Should academia have a greater devotion to social justice, or should its focus primarily be on open inquiry? If science can prevent certain unsavory questions from coming up, could that weaken its credibility? Is science supposed to provide the most good for people, or is it trying to be a value-neutral, truth-seeking machine, regardless of the effects on the society surrounding it? Or, is it some compromise of the two, and how is it determined?
On Dec. 23, 2019, Philosophical Psychology, an interdisciplinary journal devoted to linking philosophy and psychological sciences, published an article by Nathan Cofnas about how science should allow research on group (racial and sex-based) differences in intelligence. This paper understandably caused a stir and soon after this article was published, it was met with a petition from Mark Alfano which argued Cofnas’ paper “disingenuously argues that the best explanation of differences in IQ scores between racial and ethnic groups is genetics … In so doing, Cofnas completely neglects the role played by environmental injustice, such as documented racial disparities in exposure to lead, housing segregation and other factors.”
This petition reached 80 signatures and was circulated by the second most popular philosophical blog, Daily Nous, and by academic wunderkinds such as Jason Stanley before the editors of Philosophical Psychology reaffirmed they did not plan on taking down Cofnas’ paper. Some were worried that discussions about racial differences existed primarily to give eugenicists and radical right wingers a leg to stand on.
However, after reading Cofnas’ paper, it was clear that those objecting to his paper had not actually read it. Cofnas responded directly to the petition by pointing out how those who criticized him had clearly not read his paper. So, if they had not read his paper, what caused their reaction? Something may be taboo about race science, but perhaps it is important to understand how and why taboos exist, and whether they interfere with truth-seeking.
This is not an isolated incident. Some academics pursue questions that push them to become non grata within the scholarly community. Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard, gave a lecture on how women may be underrepresented in science and engineering because of different availability of aptitude and different socialization, and was removed. Similarly, an assistant professor of psychology at Marietta has recently been fired for believing that purposely not talking about race-based differences is disingenuous and dangerous. Additionally, Rebecca Tuvel, writer of “In Defense of Transracialism,” received a petition with over 800 signatures to retract the article she had written. Some topics are seen as sacred and as a result are unable to be discussed without an impulsive and guttural reaction.
Whether good or bad, questions about controversial topics continue to arise. Should the university allow exploration into what many see as evil? Should the university stop discussions that cause pain, and may leave our moral sensibilities upended? It’s increasingly clear that higher education is at an impasse; it can no longer prioritize both open inquiry and social justice. It’s impossible to do both, and the ivory tower is crumbling as a result.
I interviewed Nathan about his paper and the reactions surrounding it. I was curious about his stance on the issue at hand. My questions are in bold and edited slightly for clarity. These are his responses. Form your own conclusions.
Do you think motivations of people in the past surrounding race science impact how to approach topics?
I don’t fully understand how certain ideas become taboo, and I don’t think anyone does. However it happened, people have come to regard the study of race differences as evil. Historically, people with nefarious motives have indeed promoted false scientific claims about race in order to justify crimes. Presumably the hypersensitivity about this topic is in part a reaction to that history. In my view, the fact that people have used fake race science to justify evil ideologies is not relevant to the question of whether we should avoid honest, careful research.
Is this specific to race? Would talking about lower class be as actionable?
Race is the most taboo subject. There isn’t as much concern about class nowadays. The focus is on race.
Were there criticisms of your paper that you thought were fair?
I’m not really aware of any. The vast majority of critics clearly didn’t read the paper or they have no background in any of these issues. Most were unable to formulate a proper criticism, or didn’t understand the context of the debate. People who think this is a moral issue have little motivation to become informed about the science. They are satisfied to dismiss it because it’s morally wrong. That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate scientific issues surrounding the study of race differences in intelligence. Unbeknownst to many of my critics, I discuss these issues in the paper. Most of the criticisms have been just smears.
What do you think the role of philosophers is?
Everyone should be truth seekers. As a matter of fact and history, philosophers are like other intellectuals. They support power, they respond to incentives. If the incentives change, most intellectuals change their views. The incentives now are to be intolerant of the kind of investigation you’ve been discussing.
