Stephen Hsu and the Upside-Down World

This is the fourth in a series of posts about Stephen Hsu. See the background here:

A picture of a girl looking at her reflection in a pond with the words,

Most defenses of Hsu have the power dynamics completely reversed.

It has been six days since my post on Stephen Hsu hosting a Holocaust denier on his podcast. He has not responded in any way and certainly not apologized. It has been four days since he has threatened a lawsuit against his critics, including graduate students at his own university. He has not explained or apologized for that threat.

There is a right-wing, online magazine called Quillette that is a home for people to publish their ideas about how race is real and black people are just dumber than white people, how scientists are afraid to talk about it, and regurgitate segregationist ideas about how the “equalitarian conspiracy” covers up the truth about racial differences. Naturally, they have now decided to ride to Hsu’s rescue. Hsu claims to be agnostic, on race differences in intelligence. But he seems to happily accept support from those who do believe in those differences. He claims everyone should be treated equally, but people who reject that idea rally around him. In their call to defend Hsu, Quillette simply recycles ancient arguments against racial egalitarianism that have been floating around the racist right for half a century. This time the strategy is what I like to call the “Lysenkoist Exchange.”

Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976) was a Russian biologist who believed, on the basis of some very bad evidence, in the inheritance of acquired characteristics, sometimes called “Lamarckism” after French biologist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). The theory posits that organisms that gain traits during their lifetime can pass those traits on to their offspring. The classic example is the giraffe:

A man climbing the neck of a giraffe.

How did the giraffe get such a long neck? Well a giraffe stretched to get the leaves on high branches and its neck got longer in the process. Then the new, longer neck is inherited by the giraffe’s offspring. This theory goes against what we know about how Mendelian inheritance: the classic, if grisly, experiment to disprove it was that of August Weismann (1834-1914) who chopped the tails off of generations of mice and yet all the mice had babies who had tails, hence the acquired trait of tailessness (?) was not passed down.

The story goes like this: for reasons that had little to do with science and a lot to do with a weird reading of Marx, Lysenko believed Mendelism was counter-revolutionary and got Stalin’s ear. Stalin then declared Lysenko’s theories as official party doctrine and rounded up all the geneticists and sent them out to the gulag to die. Western geneticists of the 1940s and 1950s protested loudly against “Lysenkosim” as not only bad science, but to as demonstrating the dangers of a government decreeing what is acceptable science and what is not. Theodosius Dobzhansky, himself a Russian expat, was a firm opponent of Lysenkoism.

With that bit of context out of the way we are ready to understand Quillette‘s somewhat hysterical call that “A Scientist Needs Your Help“! After recounting a horrific tale of a Soviet geneticist that Stalin sent off to die in a labor camp in 1941 they explain:

Lysenkoism does not prevail, and scientists accept the reality of Mendelian genetics, most of the time. Nevertheless, ideas of environmental determinism do remain surprisingly persistent. Pseudoscientific ideas that deny biological or evolutionary truths are discussed in Quillette on a weekly basis….  Today, another scientist is being persecuted for discussing scientific truths. His name is Stephen Hsu, and he does not work in Russia, or China, but in the United States of America, at Michigan State University. He is being targeted by a Twitter mob and group of post-graduate students for his research and writing, and is being misrepresented and slandered as a “racist” and “sexist” despite condemning racism and sexism repeatedly in his public blog posts and interviews.

You see, for Quillette and their allies, believing that people can be educated denies the biological and genetic reality that some people are too stupid to learn. Hence, to deny something like the race/IQ argument is to believe as Lysenko did. No, it doesn’t exactly follow, but that is their position.

Another implication of calling someone a Lysenkoist is the notion that “racial realists” (their preferred term) face threats of repression: if not the gulag then some other, perhaps equally horrific, punishment from…. well…. someone. It is all very conspiracy driven, remember how much Hsu’s old friend Ron Unz used the word “purge?” As in “Stalinist purge?” That is the kind of language that these folks prefer.

