Response to the Harvard e-mail controversy

By All Hands

Last week, one Harvard law student forwarded a fellow classmate’s six-month old e-mail to people guaranteed to take offense to it.  The original e-mail’s damning line, which has been seized upon by Above The Law, Eugene Volokh and others, is this:

“I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent.”

We are not writing to discuss the merits of this original e-mail, but rather the response it has generated.  The above quote can fairly be described as the line that launched ten thousand blog comments.  Beyond the sources mentioned above, scores of people have weighed in on the issue at Gawker, Jezebel, Feministe, Bossip, Steve Sailer’s Blog, Roissy and other message boards.  Some are now calling, fairly actively in some cases, for the e-mail’s author to lose her upcoming clerkship on the 9th Circuit.

This outrage is predictable and protected by the first amendment.  While being offended is the cost of living in a free society, people who are offended are entitled to recourse using their own free speech rights.  When religious groups are offended by some aspect of culture, they band together to effect change, or at least heightened awareness and sensitivity.  Even if the outrage surrounding this e-mail is irrational, it’s a natural response to profound criticism; chiding outraged people for expressing their distress would be glib.

Shaming tactics, however, only work when there is mutual respect between parties that can be lost through a breach of trust.  When someone’s parents or friends shame them, it is effective because the shamed wishes to be viewed positively by those he or she values.  When the shaming group is anonymous to its target, there is no respect to be lost.  Rather than engaging the controversy with attacks and shaming language, those aggrieved could have engaged in reasoned, logical discourse, as we attempt to do now.

We do not begrudge the offended their response to this incident.  We do not think that it is the most effective or productive means of response, either.  By pushing sentiments like the e-mailer’s underground, we delay and deepen the effects of such beliefs.  Perhaps the time to discuss race without the cloud of racism hanging overhead has not yet come, but refusing to engage ideas, however uncomfortable they are, with evidence, facts, data or anything but counterattacks and dismissiveness ensures that the post-racial society we strove for in 2008 is no closer to existing today than it was then.

The issue addressed by the e-mailer is a complex one of scientific and social significance.  This subtlety and nuance of these issues largely have been lost amidst the backlash from her speech.  Indeed, she should expect backlash, and may well deserve it.  However, given the fact that this was presumed to be a private email, and it only became a widely-publicized event because of a personal spat, even that is called into question.

But as with all rights, the ability to do something does not necessarily make it a good idea.  However justified we all may feel in saying what we want, it does not shield ourselves and others from the consequences of doing so.  Just as the emailer and her critics’ speech affected one another, the aggregate effect of this incident and its fallout affects all of us and how we as a society respond to difficult questions of race.  Being mindful of the precedent these controversies set, it would be better for all involved to swallow their pride, however bitter it tastes, and engage in discourse together.  For it is in the dark, in the vacuum of contextualized information and feedback that taboos create and reinforce, that ignorant and harmful views are born.

31 Responses to Response to the Harvard e-mail controversy

  1. Alan says:

    > The issue addressed by the e-mailer is a complex one of scientific and social significance.

    Please explain to us the scientific and social significance of the issue addressed by the e-mailer.

    • Clint says:

      Quite simply, there could be genes that increase intelligence. These genes may not be distributed equally amongst all people, and may follow an observable distribution per-race. Just as sickle-cell anemia is genetically flagged and occurs more in some races, so can predisposition to intelligence. Reality itself might be a racist…

      • Alan says:

        That attempts to explain the issue, but does not in any way explain the SIGNIFICANCE of the issue.

        • Matt says:

          Obviously the significance of the issue is that it there is a possibility that some races are indeed, on average, more or less intelligent than other races.

          Therefore all this outrage as a result of a claim that may be backed up by science but is immediately dismissed, might be unfounded. There are many topics in science that scientists just won’t study purely because of large groups of people that would be offended by the very notion of the possibility that the theory could be correct.

          The social significance of one race being scientifically proven to be less predisposed to intelligence than another would shake the very foundation of the “all races are equal” ideology.

          • Alan says:

            First of all, I have never heard of this “all races are equal” ideology. Did you mean “all races are created equal”? I haven’t heard of that one either, but I have heard of “all men are created equal”. I have also heard that we are to judge men by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. That expressed the fundamental philosophy that we are to treat people as individuals, not as members of a particular racial group, but it says nothing about the races themselves. Please cite some sources for your claimed ideology that “all races are equal”, because I have never heard of it before.

            Second, none of this answers the fundamental question. J DeVoy wrote that “The issue addressed by the e-mailer is a complex one of scientific and social significance.” and again, I ask, specifically in reply to him, please explain to us the scientific and social significance of the issue addressed by the e-mailer.

