Brian Leiter's Law School Reports

Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

A Member of the Law Professor Blogs Network

May 01, 2010

The Racist E-Mail by the Harvard 3L

Stephanie Grace, a 3L at Harvard Law School, sent an e-mail to some 'friends' (one of whom subsequently leaked it), stating, among other things, the following:

I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent. I could also obviously be convinced that by controlling for the right variables, we would see that they are, in fact, as intelligent as white people under the same circumstances. The fact is, some things are genetic.

Given the magnitude of Ms. Grace's ignorance, and the fact that ignorance was skewed in favor of racist stereotypes, it is unsurprising that she has been pilloried for her views.  (To her credit, Ms. Grace did apologize for the offensive e-mail.) To be clear, as I understand it, all of the following is uncontroversial: 

1.  There is substantial evidence that IQ is heritable (which does not mean, contrary to what many blogs, as well as the HLS student, seem to think, that it has a genetic basis).

2.  IQ is, at best, a controversial measure of intelligence.

3.  There is no evidence--literally, none--that IQ differences between racial groups have a genetic basis.

Now the standard source in the know-nothing blogosphere for the contrary proposition to #3 is the 1994 book The Bell Curve by Hernnstein & Murray, which was published without peer review, for reasons made clear by Stephen Jay Gould, James Heckman, and the critical discussions collected in this book.  At least as far as actual scientific research goes, the Hernnstein & Murray book has as much credibility as the putatively 'scientific' evidence for Intelligent Design or that global warming is a hoax (the irony, of course, in each case is that the politically motivated purveyors of the pseudo-science invariably accuse the scientific skeptics about their work of having political motivations!)  (As a sidenote, though, social science enthusiasts would do well to look at the paper by Glymour in the aforementioned book, which makes the case that the pseudo-science of The Bell Curve is replicated throughout the social sciences.)

A very clear explanation of the main points is this essay by Ned Block (NYU).  It is useful, in particular, in explaining why the heritability of IQ is not evidence of its having a genetic basis.

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May 1, 2010 in Law Professors Saying Dumb Things, Legal Profession, Of Academic Interest, Student Advice | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

July 07, 2009

Li-ann Thio, NYU's Anti-Gay Bigot and Visiting Professor

Several readers have now sent links to this story about a Singapore professor who will be teaching human rights law at NYU this fall, who is captured on video arguing at length against the decriminilization of homosexuality (the links to the video can be found in the story linked above).  The most striking thing about the video is its embarrassingly low intellectual level--she mostly just regurgitates Lord Devlin's side of the Hart/Devlin debate, which Hart won, both intellectually and as a matter of English law.   There isn't even the pretense of a response to the obvious Hartian and Millian objections to her Devlinesque position.   Now perhaps Professor Thio isn't as dumb as this performance suggests, and perhaps she has done good work in other areas--there are plenty of anti-gay bigots in the academy who have done important scholarly work (John Finnis is an outstanding example).   Still, this is all a bit embarrassing for NYU.  One imagines she will not receive a warm welcome in Greenwich Village this fall.

UPDATE:  A colleague elsewhere writes:

In addition to your observations about the purely analytical deficiencies of Professor Thio's performance before Parliament, I think that this video helps to point out the deficiencies in the human spirit that she brings to the debate.  The qualities of compassion, enlightenment, and living within the truth (to borrow Vaclav Havel's phrase) that a person exhibits in making an argument about human behavior -- or, conversely, the qualities of condemnation, bitter small-mindedness and unconcern for the humanity of others -- are sometimes as important as the purely analytical forces that one can marshall.  This particular debate, which depends so much upon the basic, threshold question of recognizing the humanity of another, is one of those instances.

This is well-said, though I suppose we must concede that elite law schools have never been able to pretend that they weigh empathy or human decency as important factors in hiring decisions, but they do at least pretend to care about analytical smarts.

July 7, 2009 in Law Professors Saying Dumb Things, Of Academic Interest | Permalink | TrackBack (1)

May 22, 2008

Phyllis Schlafly Has a Friend in Rick Hills!

