3 December 2016
Remembering J. Philippe Rushton (3 December 1943 - 2 October 2012)
We celebrate the life of J. Philippe Rushton, who was born 73 years ago today. A British-born professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario, he went with his research on human nature where most wouldn't have dared.
Rushton is best known for his work on altruism, race and intelligence, and the application of r/K theory to humans.
It is a sad reflection of the times we live in that acceptance or rejection of his theories comes down to someone's politics. Jonathan Bowden defined the essence of the Left as the idea that equality is morally good, and the essence of the Right as the opposite. According to this definition, liberalism is a discourse of the Left, and since liberalism is the dominant discourse in the West, this meant that Rushton's conclusions automatically pushed him out of the mainstream, for they posited the essential inequality of man.
For the layman, the truth is ultimately unknowable. And this is no less the case in our era of information overload than it was in previous eras. It is possible to find scientific research backing either side of a debate. Which side a person chooses will depend less on evidence than on his evaluation of it, and that evaluation will depend on an array of extraneous factors, of which the opinions of those whose respect is desired plays a large role. The resulting tendency is to lapse into virtue signalling, often unknowingly. The same applies to scientists working in areas that intersect with established moral philosophy; they are as likely to any layman to seek scientific proof for their prejudices. Predictably, Rushton was dismissed as prejudiced and unscientific by egalitarians, and exalted as courageous and rigorously scientific by their opponents.
The fact is that it is never easy to go against orthodoxies, particularly when they are founded on ideals society holds dear or deem fundamental; it is, in fact, dangerous to risk one's reputation and social standing by doing so, and even more so by doing it without apology. Tenure may protect an academic from loss of livelyhood, but not from ostracism and condemnation. This was Rushton's experience. A lesser man would have caved in—apologised, retracted, and self-flagellated in public. Rushton, however, stood his ground and held the line. Whether a person sees this as conviction or as obcecation will, again, depend on his beliefs.
I had the briefest correspondence with Rushton some years before he died. At the time I was writing an essay dissecting bias in a Channel 4 programme, Race and Intelligence: Science's Last Taboo, presented by Rageh Omaar. Both Rushton and Richard Lynn were given some screen time—literally seconds in an hour-long presentation designed to debunk their theories. I found this incredibly irritating and patronising to the public. I sent my text to Lynn for comment and Lynn forwarded it to Rushton. I later met Lynn at a conference in the United States, but I never met Rushton, who by then was quite ill and died some months later. I detected no malice on either of them. (The same cannot be said of some of their lay supporters, but that is another matter).
All scientists should be subjected to criticisms, so attempts by Rushton's opponents to attack his research and conclusions are to be welcomed. The process of attack and defence provides valuable information in assessing a theory and the motivations behind it. Of course, the tendency for many among those dedicated enough to follow a debate will be simply to look for confirmation that their man was right: they'll cheer his rebuttals to attacks and be ultra-sceptical and maximally rigorous when reading those of the opposition. However, most members of the public will simply know how they feel about each side—and will know it quite strongly and in inverse proportion to their knowledge—without reading any of the scientific papers.
Personally, I think Rushton's research is valuable, even if some people find his data and conclusions inconvenient or evil. And even if some or all of it was wrong too, for in that case it demanded from the opposing side a higher standard of proof. I also find it more persuasive than research supporting egalitarian conclusions, because if no two humans are alike, there is even more of a basis to think that no two human groups would be alike. The behaviour of his opponents, moreover, undermined their credibility (perhaps more than anything else): Rushton presented his data and the arguments supporting his conclusions; his opponents often did little more than call him names. In fact, the way he was written about in the mainstream press—Salon put 'scientist' between quotation marks in their obituary—epitomised the sort of journalistic bias that had been a much-needed topic of public debate until made so by the Trump presidential campaign.
Needless to say that Rushton's opponents are terrified of the policy implications of his research. That in his late career he spoke at conferences hosted by the likes of American Renaissance or was published by websites like Vdare, both of which seek policy changes, only added fuel to the fire. Yet, there is no reason to fear that such research would have policy consequences so long as equality is accepted as a moral good: egalitarians can still argue that, even if empirically without basis, the pursuit of human equality is so good and noble that it should not make a difference whether nature supports it or not. Efforts to provide a scientific basis for moral beliefs are disingenuous, of course, but one can understand why people would wish to attempt it while convincing themselves that they are engaged in the pursuit of truth.
Regardless of what anyone may think of him, Western universities need more academics like J. Philippe Rushton, who are willing to go against orthodoxies; who tackle the most taboo subjects, even if doing so put them in professional and personal danger; and who can introduce a dissenting note in an academic establishment that, like all establishments, is in the grip of ideology.