How Stifling Debate Around Race, Genes and IQ Can Do Harm
Published online: 28 April 2018
It is often asserted that, when it comes to taboo topics like race, genes and IQ, scholars should be held to higher evidentiary
standards or even censored entirely because of the harm that might result if their findings became widely known. There is held to
be an asymmetry whereby the societal costs of discussing certain topics inevitably outweigh any benefits from doing so. This
paper arguesthat no such asymmetry has been empirically demonstrated, and that stifling debate around taboo topics can itself do
active harm. To the extent that the paper’s argument has force, it cannot simply be taken for granted that, when in doubt, stifling
debate around taboo topics is the ethical thing to do.
Keywords Race .Genes .IQ .Ethics .Free speech
To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the
rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker
––Frederick Douglas, 1860, A Plea for Free Speech in
The Putative Asymmetry
It is often asserted that, when it comes to taboo topics like
race, genes and IQ, scholars should be held to higher eviden-
tiary standards or even censored entirely because of the harm
that could result if their findings became widely known (see
Pinker 2002, Ch. 6; Gottfredson, 2010;Cofnas,2016). There
is held to be an asymmetry whereby the societal costs of
discussing certain topics inevitably outweigh any benefits
from doing so. For example, Kitcher (1985) writes,
Everybody ought to agree that, given sufficient evidence
for some hypothesis about humans, we should accept
that hypothesis whatever its political implications. But
the question of what counts as sufficient evidence is not
independent of the political consequences. If the costs of
being wrong are sufficiently high, then it is reasonable
and responsible to ask for more evidence than is
demanded in situations where mistakes are relatively
Likewise, Block and Dworkin (1974)write,
We are not... saying that at all times or in all places
investigation of racial genotypic differences in IQ scores
should stop. What we are saying is that at this time, in
this country, in this political climate, individual scien-
tists should voluntarily refrain from the investigation of
genotypic racial differences in performance on IQ tests
More recently, Gillborn (2016) writes,
We need to move to a position where all research on
human capabilities (whether involving genetics or not)
is predicated on a clear statement that any assertion of
fixed and inevitable inequalities in ability/intelligence
between racial/ethnic groups is, by its nature, racist
Kourany (2016) goes further, calling for the creation of “a
new National Science Advisory Board for Social Research”
that would impose “tighter restrictions on race- and gender-
Both this example and the example of Kitcher (1985) were taken from
Nuffield College, New Road, Oxford OX1 1NF, UK
Evolutionary Psychological Science (2018) 4:399–407
The Author(s) 2018
related cognitive differences research”. Her contention being
that “scientists’right to freedom of research cannot be allowed
to subvert other people’srights”,inthiscasetheir“right to
The belief that stifling debate around race, genes and IQ is
necessary to prevent harm has led to scholars being
mischaracterised, censored and even physically attacked.
Numerous examples can be found in Pinker (2002; Ch. 6),
Nyborg (2011), Winegard and Winegard (2015)andWarne
et al. (2018). Let us consider just a few. Following the publi-
cation of his book Sociobiology, which applied concepts from
evolutionary biology to human social behaviour, E.O. Wilson
was accused of attempting to justify genocide by fellow aca-
demics and was subjected to a campaign of harassment by
irate student activists; defamatory leaflets were handed out,
his lectures were invaded and he was even doused with a
jug of water (Pinker, 2002). After publishing an article in
The Harvard Educational Review arguing that efforts to boost
children’s IQs and scholastic achievement were limited by
their genetic endowments, Arthur Jensen was roundly de-
nounced as a fascist, racist and elitist. In the months that
followed, he was unable to open his mail, had to be escorted
around the Berkeley campus by bodyguards and was eventu-
ally forced to move house (Nyborg, 2011). When Charles
Murray co-authored his book The Bell Curve (with Richard
Herrnstein), which discussed studies of race differences in IQ,
he was excoriated for supposedly trying to demonstrate that
blacks were genetically inferior to whites (Winegard and
Winegard 2015). Twenty-three years later, Murray was invited
to give a talk at Middlebury College about an unrelated book.
