How To Deal With Fringe Academics

How To Deal With Fringe Academics

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Feb. 10 2000 3:30 AM

How To Deal With Fringe Academics

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Judith Shulevitz is the New York editor of Slate and writes the "Culturebox" column. John Tooby is a professor of anthropology and co-director of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Slate has invited them to discuss the academic fringe in general and Kevin MacDonald in particular. Alex Star, the editor of Lingua Franca, is moderating. Click here to read his introduction and recap of the brouhaha over MacDonald. 

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Dear Judith, Alex,

While we agree on MacDonald, I think Heidegger and de Man pose questions of the most painful kind. Heidegger, an authority on his own philosophy, saw deep connections between his ideas and Nazism as their expression. Even after the war and the exposure of the death camps (for which he expressed no regret), Heidegger reaffirmed, as he put it, the "inner truth and greatness of this movement." De Man--who stepped in after the entire staff of the Le Soir quit rather than serve the Nazis--published scores of pro-Nazi pieces, and called for the expulsion of the Jews from Europe (a history, Judith, that you reduce to "a book review" and view as "quite mild by the standards of his time"). "We are entering a mystical era," he rhapsodized to his Belgian countrymen of the Nazi conquest of Europe. It is hard not to see in key aspects of de Man's later thought (), such as indeterminacy and "terminal uncertainty," an imperative to relativize driven by these events. Whatever the virtues of de Man's and Heidegger's views, the centurylong tradition of anti-rationalism and anti-liberalism that they reflect and nourish has an extremely dark history, despite (because of?) the moralizing self-congratulation of many of the people who advance them. Obviously, questions of truth and social construction demand determined exploration. Still, assaults on the value and existence of reliable methods for distinguishing truth from error or on the moral bases of freedom of speech and other human rights warrant close scrutiny--whether one agrees with them or not--because of their shattering past and potential consequences. The crude deny holocausts through questioning palpable facts--the sophisticated do it with a philosophy. Not only was there a searingly determinate reality at Dachau, but also at Kolyma, Nanking, Greenwood, Dresden, Hiroshima, Rwanda, Cambodia, the Belgian Congo, the Middle Passage, and in the Laogai (). And in the creation of every vaccine, the design of every bridge and building, the interpretation of particle collisions, the sequencing of the genome, and even the mapping of our evolved mind and brain, there is the same ethical imperative to close in on a determinate reality. As in journalism and editorial gate-keeping. We are all in this together.

This brings us to Alex's concise and exact diagnosis of the conflict between judging ideas on the basis of possible truth or feared consequences. As I would put it, the motivation to express moral outrage and the motivation to discover what is true are both parts of human nature--"reliably developing design features of our species-typical computational architecture," in my hideous and alienating native patois.

Within each of us, as well as among us, these impulses often war. In different subcommunities these impulses, with their distinct vices and virtues, lead to different mixes of attitudes, norms, and institutional forms governing their proper role and expression. But for clarity, let's falsely pretend there is a pure "culture of truth-seeking," and a pure "culture of moralizing," each with its own ethic and sensibility.

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Within the culture of truth-seeking, my opinion and yours that MacDonald's or Irving's views are untrue is utterly worthless, as is our opinion that they are likely to cause suffering. The only thing that should count is logic and evidence.

Furthermore, to show something to be false is the most effective possible response to a bad idea--far better than calling it immoral.

So, to claim that positions are false but that the reasons are not worth discussing, to denounce positions as immoral, or to consider them contaminated by the low status or prior actions or intentions or politics of their defenders--all are irrelevant. Worse, since you have not applied the best possible response, such tactics imply that you could not win a fair fight, and so there must be hidden truth in what you are trying to silence (). So, within this culture, denouncing--despite being easy--is worse than silence, refutation is best but takes time, and ignoring has virtues that are easy to miss ().

