Seen from a historical perspective, the Andrew Sabisky affair is a litmus test of contemporary sensibilities. A recently appointed advisor to the new UK government, which is recruiting candidates outside the usual profile of special advisors, has been criticized for previous comments about racial differences in intelligence, about possible benefits of eugenics and even about sex differences in sports.
The attack followed the standard pattern: dig up previous statements which can be presented in an inflammatory way; then fan those flames by seeking comments from critical others, who choose to pass judgments on the basis of a one sided account; call for the government to join in the condemnation: condemn the government if it does not immediately do so; keep up the pressure until the person concerned, amazed at the way his views got twisted and how many people were baying for his blood, decides to resign and do something else.
Bad as this is, it is not the worst part of this sorry affair. The most troubling aspect is that a moral consensus is asserted about what can be said and thought, and a restrictive view about public discourse is propagated. For example, if someone tells me that women’s sports are not worth watching I would want to check whether that was true. What are the viewing figures like? How much have they changed over the last decades? Which women athletes are most admired and watched? In fact, it turns out the point being made by Sabisky was that Women’s sports like Disabled sports are protected categories: it would be wrong of the able-bodied to win all the disabled sports, and wrong of men to win all the women’s sports. However, this is a factual point about Sabisky’s actual views, so something of a distraction in this heated debate, which is about emotional postures.
Equally, as you well know, if I am asked about racial differences in intelligence, I do not duck the question. Differences exist and may have a biological basis, at least in part. Some things might be true even if we don’t like to think about them, and cherished beliefs may be wrong. It depends on the evidence, not on the longing to be right.
If asked about eugenics, about which I have written little, I would say that it is not a focus of interest for me. Let me repeat an obvious point just for the avoidance of doubt: I am totally opposed to coercion. I am in favour of parents voluntarily following broad “good genes” policies if they want to, by undergoing genetic scanning if they have inherited health problems, for example. I am in favour of those parents choosing to undergo in vitro fertilisation having the right to screen their embryos for all disorders including very low intelligence. I certainly recognise that this is both an ethical and empirical matter, and will try to write more about the issues involved in these decisions.
Now, what can I tell you about Andrew Sabisky? I knew him as a conference attender, and thought of him primarily as an educational researcher. The first talk I heard him give was on a meta-analyses of early childhood intervention studies, showing that these generally had small effect sizes, and that the outliers with higher effects had got most of the publicity. After that earlier period some years ago, most of what I heard about him through his tweets was on the topic of Christian theology and liturgy. To be frank, I saw him as a thoughtful religious person, not a troublesome priest. I did not classify him as having seditious tendencies, no more than mine anyway.
Andrew Sabisky is now hate-person-of-the-month. That is bad for him, and I regret it. It is depressing, and a waste of time. These hue-and-cries over unpopular opinions make academe poisonous. Many researchers will now be encouraged to be circumspect about many subjects, including genetic screening, group differences in intelligence, and even the philosophical issues generated by women’s sports. More broadly, they will look over their shoulders for guidance as to which views they should hold, with the clear implication that sociological explanations should always be favoured over biological ones. At a very practical level, it is now even less likely that any advisor will even consider genetic factors in scholastic attainment, particularly when dealing with group differences. This is a scorched-earth policy waged by the sociological orthodoxy at high cost to free enquiry and minority opinion.
In the broader historical context, the name Sabisky came to prominence in 1683 when Vienna was about to fall to the Ottoman empire led by Mustafa Pasha. King John Sobieski led the defence, which was successful and ended the 300-year struggle between the Holy Roman and Ottoman Empires. That was real history, a turning point for Christian Europe.
This unseemly screeching of offended high priests is an embarrassment, and their self-righteous banishment of heretics an absurdity. It lowers the standard of debate to the lowest common denominator of banal conformity. Ever the optimist, I think it possible these Inquisitors may be shouting loudly to cover their own rising doubts.