On Monday, May 6, Robert Rector and Jason Richwine of the Heritage Foundation published a study of the fiscal effects of immigration amnesty, arguing that the costs would amount to $6.3 trillion. Controversy greeted the report, but of the normal kind, with critics making specific allegations that the costs were calculated using unrealistic assumptions.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post revealed that Richwine’s 2009 Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard’s Kennedy School had said that, on average, Latinos have lower IQs than do non-Latino white Americans and the nation should consider incorporating IQ into immigration decisions. The blogosphere and some elements of the mainstream media erupted in denunciations.
I have a personal interest in this story because Jason Richwine was awarded a fellowship from my employer, the American Enterprise Institute, in 2008–09, and I reviewed the draft of his dissertation. A rereading of the dissertation last weekend confirmed my recollection that Richwine had meticulously assembled and analyzed the test-score data, which showed exactly what he said they showed: mean IQ-score differences between Latinos and non-Latino whites, found consistently across many datasets and across time after taking factors such as language proficiency and cultural bias into account. I had disagreements then and now about his policy recommendations, but not about the empirical accuracy of his research or the scholarly integrity of the interpretations with which I disagreed.
In resigning, Dr. Richwine joins distinguished company. The most famous biologist in the world, James D. Watson, was forced to retire from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 2007 because of a factually accurate remark to a British journalist about low IQ scores among African blacks. In 2006, Larry Summers, president of Harvard, had to resign after a series of attacks that began with his empirically well-informed remarks about gender differences. These are just the most visible examples of a corruption that has spread throughout American intellectual discourse: If you take certain positions, you will be cast into outer darkness. Whether your statements are empirically accurate is irrelevant.
Everybody who does research in the social sciences or biology is aware how treacherous the environment has become, and so scholars take defensive measures. They bury important findings in obscurely worded technical articles lest they be discovered by reporters and lead to disastrous publicity. A few years ago, a brilliant young evolutionary geneticist publicly announced he would not pursue his work on the evolution of brain size after his preliminary results were attacked as crimethink. Others have deliberately refrained from discussing race or gender differences in works that ordinarily would have called for treating those topics. When I chided the author of a successful book for avoiding some obvious issues involving race, he quite rightly replied that if he had included anything about race, everything else in the book would have been ignored.
These examples are only the visible tip of a much broader problem of self-censorship in the questions that scholars are willing to ask. I am not referring just to scholars who might otherwise engage the taboo topics directly. We can have no idea of the full extent to which important avenues of inquiry in economics, sociology, genetics, and neuroscience that indirectly touch on the taboo topics are also self-censored by scholars who fear becoming pariahs.
But let’s not pretend that the problem is confined to academia or intellectuals. It infects the culture more broadly.
Freedom of expression used to be a big deal in the United States. When the Founders wrote the Bill of Rights, freedom of speech was first on the list. Americans didn’t originate “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (maybe Voltaire said it, maybe not), but it became part of the American credo. The celebration of freedom of expression was still in full flower in the 1950s, when a play based on the Scopes trial, Inherit the Wind, was a Broadway hit. The American Civil Liberties Union of that era was passionately absolutist about freedom of expression, defending the right of free expression for even odious groups such as neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. The lonely individual saying what he believed in the face of pressure to keep silent was a staple of American films and television drama.
Few remnants of those American themes survive. We too seldom engage our adversaries’ arguments in good faith. Often, we don’t even bother to find out what they are, attacking instead what we want them to be. When we don’t like what someone else thinks, we troll the Internet relentlessly until we find something with which to destroy that person professionally or personally — one is as good as the other. Hollywood still does films about lonely voices standing up against evil corporations or racist sheriffs, but never about lonely voices standing up against intellectual orthodoxy.
I’m sick of it. I also have no idea how to fix it. But we can light candles. Here is what I undertake to do, and I invite you to join me: Look for opportunities to praise people with whom you disagree but who have made an argument that deserves to be taken seriously. Look for opportunities to criticize allies who have used crimethink tactics against your adversaries. Identify yourself not just with those who agree with you, but with all those who stand for something and play fair.
— Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.