Soon after the talk began, he was shouted down by a jeering
mob of students, so the discussion was moved to another site
and broadcast via live stream. Once the discussion had fin-
ished, Murray and his interviewer Alison Stanger (a liberal
Democrat who disagreed with Murray) were accosted by a
group of students. As Stanger (2017)recounts,
Most of the hatred was focused on Dr Murray, but when
I took his right arm to shield him and to make sure we
stayed together, the crowd turned on me. Someone
pulled my hair, while others were shoving me. I feared
for my life. Once we got into the car, protesters climbed
on it, hitting the windows and rocking the vehicle when-
ever we stopped to avoid harming them. I am still wear-
ing a neck brace, and spent a week in a dark room to
recover from a concussion caused by the whiplash
The foregoing examples illustrate the violent lengths to
which some people will go to in order to stifle debate around
race, genes and IQ. Why does this area of research incite such
vitriolic indignation? A likely reason, as Winegard and
Winegard (2015) argue, is that for a large number of
academics in the West, the notion of biological sameness be-
tween groups (classes, sexes, races) has become what Tetlock
(2003)callsa‘sacred value’(and see Ginges et al., 2007).
Sacred values possess at least two important properties. First,
they are incommensurable with respect to instrumental values:
no amount of a sacred value can be traded off for any amount
of an instrumental value. And second, proposals to accept
such trade-offs are met not merely with rejection, but with
moral outrage. Because arguments such as Wilson’s,
Jensen’s and Murray’s clearly threaten the sacred value of
biological sameness between groups, it is not enough simply
to attack the arguments; the defenders of those arguments
must be hounded, and their characters impeached.
Furthermore, there is a large body of research in psycholo-
gy showing that people are quite bad at objectively appraising
risk (Kahneman, 2011, Ch. 13). For example, we tend to be
more afraid of snakes, spiders and large carnivores than of
loaded guns, faulty electrical wires and driving without a
seatbelt (Pinker, 1997, Ch. 6.) One particularly important
source of error is the ‘affect heuristic’, whereby people judge
things to have worse consequences if their mental images of
those things are imbued with more negative emotional con-
tent. As Slovic et al. (2007)note,“activities associated with
cancer are seen as riskier and more in need of regulation than
activities associated with less dreaded forms of illness, injury,
and death (e.g.,accidents)”. The existence of the ‘affect heu-
ristic’should give us pause before concluding that the degree
of moral outrage associated with a phenomenon constitutes a
good measure of how much risk that phenomenon actually
poses to society.
Although a great many areas of science (e.g., the germ
theory of disease, the chemistry of particulates, the psycholo-
gy of manipulation) are open to misuse, there are few if any-
where the putative asymmetry between societal costs and sci-
entific or other benefits is held to be as great as in the area of
race, genes and IQ. Of course, the main concern among com-
mentators who subscribe to this asymmetry is that evidence of
a genetic contribution to IQ differences between human pop-
ulations would be used by racists to justify oppression or
exploitation of populations with lower average IQs. For ex-
ample, if it were found that the difference in mean IQ between
European Americans and African Americans is partly genetic,
the difference would be in some sense fixed, and the worry is
that racists would then have a justification for oppressing or
exploiting African Americans. It goes without saying that this
concern should be taken seriously; the possibility of an
asymmetry between the costs and benefits of discussing
race, genes and IQ is not one that should be dismissed out of
However, this paper argues that no such asymmetry has
been empirically demonstrated, and that stifling debate around
Wine gard et al. (2018) have dubbed this notion “equalitarianism”.
400 Evolutionary Psychological Science (2018) 4:399–407
taboo topics can itself do active harm.
To the extent that the
paper’s argument has force, it cannot simply be taken for
granted that, when in doubt, stifling debate around taboo
topics is the ethical thing to do. The paper makes three main
claims: first, that equating particular scientific statements with
racism effectively holds our morals hostage to the facts; sec-
ond, that the ‘blank slate’view of human nature also has
pernicious moral implications; and third, that there are clear
examples of where stifling debate has done material harm to
both individuals and societal institutions.
