Postmodernism and History of Science

A cartoon of a pig shouting

A scientist first called me a “postmodernist” way back in the nineteen-hundreds. In 1996, not yet a PhD, I was presenting a paper on the role of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) the organization that provided important resources for the social scientists who served as expert witnesses and helped draft briefs for the NAACP-Legal Defense and Education Fund (NAACP-LDF) in the litigation that led to Brown v. Board of Education.  I traced the twists and turns the social scientists took when drafting the famous “Social Science Appendix” to the Supreme Court that argued that the very act of segregation guaranteed unequal facilities. This was my dissertation topic and eventually became my first book. I no longer remember my exact argument in my presentation and the paper itself was lost in some long-forgotten WordPerfect 4.2 file, but I tried to describe how the social scientists struggled with the charge that they were advocates, not objective scientists and how the language of the various drafts of the brief reflected that.

In the audience was one of those expert witnesses and one of the signatories of the brief: M. Brewster Smith. Smith was one of two living people who had testified and signed the brief still living (Jerome Bruner was the other). During the Q&A after my talk Smith stood up and accused me of writing “postmodern history” since all this talk about “objectivity” was misguided. We were just trying to tell the truth, he explained. I tried to explain that I was no postmodernist, I had heard the term and didn’t really understand it. I was simply looking at the various drafts of the Appendix (which I found in the papers of Kenneth B. Clark at the Library of Congress) and noting how they made sure they were, indeed, “telling the truth.” I thought that it was obvious that Truth doesn’t speak on its own, it is is expressed by people, argued for by people, and accepted or rejected by people. The interesting question for me was how these scientists, in this case, argued for the truth of racial segregation’s harms.

The charge of “postmodernism” is now a fairly common charge that some scientists make against any history of science that does not conform to the world as they imagine it. In reality, most charges of “postmodernism” are simply refusals to engage in evidence and argument.

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The Racist Right and “Equalitarianism”

A picture of scales perfectly balanced


Here’s a word you don’t see every day: “Equalitarianism.” What is it? According to Quillette:

According to the equalitarian model, progressives are dedicated egalitarians. They think that all individuals, all groups, all sexualities, and all sexes should be treated fairly*. They are also especially sensitive to potential threats to egalitarianism, so they adhere to the belief that all demographic groups are roughly equal on all socially valued traits, a belief we call cosmic egalitarianism. Perhaps the most common form of cosmic egalitarianism is blank slate-ism, or the belief that humans are nearly infinitely malleable, and that all important differences among them are caused by the environment, not genes. Cosmic egalitarianism serves as a protective buffer to egalitarianism because it contends two things: 1) Group disparities are caused by prejudice and discrimination (unfairness), not group differences; and 2) We absolutely should treat all groups the same because they are basically the same. Equalitarians fear that if we accept that some demographic differences are genetically caused, we might start treating groups differently from each other. For example, maybe we would encourage men to pursue STEM careers more often than women. (It is worth noting that most people who believe that there are genetically-caused demographic differences would not forward such a bad argument and are committed to treating people as individuals. However, equalitarians, as noted, are very sensitive to potential threats to egalitarianism, and they view this as a potential threat.)

Whatever you may think of this definition, you must admit that the word “equalitarianism” isn’t one you hear every day.  The Quillette article maintains that the equalitarian/progressive bias in social psychology has prevented a clear view of racial and sex differences in cognitive capacity. It is a very old and tired argument. What is noteworthy is the use of the curious term “equalitarianism” which has a sordid history that reveals the unsavory politics of Quillette when it comes to race and science.

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Is Quillette Right? Are Scientists Afraid to Discuss Race? (Spoiler: No)

Child huddling under blankets in bed.

Are scientists really hiding from the truth of racial differences?

Quillette, the online magazine, bills itself as a space where academics are free to explore “dangerous ideas.” They crow about their “commitment to the search for objective truth.” The implication is, of course, that academics have few venues to explore these “dangerous ideas” because of a smothering orthodoxy about what can and cannot be studied or said. This is a creaky trope among the American right wing who have been complaining about liberal/leftist domination of the universities at least since World War II if not before.

One of these “dangerous ideas” is race science.  In layman’s terms Quillette provides a forum for the idea that black people are just stupider than white people, evolution made them that way, and to reject this idea is to be against Darwin. It is nonsense, of course, but my question today is: is it true that this scientific truth has not been discussed in mainstream scientific literature? Has this stupid dangerous idea been suppressed by our lefty universities? Because they are committed to “objective truth” you would expect them to supply evidence for this suppression but they never do. Let’s look at the record, shall we?

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Holocaust Denial and Reason Magazine: 1976

Drawing of two British colonials in wicker chairs with the label:

What I imagine the editorial room of Reason looked like way back in 1976

Although they deny it, in 1976 Reason magazine published an issue devoted to Holocaust denial.  The issue didn’t contain any claims of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy about how the Holocaust was a hoax. It was “softcore” Holocaust denial which Deborah Lipstadt defines as:

Softcore denial uses different tactics but has the same end-goal. (I use hardcore and softcore deliberately because I see denial as a form of historiographic pornography.) It does not deny the facts, but it minimizes them, arguing that Jews use the Holocaust to draw attention away from criticism of Israel. Softcore denial also makes all sorts of false comparisons to the Holocaust. In certain Eastern European countries today, those who fought the Nazis may be lauded, but if they did so with a communist resistance group they may be prosecuted. Softcore denial also includes Holocaust minimization, as when someone suggests it was not so bad. “Why are we hearing about that again?”

One of the articles in Reason was by Austin J. App, a notorious antisemite. With the notion that parody and satire can do important critical work let us imagine what the editorial meeting was like when they decided to publish a piece by Austin App. Come with me now and using the power of imagination, we will go back to 1976 and the Reason editorial board meeting….

