Image by Bwsmith84 at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10541370
The recent firing of Dr Bo Winegard, psychology professor at Marietta College, has sparked widespread debate in academia. His predicament is symbolic of larger debates about the limits of open inquiry and whether some topics, particularly race, are so potentially harmful to underrepresented groups that they need to remain forbidden. Add accusations of online bullying and alleged slander by a wiki page and we have a story about everything that is wrong with academia, the internet and the world in general today.
I’m interested in this case for two reasons. First, because of its implications for free speech and academic freedom. And second, because Winegard and I have collaborated on a couple of papers (on how evolutionary pressures influence body dissatisfaction, listed here).
Winegard has detailed his side of the case in an article for Quillette. According to his account, Winegard’s troubles began when he discussed human population variation (the hypothesis that different environmental pressures may evolutionarily select different mean-level traits in different groups of humans) at an invited talk at the University of Alabama. Apparently, some faculty had encountered the entry on Winegard on the website Rationalwiki, where he is snarkily described as an alt-right, nationalist pseudoscientist, who “surrounds himself with white nationalists, but complains if he is labelled one.” His hosts then removed all advertising of and support for Winegard’s talk. The talk itself went ahead, but during the Q&A, students accused Winegard of being a racist and a phrenologist—a go-to insult for any psychologist conducting research that people don’t like, even though phrenology was developed by physicians, not psychologists.
The school’s newspaper covered the event, noting that the group that invited Winegard, the Evolutionary Working Group, had apologized, pleading incompetence. The school newspaper’s coverage documents students labeling Winegard a racist and a eugenicist and comparing him to Hitler. In addition, Winegard reports that an anonymous person began to bombard his president, provost and colleagues with articles and tweets this individual found offensive, in an attempt to get Winegard fired. Winegard shared one of the emails he himself received with me. Sent just after the news of Winegard’s firing, it read: “I win.”
In addition to speaking with Winegard himself, I reached out to his president, provost and department chair. I haven’t heard back from any of them. That’s understandable, and I don’t consider it evidentiary, as discussing personnel matters may not be legally allowable. I also reached out to the University of Alabama’s Evolutionary Working Group, as well as to the student newspaper that covered Winegard’s visit. At present, I have not received a reply from the Evolutionary Working Group. One of the co-authors of the newspaper article did respond, suggesting the article gave a full account of what happened and asking what I ‘hoped to gain’ from an interview. I responded that I hoped to get a first-hand account of what Winegard actually said, given that the article implied the authors were present for at least the second part of the talk. I have not received any further reply to date.
I had also hoped to gain clarity on the source of some of the student article’s claims: such as the assertion that “Winegard’s research … has been criticized for resembling the pseudoscience employed by eugenicists.” This claim was unsourced: who, exactly, has claimed this about Winegard, other than the author of the Rationalwiki article? The Evolutionary Work Group call Winegard’s research “non-scientific,” but the basis for this claim is unclear, given that Winegard’s research has been peer-reviewed in quality outlets in psychological science.
Winegard’s work on population variability touches a third rail of academic inquiry: race. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in particular, a veneer of science was often used to promote racist and harmful policies, as well as eugenics (the belief that people with certain desirable traits should be encouraged to have more children, while individuals lacking those traits should be discouraged or even prohibited from mating.) These racist ideas are properly called pseudoscience given that, though often espoused by academics, these hypotheses were never tested in a rigorous empirical manner.
The study of race or anything resembling it is highly controversial given the possibility that rubbish findings may harm certain groups. The worries that junk science may promote prejudice aren’t unreasonable: social science is littered with junk and is in the midst of a full-blown replication crisis, so it’s entirely possible that poorly constructed science could come to the wrong conclusions and do real harm to underrepresented groups.
However, the hypothesis of population variability isn’t, in and of itself, pseudoscientific. We can see the effects of population variability in phenotypical features like skin color, eye and nose shape, height, musculature, bone structure, etc. and in genotypical factors associated with these and other outcomes. What many object to is applying this same approach to psychological features. However, this doesn’t mean that psychological variation between populations is impossible. Let’s say group A lives in an area where many plants are poisonous, whereas group B lives in an area with no poisonous plants. People descended from group A may develop taste aversions and appear finicky, whereas people in group B may seem more open-minded about tastes and textures. That’s basically population variability influencing a psychological trait (finickiness) through a physiological mechanism selected for evolutionarily. Population differences can also occur when those who choose to migrate have different psychological traits (adventurousness, say) than those who remain behind. The problem is less the possibility that small population differences might exist, but rather our tendency to spuriously assign worth to groups on that basis.
