A dangerous man

By Razib Khan | October 11, 2012 3:32 am

I was a little sad when I heard my friend Steve Hsu had accepted a position at Michigan State some months back. My reasons were two-fold. First, I swing by Eugene now and then, and I wouldn’t have the opportunity to drop in on his office. Second, it seemed that Steve was becoming an Administrator. To some extent I feel like that’s going over to the dark side. But ultimately it’s his decision, and Steve has a lot of things going on at any given moment, and I’m hopeful he’ll continue to be involved in the production of scholarship in some form (he’s more of a scholar than most as it is).

Now apparently his move has resulted in submerged tensions coming to the fore. You can read the article in The Lansing Journal, New director’s experience a plus for MSU, but his controversial views concern some. Let’s qualify who these “some” are:

Shortly after the start of classes this fall, Daniel HoSang, a professor of political science and ethnic studies at the University of Oregon, sent an email to a handful of faculty. Hsu, he wrote, “has taken a keen personal and professional interest in projects with strong Eugenicist overtones.” Because of Hsu’s position of authority at MSU, he said, he felt compelled to warn them.

His concerns were equally about positions Hsu had taken in his blog five years ago: that race is “clearly” a valid biological concept, that whether there are more-than-superficial differences between groups (in areas such as cognitive ability, personality and athletic prowess) is an open question.

Thankfully, Steve has a blog, where he elaborates the back story. What’s going on here? Is Steve Hsu a bad, bad, man? In his blog post Steve outlines his position, and to me he seems rather punctilious in regards to constraining the purview of his speculations. Yes, he goes far too far for some, but his transgressions are matters of positive facts about the world, rather than normative issues on what actions to take on those facts (and even then, he is generally equivocal about facts). Steve had a tenured position as a physicist at a research university, and has been a successful entrepreneur. Why is he dabbling in science which to be honest rather on the fringe and pushing the boundaries? Because Steve is interested in how the world is. Either that, or he’s a very clever psychopath who can convince you that the questions he moots are derived from genuine curiosity, rather than some true self-interested motive. And if he’s a psychopath he’s a rather stupid one for a theoretical physicist, because there’s no margin to be gained in arousing the ire of the ethnic studies kommissars.

Our lives are ephemeral, and we see through the mirror darkly. But the world is. It was before we were, and it always will be. The petty politics of the human race are of little concern on such a grand scale. And yet as individual human beings we have to acknowledge that we’re social beings, and peer effects are powerful. We seek esteem, and don’t want to transgress taboos. You can make the argument that truth and justice win out in the end, but many people can live and die before truth and justice win out. And sometimes the truth isn’t something we can handle very well. Jeffrey Goldberg was famously wrong about many details about the geopolitics of Iraq in the early 21st century, but that has had little negative impact on his career (while his critics, who were vindicated, by and large remain as marginal as they always were). In much of the former Soviet Union the leaders in positions of power are the same apparatchiks who were the foot-soldiers in imperial Communism. As easily as donning a new suit they’ve gone from being Leftist atheist internationationalists to traditionalist Orthodox nationalists. Communism was a failed ideology, and yet it marched on for three generations. In China Mao Zedong is still part of the pantheon of greats, despite the fact that the nation-state he founded has turned its back on his ideology. Human social norms have their own logic and inertia. Reality can wait, and it does.

One can make a case that Steve should have lain low and kept plugging away at his specific projects in theoretical physics. Such is the world of many scholars. The easiest way to avoid politics is to not draw attention to oneself. But what’s the point of it all then? Why are you a scholar? The reality is that most scholars are pedestrian in the production of scholarship. Only a few will live on in memory. Why not be bold, and ruffle some feathers? Fame may come, though it probably will not.

My point in posting this is not to demand that everyone become an idealist, jumping into the fray where angels fear to tread. People have lives to lead, and mortgages to pay. But perhaps it would be easier to pay a mortgage if you went and pursued an M.D.? If you’re a failed scholar because politics trips you up, would you really trade that in for external professional success, at the cost of what’s really gnawing at you in terms of the way the world works? People have to balance the various priorities in their lives obviously.

A constant condition throughout all of this is that man is a political animal. So if you are controversial, be aware, and have back up plans. I’m not telling people here that they should be martyrs for an ideal. That’s not fun. But writing boring papers on topics that you’re not interested in is not fun either. Most people are boring as it is. Why contribute to that mountain of banality? Aim for some fun before you expire. If your idea of fun offends some people, then you have to figure out how much the esteem, contempt, or rage of “some people” impacts your own mental state. Me, I could care less. Your mileage may vary.

And good luck to Steve!

  • http://delicious.com/robertford Darkseid

    I am from Michigan and I am honored to have Steve come to my state. Thanks for coming, Steve!

  • Katharine

    Re: race as a biological concept, didn’t your poll of readers not long ago bear out that those with background in genetics saw it as a cultural concept with significant biological components? I mean, one has to take the genetic diversity of African populations into account if they’re inclined to lump them into one big racial group and do the same to other populations.

    Do you know of any people with a background in genetics that have commented on Hsu’s opinions?

  • jtollison78

    “Markets can remain irrational a lot longer than you and I can remain solvent.” Keynes

    I wonder if Keynes ever considered genetic markets. I also often wonder what posting on HBD blogs might cost me in the long run. I keep telling myself I need to go cold turkey on all of them until I’ve made my f’ you money. At present rates, that could be never. It’s all ironic since reading these forums has softened my genetic determinism.

