At the beginning of this year, honorary senior lecturer at the University College London Dr James Thompson came under fire for having organised an annual event called the London Conference on Intelligence. After the event was described in the London Student as a “eugenics conference with neo-Nazi links”, several prominent news outlets released the claims and described the conference as a “controversial conference”, a “conference on eugenics”, a “eugenics conference”, and a “secret eugenics conference” with “neo-Nazi links”. First, it is apparent that reporters parrot each other, and do not bother to check the credibility of the sources. Second, the articles published by the London Student, the Guardian, and Complex (see the links above) mention as one of their sources the Southern Poverty Law Center, a strongly ideologically charged organization. It accused, for example, the distinguished political scientist Charles Murray of being a white nationalist, despite the fact that he has described race and gender based identity politics as “toxic” both for Whites and for the members of other races.
I would like to tell a more accurate story about the London Conference on Intelligence, from my personal point of view. I am a Belgian PhD student living in Germany. I studied Classics in Liege from 2008 to 2013, and then Egyptology from 2013 to 2015. I am now a PhD student at the University of Göttingen. After I read Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, I became very interested in human nature in general and in human intelligence in particular. While I was still a university student in Belgium, Dr. Thompson started a very informative blog providing detailed in-depth discussion of recent findings in intelligence research. In 2015, he announced the event (but not the location) on the blog, which led me to attend three years in a row and to make a presentation at the 2017 conference. Nowadays, I want to combine my background in Egyptology with my deep interest in human intelligence, by conducting research on the intelligence of the ancient Egyptians. In the following, I would like to describe what I learnt, what I saw and what I heard at these three conferences. I would also like to address some of the charges made against the organizers and some of the participants.
A conference on intelligence in London
The conference of the International Society for Intelligence Research has been the central annual gathering of intelligence researchers for more than 15 years, at different locations all over the globe. The London Conference on Intelligence takes place in London every year, in memory of the so-called London school. The London school comprises some highly influential psychologists in the field of intelligence research: Charles Spearman (1863-1945), Hans Eysenck (1916-1997), and John C. Raven (1902-1970). It is known for establishing several key bases of contemporary intelligence research, such as the g factor, the heritability of IQ, factor analysis, and the correlation coefficient – which is one of the most important statistical tools used in psychological research. William Revelle, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, even wrote in his account of Spearman’s life: “It may be said that all of modern psychometrics is merely a footnote on the work of Francis Galton and Charles Spearman.”
These bases are no longer seriously contested. According to Richard Haier, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Irvine, Past President of the International Society for Intelligence Research, and Editor-in-Chief of Intelligence,
“the data that support a major genetic component to intelligence are compelling and the number of genetic deniers and minimizers is diminishing rapidly” (The Neuroscience of Intelligence, Cambridge University Press, 2017, p. 40).
Nevertheless, these established facts are still perceived as controversial outside of academia, and the very idea that cognitive ability is influenced by genes may, as such, be met with accusations of eugenics. The science of individual differences in cognitive ability has aroused several prolific critics such as Steven Rose, Richard Lewontin, and the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. It is telling that Gould’s celebrated The Mismeasure of Man received most of its praise from newspapers and pundits in the public debate, whereas most of the negative reviews were published in academic journals (see S. Larivée, “Vices et vertus de S. J. Gould”, Revue québécoise de psychologie 23, 2002, p. 8).
