Criminology, Features, Genetics

The Bermuda Triangle Part II: Dangerous Research & The Risks Worth Taking

Another clever word

Sets off an unsuspecting herd

And as you step back into line

A mob jumps to their feet

– “You’re Gonna Go Far Kid,” The Offspring


The late J.P. Rushton represents one of the most brilliant, yet oddly obscure, psychologists in the last several decades. Few would deny that Phil Rushton possessed a stunning intellect; his work on human altruism, in fact, was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1988. Yet, when he is spoken of in circles both within and outside of academia now, brilliance is not the first adjective that gets tossed around. Rushton’s interest in differences among human population groups would lead him to begin asking “dangerous” questions about how those differences arose.  His book, Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective (published in 1995) represented the culmination of much of his work on the topic to that point in his career.

For Rushton, the book was his opus, but for many, it represented the detonation of an academic land mine. Make no mistake — Rushton was controversial before his book came out — but he was positively radioactive in the years following.

The crux of what Rushton argued was, as you might have guessed, hardly politically correct. Human differences across a host of important traits — from reproductive behaviors to intelligence — “had its roots,” he said (p.31), “not only in economic, cultural, familial, and other environmental forces but also, to a far greater extent than mainstream social science would suggest, in ancient, gene-mediated evolutionary ones.”

Critical rebuke was stinging and unrestrained.  Consider the following from a review written shortly after publication by David Barash, a psychologist at the University of Washington.  In the course of excoriating Rushton, Barash proclaimed: “Bad science and virulent racial prejudice drip like pus from nearly every page of this despicable book.”

For the rest of Rushton’s life, and even after he died, in 2012, the disparagement would continue; his death renewed a discussion regarding his legacy, which to many amounts to nothing more than a wasteland of racist pseudoscience.

Critique is fundamental to the scientific enterprise.  But critiques of “triangle science” (i.e., race scholarship) take a decidedly different tone.  Critiques like the one leveled by Barash only serve to vilify people like Rushton.  Barash could have said almost anything he wanted, so long as he made it clear that Rushton was the enemy.  It wouldn’t even matter that in the course of criticizing Rushton, he (Barash) unleashed his own misunderstandings upon the reader.  Consider the following (p. 1132):

For example, speaking of the causation of human phenotypes, Rushton breezily announces ‘I would hold, on the currently available evidence, that the genetic and environmental contributions are about equal’ (page xv). He seems not to understand that the ‘genetic and environmental contributions’ are in fact inseparable, thus neither equal nor unequal.

Clearly, the reader must assume, Rushton was inept. There’s a problem, though.  That bit about “not being able to separate genetic and environmental effects” is utter hogwash. Behavioral geneticists parse these two sources of variation using twin studies — its done all the time.  My colleagues and I, moreover, have found that these techniques estimate the relative contributions of genes and environment quite effectively (and without appreciable bias). Recently, a magnificent overview analyzing five decades of twin research further validated the proposition that about half of the variance in most human outcomes is the result of genetic differences. I would be remiss not to mention, of course, that the heritability of individual differences does not by definition mean that group differences — such as group differences in cognitive ability — are also explained by genes.  But whether they are, or aren’t, is an empirical question, not a philosophical one.  It’s a question we can answer.

In fact, if you’ve read until now and think that the essay is about whether Rushton was right or wrong in his arguments, you’ve completely missed the point. Whether Rushton was right in some respects, and wrong in others is a non-issue for our purposes. Rushton could have been wrong about everything, and his work would still have been of great value. Why? In proposing testable ideas, ones that could be falsified, it allowed other scientists, like me, to mine for the truth. Eventually, we might have to toss out every single one of Rushton’s propositions to get an accurate understanding of reality — or we may not. Either way, if one were to list out the criteria for evaluating the truthfulness of an idea, being inoffensive would not (and should not) be on the roster.

As I’ve written about in part one of this series, no one knows this better than Linda Gottfredson, a distinguished psychologist at the University of Delaware. Linda has received a torrent of criticism over the years for her work on general intelligence — not only from the public, but also from her own university. Over the course of a handful of years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, her and her collaborators’ academic freedom was violated in a cavalcade of innovative attempts at censorship (not the least of which involved denial of funding and promotion).  In 2010, Linda chronicled those experiences in an essay entitled, “Lessons in Academic Freedom as Lived Experience,” detailing the consequences of being ideologically controversial in science.

