Thursday, January 18, 2018

Toby Young: once more into the breach

Outspoken conservative, Toby Young, was appointed to the Office for Students, a regulatory body, by the British PM.  The Left erupted with rage, causing Toby to give up the job for the sake of peace. The sequel below:

I naively thought that if I resigned from the Office for Students, stepped down from the Fulbright Commission and apologised for the offensive things I’d said on Twitter the witch-hunt would end. In fact, it has reached a new, frenzied pitch. The mob’s blood lust is up and it won’t rest until it has completely destroyed me.

Things took an ugly turn yesterday when Private Eye published a story saying I had attended ‘a secretive conference’ at University College London last year organised by Dr James Thompson, an Honorary Lecturer in Psychology at UCL. This is an annual affair known as the London Conference on Intelligence. It then went on to summarise some of the more outlandish papers presented at this event in previous years – not in the year I attended, mind ­– such as a paper arguing that racial differences in penis length predict different levels of parental care. It pointed out that in 2015 and 2016 this conference had been attended by someone described by the Southern Poverty Law Centre as a ‘white nationalist and extremist’. It even dug up a blog post by one of the attendees in which he tried to justify child rape. It described all these people as my ‘friends’.

Needless to say, this article has led to a deluge of grotesque smears, on everything from the Canary to Russia Today. (The Russia Today article is headlined: ‘Shamed Toby Young ‘attended secret eugenics conference with neo-Nazis and paedophiles’.) More alarmingly, seemingly respectable, mainstream newspapers have followed up these stories – slightly toned down, of course, but with the same implication: that I am a neo-Nazi, an apologist for paedophilia and God knows what else.

So here are the facts. Yes, I went to the 2017 London Conference on Intelligence – I popped in for a few hours on a Saturday and sat at the back. I did not present a paper or give a lecture or appear on a platform or anything remotely like that. I had not met any of the other people in the lecture room before, save for Dr Thompson, and was unfamiliar with their work. I was completely ignorant of what had been discussed at the same event in previous years. All I knew was that some of them occupied the weird and whacky outer fringe of the world of genetics.

My reason for attending was because I had been asked – as a journalist – to give a lecture by the International Society of Intelligence Researchers at the University of Montreal later in the year and I was planning to talk about the history of controversies provoked by intelligence researchers. I thought the UCL conference would provide me with some anecdotal material for the lecture – and it did. To repeat, I was there as a journalist researching a talk I had to give a few months later and which was subsequently published.

Yes, I heard some people express some pretty odd views. But I don’t accept that listening to someone putting forward an idea constitutes tacit acceptance or approval of that idea, however unpalatable. That’s the kind of reasoning that leads to people being no-platformed on university campuses.

In an article for the Guardian, the University of Montreal conference, where I did actually speak, is described as ‘similar’ to the UCL conference. Complete nonsense. It was a super-respectable, three-day affair held at the Montreal Neurological Institute. Numerous world-renowned academics spoke at it, including Steven Pinker, the famous Harvard professor, and James Flynn, the political scientist who has given his name to the ‘Flynn effect’. In 2015, the same lecture I gave – the Constance Holden Memorial Address — was given by Dr Alice Dreger, a well-regarded author and academic.

You can see the website for the Montreal conference, and the roster of speakers, here. Virtually every one is a tenured professor. To reiterate, that’s the conference I spoke at, not the one in London.

Polly Toynbee joined the lynch mob earlier today – or, rather, re-appeared in the lynch mob – in a column headlined: ‘With his views on eugenics, why does Toby Young still have a job in education?’ In the column, she repeats the smear in the headline, calling me a ‘eugenicist’ – again, the implication being that I’m some kind of neo-Nazi. In case you miss the point, she says I’m on the ‘far right’ and I think ‘the poor are inferior’. (Bit rich, considering Polly sent her children to expensive private schools and mine are all at state schools, but still.)

