More pixels and ink have been wasted over the case of professional Gumby Toby Young this past couple of weeks than I think any of us would have liked.
His obvious unsuitability for a position on the Office for Students led him to resign the post before he even started, but not before The London Student discovered that he’d attended a weird, secret conference on eugenics and the genetic inheritability of IQ, which seemed alarming given Young’s previously expressed views.
Since his resignation, Young has tried to walk back on quite a lot of things and claims that he attended the conference completely innocently and certainly thought it was wacky himself.
But is this true? And what does he really believe about eugenics? Is he just innocently expressing mainstream views the left have blown out of proportion?
Toby Young on eugenics
Toby Young has made his argument for what he calls ‘progressive eugenics’ all over the place; in an article for The Quadrant, a Radio4 programme about inheritance (from about 16.49 in — written up separately here) and his own Radio 4 programme. So it’s odd that he considers the word ‘eugenics’ a smear now, since it’s what he says himself. A lot.
Whether it’s eugenics or not, what he means by ‘progressive eugenics’ is that if at some unspecified time in the future we develop technology to select embryos by IQ, poor people should be given access for free. Rich people should be restricted. This will encourage social mobility.
Now, Young is at great pains to focus just on this conclusion in isolation in his defence at The Spectator, and he references this blog at the BMJ (obviously without mentioning the bit where it says his argument is eugenic) to back up the idea that what he’s arguing isn’t that controversial. He just wants to help poor people with social mobility.
But this conclusion doesn’t appear in isolation, and it’s how he gets there that’s important.
First of all, he gets there by leaning very heavily on the highly controversial study The Bell Curve to argue that the most important factor in intelligence is genetic. The Bell Curve is infamous not just for arguing that intelligence is inheritable, but taking that through to the conclusion that black people have lower IQs on average than white people because they’re genetically inferior in that regard. That’s why it’s beloved of white supremacists and the alt-right.
He hasn’t just picked some innocent piece of mainstream science here, even if he does leave race mostly out of ‘progressive eugenics’. Mostly.
What he uses the study for is, well, kind of wacky.
For Toby Young, evidence that poorer people have lower IQs on average than richer people is proof that poor people are poor because they’re stupid, and rich people are the ‘cognitive elite’. From his Quadrant article:
[The authors of The Bell Curve] conclude that IQ is a better predictor of low socio-economic status — and the associated problems of poverty, teenage pregnancy, welfare dependency, criminality and drug abuse — than any competing variable, including parental socio-economic status.
I’m not going to go into why all this is rubbish here. If you’re interested, this blog at the BMJ does a sound job of taking it apart. (Incidentally, that’s the second part of the blog Young quotes in his defence).
What’s wacky is his argument that the society we’re living in now is approaching a true meritocracy, where a person’s position in society is determined by their ability.
This is bizarre.
Not only that, but our meritocratic society in which the ‘cognitive elite’ are at the top is becoming entrenched, because the elite are choosing partners based on intelligence. Social mobility is falling because the poor are just staying stupid. Society is becoming just as unfair as aristocracy because nobody has control over the skills they’re born with.
This, Young worries, will become dangerous, because the stupids at the bottom will revolt and usher in a Stalinist hell of statist intervention.
In his Quadrant article, he uses the occupy movement and the rise of popular left wing parties in Greece and Spain as evidence that this is happening. In his later Radio 4 documentary, he uses Trump and Brexit. That last one is curious, since Toby Young no doubt considers himself as part of the cognitive elite, and yet he voted for Brexit along with the people who he thinks are at the bottom of society because of their inferior intellect.
So, yeah. Poor people should be allowed access to technology where they can choose children based on IQ in the future because it’s the only way to stop the stupids from revolting and ushering in the gulags. All supported by one of the most infamous studies ever published. That’s not weird at all.
(He writes about this at greater length here. It’s…interesting).
A final point. Although he doesn’t deal directly with the racial elements of The Bell Curve, in his article in The Quadrant, Young suggests that Detroit would be a brilliant place to trial this.
Imagine discussing the problems of Detroit without making reference to structural inequality, racism or the collapse of the US car manufacturing industry.
Why would you think the problems in an 82% black city like Detroit had anything to do with the low IQ of the population? Its a conundrum. A conundrum to which might be an answer later on.
The weird, secretive eugenics conference
As quite a few commentators rallied around to defend Young during the initial controversy over his tweets and whatnot, The London Student uncovered the detail that Young had attended a secretive conference on eugenics last year. In the past, the conference had included some incredibly dodgy far right speakers. A shorter piece by the same writers was included in the last issue of Private Eye too. He resigned shortly after.
Young’s defence of this is that yes, he went, but he didn’t speak. He had no idea of the sort of person who’d spoken at it before, and he did hear some wild and wacky stuff but not necessarily from the people mentioned in the London Student. He only went in an effort to gather material for a speech he was going to give to a much more respectable conference in Montreal later in the year anyway. You know, he tried it but he didn’t inhale.
Now, we have no idea if that is true, because everything surrounding the conference is secret. Young talks about The London Student bringing up attendees of previous conferences as though it’s somehow either stupid or underhanded to do so — but they did it because nobody knows who went in 2017. You have no choice but to look up previous years’ attendees because no-one will say who went last year, least of all Toby Young. It’s secret.