Holding Our Morals Hostage to the Facts
The first way in which stifling debate around taboo topics can
do harm is by holding our morals hostage to the facts. By
equating particular scientific statements (e.g., “the difference
in mean IQ between European Americans and African
Americans may be partly genetic”) with racism (e.g.,
“African Americans are genetically inferior to European
Americans”), those seeking to stifle debate commit the mor-
alistic fallacy of concluding that a statement cannot be true if it
has unpleasant moral implications (Davis, 1978)
. And in do-
ing so, they make a rather perverse assumption, namely that if
the relevant scientific statements were ever shown to be true,
then the unpleasant moral implications would be valid. Yet as
Pinker (2002; Ch. 6) notes, “We should not concede that any
foreseeable discovery about humans could have such horrible
implications…political equality is a moral stance, not an em-
Indeed, there is already substantial evidence that
individuals differ from one another with respect to IQ at least
partly for genetic reasons (Plomin and Deary, 2015; Sniekers
et al., 2017;Hilletal.,2018). But of course, this does not
justify oppression or exploitation of those who have lower
IQs. Likewise, there is already substantial evidence that hu-
man populations differ from one another with respect to traits
like height, weight, bone density, muscle fibre distribution,
lactose tolerance, thermogenic capacity and resistance to dis-
ease at least partly for genetic reasons (Epstein, 2014;
Winegard et al., 2017). Yet, once again, this does not justify
oppression or exploitation of populations who have lower
means on these traits. Note that it is not being asserted that a
genetic contribution to racial gaps in IQ has been conclusively
demonstrated, but rather that such a finding would not have a
qualitatively different epistemological status from the recent
finding that, say, genes associated with increased height
elevated in Northern Europeans relative to Southern
Europeans (Turchin et al., 2012;Robinsonetal.,2015).
The point that we should not hold our morals hostage to the
facts has been made over and over again by scholars interested
in race, genes and IQ. For example, Wilson (1978)stated,
Given that humankind is a biological species, it should
come as no shock to find that populations are to some
extent genetically diverse in the physical and mental
properties underlying social behaviour. A discovery of
this nature does not vitiate the ideals of Western
civilisation. We are not compelled to believe in
biological uniformity in order to affirm human
freedom and dignity
Similarly, Jensen (1972)stated,
We must clearly distinguish between research on racial
differences and racism. Racism implies hate or aversion
and aims at denying equal rights and opportunities to
persons because of their racial origin…Buttofearre-
search on genetic differences in abilities is, in a sense, to
grant the racist’s assumption: that if it should be
established beyond reasonable doubt that there are bio-
logically or genetically conditioned differences in men-
tal abilities among individuals or groups, then we are
justified in oppressing or exploiting those who are most
limited in genetic endowment. This is, of course, a com-
plete non sequitur
Herrnstein and Murray (1994,Ch.13)stated,
Nothing seems more fearsome to many commentators
than the possibility that ethnic and race differences have
any genetic component at all. This belief is a fundamen-
tal error. Even if the differences between races were
entirely genetic (which they are surely not), it should
make no practical differences in how individuals deal
with each other. The real danger is that the elite wisdom
on ethnic differences––that such differences cannot ex-
ist––will shift to opposite and equally unjustified ex-
tremes. Open and informed discussion is the one certain
The present paper focuses on the harm done by stifling debate around race,
genes and IQ.In a separate paper, Jeffrey and Shackelford (2017) examine“the
benefits of knowing more about variance in intelligence”and put forward a
“tentative case that the benefits outweigh the costs”.
It should be noted that not all of those who have sought to stifle debate
around race, genes and IQ are guilty of this fallacy.
Singer (2007) makes precisely the same point when he says, “no matter what
the facts on race and intelligence turn out to be, they will not justify racial
hatred, nor disrespect for people of a different race.”
Note also that height, just like IQ, is a socially salient trait. It has a robust
positive association with individual income (Tyrell et al., 2016), and taller men
are considered more attractive than shorter men (Nettle, 2002).
