If the truth offends, it's our job to offend

December 15, 2006

Academic freedom to publish our research must be paramount, says Satoshi Kanazawa, whose work on IQ brought him death threats

David Hilbert is a hero of mine. His most famous quote - " Wir müssen wissen, wir werden wissen " ("We must know, we will know") - seems at once to capture his purity and his optimism. In the first three words, Hilbert upholds the pursuit of knowledge as the most important goal of science; in the second three, he expresses his belief that complete knowledge is possible: not that we might or could know but that we will.

I maintain a purist stance on science. I believe that the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is the only legitimate goal in science (by which I mean basic science, as opposed to applied science) and the truth is its only arbiter. Nothing else should matter in science except the objective, dispassionate pursuit of truth, and scientists must pursue it no matter the consequences.

An article of mine that was published last month in the British Journal of Health Psychology challenges conventional wisdom in epidemiology and contends that general intelligence increases health and longevity in the contemporary environment. Part of my analysis shows that, across nations, average intelligence influences life expectancy and other population measures of health. As a result of subsequent sensationalist media coverage, I have received many obscene phone calls and e-mail messages, as well as a few death threats, from Ethiopians and other Africans because a newspaper reported, erroneously, that Ethiopia had the lowest average intelligence.

From my purist position, everything scientists say, qua scientists, can be only true or false or somewhere in between. My worst possible crime is that my conclusions are false. Truth is the only criterion that should matter or be applied in evaluating scientific theories or conclusions. They cannot be "racist", "sexist", "reactionary", "offensive" or any other adjective. Even if they are labelled so, it does not matter. My findings in this paper are deeply offensive to me, but I suspect they are at least partially true.

When scientists begin to worry about things other than the truth and to ask "might this conclusion or finding offend someone?", self-censorship sets in. They become tempted to shade the truth. What if a scientific conclusion is offensive and true? What is a scientist to do then? Many scientific truths are highly offensive, but scientists must pursue them at any cost.

It is not my job as a scientist to "use" scientific knowledge in any way to improve the human condition; that is the job of politicians, policymakers, physicians and other social engineers. Their goal of helping people and improving their lives is a noble (albeit non-scientific) one. Any successful intervention, however, must be based on the true understanding of nature. If social engineers do not know the causes of what they are trying to create or eliminate, how can they possibly hope to do so? By opposing and entirely disregarding certain scientific theories and conclusions a priori on ideological and political grounds, because they believe they should not be true, they risk not achieving their aim of helping people.

It struck me as extremely odd that my vociferous critics (virtually none of whom had read my article and who instead based their opinions on grossly inaccurate journalistic accounts) variously said: "Of course, I am all for the principle of academic freedom, but Kanazawa must be condemned because the potential implications of his research are deeply offensive." They seem unaware of the inherent contradictions in this assertion. Note that my supposed crime is the potential implications of my research.

Academic freedom must be upheld, not because it is an inalienable, God-given right of all scientists, but because it is the best way to attain the truth. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. That is why I strongly support the rights of creationists, Holocaust deniers, conspiracy theorists and anybody else to publish their ideas. The inherent flaws in their logic and evidence can be exposed only if their ideas are widely known and discussed. If we keep them hidden, we could never eliminate the possibility that they just might be true.

The only responsibility that scientists have is to the truth. Scientists are not responsible for the potential or actual consequences of the knowledge they create. Blaming them for uses and misuses of their research by others is a sure-fire way to distract them from the single-minded pursuit of the truth because that would make them pause and entertain other criteria. If the truth offends people, it is our job as scientists to offend them. Wir müssen wissen, wir werden wissen .

Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist, reader in management and research methodology at the London School of Economics and honorary research fellow in the department of psychology at University College London.

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