With Friends Like These: Comments on the Uproar over Stephen Hsu

Posted by Kevin Bird on June 16, 2020

Against a backdrop of protests, uprisings against police brutality, and calls for real reform and racial justice, the Particles for Justice collective began an initiative to #ShutDownStem and #ShutDownAcademia to take a day to focus on issues of racial equity in the academy. https://www.particlesforjustice.org/

A group of faculty and graduate students began discussing what to do to make tangible change. The topic of Stephen Hsu’s role as Senior Vice President of Research & Innovation came up (note: It was incorrectly thought his title was Vice President of Research & Graduate Studies; his title had recently changed).

Hsu’s views had been brought up before as a problem, but there had never been a concrete sense of what could or should be done. In line with the focus of the day, which was to discuss and uproot racism and structures that protect racism in the university culture, the group turned its attention towards gathering publicity and public knowledge around Hsu’s views.

Acacia Ackles (GEU Vice President of Organizing & Outreach), as part of the group, brought me (Kevin Bird, GEU President) into the discussions, because of my experience with addressing the recent resurgence of scientific racism (my efforts in this area were recently highlighted in a 2018 New York Times article). The group gathered evidence from Hsu’s blog and past tweets regarding his publication of views which the group believes to be racist, sexist, eugenicist and anti-scientific, and his promotion of known white supremacists and Holocaust deniers, along with evidence that he failed to uphold conflict of interest protocols regarding his status as a co-founder, shareholder and board member of Genomic Prediction Inc. The following Twitter thread was published. The tweets went live at 5:23 PM on June 10th. See Tweets and Unrolled. The thread immediately gained support from MSU faculty, staff, and students who are familiar with Hsu, and within the broader scientific community, where many are aware of Hsu’s conduct and beliefs. Another account of Hsu’s conduct was published shortly after by MSU professor John Jackson, who studies the history of scientific racism.

The following day two petitions were publicized, one open letter from GEU and an independent internal letter started by faculty. These petitions now stand at 524, and 436 signatures respectively including distinguished professors, emeritus professors, department chairs and administrators. The former petition also includes population geneticists within and outside MSU, who want to clarify that Hsu’s opinions as a physicist publishing claims about genetics are a misrepresentation of the research in their field.

Stephen Hsu responds to the allegations with a blog post. At no point does he denounce or refute any of the allegations against him, rather he asserts they are untrue. Dr. John Jackson responded with a second blog post refuting Hsu’s very poor defense. Most prominent is Hsu’s falsehoods about Stefan Molyneux not being a well known white supremacist in 2017 (Souther Poverty Law Center has monitored him since 2014) but also his failure to apologize, reflect, or admit any guilt or misstep in his behavior or conduct. All of which are behavior falling far below the expected ethical conduct of a university leader.

A day later, Hsu penned another blog post threatening legal action against the “extremists” involved and asks his readers for advice in crowdsourcing a legal fund. Though Hsu does not name anyone specifically, we speculate that Hsu is likely referring to the GEU leadership, (myself, Acacia Ackles), and faculty that initiated the letter to President Stanley (e.g. Dr. Laura Schmitt Olabisi) or been openly critical of Hsu (Dr. John Jackson). Hsu deleted this threat one day after the initial blog post; an archived version is available.

Hsu then published his counter-petition arguing for his academic freedom and defending himself against accusations of scientific racism and eugenics. Professor Jackson again penned a carefully researched response. I have nothing to add to Jackson’s post. Jackson shows that, to the extent academic freedom applies to this case of Hsu’s removal as VP of Research and Innovation, if anything, academic freedom requires that Hsu should be removed from a leadership role that gives him power to censure the research of scholars whose fields he either grossly misrepresents (in the case of population genetics) or disparages in the most flippant manner imaginable from an academic (social sciences and the humanities).

But most interesting in the petition is some of the signatories. Because in defense of accusations Hsu is a scientific racist, he marshalled the signatures of some scholars who are active in promoting scientific racism.

What follows is a brief outline of the activities of some notable signatories.

