Back in February, the economic historian Gregory Clark was disinvited from the University of Glasgow because he wouldn’t change the title of his seminar: ‘For Whom the Bell Curve Tolls: A Lineage of 400,000 English Individuals 1750-2020 shows Genetics Determines most Social Outcomes’. Following protests from both students and academics, the dean told Clark he would reschedule the seminar if Clark agreed to remove any mention of ‘bell curve’ from the title, but Clark understandably refused.
One of the ways in which Clark’s detractors expressed their opposition was via an open letter. This was apparently signed by 110 faculty members, who wished to express, as one individual explained, “serious concern over a scheduled talk concluding that social status is substantially determined by genetic inheritance”. (Unfortunately for the petitioners, twin and adoption studies have already shown that genes make a substantial contribution to individual differences in life outcomes. Perhaps they could write another letter retroactively denouncing those studies?)
Since the incident was initially reported, Clark has uploaded a copy of the open letter to his website, which means we can evaluate his detractors’ arguments for ourselves. Surprisingly – or rather, not surprisingly – the letter contains no actual science, nor links to any studies. It notes:
The talk revisits theories of genetic determination of social outcomes, notably the Bell Curve, aiming to corroborate these through an empirical enquiry. The naturalization of people’s social outcomes is the ultimate conclusion of the paper, one reached while remaining silent about the vast amount of research confuting some of the paper’s theoretical assumptions.
There are several things to notice here. First, the signatories use the word ‘revisits’ – rather than say ‘examines’ or ‘investigates’ – to imply that the theories in question have already been disproved, and hence that Clark is engaged in some sort of futile exercise. Second, so far as I’m aware, ‘naturalization’ refers to the process of becoming a citizen of another country. I presume the signatories meant ‘naturalization’ in the sense of “nature versus nurture”, but it’s a very odd word to use. Third, the signatories refer to the “vast amount of research” that supposedly refutes Clark’s thesis, but don’t actually bother to cite any. The letter goes on:
The paper’s reliance on and promotion of discredited science, a branch of genetics which originated in explicitly racist assumptions and aims, is entirely inconsistent with the University’s findings of its own racism investigation.
I’m not exactly sure which branch of genetics they’re claiming is “discredited”, but Clark’s paper relies on a 1918 paper by Sir Ronald Fisher titled ‘The Correlation between Relatives on the Supposition of Mendelian Inheritance’. This is a very important paper that has been cited over 5,000 times, and actually contains the first use of the term ‘variance’. I’m not aware of any evidence that it has been “discredited”, and in fact the left-leaning researcher Paige Harden recently described it as her “favourite” paper by Fisher. More from the letter:
The University’s own action plan begins with the firm statement that university leadership is required for ‘addressing systemic racial inequality…to build faith in the University’s approach’.
This is now the fourth time the signatories have mentioned race or racism, despite the fact that Clark’s paper has nothing to do with race. As is fairly obvious from the title, it concerns individual differences in social outcomes among people living in England. The only possible connection is the use of ‘Bell Curve’ in the title, but The Bell Curve only had one chapter on race; it was mainly about individual differences in IQ. Of course, the signatories are probably not aware of this, and in any case, it always helps when you’re trying to get someone cancelled if you can link him or her to “racism”. More from the letter:
This is not about free speech, it is about the University’s integrity and commitment to rigorous science, and its claimed commitment to understanding and challenging ‘the nuances and subtleties of racism’.
Here the signatories employ the well-tried tactic of saying that they’re not against free speech – no, of course not – they’re only standing up for “rigorous science”. This argument is somewhat undermined by the fact that they don’t actually cite any science; nor do they address any of the scientific points in Clark’s paper. (In addition, we’re now up to the fifth mention of race or racism.) Finally:
We firmly oppose the circulation of genetically-determined ideas of any aspect of social worlds. Not only because those ideas have been overwhelmingly discredited by reputable and rigorous research, but because due to their history, their circulation as legitimate science has political implications that pose a danger to the mission of the University and the wellbeing of its community.
The first sentence of this paragraph is about as poorly-phrased as it could possibly be. What they presumably mean is, “We oppose research claiming that genes determine social outcomes”. The signatories then state the real reason they object to Clark’s work: its supposed political implications. If only they’d said this at the beginning, the letter could have been much shorter. However, the main political implication Clark draws from his paper is that we should adopt Nordic social democracy, and it’s hard to see how that would “pose a danger” to anyone.
Overall, the content and phrasing of the letter against Clark suggest the signatories are not to be taken seriously. It’s therefore a shame that the dean capitulated to their demands: non-woke members of the university missed out on the chance to hear an interesting talk, and Clark missed out on the chance to get feedback on his paper. Earlier this month, the Free Speech Union organised a counter-letter signed by people who do know what they’re talking about. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if the dean reconsiders his decision.
Image: Samuel Bough, West Wemyss Harbour Fife, 1877
Free speech at English universities
I wrote a piece for Quillette about the new proposals to strengthen free speech and academic freedom at English universities. Here’s an excerpt:
Are free speech and academic freedom under threat at English universities? While various scholars have attested to the problems they’ve faced expressing their views on campus, there remains a contingent of observers who insist that the free speech crisis is wholly manufactured—in other words a “myth” (or if it’s not a myth, then it only affects people with whom said observers are ideologically aligned.) On the contrary, I would argue, the free speech crisis is no “myth.” But it is slightly more complex than is sometimes suggested in the media.
The Georgetown Law affair
I wrote a piece for RT about the two Georgetown Law professors who got cancelled for having a private conversation. Here’s an excerpt:
It’s been a tumultuous week for Georgetown University Law Center: the school is now short two faculty members, following the latest incident of academic cancel culture. On 10 March, a student posted a video on Twitter showing a conversation between two professors: Sandra Sellers and David Batson.
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