November 22, 2023
This ought to be a golden age of the social sciences.
The immense reduction in the cost of DNA testing is allowing massive assaults on the most venerable conundrums of nature vs. nurture, such as whether the IQ gap between whites and blacks is smaller in more racially admixed African-Americans as the hereditarian theory would predict, a question that Margaret Mead found worth writing about how to examine a century ago. (Summary answer: yes.)
And Harvard economist Raj Chetty has made audacious breakthroughs in getting his hands on anonymized versions of confidential information, such as his database of 21 million Americans’ IRS tax returns across two generations. This allows us to know for the first time that black men around age 30 in 2010 were imprisoned three to ten times more than young white men whose parents had exactly the same incomes in the 1990s.
Of course, these findings do not prove once and for all what we might call the Bell Curve hypothesis that the sizable racial gaps in cognitive performance and law-abidingness are due to both nurture and nature rather than solely to social construction alone.
But that’s how most scientific theories work: You can’t fully vindicate them, you can only refute them. In Albert Einstein’s 1916 paper on his theory of general relativity, the great theoretician said that while he couldn’t prove his audacious insight that gravity resulted from the curvature of space, he could offer potential ways for empiricists to disprove it (although, 107 years later, they still haven’t). Philosopher of science Karl Popper was impressed by how Einstein, unlike Marx or Freud, went out of his way to put his theory at risk of empirical falsification.
Similarly, these recent research findings didn’t demonstrate that both nature and nurture matter in explaining America’s racial gaps, but they could have debunked hereditarianism if they’d turned out the opposite.
Yet, they didn’t.
On the other hand, this scientific progress has been deeply upsetting to some scientists and many authority figures. There have been growing demands, especially among the younger generation and the female sex, to censor scientific studies and stifle researchers who discover unpopular truths about politically privileged groups.
Fortunately, a number of scientists have lately teamed up to strike back in defense of freedom of inquiry. This week, 39 leading academics signed on to a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled “Prosocial motives underlie scientific censorship by scientists: A perspective and research agenda.” The lead author is U. of Pennsylvania behavioral scientist Cory Jane Clark, and coauthors include Gregory Miller, Steven Pinker, Lee Jussim, J. Michael Bailey, David Buss, Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Wilfred Reilly, Bo M. Winegard, and Philip E. Tetlock.
Scientific censorship appears to be increasing. Potential explanations include expanding definitions of harm, increasing concerns about equity and inclusion in higher education, cohort effects, the growing proportion of women in science, increasing ideological homogeneity, and direct and frequent interaction between scientists and the public on social media.
The new paper cites the growing body of research into the woke impulse to censor. Traditionally,
Censorship research typically explores dark psychological underpinnings such as intolerance, authoritarianism, dogmatism, rigidity, and extremism…. But censorship can be prosocially motivated.
In the now-famous Mitchell and Webb skit, one Nazi officer points to the death’s-head insignia on their black leather SS caps and asks the other, “Hans, are we the baddies?” But you can still effectively be the anti-science bad guys without wearing a skull. The authors explain:
Censorious scholars often worry that research may be appropriated by malevolent actors to support harmful policies and attitudes. Both scholars and laypersons report that some scholarship is too dangerous to pursue, and much contemporary scientific censorship aims to protect vulnerable groups…. In some contemporary Western societies, many people object to information that portrays historically disadvantaged groups unfavorably, and academia is increasingly concerned about historically disadvantaged groups.
That people are hamstringing humanity’s greatest benefactor, science, for reasons that make them feel better about themselves can help explain four oddities:
1) widespread public availability of scholarship coupled with expanding definitions of harm has coincided with growing academic censorship; 2) women, who are more harm-averse and more protective of the vulnerable than men, are more censorious; 3) although progressives are often less censorious than conservatives, egalitarian progressives are more censorious of information perceived to threaten historically marginalized groups; and 4) academics in the social sciences and humanities (disciplines especially relevant to humans and social policy) are more censorious and more censored than those in STEM.
Strikingly, there is remarkably little scientific evidence that publishing the scientific truth is likely to harm, say, blacks or transgenders, other than to wound the egos of elites. A few decades ago it was widely assumed that blacks must suffer from extremely low self-esteem and thus it would be sadistic to say anything frank. But it turned out instead that blacks have extremely high self-esteem.
The authors argue:
It may be reasonable to consider potential harms before disseminating science that poses a clear and present danger, when harms are extreme, tangible, and scientifically demonstrable, such as scholarship that increases risks of nuclear war, pandemics, or other existential catastrophes. However, the pursuit of knowledge has a strong track record of improving the human condition.
Indeed. As the motto of Faber College in Animal House reads, “Knowledge Is Good.”
Thus, it seems reasonable to balance knowledge risks against the costs of censorship (and resulting ignorance) by creating empirical and transparent measures of purported harms, rather than leaving censorship decisions to the intuitions and authority of small and unrepresentative editorial boards.
Their basic plan is Moneyball for academic journals. Publications should make available all their data on what they accept and what they reject for other scholars to analyze.
And researchers should submit bogus proposals to institutional review boards claiming to plan to research discrimination against black women or white men and see which ones get approved, the way that researchers have long submitted fake résumés to employers to find out if Darren Jackson gets more callbacks that D’Quantivious Jackson. (He does.)
Along those lines, Michael Bernstein and April Bleske-Rechek asked college students if they agreed with hate quotes by anti-Semite Adolf Hitler and by antiwhite Robin DiAngelo, but with their hate objects randomly switched. Over 50 percent of the college students agreed with the ideas of Hitler and DiAngelo when they were framed as defaming whites, but less than 20 percent agreed when they were asked if they agreed with the statements when they were cast as denouncing Jews or blacks.
Antiwhite hate is a huge and growing topic for brave social scientists to investigate.