Posted on April 24, 2024

Cambridge in Free-Speech Row Over Researcher’s ‘Race Realism’ Blog

James Beal, The Times, April 19, 2024

As police tried to shut down a Conservative conference in Brussels on Tuesday amid a row over free speech, one of those in attendance was already fighting against his cancellation a little closer to home.

Nathan Cofnas, an early-career research fellow at the University of Cambridge, travelled to Belgium for the event, where speakers included Nigel Farage and Suella Braverman.

Cofnas posted a picture on social media of police lined up outside the venue. Responding to requests on Twitter/X to find out why police had swarmed the conference, he joked: “I’m in enough trouble in the UK — better not to get arrested in Belgium.”

The research fellow, part of Cambridge’s faculty of philosophy, is now at the centre of two inquiries over a controversial blog post he wrote about race in February. His piece, which argued for a culture of “race realism” that acknowledges differences between ethnicities, caused uproar on campus.

The University of Cambridge is investigating the blog, prompting academic free-speech campaigners to leap to his defence.

Cofnas was born in Chicago and grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan before moving to the UK and graduating from Cambridge with a master’s degree in philosophy. He also holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oxford and lists his research interest area as the philosophy of biology. He describes himself as “a philosopher on the right” and has said he voted twice for Donald Trump.

Cofnas was hired by Cambridge in 2022 and, after securing a grant from the Leverhulme Trust, a British philanthropy organisation, became a Leverhulme early-career research fellow — a junior researcher — in the faculty of philosophy. He was also appointed as a research associate at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

In his February blog post, titled “A guide for the hereditarian revolution”, Cofnas called for the end of the “war on nature” and for people to accept “talent is not distributed equally” across groups. He argued that in a meritocracy, black people “would disappear from almost all high-profile positions outside of sports and entertainment”.

He added: “In a meritocracy, Harvard faculty would be recruited from the best of the best students, which means the number of black professors would approach zero per cent.”

He argued that “race realism crumbles a central pillar of our moral–political system” and said a revolution was needed to crush the “woke juggernaut” in today’s society. He concluded that “widespread acceptance of hereditarianism, especially among the elites, will undermine the reigning left–liberal order as we know it”.

The post prompted a petition for his removal from Cambridge, claims of “hurt and upset” among students and withering criticism from the university’s academics. Bronwen Everill, director of the university’s Centre of African Studies, told Varsity, the student newspaper, that Cofnas’s presence was “like having a flat-earther on the physics faculty”.

The Leverhulme Trust and Cambridge both began inquiries into the post after the outcry, while Emmanuel College decided to terminate its association with Cofnas. A letter, reportedly sent to Cofnas by Emmanuel College, said that a committee had been asked to consider his blog post. The committee, the letter said, “concluded that it amounted to, or could reasonably be construed as amounting to, a rejection of diversity, equality and inclusion policies”. It added that the blog was “a challenge to the college’s core values” because diversity and inclusion were “inseparable” from them.

His treatment has concerned academics such as Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and editor of the Journal of Controversial Ideas. He said: “You don’t have to think that Cofnas is right about race and genetics to think that it’s legitimate to put forward these views. It seems to me that it is not inciting racial hatred.

“Whatever we think about whether he is right or wrong, he’s making claims about the origins of and the basis of the kinds of socio-economic inequalities that we see in society today.”

Singer said that the discussion around Cambridge terminating its association with Cofnas seemed “particularly ironic for a university which is supposed to stimulate thought and put forward ideas and discussion”.

He added: “Whether people like Cofnas say this openly or whether other people harbour these attitudes, it’s much better to get them out in public and to have that discussion. And if you can’t have it at a university, where can you have it?”

Cofnas had already garnered significant controversy before being appointed at Cambridge. In 2019 he wrote a journal article, published in Philosophical Psychology, that mentioned “intelligence differences” among racial groups.

