A New York Times column on ‘Jewish genius’ draws criticism for linking to a debunked University of Utah study

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) University of Utah anthropology professor Henry Harpending in 1998.

When it was first published last week, a controversial New York Times column about “the secrets of Jewish genius” linked to a 2005 study from a researcher labeled “an extremist,” revered by white supremacists and discredited by scientists — and who, for years, worked as a distinguished professor at the University of Utah.

Citing the late U. anthropologist Henry Harpending, expectedly, touched off criticism. Hours after it appeared online, The Times’ commentary was updated with an editor’s note saying it had been a mistake to mention the study, which has been widely questioned and long seen as an argument of racial superiority.

The note suggests that conservative columnist Bret Stephens did not know that Harpending promoted racist ideas. It also says Stephens “was not endorsing the study or its authors’ views” but acknowledges that his reference to the research, nevertheless, left “an impression with many readers that Mr. Stephens was arguing that Jews are genetically superior. That was not his intent.”

The paragraph Stephens wrote about Harpending’s research has since been deleted online. And on Friday, the University of Utah deleted a complimentary memorial post from its Department of Anthropology that had said Harpending’s “scholarly and personal footprint will be long lasting in the field.”

The U. also noted in response to the column that none of the three authors of the paper — Harpending, Gregory Cochran or then-student Jason Hardy — work at the school any longer. Harpending was there from 1997 until he died of a stroke in 2016.

“Statements attributed to Henry Harpending that promote ideas in line with white nationalist ideology stand in direct opposition to the University of Utah’s values of equity, diversity and inclusion ... " said Annalisa Purser, the university’s spokeswoman.

“As such, we will meet these words with ours: Racist views and rhetoric that position one race as superior to another are inaccurate and harmful," she said. "The University of Utah is bolstered by its diversity, which allows individuals from different backgrounds and perspectives to come together to address challenges in new and creative ways.”

Neither Cochran nor Hardy could not be reached by The Salt Lake Tribune for comment. It’s unclear why none of the researchers faced censure while at the university for publishing the piece, though Purser added, “Speech — even when it is racist — is protected by the U.S. Constitution and is necessary for the free exchange of ideas.”

Meanwhile, the citation has reignited a debate about the genetics of race at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise across the nation. It was posted shortly before several people were stabbed at a rabbi’s home in New York on the seventh day of Hanukkah.

“This has been a very painful time already for Jews in the United States,” said Amy Spiro, a Jewish journalist whose work has been published in Variety, Jewish Insider and The Jerusalem Post. “And then this column came out,” she told The Tribune in a phone interview. “It’s just generated a lot of controversy. It doesn’t seem like this is helpful in any way.”

In their disputed study, the U. researchers focused on Ashkenazi Jews, or those who settled in central and Eastern Europe (as opposed to Spain or the Middle East). Among supremacists, the group is often seen as “pure” because many are white.

Harpending, Cochran and Hardy argue that Ashkenazi Jews have higher IQs, on average, than the general public (including other “non-Ashkenazi Jews”). Their theory is that in medieval times, individuals in the faith group in Europe were pushed into finance jobs “because of the Christian prohibition of usury,” or lending money for interest. Over time, many became rich and had more surviving children than poorer families who worked on farms. They also married within the community and stayed fairly isolated.

“This is a multi-step argument that could be questioned at virtually every turn,” commented Matthew Yglesias, a writer for Vox who criticized Stephens for citing the study.

The University of Utah has long been known as an expert in genetic research, but this paper — “Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence” — is typically seen as a low point in that expertise. The authors created their own algorithm for determining genetic makeup and cited several scientists also viewed as racist.

The researchers have been criticized on and off since the study came out in 2005 and was published in The Journal of Biosocial Science the next year; that publication was previously called The Eugenics Review up until the 1970s. Eugenics is the controversial pseudo-science popular among Nazis for improving the human race by forced sterilization of poor people.

