work of scientific scholarship? One reason is that Wilson’s critics thought he was a Social Darwinist, attempting to justify “existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex” by offering an evolutionary explanation for them. But as Wilson himself pointed out, that would be to commit the naturalistic fallacy – inferring an ought from an is – and he wasn’t guilty of that. “The ‘what is’ in human nature is to a large extent the heritage of a Pleistocene hunter-gatherer existence,” he wrote. “When any genetic bias is demonstrated, it cannot be used to justify a continuing practice in present and future societies.”

Perhaps Wilson’s antagonists accused him of faulty reasoning because they were prone to it themselves. Like the feminists who went after Summers, Damore and Hill, they often seemed to be under the misapprehension that the moral case for equal rights, equal treatment and equal opportunity is contingent on human beings all being born with the same interests and capacities and the moment you allow that some of our psychological differences are linked to genetic differences you jeopardise those rights. It’s as if they’ve misunderstood the Declaration of Independence and interpreted the phrase “All men are created equal” to be saying we are all born as tabula rasa, rather than equal in the sense of being entitled to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of wealth, power or status, which is surely what the founders had in mind.

Is this at the root of the Left’s fanatical attachment to the idea that all BIP traits (behaviour, intelligence and personality) are determined by the environment? I don’t think it can be – it’s just too incredible to think that all that intellectual energy could spring from such a schoolboy error. More likely, the progressive denialists are worried that less sophisticated minds than theirs – like those belonging to the great unwashed in red-state America – would make this mistake. Even though the civil rights gains of the past 100 years aren’t logically contingent on thinking we all start out as blank slates, perhaps they are politically dependent on it. The claim that we’re all genetically identical, save for a few trivial characteristics, is the Noble Lie that the hoi polloi must be told if we’re to retain those hard-won progressive victories and push on further. God forbid that the “right-wing media” should find out it isn’t true and whip up uneducated voters into a populist frenzy.

If that is their thinking, it would explain the constant references to “eugenics,” “race science” and the “gas chambers”. Maybe they fear a revival of those horrors if the discredited hereditarianism of the early twentieth century is given any hint of credibility by scholars with the imprimatur of institutional authority. And to be fair to them, it’s true that some of the most toxic political movements of the last century were linked to genetics – there’s an historical connection between those movements and the idea that human nature has been shaped by evolutionary biology, even if there isn’t a logical one.

But as the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has pointed out, the ongoing attempt by well-intentioned liberals to suppress science and data that poses a challenge to ‘blank slate’ orthodoxy is self-defeating. People who aren’t already aligned with progressive causes will inevitably conclude, wrongly, that moral equality is incompatible with a scientifically-informed understanding of human nature. “The often highly literate, highly-intelligent people who gravitate to the alt-Right, when they are exposed for the first time to true statements that have never been voiced in college campuses or in the New York Times or in respectable media, act almost like a bacillus to which they have no immunity,” he told a panel organized by Spiked magazine last year, “and they are immediately infected, with both a feeling of outrage that these truths are unsayable, and no defence against taking them to what we might consider rather repellent conclusions.”

If we want these “highly literate, highly intelligent people” to develop antibodies to toxic ideologies, wouldn’t it be better to allow free rein to all scholars, encouraging them to air their ideas out in the open where they can be challenged and debated, and then let these engaged listeners make up their own minds about what their political implications might be? This distrust of lay people –the conviction that they cannot handle the truth – is of a piece with the disdain left-wing intellectuals often express for democracy, such as their contemptuous dismissal of Donald Trump’s victory and the EU referendum result. As a Brexiteer in the public policy world in 2016, I was taken aback by the fury of my Remainer friends when the vote didn’t go their way, but I think I understand it now. It was their instinctive sense, as Michael Gove put it, “that the people of this country have had enough of experts” – of them, in other words.

