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The Twisted Path of Trust
How undebated findings undermine scientific institutions.
It all started when I was scrolling through my Twitter feed. I came across a thread by a CNRS researcher alerting other fellow researchers to be careful about posting neo-nazi websites using their work-related Twitter accounts. The thread was actually a disguised means of accusing another scientist of having shared a supposedly Nazi website. In the comments section, a screenshot of the crime scene showing a shared article of Emil O. W. Kierkegaard's blog. I found it amusing at first, before it intrigued me a little more as I remembered that I follow Emil on Twitter.
Who is Emil O. W. Kirkegaard?
Emil is apparently an intelligence researcher – the term is quite vague, but he mostly publishes papers on sociology, genetics, and IQ. I couldn't find a summary of his persona on Wikipedia, as his page has been deleted, but instead, I came across a page from Rational Wiki (an unofficial and secular version of Wikipedia), which describes him as a far-right eugenicist, white supremacist, climate change denier, activist for legalizing child pornography and incest, anti-feminist, ableist, anti-vegan, homophobe, Islamophobe and transphobe. This brief description wasn't very optimistic and portrayed a terrible person, but the number of accusations was so ludicrous that it undermined its own credibility. Further down the page was an exhaustive list of alleged behaviors – more resembling ad hominem attacks than solid evidence. Not all of them, though; his previous writing on the ethics of pedophilia is pretty awful, and moreover reflects the kind of reasoning of someone who has gone way too far on utilitarianism. Another piece of the accusation was a photo he posted on Facebook in 2012, showing himself next to a friend performing a Nazi salute. He later refuted the criticism: “Of course, making Nazi jokes doesn't prove anything, and it would be monumentally stupid to conclude that someone is a Nazi based on a jokey picture from Facebook.” After all, who has never been around people who sympathize with former authoritarian regimes? To be fair, he also defended himself against other accusations on his blog – mostly through ad hominem attacks against the author of Rational Wiki. Lastly, in an article from Le Temps, Emil described himself as a “universal genius”, while explaining how he became an “independent researcher” because he never pursued a doctorate, and preferred to be “self-taught”.
How did I end up following this person?
Unlike contracting a virus, it's easier to trace how you got infected by memes that likely influenced your decisions. In the case of following Emil on Twitter, it was after his work had been disseminated on a thread by Scott Alexander and another by Richard Hanania – whom I consider to be reliable intellectuals. Nevertheless, I might legitimately ask, why do I trust them? Well, I've read many of Richard's articles and developed a good understanding of his political worldview, he's also been featured in several op-eds in mainstream media (including the NYT), and his work is often relayed by other popular academics such as Steven Pinker; I'm less familiar with Scott Alexander, although his reputation as a legendary rationalist is far from disputed. I could go further and recursively ask, why should I trust the NYT? Then I'd probably ask you to provide me with a more trustworthy alternative.
For a long time, my use of Twitter was limited to very few people, before I realized that this strategy wasn't very effective in fostering diversity of opinion. As a result, I started expanding my following circle by being less concerned with the screening process, which resulted in the rule: followed by 10+ others you follow. On Twitter, people don't explicitly label themselves with political beliefs (except maybe pronouns), and as a result, it can be challenging to identify where a person falls on the political spectrum. That's why I try to stick with an observation period for the people I've recently subscribed to before they can eventually get my approval – some of them may stay on the pipe for the rest of their lives.
The faith dilemma
Admittedly, all this did not leave me with a positive impression of Emil, but it doesn't explain why several reputable intellectuals approach his work, as I would assume that the stakes should be too high to risk one's reputation. Maybe he's an obnoxious person and at the same time an effective scientist. And despite only holding a bachelor's degree in linguistics, should a lack of credence be enough to disqualify someone's work? Yet there is one more little detail that still bothers me, his papers are essentially published under his own academic journals, OpenPsych – described as promoting racist pseudoscience – which has close ties to the Mankind Quarterly – another popular pseudo-journal associated with scientific racism – currently presided by Richard Lynn, known for his controversial opinions on eugenics and his concern about the high fertility rate of low-IQ individuals, who he believes pose a major threat to Western civilization because they might outnumber high-IQ individuals – additionally, his article came out after Idiocracy.
I could make some sense of the argument stating that academia, as mostly dominated by liberals, has nudged right-wingers to explore politically incorrect science through alternative means. But I can hardly gloss over Emil's dubious opinions and his questionable work ethic, which involves collaborating with questionable scientists who are themselves surrounded by even more questionable people. In other words, the whole thing smells like crap. But it's worth pondering whether the studies he's published can be classified as pseudoscience. Does claiming that something is false mean that it is false until you can prove that it is? Since I haven't found any strong refuting evidence (except for one report of a bad experience), it's difficult to conclude whether his work is fraudulent, but it's also unrealistic to expect every study to be publicly debated.
In theory, someone spreading blatantly false ideas should be contested – at least when the cost of disproving the facts is low. But this principle becomes less true according to Brandolini's Law, which famously coined an asymmetry between creating misinformation and debunking it: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it.” This partially explains the scarcity of rebuttal arguments against more elaborate controversial theories. Only we're not talking about an exiled scientist living in a cave, as Emil is probably more notorious than the vast majority of researchers in his area of expertise, and from a relativist perspective, the context could be understood as follows:
Emil's studies are legitimate, but mainstream academia rejects them for ethical reasons.
Emil's studies are flawed, but none of his opponents are willing to make the effort to refute them.
For the sake of integrity
Junk science or not, dubious studies continue to proliferate at an endemic level, raising the moral question of the scientific community's responsibility to address them in order to preserve their credibility. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is far from only affecting the social sciences, as during the last pandemic, a good swath of scientific literature was used to propagate misleading information, part of which converged on the vaccine skeptics' fallacious narrative about Ivermectin (an antiparasitic drug), which became the unofficial alternative treatment as a result of several studies demonstrating its efficacy against COVID-19. At the time, the lack of counter-evidence against Ivermectin was concerning, and ultimately the publication of a homemade meta-analysis written by Scott Alexander established itself as one of the most solid pieces of evidence supporting its ineffectiveness.
I genuinely regard Richard Hanania and Scott Alexander as epistemologically-driven outsiders; they were certainly right to defend the vaccine's efficacy; it seems less plausible that they could both share an objective perspective on Emil's studies – especially since social science is a field more prone to political bias. I don't know about the other readers, but I don't have a deep enough knowledge of statistics to distinguish fallacious methods from appropriate ones. Consequently, making sense of advanced scientific literature can be a perilous task when one's lack of expertise is restricted to the interpretation of others. As a result, the lack of criticism has compelled me to dismiss the field in its entirety, as sometimes it's wiser to bury one's head in the sand than speculate.