Philosophers clash over race science paper

Furore over Oxford doctoral student’s journal article reignites debate over the limits of free speech

February 4, 2020
Brain concept
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Academics have clashed over a journal paper that explores the idea that intelligence might be linked to race.

Mark Alfano, who holds academic posts at Sydney’s Macquarie University and Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, launched a petition last month that calls for the leadership of the journal Philosophical Psychology to resign, apologise or retract an article written by Nathan Cofnas, a doctoral student at the University of Oxford.

The paper, published in December, considers how society might need to respond differently if, “in a very short time”, science concludes that some races are more intelligent than others.

The default position of social sciences and philosophy, which “ignores or rejects” evidence of racial differences, could lead to “unintended consequences” that might harm minority groups, Mr Cofnas contends.

An editors’ note attached to the paper acknowledges that the article “certainly adopts provocative positions on a host of issues related to race, genetics, and IQ”, but says its inclusion was based on “philosophical and scientific merit, rather than ideological conformity”.

Professor Alfano got into a Twitter spat with Mr Cofnas, in which he said he wanted to ruin his “reputation permanently and deservedly” after the PhD student called him a “sad, pathetic man”. “You’re about to learn why people generally avoid fucking with me,” added Professor Alfano.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Professor Alfano said his actions were justified in light of Mr Cofnas’ “repugnant” policy suggestions.

The conclusion that the government should “devote money to programmes that are tailored to the strengths of different groups…is obviously just code for racially segregated education”, Professor Alfano said, claiming that the “reasoning backing Cofnas’ suggestions [was] argumentatively very weak” and adding that the article contained “obvious and egregious errors”.

“This is not simply a matter of dislike or disagreement,” he continued, saying that “that framing is a bit like saying that epidemiologists dislike or disagree with the conclusions drawn by anti-vaxxers”. It was “quite a stretch to say that I’m part of some sort of ill-defined ‘cancel culture’”, Professor Alfano said.

However, Mr Cofnas told THE that his paper did not mention segregation, which was a “totally unrelated idea” to his argument.

“I am aware that this is an emotional issue and some people are not happy with addressing it,” he said.

But the failure to tackle it meant that “when evidence does come”, society would not be prepared to rebut the positions developed by white supremacist theorists, Mr Cofnas said.

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Reader's comments (12)

