Nathan Cofnas, The Critic, November 2, 2022
Stop the press! Cambridge hired someone who said something that was debunked — debunked by experts, no less. How could this have happened? Well, here’s the story from the perspective of the one who was supposedly “debunked”.
I am a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Cambridge. (I feel like Jason Stanley when I say that.) My research areas are the philosophy of biology and ethics. Three years ago, when I was a PhD student at Oxford, I published a paper in a highly respected philosophy and psychology journal calling for free inquiry into all possible causes of race differences in intelligence, including genes. This led a small group of philosophers led by Mark Alfano (who is also known for wishing death upon his political enemies) to have a meltdown, which is its own funny story, but not directly relevant to the events that are currently unfolding.
My job at Cambridge — my first job after getting my PhD — started on 1 September. On 25 October I received an email from an editor at the Cambridge student newspaper, Varsity. She said the newspaper was going to run an article on me that Friday, and they were offering me the right to reply. After some negotiation, she said she’d let me write a 100-word response to three claims: my research is (1) “pseudo-scientific”, (2) “constitutes “race science” or “scientific racism’”, and (3) “does not take into account external environmental factors such as poverty, education etc”. Although 100 words is not enough to begin responding to even one of these points, I was willing to accept the word limit. Because the editor refused to give up the right to “edit” my reply in a way that she assured me would be “fair”, I said she’d have to publish the article without a statement from its subject.
On Friday I picked up a copy of Varsity at the Faculty of Philosophy. I read:
In 2019 Nathan Cofnas became embroiled in controversy over an article he wrote, in which he argued that genetic differences in IQ could exist between racial and ethnic groups. In the article Cofnas also said that since “truth is intrinsically valuable”, it is scientists’ duty to uncover it even when controversial … The article sparked academic backlash, with a group of scholars rejecting his claims as pseudoscience in a published response.
The new Leverhulme Early Career Fellow said “truth is intrinsically valuable” and “a group of scholars” disagreed with him about something? I went home and got back to my usual work. I didn’t know that the situation was about to escalate.
That evening I received an email from a journalist at the Daily Mail named Elizabeth Haigh. She said she was working on an article based on the Varsity exposé. She wrote:
I was also wondering if you have anything to say now about your claims in that article that it is wrong to assume that all “human groups have, on average, the same potential”, and especially your referral to “early interventions” including the forced adoption of black children into white families.
The “forced adoption of black children into white families”. What was she talking about? She had sent me her phone number if I wanted to comment, so I gave her a call.
Haigh spent most of our eight-minute conversation arguing that I advocated for the “forced adoption of black children into white families” — whatever “forced adoption” means — insisting that my paper was somehow “unclear” on the point. (In fact, the paper has been downloaded 60,000 times, and no one else had ever made this bizarre claim before.) She finally relented and agreed to at least remove the word “forced”.
A few minutes later the article appeared on the Daily Mail’s website: “EXCLUSIVE: Controversial ‘race researcher’ who wrote a 2019 report about so-called ‘gaps’ in IQ between white and non-white people is hired by Cambridge University’s philosophy faculty — and says the university knew about it before hiring him”.
“So-called ‘gaps’ in IQ”! I think it’s not an abuse of the word “literally” to say that Haigh (a languages major) failed to learn literally the first thing about the subject. The debate about race differences concerns the cause of average differences in the measured IQ of racial groups (or ethnicities, ancestral populations, whatever you want to call them). That such gaps exist is the starting point for the debate, and a demonstrable fact not denied by any informed commentator.
Haigh declares that my “paper was widely debunked by various scientists” and makes the assertion (of dubious grammaticality) that “He argued against the idea of racism and structural racism for difference between peoples’ achievements, saying some groups of people are ‘unfairly blamed’”. She doesn’t give any details about the alleged debunking of my article. The fact that some unnamed “various scientists” criticised me for saying something politically unpopular is enough to try to start a campaign to threaten my employment. Haigh revealed her intentions more explicitly later when she retweeted a thread about me by a linguistics PhD student which said, “we have to stop letting ‘intelligence researchers’ dress up their racist, pseudoscientific phrenology and pretend it’s anything other than nonsense. these people should not have jobs. they shouldn’t be tolerated in polite society.” Did I advocate “racist, pseudoscientific phrenology” that should disqualify me (along with Noah Carl, Bo Winegard, et al.) from employment and from participating in polite society?
As I said, there are differences in the average IQs of different races — that isn’t controversial. The best-studied disparity is the Black–White IQ gap among US adults, which has been stable at around 15 points (one standard deviation) in cohorts born since the 1970s. On average, Ashkenazi Jews and East Asians tend to score higher on IQ tests than white Europeans, although the magnitude of those gaps has not been precisely determined. In contrast to environmentalists, hereditarians believe that genes play a nontrivial role in these gaps.
Is there any reason to take hereditarianism seriously, or are the debunkers right that it’s just racist pseudoscience?