***

That is another, perhaps more important reason why the liberal intelligentsia are such staunch defenders of environmental determinism: vested interest. In Two Cheers For Capitalism (1978), the late Irving Kristol identified a group of people who were essentially hostile to capitalism even though they were among its greatest beneficiaries – an educated elite he labelled ‘the New Class’. According to Kristol, they were “scientists, teachers and educational administrators, journalists and others in communication industries, psychologists, social workers, those lawyers and doctors who make their careers in the expanding public sector, city planners, the staffs of the larger foundations, the upper levels of the government bureaucracy, and so on”. To this motley crew, we can now add most of the officer class in the private sector – the editorial boards and senior employees of the most influential mainstream media platforms, such as the New York Times, the Guardian, the New Yorker, CNN, the BBC, etc.; the boards and managers of social media companies like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter; the executives of large publishing houses, such as Penguin Random House, as well as a majority of the authors they publish; the leaders of the tech giants – Apple, Amazon and Google – and the Brahmin class in Silicon Valley more widely; the managers of the entertainment industry, including the Hollywood studios; the vast majority of the ‘talent’ that makes its living in entertainment, including those employed in the performing arts, particularly the state-subsidised or charitably-funded performing arts; most artists and art dealers; the leaders of the fashion business, including the editors of fashion magazines and websites, such as Teen Vogue; and the executives of many if not most large corporations, including some global financial services companies like Goldman Sachs.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that nearly all these people are intensely hostile to the idea that BIP traits are genetically influenced. Why? Because if human society isn’t underpinned by biology, but is shaped entirely by sociocultural forces, it gives a vitally important role to “experts” and “thought leaders” like them. They believe, with Nietzsche, that around the creators of new values revolves the world, and they have appointed themselves the Übermenschen. This is the quasi-religious faith underlying the progressive ideas to which the New Class subscribes – the idea that society can constantly be improved and made ever more perfect. Mankind is not a fallen creature, permanently constrained by his flawed nature, as heretical “pseudoscientists” like E.O. Wilson maintain. He is essentially innocent and capable of returning to his prelapsarian state. To quote their patron saint Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”

***

Just when Ted Hill had resigned himself to his paper never seeing the light of day, he was thrown a lifeline in the form of an email from an editor at the New York Journal of Mathematics, another academic journal. This man had heard about what happened at the Mathematical intelligencer – he was appalled – and offered to help Hill get the article published. He was confident his editor-in-chief, a devoted man of science, would look favourably on it.

So Hill duly submitted his paper, this time listing himself as the sole author, and, after positive feedback from a number of peer reviewers, it was published online on the 6th of November 2017. Then something odd happened. It vanished from the journal’s website –– pouf, it was gone. When Hill contacted his guardian angel to find out what had happened he was told that Amie Wilkinson’s husband was on the editorial board of the Journal of Mathematics and had written a furious email to the editor-in-chief demanding the article be expunged. He denounced it as “a politically charged paper filled with pseudoscience” that was “a piece of crap” and urged him to sack the underling responsible for its publication who was “a person with extremist views”. Needless to say, the editor-in-chief immediately deleted the paper.

All of this was highly irregular, to put it mildly. It is not unheard of for academic papers to be retracted, but only after a formal complaint has been submitted alleging serious misconduct and a lengthy investigation has taken place. Typically, the author or authors are given an opportunity to defend themselves. In Hill’s case, though, the paper had been sent down the memory hole after just four days and not because someone had raised questions about his data or his methodology, but because the complainant disapproved of the article’s political implications. Hill’s sin was to challenge one of the most sacred beliefs of the New Class, the holiest of holies – that gender is a social construct – and he couldn’t be allowed to get away with it, any more than Larry Summers, James Damore or Alessandro Strumia could. The fact that his paper had been published then un-published meant it would never now enjoy the Kudos of academic respectability. He couldn’t submit that article to another academic journal because he wouldn’t be able to attest that it hadn’t appeared anywhere else. It had, albeit for a nanosecond. Hill has now revised his article, thereby freeing him of that constraint, and submitted it to a different journal. He is awaiting the verdict.

Progressive Creationism: A review of A Dangerous Idea

Review of A Dangerous Idea, a film about genetics, sociobiology and race science, for Quillette that was published on 11th December 2018.

In a recent article for Quillette, Colin Wright argued that left-wing scientific denialism poses a greater threat to academic freedom than right-wing scientific denialism. In the past, evolutionary biologists could dispute the claims of creationists and advocates of Intelligent Design without jeopardizing their careers. But the same cannot be said of scientists who publicly dissent from progressive dogma when it comes to, say, the biology of group differences.

