Scientific Method as Harmful

Even for conservatives, who, if there is any one common denominator, insist upon coercive hierarchical systems of social organization—yes, that includes capitalist libertarians[1]—the case of Jason Richwine is peculiar.

Our story begins with a Heritage Foundation study which opposes so-called illegal immigration and amnesty based on projected costs to taxpayers.[2] This report was not well received, but it is beyond my scope here to address its shortcomings.

It turns out that one of the authors of that report, Jason Richwine, had written a dissertation, which probably should have been rejected:

Some critics say that the dissertation’s suggestion of a long-term gap in the IQs of Hispanic immigrants and their descendants and the IQs of other groups is based on discredited theories that have been used to justify many forms of discrimination over the years. And they question how Harvard could award a Ph.D. based on such a dissertation.[3]

This is serious stuff, in part because, in theory, Harvard could go back and revoke Richwine’s degree if it found malfeasance. That seems unlikely to happen—it’s a rare occurrence anyway:

“I most certainly understand that this issue, as reported, troubles many people,” said a statement released by David T. Ellwood, dean of the Kennedy School. “First, the views and conclusions of any graduate of this school are theirs alone, and do not represent the views of Harvard or the Kennedy School. Second, all Ph.D. dissertations are reviewed by a committee of scholars. In this case, the committee consisted of three highly respected and discerning faculty members who come from diverse intellectual traditions. Finally and most importantly, it is vital that an active and open debate of ideas occur in universities and beyond them. Scholars and others who disagree with particular ideas or methods or who are unhappy with conclusions can and must openly engage in reasoned discussion and criticism, after looking fully and carefully at the work. It is through ongoing vigorous give and take that good ideas will ultimately emerge and weaker ones can be displaced.”[4]

Let’s note the irony of academic freedom being invoked to defend a conservative’s work and move on. Ellwood’s response, quoted in the foregoing, actually skirts the issue because a dissertation marks a scholar’s rise, however ephemeral, to the status of an expert on its topic. If the dissertation relies on discredited research, it does not contribute to knowledge and therefore does not rise to the standard for a dissertation and should be rejected; indeed no article of this sort should survive peer review under any circumstances. That Harvard granted this particular Ph.D. should indeed raise serious questions, because the final step in the process is a defense, at which point the members of Richwine’s committee should have raised all the questions—and then some—that are now being raised. The faculty on that committee, by signing off on this dissertation are declaring that they have given it careful scrutiny and that they are satisfied with the literature review, with the method, with the employment of the method, and implicitly, since this is a deductive process, its conclusions. Further, since it is Harvard that will grant the degree, they do so on behalf of Harvard, as its empowered representatives.

But Richwine has refused to apologize, even as the controversy has grown more intense.[5] As Charles Blow has written of “[m]any on the political right,” in which he offers this dissertation as supporting evidence, “[t]heirs is a bone-deep contempt for otherness, a congenital belief in the superiority-inferiority binary, a circle-the-wagons, zero-sum view of progress, prosperity and power.”[6]

Our story continues as Inside Higher Ed today publishes an article associating Richwine’s work with that of Stephen Hsu, even though the two may never have met:

Jason Richwine swiftly resigned from the Heritage Foundation this month following revelations of his 2009 Harvard University dissertation on IQ and race, but the blogosphere continues to buzz with the story. In the aftermath, as Richwine continues to defend his research, some human biodiversity, or “HBD,” experts charge that a new generation of eugenicists may be coming of age. A recurring name is that of Stephen Hsu, the Michigan State University physicist and vice president for research and graduate studies who is researching intelligence and genetics at the world’s biggest genomics sequencing lab in Shenzhen, China.

“Richwine would probably also find a friend in Stephen Hsu, a theoretical physicist by training who is currently searching for an intelligence gene,” wrote Yong Chan, research director for the racial justice website ChangeLab. “Even though mainstream science has pretty much scrapped the notion that race has any kind of biological basis long ago, that hasn’t stopped [Hsu] from trying to link intelligence with race and getting a billion and a half dollars for research based in China.”

Michael Scroggins, a Ph.D. student at Teachers College of Columbia University, echoed Chan on Ethnography.com: “Suffice to say, [Richwine and Hsu] offer nothing new to debates over IQ, or poverty or immigration. Their innovation lies in the naked, unreflective application of a naïve sociobiology to policy debates over access to democratic institutions – citizenship and public education.”

