On Fighting Bad Ideas

Was Culturebox calling for censorship yesterday  when she said she blamed the professional organization where Kevin MacDonald holds several executive positions, as well as the series editor who oversaw publication of his books, for his anti-Semitic ideas? How could Culturebox hold the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES) in particular and evolutionary psychologists in general responsible for the theories of a single man? Isn’t she just being a wooly-headed liberal, scrounging around for ways to condemn a discipline prone to express politically incorrect ideas?

One at a time, ladies and gentlemen.

Several posters in The Fray as well as the editor in question, Seymour Itzkoff, believed that Culturebox stopped just short of calling for a gag order. “I’m not the series approver or disapprover of the particular ideas of the writers,” Itzkoff told her. “I make a decision about whether the person’s work is qualified for publication.” Indeed, says Itzkoff, the nonsense quotient in the books could have been higher. “I was instrumental in having him rewrite a number of passages, because I said to the people at Greenwood [Publishing Group] that these would destroy his book–they were so beyond the pale in terms of factuality. But I couldn’t censor or ask that he rewrite everything.”

Not wanting to be seen as a censor is the defense of nearly everyone who has helped MacDonald make his upward climb toward respectability. As it happens, censorship wasn’t an issue with the first volume of MacDonald’s trilogy, because Itzkoff thought highly of it (that’s the book in which MacDonald calls Judaism a “group evolutionary strategy” masquerading as a religion in order to hide its true purpose–to maximize intelligence and give Jews an advantage in the competition for resources). But even if he’d hated the book, says Itzkoff, it wasn’t his job to pass judgment on its contents–merely on whether it merited publication. Iztkoff didn’t think nearly as well of MacDonald’s work in Volumes 2 and 3 (in which he argues that anti-Semitism is justified and exposes what he feels to be the Jewish agenda behind 20th-century intellectual movements), but by then Itzkoff felt that MacDonald had “the right to publish it.”

Culturebox isn’t buying it. Itzkoff is not the editor of a scholarly journal. He has not been asked (as such editors are) to toss as many explosive subjects as possible into the public domain, as long as they meet some minimum standard. Nor can he offer a letters page for debate. He is not the editor of Oxford or Cambridge University Press, both of whom publish vast quantities of books, making the task somewhat similar to that of a journal editor, although without the forum for debate. Itzkoff is the named editor of a small series of scholarly books. His name is cited on the title page specifically to guarantee the quality of the work. Under those circumstances, his judgment as to whether the work is “qualified for publication” is tantamount to saying that he endorses its conclusions.

Moreover, the only institution that owes MacDonald “the right to publish” is the government, under the First Amendment. Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one, etc.

As for blaming HBES in particular and evolutionary psychologists in general: Culturebox was mistaken to rap the officers’ knuckles for letting MacDonald hold executive positions–he was elected to them, not appointed. That may reflect poorly on the membership, but it can’t be pinned on the officers. And perhaps she should have given HBES a chance to explain that it has long embraced an ethos of open expression–until recently, all papers submitted to the annual HBES conference were accepted without peer review. (According to founding member Leda Cosmides, back when the group was formed in 1989, this seemed the best way to combat the censorious hostility directed at most people working in evolutionary psychology at the time.) But Culturebox doesn’t think being inclusive gets HBES off the hook. On the contrary–accepting papers without peer review is an abdication of scholarly responsibility under the best of circumstances and a poor idea for an association of evolutionary psychologists, whose discipline is notorious for attracting cranks.

HBES president John Tooby tells Culturebox that he and other HBES members did not fail to be alarmed by MacDonald’s ideas. When a positive review of MacDonald’s work appeared in a journal about to be acquired by HBES, Tooby and others thought about sitting down and writing a letter objecting to both the work and the review. In the end, however, they decided not to. They didn’t want to give MacDonald and his reviewer any more attention than they had received already.

Culturebox would reply that if you’re going to take the unusual step of welcoming all ideas, you can’t proceed to ignore the bad ones. You have to be prepared to do battle against them. That is (or ought to be) the duty of anyone who has staked his or her professional reputation on one particular scientific approach or methodology. And giving publicity to bad ideas isn’t itself necessarily a bad idea. After all, if you draw attention a bad idea by refuting it, you also put your refutation on record.

Here’s what Culturebox has to say to all the evolutionary psychologists who feel that Culturebox has smeared them by association with a man she considers an anti-Semite: If he’s going to lay claim to your methodology and benefit from your systems of legitimation, it’s up to you to distinguish yourself from him. The MacDonalds of the world won’t go away just because you think they’re not worth responding to. Where they’ll go is wherever as many people as possible will hear them. And there they will brag–as MacDonald has done in a response to Culturebox coming soon to The Fray, and as he probably will in a British court some time in the next few months–“I have published my views in highly reputable refereed journals in psychology.”

Note for all of you who have stuck with this endless

New York Review of Books-style refutation and have yet to flee screaming: Culturebox will be responding to MacDonald’s post in The Fray–in The Fray. She hereby promises to keep Culturebox itself MacDonald-free–at least for the time being.