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The inquiry into UCL’s historical role in eugenics was set up a year ago. Its report was delivered on Friday 28 February 2020.

Nine (the MORE group) of the 16 members of the inquiry commission refused to sign the final report and issued their own recommendations.

The reasons for this lack of consensus included the fact that the final report did not look beyond the 1930s. It failed to deal with the science, and, in particular, it failed to investigate the London Conference on Intelligence, which was one of the reasons the inquiry was set up. That is a topic that I addressed at the time.

Firstly I should say that I agree entirely with all the recommendations, including those of the MORE group.

I’ve thought for a while now that the Galton and Pearson buildings/theatres should be renamed with a prominent plaque saying why.

But I was disappointed by the scope of the inquiry, and by the fact that it failed entirely to engage with the science. This was dealt with much better in the excellent podcast by Subhadra Das which came out at the same time. She had also made an excellent podcast, “Bricks + Mortals, A history of eugenics told through buildings“.

The inquiry did some surveys by email. This was a laudable attempt, but they only got about 1200 responses, from 50,000 UCL staff and students and 200,000 alumni. With such a low, self-selected, response rate these can’t be taken seriously. The author of this report said “I believe some of the ontological assumptions of scientists who researched eugenics are still firmly embedded in the fabric of UCL”. No further details were given and I’m baffled by this statement. It contradicts directly my own experience.

I was also disappointed by some passages in the official report. For example, referring to the ‘London Conference on Intelligence’, it says

“Occurring in the midst of activism to decolonise UCL, it suggested a ‘Janus-faced’ institution, with one face promoting equality in line with its statutory duty of care12 and the other a quiet acquiescence and ambivalence to UCL’s historical role in eugenics and its consequences for those Galton theorised as being unworthy.”

This seems to me to be totally unfair. I have been at UCL since 1964, and in all that time I have never once heard anyone with an “ambivalent” attitude to eugenics. In fact ever since Lionel Penrose took over the Galton chair in 1946, every UCL person whom I have read or met has condemned eugenics. In his 1946 inaugural lecture, Penrose said

“In the light of knowledge of its frequent misuse, inclusion of the term “racial” in the definition seems unfortunate. A racial quality is presumably any character which differs in frequency or which (when it is metrical) differs in average value in two or more large groups of people. No qualities have been found to occur in every member of one race and in no member of another.”

The inquiry stops in the 1930s. There is no acknowledgment of the fact that work done in the Lab for Human Genetics at UCL, ever since the end of WW2, has contributed hugely to the knowledge we now have about topics like genetics and race. They have done as much as anyone to destroy the 19th and early 20th century myths about eugenics.

London Conference on Intelligence

I think the allusion, quoted above, to the London Conference on Intelligence (LCI) was totally unfair. The only, very tenuous, connection between LCI and UCL was that a room was booked for the conferences in secret by a James Thompson. He was an honorary lecturer in psychology. He filled in the forms dishonestly as shown in the report of the investigation of them.

As shown in appendix 5 of this report, the questions about “Is speaker or topic likely to be controversial?” were not filled in. In fact much of the application form was left blank. This should have resulted in the room bookings being referred to someone who understood the topic. They were not. As a result of this mistake by a booking clerk, Thompson succeeded in holding a poisonous conference four times on UCL property, without anyone at UCL being aware of it.

The existence of the conference came to light only when it was discovered by Ben Van Der Merwe, of the London Student newspaper. He contacted me two days before it was published, for comment, and I was able to alert UCL, and write about it myself, in Eugenics, UCL and Freedom of Speech.

As everyone knows, the rise of alt-right populism across the world has given rise to a lunatic fringe of pseudoscientific people who once again give credence to eugenics. This has been documented in Angela Saini’s recent book, Superior. Thompson is one of them. The report on his conferences fails to tell us how and when he came to be an honorary lecturer and whether he ever taught at UCL, and, if he did, what did he teach. It should have done.

Although the honorary title for James Thompson has now been revoked, this has, as far as I know, never been announced publicly. It should have been.

It’s very unfortunate that the Inquiry didn’t go into any of this.

