“In the fullness of time” Steve Hsu assures the listeners on a recent podcast (more about the podcast below) Michigan State University President Stanley asking for and accepting his resignation, “will really looking like irrational mob stupidity causing an action, a hasty action by the administration” (17:30) . No one knows if he’s right or not but as a historian who has researched and written about many similar controversies I suspect Hsu could not be more wrong. The aftermath of the Hsu controversy is playing out in the exact same way dozens of other similar controversies have played out. This post is to point out the moves of what is more-or-less a ritualistic dance. As they said on Battlestar Galactica, “All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again.”
(More on the podcast below. For background on this controversy, see here. For information about his resignation as Michigan State’s Vice-President for Research see here).
There are two common threads I’ve discovered in my historical work on race and science. First, the line between establishment scientists and right-wing racists is very, very thin and establishment scientists far too often think that their status of “scientist” can protect them from being used by unsavory political actors. Sometimes, as in the case of Jensen (see here or here) the scientist just blunders along and helps some of the most noxious political agendas imaginable. Other times supposedly establishment scientists simply parrot the arguments of the racist right–who knows if they realize they are doing so or not? (see here or here). .
The second thread is that both establishment scientists and the racist right try desperately to control how specific events and controversies are remembered. The narrative is pretty standard: Brave scientists seeking the truth about racial differences in an objective and apolitical manner are hysterically attacked by lefty ideologues, or more recently, “postmodernists,” who, to use a phrase I just now made up, “can’t handle the truth!” (see here or here).
As a historian it is fascinating to see this entirely predictable narrative unfold in real time in the Hsu controversy. Let’s explore both threads in this controversy.