Is philosophy upstream or downstream from culture?
Philosophers have very little influence over the culture. The direction of influence is overwhelmingly culture to philosophy. Nowadays philosophy is highly influenced by Twitter. Twitter mobs dictate the latest views about race and gender, which becomes the politically correct orthodoxy. Then philosophers try to justify what Twitter says.
How does that explain dissident philosophers?
Unbiased thought is challenging because people are invested in ideas and incentivized to reach certain conclusions. Evolution didn’t design us to be dispassionate truth seekers. Philosophers claim to aspire to something more than naked partisanship and motivated reasoning. There are philosophers who succeed in that aspiration to varying degrees, but it’s an uphill battle. There is intense pressure not to follow lines of inquiry that can lead to genuinely controversial conclusions. That being said, philosophy is probably more tolerant of dissent than any other humanities discipline. At the end of the day, my paper on race differences in intelligence passed peer review and was published in a respected philosophy journal.
Do philosophers also have a duty to answer all questions, regardless of the danger?
The pursuit of truth isn’t the only value. If you could establish that an investigation would lead to some disaster that couldn’t possibly be compensated by the knowledge gained, we would have to hold back. If aliens threatened to blow up the earth if we continued some line of inquiry, obviously we should stop. So whether a question should be off limits is partly an empirical question about the likely consequences of open inquiry. In my view, advocates of the noble lie about race differences haven’t come close to providing a compelling reason to refrain from pursuing the truth.
If you don’t find the environmentalist idea compelling, which might be a better egalitarian model?
Some philosophers like Peter Singer say that equality is a metaphysical principle, which has nothing to do with empirical facts. If there are race differences, it would be irrelevant to the moral principle. I am skeptical of this claim. I think there are some connections between our empirical beliefs about the world and our moral values. In this way I think my critics are right that the acceptance of hereditarianism about race differences could potentially have implications for our moral views. I don’t know exactly what those consequences would be. I don’t think it’s for one person to dictate what they ought to be. It will be decided collectively. Of course, my hope is that we can remain committed to values such as respect for individuals and freedom. I don’t see those values as being highly dependent on the kinds of empirical claims I am talking about.
What do you think about the Journal of Controversial ideas that will allow pseudonymous publication?
I am very enthusiastic about the Journal of Controversial Ideas. I personally would probably not publish pseudonymously (and the Journal of Controversial won’t require pseudonymous publication — it would only provide that as an option). I’m open about all my views. Some people aren’t in a position to do that for whatever reason. They might not be in a position to risk their livelihood, or they might not be psychologically prepared to deal with the blowback. Many people would find it difficult to face the sort of attacks that I’ve been subjected to. So I anticipate that the Journal of Controversial Ideas will be an important outlet. A critic might worry that the existence of the Journal could be interpreted as a surrender to cancel culture: Letting people publish pseudonymously, as if controversial ideas are too scary to attach your real name to them, reinforces the taboos. I’m not too worried about that. I think the Journal of Controversial Ideas will be one part of the strategy to undermine ill-conceived taboos. Some people will come out in their own name, others will supply arguments pseudonymously. We can pursue multiple strategies simultaneously.
You mentioned elsewhere that science is not self-correcting. Is that true of all types of science or just ones around politically-charged topics?
All sciences have challenges for self-correction. They are liable to go off in wrong directions for many reasons. When it’s politicized, the problems become very acute. Whether it’s politicized or not, people become invested in theories, and institutions promoting certain ideas become established and gain momentum that can be difficult to counteract in response to contrary evidence. When issues are politicized, motivated reasoning can become particularly extreme and the tactics people use to silence dissenters become extra nasty. We also have interested people outside science who can prevent self-correction by manipulating funding and job opportunities. Honors and awards, which many people strongly covet, will not be granted for work that violates taboos. These forces can prevent science from self-correcting. In my 2016 paper, “Science Is Not Always Self-Correcting,” I document some leading philosophers and scientists saying openly that we ought to lie about race differences in intelligence for moral reasons.
