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Mr Grumpy can now be found posting at

Monday, March 13, 2006

Frank Ellis, David Irving and the limits of free speech

Reading the Observer’s Mary Riddell is a pleasure I permit myself only rarely. It simply takes up too much of my time. In her latest offering she examines the case of Frank Ellis, the Leeds University academic who believes there are genetically determined racial differences in IQ, and isn’t afraid to say so. This, we discover to our astonishment, turns out to be the perfect peg on which to hang a manifesto for the priority of political correctness over academic freedom.

Let me give a flavour of her argument by a quote concerning an academic in a different league from Dr Ellis:-

‘Larry Summers recently resigned as president of Harvard after a tenure in which he argued that women were genetically unsuited to the top echelons of science.’

No, Mary, he did not argue anything of the sort. If he had said anything so preposterous he would not be fit to be the Vice-Chancellor of the University of North Basingstoke. But he didn’t. What he did was to suggest that men are more likely on average than women to be genetically equipped to work in the ‘top echelons of science’. It does not mean that no women are so endowed. It does not tell us anything about whether Ms Riddell or I would make the better scientist. Since the numbers of people involved are tiny as a proportion to the human race as a whole, the implied genetic differences between the average man and the average woman are marginal at most.

If Ms Riddell thinks he did argue this – or, worse, if she doesn’t really care whether she has represented his views accurately or not – one is entitled to inquire whether she is suited to a job in the top echelons of journalism. And a fortiori, whether she has any qualifications whatsoever to pronounce on what restrictions ought to be placed on the views that may be expressed on a university campus.

It is bad enough that a heavyweight intellectual has been hounded out of the top job in the world’s most prestigious university for committing thought crimes – the Closing of the American Mind, indeed. It adds insult to injury when the favourite Sunday paper of Britain’s eggheads uncritically relays the myth that has, I strongly suspect, been carefully propagated in order to discredit him.

But we should not, in any case, look to Ms Riddell for an understanding of the value of academic freedom. One of the more bizarre of the article’s many non sequiturs is this:-

‘Why should universities, a crucible of diversity, put up with behaviour that would not be tolerated for a moment in a City boardroom?’

George Orwell would have savoured this sentence. We promote ‘diversity’, that most fashionable of values, by silencing an oddball with unpopular views as soon as the bien pensants take offence. In other words by reducing diversity.

So what of the arguments about intelligence and race? Ms Riddell names one well-known scientist (Arthur Jensen) who claims there is a link and another (Stephen Jay Gould) who rejects the claim. Gould and others are said to have ‘demolished’ it. But what am I to make of this assertion? Her misrepresentation of Summers’ views does not encourage confidence that she is qualified to assess the evidence herself, nor that she has any understanding of what is involved in ‘demolishing’ a scientific theory. I tend rather to understand her as meaning that Gould tells her what she wants to hear. It is, of course, what People Like Us all want to hear – the self-evident truth that all men and women are created equal (even if there is nobody to do the creating) and that all inequalities are social constructions which we can and should deconstruct. This is the golden thread that connects us via postmodernism, anti-racism, feminism, liberation theology, social democracy, Marxism, the French Revolution, Rousseau, etc. etc. etc. to the intellectual earthquake which we call the Enlightenment.

And yet, we may all be wrong. We may be wrong even though that would mean that the way we understand our world and the assumptions that guide our action in it really were reduced to rubble.

Allow me to get a little autobiographical. The question of the heritability of IQ has niggled at me for a long time. Circa 1979, when I was a practising Trotskyist, I read a book called The Science and Politics of IQ. The author, psychologist Leon J. Kamin, argued that the alleged evidence for heritability extracted from separated identical twin studies was actually a politically motivated mirage conjured up by sloppy statistics. Though I was almost entirely incompetent to evaluate Kamin’s statistical arguments, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Egalitarianism lived to fight another day – even if the book’s optimistic conclusions did prompt me to wonder how one could arrange for all the world’s children to get the professional middle-class upbringing which was apparently the key to unlock their full intellectual potential.

Around the same time the case of Sir Cyril Burt, the IQ specialist who was discovered to have fabricated an imaginary research assistant and fiddled some of his research, gave us the evidence we needed to dismiss the entire field as the province of arch-reactionary charlatans.

Fast forward to the last couple of years. Very few msm journos will touch the subject at all. But there are occasional exceptions. An article in the Spectator, admittedly a right of centre magazine but a reasonably reputable one, tells me that studies consistently show a correlation between IQ and race. The writer gives no intimations of being animated by racial bigotry, indeed he goes out of his way to establish that he is not, but of course he might just be clever enough to disguise it. In any case, white supremacist pride is somewhat dented here by the suggestion that the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans are the brainiest of all.

And even the Holy of Holies has been penetrated. An article in the Guardian suggests that the progressive orthodoxy claiming race to be an ideological construct with no genetic basis is no longer tenable. ‘You’re going to have to deal with this sooner or later, so you may as well put your thinking caps on now’ is in effect the message to the left. By the by, this piece contains the charming insinuation that American Jews are quite happy to lap up racist pseudo-science so long as it is telling them they are the true Master Race. This is the kind of thing that plays well with Guardian readers these days.

