Risky Research

An assistant professor says he was fired because he dared to talk about human population variation and got slandered as a eugenicist.

March 12, 2020
 
Bo Winegard

An assistant professor of psychology at Marietta College says his contract isn’t being renewed because of what he’s said and was alleged to have said about differences between ethnic groups.

Many academics believe that race is mere social construct -- that there is no meaning behind being black, white or anything else, beyond what society assigns to it. Others say that that is mere orthodoxy and that race is real; this group often points to research demonstrating group-based differences in complex traits such as intelligence.

Scientists at the cutting edge of studying race and complex traits, meanwhile, say that these traits are always a mix between genetics and environment. And as of now, these experts add, it’s impossible to tell in any genuine way just what the mix is, because babies can’t be raised exactly the same way over two generations, as such experiments would require.

Bo Winegard falls in the middle camp and believes that purposely not talking about race-based differences is disingenuous and dangerous. The "rich, variegated tapestry of humanity" and its evolution have long interested him and ought to be among the truths that academics pursue, he said in a recent interview. Otherwise, he added, "literal racists" will fill the information void.

“I do think there’s an informational embargo on human population variation and certainly on race and IQ,” he said. “People have opinions, and they don’t want those to get out publicly.”

Whatever you think of Winegard’s ideas, he said in a recent essay in the conservative academic publication Quillette, you should care that he’s effectively being fired for them.

“If it can happen to me, then it can happen to any academic who challenges the prevailing views of their discipline,” he wrote. “You may disagree with everything I believe, say, and write, but it is in everyone’s interests that you support my freedom to believe, say and write it.”

Trouble Begins

Winegard, who is in his second year at Marietta and is scheduled to leave at the end of the academic year, says the trouble started in October. That's when he was invited to address the University of Alabama’s Evolution Working Group, which is affiliated with the university’s evolution studies program. Both parties agreed that Winegard would talk about population variation, or, in his words, “the hypothesis that human biological differences are at least partially produced by different environments selecting for different physical and psychological traits in their populations over time.”

The idea was to link the theory with natural selection, in line with a recent article Winegard co-wrote for Personality and Individual Differences. The article, called "Dodging Darwin: Race, Evolution and the Hereditarian Hypothesis," says, "Like most hereditarians (those who believe it likely that genes contribute to differences in psychological traits among human populations), we do not believe there is decisive evidence about the causes of differences in cognitive ability." Yet the "partial genetic hypothesis is most consistent with the Darwinian research tradition."

One class visit with students went well, Winegard recalled in Quillette. Then he received a number of texts from a campus host expressing concern about Winegard’s entry on the website RationalWiki. The website, like Wikipedia, is edited by volunteers, but is dedicated to debunking what it sees as junk science. And Winegard, according to RationalWiki, is guilty of writing “racist bullshit for the right-wing online magazine Quillette.”

Winegard told his hosts that he disagreed with the characterization. He has previously argued, for example, that racism “isn’t wrong because there aren’t races; it is wrong because it violates basic human decency and modern moral ideals.”

This, of course, contradicts a broad literature asserting that race is a social construct, not a biological one, but it doesn’t endorse racism. As Winegard said in the same co-written article, “In fact, pinning a message of tolerance to the claim that all humans are essentially the same underneath the skin is dangerous. It suggests that if there were real differences, racism would be justified.”

Despite the texts, Winegard’s main talk at Alabama went on as scheduled, followed by what he described as a “rowdy” question-and-answer period. Someone yelled that he was a racist, and another accused him of promoting phrenology, a discredited pseudoscience having to do with skull shape.

But Winegard said via telephone that that he never spoke about phrenology or on race and IQ at Alabama. The most controversial thing he said was that psychology may someday, in the aggregate, provide some explanation as to why East Asian societies tend toward collectivism, he added.

One of his slides, however, did say that “groups may vary on socially significant traits (on average) such as intelligence, agreeableness, athleticism, cooperativeness [and] criminality.”

Alabama’s student newspaper published an article on the talk, vaguely linking the subject matter to eugenics, or reproduction to promote certain heritable traits. It also published an apology from the group that hosted him.

Winegard said this week that he never mentioned eugenics, and that he finds things such as forced sterilization morally repugnant. He didn't preclude having mentioned embryo selection once or twice on Twitter, he said, but he's never made a sustained argument.

Back at Marietta, Winegard was summoned to a meeting with his president and provost to discuss the article. While they weren’t pleased, Winegard wrote in Quillette, they “told [him] to be more strategic in my navigation of such a sensitive topic. I agreed that I would try.”

Months later, someone began emailing Winegard’s department and administration about things he’s written and said on Twitter. One tweet, in particular, read, “The greatest challenge to affluent societies is dealing openly, honestly, and humanely with biological (genetic) inequality. If we don’t meet this challenge, I suspect our countries will be torn apart from the inside like a tree destroyed by parasites.”

At a second, consequent meeting with his supervisors, Winegard explained (as he recapped in Quillette) that his tweet “was not about groups, but rather about individual genetic differences, and the need to create a humane society for everyone, not just for the cognitive elite and hyper-educated (a theme I discuss often).” The simile about parasites was a “reference to political conflict and not a reference to some group of humans or another,” he also said.

