Yet another nail in the coffin of free enquiry this week, this time from St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, which terminated the research fellowship of the young, brilliant, contrarian researcher Noah Carl. This follows rapidly on the heels of the revocation of Jordan Peterson’s two-month visiting fellowship by Cambridge’s Divinity School in late March.
St Edmund’s claimed that “Dr Carl had collaborated with a number of individuals who were known to hold extremist views. There was a serious risk that Dr Carl’s appointment could lead, directly or indirectly, to the College being used as a platform to promote views that could incite racial or religious hatred, and bring the College into disrepute.”
With these moves, and its recently announced inquiry into the University’s association with the slave trade, Cambridge seems determined to signal its fealty to Left-modernism, or what African-American linguist John McWhorter calls the “religion of anti-racism”, the reigning ideology of our high culture.
What are Noah’s crimes? First, daring to attend a conference on intelligence research at University College London that was invitation-only and where some who study the putative association between race and intelligence were, apparently, present. Carl himself doesn’t endorse the race-IQ link, but he does defend scholars’ right to research in this area in pursuit of truth. That’s a distinction, between liberalism and the science of group differences, that is lost on the guilt-by-association mob.
The need for the event to be private should be obvious, given the hysterical reaction to it from radical students and staff that would accompany any open conference on such matters. This was not some secret plot to sterilise the unfit, but a serious symposium that had to convene in secret to avoid a lynching by the progressives.
Peruse Noah’s research profile on Google Scholar, which his social justice critics no doubt have not, and you will see that he has collaborated with numerous leading academics and written mostly on, well, intelligence research. Much of this is in leading peer-reviewed journals such as Plos One, and its findings are eclectic.
He has a striking number of publications for someone at his stage of career, which just might explain him getting the fellowship in the first place. His most cited article is – wait for it – ‘Verbal intelligence is correlated with socially and economically liberal beliefs’. Maybe the ‘woke’ inquisition would like to put that in their pipe and smoke it.
He has also, however, been unafraid to do research on the leftward tilt in academia – work which has been replicated by liberal researchers using other datasets. He has worked on the established field of stereotype accuracy, suggesting a connection between ethnic group crime rates and public attitudes toward groups immigrating to a country.
Academics should be allowed to have these conversations in pursuit of truth and theory-building, free from the kind of orthodoxy that once prevented Galileo from propounding his heliocentric view of the universe or Darwin from speaking of our evolution from apes.
I am not a free speech absolutist, but rather a rule-utilitarian – I believe there are other goals in a good society besides free expression. I would be willing to entertain a restriction on speech provided: a) there is a significant, empirically-demonstrable harm derived from a proper study by the college or its committee attempting to get at representative opinion; and b) this is sufficient in weight to override the extremely valuable rule of free speech which should only be violated when there is a very strong countervailing imperative. I don’t believe either condition is met here, despite what the college may believe.
What has occurred is an orchestrated putsch by an organised group of progressive fundamentalists who wield enormous influence in academia and the creative professions.
Let’s be clear on the harm standard that is used by Left-modernism to quash free enquiry. First, there are totemic “protected groups”, with racial minorities at the top, followed by sexual minorities and women, with all other disadvantaged categories (ie class, disability) essentially marginalised.
Second, any action or words that offend the most sensitive member of a sacred group, or the most sensitive member imaginable by a mind-reading progressive, is prohibited. With this ‘most sensitive’ standard in mind, there is an enormous incentive for Left-modernists to go out of their way to be offended or, in the lingo of social science, to engage in the social construction of offence. Evidence – in the form of a representative survey of the minority population, or even the campus minority population – is not provided.
Having been accosted by radicals in the past in the form of a Twitter mob and an open letter in December 2018, following the announcement of a debate with UnHerd, one of the things I undertook was to empirically test our assailants’ catastrophising claims. And when I surveyed minority opinion, I found what the large-scale data tells us: that minorities are more moderate than white liberals on racial issues and not easily offended. They simply don’t fit the fragile caricature painted by the social justice opportunists.
Whites are likewise unmoved by controversial debates: my data showed no change in their attitude toward protected groups when presented with the ‘offending’ title of our debate.
Students are also not as fragile as the Left-modernists like to claim. The Cambridge and Oxford Unions have both had Jordan Peterson to speak, with large crowds of interested students attending. I suspect most Cambridge students who care wish Peterson could reside at Cambridge for two months so they can hear and test his ideas.
When fundamentalists tried to no-platform me at the University of Bristol, students quietly urged the university not to do so because they are intellectually curious. Far from panicking in their beds, most students – whether from ‘protected’ groups or otherwise – are simply unaware of, or don’t care about, controversial speakers.
The battle for free enquiry won’t be won by converting progressive fundamentalists to reason. Those we need to focus on are the politically-correct herd of centre-Leftists and liberals in academia who dislike the radicals but believe, like the Emperor having new clothes, that their colleagues believe in the logic of no-platforming.
Like traders shorting a fundamentally-sound stock because they believe others will, the downward spiral of censorship will only end when academic authorities become convinced that the reputational cost of capitulation is higher than the momentary cost of annoying a few highly-networked activists.