Exposing PseudoAstronomy

May 20, 2013

Academic Freedom versus Stupidity

Short post … This post is my musing on an article I read today about Harvard students seeking a probe into how a Ph.D. was awarded to a stupid thesis. My words, but allow me to explain.

Some may remember the new a few weeks ago that the Heritage Foundation, a “think tank” that is very very right of the political spectrum (recently hired Jim DeMint, a leading member of the Tea Party movement), released a report saying that an immigration policy being debated in the United States Congress would cost the country $5.3 trillion. (It won’t.)

The report was primarily authored by Jason Richwine, a man who was awarded a Ph.D. in public policy in 2009 from Harvard. The report based most of its findings on Richwine’s Ph.D. thesis that stated hispanic immigrants have lower IQs than the “native white population” of the US, and that the lower IQ would persist for many generations. I recommend going to the Washington Post article I linked to above for direct quotes from the thesis. Oh, and after the outcry over the report, Richwine resigned from the Heritage Foundation.

The purpose of this post is about the article, which states 1200 students petitioned the President of Harvard to probe how Richwine could have been awarded a Ph.D. on a topic such as that with a conclusion such as that. The question raises an interesting conundrum on the interplay of politics, factual veracity, and academic freedom.

Let’s start with the most direct thing: I don’t think his degree should be rescinded unless, upon examination, there is evidence of fraud. All because someone is wrong doesn’t mean that their thesis must be withdrawn after the fact.

With that said, it would be interesting to know who was on the thesis committee, who signed off on the thesis, and possibly what their views are. Which gets into the much murkier area of academic freedom (real academic freedom, not the faux stuff pushed by the “Intelligent” Design movement). The concept of academic freedom is that one should be able to pursue research regardless of how politically incorrect or unpopular it may be.

Clearly, the conclusions in his thesis are unpopular and politically incorrect (unless you’re a Tea Party member). Objectively, I can’t state that he’s wrong because I don’t have the data and haven’t seen studies that speak to the contrary. My gut, and what I’ve seen of other studies throughout the years, would indicate that he IS wrong. In that case, we exit from the area of academic freedom and journey to the area of tainted or incomplete results to bolster a politically motivated conclusion. Journeying to the murky area of where fraud might come in.

To cut this rambling short, I’ve laid out my musings on this subject above. Why am I writing it on the “Exposing PseudoAstronomy” blog? Because I often deal with cases of outright fraud and deceit that are much more obvious (think Hoagland blowing up an image, increasing the brightness, and claiming JPEG compression artifacts are actually cities).

This, however, is a different case: An actual Ph.D., awarded by one of the most prestigious institutions in the world, for a thesis that by all indications was done through all the proper hoops and channels, and yet seems to be completely wrong. To the point that over 1000 members of the student body have taken the almost unprecedented step of petitioning both the university President and the dean of the college (School of Government), requesting a probe of how it was awarded.

What are your thoughts on this situation?


  1. (1) Every step in science should be open, documented, reproducible as far as possible, and transparent so that others can understand how conclusions were reached.

    (2) Rewarding a Ph.D. is an important step in the education of a scientist or scholar, and when awarded at an institution like Harvard, becomes a certificate of competence, indicating that the institution thinks this person is competent to work in the field indicated.

    But for the certificate (the Ph.D.) to be valid, the process (2) used in awarding this certificate must in itself fulfill the criteria in (1).

    Science has to be recursively open to scrutiny all the way down.

    Comment by Johan™ Strandberg — May 20, 2013 @ 1:20 pm | Reply

  2. Many of your questions have already been answered. But one just needs to go to wiki and type in “the bell curve” and they’ll see why Jason’s thesis is total rubbish!

    Comment by Deters58 — May 20, 2013 @ 8:03 pm | Reply

  3. Bit of a tricky one. I havn’t read the thesis, so I can’t comment on that but my first impression would be: bollocks to that. However he went through the process and got his Ph.d, and unless fraud was involved there is no reason to take it back. I should think that those who awarded him this Ph.d should examine how rigorous they’ve examined his work and wether it should have been awarded. Academic freedom should make it possible to come to a socially un-acceptable conclusion, but only if the research is sound. There is also the danger of politicizing science, which happens to much anyway. If it’s total b.s., let’s use the proper scientific means to show he’s full of it.

    Comment by Jan Schipper — May 21, 2013 @ 2:48 am | Reply

  4. 3…did you go to wiki and read ” the bell curve” article?!. First do that and then comment. Also Jason’s committee readily and honestly admits they know nothing of the IQ research.

    Comment by Deters58 — May 21, 2013 @ 3:16 am | Reply

    • You need to provide a source for that claim, considering that, based on be abstract, it was a nontrivial part of his dissertation.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — May 21, 2013 @ 8:12 am | Reply

  5. Re 4. No need for the Wiki, I remember that one from the day it was published. And I agree that his thesis is probably rubbish. But it’s so far outside my field of expertise that my opinion is nothing more than a hunch. The more important question I think is; are we going to take away all Ph.d’s which are based on rubbish research (good luck with that) or just those that reach a socially un-acceptable conclusion ? Whose values and norms to choose ? And I agree with Stuart that merely citing the ” bell curve ” without showing a correlation, isn’t very useful. Just because his conclusions are the same does not automatically imply that his research is faulty. Alarm bells, yes, dismissing it out of hand, no.

    Comment by Jan Schipper — May 22, 2013 @ 1:33 am | Reply

  6. Victor Stenger has an article in the Huffington Post about “academic freedom”. Thought you’d like to read it:

    Comment by Rick K. — May 28, 2013 @ 11:17 am | Reply

    • Interesting article.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — May 28, 2013 @ 2:12 pm | Reply

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