As an aside, “Lysenkoist” is really is a clumsy rhetorical device: You say “Hitler” and “Nazi” and everyone has a referent for the most racist regime in history. There simply isn’t a villain in the anti-racist camp to invoke. “You are just like Mandela!” just doesn’t pack the same punch. So they only have Lysenko as a candidate villain. But invoking Lysenko just will be met with a blank stare from most people. Which is why I had to set this whole thing up with three paragraphs in order for you to understand the insult.

The reason I call it the Lysenkoist Exchange is because our “race realist” friends often trot it out to shield them from charges of Hitlerism (exchanging a “Lysenko” for a “Hitler”). In a hypothetical example: I report, with a massive amount of evidence, that Arthur Jensen supplied the introduction to a book praising eugenics edited by neo-Nazi, Roger Pearson. A race realist might respond by telling me the story of Lysenko and how dangerous it is to deny the reality of genetics. Or, to take a real example, when sociologist Daniel HoSang criticized Hsu’s eugenicist beliefs a commentator on Hsu’s blog rode to the rescue by invoking Lysenko. Which explains why Quillette opened their plea by invoking Lysenko. To be honest, I’m surprised it took this long for one of Hsu’s defenders to do so.

The Lysenkoist Exchange has a long history. In 1959, the botanist with the hall-of-fame name, Conway Zirkle published Evolution, Biology, and the Social Scene that more-or-less charged that all the social sciences had been infected with Lysenko-like ideas. In the wake of the race/IQ controversy started by Jensen’s work, hereditarian psychologists and “race realists” really started throwing the word around. The Lysenkoist Exchange reached is peak (nadir?) in 1991 with a book called Race, Intelligence, and Bias in Academe written and published by….wait for it….Roger Pearson. In a book of 300 pages Pearson drops the name “Lysenko” an astonishing 102 times. According to Pearson, opponents of race scientists were all “scientific Luddites and neo-Lysenkoists.” Pioneering historian of scientific racism, Barry Mehler, had a whole chapter to himself in which Pearson declared Mehler an advocate for “activist Lysenkoism.”

Despite the book’s character assassinations, and despite the fact that it was written and self-published by an actual neo-Nazi, Jensen praised the book in a personal letter to Pearson. The book is now an indispensable resource for those who wish to claim there is some sort of conspiracy to silence brave race scientists. For example, Hsu’s commentators point to the book on occasion. If you think that is shameful, let this sink in a moment: a book by one of the most active neo-Nazis in the postwar world is cited as an authority in the official history of behavior genetics in the Handbook of Behavior Genetics (Loehlin 2009).

My point is this: defenders of race realism, or hereditarian psychology, or “HBD” (Human Biological Diversity) cannot seem to make a claim of their persecution and of the scientific bankruptcy of their opponents without drawing on the resources provided by the racist right. They cite sources by the racist right in scholarly articles. They mirror the same conspiracy arguments of the racist right. The line between the racist right and race science is tissue thin and it is a special responsibility of those who proclaim the reality of race to maintain that line. All too often, they take no responsibility to do so. Russell Warne, one of Hsu’s defenders, publishes in the racist Mankind Quarterly and apparently sees no problem in doing so.

The day before Quillette invoked Lysenko, over at the Unz Review, the site run by Hsu’s close friend Ron Unz, whom Hsu falsely claims balances (or at least presents) left and right viewpoints, regular columnist, Antony Karlin, warned of the coming catastrophe because the world is rejecting race realism. We are faced, he claimed, with:

Neo-Lysenkoist retrenchment, as you need to support the existing belief structure with more and more authoritarianism, whether it comes from established power structures from above or Bioleninist activists from below.

Karlin scoffed at the notion that the mysterious figures who control our discourse would ever allow race realism to flourish in the free market of ideas:

Many of the HBD people were optimists, ironically because they – broadly speaking, the Quillette/Unherd crowd – were what one might term Western supremacists, believers in the power of the “open society” and “enlightenment now” to produce truth and reason.

