No sacred cows

I’m starting a trade union for intellectuals

20 July 2019

9:00 AM

20 July 2019

9:00 AM

I have just returned from Minneapolis after attending the annual conference of the International Society for Intelligence Research. That’s ‘intelligence’ in the sense of general cognitive ability rather than spooks. It’s the third time I’ve gone, having been asked by the society to give a lecture in 2017 (a different journalist is invited each year to talk about how to improve the public understanding of the field). There are a lot of myths floating around about intelligence, such as the belief that IQ isn’t real. In fact, it is possible to measure intelligence using standardised tests, people’s scores don’t change much after childhood and they help to predict a huge range of lifetime outcomes, such as academic attainment, income, occupation, health, even how long you’re likely to live. The existence of a measurable intelligence quotient is probably the single most robust finding in the entire field of psychology, yet for some reason the public is more likely to believe in complete bunk that’s failed to replicate, such as growth mindset theory.

In retrospect, I feel a bit of a fraud for offering these academics advice about how to communicate their findings without becoming embroiled in controversy. Six months after my first lecture, I was targeted by a left-wing mob, in part because I’d written some supposedly outrageous things about intelligence. One of my sins, as enumerated at great length in the Guardian and elsewhere, was having attended an intelligence conference at UCL — not one organised by this society, I should say, but by the psychologist James Thompson, who was then hounded out of his university.

The only sure-fire way to discuss intelligence in the public square without jeopardising your career is not to be an academic, given how cowardly most university administrators are. That’s how the political scientist Charles Murray, one of the few public intellectuals prepared to talk about IQ, has managed to survive. For decades he has been a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, a right-of-centre thinktank that still believes in intellectual freedom. Had he been an academic, particularly at a big prestigious university, he probably would have been defenestrated after publishing The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. His co-author was Richard Herrnstein, a psychology professor at Harvard, but he died of cancer just before the book came out.

The controversy over The Bell Curve, which was published 25 years ago, was caused by a chapter that discussed whether racial differences in average IQ — it’s higher for East Asians than Europeans, for instance — are genetically influenced. That’s the live rail of intelligence research. Murray and Herrnstein carefully parsed all the evidence and concluded that the differences may be genetically influenced, but we don’t know for sure. Unfortunately, just summarising the research findings in an open-minded, non-judgmental way was enough to ignite a fire-storm of outrage that is still burning to this day. Murray was attacked by a student mob at Middlebury College two years ago and his host, a professor in her fifties, ended up in hospital.

Murray was one of the attendees at the conference in Minneapolis and contributed to a symposium on college admissions, an area beset with scandals of its own. I was surprised when another of the panellists began by reading out a disclaimer, clarifying that he was speaking in a personal capacity and not as a vice-president of his university, and stressing that his participation in the panel did not imply endorsement of Murray’s views. I asked him about it afterwards and he told me that if his employer tries to punish him for appearing on a platform with Murray — not out of the question, unfortunately — he will be able to point to this statement to provide himself with some protection.

Seeing these distinguished scholars cowed by the Maoist climate of intolerance in British and American universities made me more determined than ever to do something to fight back. For a while now I’ve been thinking about setting up a kind of trade union for intellectuals that will go in to bat for them if they’re targeted by an outrage mobs. It wouldn’t just be for ‘male, pale and stale’ conservatives, but for second-wave feminists and medical researchers at risk of being bullied by trans activists, and anyone else likely to be punished for dissent. If you’re interested, email me at and I’ll tell you more.

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