Polly’s ‘eugenicist’ slur – which has been thrown at me by virtually the entire Parliamentary Labour Party – is based on a deliberate misunderstanding of an article I wrote for an Australian periodical in 2015 called Quadrant and is then ‘backed up’ by Polly by selectively quoting from it. She also throws in the fact that I attended a ‘secretive eugenics conference’, etc., etc.

In that article for Quadrant – which you can read here – I discuss an idea first presented by Julian Savulescu, a professor of philosophy at Oxford, which he summarises as follows:

Imagine you are having in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and you produce four embryos. One is to be implanted. You are told that there is a genetic test for predisposition to scoring well on IQ tests (let’s call this intelligence). If an embryo has gene subtypes (alleles) A, B there is a greater than 50% chance it will score more than 140 if given an ordinary education and upbringing. If it has subtypes C, D there is a much lower chance it will score over 140. Would you test the four embryos for these gene subtypes and use this information in selecting which embryo to implant?

Now, we haven’t yet developed the ‘genetic test’ referred to by Savulescu, and it’s possible that we may never do so because: (a) intelligence may not be genetically-based; and (b) even if it is, we may never discover all the subs-sets and combinations of genes associated with it. But what if it is and we do? Science fiction today becomes science fact tomorrow. In my Quadrant article, I discuss an obvious risk associated with the technology described by Savulescu, namely, that if it is ever invented, the first people to take advantage of it will be the rich so they can give their children an even greater advantage than they currently enjoy. In short, it will make inequality even worse.

My solution to this problem, set out in the article, is that this technology, if it comes on stream, should be banned for everyone except the very poor. I wasn’t proposing sterilisation of the poor or some fiendish form of genetic engineering so they could have babies with ‘high IQ genes’ or anything like that. Just a form of IVF that would be available on the National Health to the least well off, should they wish to take advantage of it. Not mandatory, just an option, a way of giving their children a head start. I was thinking about how to reduce the risk that this new technology will exacerbate existing levels of inequality – how to use it to reduce inequality. I described my proposal as ‘a form of egalitarianism’.

It is for this that Polly Toynbee – who obviously hasn’t read the article – has labelled me a ‘eugenicist’.

You think I’m mischaracterising my article? Dressing it up to make it sound less like an extract from Mein Kampf? Don’t take my word for it. Read this summary of my argument by Iain Brassington, who writes a bioethics blog for the Journal of Medical Ethics. After marvelling at all the people who’ve called me a ‘eugenicist’ (including Vince Cable, no less), he points out that what I’m suggesting ‘is in many ways, fairly unremarkable’.

What’s notable from a bioethicist’s perspective is just how familiar the arguments being presented here are. It’s hard to read Young’s article without thinking of a good chunk of the work on genetic screening, and on enhancement, that’s been done over the past few years… it’s pretty standard stuff in seminar discussions about screening; and nor is there anything that is obviously morally beyond the pale.

Hear that Polly? Nothing that is obviously morally beyond the pale. He thinks I’m wrong about lots of stuff, by the way – just not a Nazi. Read his piece. It’s very good.

So that’s the long and the short of it. Because, as a journalist, I went and had a look at a strange conference being held at UCL – and because I discussed a familiar bio-ethics problem in an obscure Australian periodical – I’m some kind of ‘far right’ nut job who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near kids, let alone schools.

It has been suggested – in the Guardian and elsewhere – that the reason I stepped down from the Office for Students is because I knew the Private Eye article was coming out and my number was up. That’s balls. I said some stupid, puerile things on Twitter late at night of which I’m thoroughly ashamed and for which I’ve unreservedly apologised. It became clear that having said those things, I couldn’t serve on the Office for Students without causing an almighty stink that would render it unable to do its job. But I’m not remotely ashamed of having attended the London Conference on Intelligence.

I believe in free speech. That includes defending the right of researchers and academics, however beyond the pale, to present their findings to other researchers in their field at academic conferences so they can be scrutinised and debated. If you believe someone is putting forward a theory that is wrong, unsupported by the evidence, you should want their theories to be exposed to scrutiny, not swept under the carpet. No-platforming people whose ideas you disapprove of is self-defeating.