One small problem

I started this blog by saying that I agreed with all of the recommendations of both the main report and that of the MORE group. But there is one recommendation which I can’t understand how to implement in practice.

“Departments must devise action plans for all teaching programmes to engage critically with the history and legacy of eugenics at UCL”

After the question of ‘decolonising the curriculum’ came up, I took the problem seriously and spoke, among others, to UCL’s diversity officer. My teaching at the time was largely about the stochastic theory of single molecule kinetics, and about non-linear curve fitting.
The reason for talking to these people was to seek advice about how I could decolonise these topics. Sad to say, I didn’t get any helpful advice from these discussions. I still don’t understand how to do it. If you have any ideas, please tell me in the comments.

Follow-up

I have just been given some more information about James Thompson, the person behind the London Conference on Intelligence.

“Dr Thompson was made an honorary lecturer in 2007, following his retirement from UCL. As a clinical psychologist he was a member of staff from 1987, joining UCL by transfer when the UCH and Middlesex Hospital departments of psychiatry merged.

We do not have detailed records of Dr Thompson’s teaching at UCL. He was a Senior Lecturer in Psychology with primary responsibility for teaching medical students. He was given honorary status in 2007 as he had agreed to deliver 2 lectures to students on a neuroscience and behaviour module – one in 2007 on the placebo effect and one in 2008 on depression. There is no record of any involvement in teaching at UCL after the second lecture.

His honorary appointment was approved by the Head of Department.”

I hope to have a bit more information soon.

Jump to follow-up

On Monday evening (8th January 2018), I got an email from Ben van der Merwe, a UCL student who works as a reporter for the student newspaper, London Student.  He said

“Our investigation has found a ring of academic psychologists associated with Richard Lynn’s journal Mankind Quarterly to be holding annual conferences at UCL. This includes the UCL psychologist professor James Thompson”.

He asked me for comment about the “London Conference on Intelligence”. His piece came out on Wednesday 10th January. It was a superb piece of investigative journalism.  On the same day, Private Eye published a report on the same topic.

I had never heard about this conference, but it quickly became apparent that it was a forum for old-fashioned eugenicists of the worst kind.  Perhaps it isn’t surprising that neither I, nor anyone else at UCL that I’ve spoken to had heard of these conferences because they were surrounded by secrecy.  According to the Private Eye report:

“Attendees were only told the venue at the last minute and asked not to share the information”

The conference appears to have been held at least twice before. The programmes for the 2015 conference [download pdf] and the 2016 conference [download pdf] are now available, but weren’t public at the time.   They have the official UCL logo across the top despite the fact that Thompson has been only an honorary lecturer since 2007.

LCI header

A room was booked for the conference through UCL’s external room booking service. The abstracts are written in the style of a regular conference. It’s possible that someone with no knowledge of genetics (as is likely to be the case for room-booking staff) might have not spotted the problem.

The huge problems are illustrated by the London Student piece, which identifies many close connections between conference speakers and far-right, and neo-nazi hate groups.

“[James Thompson’s] political leanings are betrayed by his public Twitter account, where he follows prominent white supremacists including Richard Spencer (who follows him back), Virginia Dare, American Renaissance, Brett Stevens, the Traditional Britain Group, Charles Murray and Jared Taylor.”

“Thompson is a frequent contributor to the Unz Review, which has been described as “a mix of far-right and far-left anti-Semitic crackpottery,” and features articles such as ‘America’s Jews are Driving America’s Wars’ and ‘What to do with Latinos?’.

His own articles include frequent defences of the idea that women are innately less intelligent than men (1, 2, 3,and 4), and an analysis of the racial wage gap which concludes that “some ethnicities contribute relatively little,” namely “blacks.”

“By far the most disturbing of part of Kirkegaard’s internet presence, however, is a blog-post in which he justifies child rape. He states that a ‘compromise’ with paedophiles could be:

“having sex with a sleeping child without them knowing it (so, using sleeping medicine. If they don’t notice it is difficult to see how they cud be harmed, even if it is rape. One must distinguish between rape becus the other was disconsenting (wanting to not have sex), and rape becus the other is not consenting, but not disconsenting either.”