Sure, he says now that he heard some weird stuff, but what? And did he really believe it to be as weird then as he says he did now?
We can get some idea of the answer from the content of that Montreal speech.
The Montreal Speech
Now. According to Toby Young, the Intelligence 2017 conference was super respectable and nothing like the weird, secret UCL one. Just look at the list of attendees, he says. Super normal.
He doesn’t actually mention much about what he said in Montreal in his Spectator defence (although he does link to it). And reading the speech, you can see why.
The title of his speech is ‘Liberal Creationism’. What does that mean? Here are Toby’s own words:
So, let us start with the ‘Liberal Creationists’ — a phrase coined by William Saletan in a series of articles for Slate in 2007, in which he compared those on the progressive left who reject the findings of intelligence researchers to Christians at the beginning of the 20th Century struggling to reconcile their beliefs with the Theory of Evolution.
Right. Not really the same as the bit in his defence where he says ‘intelligence may not be genetically-based’, huh? Either is this:
As far as these Social Justice Warriors are concerned, intelligence researchers are the enemy — indeed, anyone who believes that human differences are rooted even in part in biology rather than socially constructed is the enemy — and I am afraid they won’t rest until they have removed the last remaining copy of the Minnesota Study of Identical Twins Reared Apart from your cold, dead hands.
The entire theme of the speech is how these bloody idiot lefties cannot accept the hard scientific truth about the genetic basis of intelligence. It really doesn’t fit with his ‘hey guys, I’m only speculating here! I only went to the wacky conference for speech material and everything’s fine’ defence very much.
So what does he say about the secret conference? Does he use it to uncover how discussion of this sort of thing can get ugly and take you down some very dark paths, or anything like that? That what his Spectator article kind of implies.
No. No he doesn’t. He says this:
I discovered just how cautious scholars in this field can be when I was invited to attend a two-day conference on intelligence at University College London by the academic and journalist James Thompson earlier this year. Attendees were only told the venue at the last minute — an anonymous antechamber at the end of a long corridor called ‘Lecture Room 22’ — and asked not to share the information with anyone else. One of those present, on discovering I was a journalist, pleaded with me not to write about the fact that he was there — he didn’t want his colleagues to find out.
It was like a meeting of Charter 77 in Václav Havel’s flat in Prague in the 1970s.
But these precautions were not unreasonable, considering the reaction that any reference to between-group differences in IQ provokes.
And that’s it. These people were ‘scholars’ who were rightly scared about being discovered, mentioned in a speech about how lefties unfairly attack scholars because they can’t handle the truth about ‘between-group differences in IQ’.
Could it be that Young got a lot more than just that couple of paragraphs from the secret conference? Could he have got the whole subject — about how the irrational left can’t accept the truth of IQ differences between groups like gender?
The bulk of this speech is devoted to defending people who have been trashed for making the argument that races might have different average IQs because, well, some races are genetically more intelligent. He laments that an article in Nature about racial IQ differences says:
the gap between the average IQ scores of black and white people in the United States has been falsely attributed to genetic differences between the races.
The emphasis there is his. This is what upsets him about the article. The idea that a science journal might say it’s false to attribute lower IQ scores of black people in America to their genes.
He defends this idea a lot. Here, he talks about James Watson having to resign as Chancellor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory:
He told [an] interviewer he was “inherently gloomy about the prospects of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really”.
Nice. Now, to be fair to Toby, he does allow that Watson might have said other things that looked a bit racist, but says he mentions this, ‘to illustrate the sort of repercussions scientists can face if they claim there are racial differences in IQ.’ So it seems he is fine with the quote above.
Where would testing genetic engineering on an 82% black city like Detroit fit in with all this?
And what if someone in education argued, say, that there’s very little that education can do to alleviate inequality because some people are just born less intelligent, given this context?
Are there any limits to what schools can achieve?
That’s the title of a blog post Young wrote just three months ago, long after his Quadrant article and after both of the conferences he went to.
Here’s what he says:
So what are the things that schools cannot change? Having immersed myself in psychology, particularly psychometrics, I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that it is naïve to think schools can do much to ameliorate the effects of inequality. I don’t just mean socio-economic inequality; I also mean differences in intelligence. A child’s general cognitive ability is the strongest single predictor of how well they do in their GCSEs, with differences in IQ accounting for more than half of the variance in exam results.
Ah. Schools can’t do much about inequality, because some kids are just born more stupid. Oh well.
At least he thinks you should still try, even if you are fighting a losing battle:
As the Serenity Prayer says, it takes courage to change the things you can — and fortitude to keep on going when you know those changes are bound to be quite modest.
This is the article that was pulled from Teach First last year. The one where the man involved in the running of schools argues there’s not much schools can do about inequality or to help with kids’ intelligence.
Putting it all together
All this together is worrying to say the least, and people are right to have been alarmed at his appointment to the Office for Students. Someone who thinks that IQ is inherited, who defends the idea that black people have lower IQs because of genetic inferiority, who thinks there’s not a lot schools can do to help disadvantaged kids shouldn’t really be in education at all.
It’s all far more serious than a few — or rather quite a lot of tweets about tits.
[Edited to correct the name of The Quadrant]