Claims of racist pseudoscience at Cambridge University

Claims of racist pseudoscience at Cambridge University
4 min read
11 Dec, 2018
Comment: There's a risk that racist pseudoscience could be used to rationalise policies against minorities in the UK, writes Sadek Hamid.
'Race scientists argue that there's a scientific basis for social disparities between racial groups' [Getty]
Hundreds of academics signed an open letter this month objecting to the appointment of Dr Noah Carl to the Toby Jackman Newton Trust Research Fellowship at St Edmund's College at the University of Cambridge.  

Those resisting his appointment highlighted his public stances on the alleged relationship between 'race', 'criminality' and 'genetic intelligence', and argue that his work is "ethically suspect and methodologically flawed and "risks being legitimised through association with the University of Cambridge".

More troublingly, there is potential for his writings to be used by extremist and far-right media outlets to fan xenophobic, anti-immigrant sentiment. Those who support the appointment argue that the campaign against him is curbing freedom of speech, and that objections should be made in the realm of ideas. A similar incident a year ago saw outcry among scholars when Oxford Professor, Nigel Bigger attempted to defend colonialism.

Noah Carl has in the past written a paper about "the relationship between immigrant crime rates and immigration policy preferences in the UK," and has relied on the Islamophobic website, TheReligionOfPeace.com for data.

He has authored a journal article on 'How stifling debate around race, genes and IQ can do harm' in which he defends the discredited ideas of Charles Murray, co-author of 'The Bell Curve', which suggested a genetic basis for the observed difference between black and white IQs.

Attempts to rehabilitate Race and IQ studies are gaining ground with the support of author and podcast host Sam Harris, who
writing earlier this year stated:
These white supremacist theories are making a comeback and echo the scientific racism of the Victorian era

"People don't want to hear that a person's intelligence is in large measure due to his or her genes and there seems to be very little we can do environmentally to increase a person's intelligence even in childhood.

It's not that the environment doesn't matter, but genes appear to be 50 to 80 percent of the story. People don't want to hear this. And they certainly don't want to hear that average IQ differs across races and ethnic groups."

Race scientists argue that there is a scientific basis for the social disparities between racial groups that is rooted in evolution. For them, indicators such as life expectancy, educational attainment, wealth, and incarceration rates for black people are alleged to exist because they are less intelligent.

With far-right populism gaining popularity around the world, there's a risk that pseudoscientific racism could be used to rationalise policies against racial and religious minorities.

Steve Bannon, for instance wrote a Breitbart  article about black people who had been shot by the police in the US, and suggested that they might have deserved it because, "There are, after all, in this world, some people who are naturally aggressive and violent."

These white supremacist theories are making a comeback and echo the scientific racism of the Victorian era that justified slavery and colonialism, and later mutated into the development of Eugenics in the early twentieth century, used by Hitler to justify extermination of the Jews.

Rejected by a younger generation of scholars after the Holocaust, it has periodically re-entered mainstream discourse since the 1970s. The
most recent revival of ideas about race and IQ is credited to the well known evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, after he started promoting the idea that Ashkenazi Jews are innately particularly intelligent, first in a lecture to a Jewish studies institute, then in a lengthy article in the The New Republic.

This latest manifestation of scientific racism appears to overlap with strategies bankrolled by the likes of billionaires Charles and David Koch, who have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a network of academic departments, thinktanks, journals and movements to influence political outcomes.

These discourses also tie in with the increasing nostalgia for empire among high profile academics

Universities are a strategic focus for a three-stage model of social change that can produce "the intellectual raw materials". Think tanks would transform them into "a more practical or usable form". Then "citizen activist" groups would "press for the implementation of policy change."

These discourses also tie in with the increasing nostalgia for empire among high profile academics such as Niall Ferguson, members of the 'alt-right', and likes of right-wing politicians such as Jacob Rees-Mogg.

The popularity of this pseudoscience has also gained ground in the UK through events such as the controversial London Conference on Intelligence (and eugenics) secretly held on the University College London (UCL) campus, which Noah Carl is known to have attended and later publicly defended.

While Carl's work has been rebutted by numerous
people, the increasing popularity of these viewpoints and increasing weaponisation of academia should be cause of concern for not just fellow academics, but anyone worried about the instrumentalisation of scholarship by politicians and media commentators pursing extreme right-wing agendas.


Dr Sadek Hamid is an academic who has written widely about British Muslims. He is the author of 'Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism' and is co-author of 'British Muslims: New Directions in Islamic Thought, Creativity and Activism'.

Follow him on Twitter: @sadekhamid

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.