        • Clint says:

          The significance is, people don’t like to be called dumb :)

      • Davis says:

        there could be genes that increase intelligence.

        If we can figure out how to define “intelligence” sensibly, this might be true.

        …may follow an observable distribution per-race.

        But this is meaningless. Genetically, what we currently call “race” is not a meaningful criterion for categorizing people, any more than hair color would be. Two people of different races can be genetically more similar to each other than to others of their own race, so the hypothesis as you’ve framed it would require an extremely unlikely link between genes for certain physical characteristics and genes for “intelligence”.

        Moreover, “observable distribution” translates into correlation, not “genetic explanation”. And correlation is not causation.

        • Clint says:

          And yet, certain races have much higher rates of illness or genetic conditions. Look at sickle-cell anemia among black people – or lactose intolerance in Asians (who have a different kind of erawax, according to audiology studies). Obviously the measures of similarity must be taken with a grain of salt, since I hear we share 98% of DNA with a flatworm. That is, being 98% similar is still effectively 100% different.

          • Davis says:

            Indeed, but as I mentioned earlier there are two important caveats to these sorts of studies.

            One is that the categories these differences apply to are not “race” as used in common parlance. Aborigines do not, to my knowledge, have a high incidence of sickle-cell anemia; lactose intolerance among Indians (who are Asians in common usage) is comparable to that among Italians.

            A related point is that these differences are the result of a single genetic mutation, and can thus spread quickly through distinct populations (which is the genetically significant identifier, rather than race as we know it). Complex traits arise from multiple genes, and thus necessarily spread more slowly through populations.

            All of which is to say, the student’s comment as stated only seems reasonable to those who are ignorant (not in the derogatory sense) of evolutionary mechanisms.

  2. [...] another note, this short essay is interesting: Last week, one Harvard law student forwarded a fellow classmate’s six-month old e-mail to [...]

  3. blueollie says:

    Thank you for this post. Yes, I am of Mexican descent. But I remember asking a friend (an African American) “if we (minorities) weren’t intellectually inferior, why were the Europeans able to push us around an dominate us to begin with”.

    Because I felt safe in asking the question, my buddy was able to give me a real answer instead of “PC you are a self-hating racist” boilerplate answer; he even took the time to go to the library and give me some references from mainstream historical research.

    But I had the freedom to ask the question and we do no one any favors when we shut down questions before they are asked.

    • AshyKnucks says:

      Nicely put. This brouhaha reminds me of that dean that suggested there may be differences in the biological makeup of men and women leading men to excel more in the sciences. He was promptly fired, despite the university’s (I think Brown) own data it kept that begged the question. It really doesn’t need to be said on this blog, but “Nobody should ever be chastised/fired/shunned/lynched for asking a legitimate question.”

  4. Victor says:

    Something similar happened a few years back to James Watson who, along with his associate, Francis Crick, won the 1962 Nobel Prize for their discovery of DNA’s double-helix.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/25/science/25cnd-watson.html

    It is awfully depressing that people can use their fear and ignorance to ruin the lives of people who simply postulate a correlation between race and intelligence. It is not such a leap that someone, scientist or otherwise, would suggest such a relationship. In fact it is a significantly higher leap of fate to claim definitively that there is NO such relationship than that there is as there is significant scientific research which has proven relations between race and many other characteristics.

    One needn’t look beyond the surface to see that some physical things, such as looks, are clearly inherited, why is it that when one suggests hair color as being passed on through genetics, it is obvious and factual, but when one suggests something like intelligence, they are considered blasphemous?

    As far as science, nature, and DNA are concerned, there is no discernible difference between something like hair and brain, it is all just “stuff” whose characteristics are derived from the blueprint that is DNA which can be inheritable.

    In my opinion, it is a hyper-sensitive backlash against racism, one which has reached such a point as to ignore all reason, instead reacting with fear and uncertainty and condemning anyone who suggests such a correlation.

    To turn the argument on its head, what if someone suggested in an email that:

    “I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be more physically capable.”

    Most people in this country would not skip a beat. But it is essentially the same statement turned on its head. A study showed last year that 82 percent of players in the NBA were black. So the previous statement would seem to be not only non-offensive to most people, but factually correct.

    Now I am not suggesting I know everything about the subject of race and genetics or that the statement made by the student is at all factual, but neither do most of the people making the snap judgment about this student’s email. Yet most of the media outlets in this country seem fine with burning this poor student at the stake for simply suggesting a correlation. This kind of behavior by the media is ignorant and atrocious.