In the confines of that essay, she described how critics strategically maneuver in order to take certain types of research (more often than not involving the genetic basis of group differences) off the table (p. 276): “Labeling an idea dangerous makes it a target, and the label simultaneously provides moral justification for suppressing it.” she wrote. “Thus does suppression claim the moral high ground: danger and evil require such suppression in the name of the greater good.”

Doubtless drawing on her own experience with baseless accusations of racism, Gottfredson wrote in defense of Rushton in 2013, describing the machinations of (p. 218) “how mob science works to ‘discredit’ valid research and enforce collective ignorance about entire bodies of evidence.”

The strategies of mob science are uncomplicated and as both Rushton and Gottfredson would learn first hand, they are terrifyingly effective. The use of emotionally evocative words, like when Barash tossed out the descriptor “pus” to describe Phil Rushton’s work, represent a classic method for alerting the reader that something nefarious must be going on. Other examples, like using the monikers of (p.221) “diseased”, “sorry mess”, “dangerous”, “odios” and “same old lies,” similarly just stir our emotions; they don’t shift any real cognitive gears; they are “high talk, and low blows” to borrow Gottfredson’s words (p.221).

Today, the most straightforward approach for dealing with research on race is to simply decry the topic of race differences as being a “non-topic” altogether. If science really has shown that race is a social construct, the argument goes, then anyone talking about race must simply be trying to resurrect a scientifically defunct — and insidious — topic.

The trouble with this argument is that it’s not exactly honest. The roadmap of our ancestry exists in our DNA; our genes provide evidence of where we come from. Though self-identified race doesn’t always fully capture our geographic ancestry, the two undoubtedly overlap.  In 2005, for instance, one study demonstrated that our (p.268): “ancient geographic ancestry, which is highly correlated with self-identified race/ethnicity — as opposed to current residence — is the major determinant of genetic structure in the U.S. population.” An individual’s self-identified race, in other words, doesn’t move in the opposite direction of their genetic ancestry — the two align to some degree. There is no doubt that future studies will continue, and should continue, forcing us to remold our notions of human ancestry and race. But at the same time, they haven’t yet laid waste to the idea that population groups differ for reasons other than culture alone (just as Phil Rushton suggested).

I’ve experienced a taste of “mob science” strategies first hand. My co-authors and I have drawn on some of Rushton’s insights in order to propose an evolutionary theory of criminal behavior. Reviewers were not shy about insinuating that only a cadre of bigots would suggest that criminal behavior might have anything at all to do with genetics, as we did in the paper. Some colleagues balked at the idea that we would even cite Rushton, as if including his name would somehow taint our research, our reputations, and me in general. Maybe it has; maybe I’ll never fully realize the damage that has been done. I do know that I’ve lost count of how many times senior colleagues (many of whom I respect greatly) have implored me to study anything else but race.  What possible good comes from taking such a risk? Just don’t talk about it, they suggest, at least not until you’re tenured.  I cannot in good conscience steer away from a topic that interests me, though, only because it is politically incorrect.

Gottfredson’s thoughts on the matter in 2010 are perhaps the best way to encapsulate my thinking about Rushton, race, and controversial science in general (p.279):

When the profession selectively impedes ideas that fail some non-scientific standard, such as alleged social harm, it breaks the covenant between society and academe that accords scholars freedom of inquiry.

There should be no boundary for scientific research — no Bermuda Triangle — and there most certainly should be no punishment for those who would ask uncomfortable questions.  Religious and secular taboos will likely always remain with us.  But science is a method, not a belief system.  A “method” brooks no taboos.  Instead, it interrogates what we believe about the world, and over time, confirms or denies it.  

People who would switch off the machine, those who would censor science, put us all at tremendous risk.  There is no safety in ignorance.  Worse yet, taking shelter in callowness shames every scholar who ever took a risk, asked a hard question, and in some cases paid with their lives.  Their risks mean that we don’t have to live, constantly befuddled by the world around us.  Isn’t that worth honoring?  Moreover, isn’t that a risk worth taking?


Brian Boutwell is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Saint Louis University. Follow him on Twitter: @fsnole1

See also: The Bermuda Triangle of Science Part I

Filed under: Criminology, Features, Genetics


Brian Boutwell is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Saint Louis University. His research interests include the biological evolution of human traits, genetic and environmental underpinnings of human violence, and general intelligence. His published articles have appeared in PLOS One, Behavior Genetics, Developmental Psychology, Journal of Psychiatric Research, Criminology, and Social Science and Medicine as well as others. He was also a coeditor of The Nurture versus Biosocial Debate in Criminology: On the Origins of Criminal Behavior and Criminality (Sage).