Accusations of eugenics
So, what about the claims about the event being a “conference on eugenics”? Let us first clarify what eugenics actually means. In general, the word “eugenics” refers to attempts to favour genetically influenced qualities which are deemed desirable, such as intelligence, health and good character. Inasmuch as such traits are heritable (their variation in the population is genetically influenced), the main mean for eugenics has been to encourage the reproduction of individuals who have such qualities to a high extent and discourage the reproduction of those who do not, or who have traits deemed undesirable. The word “eugenics” also refers to a specific movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries which favoured the implementation of such policies. To this end, many different means were conceived of, but the best known of the general public are probably the laws aiming at the sterilisation of the mentally retarded; such laws were passed in a number of US States and European countries. Hence, the word “eugenics” has become associated with compulsory sterilisation in the minds of many, and this word has been thrown at a number of people for the purpose of disqualifying them altogether, despite the fact that they were not in any way concerned with sterilisation. For instance, the expression “eugenic abortion” has been used to criticize women who choose to abort foetuses with detected disabilities. This attitude neglects to take into account the important difference between the end in itself on the one hand, and the means to this end on the other hand. One may reject compulsory sterilisation without denying that a high intelligence, a high conscientiousness and an optimal health enable an individual to benefit the group he belongs to, or, conversely, that an individual born with severe disabilities can impose a heavy burden on the members of his family. Today, modern genetics offers prospects for gene editing and embryo selection, the ethical problems of which are hardly equal to those of compulsory sterilisation.
The reporters never explain precisely why they describe the event as a “eugenics conference.” However, a possible reason for this accusation is the presence of a quote by intelligence researcher E. L. Thorndike (1874-1949) on the first page of the program of the 2016 London Conference on Intelligence. Its author does indeed refer to “selective breeding” as a mean to “alter man’s capacity to learn, to keep sane, to cherish justice or to be happy.” But the quote does not promote the usage of sterilisation or of any other aggressive practice, since “selective breeding” does not necessarily refer to such practices. To give only one example, if a private company decides to give an important part of its benefits to highly altruistic couples so that they use the money to have a lot of (presumably) altruistic children (all psychological traits being under genetic influence); this is indeed selective breeding, yet the practice hardly seems inhumane or unacceptable.
In any case, across the years, the attendees of the London Conference on Intelligence have debated a wide variety of topics, most of which had nothing to do with eugenics. These topics include the efficiency of early childhood intervention for improving IQ (2015), the relationship between colour acuity and intelligence (2015), the cognitive abilities of chimpanzees (2015), publication bias (2016), emotion recognition ability (2016), the use of ancient European DNA for understanding the evolution of human intelligence in the Bronze Age (2017), the impact of exposure to heavy metals on cognitive ability (several years), and the use of psychometrics for the description of evolutionary life history strategy (several years). My own presentation was about the ways of assessing the cognitive ability of ancient Egyptians and about the impact of their difficult life conditions on their cognitive ability.
Other topics have been the relationship between intelligence and religiosity (2017), and political orientation (2015), and between personality and political orientation among high-IQ people (2016). Others speakers addressed topics like the possible causes of average difference in IQ between countries (2015 and 2016), the hypothesis of a decline in heritable general intelligence since the early or mid-19th century (2015 and 2016), sex differences (2016 and 2017), and race differences (2015 and 2017).
Average differences between races or ethnicities
One of the main criticisms that has be raised against the conference organizers is that it allowed the presence of researchers who have sustained the view that human races differ, on average, in intelligence and personality, and that these differences are likely to be partly the result of genetic factors. This view might appear incredible and repulsive to some, especially to those who hear about it for the first time, and it is very tempting to think of those who sustain it as racists. But this would be a lazy answer to a difficult question. First, it is crucial to keep in mind the distinction between what is and what ought to be. To the best of my knowledge, the researchers who consider some ethnic groups to be endowed with a higher or lower average IQ have never said that these groups ought to be so, or that this situation was desirable. In fact, many of them have explicitly deplored what they consider to be an abhorrent reality. Serge Larivée, a French-Canadian psychology professor at the University of Montreal, wrote that he deplored the existence of individual and group differences in intelligence (Le Québec sceptique 60, p. 62-66), and most recently, radio host Stefan Molyneux explained during his interview on the Rubin Report: “It is unbelievably heartbreaking” (34:33), and a bit later: “This is one of the most difficult facts I’ve ever had to absorb in my life” (34:39).
