Education, Science, Science / Tech, Top Stories

On Steve Hsu and the Campaign to Thwart Free Inquiry

Academics who conduct research on intelligence and human differences, or who comment on it, are being removed from their positions, either as faculty or university administrators, at an accelerating rate. This development is clear to those who follow such things, but it deserves closer examination so we can better understand it. For young academics interested in this kind of study, it is a critical area of research, not a growing archive of misconduct. It is equally important to young professionals who are looking to innovate on education paradigms, which are informed by an expanding understanding of intelligence, the original driving force in pedagogy.

The problem is that it is not easy for such a person entering the field to grasp from the many dismissals and demotions what is going on. Intelligence research and researchers are being categorized as racists, sexists, and eugenicists, but the reasoning and evidence offered in support of such serious charges is often unconvincing, certainly by the standards of publication peer review. Nonetheless, such claims are sometimes quickly and tacitly accepted by the researchers’ affiliated institutions. They become the basis for a range of punitive measures, even if they are not explicitly referenced in disciplinary rationale (if and when any rationale is forthcoming). This is not a viable process for the exploration, and possible remediation, of intelligence research misconduct or misuse. The way such disputes are conducted is dysfunctional, and this dysfunction is easiest to illustrate by example.

Steve Hsu, Professor of Theoretical Physics and, until June 19th, 2020, Senior Vice-President for Research and Innovation at Michigan State University (MSU) is the latest high-profile sacking. Hsu is not accused of a discriminatory act while carrying out his administrative responsibilities, such as faculty promotions or recruitment. He reports that he has not received any such allegation during his eight years as SVP. Instead, he is accused of holding—and of supporting others who hold—racist, eugenicist, and sexist views pertaining to intelligence. His accusers are Kevin Bird, president of MSU’s Graduate Employees Union (GEU), the GEU itself, and a list of signatories—including many college professors—to a petition addressed to MSU President Samuel Stanley demanding Hsu’s removal from the SVP post. The accusations, and the evidence that supposedly supports them, were shared on June 10th in a series of tweets hashtagged into the #ShutDownAcademia #ShutDownSTEM initiative.

In a blogpost published on June 12th, Hsu forcefully rejected the accusations and methodically addressed the mischaracterizations that informed them. A counter-petition was circulated, which attracted an even longer list of signatories than Bird’s, and which also included many university professors. This too was sent to President Stanley, rejecting the claims made by the GEU and defending Hsu’s role as SVP. The president also received personal letters in support of Hsu from noted figures such as Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, who wrote “I am writing to urge you not to surrender to an outrage mob by removing Professor Steve Hsu from his Vice President position at MSU. Professor Hsu has discussed ideas that are controversial, but they are not malignant, and he has supported them with citations from the scientific literature.”

Nevertheless, Hsu was removed from his position as SVP on June 19th. The university issued the following four-sentence statement from Stanley:

I believe this is what is best for our university to continue our progress forward. The exchange of ideas is essential to higher education, and I fully support our faculty and their academic freedom to address the most difficult and controversial issues. But when senior administrators at MSU choose to speak out on any issue, they are viewed as speaking for the university as a whole. Their statements should not leave any room for doubt about their, or our, commitment to the success of faculty, staff and students.

It can only be true that senior administrators at MSU “are viewed as speaking for the university as a whole” if one assumes that every senior administrator agrees on every issue about which they speak publicly. This is surely not an appropriate stance for institutions which are supposed to be the vanguards of new knowledge.

This expedited firing raises many questions. The central justification offered was that, although all the evidence collected by Bird and the GEU was already publicly available, its collection into a single thread raised general awareness of Hsu’s alleged sexism and racism (and presumably caused the university embarrassment). But the quantity of the accusations is not matched by their quality. Each tweet makes an allegation but the evidence to which it links in each case is insufficient. Had the university scrutinized the substance of the charge sheet instead of being intimidated by its length, it might have felt more confident dismissing the allegations as vexatious and trumped-up.

For example, in one tweet, the GEU alleges that Hsu is “advocating for differences between brain morphology and races” and links to a blog post, in which he summarizes an August 2015 article in Current Biology entitled “Modeling the 3D Geometry of the Cortical Surface With Genetic Ancestry.” This NIH-funded research was conducted by University of California, San Diego Professor Anders Dale and his team from the Department of Cognitive Science and the Multimodal Imaging Laboratory. The authors discovered that human ancestral origins can be predicted using the geometry of the cortical surface of the brain. This is similar to the predictive power in DNA that 23andMe uses to recover an individual’s ethnic origins. The GEU tweet claims that “such arguments are reflective of the early days of scientific racism and are shameful,” which suggests that Hsu should be ashamed of quoting the paper’s research, and that having done so exposes him as a racist. GEU doesn’t condemn Dale’s lab for discovering these predictive morphological differences but alleges without elaboration that Hsu is employing them for racist purposes.

