Lunchtime Links

  1. David Reich’s essay in the New York Times on genetics, race, and IQ
  2. Henry Farrell’s essay at Crooked Timber on genetics, race, and IQ
  3. Ezra Klein’s essay at Vox on genetics, race, and IQ
  4. Chris Dillow’s essay at Stumbling and Mumbling on genetics, race, and IQ
  5. Andrew Sullivan’s essay at Daily Intelligencer on genetics, race, and IQ

Andrew’s essay is a must read. It’s careful, well thought out, and bolder than the other ones. All are well-worth reading, though.

Reich’s essay has sparked an important dialogue in the Anglo-American world (props to the NY Times). Globally, I think conceptions of race, genetics, and IQ in the non-Anglo world are based on pseudoscience (at best), so it’s nice to see this debate unfold the way it has (so far).

I don’t think any of them have done a good job grappling with Charles Murray’s argument. (More on that later.)

Thanks to Uncle Terry for bringing this to light in the first place.

Stifling Charles Murray

Since I’ve been concerned with the status of speech on university campuses, I started looking into the actual speakers who have received the most flak. I’ve been familiar with Milo Yiannopolous for quite a while, and there’s really nothing to comment on there. Ann Coulter is nothing unique. Charles Murray, however, does prove an interesting case; with professional credentials, connections to indicate his in-group status, and the high-profile articles written to counter him, his utter condemnation is a little more peculiar.

I haven’t had time to read The Bell Curve, but I did tune into the podcast with Sam Harris and some of the counterarguments online. Based on the two hour conversation alone, Murray seems honest, well-informed and humble. His field is a controversial one, and so one should expect these qualities. His field is also an academic one with empirical and statistical methods, and for that very reason alone, without an extensive treatment the general population is going to lag behind in comprehension. Lots of the viewpoints Murray espouses are not so easily countered or adopted without background knowledge in psychometrics, and so most of the audience for Waking Up probably walked away with a predestined opinion.

When I listened to the episode, knowing beforehand only that Murray had been subject to endless criticism and condemnation on campus and in research (e.g. by Stephen Jay Gould), I was surprised by how lucid he sounded. The man seems far from a white nationalistracist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist; instead, he presents himself as interested in the same concerns as those on the left (his findings, he says, indicate the need for a basic income. He also supports gay marriage). Sam Harris is also constantly derided, often for his criticism of Islam, and after hosting Murray received some of the same ugly labels. One critique of the podcast is that Harris was too charitable and unquestioning on Murray’s presentation, and I can agree with that, but that may have been because Harris was already familiar with his work. (Also, around the hour-fifteen mark, Murray launches into a domain Harris is clearly less comfortable with, and Harris does explore his guest’s views a little more critically — though it could be said, not enough.)

The experience, for me, made concrete a maxim often championed by defenders of speech. Inaccurately attaching our most powerful labels of evil — fascism, racism, sexism, Nazism, supremacy — means that when faced with the real thing, we will be powerless. Placing genuine bigots and totalitarians in the same word pool as controversial scientists is a bad move for critique. I listened to Murray and thought: so this is the big bad wolf? These are the opinions of the man orthodoxy has eschewed? The man could be wrong about everything, as the internet says, but he does not seem to be motivated by something other than obtaining the facts. If he is wrong, by God, let us challenge his and Herrnstein’s methods and underlying assumptions; let us not push this into a dark corner of human thought it does not fit in with. Some well-established professors writing for Vox say Murray argues from insufficient evidence and this debate ought to be over with already (having gone on since 1994); but they explicitly advocate calling out incorrect ideas rather than stifling them by violent protests.

That is indeed the way to go, because not only did I experience the solidification of the above maxim, but by the end of the interview I was experiencing a curiosity that could easily turn morbid. I imagine it is even stronger for younger people tuning in to Harris. The thought arises, “If this is ‘forbidden knowledge’ — this reasonable, ostensibly well-grounded argument — then what else is there? What else do our global intellectuals call pseudoscience that might be true? If the community labels this racist, what other things do they label racist which are not?” We need to be able to trust each other to keep labels in check. Is it too much of a slippery slope to fear that, once people discover Murray is not a racist, they will seek out other less savory iconoclasts who have also been dubbed white supremacists, looking for what knowledge they might have?

Yiannopolous presents no arguments. Murray does: shutting him down without confrontation only creates an allure of forbidden knowledge, leading those explorers who find Murray digestible to trust established scientific facts less and less. I am not versed in cognitive studies enough to come to an opinion on who is right in this matter; it’s only clear that Charles Murray is arguing from what he thinks is scientifically-validated information. Placing his research into the same domain as David Duke’s ramblings can only lead the curious into an unpleasant trap when they realize their intellectual elders lied to them.

Speech in academic philosophy: Rebecca Tuvel on Rachel Dolezal

A few days ago, controversy exploded in the world of academic philosophy as a new article, published in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia, earned itself a letter calling for retraction by over eight hundred scholars on the basis that its availability “causes harm.”

