Archive | Harvard E-Mail Controversy

Berkowitz on Harvard Law and the Email Controversy

Via Instapundit, my former colleague Peter Berkowitz has an excellent column criticizing Dean Minow’s response to the controversy.

One point Peter highlights is that it was a Harvard 3L student who speculated about the genetic basis for racial differences in IQ, but it was Dean Minow who wrote that the student “suggested that black people are genetically inferior to white people.” The student, however, not only reached no ultimate conclusion on the IQ issue (as many commentators have pointed out) but also (as few commentators have pointed out) said nothing about “inferiority” or “superiority,” and, as Peter puts it, to write without caveat that she did is an “incendiary revision.”

So, completely putting the race issue aside, Dean Minow’s revision suggests that she believes that people who have genetic endowments for greater-than-average intelligence are “genetically superior” to the average person. Now that’s an ugly sentiment, though perhaps one rather comforting for someone smart enough to be dean of Harvard Law School.

But perhaps, unlike what Dean Minow did her student, we should give her the benefit of the doubt, and not use one emailed statement to condemn her, even one that, unlike the student’s email, was assumedly well thought-out and was meant for public circulation.

UPDATE: Allow me to elaborate via analogy. Bernstein writes, “I think Ashkenazic Jews may be genetically predisposed to be shorter than Norwegians.” Cohen then writes, “Bernstein suggests that Ashkenazic Jews are genetically inferior to Norwegians.” It’s a fair inference that Cohen thinks that people who are predisposed to be taller than average are “genetically superior” to the average person.

[I have some end-of-semester deadlines to attend to, so comments are closed.] [...]

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Some Scientists’ Openness to the Possibility of Genetic Differences in Mental Traits Among Racial and Ethnic Groups

As I said in my first post on the Harvard e-mail controversy, I believe we should be open to the possibility of genetic racial differences in intelligence, just as we should be open to a wide range of other scientific possibilities. I have not simply been arguing that people should have a First Amendment argument to express such openness. I have been arguing that such openness is in fact sound, and that closing off this possibility in our minds (and in our conversations) cannot be sound, especially given how much scientists have yet to learn about the genetic basis of intelligence.

Now, for the reasons I gave in that post and in others, I think this position does not require reliance on authority. If you think that I’m misunderstanding the statements I quote below, or if you think that those statements are not credible, I will happily stand on my original argument.

But in case it’s helpful, I thought I’d pass along some recent statements from scientists who work in this field — statements that I think help highlight the correctness of the view I defend, and its practical importance for the coming years. First, a 2006 item from noted Harvard psychologist Prof. Steven Pinker, who is actually skeptical about claims of racial differences in intelligence: [...]

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Be Careful. Trust No-One. Shut Up.

That’s an oversimplification, of course, of the three arguments to which I was responding — with different degrees of disagreement — in my most recent posts (one, two, three) on the Harvard E-Mail Controversy. But is it really that much of an oversimplification?

Some people have been a bit puzzled about why I’ve spent so much time and energy blogging on this subject over the last few days. This post, coupled with my Kiev post, may help explain. [...]

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If You Don’t Have “Scientific Creds,” “STFU”

One refrain I saw in some of the comments on the Harvard e-mail matter (and heard in a personal conversation) is that we shouldn’t much worry about the reaction to the e-mail’s author, because she wasn’t really a scientist. If scientists, or others with real scientific knowledge, were deterred from expressing their views, the argument seems to go, that would be bad. But if laypeople who aren’t really knowledgeable are deterred, no big deal. Here’s one such comment:

[Quoting my original post: -EV] And whenever our society labels as taboo an openness to scientific possibilities, even possibilities that are undoubtedly fraught with possible bad consequences — whenever important institutions in our society publicly condemn people for their openness to such possibilities, against a background of possible career retaliation — our society makes itself less free, and makes its science less reliable.

I would be more sympathetic to this if this person had any connection whatsoever to the scientific community, was engaged in scientific research, was pursuing a degree in science, anything science-related. She wasn’t. She’s a 3L, going to be a clerk for a federal judge. That’s it. This isn’t about openness to scientific possibilities, and to suggest that it is is extremely disingenuous. Rip off 4 long, hand-wringing posts when actual science is being foreclosed.

[Another commenter had written: -EV] Thank you for putting what so many of us here at HLS are afraid to say into print. This whole incident (especially the dean’s public crucifixion after a disingenuous reading of the original email) makes me sick. The pursuit of truth shouldn’t be subverted because it would make some things easier to believe. That goes for religious dogma. That also goes for PC dogma.

Protip: Harvard Law students are not in the “pursuit of truth.” They’re not scientists. They’re

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Caution About Sending E-Mails — and About Trust

One recurring theme in the comments about the Harvard e-mail controversy is that one needs to be extra cautious about anything one writes in an e-mail. Some of the commenters (and some people I’ve talked to) go further, and suggest that the author of the controversial e-mail should get no sympathy but should instead be condemned for showing poor judgment in saying something potentially incendiary in an e-mail — regardless of whether the actual arguments in the e-mail were defensible on the merits. What kind of fool puts this sort of stuff in an e-mail?, the argument runs.

