The Two Hundred Million Dollar Man

On October 11, 2019, I was walking back from a regrettable purchase at The Rally House when my phone buzzed. I checked it and saw that The Evening Look had received a message through our contact form. At that point, we had been growing for nine months, so receiving an email was far from unusual. What was unusual was who sent it: Corey Washington, Director of Analytics at MSU’s Office of Research and Innovation. He wanted to invite us onto Manifold, a podcast he co-hosted with then-Vice President for Research and Innovation Stephen Hsu. Washington and Hsu were interested in how the “campus culture wars” of recent years have manifested in recent years and thought we could offer some valuable insight. L. Squirrel and I accepted this invitation, and our interview, recorded on October 15, was featured as part of a “bonus” episode of Manifold along with a separate interview they conducted with Sergei and Derek of The Morning Watch.

As L. Squirrel and I sat for our interview (brutally cut for time because Washington and Hsu repeatedly got into debates amongst themselves), it was obvious to us that Hsu was the more conservative of the two, although much of what led us to that conclusion is missing from the published version of our conversation. However, we failed a spot check on Hsu’s exact beliefs. We failed to realize that an Academic Boomer like Hsu wouldn’t place wild takes on his barren Twitter, but instead that he’d do it old school. We’re talking, baby!

Just over eight months later, MSU president Samuel Stanley requested Hsu’s resignation from his role at the OVPRI, which Hsu accepted with a little bit of grumbling. How did Hsu fall from successful podcast host and renowned research genius, known for securing $200 million more per year in research expenditures for MSU compared the amount before his tenure, to merely a tenured physics professor in that short span? 

The campaign for Hsu’s resignation was led by MSU’s Graduate Employees Union, which posted a long Twitter thread detailing various instances of scientific racism, sexism, and eugenics promotion on his Blogspot, as well as conflicts of interest stemming from his involvement in a genetics startup. They created a petition with 820 signatures from MSU students, workers, faculty, and alumni that was being continually updated until Hsu’s resignation on June 19th.

The catalyst for the GEU’s thread appears to be a post on Hsu’s blog of an old episode of Manifold with MSU professor Joe Cesario, who discussed a study Cesario collaborated on that showed no significant racial disparity in fatal police shootings. (The study was retracted on July 10, though everyone involved stands by the data.) The post simply says, “Re-posting this because of its relevance to the terrible events in Minneapolis,” which is interesting considering that George Floyd was not the victim of a fatal police shooting but rather a fatal police knee to the neck. 

Notably, the authors of the study took pains to note that they only focused on fatal shootings. They stated that there could be racial disparities in other uses of lethal force and in policing, and that “Black civilians fatally shot by police (compared to White civilians) are more likely to be unarmed and less likely to pose an immediate threat to officers,” while white civilians were three times more likely to have an immediate mental health concern and seven times more likely to attempt suicide by cop.

Hsu’s Blogspot comments on the post are still active, and they are an absolute cesspool. Though he obviously does not control who finds and responds to his posts, it’s notable that most of them are conservative cranks who are amped up at the possibility that defunding the police would allow them to show how lawless the damn poors are. But as you scroll down, you notice one thread pop up, which is comparing the achievements of different ethnic groups and races and their IQ scores. 

One commenter states that Chicago is policing less (nope!), and that because of that, “low IQ murderers — and almost all of them are low IQ gang members — have an 80-85% chance of escaping punishment.” Another thread devolves into an argument about Indian-American, Korean-American, and Chinese-American achievement, which, oddly, leads to a Chinese commenter remarking about Chinese immigrants, “Trying to pronounce English words like Americans do is even more silly. It’s like, you’re a fucking [slur], not a white American, you moron.”

Though Hsu’s many blog posts are mostly insignificant to the controversy around his tenure and exit, these comments are notable because posts about racial differences, especially around IQ tests, have gotten him lots of attention. Hsu even made an appearance on longtime alt-right figure and Taylor Swift egg monitor Stefan Molyneux’s podcast in which he discussed them. Molyneux has long promoted the idea of hereditary IQ, and particularly how that relates to IQ scores of different racial groups, as the explanation for why certain racial groups are so much poorer than others, as much as he does not want it to be true. (Uh-huh.)

Hsu, on the other hand, has consistently said that he remains an agnostic on the issue and merely does not rule out the idea that there are genetic group differences in IQ scores. I believe him on this, given that he was willing to say this to someone as detestable as Molyneux. However, presenting himself as a Reasonable Centrist on this issue doesn’t help his case as much as he thinks. It’s not that there isn’t legitimate science to do on IQ to further flesh out exactly how much of it is genetic versus heritable, but Molyneux and his ilk should be rejected outright because they aren’t interested in interpreting this data in any way that doesn’t cape for white supremacy and eugenics.

Also discussed with Molyneux was Hsu’s work at multiple Silicon Valley genetics startups. Hsu’s company, Genomic Prediction, already has tests that can screen embryos for abnormally low IQ scores or disabilities, (Why try and improve people’s lives when you could simply brand them as a problem and throw them away?) and he stated that an accurate IQ predictor could be realized within the next ten years. In an article for scientific magazine Nautilus, he wrote that in the same time frame we could be able to figure out the IQ of zygotes so that “parents choosing between 10 or so zygotes could improve the IQ of their child by 15 or more IQ points.”

The ethical consequences of these techniques are troubling. Hsu concludes the article by stating that he is optimistic that genetic engineering will be part of national healthcare systems. If not, the alternative is massive inequality, in which rich people are not only getting richer and richer than you, but also smarter and smarter. I trust that our robust national healthcare system is prepared to deal with this issue!

I think these articles are the best argument for Hsu’s demotion. Much has been made of the accusations of scientific racism and sexism against him, but outright genetic engineering is even more troubling. You have to do more than “consider” ethical issues when working on this technology. There are huge downsides to opening this Pandora’s Box. What if the rich just hoard the technology? That way, they don’t even have to build a spaceship to Mars to leave everyone else behind. More importantly, what does it mean to permanently decide to eliminate conditions that people currently live with and do not see as diminishing them, but instead as something which simply causes them to have a different life experience?

When we look at people who control huge amounts of money, we should note what their priorities are. Hsu’s views were known when he was hired (the posts the GEU spotlighted dated as far back as 2008), but MSU’s administration overlooked them at the time because the money they could get was more important. It’s no surprise that many people who benefited from that trade-off find themselves on the other side now that public opinion has shifted. Who replaces Hsu is important — let’s make sure we know where they stand on the ethics of research. 

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