  • http://delicious.com/robertford Darkseid

    Katharine – this might make that more clear.

  • Mr. Anthony

    After reading the Lansing journal it seems that no one is jumping to any conclusions and the outcome will be intelligent conversations.

    Hsu’s involvement in the BGI (genetic underpinnings of intelligence) research is brilliant because even the most ardent constructionist may think twice before poo-pooing on their chance to have more intelligent children on grand-children.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    I mean, one has to take the genetic diversity of African populations into account if they’re inclined to lump them into one big racial group and do the same to other populations.

    you’ve done a PCA, right?

    Do you know of any people with a background in genetics that have commented on Hsu’s opinions?

    a lot of steve’s collaborators are geneticists. BGI = beijing genomics institute.

  • Chad

    Academics don’t like disturbances in their group think.

    Especially when its the sacred cow of Political Correctness.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #7, the issue i think, as suggested in the article, is that some of steve’s musings get to the heart of the axioms of some other disciplines at the university. for some reason people in certain departments feel that clustering algorithms are terrifying.

  • Sandgroper

    Go Steve. Add oil.

  • dave chamberlin

    Keep us posted on your buddy Steve Hsu Razib. He is going to be a difference maker. I don’t wish Steve luck because he is not going to need it. I wish humanity luck to produce enough Steve Hsu’s because we are going to need lots of people like him. As for his views being controversial, keep it up Steve.

  • Katharine

    “you’ve done a PCA, right?”

    No, and after some searching I haven’t found any PCA plots, but a handful of articles that imply African genetic diversity is greater than combined non-African gene diversity (mostly the results of Google Scholar keyword “african genetic diversity”.)

    I admit PCA is not something I understand the theory behind very well.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #11, here’s a PCA


    as you can see, africans (and non-africans) separate out as you’d expect. just because population X has way more genetic diversity than Y doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of easy-to-grab phylogenetic information (imagine, for example, that most of the diversity isn’t population informative, just to illustrate).

    more clearly, what is your exact point in mind when you point out the high genetic diversity of africans (though you can bracket out pygmies and khoisan and say they’re basically two populations, and everyone else is everything else)? my personal experience is that people have a collection of true facts, but don’t have a systematic understanding of what those facts imply. what do you think that diversity number implies?

  • Sandgroper

    Cool plot.

  • Sandgroper

    A bit more pedestrian into for Katherine; (a) BGI is big – scary big and well funded for competing American companies, (b) in the Tai Po industrial estate across the border from Shenzhen, there are Chinese and American genomics research companies set up cheek by jowl – lots of them. Heavens to Betsy, there might even be some co-lab-o-ration.

  • Ed

    I remember I used to get annoyed when people would quote “sound bites” of Hsu out of the context to further some sort of masturbatory, most of the time racial agenda. When I actually read a few of his posts and watched one of his lectures regarding IQ, I found myself agreeing with him more often than not (though I still think his quips like “physicists being the smartest” and some of his posts regarding China hurt his cause more than anything).

  • http://rxnm.wordpress.com miko

    Not wearing glasses with lenses that automatically darken depending on ambient light goes a long way toward convincing most people that you’re not a creep.

  • Sandgroper

    But can stave off development of cataracts.

  • AG

    To be or not to be some one like Galileo or Darwin, is not easy. As a geek hiding behind a screen name, I can only support him anonimously. If we do not want to risk our livelihood, we should at least help those who have courage to advance enlightenment.

  • http://shinbounomatsuri.wordpress.com Spike Gomes


    Then don’t. Anonymity is pretty illusory on the net anyways. In my experience you’re more likely to lose friendships than have your livelihood endangered by being open about this kind of stuff. In fact, I’m gonna post this post on my facebook feed, where former colleagues likely to sympathize with HoSang will see me calling them Diana Moon Glompers.

  • pconroy

    Steve Hsu is a trail blazer – more power to him.

    In the future – near future actually – the kinds of technologies he is helping pioneer will be commonplace. But Luddites are going to hate him – especially if his research invalidates whole areas of academia like much of the Social “Sciences”.

    Of course the “Science” in Social Science is much like the Science in Scientology, and is about as intelligent as Intelligent Design 😉

  • AG


    I might be the only one who understand “Add oil” here. 加油 really originated from words “stepping gas pedal”. Now it evolved from “speed up” to “cheer someone on”.

    I am sure Steve understands 加油. Go Steve!

  • Syon

    Razib:”Human social norms have their own logic and inertia. Reality can wait, and it does.”

    RE: Cultural inertia

    Just had a conversation with a colleague (we’re both in the humanities) today on the topic of depression; when I made reference to genetic factors, he countered by citing Freud….

  • Kiwiguy

    *** Is Steve Hsu a bad, bad, man? ***

    No, but it sounds like Daniel HoSang might be with his Lysenkoist efforts to suppress genetic research.

  • Justin Giancola

    I am culturally conditioned to see that picture as a smile, otherwise… :/

  • Jim

    I’m amazed that Steve Hsu wasn’t burnt at the stake as a heretic long ago.

  • Sandgroper

    If America doesn’t want him, we’ll have him. No problem.

  • RedZenGenoist

    #21: Steve knows a few Chinese characters, but is not a fluent reader – “add oil” is a common idiom in English, though. But in English, it doesn’t mean 加油, it’s a bit more like 肆虐 – putting fuel on an (uncontrolled) fire, to catalyze a conflagration, come of it what may.

  • Sandgroper

    I’m pretty confident Steve would know I meant “加油”.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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