Were you surprised by the reaction to your paper? Would you do anything different?
I was not surprised by the reaction. I cannot think of anything I would have done differently. One thing that was a little surprising was the ineptness of the attempted mob-leader, Mark Alfano. His petition was much sillier than I would have expected. He could have tried bamboozling people with some scientific argument, but there was very little content to it. Besides some ignorant assertions about the alleged role of lead poisoning in producing race differences, he basically just asserts that he doesn’t like that I addressed this topic.
Do you think you provide cover for anti-liberal ideas, and how would a philosopher approach that?
If you believe that liberalism is by definition committed to environmentalism about race differences and that hereditarianism is by definition a right-wing idea, then yes, my paper is anti-liberal. Alternatively, you might say that liberalism is committed to the core values of political equality, freedom and concern for individuals. I do not think hereditarianism necessarily threatens these values. But, as I mentioned before, the establishment is extremely invested in the environmentalist hypothesis, and liberals have reinforced the idea that commitment to liberal values is founded on the belief in equality of potential. Liberals have set themselves up by wrongly promoting the idea that liberalism requires biological sameness. Because of that philosophical mistake, when people learn of evidence that races may differ some may jump to the conclusion that we should reject liberalism. I would not accept the blame for that. I think the fault lies with those who argued falsely that liberalism requires sameness. My paper could be used to justify political ideas that I personally do not agree with. But one has to weigh costs and benefits. Continuing with the noble lie will also have potentially bad consequences.
Is there some value to cancelling people and if so, how should it be done instead?
You need to weigh the harms and benefits associated with a policy or action. I think there’s a lot of empirical support for the idea that free, unbiased inquiry generally leads to good results. The onus is on the critics to give a very good reason why we should back away from that policy. In addition, I don’t believe that only utilitarian considerations matter. I value knowledge acquisition beyond the utilitarian benefits it might provide, and I imagine most people would agree with me about that. Few people say it’s better not to know the truth, all things being equal.
Free inquiry requires an environment where people can pursue ideas without excessive fear of punishment imposed by either the government or society. An environment where people fear being canceled for saying something controversial will not be conducive to truth seeking. But, of course, most ideas — including most dissident ideas — are wrong, so the policy of freedom and tolerance means we’ll be confronted with lots of wrong ideas. Some of the promoters of wrong ideas will have nefarious motives, and may well be bad people who it would be better not to hear from. But no mortal is in a position to know for sure in advance what’s wrong and evil or true and good. I oppose ‘cancel culture’ (with respect to controversial ideas) insofar as it creates an environment where people are afraid to pursue potentially controversial truth.
About the marketplace of ideas, some wrong ideas seem to become very popular. What does that say for open expression and inquiry?
People sometimes use the expression “marketplace of ideas” to suggest that the market is selecting for best and truest ideas. That is clearly false. Ideas become popular for many reasons besides being good and true. I don’t think we need to be super concerned with the fact that not everyone is going to hit on the truth. I don’t get worked up about the fact that, for example, many people deny evolution. In my view, we should aim to create conditions that allow free inquiry and the dissemination of information, since this maximizes the chance that the truth will be discovered (at least by some people). We should make peace with the fact that not everyone will be convinced by the best arguments.
Do you think philosophy is prone to factionalism, and if so, which factions do you think are more willing to engage with criticism?
Philosophy is a diverse field. There are some areas of philosophy that are not really politicized at all, in which there is respectful, open debate. But the politicized branches of philosophy dealing with controversial issues have developed a monoculture in recent years. Views are dictated by Woke Twitter and there are very few public dissenters.
Do you see academia reaching some tipping point in the future where too many topics are off-limits? What would cause that? Is academia becoming insular?
As I suggested earlier, intellectuals respond to incentives. When the political environment changes, the orthodoxy in academia changes. That’s what happened over the last 70 years. But the enforcement of orthodoxy may have become more intense since the 1980s, ‘90s, and 2000s. It’s quite likely that more free thinkers are going to be attracted to jobs outside academia in journalism, think tanks, etc., although those professions have their own problems, of course.
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Isadore Johnson is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.