Why Is Eugenics Still Worth Debating???

To hear the press—and especially the conservative press—tell it, Charles Murray is an embattled conservative whose ideas can get no quarter because the liberal elite hate them. His difficulties at speaking events are a product of a campus atmosphere hostile to “free speech”. This is part of a worrying rise in anti-intellectualism on the left.

The problem with all that? Charles Murray’s ideas are garbage.


The Southern Poverty Law Center details Murray as someone who is on the intellectual fringe. The linked piece establishes that Murray relies on, in their words, tainted sources. His theory relies on “dysgenesis”, an idea that was on its last legs when my grandparents were in high school. Essentially, having children with “inferior” races will lead to a breakdown in the welfare system as the pressures created by the “regression” of the gene pool lead to too few people supporting the victims of dysgenesis. There are a bunch of problems with both the assumptions and methodology of his research, not to mention that the logical conclusion of this work is another Holocaust. Make no mistake, the foundation of Murray’s work are uncontroversially pseudo-science.

At this point Murray’s defenders like to trot out a Voltaire quote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Even taken out of context, Murray’s right to make these assertions is not in question. In context, these are not Voltaire’s words. A historian summarized summarized Voltaire’s position on a controversial book that way. The book faced formal censorship by the government and church culminating in a book burning and, ironically, Voltaire felt the work was unoriginal and not worth all the fuss. As near as I can tell, the Federal Government is not looking to burn to burn Murray’s work, but I admit I did not check.

Indeed, the preoccupation of the much-vaunted Enlightenment folks was with government intrusion. In the American context, we have erected a strong framework opposing Federal and State intervention against most speech; Congress may not pass a law preventing Murray from spreading his pseudo-science. There is a wrinkle when talking about public institutions of higher learning, which after all derive their authority from popular election. Courts have held (in my view, correctly) that institutions have the right to limit who has access to a platform, but must provide a public space for all views. In other words, Murray is not legally entitled to a stage, but he can go stand next to the Evangelists and hawk his outmoded “science”. Can you imagine the chaos if we were all entitled to speak at any public university we chose!

The second broad line of objection is that the best way to defeat ideas is by meeting them head on. I demur a bit to the broad point; suppression by Universities hardly serves the purpose of intellectual foment. But does giving charlatans a stage serve that goal either? Students, even those giving a more clunky objection to Murray than I, are not calling to ban critical engagement with Murray’s work. Giving people the chance to speak in a forum that limits questions, like a speech at a university, works fine if the ideas are prima facie defensible. Who, besides Murray and the literal neo-Nazi outfits who fund him, is asserting that Eugenics still deserves a careful public hearing? What, precisely, is Murray offering that one could not find in a history text?

The best way to critically engage with debunked, half a century old science is not to treat it as a cutting edge theory which deserves to have its contours fleshed out. Murray’s ideas aren’t being dismissed for lack of engagement, but because experts concluded the preponderance of the evidence came down against a generation ago. Murray’s baldly false assertion that “most” experts agree with his premise should be enough to disqualify him from University speaking engagements. It is bad enough that his science is trash, but he is flatly lying about his colleagues’ positions to worm his way onto campus. Courts have a high standard for retrying legal cases, as do academics for intellectual ones and for the same reason: these debates are time consuming. Those interested in retrying Eugenics should have to prove that the field has something new to offer. Murray’s lies reveal that he does not think he can meet that burden.

Ironically, it is those who would shoehorn Murray onto the stage who are showing the most wanton disregard for the goals of the academy. Voltaire and his cohort correctly worried that the whims of popular pressure would bring the force of the state against them. Today, conservative commentators worry that an idea that only lives in the popular imagination is not being forced into the academy.

Is this the current state of conservative intellectualism? That they give quarter to any idea, no matter how plainly indefensible, so long as it opposes the welfare state? I hope not! Conservative ideas like Burkean anti-radicalism, Hayek’s information problem, and Hicks’s marginalism temper my progressive values. I am a better, more well-rounded critic because conservatives have historically offered a vibrant response to the liberals of their time. But rather than looking critically at Murray’s ideas and acknowledging they come up short on the burden of proof, they are openly worried that Murray is not being paid to shill yesterday’s junk science. When liberals pull the tricks Murray does—pulling on outdated methodology or claiming a consensus that does not exist—I use this platform to write them a cease-and-desist letter. I do so because I am genuinely worried that poor discourse hurts our understanding of the world. Can conservatives defending Murray say the same?

Murray’s speech rights are not under siege. As far as I know, there is no credible threat to his right to propound these ideas. What is under siege is his lucrative deception that his ideas are scientifically debatable; they are not.