Second, many of the researchers working on this topic have repeatedly emphasized the fact that they are talking about average differences, which cannot and should not be generalized to all the individuals within each group. Here are a few examples:
“It really must be emphasized that there is enormous variability within each of the populations. Since these distributions clearly overlap, it is always problematic to generalize from a group average to any particular individual.” (J. Philippe Rushton during his 1989 debate with David Suzuki, at 31:51)
“If you were an employer looking for intellectual talent, an IQ of 120 is an IQ of 120, whether the face is black or white.” (R. Herrnstein & Ch. Murray, The Bell Curve, Free Press, 1994, p. 313).
“Even though Jewish and Asian immigrants as a whole have made a positive eugenic impact on the U.S. population, the best approach to immigration policy would be to select immigrants as individuals rather than by ethnic group. There is a large range of desirable and undesirable qualities within each group.” (R. Lynn, Eugenics, Praeger, 2001, p. 223).
Had they really been racists, they would probably not have bothered with such caveats, and had they been white supremacists, they would probably not have written that the average IQ of East Asians is higher than that of people of European descent (see, among others, The Bell Curve and the tribune Mainstream Science on Intelligence).
Instead of equating the opinion of Richard Lynn, Charles Murray, Linda Gottfredson, and those who share their views with the promotion of white supremacy, it would be much wiser to insist that racism is unacceptable no matter whether this opinion is right or wrong, because:
- As already explained, these are just average differences. There are intelligent individuals and unintelligent individuals in every ethnic group. To judge people by the colour of their skin rather than the content of their character is deleterious not only for those who are discriminated against, but also for the ones who discriminate, because they are losing many opportunities of interacting with talented individuals.
- “Being more intelligent” than someone does not mean “being superior” to this person. Although intelligence is highly valued in society and is associated with success in many life areas, it is not all that matters, and it would be utterly ridiculous to assess the value of a human being on the sole basis of intelligence. Perhaps those who accused the aforementioned researchers of promoting the idea that some races are “superior” to others are revealing their own inability to dissociate “intelligence” from “superiority”.
Moreover, the critics of Lynn, Murray and Gottfredson might even run the risk of confusing the public about the fact that equal rights do not require equal abilities. The point has already been made several times:
“To rest the case for equal treatment of national or racial minorities on the assertion that they do not differ from other men is implicitly to admit that factual inequality would justify unequal treatment.” (Fr. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, Chicago University Press, 1960, p. 86)
“But to fear research on genetic racial differences, or the possible existence of a biological basis for differences in abilities, is, in a sense, to grant the racist’s assumption: that if it should be established beyond reasonable doubt that there are biological or genetically conditioned differences in mental abilities among individuals or groups, then we are justified in oppressing or exploiting those who are most limited in genetic endowment. This is, of course, a complete non sequitur.” (A. Jensen, Genetics and Education, Methuen, 1972, p. 329)
“If someone defends racial discrimination on the grounds of genetic differences between races, it is more prudent to attack the logic of his argument than to accept the argument and deny any differences. The latter stance can leave one in an extremely awkward position if such a difference is subsequently shown to exist.” (J. C. Loehlin, G. Lindzey & N. Spuhler, Race Differences in Intelligence, W.H. Freeman, 1975, p. 240)
“But it is a dangerous mistake to premise the moral equality of human beings on biological similarity because dissimilarity, one revealed, then becomes an argument for moral inequality.” (A.W.F. Edwards, “Human Genetic Diversity: Lewontin’s Fallacy,” BioEssays 25, 2003, p. 801)
“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.” (B. Winegard with B. Winegard & B. Boutwell, “On the Reality of Race and the Abhorrence of Racism,” Quillette, June 23, 2016)
Finally, I would like to make the point that understanding possible differences between races or groups in general is in fact useful and beneficial for all, although this may seem counterintuitive to some. First, it is not necessarily harmful to be aware of the differences that exist, so long as we can all basically agree on what the scientific evidence indicates and we do not make the fallacy of attributing a group mean to any one individual. Researchers need to be careful to take precautions to this end, as they have repeatedly done. Second, realistic knowledge about group differences in abilities is useful – if not decisive – for alleviating grievances related to group differences in outcomes. To give only one example, since IQ is an important predictor of educational achievement, it could enable the policymakers and the public to understand the causes of the over-representations of Asians and the under-representation of Blacks in the universities where affirmative action is not enforced.
