View from
The Center

Speaking with Bo Winegard: from the State of the Academy to the State of Twitter

My sense is that most people—even people who truly abhor a lot of the stuff that I write—were supportive and were sort of horrified by the decision and by what happened.”

Bo Winegard is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Marietta College in Ohio. He completed his Ph.D. in psychology at Florida State University in 2018. He has described an interest in approaching “psychological puzzles from an evolutionary perspective” and has published on the subject of traits varying among groups. Winegard attracted considerable media attention earlier this year when Marietta College declined to renew his teaching contract, leading many (including himself) to wonder if his research topics as well as his political views contributed to the college’s decision. (Winegard has expressed conservative views on some subjects.) In this interview, he joins Merion West and Kambiz Tavana to discuss his upcoming departure from Marietta College, the state of free speech and unrestricted inquiry in academia, and to weigh in on how Twitter is affecting discussions of complex academic topics.

You and I were supposed to talk originally about your research on personality and individual differences. But while we were planning that, something else happened. You wrote about it, but—for those who haven’t heard—could you please, in short, tell us what happened to you? 

I was fired from my job. I don’t even remember exactly when—around February 29th or something—so much has happened since then. It’s just been swirling. I was given no reason for it, and they still haven’t provided a reason. I don’t think they technically have to, but I have suspicions about what led to it—because I had various meetings with my bosses before that happened. And, I kind of have a strong hunch about why I was let go. 

Why was it—could you tell our readers?

I think it’s a variety of things related to things that I write about and talk about—most prominently human population variation in IQ and in other various traits. But also I have—maybe—populist to conservative views on various issues that I share on Twitter. And I try generally to be intellectually provocative in an interesting way because I thought that’s what academics were supposed to do—kind of stir the pot and start friendly conversation and debate. And that’s what I’ve tried to do. So I think a combination of those things led to it—because the second time I had meetings with my bosses was after a troll, a pseudonymous troll I should say, was sending emails to the college where I worked [Marietta College] that discussed my various writings and asked the college why they supported “the eugenics that I promote.” This is, of course, totally mendacious because I don’t even write about eugenics. But the troll did link to various articles that I had written about human variation, and the troll linked to a tweet that I had deleted, a tweet that was widely misinterpreted. So there was a lot of concern about that type of stuff. 

I think it’s that combination that led to it. I don’t know how I would pick out any particular thing and say, “This is what led to it.” But you put the package together, and I think it’s pretty clear that that’s what led to it. In terms of productivity, teaching assessments, etc., I was very good and a very productive scholar. Anybody could look at my Google scholar page, and my teaching assessments were always very good, which is what I’m supposed to be judged on. So I don’t think it can be anything related to what I was supposed to be doing for my job.

As we know, similar situations to what you’re describing have happened to other academics in recent years. Did you ever expect that this would happen to you? 

Yes—so I mean I was certainly worried about it, and I had talked to various friends and colleagues about the possibility of such an eventuality. It was something I was very concerned about because I knew I was talking and writing about things honestly and openly that were very taboo in academia. I would say that after the second meeting [with my bosses] I actually thought that I would be safe. I really did think that I was past my problems, and so I had maybe a false sense of comfort after that meeting. So when I actually got the news, I was incredibly shocked. It was kind of like a gut punch, but then—reflecting back on it a couple of days later—I wasn’t terribly surprised that it happened. I think I tried my best to write calmly, temperately, and dispassionately about controversial topics, and I was hoping that I would be able to do that—and maintain a career and academia. But, unfortunately, it appears that those two things were not reconcilable. 

What are your most recent updates on this saga? I’m sure you’re trying to explore your legal rights to get your job back and such? 

I’m just teaching out this semester. I owe it to my students to do that as well as I can. And I don’t actually have hard feelings towards the college or anything. I’m just going to teach this semester and then move on with my life. I hope that I can do something interesting—maybe an independent scholarship or maybe [work] for a think tank. Academia has just been so poisoned by these ideologies that it’s hard to imagine having a secure place there, unless I were at some university that really strongly promoted free speech, such as Chicago or Hillsdale or something like that. So my plan now is just teach out this semester and then look for a different form of employment.

Are you fighting to get your job back? The reason I ask is that—from my point of view—having you in academia would be a great step towards lessening this atmosphere that opposes free speech. My question is: Would you like to fight back and remain in academia? 