The reason, according to Wright, is because the Christian Evangelicals who denied the basic principles of evolutionary biology held no power in academia, while their secular equivalents are often professors, department chairs, deans, administrators, college presidents, journal editors, and so on. Indeed, the new denialist orthodoxy when it comes to biological sex—that it is “assigned” at birth, rather than observed and recorded—is now the official view of the scientific establishment, having been embraced by Scientific American and Nature. As Jordan Peterson wrote in The National Post two years ago: “Look out evolutionary biologists. The PC police are coming for you.”

I imagine few of Quillette’s readers will need convincing of this, but in case anyone thinks Wright is being alarmist I recommend A Dangerous Idea: Eugenics, Genetics and the American Dream.

This new, feature-length documentary, funded by Kickstarter and available on Amazon Prime, painstakingly recycles the most hysterical, left-wing arguments against genetics and, in particular, those who’ve sought to apply genetic research to understanding behavioral and psychological differences. As Jerry Coyne pointed out in a recent blog post, it’s this aspect of evolutionary biology that is most frequently attacked by progressive creationists. “One would think that Steve Pinker’s book The Blank Slate would have dispelled this kind of blank-slateism, but it hasn’t,” he writes. “In fact, with the rise of the Offense Culture, the Left’s attacks on science have become more intense. Expect more of them.”

A Dangerous Idea rounds up all the usual suspects, from James Watson and Francis Crick to Arthur Jensen and Charles Murray, and subjects them to what amounts to a show trial. They are all “biological determinists,” in the words of the documentary’s narrator, which makes them guilty by association of some of the worst crimes of the 20th century, including the Nazis’ extermination of six million Jews and the forced sterilization programs of 31 U.S. states. Not only that, but the very notion that DNA provides a genetic blueprint for life—not just human beings, but any living organism—is based on “pseudoscience.” That’s right, Crick and Watson, who jointly won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of the Double Helix, aren’t real scientists, according to this documentary. “DNA does not determine our physical traits,” intones the narrator about two-thirds of the way through. Apparently, the very concept of a gene is “a figment of our collective imagination.” The film includes interviews with some of the “dangerous” scientists responsible for these fictions, including James Watson, creating the impression that they were given a chance to respond to the charges laid at their feet and had nothing to say. In fact, this is all bought-in footage, and very carefully edited.

As with the editorials in Scientific American and Nature, A Dangerous Idea does its best to give the imprimatur of scientific respectability to its progressive creationism, enlisting a series of men (and women) in white coats to debunk the “gene myth.” The first witness for the prosecution is Richard Lewontin, the Marxist biologist who led the witch-hunt against E.O. Wilson in the 1970s. He enthusiastically trots out the objection to Wilson and others in this field that he’s been making for 50 years, namely, that any description of what is when it comes to the genetic influence on human behavior is a prescription for what ought to be.

“That’s a very important justifying ideology,” he says, responding to the idea that certain key psychological traits, such as aggressiveness, are heritable—

If you believe that all these characteristics are first of all universal and secondly that they’re in the genes, then you would be forced to say we must have society as it is now. So it destroys any question of political morality to change things and it also destroys any claim that we could change things, so it has tremendous importance.

A first year philosophy student would recognize this as the naturalistic fallacy, but no one involved in A Dangerous Idea challenges this faulty reasoning. On the contrary, it forms one of the central planks of its argument against genetic research, the other being that it’s “pseudoscience.” We’re told again and again that anyone who maintains that human behavior is genetically influenced and not entirely the product of the environment—and this is always presented as a binary choice—is an apologist for racial and sexual inequality. This is the “dangerous idea” of the title. According to the narrator, it has been responsible for some of the darkest episodes in the history of mankind. “Biological determinism didn’t begin with genetics,” intones the voiceover as we’re shown an old poster for a slave auction:

Rulers throughout history claimed their divine right to wield power over others was hereditary, based in their noble blood. Even though the United States was the first modern republic to reject aristocracy based on biology, soon after the nation’s founding craniometry was being used to defend the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of Native Americans.