The rest of the GEU thread is similarly problematic. And yet, on the basis of this kind of insinuation and innuendo, many professors wanted Hsu fired, and were willing to sign an accusatory petition to this end, immediately ratified by President Stanley. It appears that the GEU were able to synthesize, on Twitter, an account of Hsu’s alleged racism and sexism of which the MSU administration had, until then, been blissfully unaware. They were even able to decide the appropriate punishment—that Hsu be removed from his administrative post, but not his academic one. A tenured but relegated academic no longer permitted to contribute to University decisions on funding or personnel.

Young professionals watching this spectacle are left to put it all together. The Enlightenment principles on which academic institutions raised us are now failing their students, their faculty, and the broader society their research is supposed to serve. Those same institutions now discipline scientists merely for exploring, or even just commenting on, testable hypotheses relating to intelligence and brain research. The problem is not that they have arrived at a falsifiable argument, it is that they have not bothered to develop one. They have not even performed the work necessary to be wrong.

Intelligence is the most singular human quality. We share many traits with the rest of the animal kingdom but it is our faculty of intelligence that distinguishes us. As such, its exploration is a profound inquiry into who and what we are. Academic institutions should be encouraging the pursuit of a deeper understanding of our cognitive capabilities and how this relates to human variation and kinship. Instead, they are capitulating to those dedicated to frustrating this avenue of inquiry and discovery. The public vilification and dismissal of Hsu and other intelligence scholars is part of a campaign intended to intimidate and deter young researchers venturing into this treacherous academic territory.

There is more to be gained from asking difficult questions than foreclosing in fear of the unknown. It is not unreasonable to consider avoiding research that risks creating unmanageable divisions. But only after we subject those considerations to the same rigor we expect from the research inquiries themselves. In the end, the opposite of being wrong is not being right. It is being precise. It is only then, that we can begin to distinguish between what is true and what is false.

 

Peter Toshev works as a data scientist in Vermont. You can follow him on Twitter @stega_phone.

Comments

  1. It is telling that even the author of this article doesn’t mention the elephant in the room that causes all this academic mayhem.
    I do not believe that the sin Mr. Hsu is accused of is studying differences in populations (races), the problem lies in that findings of cognitive science research do not align with how we would like the world to be.

    Imagine for a moment that the average IQ pyramid was inverse, with East Asians and Ashkenazi Jews on the bottom, whites in the middle and blacks on top. My guess is that Mr. Hsu’s inbox would be inundated with requests to lecture at ever college in the English speaking world.

    This data on race and average IQ is not going away, ceding this conversation to a bunch of cranks on the far-right is probably not a good idea.

    VV

  2. This is more or less the equivalent of the Nazi’s driving Albert Einstein into the hands of the allies.

    Steve Hsu is at that caliber of science. And unlike a popularizer of science like say Charles Murray, he’s literally at the forefront of breakthroughs. The best hope we have for the egalitarian dreams of his critics is his own research, which is one of the few things with the hope of actually solving our intractable problems.

    I don’t know if polygenic scores, embryo selection, or CRISPR will ultimately yield significant fruit. But it’s clear that actions like this will mean that the West won’t be the one at the forefront working out how these things shape the world.

  3. This is no surprise; intellectual freedom, one of the glories of the West since the Renaissance, is now dead in academia. Universities are the new Catholic Church; truth is their enemy.

    It will be amusing to watch the mob eventually come for the rest of the administrators, both those who agree with the mob, and those who are too weak to stand up to them.

    I’m not sure what the fix is. Probably we just have to shut them all down, and start again from scratch. A key step in that is to stop hiring most graduates, who are all irretrievably damaged by their time in these brainwashing facilities.

    Not to worry; scholarship existed before the rise of academia, and will outlast it.

    Noel

  4. The current identitarian movement’s vigorous assertions that the primacy of one’s various group associations should trump individuality is, ironically, part of the problem.

    Studying potential differences between humans of varying genetic heritage wouldn’t be a problem if people would always heed Neil de Grasse Tyson’s admonition to consider the individual, first and foremost.

    And every time I hear a new identitarian insisting that we should fixate on our various (supposed) associations of race, gender expression, sexuality and so on, I recall that (Godwin’s law violation incoming!) that Nazis did precisely that, condemning millions for no other reason than their membership in some perceived group.