Evolutionary Psychological Science (2018) 4:399–407 401
way to protect society from the dangers of one extreme
view or the other
As far back as the 1960s, one of the founding fathers of the
‘modern synthesis’Ernst Mayr (1963)stated,
Equality in spite of evident non-identity is a somewhat
sophisticated concept and requires a moral stature of
which many individuals seem to be incapable. They
rather deny human variability and equate equality with
identity. Or they claim that the human species is excep-
tional in the organic world in that only morphological
characters are controlled by genes and all other traits of
the mind or character are due to “conditioning”or other
non-genetic factors…An ideology based on such obvi-
ously wrong premises can only lead to disaster. Its
championship of human equality is based on a claim
of identity. As soon as it is proved that the latter does
not exist, the support of equality is likewise lost
And in a recent New York Times op-ed, geneticist David
I am worried that well-meaning people who deny the
possibility of substantial biological differences
among human populations are digging themselves
into an indefensible position, one that will not sur-
vive the onslaught of science. I am also worried that
whatever discoveries are made —and we truly have
no idea yet what they will be —will be cited as
“scientific proof”that racist prejudices and agendas
have been correct all along, and that those well-
meaning people will not understand the science well
enough to push back against these claims.
As the quotes from Jensen, Mayr and Reich hint at, equat-
ing particular scientific statements with racism is not merely
logically fallacious, but potentially unethical too. The reason
being that it may end up encouraging precisely the behaviour
that it aims to forestall. Suppose for the sake of argument that,
one day in the future, evidence for a genetic contribution to
psychological differences between human populations be-
comes so overwhelming that it cannot be reasonably denied.
Note that there is nothing in science which rules this possibil-
ity out (Flynn, 2017). If between now and then, anyone who
claims that genes might contribute to psychological group
differences is pilloried as a ‘racist’, when the evidence even-
tually does become overwhelming, a much greater number of
people are likely to take it as “scientific proof that racism was
right all along”. By contrast, if instead it is continuously
asserted that “political equality is a moral stance, not an
empirical hypothesis”––to quote Pinker once again––there is
arguably much less danger of any discovery being taken as
“scientific proof of racism”.
The distinction between facts on the one hand, and values
ontheother,goesbackatleasttoDavidHume(1739; Bk. 3,
Pt. 1), who demonstrated that propositions about what ought
to be the case cannot be derived from propositions about what
is the case (and see Moore, 1903, Ch. 1). In other words, no
normative conclusion is implied by any positive proposition
except in conjunction with an auxiliary normative proposition.
For example, take the normative conclusion “whites are justi-
fied in oppressing and exploiting blacks”. There is no pair of
positive propositions from which this conclusion can be val-
idly deduced. For example, the argument “blacks have a lower
mean IQ than whites; therefore whites are justified in
oppressing and exploiting blacks”is obviously invalid.
Indeed, it is not even a syllogism. The conclusion “whites
are justified in oppressing and exploiting blacks”can only
be derived from the premise “blacks have a lower mean IQ
than whites”in conjunction with another normative
proposition,namelythat“races with higher average IQs are
justified in oppressing or exploiting races with lower average
IQs”. And there is of course no scientific evidence that could
be adduced in support of that proposition. To summarise, par-
ticular scientific findings (e.g., that variation in IQ is partly
genetic) are logically independent of particular normative con-
clusions (e.g., that people should not be exploited).
One possible objection to the preceding argument goes as
follows. The discovery of a genetic contribution to, say, race
differences in crime rates would seem to provide a strong
Bayesian rationale for policies like racial profiling (e.g., stop-
ping and searching black youths more often than white
youths), which many people believe are unethical (see Risse
and Zeckhauser, 2004; Sesardić,2018). Insofar as this is the
case, can it really be said that scientific findings are logically
independent of normative conclusions? Taking ‘independent’
to mean ‘not logically deducible from’, yes it can. Just because
something is ‘rational’does not mean it is necessarily ethical.