In any case, Professor Hills of NYU has seen the need to not only come to her defense against those who objected to her being honored by Washington University in St. Louis, but to do so without apparently knowing very much about her and also seizing the opportunity to voice his own silly prejudices about his colleagues in the academic profession.  Here's how this sorry display begins, under the disingenuous heading "The Paradox of Academic Intolerance"

Brian Leiter's anger at Phyllis Schlafly's getting an honorary degree  from Washington University, her alma mater, perplexes me.  At first glance, I am inclined to believe that Leiter's position is a product of academic intolerance for viewpoints not prevalent in the academy but widespread in the population at large.  There is a certain delicious irony about such intolerance, given the academic conceit that profs stand above parochial prejudice.

Of course, my several postings on the subject (and the links contained therein) nowhere made any mention of the prevalence (or lack thereof) of Ms. Schlafly's opinions in "the population at large," but rather referred to her bigotry against immigrants and gays, ridicule of science, ridicule of "marital rape," opposition to the rights and professional aspirations of many women, and so on.  I am not sure whether her views are "widespread"--I do not believe they are any longer--but their popularity should play no role in anyone's objections to Ms. Schlafly, and they certainly did not in mine.

But quite apart from this pointless display of solidarity with the putative masses by Professor Hills against those scary academic elites, it is astonishing to see him mischaracterize the issue as one of "tolerance."  Indeed, the first commenter on his post, Professor Matt Bodie, called him on this quite effectively:

There's a burden of proof issue here, I think. There should be a presumption towards free speech and tolerance if the university wants to prevent an individual from speaking at an event (for example, if invited by a student group). In such cases, tolerance would counsel letting the person speak, and arguments about the person's politics may not be enough. If the university wants to give an honorary degree, however, it seems completely justifiable to argue that the university should not honor the person based on the merits. Using words such as "disqualifies," "intolerance," and "beyond the academic pale" misses the point. If you disagree with the critics, don't you have the burden of saying why Wash U was right to honor her?

I posted in the comments a version of the same question, though less elegantly than Professor Brodie.  Tolerance is called for precisely when one deems someone's views or practices to be dishonorable and objectionable, but nonetheless thinks they have a moral right to hold those view and engage in those practices.  The question about whether to honor someone for those views is, quite obviously, independent of the question whether they ought to be tolerated, the latter question not even being on the table until Professor Hills muddied the waters.

In any case, Professor Hills answered neither me nor Professor Bodie on this point, adopting, instead, the debater's trick of confusing the issues by accusing his sparring partner of confusion!

Matt, I think confuses two issues: (1) Whether x ought, on the merits, receive an honorary degree and (2) Whether faculty and students ought to protest, demonstrate, write letters, etc, to stop x from getting an academic degree. 

Actually there was nothing in Professor Bodie's post that confused those issues, rather he objected to Professor Hills confusing the issue of objecting to honoring Schlafly with a question of tolerance.  By his silence, we may, perhaps, infer a tacit admission by Professor Hills of the soundness of Professor Bodie's actual point.

Back now to Hills's original post:

The difficulty in resolving the question [of why I and other objected to her receiving an honorary degree] is that Leiter's invective against Schlafly is too general to be helpful on this score:  He calls her a "bigot," "parochial," "ignoramus," etc -- but those are epithets, not arguments.  They are, of course, applicable to all of us, in some measure.  (For instance, I am (a) an ignoramus about theoretical physics, (b) a bigot in my inveterate hostility towards any musical by French composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, and (c) parochial compared to many of my colleagues who are polylingual (alas, I speak only English fluently) and are always walzing off to some conference or teaching junket at Bellagio or Dubai or Singapore).

"Bigot" and "parochial" are actually words with fairly clear descriptive and referential content; one can even look them up in the dictionary--"ignoramus," too, though that's a bit closer to an epithet, though in context quite obviously referred to her ignorance about the theory of evolution by natural selection, the foundation of modern biological science, which she regularly claims is not well-supported by evidence and is just a "liberal" dogma.  In any case, my various posts gave links supporting the various charges, though Professor Hills, besides telling us he was unpersuaded by the letter of the Wash U law faculty, apparently could not be bothered to investigate the matter before pronouncing those on the other side "intolerant."