Rebecca Tuvel’s article, “In Defense of Transracialism,” argues that the same sort of theoretical support used to justify transgender persons entails, logically, support of the transracial individuals. Tuvel details the claims of Rachel Dolezal, who made major news last year, as a woman “presenting as a black woman for some years [though] her parents are in fact white” (Tuvel, 263). She posits sensible criteria that seem essential to a “successful identity transformation”: self-identification and the willingness of society to accept an identification. Then, she covers literature from biology, neuroscience, and critical race and feminist theory, to ultimately present the idea that, potentially, a concept of racial identity could turn on those criteria rather than notions like ancestry due to exclusionary concerns, a “normativity problem” (274).

The paper is about what our acceptance entails. Although it is entirely about furthering tolerance, the treatment of Tuvel online has been egregious. Some of it can be found on Twitter. One of the more extreme takes, by Nora Berenstain (archived here), outright accuses Tuvel of violence. In a response, Tuvel says she has received hate mail, but that few online have actually dealt with the questions of her article. Brian Leiter even offered to set up a fundraising endeavor if Tuvel decides to seek legal reparation for the defamation circulating online, as it could causes issues with her professorship. Hypatireleased a statement apologizing for the article, saying now they understand it was “unacceptable.”

Why was the feminist philosophy community so upset?

Daily Nous, a philosophy blog, has outlined the reasons the writers of the open letter gave for retracting Tuvel’s essay, and the shortcomings and incoherence of those reasons. Upon reading her essay, one finds that Tuvel is empathetic to trans causes, is entrenched in critical and queer literature, and genuinely only wants to explore some philosophical issues raised by Dolezal’s claims. Some of her offenses, according to Berenstain and the open letter, were deadnaming (using a transgender person’s previous name), using terminology like “transgenderism,” discussing biological sex, and not citing sources by black authors.

These particular misdeeds ran the gamut on social media. The open letter accused Tuvel of some academic concerns like mischaracterization and unpopular vocabulary. Critics on Twitter were more concerned with focusing on Tuvel as a “cishetero white wom[an refusing] to listen to cis black women and trans folks,” committing “cis white bullshit.” Noah Berlatsky wrote a shallow criticism that spends most of its time discussing how the article will be used against transpeople, and the other large bulk on Tuvel’s ignorance of history — as if history is somehow relevant to the logical consequences of a few philosophical commitments. He, again, fails to engage with it academically. It’s true that Tuvel could have incorporated more work on trans history; it’s also true that it in no way effects her basic argument.

Some responses revealed the ideological reasons for opposing Tuvel’s research. Dianna E. Anderson writes, “my problem as a philosophy undergrad… [was that] philosophy seems to separate itself out into a moral vacuum where every question is ‘just asking’ … there has to be a moral framework guiding which questions you’re asking and why … that’s why I grounded my higher education in Women’s Studies, where moral parameters are drawn around questions.” Incidentally, this is one of the two reasons the Church censored Galileo: first, it thought Galileo to be factually inaccurate; second, it had a boundary — theology of the Bible — past which speculation could not take place; cosmological and astronomical theorizing were not to transgress this line. Anderson commits herself to Women’s Studies as a place where stifling zones are set up; dogmas that may not be passed. (Funny enough, the first reason the Church employed censorship has not been picked up by Tuvel’s opposition.)

The non-scholarly attacks on Tuvel don’t hold water, which a short turn to the essay reveals. Daily Nous covered most of those points, and Jesse Singal at NY Mag addressed, again, the extent to which the criticisms avoided a critical look at the actual arguments contained within. Tuvel is not a transmisogynist. For some people outside of feminist academic philosophy, she would probably even seem like a caricature of an “ultra-leftist.” The attacks on her are antithetical to academic humility: among them ad hominems, appeals to authority, slippery slopes and strawmen. The academic environment necessary for such an unscholarly attack on a philosopher for not being aligned enough with the contemporary orthodoxy — and that is all it seems to boil down to — is very unnerving to those acquainted with the historical censorship of ideas. Adding to this, Hypatia is named for Hypatia of Alexandria — a female Greek philosopher murdered for inciting controversy. The irony seems to be lost on everyone.

The reasons given in the open letter to retract the article seem to merit, at most, a slight semantic revision. The scholars, among them Judith Butler, instead want a full apology and censorship. So then, what remains is to ask about the environment of philosophy that enabled this. Hypatia identifies itself as a “forum for cutting-edge work in feminist philosophy” … it also states that “feminist philosophy arises out of diverse traditions and methods within philosophy,” and commits to engage and uplift diversity within the field. Diversity in a continental philosophy journal might mean pluralistic methodology, e.g., hermeneutics, phenomenology, deconstrucion, dialectics, etc. Here, instead, the emphasis is on diversity of identity, which is seen as the foundation of “lived experience” (per the apology), which, it is conferred, provides access to enriched understanding.

