US professor uninvited from Swedish pedagogy conference: non-egalitarian conclusions from IQ studies “in violation of ethical standard”

Concluding, based on empirical findings, that there are differences in intelligence between individuals and groups is not permissible in educational research in Sweden, a country known for its egalitarian policies. Distinguished American professor Linda Gottfredson was originally invited to give a keynote lecture at a pedagogy conference in the Swedish city of Gothenburg. Yet, before the conference was about to take place in October this year, she received the message that she had been “uninvited” following protests from other researchers arguing that Gottfredson’s non-egalitarian conclusions contradict the organizer’s ethical standard.

Many, if not most, cases of academic rights violations involve oppressive actions committed by senior university leadership. Typically, scholars are silenced for expressing politically incorrect views, for criticizing leadership decisions or for objecting to degenerating academic standards at their departments. However, as the current case documents, academic colleagues too can act in a way that de facto restricts the academic freedom of their peers. Moreover and perhaps surprisingly, “ethical guidelines” can be used as instruments of collegial oppression.

When the Educational Conference Need for Change, an “International Conference for Guides” in Gothenburg, was in the planning stage, the committee decided to invite American professor Linda Gottfredson to give one of the plenary lectures. Gottfredson is a frequently cited professor emerita of education psychology at Delaware University in the US and a member of various prestigious associations and editorial boards, testifying to her standing in the research community.

Gottfredson is possibly best known for her theory of vocational choice, which in her view depends on a number of factors, where the perception of one’s own self plays a key role. This part of her work is not politically controversial. However, she also has a long-standing research interest in intelligence and, in particular, studying differences in IQ between individuals and groups. In this connection she has defended the “Bell curve” to the effect that general intelligence in a population follows a normal distribution, which implies that there can be huge differences in intelligence between individuals. She has also concluded that IQ is a significant predictor of success in life at various positions in society.

These conclusions, based on a large body of empirical evidence from the US military and other sources, contradict central tenets of the educational tradition prevailing in Sweden and elsewhere, according to which there are, as a matter of fundamental principle, no significant differences in intelligence between individuals or groups. Gottfredson is quite candid when, in her writings, she criticizes the representatives of the latter “egalitarian fiction” for intentionally ignoring what she maintains is irrefutable empirical evidence.

In the name of pluralism of thought it was consequently not a bad decision by the organizers Swedish Guides (Svenska vägledare) and IAEVG (International Association for Educational and Vocational Guidance) to invite Professor Gottfredson and give her a prominent platform at the conference.

Unfortunately, solemn academic principles would soon give way to more mundane concerns. When the conference approached, other participants and colleagues became aware of Gottfredson and her role at the event, leading to several protest letters to the organizers, who in the end could not withstand the pressure but chose to withdraw Gottfredson’s invitation as a plenary speaker.

A letter from the University of Eastern Finland rejects the conclusion, attributed to Gottfredson, that intelligence is inherited. The letter proceeds to draw attention to the fact that the IAEVG’s ethical guidelines discourages all forms of stereotyping and discrimination and advocates equal opportunities, concluding that Gottfredson’s “views are in stark contradiction with the IAEVG ethical standards”. Another protest letter mentions Gottfredson’s endorsement of the Bell curve as an aggravating circumstance making her inappropriate as a plenary speaker.

How empirically based conclusions about the distribution of intelligence within or between populations, or about the origin of such distributions, themselves can be discriminatory is not explained in the protest letters. Is it perhaps the protesters’ own implicit bias that reveals itself when they associate lower intelligence with less human dignity? The practical conclusion that Gottfredson draws is, in any case, admirably humanitarian: that people with low intelligence should receive special support so that they can do better in life, and that the importance of such intervention increases as society becomes gradually more complex.

Several protesters express the doubtful view that the selection of plenary readers must reflect the organizer’s perception of the field of research. Is it not enough that the person in question is an established name in the area? Why would an organizer have to promote or be associated with particular scientific conclusions?

Unsurprisingly, Linda Gottfredson has reacted strongly to the decision to withdraw her invitation, describing it in an e-mail (which includes the protest letters) to the organizers as a “shameful, anti-scientific act”. She regrets in particular that the protest letters were anonymized and that she did not have the opportunity to respond to the criticism before the decision was made. As far as the content of the criticism is concerned, she observes that the conclusions are being attacked, not the evidence upon which they are based. “None mentions the independent bodies of evidence I examined when reaching the conclusions they disfavor”, she writes.

Professor Gottfredson’s harsh concluding assessment of the IAEVG Organizing Committee and its actions is worth reproducing in its entirety:

The Board considered only its own interests – avoids controversy and a boycott by members if I gave a keynote on any topic. In so doing, it signaled it will shun anyone who broaches certain scientific and ethical questions, in this case, ’How do we protect and assist the most cognitively vulnerable among us?’ Far from noble, it is heartless to deny the stiff cognitive headwinds against which less able individuals struggle every day in our ever-more cognitively demanding modern world. It is not I who violated IAEVG’s professional and scientific ethics, but IAEVG itself.

The unacceptable treatment of Professor Gottfredson has inspired some international protests, e.g. from Steven Pinker and the author of an article by Rosalind Arden in Quillette. Overall, however, the case has not yet received the attention it deserves considering the degree of academic oppression and humiliation it exemplifies.

EJO/MZ