Indeed, discriminating on the basis of group differences is
‘rational’regardless of whether those differences are genetic
or environmental in origin, so the fact that racial profiling has
already been criticised (i.e., has been criticised in a context
where race differences in crime rates are almost universally
assumed to be environmental) illustrates that many people
accept the principle that something can be unethical even
when it is ‘rational’. Another point worth making is that racial
profiling is fundamentally different from the kinds of oppres-
sion and exploitation that were meted out by racists in the past.
As Sesardić(2018) notes, the police already profile men (who
are much more likely to commit crime than women), but most
people do not see any problem with this. Moreover, several
black scholars have pointed out that the primary beneficiaries
of racial profiling are the law-abiding black people who live in
402 Evolutionary Psychological Science (2018) 4:399–407
the neighbourhoods where black criminals operate (e.g.,
Riley, 2015, Ch. 3; Williams, 2017).
Furthermore, some radical political philosophies such as
‘luck egalitarianism’are arguably just as easy to reconcile
with the findings of differential psychology and behavioural
genetics as any ‘elitist’political philosophy (Dworkin,
example, the philosopher Ronald Dworkin (1981a,b)drewa
distinction between ‘tastes and ambitions’on the one hand
and ‘endowments’on the other (see Lamont and Favor,
2017). An individual’s tastes and ambitions comprise all the
choices he makes that affect his material well-being, such as
how hard to work, and whether to spend money frivolously or
prudently. By contrast, his ‘endowments’comprise all the
handicaps or advantages he possesses due to circumstances
beyond his control, such as his genes, his family’s wealth or
simple bad luck (e.g., getting hit by a car). According to
Dworkin, material inequalities that arise due to differences in
‘tastes and ambitions’may be justified, but those that arise due
to differences in ‘endowments’are not. So even if IQ were
100% genetic (which incidentally, it is not), since individuals
cannot control the genes they will inherit, there is a relatively
strong case to be made that inequalities arising due to differ-
ences in IQ (whether between individuals, classes or races)
should be reduced or eliminated. Of course, this is not to say
that luck egalitarianism is the correct moral theory, but simply
that the findings of differential psychology and behavioural
genetics need not be inconsistent with left-wing political
ideals (see Dillow 2018).
The Pernicious Implications of the Blank Slate
The second way in which stifling debate around taboo topics
can do harm is by promoting an alternative, ‘blank slate’view
of human nature, which in the past has proven no less perni-
cious in its supposed moral implications than the ‘hereditari-
an’view we have been discussing so far. This section quotes
extensively from Pinker (2002, Ch. 8), who has elucidated the
argument particularly well:
Some people have suggested to me that these grandilo-
quent arguments are just too fancy for the dangerous
world we live in. Granted, there is evidence that people
are different, but since data in the social sciences are
never perfect, and since a conclusion of inequality might
be used to the worst ends by bigots or Social Darwinists,
shouldn’t we err on the side of caution and stick with the
null hypothesis that people are identical? Some believe
that even if we were certain that people differ genetical-
ly, we might still want to promulgate the fiction that they
are the same, because it is less open to abuse.
This argument is based on the fallacy that the Blank
Slate has nothing but good moral implications and a
theory of human nature nothing but bad ones. In the case
of human differences, as in the case of human univer-
sals, the dangers go both ways.
The first way in which the ‘blank slate’view of human
nature has been misused is as a justification for totalitarian
efforts to ‘remake humanity’. If there is no such thing as hu-
man nature, and individuals are not constrained by any kind of
genetic endowment––so the arguments goes––those who ex-
hibit undesirable traits can and should be ‘perfected’through
appropriately targeted state intervention. In the twentieth
century’s most repressive communist dictatorships, such inter-
vention took a number of different forms, including forced
labour programs, ‘re-education’camps and mass killings of
the ones who proved incorrigible. As Pinker (2002,Ch.8)
notes, various communist ideologues’commitment to the
‘blank slate’view of human nature is evidenced in the state-
ments that they made:
Lenin endorsed Nikolai Bukharin’s ideal of “the
manufacturing of Communist man out of the human
material of the capitalist age.”Lenin’s admirer Maxim
Gorky wrote, “The working classes are to Lenin what
minerals are to the metallurgist”and, “Human raw ma-
terial is immeasurably more difficult to work with than
wood”(the latter while admiring a canal built by slave
labor). We come across the metaphor of the blank slate
in the writings of a man who may have been responsible
for sixty-five million deaths:
“A blank sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest
and most beautiful words can be written on it, .”