First is Linda Gottfredson, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Delaware. Gottfredson is widely regarded as a key figure in scientific racism regarding race, genetics, and IQ, meriting a lengthy profile in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Extremist Files”. Throughout her career, Gottfredson has received substantial research funding from the Pioneer Fund, the explicitly white supremacist organization that I have written about previously in connection to scientific racism. It seems self-defeating to have a notorious peddler of scientific racism come to your defense against accusations of scientific racism.

Next is Roy A Frye, a professor of pathology at University of Pittsburgh. One of Frye’s notable publications is a unpublished preprint from 2009 claiming that genetic differences contribute to IQ differences between races, and disparaging academics, notably in the field of Anthropology, as the “Boasian” environmentalists. More concerning are Frye’s beliefs, expressed on social media, about scientific racism e.g. here, here and here and the fact that he considers Hsu to be a co-conspirator in this investigation of group differences

Russel T. Warne, an assistant professor of psychology at Utah Valley University, also signed. As Professor Jackson noted, Warne has recently published a paper in Mankind Quarterly, an overtly white supremacist pseudo-journal run by the Pioneer Fund (again, mentioned in a previous post). Based on a discussion on social media Warne is well aware of the reputation and history of Mankind Quarterly, and this did not deter him from publishing there. Warne’s blog also hosts arguments for hereditarianism and scientific racism

Nathan Cofnas, a DPhil student at Oxford University also signed. Cofnas has repeatedly written about racial realism and hereditarianism, most recently in the context of defending scientific racism in terms of free inquiry. This paper was recently heavily criticized by philosophers and anthropologists with expertise in the precise area of human variation and race, charging Cofnas with championing unscientific and morally questionable research:

While much of what is said about race and genetics in Cofnas’s article will be seen as provocative, none of it can be rightfully claimed to be backed by “logical argumentation and empirical evidence,” since for decades most of what Cofnas assumes about racial realism has been deservedly disputed as scientifically wrong.

. . .

We therefore wonder whether the editors have seriously risked or damaged the reputation of Philosophical Psychology by publishing Cofnas’s manuscript; we surely find it plausible that many people – professional academics as well as students – will interpret their decision as an ill-disguised legitimization of racial realism and the murky waters in which these ideas dwell.

Listed also, though not related to scientific racism, is Geoffrey Miller who has had his own experience with academic censure for conduct online related to a tweet fat-shaming graduate students. The picture painted by some of these signatories is of academics with sometimes challenged relationships to academic ethics and oversight and with the subject of scientific racism. These academics also repeatedly deflect to free inquiry and academic freedom to shield themselves from criticism.

Update June 17,11:37am

The counter-campaign has gained more traction after the online magazine Quillette, known for pushing scientific and run-of-the-mill racism included it and a targeted smear against me personally in their email newsletter. This produced an influx of names with no clear connection or impact to the MSU community, but also additional examples of scientific racists signing on in support of Hsu. I highlight two more names below.

James D. Thompson, an honorary senior lecturer at University College London, signed. Thompson is a regular contributor to the Unz Review, the far-right site founded by holocaust denier and antisemite Ron Unz (covered recenty by John Jackson here). Thompson is also on the scientific advisory council of the Ulster Institute of Social Research, a fake research institute run off of millions of dollars transferred from the white supremacist Pioneer Fund (again, covered here. Thompsons was also at the infamous London Conference on Intelligence, heavily criticized for scientific racism and eugenics. Thompson has also expressed sexist and racist opinions on social media.

Heiner Rindermann, Professor of Psychology at the Technical University of Chemnitz, signed. Rindermann has written extensively about IQ and racial differences. His works have been cited or featured in far right, antisemitic venues like VDARE and Unz Review. He has also contributed to to the white supremacist pseudojournal Mankind Quarterly and was in attendence at the London Conference on Intelligence.

End Update

To be clear, all these academics are free to research, write, speak, and publish as they wish. However, in the context of defending a colleague against accusations of scientific racism, a more strategic decision may have been to not sign at all. Furthermore, a concern for MSU is that many academics of questionable reputation and/or people who have been misled about the campaign and charges against Hsu are jumping to defend freedom of inquiry despite it’s inappropriateness in this case. The inability of counter-campaign proponents to distinguish academic freedom from the powers and privileges of university leadership is a substantial shortcoming of the counter campaign.