The recent exciting discovery from the humanities that they were shocked! shocked! (or was it pleased?) to find human nature going on among scientists is very much to the point here. Given all the vices scientists as humans are prone to, how can they form institutions and norms in which the truth value of an idea has some remote possibility of playing a role in its spread? The incessantly debated answer, since Bacon, has been to support norms and professional institutions in which resorting to tactics irrelevant to truth determination is frowned on, so that scientific evaluation is separate from (other forms of) moral action. Precisely because calling someone a Communist, or an anti-Semite, or reactionary, or fringe is such an easy way to get your audience to tune out your opponent in a way that is unconnected to reasoned evaluation, better scientists resist the intrusion of the culture of moralizing into their forums, regardless of their personal moral convictions about an issue. The AAAS (which also does not peer-review everything--who has time?) has problems similar to HBES's and also defends the ethic of free debate (as does, radiantly, Nizkor). When a paper was presented on the genetic inferiority of those of African ancestry, Walter Massey, the African-American president, stepped forward to affirm that the AAAS would never muzzle scholars because of the content of their ideas. Embarrassments like de Man or MacDonald will continue to happen--and HBES, like the AAAS, and even the fraternity of Nobel Laureates (from Hamsun to Menchu to Shockley), will continue to attract its portion. (For those specifically interested in MacDonald's past and present relationship to HBES, his one--not four--positions, and HBES's response,.)

Since I understand this is my last installment, I would like to correct your notion, Judith, that my own preferred choice is silence and inaction. Within minutes of your phoning me, and my being exposed for the first time to passages from MacDonald's books, I was scrambling to get copies, to read them for myself. As you know, but your readers may not, I was shortly thereafter contacted by Deborah Lipstadt's defense team with a request for assistance, and dropped everything to help. And it is I, and not you, who will be investing the month or two that it will take to write a careful refutation of MacDonald's labyrinthine arguments, to be found here (). But I am still uncertain whether spending this time will be the right choice, because it has its costs. For example, one project I will not be working on during this time is the evolutionary genetics of cancer (each small piece of knowledge helps). Who can know what the best choice is?

Best,
John 

Judith Shulevitz is the New York editor of Slate and writes the "Culturebox" column. John Tooby is a professor of anthropology and co-director of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Slate has invited them to discuss the academic fringe in general and Kevin MacDonald in particular. Alex Star, the editor ofLingua Franca, is moderating.

Universities, science labs, and professional bodies have the right to prevent expression of offensive opinions within their chambers. When the organizers of, say, a national convention of psychologists reject a proposed panel on race and IQ, they are acting to uphold the standards of their profession, not to suppress unpopular points of view.

Or are they? Two weeks ago, Slate published a column by Judith Shulevitz that examined the writings of an evolutionary psychologist named Kevin MacDonald. The author of three books on Judaism as a "group evolutionary strategy," on Jan. 31 MacDonald testified on behalf of Holocaust denier David Irving in the libel case that Irving has brought against historian Deborah Lipstadt in Britain. He is also a professor of psychology at California State University in Long Beach and an elected officer of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES), an academic society devoted to the field of evolutionary psychology. (Click here for the defense MacDonald posted in "The Fray," Slate's reader-feedback forum, and here for Shulevitz's reply.)

In Shulevitz's view, MacDonald's interpretation of Judaism is ugly and tendentious, and yet MacDonald nonetheless enjoys the prestige that comes from helping to run a respected scholarly organization. She argued in a subsequent column that other members of the society have a responsibility to combat his opinions; even if they can't strip him of an elected post, they can do their best to stop him from using their organization to advance his own agenda.

Evolutionary psychologists and other scientists have responded in droves. (See these postings by MacDonald reviewer John Hartung, group selection theorist David Sloan Wilson, John Horgan, and Steven Pinker.) Some have suggested that MacDonald's work deserves to be taken seriously, that there may well be something to it. Others have noted that the HBES does not subject conference papers to peer review; if some dubious or even offensive words are spoken, well, that's the price you pay for intellectual vitality. Still others have argued a public purge or denouncement of MacDonald's work would only give attention to his repugnant views.

For this "Dialogue," Slate has asked John Tooby, an eminent evolutionary psychologist and the president of the HBES, to discuss these issues with Judith Shulevitz. Could MacDonald's work survive a peer review conducted by other HBES members? If it could, what does that say about the discipline of evolutionary psychology? If it couldn't, should HBES nonetheless allow him to use its good name?

—Alex Star