Some debunkers appeal to morality as the basis for rejecting hereditarianism. For example:
“It is a matter of ethical principle that individual and cultural accomplishment is not tied to the genes in the same way as the appearance of our hair.” — Eric Turkheimer, behavioural geneticist at the University of Virginia
“Surely people differ in their biologically determined qualities … But discovery of a correlation between some of these qualities is of no scientific interest and of no social significance, except to racists, sexists, and the like.” — Noam Chomsky, linguist and self-appointed expert on everything
“At some point the harmful consequences for human welfare of one’s research must enter into the decision whether to pursue it …[I]n this country, in this political climate, individual scientists should voluntarily refrain from the investigation of genotypic racial differences in performance on IQ tests.” — Ned Block and Gerald Dworkin, famous philosophers
Other debunkers say that hereditarianism is a nonstarter for scientific reasons. But they, too, are often politically motivated. Consider the following passage from a recent book by David Reich, who runs a leading genetics lab at Harvard University:
I am worried that people who deny the possibility of substantial biological differences among populations across a range of traits are digging themselves into an indefensible position, one that will not survive the onslaught of science. In the last couple of decades, most population geneticists have sought to avoid contradicting the orthodoxy. When asked about the possibility of biological differences among human populations, we have tended to obfuscate, making mathematical statements in the spirit of Richard Lewontin about the average difference between individuals from within any one population being around six times greater than the average difference between populations … But this carefully worded formulation is deliberately masking the possibility of substantial average differences in biological traits across populations.
In other words, scientists sometimes obfuscate for moral/political reasons — or, I would add, personal/professional reasons. No one wants to hear the Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Cambridge complain, but my professional life would be a lot easier if I pretended to believe the politically correct view.
Are scientific objections so compelling as to preclude debate? Let’s briefly examine five of the most popular ostensibly scientific arguments used to “debunk” hereditarianism.
First, race differences can’t be real because we’re genetically 99.9 per cent the same. This statistic is inaccurate and misleading. As to accuracy, there are around three billion base pairs in the human genome, and one study found that the average person differs from a reference genome at 4.1 to 5.0 million sites, and has structural variants affecting around 20 million bases. (0.1 per cent of 3 billion is 3 million.) Even if the 99.9 per cent statistic were correct, it would still be misleading. There would be three million base pairs where we are not identical, and that leaves plenty of room for differences between both individuals and groups. Shaquille O’Neal, Woody Allen, Isaac Newton and George Bush may be genetically 99-point-something per cent the same, but the parts of their genomes that are not the same cause them to be born with different traits and abilities that are not entirely the result of education or the environment. We are very different from chimpanzees even though humans and chimps share 99.1 per cent of functionally important DNA.
Second, race isn’t real because there’s more variation within than between races (Richard Lewontin’s idea referred to by David Reich above). This has been dubbed “Lewontin’s fallacy” by my Cambridge colleague, the statistician Anthony Edwards. It’s true that if you look at variation at any single locus, it gives you very little classificatory information. But racial classification can be based on a large number of small differences. That’s why 23andMe can tell you exactly what your racial admixture is, despite Lewontin-inspired commentators saying for years that this should be impossible.
Third, stereotype threat — the alleged impairment in test performance that comes from being reminded of a negative stereotype about your group — explains race differences. Have you heard of the “replication crisis” in psychology? Stereotype threat is yet another scientific discovery widely touted by liberal social scientists that turns out to be fake. In addition, stereotype threat was never supposed to be an explanation for race differences. It was only supposed to explain how differences can be magnified under certain conditions.
Fourth, the Flynn effect — the secular rise in IQs across the globe over the 20th century — shows that IQ is all environmentally determined; therefore race differences must be environmental. (Incidentally, James Flynn was a peer reviewer who accepted my first paper for publication, which was on the topic of race differences.) In Flynn’s own words: “the magnitude of white/black IQ differences on Wechsler subtests at any given time is correlated with” the degree to which it measures general intelligence; “the magnitude of IQ gains over time on subtests is not usually so correlated; the causes of the two phenomena are not the same”. The point is that the pattern of race differences and changes in test scores over time is not what we would expect if the environmental causes driving the Flynn effect were also responsible for race differences. In any case, the Flynn effect has largely maxed out in developed countries (it couldn’t go on forever), but the gaps remain.
Fifth, it’s because of racism. To quote Flynn again, the it’s-because-of-racism theory “is simply an escape from hard thinking and hard research”. One has to explain exactly how “racism” produces the differences we find, and the serious candidate explanations (like stereotype threat) have all been tested and shown to be inadequate. The racism theory doesn’t explain why the same patterns of differences appear again and again across time and place, or why some groups subject to racism, such as Jews and Asians, score higher than white Europeans.
The reason we’re not allowed — on pain of (at least attempted) cancellation — to have frank discussions about the hereditarian hypothesis isn’t because it’s been “debunked”, but because it hasn’t been debunked. Those who are invested in the reigning political orthodoxy fear what might be discovered if we were to critically examine the issue. Opportunists like the Varsity and Daily Mail journalists act as enforcers for the status quo. But the truth cannot be cancelled. Whether we like it or not, eventually we may have to confront some very awkward facts. As a philosopher of biology and ethicist, I see it as my job to help prepare us for that day, regardless of what uninformed journalists or protesters think.