Education, Features, Genetics, Social Science

Linda Gottfredson’s Scientific Keynote Cancelled: Why?

Linda Gottfredson, Professor Emerita at the University of Delaware, has been disinvited from giving a keynote talk at the International Association of Educational and Vocational Guidance meeting in Sweden this October. She had accepted the invitation a year ago. This disinvitation is disappointing. What was she going to talk about? Why was it cancelled? Who is Linda Gottfredson?

Dr Linda Gottfredson

Let’s start with Dr Gottfredson. She is a little unusual in being a renowned, award-winning scholar in two distinct fields: occupational or counseling psychology, and intelligence research. The title of her planned talk was “What should I do? Ethical challenges in helping youth navigate career choices in a world where family expectation, ingrained stereotypes, social engineers and genetic proclivities compete for influence.” I haven’t seen the talk, but the title indicates its likely content: young people must find their way into jobs, how should counseling specialists advise them, given all the sound and fury? Why was such an unremarkable keynote talk cancelled?

The talk was dropped following four letters of complaint. Written no doubt by well-meaning scholars, the letters express great anxiety about intelligence research. The writers see this work as being incommensurate with the ethical standards of the International Association of Educational and Vocational Guidance. These include “avoiding and working to overcome all forms of stereotyping and discrimination (such as racism, sexism, ageism, classism).” There is nothing in Gottfredson’s work that contravenes these standards.

A profound discomfort with empirical findings emerging from intelligence research lies at the heart of the disinvitation. People who work in this field are equable about these findings (see, for example the open-access article ‘Top 10 replicated findings from Behavioral Genetics’) — they are, after all, descriptive not prescriptive.

Yet the dismay conveyed by the letters warrants some understanding. Their authors lament the incontrovertible fact that intelligence is heritable, and some studies show average intelligence test scores vary a little when they are gathered from samples that differ in ethnic ancestry. This is not the way the world would have looked, if the complaint-writing scholars had their druthers. Their core concern is that the findings justify inequalities.

Yet do findings about intelligence variation justify inequalities? Do they stigmatise and oppress people? Resoundingly no. Intelligence is a useful trait, but it is not the basis on which we value one another. Consider this: there is almost as much diversity in intellectual ability among people in the same family as there is between two people picked at random on the street. Ask anyone who comes from a large family: children invariably have differing aptitudes as well as interests. Does the tender light of parental love shine less brightly on the less adroit child?  Cognitive variation is not a social catastrophe whatever mixture of genetic and non-genetic influence it is caused by. By contrast, failure to look at such variation in the eye has a baleful impact on the less able.

Using a metaphor pinched from Gottfredson: the claim that being brighter doesn’t count for much is like rich people braying that money doesn’t matter. Well, it darn well does when you are skint. The informational environment is tremendously tough to navigate for anyone a little less nimble. How often do we take the time to walk empathetically in the cognitive shoes of others? Millions of people struggle to maintain their health, their jobs, and their finances for the blameless reason that they are a little less adept. Being oblivious of cognitive diversity costs lives.

Gottfredson has for years supported healthcare providers concerned with Type II Diabetes. Among the millions of patients some, inevitably, cope less well with this illness, which, by the way, is about as tricky to manage as a complex investment portfolio. Gottfredson uses her expertise to evaluate the cognitive burden entailed in diabetes self-care — such as figuring out how and when to take the medications, what to do in a crisis, and how to manage blood sugar levels. Rather than ignore the data on variation in intelligence, or soft-pedal its implications, Gottfredson works to reduce harms from this particular source of inequality.

The last point I want to make concerns her character. Dr Gottfredson was a generous mentor during my PhD. My dissertation is dedicated to her (and to another scholar). We have collaborated on a couple of papers. She is enormously exacting, a perfectionist, and there were several times when I wanted to slug her. Her hunt to-kill-missions on my solecisms were terrifying; her requirement that all analyses are endlessly re-checked to the 4th decimal point was exasperating — and this is exactly what you want from a serious scholar. Gottfredson is a punctilious truth-seeker. She is also endowed with enormous compassion, which she acts on.

It is disheartening that Dr Gottfredson has been disinvited from giving her vocational guidance keynote talk. We should be vigilant against threats to free speech, because free speech protects us from much that is evil. It is especially disappointing to see Gottfredson treated this way because she can be trusted. She does not shirk from telling the truth even when it hurts her. In this she combines rare fortitude with being a hugely beloved, generous person who is highly esteemed among her peers as a first-class scientist.


Rosalind Arden is a Research Associate at the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at the London School of Economics. Follow her on Twitter @Rosalind_Arden_