The next day Quillette summoned Lysenko, almost certainly not because they read Karlin’s nonsense, but because they literally have no other argument; again, who is the anti-racist villain they could invoke? The only thing they can really do is invoke Lysenko and claim that Hsu’s critics are somehow Lysenkoists.

There is a very important difference in the two sides of the Lysenkoist Exchange. It is true that racism was the core of Hitler’s ideology. By contrast, no invocation of Lysenkoism is true, perhaps not even when describing Lysenko himself. Every invocation of “Lysenkoism” is without a scrap of empirical support. It is, quite literally, a smear. Three points show this is the case.

First, My invocation of neo-Nazi ideology is well-evidenced. When I claim that Ron Unz supports Holocaust denial, Holocaust denial has its roots in antisemitic, often neo-Nazi, ideology that claim is backed up by ample historical evidence (begin with this book). It sounds outrageous though, right? When I documented how Hsu promoted a Holocaust denier on his podcast is sounds like I’m the Mayor of Crazytown or one of the liberals who compared George W. Bush to Hitler. So, you might forgive Quillette for summoning up Lysenko, they are just returning a smear for a smear, right?

Wrong. In order for the race realist position to be true, that their opponents are Lysenkoists, they would have to argue that nearly the entire field of population genetics is somehow Lysenkoist. As Aaron Panofsky documented in his study of behavior genetics Arthur Jensen’s idea that race differences in intelligence were mostly explained by genetics drove population geneticists away from behavior genetics (pp. 96-99). This leaves the race realists in the bizarre position of claiming Jensen, the amateur, is a more reliable source on genetics than actual geneticists who therefore must be Lysenkoists. The same situation applies today. When the amateur Hsu announces that genetics proves race is not a social construction he sets himself in direct opposition to the American Society of Human Genetics who hold:

Genetics demonstrates that humans cannot be divided into biologically distinct subcategories….Although a person’s genetics influences their phenotypic characteristics, and self-identified race might be influenced by physical appearance, race itself is a social construct.

In the face of the simple fact that geneticists almost overwhelming reject their position what else can Quillette do but ride the old hobby horse of “Lysenkoism!” The rest of us can either trust Hsu, the physicist with no training or practice in genetics, or the population geneticists who have rejected his position for 70 years–from the days of Ashley Montagu and Theodosius Dobzhansky.

Second, when Ron Unz denies the Holocaust he denies something that is perhaps the most well-documented genocide in world history. The only possible way Unz can be correct is to buy into a racist conspiracy theory that the Jews have manipulated all that evidence to fool us all. (And please remember, Hsu thought his old friend’s views on subprime mortgages were so valuable that Hsu promoted Unz’s website on his podcast). To deny that racism led to the genocide of six million Jews is to indulge in an antisemitic fantasy.

To claim, as Quillette and Karlin did, that Lysenkoism brought death to hundreds of Soviet geneticists is to make a much more shaky historical claim. Quillette cites the case of an unfortunate geneticist whom Stalin arrested in 1941. But Lysenkoism did not become official Soviet doctrine until 1948. What is going on? Well, the most recent scholarship on Lysenko throws significant doubt on the role Lysenko played in Stalin’s purges. Soviet geneticists had been purged, along with millions of other Soviet citizens, in the 1930s and early 1940s, long before Lysenko came to power. Geneticists were just purged like almost every other profession and not necessarily because they were geneticists. Historian Audra Wolfe explains in her wonderful book, Freedom’s Laboratory:

The geneticists were not martyrs for scientific freedom; they just got caught up in the maws of Stalin’s rage. We know now that the problem with genetics wasn’t dialectical materialism or the relationship of Mendelian inheritance to agriculture; the problem with genetics was Stalin.

The third reason Quillette’s invocation of Lysenko is wrong-headed is the most important one and it has to do with power. “I have been informed,” Claire LehmanQuillette’s editor writes “that Professor Hsu’s job is at risk, and that he may lose his livelihood as early as this Friday.” I cannot help but wonder where she’s getting her information? This Friday? I’ve heard no such thing and I’m right here in Michigan. Lehman is in Australia, how does she know about this timetable?