It is hard to know whether Professor Hills is being serious with his (mistaken) observation that we are all "in some measure" bigots, parochial, and ignoramuses.  I will confine myself here to the question whether Professor Hills is, indeed, an ignoramus or a bigot, such that he would not be worthy of a university honor ("parochial" is the least of the charges against Ms. Schlafly).  I accept at face value Professor Hills's admission that he is "an ignoramus about theoretical physics," but I will go out on a limb and suppose that he does not advocate for the elimination of physics from the curriculum, does not claim that physics is unsupported by evidence, and does not believe equal time should be given in physics classes to religious cosmologies.  Ms. Schlafly, and the organization she founded, the Eagle Forum, share with Professor Hills a certain ignorance--in their case, about biology (though I wouldn't turn to them for guidance on physics either, but maybe I'm wrong!)--but differ in advocating and lobbying for their ignorance to shape school curricula.  I would have thought it obvious that there was a difference between culpbable and non-culpable ignorance, or between malicious and harmless ignorance, but apparently it was not obvious to Professor Hills.

Is it "bigotry" to be consistently hostile to the music of Schonberg, or any other composer?    It certainly evinces obstinate commitment to one's opinion (though in questions of taste, it is less clear what room there is for criticism of such commitment as obstinate or unreasonable), but ordinarily (and, again, obviously in this context), the word connotes "one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance," which I am sure does not fairly describe Professor Hills and his attitudes.  But it equally clearly describes Ms. Schlafly's career, dating from her long association with the John Birch Society and opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and reflected in numerous positions she has taken since, some of which are described in this illuminating essay about her career by Alan Wolfe (Boston College), and which are helpfully summarized in the various letters by concerned Washington University faculty collected on the site to which I had linked early on, but which it appears Professor Hills could not be troubled to peruse before weighing in on the issue.  As the Association of Women Faculty at Washington University in St. Louis note in their letter to Chancellor Wrighton, "Ms. Schlafly's core convictions" include "that women are intellectually inferior, that American Indians are heathens, that homosexuals are ill, [and] that biological evolution is untrue," which is a fine litany of bigotry and ignorance.  Even more informative is the letter to Chancellor Wrighton from female faculty at the Medical School:

While we find Ms. Schlafly's hyper-conservative view of women's roles offensive and an antithesis to the supposedly enlightened culture of an institution of higher learning, we could support honoring someone who advocated respect for choosing traditional roles or someone who provided leadership in the Republican party.  However, Ms. Schlafly's call to arms against the real existence of marital rape or her challenge to funding of shelters by linking domestic violence to a feminist plot against men, or her encourage of parents to resist the government encroachment into the family by not immunizing their children, or her position that American Indians are hurting our children by talking about their culture, or even her approach to rallying against illegal immigration by writing articles filled with stories of illegal immigrants who have killed, or raped or otherwise committed crimes--all these things are not just opinions, they are rallying cries to fear each other, to believe that others who are different are plotting against us or are less worthy than are we.

Bigotry is one of several words that seems descriptively apt in this context, in a way that it does not for severe distaste for Schonberg.

In comments to the original post, Professor Hills responded to my pointing our Ms. Schlafly's record on the theory of evolution by natural selection as follows: 

So Schlafly has goofy theories about creationism: So what? George Bernard Shaw was a Bergsonian; The late Vine DeLoria, advocate for native American rights, loathed the theory of evolution, as he thought that it disparaged Indian creation myths; retired Berkeley law prof Phillip Johnson pressed the notion of intelligent design. Should we vote them all off the honorary degree island for these offenses?

Again, it is hard to know whether Professor Hills is really being serious, or just relishing the role of being a contrarian, even at some cost to his own reputation.   The theory of evolution by natural selection is as well-confirmed a theory as any in modern science, and creationism is not; to claim otherwise, as Ms. Schlafly has done for years, and to advocate teaching creationism (or its new surrogates, like Intelligent Design) is to align oneself with ignorance.  That seems to me quite sufficient for thinking someone does not deserve an honorary degree from a serious research university (let alone one whose reputation depends on excellence in biology!).  (The same, of course, goes for Professor Johnson on this point.)  I have never heard of Vine DeLoria, but the question is not whether he held an ignorant view, but whether he championed for his ignorance to have a place in the school curricula, as do Ms. Schlafly and Professor Johnson.  Even weirder is the reference to Shaw's affection (about which I did not know) for the ideas of the French philosopher Henri Bergson.  Professor Hills perhaps has an unduly optimistic view of the capacity for philosophers to establish that certain views are false, but whatever one's opinion of Bergson, there is no sense in which accepting his philosophy is epistemically on a par with accepting creationism.

