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,

I, too, want to shift tone and focus to the bigger questions, since I have considerable sympathy with your positions on everything from Günter Grass to our misdeeds. (For those for whom my undeniable deviousness remains a burning concern, see.)

I admit to having a bit of fun proposing alternate-universe titles for your piece, but my “Lewontin-bashing” conceals deeply serious points. The first is, ideas—dangerous or not—are defined by their content. If, as you argue, scholars are morally culpable for ideas they legitimize, then surely the people who actually share and advance the views in question are more culpable than those who have a history of intellectually combating them. (Surely also they deserve to be described as such in press accounts.) The fringe idea that Lewontin, MacDonald, and Gould are working to legitimize— that large groups of organisms function as biological competitors—has been central for ideologies that once caused the deaths of tens of millions and may again in new guise. (For why Gould’s views are alarming, see.) Silence on this point is the one thing you cannot accuse evolutionary psychologists of: Evolutionary psychology has a consistent record (shared by the far larger community of adaptationist evolutionary scientists to which it belongs) of combating this hydra-headed fallacy. (Those interested in a result specifically from evolutionary psychology that falsifies a broad set of racist views can see.)

The second is: Academics, editors, journalists, and granting agencies make a regular practice of deploying their powers and sympathies toward ideas not on the basis of their actual content (that requires a kind of close attention that is impractical for busy people), but instead on quick cues—e.g., the reputation for moralizing of the scientists involved, or lasting but often unfounded impressions about the drift of certain ideas caused by such public moral posturing. Moreover, it is such a part of the sad fabric of the world that doing what appears moral diverges so often and so sharply from doing what actually is moral that anyone who has, over his lifetime, acquired a widespread reputation for virtue is someone who has routinely been willing to inflict great damage on others because of his hunger for looking good. Specifically, the way scientific issues look upclose, both morally and intellectually, and the way they look or can be made to look fromadistance are so frequently at odds that this opens up a major niche for fluent and well-credentialed academic arbitrageurs, who can troll for, exploit, or manufacture these bad appearances to acquire towering reputations for moral activism and intellectual insight. They inject consistent, major distortions into the public understanding of everything from economics to environmental science to neuroscience—and by “public,” I mean to include even professionals in the same discipline who are unfamiliar with the technical niceties of the subspecialties in question—but who still decide on the hiring, promotion, publishing, and funding of those in the targeted subspecialties.

Such figures—Gould and Lewontin are the type specimens—are granted formidable cultural power by gatekeepers (such as the editors of New York Review of Books, TheNew Yorker, ScientificAmerican) eager to do the right thing, and so these arbitrageurs drown out the voices of the experts in the fields under discussion. However, God is in the details, and up close is where the focus has to be if critical scientific and moral issues are to have some chance of being intelligently and humanely addressed. Worse, because these voices are often the only ones most non-specialists ever get to hear (I’ve heard that Gould’s books sell far more than all other biologists’ put together), the temptation to cultivate an aura of daring originality—which is key to exciting deep admiration in science—becomes difficult to resist. This is done by advancing and elaborating offbeat, eccentric views (e.g., Gould’s self-description as pioneering “a new and general theory of evolution” or his entertaining claim that neo-Darwinism is “effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy”) while at the same time keeping from readers the reasons why expert consensus discounts such views.

In short, there is a powerful dynamic guaranteeing that some of our most famous, most trusted, most authoritative scientific voices not only regularly misinform but also misrepresent fringe opinion as central. So the problem, Judith, is not so much fringe on the fringe—now that MacDonald’s views have come to light, they will quickly be debunked. The deeper problem is the fringe at the center, and the genuine human cost that comes from the systematic legitimization of bad ideas. The humane and winning columns of Steve Gould, for example, frequently edge into outright fiction and contain inversions that are laugh-out-loud funny to those in the know. (For those admirable empiricists who want to evaluate such an improbable claim for themselves, read Gould’s persuasive two-part attack on evolutionary psychology and adaptationism in the NYRB here and here, and Leda Cosmides’ and my reply here.)

Gould is currently the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and so is arguably the nation’s top scientist. Could he really be a fringe scientist? As John Maynard Smith, one of the world’s top five evolutionary biologists said, Gould “is giving non-biologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory,” and “the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists.” Or as Harvard’s Ernst Mayr, another of the five, says of Gould and his allies: They “quite conspicuously misrepresent the views of [biology’s] leading spokesmen.” For more see.

I’m out of space but speaking of central figures, I did want to ask you, given your experiences in Paul de Man’s department at Yale, what lessons you draw from the de Man and Heidegger controversies on how to fight bad ideas.