    • Davis says:

      …there is significant scientific research which has proven relations between race and many other characteristics.

      Such as what? The only ones that spring to mind are certain genetically-based diseases like sickle cell. Those sorts of characteristics, found mostly within one group, tend to arise from a single gene. “Intelligence”, assuming there is some sensible definition of the term, and assuming it has a genetic basis, almost certainly relies on an array of genes. Can you name any complex traits that have been definitively shown to be linked to race? More importantly, do you have an empirical definition of “intelligence” handy? You could probably get a paper published if you did.

      A study showed last year that 82 percent of players in the NBA were black. So the previous statement would seem to be not only non-offensive to most people, but factually correct.

      This is why people need more training in science. The fact that 82 percent of NBA players are black does not lead to the conclusion that African-Americans are genetically disposed to be physically capable, or even to the conclusion that they’re genetically predisposed to be better at basketball. Correlation is not causation.

      This is the problem with most lay-speculation on these sorts of issues. People don’t understand what statistical distributions mean, they don’t know what the science says. Yet they’re perfectly happy, in their ignorance, to suggest conclusions that are likely to offend large social groups. And you think the people who get upset are the unreasonable ones?

      • Davis,

        You don’t seem to understand the point here. The point is not that race and intelligence are actually linked. The point is that someone should be able to say that they are willing to believe it, but are willing to dis-believe it as well, depending on what the science bears out. They should be allowed to do that without being worried that they’ll be the subject of a smear campaign.

        You’re involved in a different discussion than is taking place here.

        • Dan Someone says:

          Part of the problem here is that she never apparently considered (and certainly didn’t say) anything about the possibility that African Americans are genetically predisposed to be more intelligent. Her comment relies on an implicit assumption that African Americans are, on average, intellectually inferior. She spoke of the genetic component only in terms of a possible explanation.

          Had she instead said that she couldn’t rule out the possibilities that: (1) there are intelligence traits that are genetically linked to race, and (2) any given racial group may be genetically inferior or superior in terms of those traits to any other given race; then I suspect she would have incurred less attention.

          Also, please note that the Harvard Black Law Students Association has spoken out on this matter in a very measured, level-headed manner, essentially seeking to turn this into a “teachable moment” rather than the backlash/shaming that some individuals may have been looking or calling for. I don’t think this has generated so much “outrage” as discussion.

        • Davis says:

          Marco, my response was aimed specifically at Victor’s scientifically erroneous statements, rather than the broader discussion.

          However, I think scientific literacy is more germane to the present discussion than you suggest. I’ll first note that I don’t think this HLS student deserves the approbation she’s received, especially considering that this was part of a private email. When a person who is ignorant of the current state of the science (as most law students are, in my experience) uses the “science may eventually support controversial idea X” argument, that looks suspiciously like an attempt to make personal bias seem reasonable. At my most charitable, I would call it bullshitting.

          People should certainly be free to suggest there is a genetic basis for a trait such as intelligence. But the person who suggests that genetics explains racial differences in intelligence implicitly presumes all sorts of scientifically unsupported ideas, including (a) that there actually is some difference to explain, and (b) that the common notion of “race” has any meaningful genetic significance. (The latter idea has been pretty much discarded.) Should we really accord scientifically illiterate ideas full respect in the public sphere?

          Compare: “I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that Jewish Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be greedier.” Perhaps you disagree, but to me this statement implies that Jewish Americans are in fact greedy, and then tries to explain that “fact”. The “genetically predisposed” language just sounds like cover for the underlying assertion.

      • Victor says:

        You have gone a long way to proving my point.

        I did not put the statistics I found on my comment in order to provoke an argument over scientific facts, those are actually just random statistics I found on the internet with very little to back them up. I am not arguing that there is a correlation there, you are correct that correlation is not causation.

        In the absent of fact, it is right of you to question the nature of them, and to not necessarily agree with the random “evidence” those before you have spouted. You have every right to doubt the authenticity of those claims.

        And that is exactly what this Harvard student did. He doubted. He said he does “not rule out the possibility” and that is exactly the point. To say otherwise is arrogant. To take the other side of that argument is to claim that you DO certainly rule out any possibility that there is any link and one has not been proven, but it also has not been disproven.

        So to condemn someone for saying, anecdotally, in one email, taken out of context, that they do not entirely rule something out, is preposterous.

        • Davis says:

          So to reiterate a point I made in my response to Mr. Randazza: do you similarly not rule out the possibility that Jewish Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be greedier? More importantly, would you consider it reasonable to say that? If someone said around me, I’d be inclined to consider that person an asshole.