And we find it in a saying of a political movement that
killed a quarter of its countrymen:
“Only the newborn baby is spotless.”
—Khmer Rouge slogan
The second way in which the ‘blank slate’view of human
nature has been misused is as a justification for persecution or
genocide of ‘successful’groups within society. According to
this line of argument, if all groups start out identical, but some
As Rushton (1996) notes, “There are no necessary policies which flow from
race research. The findings are compatible with a wide range of recommenda-
tions: from social segregation, through laissez-faire, to programs for the
Evolutionary Psychological Science (2018) 4:399–407 403
end up wealthier than others, then those who managed to
accrue more wealth must have done so through nefarious
means; they must have been more cunning, more avaricious
or more sneaky than their rivals. Throughout the last two
centuries, numerous ethnic groups and social classes have
been persecuted because their success was taken as evidence
of their wickedness: ‘bourgeois peasants’in the Soviet Union;
literate professionals in Cambodia; ‘rich peasants’in Mao’s
China; the Indians in Uganda; the Chinese in Indonesia; the
Armenians in Turkey; the Igbos in Nigeria; and the Jews in
Europe, Russia and the Middle East (Pinker, 2002, Ch. 8; and
see Cofnas, 2017).
Of course, the fact that the ‘blank slate’view of human
nature has been used to justify crimes such as genocide,
forced labour and mass population displacement does not
imply that the ‘hereditarian’view is correct. Nor does it
imply that the ‘hereditarian’view has not also been gross-
ly misused (most appallingly, by the Nazis). However, it
does call into question the putative asymmetry whereby
the societal costs of discussing genes, race and IQ are
assumed to inevitably outweigh any benefits from doing
so. As Pinker (2002, Ch. 8) notes, the “realization that
government-sponsored mass murder can come from an
anti-innatist belief system as easily as from an innatist
one upends the postwar understanding that biological ap-
proaches to behavior are uniquely sinister”.
Material Harm Done by Stifling Debate
Evidence presented in this section illustrates how stifling
debate around taboo topics can do harm by leading
scholars to ignore salient aspects of phenomena, by caus-
ing authorities to “sweep problems under the rug”,andby
inciting a backlash from enraged dissidents. First of all,
consider race differences in optimal medicine. Back in the
1990s, Rushton (1996) pointed out that the medical needs
of people from different racial backgrounds are almost
certainly not identical (and see Rushton and Jensen,
2005). In particular, he noted that
Just as women doctors have advocated that to concep-
tualize women as being the same as men leads to a
neglect of women’s problems and their treatment (e.g.,
premenstrual symptoms and menopause and hormone
replacement therapy), so Black doctors are increasingly
becoming concerned that treating Blacks the same as
Whites is to neglect Black problems
And indeed, Rushton’s contention has been borne out
by subsequent evidence (see Taylor and Ellis, 2002;
Burroughs et al., 2002; Ramamoorthy et al., 2015). For
example, in their 2002 review of the literature, Burroughs
et al. concluded that
Pharmacogenetic research in the past few decades has
uncovered significant differences among racial and eth-
nic groups in the metabolism, clinical effectiveness, and
side-effect profiles of many clinically important drugs.
These differences must be taken into account in the de-
sign of cost management policies such as formulary im-
plementation, therapeutic substitution and step-care
To deny the existence of ‘race’, or to insist that it is a
wholly ‘social construct’, as many critics of the ‘hereditarian’
view of human nature do (see Wade, 2014,Ch.5;Winegard
et al., 2017; Sesardić,2005, Ch. 4), is to commit oneself to an
erroneous view of modern medicine, one which could con-
ceivably come at the cost of people’slives.
