Stephen Hsu and the Ethical Responsibility of Scientists

Sign reading:

Hsu gets nowhere in his attempted defense of his actions

Stephen Hsu, my university’s Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation, has posted a response entitled “Twitter Attacks, and a Defense of Scientific Inquiry” to the Graduate Student Union’s long Twitter thread exposing his eugenicist beliefs. He did not respond at all to my previous post about his relationship with Ron Unz and Unz’s promotion of antisemitism. Perhaps that is coming in the future. Let’s examine his attempted defenses of some of his actions

Stephan Molyneux

Molyneux is a white supremacist with a Youtube show who writes very bad books.. Hsu appeared on Molyneux’s show, thus lending his own credibility and that of Michigan State University to Molyneux. Hsu has three defenses of this action.

  1. “Molyneux was not a controversial figure in 2017, although he has since become one.” This is false. Here is a long list of documented racist comments of Molyneux before 2017. Since 2005, Molyneux has been associated with Lew Rockwell, the likely author of Ron Paul’s racists newsletters of the early 1990s. During the Obama presidency, Rockwell was one of the rightwing activists claiming Obama was preparing FEMA camps for the coming civil war. Over at Rockwell’s website, and before 2017, Molyneux posted videos claiming things like Trayon Martin was a drug addict and thus George Zimmerman was justified in killing him (2013) and  American slavery was not racist (2014). So the idea that Molyneux was just a mainstream figure in 2017 and Hsu’s appearance there was a good example of  “scientific inquiry” is nonsense–and not just because genetics is Hsu’s hobby not his physics research. Molyneux was, and is, a far-right political activist obsessed with race who indulges in conspiracy theories and Hsu’s appearance there is unforgivable. Even if it was 2017.
  2. “Prominent scientists working on human intelligence who were interviewed on his show around the same time include James Flynn and Eric Turkheimer.”  When Stephen Hsu was growing up he must have messed up at some time and had a parent ask him: “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump off a cliff too?” Just because other people are irresponsible does not excuse Hsu at all. I will further note that the only person who is in charge of research priorities at my university is Stephen Hsu and it is only his judgment that is important right now.
  3. The GEU presented, “short video clips out of context” and “Here is what I said to Molyneux about genetic group differences in intelligence” and then presents a 58 second clip out of an hour and half interview, apparently all the context that was needed for Hsu. In those 58 seconds, Hsu does two things, first he indulges in the rightwing loaded language of “social justice warriors,”which apparently fits with his views of “scientific integrity.” As I’ve explained,the idea that politics is stopping race/IQ research is a myth, and one with some ugly politics behind it. Second he declares himself “agnostic” on genetic differences in IQ. I’ve dealt with this position before in this space. Hereditarians have tried to prove these differences for a century, since the invention of IQ testing. How long do we have to wait until we stop asking the question? Why is the question a scientifically interesting one? Hsu never explains.
  4. Here’s what Hsu does not do: Apologize. Say something like, “My appearance with Molyneux was a mistake; a tremendous error in judgment. I should have researched him more carefully and realized that talking to him lent my name, and Michigan State University’s name, to a malign political agenda. I am sorry for my actions and I will strive to do better in the future.” He had a chance to atone and take responsibility for his actions. He chose not to which speaks volumes about his warped views of a scientist’s responsibilities.

Cluster Suck: Race is Real

Hsu defends the biological reality of race: “This paper, from 2008, discusses early capability to ascertain ancestry from gene sequence….the science is correct.” In another blog post Hsu explains, “It’s all in the clusters.” What he’s referring to is geneticists’ technique of trying to understand evolutionary history through computer programs, with names like STRUCTURE and EIGENSTRAT, which “cluster” DNA sequences together. Hsu believes the ability of these programs to do this shows “there could be a genetic basis for ‘race.'”

Here’s the thing though, these programs are tools meant for specific tasks, often tasks like understanding evolutionary history or for epidemiological reasons. You can ask them for any number of clusters, in fact for STRUCTURE you must specify in advance how many you want it to generate and that number is useful for a specific purpose. The next geneticist might ask it to generate a different number of clusters and it will. None of these clusters are any more “real” than any other. The tell us nothing about race being real. These are tools for specific purposes; means to an end. They are not meant for racial classification which is how Hsu uses them. Noah Rosenberg and his colleagues, who were pioneers of clustering analysis are quite explicit about this:

Our evidence for clustering should not be taken as evidence of our support of any particular concept of ‘‘biological race.’’ In general, representations of human genetic diversity are evaluated based on their ability to facilitate further research into such topics as human evolu- tionary history and the identification of medically important genotypes that vary in frequency across populationsOur evidence for clustering should not be taken as evidence of our support of any particular concept of ‘‘biological race.’’ In general, representations of human genetic diversity are evaluated based on their ability to facilitate further research into such topics as human evolu- tionary history and the identification of medically important genotypes that vary in frequency across populations.

