Rushton’s race-based research was politically incorrect
by Herman Goodden
I was saddened to learn this week of the death of longtime Western University professor Philippe Rushton at the age of 68 from cancer. I was saddened not just because by current standards that seems a young age to die, but because for the last 20 years of his life, this once world-famous (some would say, notorious) psychology professor and researcher, who had earlier discussed his work in very public debates and lectures and happily appeared on chat shows hosted by Phil Donahue and Geraldo Rivera, had been latterly persuaded to keep such low profile.
Though Rushton still travelled to give the odd lecture in later years, I was surprised to read in his obituary that he had continued to live in London and, according to a newspaper column headlined Rushton’s ideas died with him, his once-considerable reputation has been so thoroughly expunged that his name draws a blank with current university students.
Not that one could blame Rushton for lying low. The firestorm of controversy, harassment and demonization that engulfed the always-polite and handsome (in a Clark Kent-sort of way) Rushton in 1989 and into the ’90s — when his research into genetic and racial differences were broadly and vociferously denounced — must have been perfectly hellish to experience.
In February 1989, Rushton took part in a televised debate at Western with geneticist and CBC TV host David Suzuki. In the opening segment, Rushton summarized his research on differences between Oriental, Caucasian and black racial groups and his finding — up to 50% of which, he believed, was genetically based — that Orientals were more intelligent, law-abiding and sexually restrained than Caucasians who in turn scored higher in those three areas than blacks.
In response. Suzuki immediately went on the attack, saying, “I do not believe we should dignify this man and his ideas in public debate.” Later in his response, he said, “There will always be Rushtons in the world and we must always be prepared to root them out and not hide behind academic freedom . . . His claims must be denounced, his methodology discredited, his grant revoked and his position terminated at this university.”
Suzuki’s heated and personal denunciations won him lots of easy applause, but could hardly be said to have intellectually won the debate. Indeed, Rushton inspired one of his very few rounds of applause when he began his answer to Suzuki’s outburst with the words: “That is not a scientific argument.”
Rushton was no slouch as a scientist. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Center of Advanced Study in Behavioral Science at Stanford University, as well as the recipient of a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, He authored or co-authored half a dozen books and more than 100 peer-reviewed articles in top-flight academic journals.
While his data concerned 60 different variables, including time of emergence from ancestral lines, IQ scores, social behaviours, speed of physical maturation, fertility, law abidingness and sexual habits, the bit that creeped everybody out was that Rushton was using Western students as subjects to collect data on brain and penis size. Well, he was a scientist, data had to be collected and Western was where he worked.
I don’t believe it was his bad science that so derailed Rushton’s career. It was political correctness. His findings were never disproved; they were declared too socially dangerous to tolerate.
Then-premier David Peterson echoed Suzuki’s call for Rushton to be fired. The attorney general of the day instructed the OPP to go over Rushton’s published writings with the proverbial fine-toothed comb to see if they could lay charges against him under the Criminal Code’s hate-literature provisions. They couldn’t and didn’t.
In February 1990, Rushton wrote a defiant column in the Western News, saying, “While the pornography and hate literature section of the Ontario Provincial Police may not be in quite the same league as the Inquisition, it is not amusing to be subjected to a six-month police investigation after the premier of Ontario has called for one to be fired and during which time one’s colleagues not only remain silent, but pass internal judgments against one.”
The treatment Rushton received at the hands of his colleagues, a riled-up public and government officials suggests to me that it was principles like freedom of speech and academic freedom that may have died with him.