Crucially, it could enable them to know how far we are from the goal of eliminating discrimination: if the proportions of enrolled students in those universities correspond to what one would expect with an average IQ of 105 for Asians, an average IQ of 100 for Whites and an average IQ of 85 for Blacks (on these numbers, see the tribune Mainstream Science on Intelligence), it will mean that, overall, these proportions are primarily the result of a selective process which is based on the educational level of the applicants. By contrast, much damage can be caused by a theory of systemic racism which ignores the scientific study of group differences in intelligence – for instance, by highlighting the socio-economic differences between Whites as a whole and Blacks as a whole without taking into account the existing studies that compare the outcomes of Whites and Blacks of similar IQ (such as this one; see also chapter 14 of The Bell Curve). Such a theory is intrinsically inflammatory: it implies that all disparities are necessarily due to oppression, discrimination and prejudice (some of them certainly are, but the idea that all disparities are caused by discrimination is undermined by some studies and in particular by the large scientific consensus on the fact that neither IQ tests nor scholastic achievement tests are biased against any American-born, English-speaking ethnic group), and because this is supposed to be ingrained in more or less every human context, it also implies that people who do very well would have done even better had they had lighter skin. Thus, it encourages Blacks to despise Whites and blame them for any difficulties they experience, and this, in turns, encourages Whites to despise Blacks. Furthermore, quotas and affirmative action run the risk of harming the ethnic groups that they intend to help, by depriving them of their self-confidence and from the satisfaction that comes from knowing that one has succeeded through one’s own competence and efforts. As Linda Gottfredson explains in one of her academic publications:
“According to the social privilege theory, high-achieving groups (at least European whites) are therefore automatically guilty of profiting from an oppressive social system, and low-achieving groups are being robbed of what is rightfully theirs. Every inequality becomes more evidence of entrenched evil. The talk of brotherhood 50 years ago is replaced by the talk of reparations; the hope of mutual respect among the races by mutual resentment.”
Let us hope that it is not too late for reconciliation and mutual respect.
The Mankind Quarterly and the Ulster Institute for Social Research
Much of the media campaign consisted of “guilt-by-association.” The most prominent instances refer to the academic journal Mankind Quarterly and to the *Ulster Institute for Social Research, and connections that have been made between these and various statements and individuals. As will be shown, these are both legitimate institutions that have made, and continue to make, valuable scientific contributions. More importantly, however, it must be emphasized that mere association with a person or institution cannot provide any ground for criticism. It is a truism and a central principle of every free and democratic society that each individual can only be judged by his/her behaviour and character, and not by the behaviours and characters of those he/she associates with. It is agreed that some general attitudes could probably be gleaned from someone’s membership in an organisation such as a political party. To attempt to do so for the journals that a researcher publishes in is wrongful.
The Mankind Quarterly was founded by, among others, Corrado Gini (1884-1965), a prominent Italian statistician who was the president of the Istituto Centrale di Statistica from 1926 to 1932, that is, under the fascist regime. Of course, neither the editors nor the authors can be held responsible for the political activities of a former editor who died more than fifty years ago. That would be like calling “Nazis” the Egyptologists who published in Probleme der Ägyptologie, a book series that was founded by Egyptologist and NSDAP member Hermann Kees.
One can doubtlessly find papers in Mankind Quarterly that were later proven wrong or that applied poor scientific standards compared to the current level of knowledge or methodology. But this is true of all scientific journals. Cherry-picking the worst examples is an unscientific practice, and applying it to even more prestigious journals will reflect badly on most of them. Today, Mankind Quarterly publishes research articles whose data can be checked, theories or hypotheses related to these data, and book reviews, and is not in any way concerned with proposing specific policies. Inasmuch as these articles contain errors, as most articles do, they should be criticized on the basis of empirical evidence, not with ad hominem attacks.