Winegard recalled his bosses expressing “disappointment in me and particular dismay about the tweet I had deleted, which they said evoked anti-black and anti-Semitic tropes.” He agreed and apologized but said he would continue to pursue potentially controversial research topics.

Termination

Termination never came up, even after Winegard published a co-written article on human population variation -- until two weeks ago.

“My boss informed me, without any warning, that the college was not renewing my contract,” he wrote in Quillette. “I don’t know if my paper was the proximate cause of my firing, but in the light of the foregoing weeks’ tumult, it was plausibly the last straw.”

Did Winegard see it coming? “I had worried vaguely about such an eventuality, but didn’t really think it would happen,” he wrote. “I naively assumed that the norms of academic freedom would prevail. They did not.”

Winegard told Inside Higher Ed that he’s had strong teaching evaluations and high research productivity since he’s been at Marietta. He sees no apparent reason for his effective termination, apart from the controversy surrounding what he has said and, more to the point, is alleged to have said.

In response to his Quillette article, some have argued that one should wait until tenure to pursue certain topics. But Winegard reiterated that he, perhaps naïvely, took academic freedom seriously. Beyond that, he said, if academics follow "pragmatic" advice about waiting until tenure to discuss controversial issues, it means waiting 10 or more years, through graduate school and the tenure track.

“I’m perplexed by the response,” he said of Marietta’s actions. “The best response would have been to come out with a bold, affirmative statement for academic freedom,” even if the college distanced itself from Winegard’s views in doing so.

Otherwise, he said, “You’re incentivizing this trollish behavior.” Trollish here refers to those Winegard says emailed his institution about him anonymously.

Marietta declined comment, saying Winegard’s case was a private personnel issue.

Relevant, widely followed American Association of University Professors policy says that even professors on probationary appointments should enjoy the same academic freedom as those with tenure, even if they don't have the same due process protections. Winegard said he's unaware of any paths to appeal, but AAUP policy also holds that a faculty committee should evaluate any concerns about non-reappointment related to a possible violation of academic freedom.

Winegard's department chair did not respond to a request for comment. Marietta's Faculty Council chair also did not respond to questions about the case.

Facts and Feelings

Attempts to link cognition to race have for decades happened mostly in academe's fringes. That's because it's either dog-whistle racist junk science or there is a conspiracy of silence surrounding it, depending on what you believe. In 1994, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life was immediately controversial, stirring concerns about lack of peer review and whether it represented mainstream science.

Race-based science debates don't just happen in psychology. In January, for example, Philosophical Psychology faced a boycott for publishing an article in defense of race-based research on intelligence. The gist of that article, written by Nathan Cofnas, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Oxford, was that when advances in science reveal “genetic variants underlying individual differences in intelligence,” we won’t be ready for it.

One of the main criticisms of Cofnas's piece was that it speculated that these breakthroughs are close. They are not. So postulating about them is, in a sense, pseudoscience, critics maintain.

Cofnas said at the time that those "who argue that we should wait for the genetics and neuroscience of intelligence to become more advanced before we attempt to study this issue often claim that, in the meantime, we should accept the environmental explanation for the purpose of policy making" and more. But that is a "political, not a scientific, position."

Journalist Angela Saini, author of the 2019 book Superior: The Return of Race Science (which Winegard has reviewed), said that her research demonstrates there is simply "no conspiracy against talking about race and IQ in academia, largely because this matter was settled 70 years ago -- and reinforced by genetics since -- by the universal understanding that race is a social construct."

It's "impossible to say that any differences in attainment we may see between socially defined groups must be biological in origin," Saini added. "Scientists are overwhelmingly in consensus on this."

That a "few academics like to claim otherwise," she said, "in particular, a small number of social scientists on the margins of respectable academia, does nothing to undermine the scientific facts. The facts, I’m afraid, don’t care about their feelings."

Intelligence researcher Richard Haier, professor emeritus in the pediatric neurology division at the School of Medicine at the University of California, Irvine, said that the questions Winegard is working on are “controversial and emotional” -- and “well within the bounds of reasonable debate.”

What happened at Marietta is, therefore, “an apparent violation of academic freedom,” Haier said. “I don’t know all the details, but I do know that it is very hard to defend academic freedom for issues that are not just controversial but also extremely emotional. And a lot of people in academia are happy to say that they support academic freedom but there are many examples of occurrences that appear to violate academic freedom, and the local academic community has not stood up for academic freedom.”

Haier added, “The hard thing about science is to go where the data take you. Without tenure and even with tenure, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to address controversial ideas, where some points of view do not acknowledge the legitimacy of other points of view, and therefore shut down discussion. That’s not how science works.”

Lee Jussim, distinguished professor of psychology at Rutgers University and co-author of a recent paper on political bias in social science research, said that the topic of race and IQ "is poison." Further, he said, "I see no reason to believe the methods are capable of answering the question of how much race differences in intelligence are genetic versus environmental versus some combination.”

That doesn't mean that Winegard or anyone else “should be fired for trying to do so,” however, Jussim said. “Of course he has a right to pursue the line of inquiry.”

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