  5. As we all know, there is only one acceptable explanation for differences in group outcomes in the West: racism.

    Any honest examination of cultural or, heaven forbid, genetic differences that may contribute to differing outcomes is considered undeniable proof that the examiner is a racist, which is now considered a worse character flaw than being a convicted murderer.

    As I’ve said before, as long as this clash between reality and our socially acceptable model of reality exists, things are just going to get worse. It’s like pushing on a door while trying to remain willfully ignorant of the fact that the door is labeled “pull”: the only option is to double down and push harder, until the door eventually splinters and bursts.

  6. A twitter post from hashtags “Shut Down Academia” and “Shut Down Stem” is the driving force that eventually gets this scientist fired. Obviously, the motivation is political. The perps. want to shut down research into intelligence and human differences, and it sounds by the hashtags that this is just the beginning.

  7. The fact that James Damore, engineer at Google, was fired by the diversity officer for arguing that people are different says it all. Apparently diversity is a core value of SJW’s, but claiming that people are not the same in every way violates the other core value of equality.

    And the fact that this fundamentally self-contradictory position is supported by firing and censoring those taking the “wrong” position on either side of this absurd ideology shows how completely intellectually dishonest the entire social “justice” movement has become.

    But the time for merely pointing out this nonsense has passed. We must take action. I suggest forming a group of pro-bono lawyers who would be willing to sue universities, corporations, and media outlets who fire people on such spurious grounds. Just as hundreds of young men who were thrown out of universities under title 9 managed to win court victories, so suing corporations, universities and other purveyors of woke nonsense might strike home if more people stood up to them and forced them to pay a price.

    I understand, for example, that there is a petition to close The Guardian because it was founded with money from the slave trade. Why aren’t there protestors outside their London officers calling for the paper’s closure?

    Turnabout is fair play.

  8. I never knew he was on Twitter. He has a blog where he posts about this stuff.

    In addition to being a generally curious person who likes to post about lots of things, Steve has talked before about:

    1. His work (some of which is directly related to trying to predict human traits via genes).
    2. The correlation between extreme mental ability and cutting edge research (trying to get the best minds and the best institutions to do the best work).
    3. The continued discrimination against East Asians like himself at many institutions, especially the Ivy League.

    To the extent he wants to have a dialogue about these issues it’s impossible to ignore the realities of genetics. Given that all three are very important to our having a prosperous and just society, it seems a great loss to silence him.

  9. Kevin Bird is a grad student. Someday, he will possibly finish grad studies and look for a job.

    Who would hire such a troublemaker?

    I certainly wouldn’t. Some grad students are filled with hubris about their own self-importance and intellectual heft. That’s not important, really. When someone is being considered for a faculty position, they don’t want to hire a lit piece of dynamite.

  10. It really is extraordinary (and perhaps an indictment of our modern education system) how many people seem incapable of grasping the difference between a scientific truth and a moral one.
    An example of the former is: People exhibit a wide range of differences in terms of specific traits (including intelligence), abilities and dispositions, and these differences are determined partly by genetics and partly by upbringing - probably predominantly the former.
    An example of a moral fact is: All people, regardless of their origins and experience, have an equal right to be respected, valued and cherished, and exposed to the same opportunities in their lives.

  11. Even those who argue that IQ differences by race are based upon nurture rather than nature, are not immune from cancel culture, as witnessed by James Flynn’s recent controversies:

    A Swedish sibling adoption study has shown that a transfer from a low SES background to a high one accounts for an 8 point difference in IQ through development. Other potential non-genetic culprits for differences in IQ by group include early childhood nutrition and self-selection in peer groups, which can play a far more powerful role in later development than parents.

    Your race says nothing about you as individual especially in terms of intelligence- because there is greater variation within a group than between groups- even though to some individuals it is a self-defining attribute. It is worth noting that, whilst the Guardian article mentions that the IQ gap has closed in America by 5.5 points since 1972, there is a volume of data, both inferred and direct from the UK, which suggest that the IQ gap in the UK is only half that of the US. A fierce debate quietly rages behind closed doors, as to whether these population level differences are the result of self-selection in immigration or whether nurture accounts for higher Black British cognitive performances. It could be that society and the broader culture, plays a far greater role in development than anyone wants to recognise.

    One interesting feature which I have noticed in trying to dispute the genetic hypothesis of difference in intelligence is that the British White Working Class shares many of the dietary habits of underperforming groups in the US, particularly in relation to the intake of sugary beverages and the development of childhood diabetes. In the UK, the White Working Class demographic attends university at a rate of 22%, compared to 41.2% for the Black British demographic.