Furthermore, there is no ground for claiming that the editors Gerhard Meisenberg and Richard Lynn determine the content of the journal on the basis of their personal political convictions, whatever these convictions may be. The views expressed in Mankind Quarterly often contradict each other, and some of them have directly challenged the opinions of Lynn and/or Meisenberg; for instance, in the September 2017 issue, Richard Lynn presented his views on sex differences, and his article was followed by replies written by James R. Flynn and Roberto Colom.
What has been said about the Mankind Quarterly can also be said about the Ulster Institute for Social Research, which has published a number of monographs written by Richard Lynn, John Harvey, Tatu Vanhanen, Edward Dutton, and Jelena Ĉvorović, as well as Festschrifts edited by Helmuth Nyborg. In a general way, these books look like gigantic scientific articles: they are very dense, full of graphs, very instructive, and not especially entertaining. Again, if mistakes are found in some of them, the criticisms must be based on evidence, not personal attacks. Moreover, while statistics can always be misused, data which are the result of properly conducted research should never be suppressed for fear of misapplication.
The Pioneer Fund
The London Student’s article mentions connections between the Pioneer Fund and individuals who attended the conference. It is justified to consider the funding sources of scientists, insofar as there is reason to question their integrity and academic freedom due to conditions associated with the funding. According to University of Montreal Professor Serge Larivée, however, the Pioneer Fund representatives “formally agree not to influence the researchers so that they publish results which support their ideology.” (Le Québec sceptique 60, p. 65; my personal translation). In the present case, the claim of “neo-Nazi links” constitutes an ad hominem attack which, from a scientific point of view, is devoid of any validity.
One may then ask why some intelligence researchers applied to the Pioneer Fund. The main reason, I think, is that intelligence has come to be seen as a highly controversial topic in the decades following the publication of Arthur Jensen’s “How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?” As Richard Haier explains:
“Given the racial inferences and the hot emotional atmosphere, few researchers or their students opted to focus their careers on any questions at all about intelligence. Getting federal research support for researching intelligence became virtually impossible. Almost overnight, intelligence research became radioactive.” (The Neuroscience of Intelligence, p. 44).
Through its funding, the Pioneer Fund has made possible important studies which, otherwise, could probably not have been carried out. One of the best known is probably the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart, which constitutes, among others, a decisive contribution to our understanding of the heritability of intelligence. The Pioneer Fund also made possible the publication of two important books by Arthur Jensen that are still often cited in our days: Bias in Mental Testing (1980) and The g factor (1998). Neither book is a work of racial advocacy and, despite the accusations that have been made against him, Arthur Jensen has made it clear that he favoured equal opportunities and the application of identical standards of excellence for all students regardless of race (see Fr. Miele, Intelligence, race, and genetics. Conversations with Arthur Jensen, Basic Books, 2002).
As mentioned, most of the media onslaught is nothing more than “guilt-by-association.” This is particularly true of the claims made by the London Student. Once again, speaking at a conference does not imply that the organizers or the other participants approve all your statements, or that you approve theirs. On a similar note, J. Philippe Rushton wrote in 2008 in an email to a journalist: “So far I have resisted making policy recommendations… and have appeared at many other places including academic ones where they don’t agree with me and I don’t agree with them.” (see here at 4:07).
It is also worth noting that some authors of the harsh criticisms levelled against the conference organizers seem to be very poorly informed when it comes to the current state of intelligence research. The Cheese Grater, magazine of the Students’ Union UCL, describes as “sexist” the tweet in which James Thompson writes that men have, on average, bigger brains than women. But in 2016, during his review of the literature on the biological foundations of intelligence, Lars Penke, Professor at the University of Göttingen, explained that there is now a wide agreement on that question:
“We know that there is a robust sex difference in overall brain volume. Men have, on average, a 10% bigger brain than women. Still, in representative samples that cover the whole range of intelligence variation, you usually don’t find a mean difference between the sexes” (see here at 7:39).
