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HOME > ON THE BOOKSHELF > July-August 1999 > Bookshelf Detail

BOOK REVIEW

Ignoramus Alert

Malcolm Sherman

The New Know-Nothings: The Political Foes of the Scientific Study of Human Nature. Morton Hunt. 402 pp. Transaction Publishers, 1999. $24.95 (paper).

Morton Hunt, an author, social-science journalist and sometime academic, argues that attacks on social scientists are intensifying, with both left and right adopting the tactics that proved successful during the '60s and '70s (physical force, disruptive demonstrations, inflammatory false accusations, ridicule, rudeness). The "actions of passionate groups" are now a far greater danger than "the constraints of large social institutions." Most of the book consists of detailed accounts of ideologically motivated assaults from all sides of the political spectrum on reputable researchers studying human nature.

Hunt distinguishes between methodological regulations (which he supports), designed mainly to prevent harm to human subjects, and unacceptable efforts to ban research on the grounds that the knowledge gained will be harmful. Although we cannot always foresee the consequences of our investigations, the risks of suppression are far greater than those of the misuse of knowledge.

Hunt's account is divided into three parts: attacks from the left, from the right and from "points in between." The left opposes most investigations of racial differences in intelligence, scholastic achievement and crime rates, and objects to the study of sex differences in brain size, brain structure, hormonal balance, personality and leadership. Those who explore biological differences are denounced as apologists for an unjust social order. A Canadian psychologist, J. Phillippe Rushton, from whose views Hunt carefully distances himself, was subjected to a four-year investigation under a Canadian law that makes it a criminal offense to "promote hatred against any identifiable group"—the evidence consisting mainly of his articles in refereed journals.

Hunt gives an extended account of political interference, during both the Bush and Clinton administrations, with a conference on the biological correlates of criminal behavior. Whereas crime rates do differ by race, the conference focused on such matters as the effect of dopamine and serotonin levels on violent or impulsive behavior, not on race. But racial paranoia still prevailed. (Posters read, "Maryland conference, you can't hide; we know you're pushing genocide.")

Religious fundamentalists and some others on the right see social research as intrinsically liberal. They oppose the study of human sexuality. They hamper survey research in the name of privacy, especially in the schools, usually by imposing unreasonable rules requiring parental consent. Social conservatives had enough influence within the Reagan administration and in Congress (which passed the Family Privacy Protection Act in 1994) to deny funding to or retract funding of sex and survey researchers. Somewhat surprisingly, Hunt ignores the opponents of evolutionary theory—perhaps because they interfere with teaching, not research.

Attacks from left and right include verbal assaults on those whose memory research has undermined claims of recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. (The organizers of one conference on this topic were accused of pedophilia for sponsoring the conference.) Researchers suggesting that prolonged day care is harmful to children (findings that have been legitimately criticized by others) have been declared enemies of women. Some in the animal-rights movement deny that human life is more valuable than that of animals ("speciesism"). Biological research has been disrupted through physical sabotage and by the filing of false charges that lead to lengthy investigations.

Hunt is concerned not only with overt disruptions of scientific investigations, but also with the self-censorship that causes people to avoid studies or aspects of studies that might prove to be controversial. As an example, he cites an unnamed investigator who suppressed his own data on racial differences in attitudes toward work (part of a larger study) to avoid anticipated denunciations.

Hunt's implicit strategy is to create an awareness of the magnitude of the problem—a necessary first step. However, he doesn't go far enough in asking what can be done. We could make a conscious effort to stand together against those in our ranks who seek to impose political or ideological restrictions on inquiry. We could try to create a campus culture that places on the defensive those who respond to rational arguments with vicious accusations of evil motives. What seems to happen instead is that the decent center is intimidated by the vitriol and at best offers private expressions of support rather than public affirmations of principle.—Malcolm J. Sherman, Mathematics & Statistics, The University at Albany

 

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