Editorial, Education, recent

Academics’ Mobbing of a Young Scholar Must be Denounced

The latest victim of an academic mobbing is 28-year-old social scientist Noah Carl who has been awarded a Toby Jackman Newton Trust Research Fellowship at St Edmund’s College at the University of Cambridge.

Rarely has the power asymmetry between the academic mob and its victim been so stark. Dr Carl is a young researcher, just starting out in his career, who is being mobbed for being awarded a prestigious research scholarship on the basis of his peer-reviewed research.

While getting a position like this is normally a time for celebration for junior academics, Dr Carl has gone to ground, unable to defend his reputation from libellous attacks, as he has been instructed not to talk to the media.

Three hundred academics from around the world, many of them professors, have signed an open letter denouncing Dr Carl and demanding that the University of Cambridge “immediately conduct an investigation into the appointment process” on the grounds that his work is “ethically suspect” and “methodologically flawed.” The letter states: “we are shocked that a body of work that includes vital errors in data analysis and interpretation appears to have been taken seriously.” Yet the letter contains no evidence of any academic misconduct. It does not include a single reference to any of Dr Carl’s papers, let alone any papers that are “ethically suspect” or “methodologically flawed.”

Drawing on disparate fields of research in psychology, psychometrics and sociology, Dr Carl’s papers have been peer reviewed and published in journals such as Intelligence, Personality & Individual Differences, The American Sociologist, Comparative Sociology, European Union Politics, and The British Journal of Sociology. His papers have been cited 235 times since 2013.

Much of Dr Carl’s research focuses on how intelligence and other psychological characteristics affect beliefs and attitudes. Papers include: Leave and Remain voters’ knowledge of the EU after the referendum of 2016, Cognitive Ability and Political Beliefs in the United States, and his most cited paper, published in Intelligence in 2014, Verbal Intelligence is correlated with socially and economically liberal beliefs.

Which of these, or any of Dr Carl’s other papers, contain “vital errors in data-analysis”? We’re not told. Nevertheless, on the strength of these allegations alone, with no supporting evidence provided, the letter’s authors have invited people to sign the petition—and hundreds have.

So why all the fuss? Dr Carl’s crime is that he has defended intelligence researchers who’ve written about the taboo topics of race, genes and IQ and argued that stifling debate in these areas is likely to cause more harm than allowing them to be freely discussed by academics. It appears to be this, and the fact that he spoke at the London Conference of Intelligence in 2017 alongside some of these researchers (although he did not himself speak about race, genes or IQ at that conference), that is the basis for the accusation, made in the letter, that he is guilty of “pseudoscientific racism.”

One of the signatories is Professor David Graeber, the anthropologist and left-wing political activist, who described Dr Carl on Twitter as a “very creepy ‘race scientist’.” When asked to justify this accusation of racism and clarify what aspects of Dr Carl’s research he found “methodologically flawed,” he replied“that’s easy. The concepts “race” “genetic intelligence” and “criminality” are all concepts with at best questionable scientific validity, so any study that assumes all 3 as unproblematic is so wildly methodologically flawed that one can only assume a racist motive in the author.”

Yet Professor Graeber did not specify a single research paper by Dr Carl that includes any of these concepts, let alone all three. And we couldn’t find any instances in Dr Carl’s academic writing of his using the term “genetic intelligence.” The implication of Professor Graeber’s response, as well as the letter, is that Dr Carl has linked average differences in intelligence between races to genetic differences, when, in fact, he has stated that a genetic contribution to racial gaps in IQ has not been conclusively demonstrated. Perhaps Professor Graeber is confusing references in Dr Carl’s work to the fact that individual differences in IQ are genetically influenced (although not genetically determined) with claims about group differences being genetically influenced? The second would be controversial, but the first is one of the most robust, oft replicated findings in all of psychology.  

David Graeber

Given that Dr Carl has not linked group differences in IQ to genetic differences, and does not appear to have ever used the term “genetic intelligence,” it is reasonable to assume that professor Graeber has not read the work he has publicly denounced. If Professor Graeber’s cavalier approach is representative of the group of academics who have signed the petition—and it doesn’t seem probable that many of them will have taken the trouble to examine Dr Carl’s work before signing the letter—it can be assumed that most of these scholars have denounced a junior colleague, and publicly trashed his reputation, on the basis of hearsay, and as a convenient way to advertise their opposition to the discussion of race, genes and IQ in the academy.