In a 2005 piece on the professors’ Ashkenazi Jewish intelligence study in The Times, a former colleague of Harpending and a researcher at Harvard said: “It would be hard to overstate how politically incorrect this paper is.” Harpending responded: “Absolutely anything in human biology that is interesting is going to be controversial.”

The Times’ piece on the study was largely uncritical beyond that; it was written by reporter Nicholas Wade, who later wrote his own book on genetics that shares some ideas with Harpending and Cochran. (Cochran had previously written about incorrect claims that being gay was caused by an infectious disease.)

A story in New York Magazine was much more condemning of the hypotheses brought up in the 2005 research. “I’d actually call the study bull----,” said one quoted historian at Emory University, “if I didn’t feel its ideas were so insulting.”

The head of New York University’s human-genetics program said: “It’s bad science — not because it’s provocative, but because it’s bad genetics and bad epidemiology.”

In a 2007 press release about later research by Harpending, the school acknowledged his 2005 paper had “created a stir” and that critics had questioned “the quality of the science.”

Harpending continued to speak, though, including at white supremacist conferences, about his also inaccurate ideas that black people are genetically prone to be lazy. His profile on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s page lists him as a white nationalist and an extremist who believed in eugenics.

“In other words, as an anthropologist looking around the world,” he said in 2009 at the “Preserving Western Civilization” conference, “what I see is that men work and produce things when they’re forced into it, and when they’re not, they quit. And I’m thinking about, you know tribes in central Africa, but you know it’s true in Baltimore too, right?”

His obituary noted he came to Utah from Pennsylvania State University after earning his doctorate at Harvard.

Stephens, who is Jewish, ultimately argues in his column that there’s a cultural — not genetic — explanation for Jewish genius, stemming from Judaism’s religious tradition of encouraging believers to “not only observe and obey but also discuss and disagree.” He also believes group members became more innovative and creative by typically being in the minority wherever they’ve lived.

Bret Stephens | The New York Times, (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

His original mention of the study read: “The common answer is that Jews are, or tend to be, smart. When it comes to Ashkenazi Jews, it’s true. ‘Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average I.Q. of any ethnic group for which there are reliable data,’ noted one 2005 paper. ‘During the 20th century, they made up about 3 percent of the U.S. population but won 27 percent of the U.S. Nobel science prizes and 25 percent of the ACM Turing awards. They account for more than half of world chess champions.’”

That data on awards is not technically wrong, though it broadly counts anyone as Jewish who has a grandparent with ancestry in the faith.

Stephens mentioned Albert Einstein and Franz Kafka and Karl Marx as prime examples of Jewish intelligence, before asking: “How is it that a people who never amounted to even one-third of 1 percent of the world’s population contributed so seminally to so many of its most pathbreaking ideas and innovations?”

Then he brought up the U. research as proof. Dan Kennedy, an associate professor at Northeastern’s School of Journalism in Massachusetts, questions how Stephens even found the study, noting it is 15 years old and has been debunked.

His use of the paper is “just stunning,” Kennedy told The Tribune, saying the study was obviously a main tenet of Stephens’ argument, and not a minor point, like the editor’s note suggests. “I think it should have been killed before it ever got published.”

In the later edits, all references to Ashkenazi Jews (which also appeared in two other places in the column) were removed. Many have questioned why Stephens referred to Ashkenazi Jews at all if he didn’t agree with the paper and was generally talking about Jewish culture, and not superiority.

“What was even the point of the column?” Spiro asked. “It’s confusing.”

Stephens joined The Times in 2017, after winning a Pulitzer Prize for his work at The Wall Street Journal in 2013 and serving as editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post. He has previously come under fire for bullying a professor who called him a “bedbug.

Some have called for his resignation, particularly liberal readers who disagree with his more conservative pieces, but Kennedy believes the “Jewish genius” piece is a new low. The associate professor, who teaches ethics in journalism at Northeastern, said the commentary needed more than an editor’s note about the concerns raised.