Listen to the new Quillette podcast in which I talk to Jeff McMahan, professor of moral philosophy at Oxford and co-founder of the Journal of Controversial Ideas, a new academic periodical in which contributors will be given the option of publishing their papers pseudonymously. Professor McMahan speaks about why he believes the journal is needed, how “controversial” ideas will be defined and responds to some of the criticisms that have greeted the idea, both from the Social Justice Left and the liberal centre.
Is the social justice movement that’s sweeping British and American universities a secular religion? The core beliefs of the members of this cult certainly seem to play the same psychological role as the central tenets of the world’s major religions. They furnish their adherents with rituals and blasphemy laws, a way of distinguishing between the sacred and the profane, a vision of what it is to be a good person and live in a good society, and they enable them to engage in tribal sorting, dividing people between members of the in-group and the out-group. No doubt the same could be said of most political ideologies, but there’s one aspect of left-wing identity politics in which it reveals itself as more cult-like than other belief systems. I’m thinking of its magical component.
This was brought to my attention by the psychiatrist and blogger Scott Alexander. In a post entitled Devoodooifying Psychology, he compared the concept of ‘stereotype threat’ to a voodoo hex. Stereotype threat holds that if a person is expected to perform badly in a test because she’s a member of a particular group, she will perform badly. It is invoked by the social justice left to explain the under-performance of women in Stem subjects, as well as other group discrepancies. Alexander means two things by this. First, that the effect of stereotyping someone, according to the theory, is similar to that of a voodoo curse, negatively affecting their performance. Second, that the effect isn’t real. Stereotype threat is one of the casualties of the ‘replication crisis’ afflicting psychology, with researchers unable to replicate this finding. (To read more, click here.)
This used to be the busiest time of the year for me. If you do anything in public life — even something minor like running a free schools charity — you get asked to do a lot of things at Christmas. More if you pop up on telly occasionally. Last year, I must have attended at least a dozen carol services, and did a reading at most of them. I spoke at Christmas parties, gave after–dinner speeches and opened fairs.
And the nativity plays — don’t get me started on the nativity plays. I managed to limit myself to eight in 2017, but it’s usually more. I never cease to wonder at all the parents, up on their feet, filming the entire performance on their phones. Are they really going to inflict that on the grandparents on Christmas Day? All two hours?
But this year, nothing. Not a single invitation. Following my defenestration from public life, whereby I lost five positions, including my full-time job, I have been surgically removed from every VIP list. No Christmas cards either. It’s quite impressive in a way. I always assumed that no one ever checked these things. Some of the cards I used to get were redirected from an address I haven’t lived at for 20 years. But evidently someone checks — or word comes down from on high. Such are the costs of being targeted by a Twitter outrage mob. (To read more, click here.)
In a recent article for Quillette, Colin Wright argued that left-wing scientific denialism poses a greater threat to academic freedom than right-wing scientific denialism. In the past, evolutionary biologists could dispute the claims of creationists and advocates of Intelligent Design without jeopardizing their careers. But the same cannot be said of scientists who publicly dissent from progressive dogma when it comes to, say, the biology of group differences.
The reason, according to Wright, is because the Christian Evangelicals who denied the basic principles of evolutionary biology held no power in academia, while their secular equivalents are often professors, department chairs, deans, administrators, college presidents, journal editors, and so on. Indeed, the new denialist orthodoxy when it comes to biological sex—that it is “assigned” at birth, rather than observed and recorded—is now the official view of the scientific establishment, having been embraced by Scientific American and Nature. As Jordan Peterson wrote in The National Post two years ago: “Look out evolutionary biologists. The PC police are coming for you.”
I imagine few of Quillette’s readers will need convincing of this, but in case anyone thinks Wright is being alarmist I recommend A Dangerous Idea: Eugenics, Genetics and the American Dream. (To read more, click here.)
Another day, another mobbing. On the front page of today’s Times there’s a story about an attempt by over 200 academics to ruin the reputation of a young scholar called Noah Carl. These researchers, many of them professors, have written an open letter objecting to the fact that Dr Carl, who describes himself as a ‘conservative’, has just been awarded a prestigious research fellowship by St Edmund’s College, Cambridge.
Entitled ‘No Place for Racist Pseudoscience at Cambridge’, the letter attacks Dr Carl for his ‘public stance on various issues, particularly on the claimed relationship between “race”, “criminality” and “genetic intelligence”’, and accuses him of producing work that is ‘ethically suspect’ and ‘methodologically flawed’:
As members of the academic community committed to defending the highest standards of ethical and methodological integrity in research and teaching, we are shocked that a body of work that includes vital errors in data analysis and interpretation appears to have been taken seriously for appointment to such a competitive research fellowship.