          This is where I’m willing to cut this girl some slack (the
          author was a “she”, by the way): she wrote that in an email to someone she knew personally, where she probably felt she could take the risk of saying something stupid. Had she said it in public, I’d suggest she deserved being called out on it.

          But generally, when the speaker has precisely zero clue as to what the science actually says, these sorts of statements teeter on the brink of the “I’m just asking questions” defense. At best, people who know something about the subject matter will respond as though the speaker had just said “I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that the earth is flat.”

  5. Jozef says:

    Maybe my mind is still warped from working for an investment firm, but I find various disclaimers relevant. The author of the e-mail started the offending sentence with “I absolutely do not rule out the possibility”. So when I read the sentence, I found nothing offensive about it: there’s no definite statement, only the description of a possibility that the author may or may not believe to be true.

  6. J DeVoy says:

    @ Alan – everyone contributed to content of this post, even if it’s posted from my account; hence the “All Hands” byline. I was the one up in the wee hours of the morning to publish it.

    • Alan says:

      Fair enough. Which gets me back to my fundamental question: What is the scientific and social significance of the issue addressed by the e-mailer? I don’t think you can take for granted that any two people are going to attach the same significance to the issue, and at the same time, I think the significance someone attaches to it is likely to tell you a lot about where they are coming from.

  7. Christopher Harbin says:

    @Alan — please allow me to sketch out the logic for you a bit — I believe our underlying point is that people should be free to advance and question controversial ideas without venomous attacks on their character that are designed to suppress the conversation. Brandeis remarked that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” The notion that something is beyond the pale of discussion because of its subject matter is abhorrent.

    I suspect the “socially significant” language is the source of your unease and I do admit that it is awkward. Such is the English language. But in light of the entire theme of the piece, that phrase is not best interpreted as saying that the discussion is important because social policy could then be adjusted but rather that the entire discussion of nature (scientific) versus nurture (social) is an important one. It is the intrinsic value in such a discussion that is paramount in our minds.

    But even if you choose to read those four words out of the context of the entire piece, as fools are wont to do, the scientific significance of the subject matter can hardly be questioned even divorced from everything else but pure science. If science is the search for capital-t Truth, a discussion on what may or may not be ruled out in the search is significant.

    • Davis says:

      One more comment, and I’ll quit crapping all over this thread.

      I believe our underlying point is that people should be free to advance and question controversial ideas without venomous attacks on their character that are designed to suppress the conversation.

      I absolutely agree with this, and I hope nothing I said earlier suggests otherwise. However, there is a flip side to this. If I put forward an idea I know will be controversial, I have two duties:

      1. Do my homework first. In the age of the Google, there’s no excuse for me to be ignorant of the factual background and current state of knowledge on the topic I’m diving into. In this case, that means doing some research on the research regarding race, intelligence, and genetics.

      2. Be careful about how I say what I want to say. (This is one of the first lessons I learned from my love life.) In the present case, that means saying something along the lines of “I do think it’s possible that there’s a genetic basis for intelligence.”

      Simply put, if I violate duty 1 then people have a right to call me ignorant or worse. If I violate duty 2, they have a right to call me an asshole. (Both would make me an ignorant asshole, I suppose.) Sure, it’s more work for the person who wants to express a controversial idea, but when you walk into a minefield you’re the one who should step carefully.

      That said, these duties clearly should not apply to a student’s private email; we should all be accorded the freedom to safely put our feet in our mouths among friends.

    • Dan Someone says:

      The “scientific significance” of what subject matter? The email assumed that African Americans are less intelligent: “I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent.”

      It’s hard to read that as an expression of simple scientific curiosity about the possibility of linkage between race in general and intelligence traits in general. It’s specifically about one race, and it’s specifically about that race being genetically inferior in intelligence. She could have said “I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that some racial groups are, on average, genetically predisposed to be more or less intelligent than others.” While still somewhat dangerous ground in terms of public perception, that at least would be a question that might have some “scientific significance.”

      In any event, the tempest seems to have largely dissipated from the teapot. The student in question is still heading for her clerkship with Alex Kozinski on the 9th. Nobody is calling for her head on a platter. She has apologized for what were, at the very least, ill-chosen words. The only thing still outstanding is the gossipy question o why her erstwhile friend chose to send the email to others five months later, and really, who cares about that?

  8. booyah says:

    On a different note, wouldn’t any attempt by the 9th to rescind her clerkship be a flaming Pickering violation? Does anyone else find it ironic that the law students calling for her head seem to have overlooked this?

    • Dan Someone says:

      It doesn’t look like anybody is going to rescind her clerkship, or even that there’s much of a call to do so.

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