I agree—and not just about myself, of course. But I think this concerns many other people. I just saw, for example, Colin Wright. You know he said he wasn’t going to make it in academia, and the more sort of heterodox thinkers—they’re ushered out of academia. Or they just become so disgruntled and bitter with it that they leave. The more this happens, the worst it’s going to get. It’s sort of like you’re boiling out the ideological impurity. So I do agree with that, and I’m disappointed in that. If there were a way that I could remain in academia and could feel comfortable voicing my honest opinions about things, I would love to do it. This is because I love academia. I really do. I like doing research; I like writing papers; I like teaching students; I like all of that stuff. And I also want to be in there so that I can have the debate in there. It’s just that it’s hard to conceive of that right now—because it was really, really, really hard for me to get a job in the first place. I think almost certainly—though I can’t prove this—for reasons related to [what I comment on]. So it’s hard to imagine being able to get a job somewhere—let alone maintain that job. Now I’ve been even more marked, and I’ve written more articles that have crossed taboos. But I agree with you. It is something where people do need to stay in, and they need to sort of fight the ideological battle from the inside—and promote free speech and free inquiry.

Since the announcement of your firing, what was the reaction like on campus, from students or colleagues? Did anyone come to your aid to support you or raise concerns about this? 

It’s a good question. I don’t want to comment on what my colleagues have said. But yes, I’ve gotten some support from students.The thing is that it happened right before spring break. Then, during spring break, all classes were moved online. Actually, I haven’t been around a lot of students because of that. So any contact I’ve had with them was via email, and, also, I don’t want to make a big fuss about it on the college campus. I don’t want to distract from anything else. Other than writing about it that once—and then I did an interview or two—I’ve tried not to trumpet it that much right now. I don’t want to distract from other things. Once I’m gone, I’ll make a bigger deal out of it.

The reason I’m asking is because I want to know how people are handing it—because it’s happening in their own environment. So it’s curious to see how they’re handling it. 

I don’t want to speak about colleague interactions because that just feels private to me. But in terms of people from other areas beyond Marietta, there were people who said, “Well, maybe this article is so bad that maybe the firing was justified.” But I think that was the minority view, in general. My sense is that most people—even people who truly abhor a lot of the stuff that I write—were supportive and were sort of horrified by the decision and by what happened. They thought that this was the wrong thing. I’ve been gratified by that. Sometimes, I wish people would fight a little bit harder about it, though. This thing’s really hard too—because it happened right before the Coronavirus outbreak—right before that got bad. So I think that kind of sucked up a lot of the attentional atmosphere; it’s hard to know what would have happened had that not occurred. 

So you said there was a combination of things that led to your firing, but do you think your research was the biggest factor? If so, could you let our readers know in a simple language what your research is about?

You mean the “Dodging Darwin” article? 

Yes. 

So, briefly put, the article makes the argument that what is called “the hereditarian position” is a reasonable position. In fact, it is probably the most plausible hypothesis about human variation. “What does that mean?” Well, it means that we find consistently that there are differences among human populations. Some people use the term “races,” but that’s kind of a contentious term, so I try to avoid it. But different human ancestral populations score differently on modern intelligence tests. This is something that has been found for a 100 years—or whenever the intelligence tests were first used. In the piece, we just made the argument—my colleagues and I— that the hereditarian position (the argument that genes play some role in this gap and creating this gap in these traits) is perfectly plausible. This is to say that we argue that there are differences in cognitive ability among human populations—and that those differences are, at least, partially genetically-caused. I think that’s a perfectly reasonable position. If anybody wants, they can read the article. We were very judicious about it: accepting that we do not have this positive evidence here. It’s a complicated topic, but we think that the overall weight of it supports the hereditarian position. So that’s what we argued.

The way you put it: that it’s just a hypothesis that you tangle with. Why the huge reaction, then? Is it due to post-modern influences in academia, the kind of thinking that might say, for example, that sex is socially constructed and such? Why are people so outraged by a hypothesis?

It’s a good question. I don’t think it comes exactly out of the sort of post-modern view of the world—because the topic has been taboo for a long time. Probably even before postmodernism became something popular—in the notion that say gender or sex is a social construct. Although I guess [the view that] race is a social construct was popular or getting popular in the late 1940’s and 1950’s. I really think the important thing is that it encroaches upon a sacred value that mostly liberals and progressives have about group equality. They—meaning liberals and progressives—seem to have a strong desire for human populations to be pretty much equal on all socially-valued traits So, if you suggest that something that is socially-valued (such as intelligence) varies by population, it strikes them as borderline bigoted. It just seems as though it’s a strong violation of this principle that they hold.  