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Milton Friedman and the Case of the Missing Sentence

Cover of a magazine

Thanks to some re-tweeting and re-posting, this two-year old post of mine on Milton Freidman has gotten some renewed attention. Over at the twenty-first century Algonquin Round Table we call Twitter the Twittertarians donned their deerstalker caps and discovered that I didn’t include a specific sentence from Friedman’s essay hence I am a “liar” and presented a “truncated quote.” If had included that sentence it would have completely undermined the entire thesis of my post. The Twittertarians are wrong.

Just to refresh your memory I wrote that Friedman, a giant of economics, wrote a misguided history of capitalism’s relationship with racism and slavery. Friedman’s entire essay contained only one reference and that reference did not support anything Friedman claimed about how increasing property rights led to a decrease in racism and discrimination. I argued that Friedman was an example of an “imperial scholar” because he ignored the work of pioneering African-American scholars who offered better-documented and more insightful accounts of the relationship among property rights, race, and slavery.

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Arthur Jensen and His Nazi Friends

Drawing of a human brain.

Brains! Brains! Brains!

Arthur Jensen (1923-2012) was one of the most prolific psychologists of the twentieth-century. He’s so famous that there is a word named after him: “jensenism.” Jensen is remembered for arguing that black people are stupider than white people and there wasn’t much you could do about it. What distinguished Jensen from your racist uncle was that Jensen dressed up his argument in statistics and published it in psychological journals. Another thing that might distinguish Jensen from your racist uncle (unless your racist uncle is much worse than he’s ever let on at Thanksgiving) is that Jensen palled around with neo-Nazis and admirers of Nazi racial thought. People who’s views were basically recapitulations of Nazi race theorist Hans F.K. Günther.  The recent awful Quillette article cites Jensen as a reliable source as do many other “race realist” writers nonetheless.

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Undead Race Science

Drawing of a human skull

“Brain measurement and its sister art, head measurement, have no doubt had more to do with our distinctions of races than have their modes of thought or of life” Jacques Finot, 1911. “In fact, researchers can classify human variation by continent quite accurately using only data from the human skull.” Quillette, 2019.

I have better things to do with my time. I have other writing to do. I have laundry that needs to be folded. The catbox hasn’t been scooped today. There’s a hammer out in the garage I could be hitting my head with. Any of these things would be preferable to responding to this awful Quillette article on race science. Yet here I am.

I’m not the only one to find this article troublesome or to see that it is while it poses as a book review of Angela Saini’s new book Superior: The Return of Race Science it is really no such thing. Nor am I the first to make the argument that race science is the vampire science. Pronounced dead over and over and over it rises from the grave to shamble a while mumbling incoherently about “open questions” and “IQ scores” and “heritability” and “climate” despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that we have moved beyond race science. The Quillette article notes this consensus: “This contention is a common one, officially endorsed by a number of professional organizations and espoused by many celebrated intellectuals” but then dismisses it. The article then trots out a series of tired arguments as if they were new and novel and the professionals and intellectuals had never heard them before and found them wanting. Let’s look at some of these threadbare arguments, shall we?

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Clarence Thomas and Eugenics

A chart showing simple Mendelian inheritance

A chart showing simple Mendelian inheritance from “Preventive Medicine and Hygiene” (1917).

Today the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion in Box v. Planned Parenthood. The issues of the case can be found here. I want to focus on the concurring opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas. Thomas has long wanted to overturn Griswold v. Connecticut, a landmark 1965 case in which laws prohibiting the sale of contraceptives were declared unconstitutional. Griswold was an important case to establish a right to privacy, something Thomas simply does not think existsWhat is new about Thomas’s concurrence in Box is that he is using the history of eugenics to do so.  A really bad and dishonest history.

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On Promoting Scientific Racism

I’ve been recently named part of a “roving and ideologically motivated band of slime artists.” Please! I’m blushing: an artist? My prose has seldom been considered more than “craftmanlike” and now I’ve been declared an artist! Wait until I get to tell the rest of the roving band!   In the same post my “expertise” was put into scare quotes, just so you’d know that I’m a poseur about these things. I earned these honorifics because of some comments I made on Twitter regarding a review of a book by Nathaniel Weyl published by economist Gordon Tullock. , Yes, this post is about a blog entry about a Twitter thread about a book review about a book published a half-century ago. Of such molehills in a teapot the internet is made. Not that the original poster needs my help.

That being said, this little dustup can teach us something about how scientific racism flourishes long after it should have been laid to rest. First, speaking in a scientific voice provides cover for ideas that would otherwise never survive in the public sphere.  William F. Buckley often bragged about forbidding his writers to also write for the racist and antisemitic American Mercury. Yet, Weyl was a regular contributor to the equally racist and antisemitic  Mankind Quarterly (MQ)  and was never booted from the pages of National Review. Perhaps because MQ purported to be a scientific, not political, journal. Second scientific racists could be satisfied with playing to draw. In other words, rather than proving certain races were inferior, they could simply end by calling the question open, demanding more research and thus keep doubt in the public’s mind about racial equality.

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Answering the Twittertarians

Sketch of a man writing a complaint

In my last post I made what I thought was a straightforward argument: libertarians claim to be freedom’s ultimate defenders but their actions during the great freedom struggle for Civil Rights show them to be indifferent or perhaps hostile to racial justice as a component of freedom. This is a particular problem for them because they claim to be concerned with freedom. Some libertarians on my Twitter feed raised some objections and I thought I would address their points here since Twitter is hardly the place for a good discussion. So, let’s dive in, shall we?

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