Stephen Jay Gould

This reference to “craniometry” is a cue to regurgitate the thesis of Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man (1981) in which the Harvard paleontologist rubbished the work of Samuel George Morton, the 19th Century physician who measured human skulls and found that Caucasians had a larger cranial capacity than any other race. Gould claimed that Morton distorted his data to fit his political preconceptions and held up his research as a cautionary tale of how unconscious bias can lead to bad science. The makers of the documentary either aren’t aware—or, worse, chose to ignore the fact – that Gould’s critique was itself skewed by ideological bias.

In a 2011 paper published in PLOS, a team of researchers led by Jason Lewis described how they’d remeasured Morton’s skulls and found his data to be accurate. They also forensically examined Gould’s allegations against Morton, such as the claim that he’d left out data that contradicted his conclusions, and discovered that, for the most part, they were just plain wrong. They don’t flat out accuse Gould of fraud, but it’s hard to escape that conclusion, given how comprehensively he misrepresented Morton’s work. (For another example of Gould misrepresenting the work of a “race scientist,” see here.) 

I’m not defending Morton’s conclusions, incidentally, just pointing out that Gould’s critique of his work is flawed. Why did Gould risk his own reputation in order to discredit Morton’s? Presumably because he feared that if Morton’s research was accepted as accurate it would undermine the case for racial equality. Again, this is faulty reasoning, only this time it’s the moralistic fallacy, a close cousin of the naturalistic fallacy. This is the assumption that some aspect of nature cannot be true, or allowed to be widely thought of as true, because that would lead to socially undesirable consequences. This twisted logic runs through A Dangerous Idea like a stick of rock. In addition to endorsing Gould’s dismissal of Morton, the film pours scorn on the idea that women’s brains are, on average, smaller than men’s, and gives this as another example of “pseudoscience.” In fact, the largest single-sample study of structural and functional sex differences in the human brain ever undertaken, involving over 5,000 participants, found that, on average, the total brain volume of women is smaller than that of men, even after adjusting for men’s larger average body size. Does this undermine the case for gender equality? Of course not.

The mistake this documentary makes is one that’s made again and again by opponents of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, behavioral genetics, sociogenomics, and so on, which is to assume that any explanation of behavioral or psychological differences that appeals to biology is a right-wing attempt to justify inequality—a form of Social Darwinism. And by “inequality” these critics don’t just mean inequality of outcome, but the withholding of equal rights from women and minorities. By conflating these two types of inequality, they can point to the difficulties that research findings in these fields create for hardline egalitarians and claim they also present a difficulty for advocates of equal rights. So anyone who believes in equality of any kind, not just end-state equality, has a moral duty to attack these research fields. But, as Steven Pinker points out:

Equality is not the empirical claim that all groups of humans are interchangeable; it is the moral principle that individuals should not be judged or constrained by the average properties of their group.

It’s such an elementary mistake, it’s slightly baffling as to why it’s made so often by those on the Left, not just the makers of this documentary. Do they think: We know that equal rights under the law aren’t contingent on the blank slate hypothesis, and we realize that thinking they are is to commit a logical fallacy. But ordinary mortals are too stupid to grasp this point. Those troglodytes out there in red state America would seize on any research evidence showing that behavioral and psychological differences are affected by our genes to justify their bigotry and prejudice. So it’s our duty, as the moral guardians of various victim groups, to expel from the public square anyone daring to challenge blank slate orthodoxy and dismiss their research as “racist pseudoscience.”

Or do they genuinely think that equal rights are contingent on environmental determinism? Not just politically, because it’s easier to persuade people to embrace equal rights if they believe humans are born as blank slates, but logically? Are they the stupid ones?

Whatever the explanation, the energy the Social Justice Left devotes to denying basic scientific truths puts the persecutors of Galileo to shame. There’s a particularly feeble section in A Dangerous Idea in which all the arguments against the validity of IQ tests are rehashed, as if no one’s told the filmmakers that the existence of a general intelligence quotient, and its correlation with various real-world outcomes, such as socio-economic status, health and longevity, is one of the most robust findings in all of psychology. A psychotherapist called Jay Joseph is wheeled out, author of a book called The Trouble with Twin Studies: A Reassessment of Twin Research in the Social and Behavioral Sciences (2016), to rubbish the evidence from twin and adoption studies. He argues that the reason identical twins raised together are more similar psychologically than fraternal twins raised together is not because they share more genes—genes are a figment of our imagination, after all—but because their greater physical similarity means they’re treated less differently by their parents than fraternal twins. But what about the same finding when it comes to identical and fraternal twins reared apart? Why are the former more similar when it comes to a whole range of personality traits, including IQ, than the latter, given that they’ve been separated at birth? Joseph isn’t asked to address that point. (For a comprehensive rebuttal of the arguments in Jay Joseph’s book, see this review by Julien Delhez.)