Accusing a young scholar of “psuedoscientific racism,” and claiming his work is “ethically suspect” and “methodologically flawed,” is not something that should be done lightly, given the likely impact on his career. So for a group of over 300 academics to sign their names to this charge sheet without appearing to have conducted even the most cursory examination of Dr Carl’s work is an absolute scandal. These are trumped up charges, brought against Dr Carl because he dissents from the prevailing orthodoxy about a controversial field of academic research. He hasn’t even waded into these dangerous waters himself—he has just defended the right of academics to do so. But that alone is enough for a group of his colleagues to attempt to ruin him. So much for the principles of academic freedom and open inquiry, not to mention diversity, tolerance and inclusion. This is academic McCarthyism.

We believe that this disgraceful attempt to smear a junior scholar by a powerful cabal of senior academics poses a far greater risk to the reputation of the academy than any work authored by Dr Carl or those researchers he has defended. Anyone who cares about intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity should join us in denouncing this witch-hunt.

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Editor’s note: Quillette sought comment from several high profile academics in response to the open letter to Cambridge University. Their unedited responses are reproduced below.

Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership, New York University Stern School of Business—

“Greg Lukianoff and I open chapter 5 of The Coddling of the American Mind with a Durkheimian analysis of witch hunts. It works beautifully to explain the otherwise inexplicable and shameful open letter denouncing Rebecca Tuvel and calling for the retraction of a philosophy article that hardly any of the hundreds of signatories had read. That whole affair was an embarrassment for the academy and those who signed the open letter. Here we go again. If hundreds of professors think that Noah Carl conducts bad science, let them make the case, with quotations and citations. The “open letter” denouncing Carl is just a list of vague assertions and charges of guilt by association. If the signers think we should condemn anyone who gives ammunition to “extremist and far right media,” they should write a new letter condemning themselves.”

Jeffrey S. Flier, M.D., Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor, and Higginson Professor of Medicine and Neurobiology and former dean of Harvard Medical School—

“The open letter filled with damning accusations, unsupported by any argument, and designed to end a young career, violates ethical norms of the academy—at least any academy that I would be proud to associate with. In response, I read one recent Carl paper, “How stifling debate around race, genes and IQ can do harm,” and found it to be an original and very useful addition to this topic, quite ironic given what the author has just been forced to endure.”

Cass R. Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard—

“Academic freedom is always a good idea. Signing joint letters accusing academics of terrible things in connection with their academic work, and demanding investigations, is usually a bad idea. Academics should have a strong presumption against signing such letters, especially in view of the risk that they will work to punish people because of their point of view.”

Tyler Cowen, Holbert L. Harris Chair of Economics, George Mason University—

“I do not know the full case of Noah Carl. But from what I can see about this matter, neither do the academics protesting him, without argument or citation. This is a classic case of a politically motivated witch hunt.”

Jeff McMahan, White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford University, a distinguished research fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and a fellow of Corpus Christi College— 

“One passage in the open letter demands that the various institutions cited “issue a public statement dissociating themselves from research that seeks to establish correlations between race, genes, intelligence and criminality in order to explain one by the other.” This seems to imply that it is illegitimate to seek to explain any one of the four characteristics by reference to any one of the others, and thus that no aspect of intelligence can be explained by an individual’s genes.  I would not trust the competence of anyone who endorses a claim that has that implication to judge the work of a candidate for a research fellowship.”

Peter Singer, AC Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, University Center for Human Values, Princeton University and Laureate Professor, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne—

“I am dismayed that so many academics are willing to sign a letter calling for the rescinding of an academic appointment, without offering any specifics either as to the errors that the appointee has allegedly committed, or to flaws in the appointment procedure.

The letter states: “A careful consideration of Carl’s published work and public stance on various issues, particularly on the claimed relationship between ‘race’, ‘criminality’ and ‘genetic intelligence’, leads us to conclude that his work is ethically suspect and methodologically flawed.” If that is the case, why does the letter not give—either in the body of the letter or in a link to a further document—any details about the suspect ethical aspects of Carl’s work, or its methodological flaws?

Academic freedom is a foundational principle of the modern university, while the principle that one provide evidence or reasoning for the claims one makes is the basis of any rational inquiry. For a university to act on a letter that attacks an appointee without offering any evidence to support the sweeping claims it makes, would be to go against both these principles. How could so many academics sign a letter that asks a university to do that?”


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