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.
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.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the organisations Toby is linked with.