Cofnas wrote that “virtually no scientific hypothesis besides race and sex differences” are rejected in this way, but his paper was debunked by other scientists.

In a January blog post Cofnas talked about rightwingers having lower IQs than their political opponents, saying: “I cannot shame my political allies into having higher IQs.”

The controversy does not appear to have hurt the career of Cofnas, whose online CV lists referees including the renowned cognitive psychologist and Harvard professor Steven Pinker. When approached by The Times, Pinker said he had never met Cofnas but knew him through academic journal articles on the philosophy of biology.

Pinker highlighted Cofnas’s articles debunking the theory that Jews were selected for traits that spread their own influence. The theory, Pinker said, was a “major source of support for the American alt-right” and Cofnas had “written sharply argued, devastating refutations”.

While conceding that he had not read Cofnas’s blog post on race, Pinker said it “would seem irrelevant to what appears to be a violation of academic freedom”. He added: “Unless there is reason to suspect that Cofnas engaged in scholarly misconduct, a university should not investigate its scholars for the content of their opinions.”

Free speech and cancel culture accusations have rocked British universities in recent years. Kathleen Stock, a philosophy professor, resigned from the University of Sussex in 2021 after a backlash over her gender critical-views. Elsewhere, Cambridge’s Jesus College was told it could not remove a memorial to its 17th-century benefactor Tobias Rustat, after it tried to relocate the statue over his links to the slave trade.

Other academics, qualified in the field of genetics, said on Friday that Cofnas should not be sacked, but called his blog post on race “vague” and “unscholarly”.

Adam Rutherford, a lecturer in biology and society at UCL, said that, following research throughout the 20th century, scientists refer to the concept of race as being socially constructed. This means that the categorisations used to describe people of different ethnicities are not reflected meaningfully in the true metric of biological difference, which is in genetics. Rutherford, a geneticist, explained: “If you take a category like race and look at it from a genetic point of view, it quickly unravels because the genetics don’t align with race as a biological category.

“There are differences in populations, in terms of IQ or cognitive achievement metrics. But what people like Cofnas do is take that data and assume that it means that the racial categories, which are socially determined, are innate and immutable.”

Rutherford argues that the spotlight should fall on Cambridge and the Leverhulme Trust for appointing and funding Cofnas in the first place. He added: “This isn’t just an embarrassment for Cambridge but for Leverhulme, [which] funded him.”

Angela Breitenbach, chairwoman of the faculty of philosophy at Cambridge, said: “The university is fully committed to academic freedom and freedom of speech within the law. We are considering the concerns that have been raised in relation to Dr Cofnas’s blog under our existing processes. These processes are by their nature confidential so we will not be commenting further.”

The Leverhulme Trust declined to comment.

Cofnas declined to comment but the Free Speech Union, which is assisting him, said: “We believe Dr Cofnas was exercising his right as an academic to freely explore controversial and unpopular views.

“We hope the university will have the courage to respect Dr Cofnas’s academic freedom even if the student body demands otherwise.”

In relation to arguing that in a meritocracy, black people “would disappear from almost all high-profile positions outside of sports and entertainment”, Cofnas has previously said he was referring to statistics from the US, which don’t apply to the UK.

When Cofnas said rightwingers have a lower IQ than their political opponents, there was no significant debate over the post.

In 2020, a vote on free speech at Cambridge University strongly rejected guidelines requiring opinions to be “respectful”, after warnings it could have limited freedom of expression. The proposed rules would have required staff, students and visiting speakers to remain “respectful” of the views and “identities” of others.

However, the university’s governing body, the Regent House, voted by a large majority in support of amendments from those worried about a threat to academic freedom, introducing a commitment to “tolerance” rather than “respect”.

Professor Arif Ahmed, a reader in philosophy at Gonville and Caius College, led a campaign against Stephen Toope, then the Cambridge vice-chancellor, challenging the free speech policy. Last year Ahmed was named the first director for freedom of speech and academic freedom at the Office for Students.