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Saturday, January 1, 2000

The New Know-Nothings: The Political Foes of the Scientific Study of Human Nature by Morton M. Hunt

A Readable and Stimulating Book

Transaction Publishers • 1998 • 404 pages • $59.95 cloth; $24.95 paperback

Morton Hunt is one of those honest “liberals,” that is to say, someone who holds some statist beliefs, but is dedicated to freedom of inquiry and the marketplace of ideas. His book The New Know-Nothings explores an important phenomenon, namely, the use of political and other coercive means to obstruct research into and discussion of aspects of human nature. There are plenty of people who turn Jeffersonian tolerance on its head and say, “I disagree with what you say, and will do everything I can get away with to make you shut up.” The book is about them.

Hunt, a sociology professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, divides his book into three sections: attacks on inquiry from the left, attacks on inquiry from the right, and attacks from points in between. Readers of Ideas on Liberty will find the first and last most interesting.

The first part is the longest and most important. Hunt addresses what he rightly calls illiberal liberalism. He writes, “What is illiberal.., is the effort of partisans of any position in the debate to stifle or prevent the expression of opinions by the other side and particularly to block or forbid the efforts of researchers whose possible findings they view with fear or revulsion.”

Consider, for example, the treatment accorded to Arthur Jensen, the emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California who concluded years ago that observed IQ differences among racial groups have a hereditary basis. That conclusion calls into question the statist/collectivist dogma that environment must explain all group differences, and consequently the mild-mannered (but stubborn) Jensen has been subjected to the kind of abuse one would expect playground bullies to mete out to a weak, unpopular child. Hunt goes into detail about the numerous times Jensen has been shouted down, threatened with physical violence, subjected to actual violence, and had his appearances canceled because of bomb threats and mob action.

Hunt recounts many other similar unpleasant stories. Hans Eysenck has been roughed up and had his glasses smashed for daring to say that heredity plays a role in intelligence. “Fascists have no right to speak,” screamed his leftist tormentors. J. Philippe Rushton has been subjected to a campaign that might have been hatched by the Ku Klux Klan and threatened with loss of his professorship for publicizing his politically incorrect findings on heredity. Hunt also writes of the travails of those who have had the temerity to suggest that there might be a hereditary predisposition toward crime, that genetics explains some of the observed male-female differences in academic performances, and more. This section of the book is a good reminder that many leftists have no more use for the marketplace of ideas than they do for the marketplace of goods.

The last section of the book, “attacks from points in between,” also covers some interesting controversies, among them the attacks against individuals who question “repressed memory syndrome,” the animal rights movement, and the “thou shalt not speak ill of day care” crowd.

The least convincing part of Hunt’s book is the central section, detailing “attacks from the right.” We find here no violence, threats, or mob action. The author’s complaint is that “right-wing” politicians have occasionally succeeded in defunding federal research. Although he argues that some of those politicians were pursuing a “know-nothing” agenda, he admits that often the “rightist” opposition stems from a philosophical view that the government just doesn’t have any business in paying for nosy research. Correct, and an important point. There is a world of difference between using violence and intimidation against people who say unpopular things and saying that the government shouldn’t subsidize research.

Moreover, Hunt informs us of instances where, after political funding for research projects was shut off or denied, the researchers succeeded in obtaining financial support from private foundations. Still, he worries that we might not get enough research if government doesn’t intervene. His defense of government funding falls flat on its face, however. Not all knowledge is worth what it costs to obtain, and the best way to filter out wasteful research is to ask people or institutions if they are willing to pay for it.

Overall, a readable, stimulating book with more hits than misses.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.