Viewpoints from identities outside the mean are given an authority justified by conditions of their birth, rather than the authority of sound argumentation. What is important is some sort of status possessed. There’s an analogue available from another field in humanities: F. A. Hayek was opposed to the Nobel Prize in economics on the argument that no economist should be given so much power: the award “confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess… the influence of an economist that mainly matters is an influence over laymen: politicians, journalists, civil servants and the public generally.” In essence, the argument becomes lost; the audience awards merit and attention based on something other than good reasons. In the case of Hypatia‘s readership, the audience seems to award attention based on identity.

It is, however, truly naïve to think the history of philosophy is the prevailing of logic over fallacy; that schools become popular because of their intrinsic validity, that logos always triumphs over our other baser means of evaluation. All sorts of humanistic factors, like creativity, freshness, propaganda, aesthetic appeal and explanatory power serve to elevate certain philosophies or cosmologies over others. This multiplicity of influences, however, doesn’t mean that reason as a guiding principle should be explicitly subsumed under the authority of influences like pathos or ethos, or skin color.

“In Defense of Transracialism” used argument to attempt to unravel some ongoing mysteries about gender and race. Tuvel approached the question of transracialism from a commitment to other philosophical commitments about gender and sexual identification. It was a question about what follows from our beliefs. Per Plato, philosophy begins in wonder: the critical endeavor to evaluate even our most cherished opinions, explore the incomprehensible world, and examine what incongruities appear in our web of belief.

Because of this, her essay was decisively feminist, in that it examined natural consequences of feminist theory while retaining some basic tenets (like the validity of transpeople, and, maybe, racial social constructivism). Combined with her level of analysis, there’s no question that it could only belong to a feminist philosophy journal. And it does belong.

Her article was criticized not for failing to reach sufficient level of rigor in analysis, but for insensitivity in dealing with touchy subjects. Imagine if Frank Jackson had never published his thought experiment on Mary’s Room, about the experience of the color red, for fear of offending the colorblind. Or if Descartes never released his Meditations, for fear the wax example would offend vegans that don’t eat honey.

In fact, returning to the 17th century, the Tuvel situation is reminiscent of Descartes’ reluctance to publish on the heliocentric universe, after the Inquisition’s treatment of Galileo a few years earlier. When professors in the academic philosophy community, like Nora Berenstain, condemn Rebecca Tuvel for “discursive violence” for publishing an article, and call for retraction rather than debate, it aligns Tuvel with Hypatia of Alexandria, Boethius, von Hochheim, Galileo, Łyszczyński and others as victims of orthodoxical demands for acculturation and censorship in their honest pursuit of advancing understanding.

Berenstain would have been better to react as Tolosani did against Copernicus, attempting to use philosophy and scientific data to dismantle the latter’s controversial viewpoints. Instead, Tuvel’s apparent lack of citations for black or trans authors (though there are plenty of nonwhite philosophers — Quayshawn Spencer, Charles Mills, Meena Krishnamurthy, Esa Diaz-Leon (detailed here) — who have entertained the idea that Dolezal could be transracial) was like a crime to a community not concerned with analysis, as analytic philosophy is supposed to be, but a bizarre appeal toward identitarian ethos. Tuvel says “Calls for intellectual engagement are also being shut down because they ‘dignify’ the article.”

By acquiescing to the complaint, Hypatia has allowed for the possibility of a “chilling effect” on speech in academia: authors may self-censor to fit orthodoxy or risk the hate mail and potential threats to tenure Rebecca Tuvel now faces. This is disastrous for the institution of knowledge and a culture that used to be centered around expression. In the words of Greg Lukianoff, free speech is a cultural value, not just something on the Bill of Rights. “Free speech is the antithesis of violence”: it was created, as an innovation, so that we wouldn’t need the threat of force to settle issues.

Tuvel’s conclusion — “that society should accept such an individual’s decision to change race the same way it should accept an individual’s decision to change sex” (275) — is not violent, nor are her premises or methodology. Censorship in philosophy mirrors censorship on campuses: much like protestors disrupted Charles Murray without engaging with his research (and possibly completely misunderstanding it), philosophers chastised Tuvel for minor semantic offenses or lack of adherence to certain trends; each offender expressed heterodoxy where only homogeneity was desired.

The path of philosophy, from Plato to Putnam, has always been controversial. Race and gender, multicultural studies professors always declare, are exceedingly difficult to talk about: therefore, they are perfect fodder for philosophical exploration. To deal with these concepts, one does not have to be black, white, male, female, cis, trans or non-binary — one must only desire honest discovery, and proceed with argument in a way that is open to debate. The last established orthodoxy in philosophy was Stalin’s enforcement of dialectical materialism in the Soviet Union, when laws of statistics, Einstein’s theories of relativity, evolutionary biology and non-Pavlovian psychology were dismissed as pseudoscience. In a free society, the best way to deal with unfamiliar opinions is to debate them, not to call for censorship.

There are only two ways an argument can be wrong: the premises are false, or the conclusion does not follow. The attacks on Tuvel showed an unwillingness to examine either. Without willingness to argue, philosophy — and clarification on these important, mysterious issues — will suffer.