Two weeks ago, the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think-tank) released a position paper based largely on the academic research of one Jason Richwine. The conclusion (roughly paraphrased): Hispanic people have lower IQ’s than white people, so an overly permissive immigration policy will drag down the US economy.

Ethically, this conclusion is a deep affront to my liberal* sensibilities. The idea of basing our public policy on racism and bigotry is abhorrent.

Politically, this is dangerous territory. This is especially true after the 2012 election, when republican politicians were making noises about inclusiveness and reaching out to minorities – and in fact, the Heritage Foundation dropped Richwine almost as soon as the offending dissertation came to light (I’m not sure if they’re disavowing the conclusions of their position paper though).

But what I want to talk about here is what this idea means academically. Jon Wiener at The Nation wrote a piece questioning why Harvard would award Richwine a PhD, and gave a fairly thorough accounting of why the conclusions are questionable based on recent scholarship. My friend and fellow Sbling Ethan Siegel wrote a post on Sunday going further, not just questioning why Richwine got his PhD, but flat out saying,

This. Is. Not. Okay.

This is the point at which my ethical and political sensibilities bump up against my academic principles, and for me, academic freedom wins. I don’t think academics should be in the habit of silencing any scholarship, regardless of how much it offends our sensibilities. If Jason Richwine put in the work, met the requirements for his program and had his thesis approved by three independent faculty members (he did), then he deserves his PhD.

Both Jon Wiener at The Nation and Ethan here on ScienceBlogs assault Richwine’s thesis based on the fact that “race” is an outdated term, “hispanic” is tough to define and doesn’t actually represent a coherent group of people etc. This may be true – I largely agree with both of them on these points. Then again, I am not a sociologist, anthropologist or political scientist, and neither are Jon Wiener nor Ethan Siegel. Based on Wiener’s reporting, the thesis was signed off on by three faculty members, one of whom is a strong liberal whose research specifically refutes the very premise of race as a valid category for scholarship.

The third member of the committee is the big surprise, and the big problem: Christopher Jencks, for decades a leading figure among liberals who did serious research on inequality—a contributor to The New York Review of Books, the author of important books, including Inequality: Who Gets Ahead?The Homeless and The Black White Test Score Gap. Christopher Jencks knows exactly what’s wrong with the studies purporting to link “race” with “IQ.” [emphasis mine]

Why is this a big problem? Wiener doesn’t say, but I think it seems like a big problem because someone who likely disagrees strongly with the conclusions of this academic work still endorsed it. In fact,  that’s a success, not a problem. If the thesis was empirically sound, I would consider it a scandal if Jencks had not signed off because the conclusions conflicted with his own work. This would be like someone in the 70’s being blocked from doing a thesis that supported affirmative action. That’s what’s not OK. I’m not worried about Richwine and his thesis – his ideas are archaic and I’m confident that they will be relegated to the dustbin of history. What I worry about is other scholars, that have politically risky but correct ideas, being silenced for going against the prevailing wisdom.

Academic freedom, like freedom of speech, means that sometimes noxious ideas are going to be studied and espoused. To adapt a well-known phrase – The best defense against offensive scholarship is not to silence it, but is instead more scholarship.

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*Here, I mean liberal in the philosophical sense, not the political one, though I am politically liberal as well.

Comments

  1. #1 razib
    https://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp
    May 21, 2013

    bravo for taking a stand against the kommissars of True Thought. are liberals too stupid to understand that many universities receive public funding from constituencies who are “Not. Okay” with what they are studying and doing? (think about the whole field of gender and queer studies) yes, i think they are too stupid.

    here’s a history lesson: canadian authorities at one point used radical feminist andrea dworkin and katherine mckinnon’s theories about porn to deem lesbian erotica obscene. do you think that their intention? no. but once you create a tool, watch who decides to use it.

    • #2 Kevin Bonham
      May 21, 2013

      I don’t think liberals are too stupid, I think that many of them (myself included) think that the research that was done is fundamentally flawed and likely wrong. However, I have confidence in the academic institution to correct and refute without the need to silence it. I also don’t think that the likely misuse of such flawed research in the political sphere is sufficient justification for not allowing it through.

  2. #3 razib
    May 21, 2013

    I also don’t think that the likely misuse of such flawed research in the political sphere is sufficient justification for not allowing it through.

    here’s where you liberals are stupid: many conservatives have the exact same views about all sorts of research done in academia which have political implications. i pointed out queer and gender studies for that reason. these fields are pretty much political by definition. the easy justification on broadly classical liberal grounds is that academic freedom must be defended. if you undercut this by making a political litmus test in this one case expect people find you far less credible when you are attacked on ideological grounds. those attacks are legitimate once you concede that ideological correctness can be determinative.

    • #4 Kevin Bonham
      May 21, 2013

      Why “you liberals?” I agree with you! (at least on this point)

  3. #5 Thomas Pfeiffer
    May 21, 2013

    Razib: Why do you include Kevin in the group of “you stupid liberals” when he just defended a conservative’s PhD on thwe grounds of academic freedom? did you even read his post?