Rosenberg, Noah A, Saurabh Mahajan, Sohini Ramachandran, Chengfeng Zhao, Jonathan K Pritchard, and Marcus W Feldman. “Clines, Clusters, and the Effect of Study Design on the Inference of Human Population Structure.” PLoS Genetics 1, no. 6 (December 2005): p. 668

Hsu’s interest in genetic variation is exactly backwards; he’s only interested in evolutionary history and biology to the extent it can prove the existence of something he wants to call “race.” This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of population genetics. Sherwood Washburn, the anthropologist most responsible for bringing population genetics into biological anthropology said in 1963: “I think we should require people who propose a classification of races to state in the first place why they wish to divide the human species and to give in detail the important reasons for subdividing our whole species” (p. 524). Why does Hsu wish divide the human species at all? It is a question that is simply hanging in the air.

Hsu on the Social Construction of Race

Hsu borders on contempt when discussing idea of the social construction. You can almost hear the wheedling mockery of sentences like: “Huh? What? But, my Sociology professor told me it’s just a social construction! 8-(” or “There is no scientific basis for race. It is just a social construction.” Hsu shows no evidence that he understands just what social constructionists claim. Nor does he ever address the critiques of his favorite clustering methods from a variety of disciplines that show that social and political ideas are inescapable in the sampling procedures and interpretations in those kinds of analyses. Interested parties could check this very incomplete list:

  • Frank, Reanne. “The Molecular Reinscription of Race: A Comment on ‘Genetic Bio-Ancestry and Social Construction of Racial Classification in Social Surveys in the Contemporary United States.’” Demography 51, no. 6 (December 1, 2014): 2333–36.
  • Fujimura, Joan H., Deborah A. Bolnick, Ramya Rajagopalan, Jay S. Kaufman, Richard C. Lewontin, Troy Duster, Pilar Ossorio, and Jonathan Marks. “Clines Without Classes: How to Make Sense of Human Variation.” Sociological Theory 32, no. 3 (September 1, 2014): 208–27.
  • Kaplan, Jonathan Michael. “When Socially Determined Categories Make Biological Realities: Understanding Black/White Health Disparities in the U.s.” Monist 93, no. 2 (April 2010): 281.
  • Kaplan, Jonathan Michael, and Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther. “Prisoners of Abstraction? The Theory and Measure of Genetic Variation, and the Very Concept of ‘Race.’” Biological Theory 7, no. 4 (July 20, 2012): 401–12.
  • Winther, Rasmus Grønfeldt. “The Genetic Reification of ‘Race’?: A Story of Two Mathematical Methods.” Critical Philosophy of Race 2, no. 2 (August 20, 2014): 204–23.

More evidence that Hsu doesn’t understand claims about the social construction of race is when he claims the social construction of race is “the convenient but incorrect legacy of anthropologist Ashley Montagu (Israel Ehrenberg).” Hsu is referring to Montagu’s most famous book, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race which went through six editions (1942-1999). I doubt Hsu has ever read Montagu’s book which labels race a “myth” precisely because Montagu embraced population genetics. Montagu worked very closely with one of the founders of population genetics, Theodosius Dobzhansky, indeed they co-authored papers together. Montagu learned from Dobzhansky that genetic populations were tools for exploring evolution, not a system of classification. Rosenberg and colleagues understand this as well when they write: “ultimately, the primary goals for studies of genetic variation in humans are to make inferences about human evolutionary history, human biology, and the genetic causes of disease” (p. 669),  the exact position of Washburn, Dobzhansky, and Montagu. Hsu apparently does not understand this at all and mistakenly thinks the social construction of race came from a rejection of modern science rather than its embrace.

There is something else about Hsu’s invocation of Montagu that I find disturbing. See how Hsu included Montagu’s birth name, “Israel Ehrenberg?” Why? Wikipedia notes it, true, but Montagu never published a word under that name. He changed his name because Jews of his generation often changed their names often because a “Jewish sounding” name could hinder their career advancement. I recommend Michigan State historian, Kirsten Fermaglich’s new book on this subject.

Why does Hsu include it? What information is added? Historically, Montagu’s racist critics who added it to signal that Montagu was a Jew and therefore not to be trusted (p. 99). This comment over at the racist Occidental Quarterly (a publication cited by Hsu’s close friend, Ron Unz) typifies the genre:

It is jewish individuals like Franz Boas, Stephen J. Gould, Ashlely Montagu (Israel Ehrenberg) and Jared Diamond who have promoted the idea that race doesn’t exist or that race isn’t important. What a coincidence that all are jewish.

