How To Deal With Fringe Academics

Judith Shulevitz is the New York editor of Slate and writes the “ Culturebox” column. John Tooby is a professor of anthropology and co-director of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Slate has invited them to discuss the academic fringe in general and Kevin MacDonald in particular. Alex Star, the editor of Lingua Franca, is moderating. Click here to read his introduction and recap of the brouhaha over MacDonald.

Dear Judith and Alex,

For reasons that will become clear, I’ve spent the last week, midnight to 6 a.m., searching through Web sites devoted to the Holocaust (and its denial), a sleepless, shifting mosaic of photographs, documents, testimony:

Twenty-foot layers of human ash—shrunken heads—the industrial use of victims’ hair—piles of shoes, eyeglasses, gold teeth, bodies burned, bodies unburned—heaps of artificial limbs destined for new owners—medical experiments—the “technical achievement” of Auschwitz crematoria that could be run continuously—the voices of death camp survivors whose forms can hardly be told from the corpses—and the other voices, the voices of the officials speaking through surviving documents: “97,000 were processed using three vans, without any faults occurring in the vehicles. … It seems that these lamps are hardly ever turned on, so the users have suggested that they could be done away with. Experience shows, however, that when the back door is closed and it gets dark inside, the load pushes hard against the door. … This hampers the locking of the door. It has also been noticed that the noise provoked by the locking of the door is linked to the fear aroused by the darkness.”

However difficult to read, there has perhaps never been more evidence about any set of interrelated historical events than about the Holocaust. Yet thanks to the forum provided by British libel law, David Irving now not only gets to sue scholars like Deborah Lipstadt who criticize him but he also makes headlines across the world in what the Guardian has called “the most far-reaching court case about the Holocaust since the execution of Adolf Eichmann.” “Trains to the camps were ‘well provisioned,’ ” runs one. “Gas chambers ‘that never were,’ ” reads another. Irving is also a humorist, for example making scatological acronyms from “Auschwitz survivors, survivors of the Holocaust and other liars.” In a world where most skim headlines and know little history, Irving has raised doubts in the most public possible way.

In this trial, Kevin MacDonald, “a Judaism authority” according to the Guardian, or “an evolutionary psychologist” according to the two of you, has volunteered to testify on behalf of Irving. His theory is developed in elaborate detail in three volumes: that Jews are joined in a 2,000-year-old “” to spread their genes and to acquire wealth at the expense of Gentiles, as well as to eugenically breed themselves for competitive traits such as intelligence and ambition. According to MacDonald, anti-Semitism is a rational response by others to this Jewish genetic and project.

Judith, you raise the question, how are we to fight bad ideas? Choices include denouncing them (as immoral), showing them to be untrue, or ignoring them. European nations, despite the rumor that the Enlightenment originated there, presently provide us with other: arresting, fining, imprisoning—to which far less liberal societies and enterprising individuals add assaulting and murdering.

The first three are consistent with respect for human rights. These options each have different consequences and pitfalls, subtle and obvious, and—what is less appreciated—they are nearly mutually exclusive. Each is an act of social construction, shaping its share of the world, helping to create the social realities that we all have to live with and within. Over the past 30 years, sometimes I have chosen one, sometimes another, never with an easy heart, and never confident that I or others have made the right choice. Judith, you seem so much more confident than I do, not only about what you should do, but about what the rest of us should do. So, I will not be arguing that your choice was wrong—only that it has pitfalls.

In choosing moral denunciation, what have you done? Many things that MacDonald has not been able to do for himself. Through Slate, one of the Web’s premier news gateways, you have made the obscure and fringe famous and well-indexed. You have constructed him as the key figure in a scandal or affair—the kind of thing people enjoy reading about. You have publicized his theories, published statements from him and supporters, and become the major Web site to provide a link to his own Web page, so that the Web-enabled from Kabul to Kiev to Idaho to Gaza, looking for a theoretician for their views, can click on this new discovery. You did this without providing readers with a comparable place to click on to find a critical evaluation of MacDonald’s views. And while this may be unfair to you, to my eye, in order to make the “facts” build into more of a story, there has been a tendency at various journalistic choice points for you to glamorize his professional identity and affiliations in a series of questionable or even fallacious characterizations.

This begins even in the title of your first article, “Evolutionary Psychology’s Anti-Semite.” Kevin MacDonald is not remotely an evolutionary psychologist, any more than B.F. Skinner was a Freudian psychoanalyst, or Social Text the leading physics journal of our time. With greater accuracy, as we’ll see tomorrow, the headline might have been Richard Lewontin’s Anti-Semite, or many other absurd choices. I and Leda Cosmides, in an act of social construction more than two decades ago, coined the term evolutionary psychology. We did this to distinguish a distinct set of factual claims and theoretical positions that several like-minded scholars were converging on from a much larger and more heterogeneous sea of opinions about the relationship between evolution and human behavior. Others, in standard references and elsewhere, subsequently ratified our definition, whether they agreed with the viewpoint or not. In contrast, the theoretical viewpoint expressed in MacDonald’s books stands in the most extreme contradiction to nearly every contentful core claim of evolutionary psychology. MacDonald himself does not even list the term in the index of any of his books. While he may now be calling himself an evolutionary psychologist, this is what journalism—investigative or not—is for: not to take people’s claims about themselves at face value. If you don’t believe him about the nature of Judaism, why believe him in?

My favored choice is using logic and evidence to winnow errors—an approach that carries its own moral world. (Or more accurately, ignoring errors until they begin to play a significant role in a field or in public life, and then exposing the fallacies.)

In this world, the statement that something is immoral is entirely worthless, as is the claim that it is untrue—unless you guide readers to the reasons for your conclusion. That is the deep ethic of the scientist and the scholar, and why I will end today with two links. One question that must be addressed, now that it has been raised, is what really happened in the Holocaust. The best single Web site I have been able to find is the Nizkor Project (Nizkor means “We will remember,” in Hebrew). Its best subpage takes a central pamphlet of questions and answers written by the leading Holocaust deniers, and devastatingly annotates it with additional information in a way that only the Web can do. True to the morality of this path, they say: “Nizkor believes that truth has no need for secrecy. We present the material of the Holocaust-deniers unaltered and completely openly, with links back to their Web sites so that the reader may examine exactly what they say. And if and when they have a response to our work, we will of course cross-link to it, so that the reader may examine that response.” On an infinitely more trivial note, our debunking of MacDonald’s books will appear on the  Center for Evolutionary Psychology  Web page, under the CriticalEye section, as soon as it can be drafted.