  4. #6 razib
    https://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp
    May 21, 2013

    i just mean a lot of liberals, with whom kevin identifies on most issues. people like kevin hopefully will enlighten his ideological fellow travelers of what’s going on. my personal experience (as a non-liberal in academia) is that most liberals don’t even perceive how politicized many non-liberals believe their research to be because they take their normative preferences as the default background (which is understandable within academia). so they don’t realize anything is at stake; they don’t see that their research may be extremely objectionable to parts of the populace.

    #5, did you read my first comment? i obviously acknowledged that kevin’s position.

  5. #7 dpryan
    May 21, 2013

    The objection to Richwine’s dissertation shouldn’t be on its thesis, but it’s laughably simplistic methodology and thinking. I’m reading through it now (thanks to your scribd link) and it’s pretty bad. I have a PhD myself (neuroscience) and can state that if I did “research” of this quality I would have been kicked out of my program.

    • #8 Kevin Bonham
      May 21, 2013

      Yeah, but we’re actual scientists; we’re held to a higher standard (social sciences BURN!!)*. In all seriousness though – it seems simplistic to me as well (I didn’t read the whole thing, but a fair bit), but then again, I’ve never read a social science PhD dissertation before that one, so I have no sense of the relative quality. I have to assume that the folks at the Kennedy School know what they’re doing, and this was signed off on by three faculty members.

      *Don’t hate me social scientists – I was making a joke :-)

  6. #9 LeftWingFox
    May 21, 2013

    If Richwine had written a dissertation showing that “CO2 is plant food” written by 4 interns at the AEI and passed by a dissertation committee member who was a global warming denialist, and then turned round and wrote a paper for the Heritage institute that promoted burning coal for better agricultural yield, would you still be arguing “Academic freedom”?

    Andre Wkaefield’s paper in the Lancet was so bad, they ultimately retracted it. Should we be talking about Andrew Wakefield’s academic freedom? What about a young earth creationist?

    At best, race is a social construct pre-dating genetic and evolutionary theory which describes easily visible phenotypic markers, and occasionally regional subgroups. At it’s worst, it has centuries of pseudo-science in service of truly horrific political policies.

    Why is it that social stiences involving race are _not_ treated with the same skepticism as phrenology or acupuncture? I would think that scientists studying human evolution would be aware of this tainted history, and would be especially rigorous about sloppy science used for political agendas.

    Instead, we get full-throated defences of “Academic freedom”, in a way other suspect fields do not.

    Why is that?

    • #10 Kevin Bonham
      May 21, 2013

      If Richwine had written a dissertation showing that “CO2 is plant food” written by 4 interns at the AEI and passed by a dissertation committee member who was a global warming denialist, and then turned round and wrote a paper for the Heritage institute that promoted burning coal for better agricultural yield, would you still be arguing “Academic freedom”?

      Yes. And as I mentioned, one of the members of his committee that approved his thesis was a liberal and has done work specifically opposing Richwine’s thesis – you can’t argue that it was rubber stamped by a stacked committee.

      Andre Wkaefield’s paper in the Lancet was so bad, they ultimately retracted it. Should we be talking about Andrew Wakefield’s academic freedom? What about a young earth creationist?

      That’s the scientific process working. People are wrong all the time – it sucks, but it’s hard to know that a priori. I think that medical journals would be wise to increase scrutiny of any further publications based on his past performance, and based on his alleged misconduct I think people in the medical community are wise to bar him from practicing. That’s not suppressing his academic freedom.

      And young earth creationists should be free to study what they want and attempt to advance the theories that they want. If someone was a careful empiricist and uncovered evidence that the fossils from the cambrian explosion are only a few thousand years old, I think that should be published. I know the field of biology better than I do sociology, and I’m confident that that won’t happen, but people advancing unorthodox views should not be rejected out of hand.

      Why is it that social stiences involving race are _not_ treated with the same skepticism as phrenology or acupuncture?

      I honestly don’t know. Though in all fairness, there are biologists publishing studies on acupuncture. Personally, I think studying acupuncture is a waste of money, and if I were on a granting committee, I doubt that I would fund a grant seeking do that research. But others disagree, and they should be free to disagree, and the results of their studies should be published if they are technically sound.

      I think healthy skepticism is important, and as I’ve said, I think Richwine’s thesis is repulsive. However, that alone is not sufficient reason to block such research.

  7. #11 razib khan
    https://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp
    May 21, 2013

    not all biologists think race is useless. i don’t. i’m a nobody, but jerry coyne is a somebody:

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/02/28/are-there-human-races/

  8. #12 LeftWingFox
    May 22, 2013

    Ugh… Sorry about the spelling the last time. I spend too long working my thoughts into type and never bother to proofread before I post.

    I’m going to walk my comments back a little, since I think we might be talking past each other.

    The only thing I’m going to reply directly to is this:

    you can’t argue that it was rubber stamped by a stacked committee.