Back to Mary Riddell. She wants to convey the impression of dismissively sweeping Frank Ellis’s views into the scientific dustbin where creationism, aromatherapy and the like repose. But methinks she is not quite as confident of her case as she would have us believe. So it is not enough for her to inform us that these views have been demolished; she must immediately add that they are ‘hateful’. They are a cause for ‘fear’ among black students, even though there is no evidence that Ellis has practised academic discrimination (if he has, let the book be thrown at him), and indeed no logical reason why his views should necessarily lead him to do so. It is the same elementary misunderstanding that Ms Riddell betrays in her comment on Larry Summers: Ellis is plainly not claiming that no black people are intelligent enough to study at a university – and it is no compliment to black students to imply that they lack the intelligence to understand this. That’s not the way Ms Riddell sees it, though: ‘[y]oung people are robust and independent thinkers’, she says, but inevitably the next word is ‘but’ – not so robust as not to need shielding from inappropriate exposure to opinions that may unsettle them.

Furthermore, Ms Riddell feels the need to bring additional charges against Dr Ellis to ensure the central allegation that he is an Evil Fascist Bastard is properly substantiated. He ‘blames Africans for getting Aids’. Now I am aware of the huge numbers of individuals tragically infected by cheating spouses, parents, rapists and so on. I also know that progressive orthodoxy forbids us to hold Africans responsible for anything that goes wrong on their continent. But taking the continent’s population as a whole, one must surely concur with the blogger who asks ‘Does she think there is a huge worldwide army of whites holding blacks down and forcibly injecting them with AIDS?’

Dr Ellis also ‘thinks the BNP “a bit too socialist” for his liking’. You follow the innuendo: if he thinks the BNP ‘too socialist’ he is even further to the right than it is, and the further right you are the more racist you must be. QED.

In fact this doesn’t follow at all. Whether the BNP is ‘socialist’ has to do with its economic policies. Now I haven’t studied these myself, as I’m not planning to vote BNP any time soon. But I do know that the party’s ideological mentors did not call themselves National Socialists for nothing, and that many German democrats stood to the conservative side of the Nazis in matters of economics. So the insinuation that Dr Ellis is too racist for the BNP is simply a smear.

Yet another charge against Ellis is that ‘he refers approvingly to “research” claiming an average IQ of 70 for sub-Saharan Africans, a figure “close to, or within the range of mental retardation”.’ This is certainly a shocking figure. But, as Tim Worstall points out, ‘To claim that the current population of the area has a lower IQ than it could (possibly by as much as claimed) most certainly is not [controversial].’ At least some of this is certainly attributable to malnutrition and other environmental causes associated with extreme poverty. The controversial bit is whether such a huge IQ gap can be accounted for by environmental factors alone.

So I see precious little evidence of Dr Ellis having said anything that would justify a curtailment of academic freedom. But now you may well ask, OK Grumpy, so you’re the great defender of free speech, what about David Irving? If you reckon Leeds University should let Ellis keep his job, should they also award Irving the chair of Modern European History as soon as he’s done his time? Mary Riddell invokes his case, disapproving of his imprisonment without telling us whether she would let him teach. But I think there is a crucial difference between the two cases.

The Holocaust is as well attested as any event in history. The volume of eyewitness testimony is immense. The Holocaust denier does not seek to deny that this testimony exists. He (or she I should add in principle, though I’ve yet to come across a female of the species) claims that it is all lies, that all those who claim to have been victims are pathological liars involved in history’s most massive conspiracy. It is a claim that arises out of anti-Semitism and has no other function than to promote anti-Semitism. You don’t have to love Jews collectively to accept that the Holocaust really happened. You just have to not hate them or believe they are subhuman.

When it comes to IQ and race, the jury is out. There are serious scientists on both sides of the argument. The truth is contingent on the findings of a complex and rapidly evolving science. There are reasons why somebody might in good faith, without any racist motivation, find the case for innate racial differences compelling – although it is very hard for such a person to be rightly understood if they go public. Note that I make no judgement as to whether Dr Ellis actually is such a person.

What this means is that, although in both cases there is a taboo in operation, they are opposites in terms of the relation of the taboo to the truth claims involved. The taboo against Holocaust denial arises from respect for a truth whose denial is simultaneously and inextricably both intellectually absurd and morally intolerable. It represents, if you will, an entirely well-founded secular sense of the sacred – and where there is a sense of the sacred, there is an instinctive abhorrence of the blasphemous.

In the case of IQ and race, on the other hand, progressive opinion came to a tacit agreement that a certain view must be intellectually absurd because it was morally – or at least politically - intolerable. It lionized the scientists who supported this consensus and rubbished those who didn’t. It is the pre-existent taboo that shapes Mary Riddell’s (for instance) perceptions of what truth claims may be made. That same secular sense of the sacred is invoked, but here it is fatally flawed because it ultimately rests on political expediency in the place of truth. And truth will out. Galileo was terrorized into retraction, but there was no unthinking what he had thought.

It is this distinction which means there is an arguable case for locking up a Holocaust denier which does not extend to an arguable case for locking up – or even sacking – someone who says there are innate racial differences in IQ. I am well placed to understand the horror evoked in Germany (and doubtless in Austria too) by opinions whose inner logic threatens to drag the country back towards its darkest hour. But if the distinction makes a theoretical case, it also tells us that it is extremely dangerous to proceed in this way in practice. For if Holocaust deniers are locked up as a substitute for refuting their lies, what is to stop those who know no better from inferring that the relationship between taboo and truth is the same as in the case of IQ and race – that the taboo is primary, and the truth claims are shaky? Once that starts happening Irving and friends are really in business. It must not be allowed to happen.

And finally, what if we do find ourselves faced with incontrovertible evidence that Africa trails in the development stakes because its people are innately less intelligent than others? The egalitarian project based on ‘equal by accident of biology’ will have hit the buffers. A revival of Social Darwinism will beckon. Those who wish to reject it will need to abandon the attempt to derive values from scientific facts. ‘Equal in the sight of God’ is ultimately the only watchword which can be relied on to uphold our shared humanity.

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