The UCL Students’ Union paper, Cheesegrater, lists some of James Thompson’s tweets,including some about brain size in women

It’s interesting that these came to light on the same day that I learned that the first person to show that there was NO correlation  between brain size and intelligence was Dr Alice Lee, in 1901 [download pdf].
Alice Lee was the first woman to get a PhD in mathematics from UCL and she was working in the Galton laboratory, under Karl Pearson. Pearson was a great statistician but also a eugenicist.  It was good to learn that he supported women in science at a time when that was almost unknown.

What’s been done so far?

After I’d warned UCL of the impending scandal, they had time to do some preliminary investigation. An official UCL announcement appeared on the same day (10 Jan, 2018) as the articles were published.

“Our records indicate the university was not informed in advance about the speakers and content of the conference series, as it should have been for the event to be allowed to go ahead”

“We are an institution that is committed to free speech but also to combatting racism and sexism in all forms.”

“We have suspended approval for any further conferences of this nature by the honorary lecturer and speakers pending our investigation into the case.”

That is about as good as can be expected. It remains to be seen why the true nature of the conferences was not spotted, and it remains to be seen why someone like James Thompson was an honorary senior lecturer at UCL. Watch this space.

How did it happen

Two videos that feature Thompson are easily found. One, from 2010, is on the UCLTV channel. And in March 2011, a BBC World News video featured Thompson.

But both of these videos are about his views on disaster psychology (Chilean miners, and Japanese earthquake, respectively). Neither gives any hint of his extremist political views. To discover them you’d have to delve into his twitter account (@JamesPsychol) or his writings on the unz site.  It’s not surprising that they were missed.

I hope we’ll know more soon about how these meetings slipped under the radar.  Until recently, they were very secret.  But then six videos of talks at the 2017 meeting were posted on the web, by the organisers themselves. Perhaps they were emboldened by the presence of an apologist for neo-nazis in the White House, and by the government’s support for Toby Young, who wrote in support of eugenics. The swing towards far-right views in the UK, in the USA and in Poland, Hungary and Turkey, has seen a return to public discussions of views that have been thought unspeakable since the 1930s. See, for example, this discussion of eugenics by Spectator editor Fraser Nelson with Toby Young, under the alarming heading “Eugenics is back“.

The London Conference on Intelligence channel used the UCL logo, and it was still public on 10th January. It had only 49 subscribers. By 13th January it had been taken down (apparently by its authors). But it still has a private playlist with four videos which have been viewed only 36 times (some of which were me). Before it vanished, I made a copy of Emil Kirkegard’s talk, for the record.

youtube channel

Freedom of speech

Incidents like this pose difficult problems, especially given UCL’s past history. Galton and Pearson supported the idea of eugenics at the beginning of the 20th century, as did George Bernard Shaw. But modern geneticists at the Galton lab have been at the forefront in showing that these early ideas were simply wrong.

UCL has, in the past, rented rooms for conferences of homeopaths. Their ideas are deluded and sometimes dangerous, but not illegal. I don’t think they should be arrested, but I’d much prefer that their conferences were not at UCL.

A more serious case occurred on 26 February 2008. The student Islamic Society invited  representatives of the radical Islamic creationist, Adnan Oktar, to speak at UCL. They were crowing that the talk would be held in the Darwin lecture theatre (built in the place formerly occupied by Charles Darwin’s house on Gower Street). In the end, the talk was allowed to go ahead, but it was moved by the then provost to the Gustave Tuck lecture theatre, which is much smaller, and which was built from a donation by the former president of the Jewish Historical Society. See more accounts here, here and here. It isn’t known what was said, so there is no way to tell whether it was illegal, or just batty.

It is very hard to draw the line between hate talk and freedom of speech.  There was probably nothing illegal about what was said at the Intelligence Conferences.  It was just bad science, used to promote deeply distasteful ideas..

Although, in principle, renting a room doesn’t imply any endorsement, in practice all crackpot organisations love to use the name of UCL to promote their cause. That alone is sufficient reason to tell these people to find somewhere else to promote their ideas.