If you do not agree with what someone has said, the academic approach is to refute it - not launch personal attacks against the person who said it. One would have thought that anyone reaching professorial rank should know that, and be capable of formulating arguments to rebut what has been said. It's nothing to do with 'like' or dislike', which should not be confused with genuine academic disagreement. The comment about epidemiologists and anti-vaxxers is spurious, epidemiologists produced evidence supporting their views regarding herd immunity, rather than run around spewing hatred of anti-vaxxers as individuals.
Didn't you get the memo? If someone says something that you do not like, it is a good enough reason to attempt to ruin or terminate their career. Totally moral thing to do - Not. Excessive. At. All. Look what happened to Tim Hunt.
I tore the memo up. It is unacceptable behaviour both ethically and academically :)
The petition is available on the website Its title is as follows.: Leadership of the journal Philosophical Psychology must answer for publishing race science
Yes, reaserch shoud be free for sure. However, what is the point of this kind of research? First of all, the phd student probably will put his personal believes on it, and it will influence the results. And even if it doen't happen, what is the point? Which adventages it could bring for society? Will it make something better or tear us apart? Research is important and valid in any circunstace. At the same time, would you develop rresearch to develop a chemical bomb or a medicine to treat cancer in name of science? Which kind of research is that? Which benefits for society will it brings? Who is doing it? In my opinion, if they find so many differences it will break us in a terrible way... I belive that people are different and I like to celebrate it. Diversity brings life.
Alfano is clearly responding inappropriately, but this thesis doesn't sound like research, it sounds like a thought experiment based on a vanishingly unlikely premise (if I was being cynical I would say that adopting such a premise is simply an excuse to discuss expound theories and policies that have no scientific merit). One might as well write a thesis on the assumption "if, one day, pigs fly, how will society respond?"
Interesting to read the difference between reasoned engagement with the argument and the rejection of the argument with no reason except moral platitudes. The difference hangs on the applied definition of race. The emotive rejections are utilising a rarefied definition based on scientific racism and the reasoned argument approach is correctly applying the definition of selective environmental variance to selective pressures so race is simply a descriptor. It is therefore striking that the anti-racists actually believe in scientific racism whereas the social scientists just accept race as a purely descriptive term and so clearly don't believe in scientific racism. To be sure, correlating IQ with race is very contentious, mainly because if inherited genetic traits on the basis of historical selective pressures do have a significant influence on skills and abilities, then clearly some people through no fault of their own will be disadvantaged. If this isn't contentious enough, if social justice was to be truly applied in the name of equal opportunities then streaming would be required so that additional help can be given to compensate for any inherited disadvantages. From the anti racist point of view, this could lead to a loss of dignity so any disadvantages should be made to disappear even if this will impede a person's development and progress through life and therefore put them at a disadvantage throughout their life. Is this really humane is the response. If we know a person is disadvantaged through no fault of their own, shouldn't we be helping them them rather than consciously and actively choosing to put that person at a disadvantage in relation to their peers. The response back. Don't meddle with science and genetics so that we will never know. Thus, the Progressive becomes the reactionary Regressive. Yes there is a danger of stigmatisation but the reality has not been made clear. Because genetic traits are not fixed but are adaptable to selective pressures. By manipulating selective pressures, we can make changes to the inherited genes. Similarly, it is plainly naive to think race is rarefied and to think it is, is a kind of ideological brainwashing. Otherwise known as Wokeism. Inherited genes that have been influenced by variable selective pressures are not stamped into a person's genetics forever. Only racists think that way. In reality, physical features hide a dizzying array of genetic variance simply because the tasks to sustain a community are variable too. Some require physical strength, some require mental agility. So even if race was something that could be genetically verified, skills and abilities within that genetic grouping would be broad and wide. The sad fact, at least in America, is that 'black' people were historically slaves. So for example, if as studies show, in average terms, black people do less well than white people, who do less well than Asian people, it is predominantly because historically slavery didn't allow for full development. So in a sense, affirmative action policies based on 'race' are no different to affirmative action policies based on genetics. In other words, it is just a state of mind. One is genetically motivated. The other is racially motivated. One is a geneticist point of view, the other is a racist point of view. So it is indeed ironic that the racist affirmative action point of view is calling the geneticist affirmative action point of view inherently racist when it is actually geneticist. Goodnight.
Following THE article was published 21 years ago.: Should freedom cover racial science? May 21, 1999
Such a case had occured in the UK before. A related petition/ open letter and a counter-petition had been published: His name is Noah Carl. There are several news articles and a wikipedia article about him available. Please note, that Mr Cofnas and Mr Carl know each other well!: There is a common paper by them available. Mr Cofnas had signed a counter-petition regarding Noah Carl. So Mr Cofnas apparently was aware, that a backlash is likely.
There has been sufficient research to show that there is no racial basis for intellectual capacity, however measured. So a research topic like Mr Cofnas's chosen subject is akin to - say - speculating how our lives wold be different if someone found a key to perpetual motion. Maybe interesting if one is five years old but the rest of us wouldn't bother to read it or read about it, and would have serious doubts about both the researcher and the institute which sponsored him. But there is a deeper argument against this sort of idiocy. If you want to waste your time in trying to develop a PMM, go ahead, so long as you are not spending my money. It's even possible that along the way you might develop something useful such as a gearing system which loses less efficiency to friction. Good for you. (Although if your technical background is so weak that you think a PMM is doable, I'd be astonished if you could make a useful contribution to an engineering problem.) Unfortunately there are people out there, far too many, who will seize on your research and say "See? I told you so. Those guys really are thicker than us." (Hint: no they aren't.)
If those who believe the tests are meaningless, or will show little difference, would let the laboratory research proceed, everyone wins and the debate dies away. Unless, of course, psychology is not science, but a rhetorical exercise similar to politics.