That’s been my lifelong credo – and I had hoped to bring it to bear in the Office for Students, which has been tasked with protecting academic freedom. That is not to be and I have accepted that. But enough already. Just because I sat at the back in a lecture room at UCL one afternoon, scribbling away in my reporter’s notepad, while some right-wing fruitcakes held forth about ‘dysgenics’ does not make me a Nazi. If it did, then the fact that Jeremy Corbyn regularly attended a conference run by Holocaust-denier Paul Eisen would make him an anti-Semite.


Teacher Labels Classroom Ban on Hats, Hoodies in Classroom a Microaggression

A Michigan public high school mathematics teacher challenged the ban on students wearing hats and hoodies in the classroom as a "microaggression," in an article for an "enlightened masculinity" blog.

Paul Hartzer, who teaches geometry at Hamtramck High School, according to his resume, argued that removing a hat indoors is "a European tradition, and many feel that expecting students of color to learn and follow this guideline is yet another way in which European ‘culture' is shown as superior to their own heritage."

A "common defense for hoodie bans is that we teachers are preparing students for the ‘real world,'" wrote Hartzer, but that insinuates "we're suggesting that the corporate America model is what they should be striving towards."

"This is a European model of success, tied to 1950s White Men. It implies there's something wrong with any other route to success … which is a microaggression," he wrote for The Good Men Project, where he is the lead editor of education.

Further, banning hooded clothing can also be a "socioeconomic microaggression," as money-strapped students may have to update their wardrobe to comply with the school guideline.

While school administrators have cited reasonable concerns about students hiding earbuds or weapons beneath their headwear, Hartzer contended that schools may be "using logical-sounding reasons to hide a more problematic reason for such classroom bans: To enforce respect through control and appearance."

"Another very Eurocentric value is that appearance is more important than reality," he wrote.

Hartzer argued that students wearing earbuds will likely continue to be inattentive even if he removed them, and it was not worth the risk disrupting the rest of the class by confronting him. "Power struggles become an issue of costs vs. benefits," he wrote.

Hoodies can denote gang membership, whose obvious risks can be mitigated by prohibiting such clothes, but Hartzer questioned if school safety is best served by "reminding students multiple times a day that they're seen as potential criminals."

"What does a student of color hear when a white authority figure enforces what they see as a trivial, arbitrary rule?" asked Hartzer.

"Microaggressions against anyone who isn't an affluent, able-bodied, white, cis Christian man are tragically widespread in our culture," he wrote.

Hoodie and hat bans are another one of the education system's "disingenuous policies that start with disrespectful implications about our students," he concluded.

Hartzer, who has taught English and mathematics in Michigan since 2012, was not immediately available for comment.


New Education Focus On Old-School CivicsIn era of strained public discourse, educators urged to teach civic engagement from a Jewish perspective

At last year’s Jewish Futures Conference, the theme of which was “Hacking Happiness,” psychologist Dan Ariely argued that “happiness comes from a sense of purpose, meaning and contribution to others.” It should come as no surprise, then, that this year’s conference shifted outward to look at how Jewish civics education can “elevate American democracy.”

“Clearly, the political climate, the social climate, the civil discourse climate all led us to think this was an important topic, and we also think it’s a topic that Jewish educators don’t often think about,” said David Bryfman, chief innovation officer at the Jewish Education Project, which puts on the annual one-day conference in partnership with Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah.
“Often they [educators] are more concerned about how can we make us better off as a Jewish people, make the Jewish community stronger, and we thought it’s time for Jews to also begin to look outwardly and how can we make America or our civil society a stronger one as well,” he said.

The panels at the conference, held on Dec. 13 at New York University, focused on not just how to teach civics education in a Jewish context but also on how Jewish wisdom, tradition and values can contribute to improving the broader societies in which Jews live.