Now, as with Orin’s caution/tact/judgment post, I largely agree with the underlying advice: One ought to be very careful about one’s e-mails, even the personal ones. For instance, if someone e-mails me asking for my views about a job candidate or the like, I’ll respond by phone, not by e-mail. I’m not worried that my responses will cause a national outcry, but just that somehow the e-mail will get back to the candidate, or that even if my reaction is solidly positive, it will be less credible precisely because people might suspect that I might have been hesitant to say anything negative in writing. “Don’t say anything in an e-mail that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper” is generally good advice. [...]

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The Limits of Caution, Judgment, and Tact as Protection

I much appreciated Orin’s post about the value of caution, judgment, and tact in dealing with certain questions. These qualities surely are essential in such discussions — not just about race, but also about religion, sex, sexual orientation, and a wide range of other things. And they are of course valuable, though not as necessary, in discussions on less incendiary topics.

But while this is excellent advice, I think it’s important to realize two limits of caution, judgment, and tact. First, I’m not sure that — especially on this topic — they will give the speaker that much protection. Maybe I’m mistaken, but my sense of some of the reaction is that even the most carefully (but honestly) expressed suggestion that one is open to the possibility of genetic race-based differences in intelligence would be very risky to one’s career. And that is even more so if one actually wants to explain why one thinks — whether or not such thoughts ultimately prove correct — that there is evidence supporting that position.

Second, and as important, this incident suggests that Orin’s advice, to be effective, requires a level of constant watchfulness that many people might find hard to muster. It’s one thing to generally be tactful, cautious, and full of good-faith-establishing caveats.

It’s another to be so all the time that is one talking about a subject: In every e-mail that forms a part of a broader conversation (whether or not you’ve already given the caveats in that other conversation). In every unscripted comment, for instance if someone is insisting that racial disparities must be evidence of societal discrimination, and the speaker wants to suggest that such insistence relies on the unproven assumption of the absence of genetic racial differences in intelligence. In every argument, even when one is annoyed [...]

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Approaching Arguments That Have A Racist Past

Like Eugene, I received an e-mail recently from a student who will be a 1L at Harvard Law School this fall. Like the student who e-mailed Eugene, this student is somewhat worried about the environment he’ll find when he enrolls. He writes:

I’m an incoming student at Harvard Law next year. And even though I’m neither interested in nor well-informed about whether Jews are greedy moneylenders, I am scared to even mention my opinion on the subject to my friends or roommates, or ask them about it. I have no idea what I would say if someone asked me if I could categorically rule out the possibility that Jews tend to be greedy moneylenders. But the funny thing is, I have no idea what anyone would say. The reasonable thing to say has been tabooed.

My advice to this student would be to recognize that some arguments have to be approached with great caution not because of their logic but because of their history. After an argument is used in a particular way for a few centuries, that argument is going to be heard by many others in light of its past. Sure, some listeners will hear the argument on its own terms without any historical baggage. And I assume that’s the way you’ll intend it. But others will assume that you’re well-versed in the history. If you make the argument without any caveats, those listeners may wonder if (or even assume that) you share the racist beliefs of the people who made that same argument in the past.

Let me be clear: That doesn’t mean the entire topic is taboo. And it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t express any opinion on the topic at all if it comes up. But it does mean that you should recognize that [...]

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A View from an Incoming Harvard 1L

Here’s a message that I got in response to the earlier posts on the Harvard e-mail controversy. I do not know the author personally, but I thought it was worth passing along; I certainly saw no cues suggesting that it was insincere or otherwise not credible:

I wish I were a tenured professor, and was able to say reasonable and true things freely, like the idea that things that haven’t been proven yet remain unproven.

Instead, I’m an incoming student at Harvard Law next year. And even though I’m neither interested in nor well-informed about the IQ-race correlation debate, I am scared to even mention my opinion on the subject to my friends or roommates, or ask them about it. I have no idea what I would say if someone asked me if I could categorically rule out the possibility that there was a correlation between race and IQ… but the funny thing is, I have no idea what anyone would say. The reasonable thing to say has been tabooed.

And I wish that I could write an op-ed or something about it, except I realize that if this is the reaction to stating these kinds of ideas in a forwarded private e-mail, imagine what people would say about a published argument…

And I wish I could send this email to Dean Minow instead of you, except that I know now that she doesn’t seem to condemn or criticize the forwarding of private emails, and I don’t know where it would end up, and I realize that it is privately rational for me to just shut up and pretend I agree with everyone else, and I wonder how many people are doing that….

(I assumed from context, and confirmed in a follow-up e-mail, that by “IQ-race correlation” the author [...]