But to me, it’s just a scientific hypothesis. It doesn’t have any moral implications whatsoever. I, as a scientist, just want to understand what’s true about the world; that’s what I care about. But I don’t think everybody operates that way. I think—to be fair—there are some legitimate concerns here. There are obviously some nefarious characters who use this kind of research and attempt to—I don’t know what you would say—exploit it to buttress hateful worldviews. That’s obviously not what I’m doing. I think it’s important not to let those kinds of people ruin scientific conversations and debates. Now, people are always going to misuse research; that’s just something you have to live with. I don’t think we should let them create this entire taboo area area that we can no longer talk about reasonably. 

I do not think I would blame postmodern thinking per se—because a lot of these people have no sympathy for the sort of postmodernism that I’m familiar with: the Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida’s of the world. I think they’re just very morally-outraged by the research. This isn’t new; I think it’s important to look at cases such as Arthur Jensen, who is a very shining example. He was getting death threats in the 1970’s because he wrote about race and IQ. This kind of always has been a taboo topic—or, at least, it’s been a taboo topic since the 1950’s. It might have gotten worse in academia since then, and I think it has, in fact. But I don’t think that it’s gotten that much worse on this topic. I think this topic has—at least since the 1950’s—has been particularly bad. But to answer your question more fully, there are probably other things going on that we don’t fully understand—or, at least, that I don’t fully understand.

I fundamentally agree with you about the problem. Academia should care about scientific standards. The moral and political stuff—you leave that for outside of the academic world.

You are teaching at the moment for this semester. Then, what are your plans—what is next for you?

I’ve gotten a few offers to write for various outlets, so I’m trying to get a lot of reading in while I can so that I can be a better writer. I’m going to try to write articles and see if I can get some money that way. Maybe I’ll make videos or do a podcast; I might do my own podcast. Just that kind of stuff for now. Independent scholarship: trying to get material out there and try to provoke interesting debates and arguments That’s what I like to do. I like to discuss ideas, so I hope that I can continue to do that, even if I’m not in academia. We’ll see. Maybe something will come up in a year or two—or maybe sooner. I don’t know, but that’s my plan for now.

You said you’re trying to be more into content production and writing. So let me ask you: For the love of God why are you writing on Twitter?

Well, that’s a good question!

You understand the essence of my question, right? Twitter is good for real time information. It’s also useful for certain people who are otherwise unreachable—to contact them via Twitter. However, you are writing about highly sophisticated concepts: sometimes philosophical ideas. It’s hard to have conversations on Twitter—let alone follow-up on arguments or debates. Why Twitter? 

I don’t actually know exactly why. Part of it—to tell you the truth—is that it’s good to get followers on Twitter. People know you; it’s kind of fun. I went to a conference, and lots of people knew me just from Twitter, and they seem to enjoy some of the content [I tweet about]. And then I can kind of try out ideas on there actually. So, if I do a thread, often I’ll do a thread about what I’m thinking about writing an essay about, and I’ll see how it goes. It’s kind of like a blog. You can write a blog post; people can comment on it.

But this is micro- blogging; it’s not blogging.  

“Microblog”! I like that. That’s fair; that might be right. There are different people who have different philosophies about it. I’m open to the criticisms of Twitter. But it looks like it takes more time than it does. [Twitter] doesn’t take as much time as various other things, and I find it kind of rewarding. Now, there are times where some of the discourse is incredibly stupid; people call each other names, and it gets kind of nasty, and that’s sort of depressing. But I learned that the mute button works well. 

I enjoy it. Actually, I’ve met a lot of people through Twitter whom I would not have met otherwise and who I have good relationships with. They’ve enhanced my life, so that’s my side of it. There are problems too.

There are multiple ways of getting stuff out there. I write peer-reviewed articles. You’re going to source everything very carefully; it’s much more rigorous. Then, you maybe write an essay, and there you’re going to source things, but it’s a little bit less rigorous. Then, Twitter is the least rigorous. It’s just tossing these ideas out there and seeing how they go. You can see how people interact with the ideas. Twitter gives you instant satisfaction that you can’t get from a peer reviewed article, though. 

Will there be any books coming from you in the near future?

I’ve thought a lot about that, but I’m more of an essay person, I think. I’m just interested in so many things, and it’s very hard for me to really dig down on one topic. So I just feel spending two years on one topic would be grueling. It’s not my comparative advantage; I think my comparative advantage is in knowing a little about a lot of things—and, then, being able to write interesting ideas from those things. I’m not someone who would want to be an expert on any particular thing. 

What you’re describing is what journalism was supposed to be. It’s not that way anymore, but that’s how it was supposed to be.

Yes, and I think my brain is definitely more “designed” for journalism. I’d rather write interesting stuff like that—and then interview the people who are real experts.

Thank you for your time today and for a great conversation. 

Thank you, I appreciate it.

Leave a Reply

avatar
4000

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.