Education, recent, Science

Noah Carl: An Update on the Young Scholar Fired by a Cambridge College for Thoughtcrime

Quillette has been unwavering in its support of Noah Carl, a young conservative scholar who was targeted by an outrage mob after getting a research fellowship at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge. After an “open letter” was circulated by a group of activist academics last December describing Noah’s work as “racist pseudoscience” and calling for an “investigation” into his appointment, we ran an editorial denouncing this witch-hunt. We published supportive comments by Jonathan Haidt, Jeffrey Flier, Cass Sunstein, Tyler Cowan, Jeff McMahan and Peter Singer, and asked people to sign a counter-petition which attracted over 1,400 signatories.

Unfortunately, St. Edmund’s College did the bidding of the protestors, launched two separate investigations and last month terminated Noah Carl’s employment. We ran a follow-up piece, this time criticizing St. Edmund’s cowardly decision, and invited professors and lecturers to put their names to a letter of condemnation. That got over 600 signatures, more than the number of academics who signed the original “open letter.”

Since then, Noah has received widespread support from a variety of sources. The Spectator has taken up his cause, as has Spiked Online, the Daily Telegraph and the Times of London, which ran an editorial in defense of academic freedom:

One of Mr. Carl’s topics concerns the link between cousin-marriage and electoral fraud among Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities in Britain. A leading critic described this subject as “obviously ethically suspect.” It is not at all obvious why investigating such a link is ethically suspect. It may be there is no such link, but researching the possibility of one is a fitting task for a social scientist. By the logic of Mr. Carl’s critics, The Times’s groundbreaking investigations into the link between Anglo-Pakistani communities and the sexual abuse of children in several northern cities must be denounced as “ethically suspect.”

In addition, Carl has written two posts for Medium, one an FAQ defending himself from the charges set out in the “open letter,” the other a description of the underhand manner in which his critics set about getting him fired.

The reason Carl’s research has provoked such controversy is because it has touched on the link between genes and intelligence, but as he points out in the FAQ everything he has written on the subject is supported by mainstream science:

Last December, 586 academics signed an open letter accusing you of “racist pseudoscience.” That many academics can’t all be wrong, can they?

Given that the open letter demonstrated a basic lack of understanding of the relevant science, it would seem that 586 academics can indeed all be wrong. For example, as Jeff McMahan pointed out in his comments for the first Quillette Editorial:

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.

And Professor McMahan is absolutely correct: the signatories of the open letter were calling for St. Edmund’s College to “issue a public statement dissociating themselves” from research backed by overwhelming scientific evidence. In fact, the contribution of genes to variation in human intelligence has been widely accepted by psychologists since at least 1996, when the report ‘Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns’ was published by the American Psychological Association (APA). This report, co-authored by Ulric Neisser and his colleagues in the aftermath of The Bell Curve debate, concluded that “a sizable part of the variation in intelligence test scores is associated with genetic differences among individuals.” Evidence for a genetic contribution to variation in human intelligence has only strengthened since the publication of the APA report.

Okay, so individual differences in intelligence might have a genetic component. But what about differences between groups—they couldn’t possibly have a genetic component, could they?

Contrary to the implications of the open letter, I have never actually done any original research on racial or population differences in intelligence. The only contribution I have made to this area of study is a research ethics paper arguing that “it cannot simply be taken for granted that, when in doubt, stifling debate around taboo topics is the ethical thing to do.” While this paper does not claim that genes do contribute to group differences in intelligence, it does entertain the possibility that they could contribute to such differences.

I consider this to be a perfectly defensible scientific position. We know that there are group differences in intelligence, both across countries, and between groups within a country. The question is why. And there is no good reason to rule out the possibility that genes do make some contribution to these differences. It may turn out that genes make zero contribution, or it may turn out that they make a contribution greater than zero. Deciding in advance that they make zero contribution is not science. It is proof by assertion. As James Flynn has noted, the hypothesis that genes contribute to group differences “is intelligible and subject to scientific investigation.” I trust one James Flynn a lot more than 586 petitioners.

The FAQ is worth reading in full to grasp the sheer scale of his accusers’ dishonesty. So, too, is Noah’s detailed account of their campaign to defenestrate him, breaking it down into 10 parts. Most Quillette readers will be familiar with these tactics, but it is worth refreshing your memory since the same playbook is used by activist academics to attack their dissenting colleagues on a weekly basis. Here is tactic number six, organizing public protests:

By the end of January, the student activists were growing increasingly impatient, so they decided to organize what would be the first of two public protests against me. Like the activists who forced Brett Weinstein and Heather Heying out of Evergreen State, they photographed all of their exploits, and proudly posted them online.

The fact that Noah Carl’s story does not have a happy ending—at least, not until he sues St. Edmund’s College and is awarded hundreds of thousands of pounds in compensation—doesn’t mean all these efforts have been in vain, any more than the widespread condemnation of Harvard’s decision to defenestrate Ronald Sullivan as dean of Winthrop House is a waste of breath. One of the most effective ways of persuading university administrators to defend intellectual freedom is to raise the cost of not doing so. Consequently, we should continue to condemn spineless officials like Matthew Bullock, the Master of St. Edmund’s, up-ending a trash-can of bad publicity on their heads in the hope of making them and their colleagues think twice next time they’re tempted to capitulate to the mob.