The remaining two examples in this section do not pertain
directly to the topic of race, genes and IQ. But they illustrate
how stifling debate around taboo topics through ‘political cor-
rectness’can do material harm to both individuals and societal
institutions. First, it has emerged in Britain over the last few
years that hundreds of vulnerable girls were systematically
‘groomed’and in some cases violently gang-raped by groups
of men from their local areas (e.g., Jay, 2013). Such cases have
been reported in Aylesbury, Banbury, Bristol, Derby, Halifax,
Keighley, Newcastle, Oxford, Peterborough, Rochdale, Telford
and Rotherham. One of the salient facts about all these cases is
that the vast majority of perpetrators
were men of South Asian
origin, whereas the victims were mostly White British girls
(Rafiq and Adil, 2017). Since the cases began emerging, a
number of independent government reports have been pub-
lished (Jay, 2013; House of Commons, 2013; Bedford, 2015).
These reports explain how various parties (such as the police,
the social services and the local council) failed to intervene to
stop the abuse because of misplaced concerns about ‘political
correctness’or for fear of being called ‘racist’.
Jay (2013), who led the independent inquiry into sexual abuse
in Rotherham, notes:
Several staff described their nervousness about identify-
ing the ethnic origins of perpetrators for fear of being
Researchers from the think tank Quilliam analysed data on grooming gang
cases in the UK since 2005 and concluded that 84% of offenders were men of
South Asian (mostly Pakistani) origin, despite the fact that South Asians make
up no more than 7% of the British population.
Similarly, in his review intoelectoral fraud inBritain, Sir Eric Pickles (2016)
acknowledged concerns that “state institutions had turned a blind eye to such
behavior because of ‘politically correct’over-sensitivities about ethnicity and
religion”(and see Carl, 2017).
404 Evolutionary Psychological Science (2018) 4:399–407
thought racist; others remembered clear direction from
their managers not to do so
Likewise, Bedford (2015), who led the independent inquiry
into sexual abuse in Oxfordshire, notes:
A parent told a police station about information provid-
ed by the daughter and queried why no immediate ar-
rests were being made. The parent says the desk officer
responded by saying that such arrests could not simply
be made on such information and that the Police were
also under pressure not to appear institutionally racist
The House of Commons report published in June of 2013
including the following among its list of recommendations for
how to prevent future abuse:
It is important that police, social workers and others be
able to raise their concerns freely, without fear of being
The evidence from grooming gangs in Britain illustrates
that throwing around unsubstantiated charges of ‘racism’can
create a climate of fear in which people feel too paralysed to
act, and that insofar as this as this is the case, doing so should
not be considered a sensible precaution, or even a mild nui-
sance, but a potentially unethical thing to do. Of course, it
does not follow that there should be open season to make
insulting or offensive remarks about ethnic minorities. The
point is that there are costs as well as benefits to levelling
accusations of ‘racism’, and that noticing patterns in the data
should be clearly demarcated from intentionally denigrating
Finally, it seems safe to assume that most of the people who
are not already convinced by the arguments in this paper are
unlikely to be supporters of US President Donald Trump (see
Schaffner et al., 2017; Pettigrew, 2017). They would presum-
ably, and indeed with some justification, regard his election as
something that has done material harm to both individuals
(e.g., illegal/undocumented immigrants) and societal institu-
tions (e.g., the Office of the Presidency). It is therefore note-
worthy that opposition to ‘political correctness’appears to
have been a major contributor to his election (Goldberg,
2018). One Trump supporter told a journalist at Reason mag-
azine (Soave, 2016), “This blind adherence to political cor-
rectness was my main issue in the recent political arena”.And
another told the Washington Post (2016), “Iamagaymillen-
nial woman and I voted for Donald Trump because I oppose
the political correctness movement”. Furthermore, in a poll
taken prior to the presidential election, Pew Research asked
Americans whether “too many people are easily offended
these days over the language that others use”(Fingerhut,
2016). A full 83% of Trump supporters agreed, compared to
only 39% of Clinton supporters. Using multivariate analysis,
Goldberg (2018) found that opposition to ‘political correct-
ness’remained a significant predictor of support for Trump
even after controlling for several measures of prejudice, as
well as attitudes to immigration. And in a recent experimental
study, Conway et al. (2017) observed that priming respon-
dents with a vignette about ‘political correctness’led to a
significant rise in support for Trump, but no rise in support
for Clinton. According to the authors, their study “provides
evidence that norms that are designed to increase the overall
amount of positive communication can actually backfire by
increasing support for a politician who uses extremely nega-
tive language that explicitly violates the norm”. To the extent
that many people concerned about the interests of disadvan-
taged groups regard the election of Donald Trump as a nega-
tive outcome (something which seems altogether plausible),
the evidence presented above suggests that stifling debate
around taboo topics through ‘political correctness’may very
well be counter-productive.