What’s odd about the letter is that it makes these career-ruining allegations without offering a scintilla of evidence to support them. No specific papers of Dr Carl’s are cited and there isn’t a single quote from anything he’s written. The words ‘race’, ‘criminality’ and ‘genetic intelligence’ are quoted, but these are scare quotes not actual quotes taken from Dr Carl’s work. I’ve looked at his published academic research and cannot find a single instance of him using the phrase ‘genetic intelligence’, which isn’t surprising since no serious scholar writing about group or individual difference in IQ would use such a phrase. (To read more, click here.)
For months I’ve been looking forward to the Guardian’s much-heralded report on racism in Britain, which was unveiled this week. As a nation, we suffer from our fair share of divisions, with new fault lines opening up all the time, but our record when it comes to race relations is pretty good. Surely, a newspaper that prides itself on being guided by the evidence would reflect this?
We’re often told by members of the identitarian left that Britain is more racist than most other countries, but I didn’t expect the Guardian to fall for that. When comparing different countries, one way of gauging the level of racism is to ask whether people in that country would object if a person of another race moved in next door. By that metric, Britain is one of the least racist countries in the world. Less than 5 per cent of Britons say they would object, compared with more than 50 per cent of Jordanians. (To read more, click here.)
On 21 November, a debate took place in the House of Commons about proposals to reform the Gender Recognition Act to make it easier for transgender people to self-identify as men or women. Among the public, this is a widely discussed issue, with most echoing the concerns of feminists about the risks of allowing biological males to enter women’s changing rooms, etc. But until last week the issue hadn’t been debated in the Commons, partly because MPs who have reservations about changing the law are afraid to speak out. Sure enough, nearly all the backbench MPs who contributed to the debate toed the line of the trans-rights activists.
The ex-lobby correspondent James Kirkup, now director of the Social Market Foundation, has become a must-read commentator on this issue and he recently disclosed he’s been keeping a ‘private list’ of people who’ve told him they’re deeply worried about gender self-identification, but haven’t said anything: 'That list includes: more than a dozen government ministers (including cabinet members); several Labour frontbenchers; numerous backbench MPs (the majority female); lots of BBC journalists (some very famous); charity executives; senior business people; teachers, lawyers, doctors and other professionals; and lots of ‘ordinary’ women who can’t understand why the potential implications of a law change are not being addressed.' (To read more, click here.)
When I proposed to Caroline back in 2000, she was a trainee solicitor and I was a freelance journalist. In my mind’s eye, I pictured myself enjoying several years as a DINK — Double Income No Kids. Imagine my horror, then, when she got pregnant as soon as she qualified and showed no intention of returning to work. Three years later, I had become a SITCOM — Single Income Two Kids Oppressive Mortgage. So much for my dreams of eventually retiring as a GLAM — Greying Leisured Affluent Married.
For years, I’ve been complaining about this in a half-serious, half-jokey way, by which I mean I needle Caroline about it until she loses her rag, at which point I say: ‘Calm down! I was only joking.’ To which she responds: ‘If it’s a joke, why do you bring it up every bloody day?’ (To read more, click here.)
When I first read about plans for a new academic periodical called The Journal of Controversial Ideas, I got the wrong end of the stick. Fantastic news, I thought, particularly when I saw the distinguished group of intellectuals behind it. They include Jeff McMahan, professor of moral philosophy at Oxford; Peter Singer, the well-known Australian philosopher; and Francesca Minerva, a bio-ethicist at the University of Ghent. An authoritative magazine bearing the imprimatur of these distinguished free-thinkers is a great way to persuade other, less celebrated academics to stick their heads above the parapet and publish essays that dissent from groupthink.
Then I spotted an important detail: all the material will be published pseudonymously. That’s right — the contributors won’t use their own names. Far from a cause for hope, this is confirmation of my worst fears. The Maoist intolerance of anyone who dares to challenge the ‘woke’ orthodoxy has reached such a pitch that the only way to persuade non-conforming intellectuals to contribute to public debate is to guarantee they won’t be identified. (To read more, click here.)
Once identified as right-wing you are beyond the pale of argument,’ wrote Sir Roger Scruton. ‘Your views are irrelevant, your character discredited, your presence in the world a mistake. You are not an opponent to be argued with, but a disease to be shunned. This has been my experience.’
Unfortunately, that experience is due to intensify for the 74-year-old conservative philosopher. Last weekend, the government announced it had set up a commission to try and make new housing developments ‘beautiful’ and appointed Sir Roger as its chair. It’s one of the few sensible things the present government has done; so, of course, it’s caused a scandal. (To read more, click here.)