Lehman’s statement is completely false. Hsu is in no danger of losing his “livelihood.” If he is removed as Vice President he simply moves to the physics department where he is a tenured full professor. There he can research physics, if he remembers how, and teach Michigan State students, which is a joy. He can keep posting his ill-informed ideas about genetics on his blog and keep his podcast going if he chooses. He can just no longer claim to be the Vice President of Research and Innovation at Michigan State University.

More importantly Lehman, like Hsu’s supporters and Hsu’s himself mislead their audience about the power dynamics in play. They discuss a “Twitter mob” and “mob rule” but the only people they point to are the Michigan State graduate students who courageously speak out against Hsu. Hsu is one of the most powerful people on this campus, he answers only to the University President. If anyone in this scenario has the power to act like Lysenko, it is not the graduate students who work very hard, make very little money, and are trying desperately to do their work in a time of a global pandemic. The person in control of their funding is, in many cases, Hsu. The only person in this drama who could possibly act like Lysenko in abusing his power is Hsu. Not that he could send people off to the gulag but he could, if he were a petty and vindictive person, direct funds away from his critics and work against promoting or tenuring the faculty who have criticized him. He has the power to do so and trying to prove that he acted out of spite would be nearly impossible for those hurt by his actions. I am not saying Hsu would act in this fashion. I am saying that he has the power to do so. I am calling attention to the true power dynamics in play. Hsu and those who support him should stop pretending that some all-powerful mob is threatening a helpless Vice President of a major research university.

Finally, a plea for basic human decency. The MSU graduate students have behaved with extraordinary courage. They do not deserve to be called a “mob” by Hsu or his defenders. He must know perfectly well the real dangers that can befall a graduate student who rocks the boat by taking on a person with his power. He has pretended on his blog that the only public criticisms of him come from a “Twitter mob” by which he means our graduate students. Every letter of support he has posted does the same. Claire Lehman of Quillette, to her shame, even singles out a particular graduate student who has led their efforts.

I have written four posts now addressing this controversy; thousands of word, hundreds of references. I am an expert in scientific racism. This blog is part of my scholarship. This is what I do. So far, Hsu has ignored me preferring to punch down to the graduate students. It might be that he finds it easier to take on a Twitter thread rather than a real scholar of scientific racism. Hsu should stop blogging about the graduate students and quit directing his supporters to address them; they do not deserve such opprobrium.  If Hsu wants to pick on someone, he should pick on someone his own size. I’m right here.

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9 thoughts on “Stephen Hsu and the Upside-Down World

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

  2. You waste too much time trying to argue about the specifics of this case.

    It’s not about the scholarship. The critics of Hsu simply want to silence him. Bad scholars should be debated and critiqued, not made free speech victims.

    The anti free speech crowd ends up doing way more harm than good. Holocaust denial is ugly and bizarre. Right wing ideologies about the superiority of certain racial groups are authoritarian and dangerous.

    However, Marxist-Leninist ideology is also dangerous, wrong, and completely devoid of evidence as a functional social system. However we don’t ban their malevolent speech.

    Bad scholarship and bad political ideologies are given too much credit when they are “banned” and “shouted down.”

    It’s not about the scholarship, it’s about free speech.


    • No one banned Hsu’s speech. He is free to write and speak as he pleases. He is no longer able to do so as as a spokesperson for Michigan State University, which he was doing.

      The only person in this controversy who was trying to stop free speech was Hsu when he threatened legal action for libel against his own graduate students.

      Liked by 1 person

    • The complaint about ‘freedom of speech’ is simply a lie.

      Hsu remains free to promote scientific racism (whether he knows what he’s doing or not) but just can’t do it while being a prominent MSU _administrator_. That last is one of the specifics our ‘free speech’ paladin does not want to be bothered with, for obvious reasons.


  3. Pingback: Stephen Hsu: An Irresponsible Leader | Fardels Bear

  4. Pingback: Watching the Whitewash | Fardels Bear

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

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