heterodox: the blog
The Problem With Open Letters — Noah Carl and Beyond
Hundreds of scholars recently signed onto an open letter denouncing Cambridge post-doctoral researcher Noah Carl on the basis that:
“A careful consideration of Carl’s published work and public stance on various issues, particularly on the claimed relationship between ‘race’, ‘criminality’ and ‘genetic intelligence’, leads us to conclude that his work is ethically suspect and methodologically flawed.”
The letter provided no indication of which works they considered, no explanation of how those essays were methodologically or ethically compromised, and no references to other sources that might explain problems with the scholar’s work.
Similarly, although the letter criticizes the merits of Dr. Carl’s published, peer-reviewed research, there was no indication that its authors or signers had tried to engage with the author or the editorial boards to explain the perceived problems or to invite response to specific concerns about the method, data, or analysis of any of his papers.
The letter went on to assert:
“Carl’s work has already been used by extremist and far-right media outlets with the aim of stoking xenophobic anti-immigrant rhetoric.”
Here again, no specific details or evidence were provided to back up these assertions. Indeed, even if evidence were provided that bad actors had been (mis)using his work, it is not clear why Dr. Carl would be held personally responsible or culpable for this. Was he aware his work was being used in this way (if it was)? If so, did he condone or actively solicit this use? Was there some kind of negligence on his part which made the work easy to exploit? If so, there is no evidence for any of this provided in the open letter.
Indeed, the only specific details offered to justify Dr. Carl’s public condemnation was his “attendance at, and public defence of, the discredited London Conference on Intelligence.”
Dr. Carl did attend this conference. He then served as the fourth author of a paper published in the September/October 2018 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Intelligence – wherein attendees directly addressed public perceptions of the event, and the extent to which these characterizations mapped onto their own experiences and observations there.
Intelligence is one of Dr. Carl’s primary research areas. Although he does not personally work on race and IQ, he has publicly defended the right of others to do this research in a just-published essay for the peer-reviewed journal Evolutionary Psychological Science.
Heterodox Academy has no interest in playing referee with regards to the empirical, methodological or analytic rigor of Dr. Carl’s work. Nor do we wish to speculate about the value and implications of his contributions. We refuse to make assumptions about the motivations of either Dr. Carl or his critics.
What we can say with confidence is that the open letter condemning Dr. Carl makes very strong and damaging claims about his research and his character – yet provides virtually no evidence for those accusations. We believe a different set of principles should govern situations like these (click to expand):
Scholars should not be punished for good-faith research.
While the value of many lines of research are disputed (often on reasonable grounds), criticisms about research should be aimed at ideas, arguments, methods, and empirical claims rather than trying to demean, discredit or punish the individuals who made them – especially absent evidence that actual wrong-doing occurred on the part of the scholar. Researchers are under no obligation to carry out, cite, support or endorse research they find to be pointless or pernicious. Indeed, it is perfectly appropriate to make the case for why these lines of research may not be worthy of others’ investments either. For instance, prominent HxA member Jon McWhorter recently argued that public discussion on the link between race and IQ “serves no purpose.” However, he did not argue, or try to ensure, that people who carry out that research be penalized, terminated, or publicly shamed.
There are processes in place for identifying and addressing bad work. As often as possible, people should stick to those processes.
If one believes there are flaws with an author’s work, reach out to that author, express one’s concerns, and seek more information.
If this outreach is unsuccessful or untenable, one can instead bring their concerns to a journal editor – who will review the criticisms and, if warranted, contact the author to seek a defense. If answers are not forthcoming, or are unsatisfactory, the journal can issue a correction or retraction. If the case is more ambiguous, editors may invite or permit critics to publish a rejoinder.
If these methods prove unsatisfactory, one is free to criticize the work in other journals, online outlets, in public talks, etc. But again, the focus should be on the claims and data being advanced rather than attacking particular scholars by imputing bad motives to them or their work.
Open letters and related tactics are extraordinary means that should only be deployed when normal process has broken down. And in such an event, the letter should explain where the normal process failed, and why a public statement was needed.
It will rarely be necessary for scores of prolific senior faculty–many from disciplines and areas of expertise with no bearing on the paper in question–to join forces in an effort to destroy the reputation and career prospects of a post-doc, as was done in this case.
Public condemnations of work should include specific citations of bad research, and explanations (or links to explanations) of how and why it is low-quality or otherwise pernicious.
This will allow others to more accurately evaluate the merits of the relevant work and its criticism – and allow for targets to better explain or defend themselves in the event of a misunderstanding.
Scholars should refrain from taking strong stands on the merits of work beyond their area of expertise.
Without sufficient background on the relevant literatures, methods, theories, data, and disciplinary norms a scholarly contribution is speaking to, others may not be in a position to credibly evaluate it. Consequently, they would not be in a position to endorse criticisms of this work either.
For the letter condemning Dr. Carl, a number of signatories are associated with departments like geography, English, history, and art. It is not clear if or how they would be qualified to judge Dr. Carl’s contributions about the biological bases of intelligence (assuming they have read his work at all).
Each and every signatory is obligated to personally investigate and verify the legitimacy of the complaints being made before signing onto a statement.
Often public denunciations present an incomplete or outright inaccurate picture of the situation at hand. Yet it is common (perhaps typical) that signatories lack deep familiarity with the research or facts in question.
People sign on because they agree, in principle, with the statement being made (i.e. racist pseudoscience has no place at Cambridge) — and they trust that other scholars on the list have done sufficient research to ensure that the target deserves public shaming. Yet, if most other signatories are also making this same calculation, then the heuristic doesn’t work: everyone is relying on other people to have done the relevant research when, essentially, no one has. Under these circumstances, it is really easy for misinformation or disinformation to cascade instead. Yet the consequences of these campaigns can be extremely damaging to their targets — indeed, this is often the explicit objective.
If one is willing to throw their own weight behind the destruction of another scholar’s reputation and career, at the least, it should be after having performed due diligence: one must first verify that severe breaches of scholarly or ethical norms actually took place, and second determine that the situation calls for extreme measures because the normal process is somehow insufficient to resolve it.
Personal accusations should generally be avoided. When necessary, they must be supported by specific examples and strong evidence.
Communal inquiry and debate are at the heart of the academy. As researchers, we put our ideas into the crucible of open inquiry and rely on debate and discussion to refine understanding and advance solutions to complex problems. The practice of issuing open letters attacking scholars for their contributions undermines this important goal by evicting academics and their ideas from the arena — often on flimsy evidentiary grounds. More constructive responses can and should be employed.
5/1/2019 Update: Cambridge’s investigation into the recruitment process which appointed Carl “rejected the complaints that there were failings in the recruitment procedure.” Nonetheless, following the outcry against his work, the university has officially sacked Noah Carl. Speaking on behalf of the College’s Governing Body, Master Matthew Bullock apologized “unreservedly for the hurt and offence felt by all members of the Combination Room.” He continued, “diversity and inclusivity are fundamental values of the College and we abhor racism and religious hatred. There are lessons we must learn about how we demonstrate the importance of these values and we will take action to repair the damage that has been caused to our College community.”
Debra Mashek, Executive Director
Sean Stevens, Director of Research
Musa al-Gharbi, Director of Communications
Krystyna Lopez, Director of Memberships & Partnerships
Laura Lalinde, Director of Operations
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