So the good news is that Professor Hills, despite his brave admissions of ignorance and "bigotry," is still eligible for an honorary degree!  The bad news is that Schlafly should not be.  It's not a hard case.  All Professor Hills needs to do is a little more reading.

May 22, 2008 in Law Professors Saying Dumb Things, Of Academic Interest | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

April 16, 2008

Whenever there is an opportunity to attack the First Amendment and academic freedom, Paul Campos is there!

Naturally, Professor Campos (of the University of Colorado) weighs in on the John Yoo controversy, taking a straw man version of my views as his target and calling, per his habit, for Professor Yoo to be punished.  I posted the following in the comments, and will just repost it here, since there isn't a lot more to say:

Professor Campos has the dubious distinction of being a professor of constitutional law who called for Ward Churchill to be fired for his views, and long before there was any documentation of research misconduct. He has called for Glenn Reynolds of the University of Tennessee to be punished for his ideas as well. I have written in the past about Campos's disgraceful pattern of contempt for the First Amendment and academic freedom.

Anyone interested in my actual views on the Yoo case might consult what I wrote about it here.

I also recommend the posting by attorney Scott Horton and our exchange of views in the comments section here

I suppose someone as eager as Campos to see others lose their jobs for their foolish and offensive views, or their obvious incompetence, might call for the University of Colorado to initiate an investigation of Paul Campos.  I won't be doing so.  I hope he has a long and productive career as a law professor and legal scholar, and that he can get past his embarrassing predilection to demand that everyone with views he despises (and which he believes are "crimes" etc.) should be fired. 

UPDATE:  One additional comment about the underlying issue, concerning Professor Yoo and an argument that is being bandied about.  There is lots of speculation that maybe what Yoo did (writing the torture memos) constitutes a crime or legal malpractice.  Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't:  it is unclear based on the available facts (though, on both counts, the available facts strongly suggest a negative answer, especially as to malpractice).  It is not for the University of California at Berkeley to investigate crimes or investigate legal malpractice of its faculty, based on speculations that are, quite clearly in most cases, driven by those who find Yoo's views morally odious.  Universities have no competence to carry out such investigations (does anyone think that Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney will come testify before a faculty committee looking into the matter? ), and the mere prospect of such investigations would chill academic work on controversial matters almost totally. 

If an institution actually charged with investigating crimes or legal malpractice--e.g., a prosecutor, a court, a congressional committee, a bar disciplinary committee--were to conduct a proper investigation and issue a finding of misconduct that would surely then be grounds for the university to open a disciplinary proceeding.  But as things stand, there are no such grounds.  With the exception of Mr. Horton and a few others, most of those chattering about "possible" crimes and malpractice soon make it clear that what they really want is for John Yoo to be punished for his ideas and for the fact that some government officials may have acted on those ideas.  That's a standard that vioalates the First Amendment rights of state university faculty and betrays the moral ideal of academic freedom.

ONE MORE:  Paul Campos is obviously upset that every member of the legal academy knows him as the poster boy for contempt for the First Amendment rights of state university professors, and so he does what any reputable academic would do under the circumstances:  lies through his teeth.  He shows up in the comments at one of the links above to make the following declaration:

What an interesting world we live in, where the position of our philosophers is that it's perfectly OK to fire John Yoo for buying four ounces of marijuana, but an outrage against all that decent to fire him for committing war crimes (Brian Leiter, as far as I can tell, doesn't even bother to dispute that Yoo probably is guilty of war crimes. Yet he thinks it would be outrageous for Berkeley to even raise the issue of whether having a war criminal on its law school faculty was appropriate).

Campos has simply made up out of whole cloth the claim that I think Professor Yoo could be fired "for buying four ounces of mairjuana."  Amazing.  I have also expressed, here and above, the view that it is, at best, unclear whether Yoo has committed a war crime, but that I suspect the answer is that he has not.  In any case, the University of California at Berkeley is not a court of law, and until some state agency whose responsibility it is to investigate crimes does so and issues a finding, there is nothing for Berkeley to do, even if Paul Campos has steam coming out of his ears.