About a third of A Dangerous Idea consists of a history lesson, in which we’re repeatedly told that evil men in the past have appealed to genetics to justify their white privilege and perpetrate human rights abuses, including genocide. But the fact that hereditarianism has been used as an excuse by bad actors to do terrible things doesn’t discredit the entire hereditarian tradition, as the makers of this documentary seem to think. That’s another fallacy—ad hominem. You might as well argue that the crimes against humanity committed by Mao Tse-tung and Pol Pot in the belief that human beings are pieces of clay that can be molded into good Communist citizens completely discredits the filmmaker’s blank slate philosophy. And, of course, there’s nary a mention of the fact that eugenics was far more popular with the progressive Left than it was with the Right at the beginning of the 20th Century. If we’re to regard present-day conservatives with suspicion because their philosophical forebears were in favor of eugenics, shouldn’t we regard present-day progressives as suspicious for the same reason?

The intellectual paucity of A Dangerous Idea wouldn’t matter if we were living in normal times. But there’s a risk it may be shown by progressive zealots on campus to whip up opposition to visiting speakers or members of the biology faculty. The most egregious section in the film is an interview with Van Jones, an African-American activist and CNN contributor, about Charles Murray.

Van Jones. Photo: Screenshot

First, the narrator summarizes the thesis of The Bell Curve (1994): “Most controversial was Murray’s claim that black people and Latinos are less intelligent on average than whites and that this explained unequal social outcomes.” Actually, the claim that blacks and Latinos score lower on IQ tests on average than whites – the claim that Murray and Herrnstein make – isn’t remotely “controversial.” It is an incontestable fact. Even Murray’s most ardent critics acknowledge that. The controversial bit is when Murray and Herrnstein discuss various different explanations for this discrepancy. Nevertheless, Van Jones then pops up to denounce Murray as if pointing out this fact makes him an out-and-out racist:

I thought we had killed this kind of stuff off and here it comes back out of the grave dressed up in scientific garb, but the last time we saw it, it was wearing a Klan robe and it’s the same set of ideas.

Van is effectively ordering students to no-platform Murray next time he’s booked to appear on their campus—he’s virtually a Klansman, right?—and, sure enough, we’re then shown footage of students doing precisely that at Middlebury College last year. Needless to say, there’s no mention of the fact that when Allison Stanger, a politics professor at Middlebury, tried to get between Murray and the protestors she ended up in the emergency room.

The other risk, if this propaganda is allowed to go unchecked, is to members of the biology faculty. I don’t just mean they may be driven off campus, as Brett Weinstein was at Evergreen. Rather, they simply won’t be able to do their jobs—which is to teach science. That’s been the experience of Luana Moroja, the chair of the biochemistry program at Williams College. She wrote to Jerry Coyne about how bad things have become:

Many professors at Williams have been feeling the walls closing in. I’m an evolutionary biologist, and in my classes there is increasing resistance to learning about heritability (probably fear of the “bell curve”, something I actually dismiss by contrasting Brazilian with Americans, as I am from Brazil) and even kin selection! (Using the “naturalistic fallacy” argument, students assume that by teaching kin selection I am somehow endorsing Trump hiring his family.) The word “pregnant woman” is out: only “pregnant human” should be now used (after all, what if the pregnant individual goes by another pronoun?). In other fields the walls have closed in even more.

I’m not arguing that “A Dangerous Idea” shouldn’t be shown on campus because it may endanger evolutionary biology professors. That would be to invoke the same argument against free speech that the documentary makes. Nevertheless, everyone associated with this crude piece of scientific illiteracy should be ashamed of themselves—including Robert Reich, the former Democratic Labor Secretary, who is interviewed throughout. They are the progressive equivalent of anti-Vaxxers.