The most startling comment I have found so far comes from an opinion piece published in the Independent: the 2017 conference of the respected International Society for Intelligence Research, which was held in Montreal in July, is described as a “Canadian pro-eugenics conference.” All these sensationalist claims are likely to strengthen the following opinion, expressed by Stefan Molyneux about mainstream journalism:
“The mainstream media is not in the business of delivering information to consumers. They are in the business of delivering consumers to advertisers.”
Another aspect of the London Conference on Intelligence is its relative lack of publicity: whereas the 2014 and 2015 conferences were announced on Dr. Thompson’s blog, the 2016 and 2017 conferences were announced only to the speakers and to those invited by them or by the organizers. This may explain why the event has been described as “secret.” A friend of mine, who did not attend the London conference, raised the concern that the researchers attending the event might not have their views challenged by the colleagues who disagree with them. This is a valid point that deserves careful attention, although one should not assume the participants agree on all the topics that were discussed at the conference.
First, it is not uncommon to have small conferences with a limited number of participants in order to provide the possibility of long, in-depth exchanges between researchers, instead of congresses of hundreds of scientists who run between parallel sessions, some of which feature researchers who speak to an (almost) empty theatre. Second, the fate of earlier intelligence researchers working on race differences in intelligence illustrates that it was not unreasonable for Richard Lynn and Helmuth Nyborg to think that a conference accessible only by invitation was more suited for ensuring their security: Arthur Jensen, one of the best known researchers working on race differences in intelligence, has received death threats; Hans Eysenck, who publicly agreed with Jensen’s views, was physically attacked at the London School of Economics. The small-sized London Conference on Intelligence enables the researchers to present their data, have exchanges about them, and talk about the possibilities of testing their hypotheses without any fear of retaliation. If they were deprived of any possibility of expressing their views, it would be good neither for them, neither for the society as a whole:
“The silence deprives society of information that it needs to have. In this light, a special advantage of what we might call “enclave deliberation” is that it promotes the development of positions that would otherwise be invisible, silenced, or squelched in general debate.” (C. Sunstein, Going to Extremes, Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 152)
To conclude, again, I cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of understanding the difference between what is and what should be. In order to understand what is, researchers should be able to gather empirical data, to formulate theories on these data, and to present both their data and their theories at academic conferences even when these data or theories may be uncomfortable. On the other hand, empirical facts alone do not tell us what should be, and it is important that scientists warn against any potential misuse of their results, as they have often done. As Norwegian editor and writer Knut Olav Åmås elegantly and simply said:
“No knowledge is in itself evil or dangerous. Only the human use of knowledge can become evil or dangerous.” (Norwegian TV program “Brainwash”, see here at 37:42)
The reporters who wrote on the London Conference on Intelligence do not make such distinction, nor do they distinguish the personal views of researchers from the data that were presented. It is to fear that such reporting can only frighten those who have both the willingness to serve the society that funds them and the courage to present highly unpopular results. As Fatos Selita, Robert Chapman, Kaili Rimfeld and Yulia Kovas explained:
“Bad reporting of science does us all a disservice as it prevents informed and engaged discourse on topics of vital personal, social and cultural importance.
It has the power to instil negative perceptions, deprive people of knowledge, and prevent understanding. It also forces some scientists to avoid communicating findings because they are concerned that what they say or write can be manipulated by the media.” (“Save Science from Fiction”, The Accessible Genetics Consortium, March 4, 2016)
The only point that I did not address is the legal aspect of the booking. Since I am not familiar with the procedure which is required for booking a room for an event at the University College of London, I will not make any comments on that matter.
For me personally, the London Conference on Intelligence has been both one of the most instructive and one of the most fascinating events I have attended so far, along with the conference of the International Society for Intelligence Research. I sincerely hope that it will continue to be held in the following years. In any case, I will take this opportunity to thank all those who contributed to organizing the London Conference on Intelligence for all that they have done.
Note: The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect the views of the organizations or of the individuals with whom the author is associated.
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