    In the Guatemala study two study groups of children were given food supplements equating to roughly equivalent calorific intakes. One group received a sugar supplement, the other a local nutritional supplement. A cognitive difference of 8% was found over time, between populations. Ask yourself whether the commercials you’ve seen advertising high sugar foods and drinks seem targeted towards those who aspire to be professional athletes or work in the music industry, which are often aspirations of the children of the working class? If high sugar intake does play a role in lessened cognitive development, then our Western cultures might have unintentionally made our poorer children less intelligent. It is also worth noting that roughly 22% of kids in America, face intermittent food supply at some point during childhood.

  12. Guilt by association is a crap tactic.

    The author of “Fardels Bear” is an author, John Jackson. I can’t determine his academic credentials, if he has any.

    His evidence that Unz is a “holocaust denier” is that Unz wrote an article titled “Holocaust denial”, in which he discusses the area of holocaust denial. But he does not deny the holocaust. He discusses, in a thoughtful way, others who do deny the Holocaust. It is a reasoned discussion of the phenomena of “Holocaust denial”.

    Unz DELIBERATELY FEATURES CONTROVERSIAL BOOKS, to allow others to think for themselves. This means that he lists naughty books, that SJW losers don’t like.

    This is the basic approach taken by John Jackson. Shoddy scholarship, guilt by association, reasoning by quoting titles and not reading the document (the Unz piece is very long), and general hysteria is the goods he is shipping.

    Another huge lie that Jackson tells is about the exaggeration of credentials and expertise of Hsu. When a person is a VP of Research, he uses his expertise (in a narrow field) but must become more knowledgable. Hsu seems to have done this well.

    jpj, are you John P Jackson? Are you pimping your own work?

  13. First rule is “never apologize to the wokes. Ever”

  14. Hsu hosting Ron Unz says nothing about the credibility of his position on this matter. Jordan Peterson went into this point in some depth. For social constructivisits all dialogue is an exercise in power, to have a conversation with someone that has a position different than yours is to give power to that position. To have a conversation with an evil man is to promote evil. Peterson’s position (which I agree with) is that the good faith attitude is to approach conversation, even with adversaries as if you may have something to learn from them.
    I have read a lot of Ron Unz and I like the Unz report. I certainly don’t agree with everything he writes or hosts. Some of it I consider to be absolutely insane.
    But I will keep on reading it.
    I view reading such material to be like stepping into the arena. I don’t want to be punched in the face and knocked out but I realize that I might be. However, I need to sharpen my skills so that I can survive.
    Are you familiar with the classic John Stuart Mills quote “He who knows only his side of the case…” ?

  15. It’s disappointing that comments were flagged inappropriately. Whoever did it should be embarrassed that they’re treating Quillette like their own personal safe space instead of a place where controversial thoughts can be expressed freely and judged on their merits. Hang your head in shame!

    It seems quite clear that @jpj is correct that Unz is a Holocaust denier. You’d have to be pretty deaf to the tone, overlook some pretty tall claims, and ignore many snide comments about Jews to avoid that conclusion. For instance, Unz himself claims there is absolutely no German documentation of the Holocaust, when it is literally the best documented genocide in history and literally tonnes of documents exist:

    220px-Evidence_in_Nuremberg_trials

    This photo is of the evidence in the Nuremberg trial, that happened just after WWII. But if you read Unz, not only is there no documentation, no one even started talking about the Holocaust until the 1970s. Unz simultaneously minimizes the number of Jews killed and justifies their murder by painting them as communists. This is pretty gross stuff.

    I take @Jake_Dee’s point that Hsu hosting Unz is not an endorsement of his views, but if @jpj’s claim (I didn’t watch the podcast) that Hsu recommended that article and the overwhelmingly Holocaust denying (never call that right-wing) books on the website, that is pretty clearly an endorsement.

    Multiple things could be true at once. Hsu’s views on intelligence could be rational and justifiable. The mob coming after him could be commies desperately in need of helicopter rides. And Hsu could be a Holocaust denier and outside the Overton window.

    Just as we were all rightly pissed when Cambridge endorsed “white lives don’t matter,” there are extreme positions too far beyond the pale for employers/taxpayers/patrons to be expected to stomach. We should fight the left’s attempt to push every conservative position outside the Overton window, but that does not mean tolerating justification for the Holocaust. Indeed, if justifying the Holocaust is acceptable speech, then we have to accept the left building up their moral justification for genociding whites.

Continue the discussion in Quillette Circle

79 more replies

Participants

Comments have moved to our forum