Chapter Notes

Below are notes I’m making on this chapter

In December 1992, a new magazine called Continuum appeared. It was published by a group of gay activists in London and its main editorial conceit – the reason for its existence – was to deny that acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) was a real disease. Not only was AIDS a malade imaginaire, but it couldn’t possibly be caused by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) because that wasn’t real either. Rather, HIV-AIDS had been invented by the pharmaceutical industry to sell toxic drugs to gay men. In other words, it was a social construct.

Nine years later, Continuum ceased publishing because everyone connected to the magazine, from the editor on down, had died of AIDS.

Now, most educated liberals on reading about the staff of Continuum won’t think of themselves as being in the same boat.

For one thing, the cognitive dissonance of the Continuum crew was off the charts. They actually ran a competition in 1996 offering a cash prize of £1,0000 to anyone who could prove that HIV was a real virus, even though that had been done 13 years earlier by two French scientists who were awarded a Nobel Prize for their work.

For another, most liberals like to believe they’re pro-science. They regard AIDS denialists as ignoramuses, alongside anti-vaccination activists and climate change deniers.

Okay, the contributors to Continuum may have been left-of-centre, but the vast majority of people who challenge mainstream science are conservative, right? Country bumpkins who can’t read without moving their lips. Science and progressive politics go hand-in-hand. The truth is on the side of the left.

But dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that large sections of the liberal left are suffering from the same cognitive dissonance as the staff of Continuum.

Take evil, for instance. An idealistic American millennial decided that evil is a social construct. “People, the narrative goes, are not to be trusted,” he wrote on his blog. “People are bad. People are evil.” “I don’t buy it. Evil is a make-believe concept we’ve invented to deal with the complexities of fellow humans holding values and beliefs and perspectives different than our own… By and large, humans are kind. Self-interested sometimes, myopic sometimes, but kind. Generous and wonderful and kind.”

Milennial Couple

To test this theory, he and his girlfriend gave up their jobs – he worked at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and she worked in the Georgetown University admissions office – and embarked on a global bicycle tour that included Tajikstan, a state that shares a border with Afghanistan and where  ISIS and other terrorist groups are known to be active. They were cycling through the country on 29th July 2018, along with two other cyclists, when they were rammed by a car. Five men leapt out and stabbed all four of them to death. Two days later, ISIS put out a video showing the five killers sitting in front of the ISIS flag. They reiterated their intention to kill any “disbelievers”.

Take gender, which every first-year college student will tell you is a social construct. The un-reality of gender is a sacred nostrum among progressives. Beyond certain crude, anatomical differences, they will tell you, there really are no meaningful distinctions between men and women, certainly not when it comes to personality. Sure, women on average prefer the colour pink and men prefer blue, but those choices are the result of gender stereotypes perpetuated by our sexist, misogynist, patriarchal society. Strip away this cultural conditioning and all the behavioural differences between men and women will disappear. They will become equals in every conceivable sense, from their choice of subjects in college to their participation in the labour force.

Unfortunately, the findings of most neuroscientists simply don’t support this belief. (To be continued…)

Professor Wilfred Reilly

Wilfried Reilly, an associate professor of political science at Kentucky State University, has written a book on where sacred progressive beliefs ran afoul of reality called Taboo: 10 Facts You Can’t Talk About. I interviewed him about it for Quillette in March 2020.

 

Teen Vogue and the rebirth of Radical Chic

Column for the Spectator in which I ask whether Teen Vogue’s sympathetic treatment of Karl Marx signifies the rebirth of Radical Chic. Published on 21st July 2018.

TeenVoge

Are we witnessing the rebirth of Radical Chic? That was the term coined by Tom Wolfe in his 1970 essay about the party given by Leonard and Felicia Bernstein for the Black Panthers at their 13-room penthouse apartment on Park Avenue. It described a weird trend, beginning in the late 1960s and peaking in the early 1970s, whereby the crème de la crème of New York’s moneyed elite embraced radical left-wing causes, such as the anti-war movement and black power. They did so without irony, seemingly oblivious to the absurdity of trying to ‘stick it to the man’ while living on trust funds established by their robber baron forefathers. It was a way for them to enjoy the fruits of capitalism without stooping to defend it, to have their cake and eat it — or, rather, their Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts, which is what the Bernsteins served at their party.

