RICHARD DAWKINS was at it again at the weekend, when he said on Twitter that eugenics worked, provoking the expected outrage. There is a knack to saying things that are inarguably true in a context that makes their truth irrelevant.
That row was swallowed up in the subsequent, much larger row over Andrew Sabisky, the young high-church Anglican hired by Dominic Cummings in Downing Street, who had toyed with the idea of compulsory sterilisation of the underclass, and posted that Black American IQs were, on average, much lower than white ones.
This claim is undeniably true if the measurements are taken in adulthood; but the people who make much of it tend to ignore the equally important fact that IQ scores have been steadily rising everywhere since they were first measured (a phenomenon known as the Flynn effect). Over the course of the 20th century, the White British IQ test-performance rose by 30 points, twice the amount that separates White from Black Americans. Extrapolating backwards, we would have to conclude that the Victorians were scarcely capable of tying their own shoelaces.
I have heard James Flynn, the discoverer of the Flynn effect, lecture on this subject. His criticisms are a wonderful example of how to dig beneath the surface of apparently unpalatable facts. He is a social democrat, who moved from the US to New Zealand in the 1970s in search of a saner and less competitive society. The detail that really impressed me was that, when people in the audience asked questions, he walked over to talk to them face to face.
Quite apart from the detailed discussions of environmental effects that might explain the differing IQ scores in the US, his criticisms of the entire school of technocratic government were, in the purest sense of the word, radical. “Throughout my life in social science I have encountered a phenomenon,” he said. “The dance of numbers is the Pythagorean temptation. There are actually people behind those numbers, and until you take them into account, you haven’t learned anything. Only when you use sociological analysis do you know what you are doing.”
The clinching illustration was short and unforgettably shocking. “In Korea there are four-year-olds committing suicide because they let their families down by not getting into the right kindergarten.”
That talk was nearly ten years ago, but the underlying critique has grown only more important. Facts on their own are, indeed, immutable, undeniable — and uninteresting. They become interesting only when they are drawn into our imaginative webs of meaning and desire.
I suspect that the desires of Messrs Sabisky and Cummings are not so much racist as vain. The emotionally compelling message is not that Black people are inferior, but: “Look at me!” and “Aren’t I clever!” Vanity and shallowness should disqualify them from public office more than the ideas they choose to clothe them with.
NO SUCH excuses can be made for the Censors of Christ Church, Oxford. The correspondence leaked to the Mail on Sunday, showing what the anti-Percy faction among the dons were saying among themselves, is not only exceptionally stupid, but exceptionally nasty: “In one astonishing exchange, a don says of Dr Percy: ‘I’m always ready to think the worst of him. Does anyone know any good poisoners?’
“This prompts a colleague to daydream about ‘the Inspector Morse episode we could make when his wrinkly withered little body’ is found in the Thames.
“Elsewhere one of the plotters calls him a ‘little Hitler’.”
The Express of the previous day had run the version of the story which the college would have liked to read: “Trouble flared after the Very Reverend Professor Martyn Percy, 57, claimed his £90,000 salary was not enough for his role as Dean of Christ Church, Oxford University. . . The clergyman has reportedly joined the Unite union — which represents some of the UK’s lowest paid workers — to help fight the case set to begin in Reading on Monday.”
It then listed the considerable perks of the job. None of this was actually untrue in any factual sense, and yet the cumulative effect was fantastically misleading.
It appears that no judge wants to touch the employment tribunal, which has been put off till next year. I think that the real struggle is to get the whole of the Christ Church Governing Body to read the whole of Sir Andrew Smith’s judgment last year clearing Dr Percy of all the charges except that he had hired lawyers to defend himself against the onslaught.
Once that document is circulated widely, there will be no more reluctance to pay Dr Percy’s legal bills. The Express estimated the college’s legal costs to date to be approaching £3 million, a considerable sum for a charity to spend on such a dispute. Was this really the best use of charitable assets, when they might have hired a poisoner for so much less?
No wonder those responsible are anxious to put off the reckoning as long as possible.