Derbtown

Ideological Castration

May 16, 2013

Multiple Pages
Ideological Castration

People who live among words, books, and ideas, and who are scholars, or hobnob with scholars, or dream of being scholars, occasionally need reminding of the social world’s true contours.

Human society is just a magnification, a multiplication, of individual human nature, concerning which I laid out the essentials in that epochal best seller We Are Doomed:

The ordinary modes of human thinking are magical, religious, social, and personal. We want our wishes to come true; we want the universe to care about us; we want the approval of those around us; we want to get even with that s.o.b. who insulted us at the last tribal council. For most people, wanting to know the cold truth about the world is way, way down the list.

The Jason Richwine business has illustrated all over again for those who needed the reminder that even a society as technically sophisticated as ours is a great dark slough of ignorance and passion in which the small voices of reason and calm empirical inquiry must struggle to be heard above the bellowing of the night beasts.

Richwine was the Heritage Foundation analyst who resigned after it was made public that he’d been awarded a Ph.D. from Harvard University on the strength of a dissertation titled “IQ and Immigration.”

“The witch-hunters are rarely satisfied with only one victim.”

For anyone who doubted that Pathos holds the whip hand over Logos in the public arena, the Richwine affair has been instructive. In dealing with social deviance, not much has changed across the centuries. We have cut back on the harsher kinds of penalties, but otherwise there’s been little progress since the trial of Socrates, who, like Jason Richwine, “failed to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges.”

Should you want something more up-to-date for guidance, the charming lady who calls herself “hbd* chick” recommends Malleus Maleficarum, the fifteenth-century treatise on witchcraft (an old favorite of mine, full of good psychological insight).

Concerning witch hunts in general, hbd* chick notes that:

They are rituals of a sort in which social (and sometimes physical) boundaries are defined—witch-hunts are, at these critical moments, extravagant ways of working out who’s in the in-group and who is not, and woe to anyone who is not.

The witch-hunters are rarely satisfied with only one victim, though. When the chief caster of spells has been identified and burned, there may still be accomplices lurking in the woods.

Thus Ana Marie Cox in the London Guardian says: “The real criminals here would seem to be Harvard.” Ms. Cox presumably means the three Harvard professors who signed off on Jason Richwine’s dissertation—you know, those spell-casters who poisoned the well water and caused two-headed calves to be born.

I actually agree with Ms. Cox about the identity of the real criminals here, but I disagree with her on the nature of the crime. Professors Borjas, Zeckhauser, and Jencks do indeed have charges to answer, though I believe they are charges of cowardice in the face of the enemy.

When David Weigel at slate.com asked Borjas to explain his endorsement of Richwine’s dissertation, the professor went into Butterfly McQueen mode. He don’t know nuthin’ ’bout birthin’ babies!

I have never worked on anything even remotely related to IQ, so don’t really know what to think about the relation between IQ, immigration, etc….I don’t find the IQ academic work all that interesting. Economic outcomes and IQ are only weakly related…the focus on IQ is a bit misguided.

So why did he sign off on a thesis titled “IQ and Immigration Policy”?

Prof. Zeckhauser showed a bit more spine—about one and a half vertebrae:

None of his advisors would have accepted his thesis had he thought that his empirical work was tilted or in error. However, Richwine was too eager to extrapolate his empirical results to inferences for policy.

Jon Wiener of the leftie magazine The Nation was most vexed by Christopher Jencks, the third member of the dissertation committee. Prof. Jencks, Wiener tells us, has been “for decades a leading figure among liberals who did serious research on inequality.” But not that kind of inequality!

When Wiener put the question to him, Prof. Jencks took discretion to be the better part of valor:

Why would Christopher Jencks decide that that dissertation was worth a Harvard Ph.D.? I asked Jencks whether he would comment. He replied “Nope. But thanks for asking.”

I assumed that Harvard professors eminent enough to be sitting on a dissertation committee would be tenured. To be on the safe side I checked this point with Bob Weissberg, who has spent most of his life in universities and once had tenure himself. By the same chemistry that enables Protestants and Catholics in Belfast to distinguish one another by sight, Bob can spot a tenured academic at a hundred yards. Yes, he said, all three are tenured.

That means they have nothing to lose by taking a clear stand for disinterested scholarship, for the reputation of their college, and for their own names. Why didn’t they stand up for Richwine against the mob?

The entire justification for academic tenure is that it allows the best intellects among us to roam freely in their research without any need to fear political consequences.

Eminent professors at distinguished universities are the guardians of our civilization, front-line troops in the never-ending war against barbarism. For the Richwine Three to desert their posts like this is civilizational high treason.

The Chinese scholar Sima Qian spoke up for a friend who had earned the wrath of the Emperor. Thus further infuriated, the Emperor ordered Sima Qian to suffer the penalty of castration, and this penalty was carried out.

We live in gentler times, thank goodness. Profs. Borjas, Zeckhauser, and Jencks are in no peril of castration for their offenses against State Ideology. But really, in their cases, what difference would it make?

 

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