It is often asserted that, when it comes to taboo topics like
race, genes and IQ, scholars should be held to higher eviden-
tiary standards or even censored entirely because of the harm
that might result if their findings became widely known. There
is held to be an asymmetry whereby the societal costs of
discussing certain topics inevitably outweigh any benefits
from doing so. This paper argued that no such asymmetry
has been empirically demonstrated, and that stifling debate
around taboo topics can itself do active harm. To the extent
that the paper’s argument has force, it cannot simply be taken
for granted that, when in doubt, stifling debate around taboo
topics is the ethical thing to do. The argument comprised three
main claims: first, that equating particular scientific statements
with racism effectively holds our morals hostage to the facts;
second, that the ‘blank slate’view of human nature also has
pernicious moral implications; and third, that there are clear
examples of where stifling debate around taboo topics has done
material harm to both individuals and societal institutions.
An important caveat is that the paper did not show that the
societal benefits of discussing races, genes and IQ actually do
outweigh the costs. It simply pointed out that the asymmetry
assumed by those seeking to stifle debate has never been em-
pirically demonstrated, and that there are in fact a number of
ways in which stifling debate can do active harm.
Consequently, the paper’s overall conclusion was not that sti-
fling debate is necessarily an unethical thing to do. Rather, it
was a slightly weaker claim, namely that one cannot take for
granted that stifling debate is the ethical thing to do. This
Evolutionary Psychological Science (2018) 4:399–407 405
weaker claim seems eminently reasonable, given that––at the
very least––there are now a number of arguments for stifling
debate around taboo topics (Kitcher, 1985;Blockand
Dworkin, 1974;Gillborn,2016;Kourany,2016), as well as
a number of arguments against doing so, including the ones
advanced here (and see Pinker, 2002; Flynn, 2017; Jeffrey and
Going forward, what steps can be taken to increase the
quality of debate around taboo topics like race, genes and
IQ? Most importantly, it should be reaffirmed that no norma-
tive conclusions follow from any particular scientific findings,
and that holding our morals hostage to the facts is a great
mistake (Pinker, 2002, Ch. 6). As noted above, evidence sug-
gests that individuals differ from one another with respect to
IQ at least partly for genetic reasons, but this does not justify
oppression or exploitation of those who have lower IQs.
Evidence also suggests that human populations differ from
one another with respect to numerous physiological traits at
least partly for genetic reasons, but this does not justify op-
pression or exploitation of populations who have lower means
on these traits. Consequently, if it were one day conclusively
demonstrated that genes contribute to psychological differ-
ences between human populations, it would not suddenly be-
come justified to oppress or exploit the populations who
scored lower on those psychological traits (Winegard et al.,
2017). Admitting the arguments in this paper, another step that
can be taken to increase the quality of debate is to encourage
persons who disagree with one another to collaborate on a
piece of research that might resolve their dispute (see Duarte
et al., 2015).
It is worth ending with the words of philosopher Singer,
2007), who remarked in relation to the present debate, that
“when faced with…major social problems, a preference for
ignorance over knowledge is difficult to defend”.
Acknowledgements I would like to thank Jam Kraprayoon, Nathan
Cofnas, Benjamin Winegard and one anonymous reviewer for comments
that improved the manuscript.
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative
Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://
creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use,
distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appro-
priate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the
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