Science, Racism and Political Correctness

Two weeks ago, the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think-tank) released a position paper based largely on the academic research of one Jason Richwine. The conclusion (roughly paraphrased): Hispanic people have lower IQ's than white people, so an overly permissive immigration policy will drag down the US economy. Ethically, this conclusion is a deep affront to my liberal* sensibilities. The idea of basing our public policy on racism and bigotry is abhorrent.

Politically, this is dangerous territory. This is especially true after the 2012 election, when republican politicians were making noises about inclusiveness and reaching out to minorities - and in fact, the Heritage Foundation dropped Richwine almost as soon as the offending dissertation came to light (I'm not sure if they're disavowing the conclusions of their position paper though).

But what I want to talk about here is what this idea means academically. Jon Wiener at The Nation wrote a piece questioning why Harvard would award Richwine a PhD, and gave a fairly thorough accounting of why the conclusions are questionable based on recent scholarship. My friend and fellow Sbling Ethan Siegel wrote a post on Sunday going further, not just questioning why Richwine got his PhD, but flat out saying,

This. Is. Not. Okay.

This is the point at which my ethical and political sensibilities bump up against my academic principles, and for me, academic freedom wins. I don't think academics should be in the habit of silencing any scholarship, regardless of how much it offends our sensibilities. If Jason Richwine put in the work, met the requirements for his program and had his thesis approved by three independent faculty members (he did), then he deserves his PhD.

Both Jon Wiener at The Nation and Ethan here on ScienceBlogs assault Richwine's thesis based on the fact that "race" is an outdated term, "hispanic" is tough to define and doesn't actually represent a coherent group of people etc. This may be true - I largely agree with both of them on these points. Then again, I am not a sociologist, anthropologist or political scientist, and neither are Jon Wiener nor Ethan Siegel. Based on Wiener's reporting, the thesis was signed off on by three faculty members, one of whom is a strong liberal whose research specifically refutes the very premise of race as a valid category for scholarship.

The third member of the committee is the big surprise, and the big problem: Christopher Jencks, for decades a leading figure among liberals who did serious research on inequality—a contributor to The New York Review of Books, the author of important books, including Inequality: Who Gets Ahead?The Homeless and The Black White Test Score Gap. Christopher Jencks knows exactly what’s wrong with the studies purporting to link “race” with “IQ.” [emphasis mine]

Why is this a big problem? Wiener doesn't say, but I think it seems like a big problem because someone who likely disagrees strongly with the conclusions of this academic work still endorsed it. In fact,  that's a success, not a problem. If the thesis was empirically sound, I would consider it a scandal if Jencks had not signed off because the conclusions conflicted with his own work. This would be like someone in the 70's being blocked from doing a thesis that supported affirmative action. That's what's not OK. I'm not worried about Richwine and his thesis - his ideas are archaic and I'm confident that they will be relegated to the dustbin of history. What I worry about is other scholars, that have politically risky but correct ideas, being silenced for going against the prevailing wisdom.

Academic freedom, like freedom of speech, means that sometimes noxious ideas are going to be studied and espoused. To adapt a well-known phrase - The best defense against offensive scholarship is not to silence it, but is instead more scholarship.


*Here, I mean liberal in the philosophical sense, not the political one, though I am politically liberal as well.