And so, we should not debate them.


Safe Space Objectors Are Destroying the Liberal Tradition!!!

edinburgh university

Okay, that’s an exaggeration.

But take a look at this piece about Imogen Wilson, who was “slapped with a ‘safe space complaint’ after raising her hand during discussion”.

Details in the piece are scant, but the headline is misleading in at least one way. They were not having a “discussion” in the normal sense that people use that word. They were having a debate. And while another speaker was talking she raised her hands. There are rules about this is formal, moderated debate about what you can do when someone else is speaking. These are from Robert’s, which probably serve as the model:

In Order When Another Has the Floor. After a member has been assigned the floor he cannot be interrupted by a member or the chairman, except by (a) a motion to reconsider; (b) a point of order; (c) an objection to the consideration of the question; (d) a call for the orders of the day when they are not being conformed to; (e) a question of privilege; (f) a request or demand that the question be divided when it consists of more than one independent resolution on different subjects; or (g) a parliamentary inquiry or a request for information that requires immediate answer; and these cannot interrupt him after he has actually commenced speaking unless the urgency is so great as to justify it….

It is generally understood that gestures are included in “interrupt”. But just in case it is not generally understood, The Washington Times points out that the published rules for the Edinburgh University Student Assembly do not allow gesturing during debate. This is to prevent people from flailing around silently to distract the speaker and audience and, sit down for this, protect discourse.

To be fair, if the Washington Times’ reporting on this is completely accurate, then Wilson is probably the victim of the zealous application of the rule. Indeed, this does not strain credulity because the Israel/Palestine conflict was on the docket and goodness knows that inspires pettiness. But it is quite damning (for the Washinton Times) that they did not secure a quote from the chair or anyone else present. Such an omission should be noted, not papered over with a quote from the handbook. I would be curious to know if the chair felt her interruption was as isolated as Wilson’s account implies. But we must also consider the very real possibility that it was.

The Telegraph has more lucid reporting on the matter, and draws out the narrative that the application of the rule was politically motivated and enforced unevenly. That more than implies that the problem is not safe spaces, but rather with the chair. That a chairperson might abuse their power is hardly a revelation if you’ve ever considered formal, liberal debate for like even ten seconds.

Why precisely these are called “safe space” rules rather than “rules of order” is a mystery to me. But I suspect that if you replaced the headlines with “rules of order”, people would not find this nearly so shocking. “Student accused of violating university ‘rules of order’ by raising her hands”. It was not Wilson’s turn to communicate with the chamber and so the question of her communication with it is (at face) a legitimate one.

In fact, it is Wilson herself who has done an admirable job putting this in perspective:

“I totally do believe in safe space and the principles behind it,” she told the Telegraph. “It’s supposed to enhance free speech and not shut it down, and give everyone a chance to feel like they can contribute.

“Safe space is essential for us to have a debate where everyone can speak, but it can’t become a tool for the hard left to use when they disagree with people.”

She said: “At that meeting we were discussing BDS, the movement to boycott Israel. I made a long and passionate speech against us subscribing to this, on the basis it encourages anti-Semitism on campus. It was only after I made that speech that someone made a safe space complaint. I can’t help but think it was a political move against me.

“Later on in the meeting, someone threatened me with a second complaint because I was shaking my head – but when I was addressing the room about my worries about Jewish students, there were plenty of people shaking their heads and nothing happened.”

According to EUSA safe space rules, only gestures that indicate agreement are “permissible”, and then only as long as “these gestures are generally understood and not used in an intimidating manner”.

Compare this with the hysterical rhetoric of the student who started a petition to repeal the rules of order (!!!):

One Edinburgh university student, Charlie Peters, complained it was “pathetic” that hand gestures were “censored” and has started a petition calling on the student union to “reinstate and defend free speech”.

Wilson, unlike Peters and many commentators, understands that the issue here is how the rules where used, not the rules themselves. Moderated debate is necessary to prevent people from using tactics of disruption and intimidation cloaked as “free speech”, and that certainly includes silent gestures. Wilson’s particular case is a cautionary tale about responsibly chairing debate, not about having rules against interrupting.

This is very typical of the safe-space debate. Opponents of safe spaces seize on a messy example, and one that is reported in a lopsided way. They then throw out the entire history of liberal discourse and worry that liberal discourse is being eroded. The fact is that banning disrupting gestures has been matter of course in meetings since…forever. Failing to moderate forums—be they chambers, internet comment sections, or classroom discussions—hurts, not helps, discourse. In this way, the rush to “counteract” this “new” moderation is actually eroding the historical safeguards on free speech.

Whether or not that moderation was good judgement in Wilson’s case is an important and separate issue.