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Judging a Person Based on a Single Forwarded Personal E-Mail

To my mind, the most troubling aspect of the Harvard e-mail controversy is how many people feel comfortable publicly judging someone based on a single forwarded private e-mail. I can see judging a person based on a law review article they wrote, or an op-ed they penned, or public speech they made. All of these forms of speech are freestanding statements that can be judged on their own. In contrast, I think we need to be cautious about judging a person from a single private e-mail they wrote at some point in the past that was forwarded on to a wider audience without their consent.

The problem is that individual e-mails generally are not freestanding. They are snippets of an ongoing conversation, and that conversation normally will have a context. As outsiders, though, we just don’t know the context. We don’t know the ongoing conversation; we don’t know the person’s background; we don’t know what assumptions were being made that were a part of the e-mail we’re seeing. We don’t know what other e-mails were sent that might clarify or apologize for an earlier statement. We don’t know the sender’s state of mind. And when it comes to an e-mail sent right after dinner, we also don’t know how much they had to drink at dinner that night. All we have is that one snippet that is the single e-mail.

I think we should be cautious about judging a person in that setting. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it at all, of course. But I think it does counsel caution. Especially so when we’re trying to construe statements that could be read in different ways based on the context.

Take the e-mail in the Harvard controversy. The most controversial sentence is the second sentence in the e-mail. The [...]

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Taboo and Not Taboo at Elite Universities

Anthropologists tell us that one window into a society is what is and is not taboo in that society. It’s interesting to look at America’s elite universities in this context. Let’s take examples of people and ideas that are not taboo, just from things that I’ve blogged about:

Being the head of an enemy, terrorist state, which is helping to kill American soldiers.

Being an unrepentant domestic terrorist, so long as you are an unrepentant leftist domestic terrorist; klansmen and neo-Nazis need not apply.

Calling 9/11 victims “Little Eichmans.”

Suggesting that American Jewish leaders resemble stereotypes out of Der Sturmer, at least if you are doing so in service of a general leftist, anti-Israel ideology. (Pat Robertson or Pat Buchanan would get no “pass” if they made similar remarks.)

[Note: Ayers, Churchill, and Finkelstein, the examples provided above, don’t teach at elite universities, but they have plenty of defenders and apologists at such universities, and none would be considered generally “taboo” as a speaker.]

Suggesting that any Jew with traditional religious values is unfit to serve in government, that a top-ranking Jewish U.S. official was more loyal to Israel than to the U.S., and that “right-wing” American Jews somehow pushed the U.S. into the Iraq War. Again, at least if this is in the service of hostility to Israel.

Being a convicted cop-killer on death row, with strong evidence of guilt.

By contrast, writing a private email concluding that one thinks that the science regarding racial differences in intelligence is uncertain is taboo.

One can have a lively discussion regarding whether some or all of these things are should be taboo, but the interesting thing is that the individuals who are most committed to keeping the latter topic taboo tend to be the same people who complain [...]

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4. On a Bus in Kiev

I remember very little about my childhood in the Soviet Union; I was only seven when I left. But one memory I have is being on a bus with one of my parents, and asking something about a conversation we had had at home, in which Stalin and possibly Lenin were mentioned as examples of dictators. My parent took me off the bus at the next stop, even though it wasn’t the place we were originally going.

Perhaps I have some of the details wrong (was it just Stalin, or also Lenin?); childhood memories remembered 35 years later are like that. I’m telling this to explain why I feel so strongly about it, based on my memories; my personal account does not affect the soundness (or unsoundness) of my arguments. But my sense from all I’ve heard is that this is exactly how life was like there, and that no-one who lived there in the 1970s would think the scenario at all improbable. [...]

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3. The Practical Costs of Condemning Openness to Distressing Answers on Factual Questions

I’ve blogged a good deal so far about why I disapprove of the condemnation of the student who e-mailed a couple of friends saying that she “absolutely do[es] not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent.” But let me turn to a more practical problem with such condemnation. [...]

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1. Science, Faith, and Not Ruling Out Possibilities

Much has been said in the last two days about a Harvard law student’s e-mail to a couple of other students — an e-mail that was some months later apparently widely forwarded by one of the recipients (without the sender’s permission). The e-mail led to much criticism of the sender, coverage in Above The Law, the Boston Globe, an AP wire story, and the Harvard Crimson, a condemnatory statement from the Dean of Harvard Law School, an apology from the sender, and more.

I thought I’d say a few words about this, both in this post and in some others to come, because this seems to me to go to the heart of what a university should be, of what we should want our society to be, and of a scientific approach to questions of scientific fact.

I would have happily avoided this topic if I could have. But I feel an obligation — as a professor, as a tenured professor, and as someone who feels strongly about the need to treat scientific questions as scientific questions and not as articles of faith — to speak up about it. I am not naïve enough to be surprised that an e-mail such as this would lead to public condemnation and a public outcry. But that the reaction has been unsurprising doesn’t mean that it has been proper. [...]

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