On the issue of intelligence, concerns are further heightened by the difficulty of disentangling genes from environment, and accurately assessing intelligence across different population groups. For instance, my own research (led by Cisse Drame) suggests that misuse of IQ tests has resulted in fairly massive misestimates of intelligence among Africans. Given the potential for misuse of population variability studies by racists, nationalists and other pernicious groups, it’s not unreasonable to hold such studies to an extremely high standard of evidence. We do not yet have clear evidence of genetically determined population differences in intelligence.
But should raising the hypothesis of population variance in intelligence be a fireable offense? Opinions among academics have been mixed. Winegard’s supporters have asked for evidence of his endorsement of eugenics or racism. The following extract from one of Winegard’s recent articles is representative of the kind of evidence frequently cited in response:
Nevertheless, even if discrimination against Blacks in some countries is widespread, this would not explain IQ and achievement gaps between ethnically homogenous countries, such as Iceland and Haiti, or between different demographic groups within multi-ethnic countries in which racial discrimination is not widespread, such as the UK, France, or Sweden. Moreover, the claim that discrimination depresses intelligence must specify some causal mechanism that also affects other ethnic groups which suffer discrimination.
The statement is controversial: I disagree with several aspects of it. Readers may be offended by this passage and may object to it on perfectly reasonable grounds. Nonetheless, I can find no evidence that Winegard supports eugenics, racism or white nationalism.
The University of Alabama student newspaper highlighted the fact that Winegard responded to a student who called him a racist during the Q&A for his Alabama talk with, “Ok, that’s fine.” This appears to me to be an attempt to defuse tension, not an admission of racism.
I have reviewed Winegard’s slides for the talk given at the University of Alabama. Though some were challenging to be sure, none suggested eugenics or disparaged any racial group: in fact, at times Winegard specifically criticizes racist comments by historical scholars—a point that was left out of the student newspaper’s coverage.
Academic freedom is designed to protect scholars’ ability to ask difficult empirical questions, particularly those that may offend. That goes for scholarly inquiry that ultimately turns out to be junk as well as that which is good. Otherwise, on difficult topics such as race, scholars become limited to parroting orthodoxy. That’s not science at all and that attitude is bad for underrepresented groups, who are often disadvantaged by orthodox beliefs.
The apology issued by the University of Alabama’s Evolutionary Working Group was particularly disappointing. It appears to fit a pattern of universities caving to outrage and sometimes outright bullying (as appears to be the case with the Rationalwiki page and Winegard’s anonymous antagonist.) The university could have noted that they did not endorse Winegard’s views but supported his right to express and the right of students and faculty to challenge them. Instead, they implied that they will support deplatforming and more restrictions on speech in the future. It’s possible that Marietta College had undisclosed reasons for being displeased with Winegard, though his research productivity is high and his ratings by students on ratemyprofessor are very high (though that source is hardly the most reliable, correlations between these ratings and actual student ratings tend to be reasonably high.) Perhaps the college discovered something Winegard has done that is much more egregious than his views on mean differences between groups, but at present the optics are bad. It appears that both Marietta and the University of Alabama were snookered by an unreliable wiki page and caved in to outrage.
The firing of Winegard will undoubtedly have the effect of chilling certain lines of inquiry among other scholars concerned about the dangers of challenging orthodoxy on sensitive topics. Undoubtedly, this was the intent of those who sought to have him fired. Unfortunately, pandering to outrage only encourages more outrage when moralists smell blood in the water. Whether Winegard is right or wrong about his beliefs, Marietta College has done considerable damage to open scientific inquiry by furthering the impression that scientific inquiry must remain subject to prevailing moral views. Students and progressive activists will draw their own conclusions from this—and so will conservative lawmakers. Those progressives who consider the firing of Winegard to be a victory, might consider the precedent this sets for conservative policy makers empowered to make decisions about university funding and policy.
This case is also an example of the hair-trigger use of accusations of racism, eugenics, Nazism and phrenology. Bad ideas should be challenged, but these polemics only serve to divide and polarize, not lead us toward better understandings. Those who actually do promote eugenics, white nationalism, etc. deserve to be called out. But, increasingly, terms such as these are used to smear anyone who deviates from rigid dogma.
Conservatives have increasingly painted the academy as a bastion of progressive political correctness and hostile to free speech. When one’s critics portray one in an unfair light, it is best not to lend credence to their claims. But that is exactly what Marietta College has just done.