Follow up in the media

For a day or two the media were full of the story. It was reported, for example, in the Guardian and in the Jewish Chronicle,

On 11th January I was asked to talk about the conference on BBC World Service. The interview can be heard here.

speakerClick to play the interview.

The real story

Recently some peope have demanded that the names of Galton and Pearson should be expunged from UCL.

There would be a case for that if their 19th century ideas were still celebrated, just as there is a case for removing statues that celebrate confederate generals in the southern USA.  Their ideas about measurement and statistics are justly celebrated. But their ideas about eugenics are not celebrated.

On the contrary, it is modern genetics, done in part by people in the Galton lab, that has shown the wrongness of 19th century views on race. If you want to know the current views of the Galton lab, try these.  They could not be further from Thompson’s secretive pseudoscience.

Steve Jones’ 2015 lecture “Nature, nurture or neither: the view from the genes”,

or “A matter of life and death: To condemn the study of complex genetic issues as eugenics is to wriggle out of an essential debate“.

Or check the writing of UCL alumnus, Adam Rutherford: “Why race is not a thing, according to genetics”,

or, from Rutherford’s 2017 article

“We’ve known for many years that genetics has profoundly undermined the concept of race”

“more and more these days, racists and neo-Nazis are turning to consumer genetics to attempt to prove their racial purity and superiority. They fail, and will always fail, because no one is pure anything.”

“the science that Galton founded in order to demonstrate racial hierarchies had done precisely the opposite”

Or read this terrific account of current views by Jacob A Tennessen “Consider the armadillos“.

These are accounts of what geneticists now think. Science has shown that views expressed at the London Intelligence Conference are those of a very small lunatic fringe of pseudo-scientists. But they are already being exploited by far-right politicians.

It would not be safe to ignore them.

Follow-up

15 January 2018. The involvement of Toby Young

The day after this was posted, my attention was drawn to a 2018 article by the notorious Toby Young. In it he confirms the secretiveness of the conference organisers.

“I discovered just how cautious scholars in this field can be when I was invited to attend a two-day conference on intelligence at University College London by the academic and journalist James Thompson earlier this year. Attendees were only told the venue at the last minute – an anonymous antechamber at the end of a long corridor called ‘Lecture
Room 22’ – and asked not to share the information with anyone else.”

More importantly,it shows that Toby Young has failed utterly to grasp the science.

“You really have to be pretty stubborn to dispute that general cognitive ability is at least partly genetically based.”

There is nobody who denies this.
The point is that the interaction of nature and nurture is far more subtle than Young believes, and that makes attempts to separate them quantitatively futile. He really should educate himself by looking at the accounts listed above (The real story)

16 January 2018. How UCL has faced its history

Before the current row about the “London Intelligence Conference”, UCL has faced up frankly to its role in the development of eugenics. It started at the height of Empire, in the 19th century and continued into the early part of the 20th century. The word “eugenics” has not been used at UCL since it fell into the gravest disrepute in the 1930s, and has never been used since WW2. Not, that is, until Robert Thompson and Toby Young brought it back. The history has been related by curator and science historian, Subhadra Das. You can read about it, and listen to episodes of her podcast, at “Bricks + Mortals, A history of eugenics told through buildings“. Or you can listen to her whole podcast.

Although Subhadra Das describes Galton as the Victorian scientist that you’ve never heard of. I was certainly well aware of his ideas before I first came to UCL (in 1964). But at that time. I thought of Karl Pearson only as a statistician, and I doubt if I’d even heard of Flinders Petrie. Learning about their roles was a revelation.

17 January 2018.

Prof Semir Zeki has been pointed out to me that it’s not strictly to say “the word “eugenics” has not been used at UCL since it fell into the gravest disrepute in the 1930s”. It’s true to say that nobody advocated it but the chair of Eugenics was not renamed the chair of Human Genetics until 1963. This certainly didn’t imply approval. Zeki tells me that it’s holder “Lionel Penrose, when he mentioned his distaste for the title, saying that it was a hangover from the past, and should be changed”.