I’m thinking, in particular, of the progressive posturing of Teen Vogue, which, in spite of being owned by a man with a net worth of $11.6 billion, recently ran a sympathetic profile of Karl Marx to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his birth. ‘You may have come across communist memes on social media,’ it began. ‘The man, the meme, the legend behind this trend is Karl Marx, who developed the theory of communism, which advocates for workers’ control over their labour (instead of their bosses).’ It went on to explain, in the same breathless, upbeat tone, that capitalism only emerged as a result of violent exploitation: ‘Some examples of violence that aided in the establishment of capitalism in the United States include stealing the land of indigenous people and trafficking Africans through slavery.’

When I first read this, I thought it must be a joke, like the recent mock-up of a Huffington Post article headlined: ‘We need to talk about the problematic, toxic masculinity of the Thai Navy SEALs.’ Could Teen Vogue – a publication that depends for its advertising revenue on gulling teenage girls into spending hundreds of dollars on tat produced in Mauritian sweatshops — be anti-capitalist?

But then I noticed other pieces that have appeared in it recently, such as ‘Donald Trump is Gaslighting America’ and ‘Women’s March Street Style: See the Photos’. As with the Bernsteins’ chi-chi party, there’s no irony here. The online fashion bible for adolescent air-heads really does think of itself as a revolutionary magazine. It’s like Oz for young millennials, except instead of being produced on Richard Neville’s kitchen table it’s being published by the same stable as Vanity Fair, Tatler, Bon Appétit and Golf Digest. Man the barricades, comrades — and make sure you bring Daddy’s platinum American Express card in case you need to take a break from throwing Molotov cocktails to do an Ashtanga yoga class with Gwyneth Paltrow.

Of course, the allure of left-wing politics to the rich and fashionable has never gone away, but there’s a difference between Radical Chic and champagne socialism. It is one thing for limousine liberals to make common cause with the exploited masses as a way of signalling how ‘woke’ they are, but quite another to actively promote those who want to destroy them. If you re-read Tom Wolfe’s essay, what’s most striking is that, as part of their fundraising pitch, the Panthers talked about wanting to forcibly redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, and how they planned to release every black man serving time for violent crime, including homicide, to help them do it. The millionaire socialites in the Bernsteins’ living room lapped it up and whipped out their chequebooks afterwards in the hope of bringing forward this day of reckoning.

The same lack of self-awareness is detectable in Teen Vogue. For instance, in the piece on Marx, the magazine approvingly quoted George Ciccariello-Maher, the hard-left academic who was forced to resign from Drexel University after he sent a tweet saying: ‘All I want for Christmas is white genocide.’

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that Teen Vogue is celebrating the intellectual architect of a movement that has resulted in the unnecessary deaths of 110 million people if it happily gives a platform to a man calling for the murder of the world’s billion or so white people. Or did Ciccariello–Maher just mean the 197 million whites in America? Who cares! Just as long as he’s wearing this season’s must-have Balenciaga trainers when he pushes the button.

Links

The Real War on Science by John Tierney, City Journal, Autumn 2016

Whither the Plank Slate? A Report on the Reception of Evolutionary Biological Ideas among Sociological Theorists‘ Mark Horowitz , William Yaworsky and Kenneth Kickham, Sociological Spectrum, 13th October 2013

Abstract

Sociologists have drawn considerable criticism over the years for their failure to integrate evolutionary biological principles in their work. Critics such as Stephen Pinker
have popularized the notion that sociologists adhere dogmatically to a “blank slate” or cultural determinist view of the human mind and social behavior. This report assesses whether sociologists indeed ascribe to such a blank slate view. Drawing from a survey of 155 sociological theorists, we find the field about evenly divided over the applicability of evolutionary reasoning to a range of human tendencies. Although there are signs of a shift toward greater openness to evolutionary biological ideas, sociologists are least receptive to evolutionary accounts of human sex differences. Echoing earlier research, we find political identity to be a significant predictor of sociologists’ receptiveness. We close by cautioning our colleagues against sociological reductionism and we speculate about the blank slate’s political-psychological appeal to liberal-minded social scientists.