In the opening session, Tamara Tweel, who teaches civics at Columbia University and is director of strategic development at the Hillel Office of Innovation, pointed out that in Jewish tradition, freedom is not “simply a natural occurrence,” but one that must be secured through laws and institutions.

Rabbi Lee Moore, left, and musician Josh Nelson lead attendees in ‘Maoz Tzur’ and ‘This Land Is Your Land’ during lunch at the conference, which was held on the first day of Chanukah. Courtesy of The Jewish Education Project

As Jews, she said, “Our freedom was not secured when we left slavery, it was not secured when wandering in the desert. It was secured at Sinai. It was secured when we entered into a covenant that endowed us with a framework to live well together, to govern ourselves with self-restraint and communal obligations.”

Because “this kind of political freedom requires an extraordinary amount of self-discipline,” Tweel said, it’s vital that educators prepare students for that responsibility.

In America today, she argued, the basic confidence in and belief that government is designed for the people by the people has been eroded; currently only 20 percent of Americans believe they can trust the government. This trust has been eroded due to international forces including globalization and war and also due “to a history of policy decisions that have led to an almost universal disappearance of national service and civic education” as well as “an incarceration rate that presents our government as an entity that easily seizes freedom rather than seeks to preserve it.”

“Our current political system … does not promote a national commitment to political participation. The majority of Americans do not serve and do not vote. We have abandoned governing ourselves,” Tweel said.

Jewish tradition, however, has rituals built into it that can address this growing lack of a sense of communal responsibility, she said, including a ritualized focus on origin stories and on forgiveness.

“What would it look like if every family … celebrated “Constitution Day?” Tweel asked. “What would a national day of atonement and forgiveness look like?”

“It is up to you,” Tweel concluded, “to teach our children that we are uniquely blessed to be a people who were conceived in liberty, living in a country conceived in liberty and that it is our civic duty, and perhaps our sacred duty, to take responsibility for this fragile heritage and preserve it before it breaks.”

Joel Westheimer, research chair in democracy and education at the University of Ottawa, noted that in America, the whole reason public education was created was to allow people to participate in self-governance.

Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, he said, “If the people are not educated enough to govern their own affairs, the solution is not to take that power of governance away from them … but to educate them.” When the United States was born, democracy was a new idea to most people, he said. “Now we’re in a period where the very success of that experiment is being called into question,” he said, with the rise of “anti-democratic leaders” around the world. Civics education has been marginalized as the focus on standardized test preparation grows.

However, he said, while it’s a “very difficult time for democracy in America,” it’s also a “moment of opportunity.”

“Civic engagement is up, watching the news is up. Yes, we’re lost in our echo chambers of information but there are many, many young people engaged,” he said.

In an interview after his talk, Westheimer said educators can make a difference. “I’ve seen fantastic programs where educators completely transform kids … helping them to be the best kind of person they can be and strengthen democratic society simultaneously.”

Just as the political climate inspired the Jewish Education Project to make civic engagement the theme of the conference, it was the current political climate that inspired many of the more than 325 educators who came to the conference.

Rabbi Mick Fine, director of Hebrew-language curriculum and instruction at Beit Rabban Day School, said that for him “it was very important to consider” how the next generation of Jewish people “can effect change” and “create a world that reflects our values.”

Rabbi Daniel Gordon, associate national director of development at NCSY, called the topic of the conference “critical.”

“I think it’s an issue that if you deal with teenagers and if you deal with anybody in the con[tinuing] education space it’s a conversation that needs to be had. Is it complicated? Absolutely. Is it complex? Certainly. But all those things are reasons that we should have the conversation and not shy away from it.”

Matt Williams, managing director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive, said that he came because, “A number of Jewish organizations that I work with are really invested in understanding what it means to be a Jew in America at this particular moment and the question of civic engagement is inescapably a part of what it is they care about.”

But, he said, “they’re not sure how to navigate it within what is a very fraught political context. … Everyone is looking for answers and this is a conference where we can begin to address some of these issues.”


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