The LSE’s bell curve

LONDON–Satoshi Kanazawa, a virtually unknown professor of evolutionary psychology at the London School of Economics (LSE), has published in the pages of the British Journal of Health Psychology an article suggesting that ill-health and poverty in less-developed countries in Africa can be blamed on low IQs. Predictably, student activists have circulated an electronic petition across Europe calling on the well-known school to stand up for tolerance and diversity–by condemning Kanazawa.

Thankfully, these self-appointed do-gooders are off to a slow start. At the time I finished editing this column, the student petition, “LSE Lecturer: Research or Racism?” had only 151 signatures.

Needless to say, I was not one of its signatories. It’s not that I support Kanazawa (I don’t even know who he is). Rather, I consider the petition’s aim to be nothing more than a call for censorship. I’m not sure I like that.

I also bristle anytime student activists and other pimple-faced do-gooders decide what views or opinions I should be protected from. But more than anything else, the petition embodies the worst kind of political correctness and is, with no hyperbole intended, fundamentally dangerous to the very idea of academic freedom.

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In my way of thinking, if you really aim to be diverse and tolerant–as an individual, institution, or society–then I think freedom of thought and liberty of opinion (no matter how objectionable) is fundamental. I am therefore perplexed by a petition that calls for institutional condemnation of a professor. How can censorship of a particular view–no matter how obtuse or misguided it may be–be equated to standing up for tolerance and diversity?

Now, let’s be up-front about things here: Racist or racialist theories are repugnant. And Kanazawa may be shown to have, in the end, some questionable views. But I’m not ready to label him a racist or eugenicist yet since I haven’t read his article (and I’m not about to blindly trust the British tabloids). His publishing record is certainly provocative and includes such choice works as “Why beautiful people are more intelligent”, “You can judge a book by its cover”, and “The myth of racial discrimination in pay in the US”.

But the truth is I am not in the least bit interested in discussing Kanazawa or his article. What concerns me is the well-intentioned but wholly misguided reactions to his ideas. In other words, the problem is not Kanazawa but the LSE petition and the authoritarian liberals signing it. Their morally righteous and knee-jerk reaction to ideas deemed “dangerous” frankly terrifies me much more than Kanazawa himself

To be sure, this is the first that any of us studying journalism here have ever heard of Kanazawa. But I have little doubt that the Kanazawa story will get bigger in the coming weeks–especially as the petition spreads and if the LSE continues to admirably defend the professor’s right to publish controversial research.

Of course, in the US, we’ve seen this all before: earlier this year, when John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published their paper “The Israel Lobby”; in, 2005, when Larry Summers at Harvard raised questions about gender and academic achievement in mathematics; in 2004, when Samuel Huntington published Who Are We?, on America’s national identity and Hispanic immigration; in 1994, when Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein co-wrote The Bell Curve. It’s no different on the other side of the Atlantic. In March, Leeds University forced the early retirement of a professor accused of racism because he supported the ideas of Murray and Herrnstein (which have, by the way, almost nothing to do with race but everything to do with the erosion of social cohesion in the US). And incidents of political correctness abound in England and across the Euro-zone.

That’s why with regards to Kanazawa, I am surprised that the LSE hasn’t yet fired him. (The last time I saw this kind of back-bone in defense of free speech was when the Danish government refused to condemn the news daily Jyllands-Posten for publishing a dozen cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.)

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What to do about Kanazawa? Laissez faire, laissez aller, laissez passer. Let him continue to put his ideas into circulation–by publishing articles, lecturing, giving provocative presentations–and watch just how quickly the marketplace of ideas at the LSE and elsewhere will churn with indignant responses to his outrageous claims. I have no doubt that his work will eventually serve as a catalyst for others to carry out their own research. Some of these researchers will overwhelm him with reams of new data. Others may eventually (si Deus vult) prove him flat-out wrong–and effectively reduce him to academic irrelevance.

But liberty of thought and mind is vital. And if there is one place in the world where crack-pot ideas can be discussed and hair-brained schemes explored without fear of retribution it should be in the halls of academe. It is precisely because the LSE is a diverse and tolerant [academic] institution that it should do nothing about Kanazawa and leave the professor to his fever swamps. Let the student petitioners gnash their teeth.

Alvino-Mario Fantini is Europe correspondent for Brainwash. He is currently an Erasmus Mundus scholar through the European Union.