Much of the controversy surrounding Hsu stems from a recent Vice article alleging Hsu’s cognitive genomics project is ultimately helping China engineer “genius babies.”[7]

Apart from the issue of Richwine’s continuing reliance on discredited research, we now encounter ethical questions:

Chan echoed Mitchell. “We can’t act as if learning, teaching, or research in our academic institutions happens within a vacuum,” she said in an e-mail. “Historically, ‘science’ has had a substantial influence in how ideas about race were developed and then how those ideas were translated into policy and laws.” In Hsu’s case, she added, “To approach the field of genetics (and not just around this idea of intelligence) without acknowledging the potential for racist outcomes is ignoring history. To be the producers of knowledge without any thought to how that knowledge might be used is ignoring our moral responsibilities.”[8]

And again, a university—in this case, the University of Michigan—cites “academic freedom,” defending this work. This accompanies the usual rationalizations that someone—in this case, the “rich”—will do this anyway.[9]

One of the things I’ve noticed about ethical questions is that it is supremely difficult to state such a question without imparting values. I would argue, in fact, that in the entire ethics class that I took recently as part of my Ph.D. program, everyone, including myself failed to state an ethical question in an unbiased way. In fact, I failed miserably,[10] but everyone else in that class was at least as bad. (I did, however, receive an extremely positive evaluation from the professor.)

That said, there is a difficulty in mainstream academic approaches that either embrace or emulate positivist values that they seek to separate questions of fact from questions of value. Questions of fact are held to be “objective,” and therefore “real,” while questions of value are said to be “subjective,” and therefore somewhat arbitrary, and “real science” is said to be “objective.” Researchers in this paradigm thus want to escape responsibility for ethical questions.[11] In the real world, that hasn’t worked out so well, and thus we now have Institutional Review Boards—which are often bitterly resented—to ensure that any human subjects research is conducted somewhat ethically. (I treat this question at greater length here.[12])

It is apparent that an ethical failing is present, both with Richwine’s dissertation and Hsu’s quest for genetic selection, and that mainstream academia’s continued embrace of positivism (sometimes under the label of post-positivism, but with very little meaningful difference[13]), also known as scientific method, underlies this failing. Positivism, therefore, can no longer be held to be ethically neutral. It is a positive harm.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “Defining Conservatism,” April 12, 2013, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2013/04/12/defining-conservatism/
  2. [2]Robert Rector and Jason Richwine, “The Fiscal Cost of Unlawful Immigrants and Amnesty to the U.S. Taxpayer,” Heritage Foundation, May 6, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/05/the-fiscal-cost-of-unlawful-immigrants-and-amnesty%20to-the-us-taxpayer
  3. [3]Scott Jaschik, “Debate on report on immigration leads to scrutiny of Harvard dissertation,” Inside Higher Ed, May 13, 2013, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/05/13/debate-report-immigration-leads-scrutiny-harvard-dissertation
  4. [4]Jaschik, “Debate on report on immigration leads to scrutiny.”
  5. [5]Inside Higher Ed, “No Apology for Controversial Harvard Dissertation,” May 21, 2013, http://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2013/05/21/no-apology-controversial-harvard-dissertation
  6. [6]Charles M. Blow, “Terms of Art,” New York Times, May 8, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/09/opinion/blow-terms-of-art.html
  7. [7]Colleen Flaherty, “Quest for ‘Genius Babies’?” Inside Higher Ed, May 29, 2013, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/05/29/wake-controversy-over-harvard-dissertation-race-and-iq-scrutiny-michigan-state
  8. [8]Flaherty, “Quest for ‘Genius Babies’?”
  9. [9]Flaherty, “Quest for ‘Genius Babies’?”
  10. [10]David Benfell, “What is okay to kill to eat?” November 5, 2012, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2012/11/05/what-is-okay-to-kill-to-eat/
  11. [11]Bruce Mazlish, The Uncertain Sciences (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2007); Colin Robson, Real World Research, 3rd ed. (Chichester, West Sussex, UK: John Wiley and Sons, 2011).
  12. [12]David Benfell, “Dilemmas are Good,” October 6, 2012, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2012/10/06/dilemmas-are-good/
  13. [13]Valerie Malhotra Bentz and Jeremy J. Shapiro, Mindful Inquiry in Social Research (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998).

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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