The Closing of the Endless Frontier

J. Scott Turner

Next time you venture out toward the endless frontier, comrade scientists, you probably will encounter a new border crossing. There, immigration authorities will check your visa and deny you entry if they discover irregularities, the more ambiguous, the more damning. Meanwhile, intellectual customs agents will rummage through your baggage looking for ideologically illicit thoughts to confiscate, and perhaps jail you if they find any.

Don’t claim to be surprised: this border post has been a-building for some time. The next phase of construction may be seen in the August 2022 edition of Nature Human Behaviour (NHB), in the form of new ethics “guidance” for researchers in the human sciences, who are in deep need of atonement, it seems. The path to redemption begins, according to the NHB editors, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This sounds like a promising start—who could disagree with a universal declaration? But when one reflects that the UDHR also guides such human rights luminaries as North Korea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, doubts do creep in.

Among the doubtful outcomes is the fencing off of entire areas of scientific inquiry as unethical. Two—race and gender—attract the special scrutiny of NHB’s new scientific commissars. Race, it is declared, is a mere social construct: it is assumption, not reality. To quote: “[h]umans do not have biological races.” That’s good to know. And if race is not real, there can be no legitimate reason to explore it scientifically. Are we not right, comrades?

It is the same with gender, but with a twist. There is now apparently a bright line—a line which until a few years ago was quite dim—between sex (which is biological) and gender (which is a mere social construct). Unlike the social construct of race, which we must ignore, we must now be exquisitely sensitive to the social construct of gender. It’s so complicated! It is, as some are wont to declare, a “wicked problem.”

One of the characteristics of wicked problems is that they are embedded in a thicket of incomplete and contradictory knowledge. Science can actually help here, but only as long as scientists are left free to pick through the thicket. Remarkably, the editors of NHB are “guiding” scientists away from the thicket. It is declared unethical to venture there, and if you dare to venture there nevertheless, you will be cut off from the lifeblood of your profession. In effect, the editors of NHB are unequivocally declaring themselves as the enemies of science.

Why? The real problem, if you will, with “wicked problems” comes in when that thicket of incomplete and contradictory knowledge is declared off-limits by political and ideological power. One can point to many examples of this—Lysenkoism and eugenics are obvious candidates—but the saga of Napoleon Chagnon and the Brazilian Yanomamö offers a more recent, and pointed, illustration. (You can read the details in Chagnon’s compelling 2013 autobiography, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists). Seventeen years of arduous field work had led Chagnon to socially uncomfortable but scientifically-bolstered conclusions about Yanomamö society: that it is strongly shaped by a Darwinian struggle among Yanomamö men over possession of women. This was uncongenial to the officials charged with the ethics (that word) of anthropological research. Rather than reflect on the implications of Chagnon’s scientific results, the ethical gatekeepers effectively killed Chagnon’s research program. They became the enemies of science, in other words. This is what the editors of NHB seek to entrench with their “ethical guidance.”

If that seems an extreme accusation, consider the editors’ ethical admonitions over race. Racial differences in IQ are perhaps the most rigorously tested and repeatedly verified scientific conclusion in the human sciences. Even so, these differences are embedded in our deep social commitments to the equal dignity of all men and to their equal rights to opportunity and liberty. The intersection of race and IQ, in short, poses a quintessential wicked problem.

Again, science might be of help here, if it were allowed to be. The mind remains a vast terra incognito, after all: we do not fully understand why different races should differ in this insistent measure of cognitive attributes. Scientists do have an ethical responsibility here, but it is not to shy away from scientific research because it might elicit social discomfort. Arguably, scientists’ ethical responsibility is to explore every truth they know so that their fellow citizens will be better equipped to pick through the thicket themselves. The editors of Nature Human Behaviour do not want this: they want to tie scientists and citizens to a post, instill fear of the thorns, and put blinders on their eyes.

Similarly, contradictory and incomplete knowledge permeates the issues of gender and sex. For example, the editors of NHB insist that sex as a biological attribute be firmly walled off from the self-perception of gender. Is that really possible without doing violence to our concepts of both sex and gender? We see indicators of the confusion in the recent ethical storms that have blown up around transgenderism. What is the ethics of exploring, say, the spreading social contagion of transgenderism among adolescent girls, which seems driven by peer pressure and predisposition of this group to social conformity? Is this a biological phenomenon, or is it a privileged social construct? When scientists are ethically enjoined from exploring such questions, they are also being admonished not to question the ethics of the pharmaceutical and surgical mutilation of children and the wrecking of families that ensues. How is that sound ethics?  

Even if the new ethics commissars were correct in every substantive issue they raise, their guidance would nevertheless be the death of human science—the death of the disinterested pursuit of truth through scientific inquiry. For this reason, the National Association of Scholars stands in unequivocal opposition to the illiberal and antiscientific “guidance” being promoted by the editors of Nature Human Behaviour. Their guidance is not ethical. Rather, it is the ultimate triumph of politics and ideology over the scientific pursuit of truth.

J Scott Turner is Director of the Intrusion of Diversity in the Sciences project at the National Association of Scholars.

Image: Antranias, Public Domain

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