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 Continue reading

Whitewashing Scientific Racism: Revisiting the Equalitarian Myth

Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence

“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”

It is one of the most famous scenes in literature: Aunt Polly commands Tom Sawyer to whitewash the front fence in punishment for some misdeed. Clever Tom pretends it is a joy to whitewash the fence and soon has tricked all his friends into whitewashing the fence for him, indeed, they pay him for the privilege. Similarly, Race Differences in Intelligence (RDI) researchers as well as outright racists often trick mainstream scholars into whitewashing the ugly history of their activities.

A perfect example is this article in the psychology journal, Intelligence where we are presented with an analysis of “controversies in the field of intelligence research.” It is a scientometric analysis meaning it is a quantitative account of such controversies as reported in the scientific literature. There is nothing wrong with that in principle but often such work needs supplementation by a detailed account of specific incidents in the database. As Lorraine Daston recently explained:

if you are looking for causal mechanisms, often only a detailed ethnography will reveal what exactly is the cause of some observed pattern in behavior. And it can work in the other direction — a hypothesis developed from ethnographic work may require statistical testing. These two modes of inquiry, so often opposed to each other, seem to me to work hand-in-glove, at least from the standpoint of the goals of scientific explanation.

Following Daston’s advice, it behooves us to look as some of the incidents in the article in order to get the clearest picture of the listed “controversies in the field of intelligence research” and what is missing from that picture.

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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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An American Dilemma and Eugenics

A woodcarving of Jesus and Satan

The word “eugenic” is an unquestionably negative adjective –tagging something eugenic is to disparage it, except in the rare case of someone who attempts to resuscitate some aspect of the vilified American eugenics movement. However, if asked, it is doubtful that those who employ the term to vilify something they object to can give an accurate definition of the term. Those who turn to the history of science to define the term are likely to be frustrated. The American eugenics movement was in fact so broad and historical scholarship on it has been so profuse that by the end of the twentieth century the word “eugenics” was applied to so many different activities that it was of little use in describing much of anything. And, since every industrialized country in the world had some kind of program under the rubric “eugenics” the problem becomes more acute if we move beyond the United States. Today, historians, activists, journalists and assorted political pundits can easily find evidence in the many activities associated with the word eugenics to support nearly any assertion they wanted to make. “What,” asked Philip Pauly a quarter century ago, “is then left of ‘eugenics’ apart from Francis Galton’s euphonious term and impressionistic images of semiutopian technocratic professionals?” (p. 133).

Unfortunately, outside the specialists in the history of biology, “eugenics” is often assumed to lead directly to the Nazi Final Solution. In a society that expressly values diversity and civil rights, the word “eugenicist” carries the same sort of weight that being labeled a pinko carried during the red scare. Diane Paul, who has extensively studied and written about both the history of the American eugenics movement and ongoing genetic research and interventions that are sometimes associated with the label eugenic, wrote, “I argue that efforts to demarcate eugenics from non-eugenics will prove as fruitless as analogous efforts to demarcate ‘science’ from non-science’ for the same reason; eugenics, like science, is simply much too heterogeneous. I believe that disputes about the meaning of eugenics are also unproductive. At present, the term is wielded like a club. To label a policy ‘eugenics’ is to say, in effect, that it is not just bad, but beyond the pale. It is a way of ending, not promoting, discussion.” (pp. 96-7)

Rhetorician Richard Weaver would call the word “eugenics” in our world a “devil term.” By this he meant a single term that stood for an idea or concept that was so repellent as to be universally rejected. Writing in the early 1960s, Weaver suggested that “un-American” or “Communist” or, significantly, “Nazi,” were a good examples of such “term[s] of repulsion” (p. 223).  A devil term cuts of discussion. It stops inquiry. The use of them betrays a desire to eliminate any further discussion of the problem.

I bring this up because one of my Twitter frenemies keeps bringing up (even though no one asked) his belief that “Gunnar Myrdal was a hardcore-eugenicist!” if I mention Myrdal’s enormously influential book, An American Dilemma.  Published in 1944, AAD set the stage for how Americans wrote and thought about race relations for two decades. It is widely considered one of the most important books of the twentieth century on race relations. What could it mean that this anti-racist classic was authored by a “hardcore eugenicist?” To answer that question, we need a clear understanding of “eugenics” which, as Paul noted years ago, is hard to come by.

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