I have no idea why Hsu decided to include Montagu’s birth name, but I find it very strange that he did.

“In several of the blog posts I explicitly denounce racism and discrimination based on identity”

This is true. He does. He doesn’t actually link to any of these posts, but he does do this. Often it is, as in his defense,  he merely drops in a sentence claiming that he rejects racism, usually with the exact words he uses above. But that is it. Apparently he feels his responsibilities are fulfilled with a pro forma statement like that. Except when it comes to affirmative action. Then he speaks with gusto, like he did with his friend Ron Unz when they ran for the Board of Governors at Harvard.

Theodosius Dobzhansky, Ashley Montagu’s close friend was a fierce opponent of scientific racism. It was not enough for him to simply issue platitudes, he wrote and argued against those who used science to promote racism in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. Dobzhansky firmly believed that scientists need get out of their”ivory towers” and take responsibility for what they write (p. 191). Hsu apparently feels no such responsibility for what he writes about race.

One thing Hsu hates is the suggestion that genetics could possibly be enrolled in the service of white supremacy; ignoring a very ugly history in the process. “We are scientists, seeking truth. We are not slaves to ideological conformity.” In other words:

Don’t say that he’s hypocritical
Say rather that he’s apolitical
“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department!” says Wernher von Braun!

Since Hsu is interested in truth here are some true things: Over at Vdare when John Derbyshire, Paul Gottfried, and Richard Spencer want to talk about the persecution of race scientists they cite Hsu’s blog. Derbyshire might even a be a regular reader of Hsu’s stuff (here and here). But no one appears to be a bigger fan of Hsu than Steve Sailer, who publishes both at and Vdare. Examples of Sailer writing about Hsu plentiful (eg. here, here, or here). Hsu and Sailer share the same readership, as Hsu’s comment section makes clear (here, here, here, here, or here). A couple times, Sailer himself has commented on Hsu’s blog and was treated well (here or here). Someone who is against racism, I would think, would speak out against Vdare and Sailer since they are not “agnostic” but definitely do believe in innate racial differences and urge that policy be based on them. Instead, Hsu sometimes directs his readers to Sailer (here and here).

Hsu saves his scorn for those who believe in the social construction of race and oppose racism. He is silent about those who embrace racism who use his work. Worse he occasionally sends readers their way. Against this backdrop a sentence or two  denouncing of “identity based” politics looks inadequate to me.

In concluding his defense Hsu writes:

MSU went from roughly $500M in annual research expenditures to about $700M during my tenure. We have often been ranked #1 in the Big Ten for research growth. I participated in the recruitment of numerous prominent female and minority professors, in fields like Precision Medicine, Genomics, Chemistry, and many others. Until this Twitter attack there has been not even a single allegation (over 8 years) of bias or discrimination on my part in promotion and tenure or faculty recruitment.

In other words, he’s been doing his job and hasn’t actively discriminated against anyone. Perhaps Michigan State University can find someone else who can do his job who’s hobby (not research! Hsu is a physicist!) doesn’t lend the University’s name to bigots like Ron Unz, Stephan Molyneux, or Steve Sailer.

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9 thoughts on “Stephen Hsu and the Ethical Responsibility of Scientists

  1. Pingback: Stephen Hsu and academic freedom | Fardels Bear

  2. Quote:
    Hsu borders on contempt when discussing idea of the social construction. You can almost hear the wheedling mockery of sentences like: “Huh? What? But, my Sociology professor told me it’s just a social construction! 8-(” or “There is no scientific basis for race. It is just a social construction.”

    You could “almost hear” Hsu’s contempt because it was there. Hsu edited one of those posts years ago to remove some of his braying mockery. He probably has a library of embarrassing posts that he edited afterwards (if I remember correctly he was always apart of the online alt-right/eugenicists crowd). Check this his original post and subheader below.


    • If you want to literally hear it, he was a guest on radiolabs and in a weirdly aggrevated way claims (paraphrased) NPR listeners cant handle the truth


  3. I used to debate and analyze race realists. Then I finally got bored with them. They never said anything new. They kept throwing out the same tired rationalizations, just-so stories, and weak evidence.

    No one will ever convince race realists that they are wrong. It’s just eventually the rest of society will stop treating them as if credible and worthy of being part of public debate. Then the old race realists will die off to be replaced by a new generation of scientists.

    But sadly, we’re not quite there yet.


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  5. Pingback: Stephen Hsu and Guilt by Association | Fardels Bear

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  8. Pingback: Pedigreed Bunk: The Right Wing Media on the Hsu Controversy | Fardels Bear

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