Scholars Object to Publication of Paper Defending Race Science

Scholars are objecting to the decision of the editors of the journal, Philosophical Psychology, to publish an article that calls for “free inquiry” into possible inherited genetic bases of group differences on IQ tests.

Detail of Redlining Map of San Francisco (1937)

The article, “Research on group differences in intelligence: A defense of free inquiry,” is by Nathan Cofnas, a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Oxford. Here’s its abstract:

In a very short time, it is likely that we will identify many of the genetic variants underlying individual differences in intelligence. We should be prepared for the possibility that these variants are not distributed identically among all geographic populations, and that this explains some of the phenotypic differences in measured intelligence among groups. However, some philosophers and scientists believe that we should refrain from conducting research that might demonstrate the (partly) genetic origin of group differences in IQ. Many scholars view academic interest in this topic as inherently morally suspect or even racist. The majority of philosophers and social scientists take it for granted that all population differences in intelligence are due to environmental factors. The present paper argues that the widespread practice of ignoring or rejecting research on intelligence differences can have unintended negative consequences. Social policies predicated on environmentalist theories of group differences may fail to achieve their aims. Large swaths of academic work in both the humanities and social sciences assume the truth of environmentalism and are vulnerable to being undermined. We have failed to work through the moral implications of group differences to prepare for the possibility that they will be shown to exist.

In acknowledgment of the provocative potential of the piece, the editors of Philosophical Psychology also published an editorial note defending its decision. It concludes:

Cofnas’ paper certainly adopts provocative positions on a host of issues related to race, genetics, and IQ. However, none of these positions are to be excluded from the current scientific and philosophical debates as long as they are backed up with logical argumentation and empirical evidence, and they deserve to be disputed rather than disparaged.

Water Bottles, Flint, Michigan

A petition has been launched objecting to the publication of the paper.

Started by Mark Alfano, a philosopher at Macquarie University, the petition disputes that Cofnas’s points were sufficiently “backed up with argumentation and empirical evidence,” and claims the paper was not competently reviewed. The main complaint noted in the the petition is that Cofnas’ paper “neglects the role played by environmental injustice, housing segregation, and related forms of discrimination in producing [IQ score] differences.”

If the editors and referees at Philosophical Psychology had competently reviewed the paper, they would have noticed this glaring error and insisted on revisions (or simply rejected the paper). Instead, it was accepted and published alongside an editors’ note defending the decision to publish that refers to the value of free speech and free inquiry. We also support free speech and free inquiry, but insist that free inquiry should be guided by norms of accuracy and expertise. Indeed, that is the point of academic peer-review. This paper does not respect those norms, and so should not have been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

The petition calls for a boycott of the journal until the journal’s leadership responds. The journal is edited by Cees van Leeuwen (University of Leuven) and Mitchell Herschbach (California State University, Northridge). The petition states:

Potentially responses include apology, retraction, or resignation (or some combination of these three). Should they choose to resign, we demand that a new group of leaders openly and honestly articulate a plan to reform the peer-review practices of the journal. Until the leadership respond in an acceptable way, we call upon philosophers and other researchers to boycott the journal by refusing to submit papers to it or referee for it.

The petition is here.

UPDATE 1/22/2020: Comments on this post are now closed.

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