    Stronger than what I was arguing. “Slipped past a loaded committee” is more likely. As I pointed out with the Wakefield Lancet paper, the gatekeepers sometimes let bad papers slip through, and that likelihood increases when there’s people who favour the conclusions sight unseen. I would honestly love to hear the reasoning from the liberal opponent you mentioned as to why this passed.

    Now, as to why I think we’re talking past each other: Fundamentally, I agree with you. If a person wants to spend their life chasing dragons, I have no issue with them wasting their lives on the pursuit. Once they start to propose a dragon-powered economy, thats when we need to start subjecting the research to increased scrutiny.

    To me, that’s the real issue of this paper: not that it goes against “political correctness” boogeymen, but that it’s badly done science in the service of bigoted politics. Given the long history of poor research papers intended to advance a political agenda with the proven capacity to cause immense political harm, shouldn’t heightened scrutiny and skepticism be a more important subject than the generic freedom to publish said shitty papers?

    What set me off is that this argument feels very much like those who lecture critics of bigotry about the importance of free speech. While the argument is correct, it’s also attacking a straw-man, as the critics are engaging in free speech to be critical, not suppressing free speech by force of law. Too often, these arguments serve to support bigotry, since they present an environment where bigoted speech is more likely to be defended than CRITICISM of bigoted speech. This becomes even worse when the defended speech is baseless slander and demonization, rather than an actual argument (as in the link).

    My worry is that the cry of academic freedom here is a misdirection of the more important issue in this case: that of academic rigour.

    • #13 Kevin Bonham
      May 22, 2013

      “Slipped past a loaded committee” is more likely. As I pointed out with the Wakefield Lancet paper, the gatekeepers sometimes let bad papers slip through, and that likelihood increases when there’s people who favour the conclusions sight unseen. I would honestly love to hear the reasoning from the liberal opponent you mentioned as to why this passed.

      Yes, gatekeepers are imperfect, which is one of the reasons that I strongly support post-publication peer review (in all sciences). I think peer review is too often considered a stamp of correctness when usually it’s just a (imperfect) stamp of “technically sound.” Shoddy research happens, and it’s the robust academic freedom that allows the bad ideas to filter to the bottom and the good ideas to filter to the top. Incidentally, I’d also love to hear Jencks’ reasons, but he’s not talking. I considered dropping by his office hours to have a conversation off the record, but that would feel too much like an ambush.

      Once they start to propose a dragon-powered economy, thats when we need to start subjecting the research to increased scrutiny.

      Agree 100%. I think the scrutiny that the Heritage Foundation report is getting is appropriate and justified. Hell, I think the criticism and scrutiny that Richwine’s thesis is getting is appropriate and justified. What worries me is the people saying he shouldn’t have gotten the PhD in the first place. Vigorous dissent is appropriate, silencing is not.

      shouldn’t heightened scrutiny and skepticism be a more important subject than the generic freedom to publish said shitty papers?

      No. Heightened scrutiny and skepticism that’s out in the open is more important than keeping bad ideas under wraps. People are always going to have bad ideas, and they’re always going to find ways to justify them. Academia will be healthier if that debate happens in the sunlight.

      Too often, these arguments serve to support bigotry, since they present an environment where bigoted speech is more likely to be defended than CRITICISM of bigoted speech.

      I agree, and that’s a problem. But as Razib was saying, we need to be wary of making any arguments in favor of suppressing any speech (or research), for fear that it will be used against us when the shoe is on the other foot. I agree people can misuse this impulse, and that’s worth fighting against. Free speech an academic freedom are great big messes, but they’re worth it.

      My worry is that the cry of academic freedom here is a misdirection of the more important issue in this case: that of academic rigour

      You’ll never hear me argue against academic rigor. Unfortunately, I’m not qualified to comment on the actual thesis in this case. I can say that the proper procedures and review seem to have happened, which gives me confidence in the rigor. Again, this doesn’t mean I have confidence in the conclusions, things can be missed, and even the most honest and rigorous studies can be wrong (my entire thesis project is built on a dogma in my field that has great experimental evidence, but is nonetheless wrong).

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  10. #15 Jim Thomerson
    May 29, 2013

    Anecdotal evidence. I know a fair number of Hispanics, from sheep shearers and cowboys to university professors. I have not noticed that they lack in intellect.

    • #16 Kevin Bonham
      May 29, 2013

      The problem with anecdotal evidence is that it’s anecdotal. My grandfather smoked for 40 years, ate copious amounts of fried food and few vegetables, and lived until he was 98 years old.

      Even people like Richwine don’t argue that all Hispanic people are stupid, just that they tend on average to be less intelligent. Putting aside the question of if the research is true or not, this is part of the reason why this line of research is so pernicious: even a slight difference in intelligence of a population could be easily conflated or twisted to mean that you should never expect anyone in that population to be smart. Richwine doesn’t need to make that argument in order for bigots to use his argument as justification for discrimination.

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