UPDATE:  More on John Yoo and academic freedom, in an effort to clarify some issues being suitably confused by Professor Campos and others.

April 16, 2008 in Law Professors Saying Dumb Things | Permalink | TrackBack (1)

October 19, 2007

David Bernstein on Massad, Finkelstein, Marx, and Freud

I promise not to make a habit of this, but I could not help noticing that after I pointed out the obvious a couple of weeks ago--that Professor David Bernstein (George Mason) has a blind spot for recent attacks on academic freedom by forces outside the universities because so many of the victims, like Norman Finkelstein and Joseph Massad, are critics of Israeli policy towards the Palistinians--Professor Bernstein took it upon himself to launch new smear attacks on both of them.  Neither attack is worthy of someone who is a scholar.

In the case of his latest attack on Professor Massad of Columbia University, Professor Bernstein claims that, like the Iranian President, Massad denies that there are homosexuals.  Here is the pertinent portion of Professor Bernstein's critique:

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October 19, 2007 in Law Professors Saying Dumb Things, Of Academic Interest | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

June 01, 2007

Catty Remark of the Month

In the midst of last week's discussion by Randy Barnett (Georgetown) and Einer Elhauge (Harvard) of why there are so many visiting professors, an anonymous law professor posted the following hands-down winner for cattiest comment of the month.  Remarking on another commenter who said,

And [Harvard professors will] tell you that only with the uptick in lateral hires (starting slowly under Clark, and increasing dramatically under Kagan) has HLS returned to a position of being able safely to say that its faculty comprises superstars of academia across the board.

Our anonymous professor writes:

Well, they can say that safely, but they can't say that accurately. Person for person, the Harvard faculty is still pretty weak. It's not as bad as it was 5-10 years ago, when it was sort of an open joke. But it's only maybe in the top 5 on a person-for-person basis. Better quality faculties would include Yale, NYU, Chicago, & Stanford. Plus, a bunch of Harvard's recent hires have been mediocre.

That's part of the irony with Elhauge's blogging about the new Harvard entry-level standards: Harvard has hired a bunch of people that are not very good, and that are very likely to prove themselves duds. So sure, Harvard will hire like that for a while. It will be the new big thing, and the Harvard faculty will feel very good about it. But eventually they'll see it's not working for them, and in another 10 years they'll pick a different approach.

I guess I'd nominate a particular NYU professor as the likely author of this rather nasty comment, especially since NYU is so obviously the "odd man out" in a list of faculties notable for their person-for-person or per capita strength.   Nothing like anonymity to bring out the charm!

ADDENDUM:  One of my esteemed NYU colleagues protests that the evidence adduced does not warrant the inference about the culprit, so I hereby withdraw it.  I should note that I had in mind one other, non-publishable, piece of evidence for thinking a particular NYU professor had posted it, but that too probably underdetermines the conclusion drawn.  So let us leave the catty remark standing on its own, with its author the sole possessor of his or her motives--and with my apologies for any unintended offense taken by colleagues at NYU.

June 1, 2007 in Faculty News, Law Professors Saying Dumb Things, Of Academic Interest | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

September 17, 2006

Around the Law Blogs One More Time

Althouse v. Feminist Bloggers, round two.  (Thanks to Ann Bartow for the pointer, who weighs in here.)

This blogger also comments on Professor Althouse's latest tangle with feminists, though in an unecessarily sexist way.  "Jackass" would surely suffice.  (Professor Althouse's target has a different epithet in mind, which I won't reprint out of respect for those with more refined sensibilities.)

More amusing commentary on the latest tempest in a teapot involving law bloggers here.

UPDATE:  This fellow has the funniest (and best-written) set of observations on this tempest!

September 17, 2006 in Law Professors Saying Dumb Things | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

May 08, 2006

Eugene Volokh Fan Club Loses Another Member

Here.  Admittedly, the club rosters may have been thinning since last year's odd defense of the idea that gays "convert" nice straight folks, or his rush of enthusiasm for torture.  Also see the apt comments by Ann Bartow (South Carolina). 

Very odd.

May 8, 2006 in Law Professors Saying Dumb Things | Permalink | TrackBack (0)