Hsu is rightfully embattled — he shouldn’t have any authority

Look, I don’t hate physicists — I have friends who are physicists! They can use my bathroom any time! It’s more that there a few rotten apples who insist on ignorantly stepping into my discipline and making grand (and false) pronouncements about how biology works, apparently because knowing physics makes them think they know everything. And it’s annoying, especially when they get grant money for it (e.g., Paul Davies), publish rubbish in physics journals without question, and get fawned over by the mass media for it. I’ve also noticed that there’s a kind of thin actinic line of other physicists who reflexively rally to the defense of any of their own, no matter how inane, against interlopers from outside the domain of physics — which is kind of hard to imagine, since they simultaneously believe that everything is in their domain.

I have to snipe again, though, because another physicist is in the news. Students and others are calling for the removal of Stephen Hsu as VP of Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University.

Some physicists think that because they know physics, and physics is difficult, that they are qualified to work in other disciplines. Sometimes a physicist wandering from physics turns out fine, particularly if they make use of their obvious quantitative skill; I’m thinking here of David Layzer’s well-known critique of Arthur Jensen’s IQ work. Other times it is disastrous, such as William Shockley’s eugenic proposals. Yesterday evening the Graduate Employees Union (GEU) of my own university, Michigan State University, posted a long Twitter thread that shows that the Senior Vice-President for Research and Innovation, Professor of Theoretical Physics, Stephen Hsu, here at my own university, Michigan State University is much closer to Shockley than he is to Layzer.

I’ve written before in this space on how scientific racism gains purchase when supposedly mainstream sources publish and promote it. I find the evidence in the GEU Twitter thread to be good examples of Hsu promoting outrageous figures by appearing with them on podcasts and Youtube videos, such as that of the loathsome Stephan Molyneux.

Hsu shares a conceit all too common among physicists: that “it’s really high math ability that is useful for discovering things about the world — that is, discovering truth or reasoning rigorously.” But his behavior shows that this is manifestly untrue. All the quantitative sophistication in the world does not help in disciplines that require interpreting texts in historical contexts, understanding social nuance, or properly recounting the past for present-day audiences. Add in a heaping dose of conspiracy arguments and you can quickly end up promoting racist, especially antisemitic interpretations of history. This is what happened when Hsu interviewed his friend Ron Unz last year. The Senior Vice-President for Research and Innovation at my University heaped praise on a promoter of Holocaust denial on his podcast; clear evidence of Hsu’s complete lack of scholarly and intellectual judgement.

This isn’t some harmless academic argument, like how many aliens are dancing on the planets of the galaxy, but the promotion of bad ideas that do great harm to people. Hsu consorts with racists like Stephen Molyneux and Ron Unz; he openly promotes eugenics; he holds ridiculous ideas about the unlimited perfectability of human genetics, despite being pig-ignorant of biology; he believes women are inherently less suited to careers in science and engineering. His views are rejected by the American Society of Human Genetics, but I guess his authority in theoretical physics overrides that. The real shocker here is that MSU was willing to promote a blatant, unapologetic bigot with ties to racist, white nationalist organizations to a prestigious position in their administration. I guess believing in the intrinsic inferiority of minority students is no obstacle to putting the guy in a position of power at a university.

I tangled with Hsu a few years ago, ripping into his belief that we can breed people for an IQ of 1000, as if IQ is a real entity and breeding people is like breeding chickens. Remember the chickens, the mainstay of his argument?

That fat chicken is your brain. Let the dumbass physicist control your breeding, culling the less brilliant progeny from your line, and eventually your many-times-great-grandchildren will have great huge brains and be many times smarter than Stephen Hsu, and nah, there won’t be any side effects and we’ll just ignore the inhumanity of the process and we’ll pretend there aren’t any physical limitations. All you have to do is imagine an immense perfectly spherical brain floating in a frictionless vacuum.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    That 1957 chicken looks substantially healthier to me. It might actually be able to survive in the wild, while the 2005 chicken looks barely able to stand up. So that’s our future? Shades of Wall-E.

  2. says

    Those chickens. In 1978, the time of the middle chicken, I had a small chicken farm. The big ones, the new breed, were meat birds; they would not survive to adulthood without special care, like being boxed and not allowed to walk about. Before they even reached maturity, their leg bones started to break and we butchered them.
    The older, smaller breeds were for meat, eggs, and raising new chicks. They were survivors.
    I can’t imagine trying to keep one of the latest big birds alive, unless they’ve bred them for stronger bones. But they’ll still have other defects.
    But how would a physicist know that unless he listened to someone outside his field?

  3. Matt G says

    Intelligence IS friction. The friction that prevents your ego from accelerating out of control down the road of untenable ideas.

  4. says

    Yesterday evening the Graduate Employees Union (GEU) of my own university, Michigan State University, posted a long Twitter thread that shows that the Senior Vice-President for Research and Innovation, Professor of Theoretical Physics, Stephen Hsu, here at my own university, Michigan State University is much closer to Shockley than he is to Layzer.

    I don’t mean to detract from the seriousness of the issue, but I’m giggling uncontrollably at this sentence.

  5. stwriley says

    My high school has a mural on the walls of the science hallway that presents the methods by which various science teachers would calculate the volume of a cat. The physics teacher’s method is “imagine the cat is spherical, and dogs are better”.

  6. Ridana says

    All you have to do is imagine an immense perfectly spherical brain floating in a frictionless vacuum.

    This was indirectly linked to in the last blog entry about physicists, at https://xkcd.com/669/
    I didn’t quite get the reference then, and now I’m pretty sure I don’t know what it’s referring to at all. Is it a quote from someone? A classic thought experiment or something?

  7. says

    Professor Hsu is another member of the Michelle Malkin Club, a person of Asian descent who thinks the racists dumbasses he supports see him as an equal. They don’t. They may see Asians in a better light than their forefathers did, but they still see them as inferior to whoever they figure are white.

  8. rietpluim says

    Actually, physics isn’t that difficult. We can predict the trajectory of a flying object with enormous accuracy. Try predicting human behavior. At least, if that human isn’t Donald Trump or Ken Ham, but otherwise it is next to impossible.

  9. Matt G says

    tingueguen@7- I was at Oberlin College at the same time as Michelle Malkin. My understanding is she didn’t arrive screwed up, but her transformation into a RWNJ happened while she was there.

  10. komarov says

    Re: Ridana (#6):

    It’s a jab at the assumptions physicists – but not just physicists – like to make to simplify problems. The archetypical example of this could come from virtually any textbook on mechanical engineering. Practice questions usually implicitly (or explicitly in more advanced courses) ignore air resistance, friction or both just so that simple solutions and models work. So the falling brick isn’t slowed down by air resistance, the pulley it’s attached to doesn’t have any friction as it turns and the rope doesn’t have mass, and suddenly the problem becomes solvable in time for an exam, not a thesis.

    I haven’t seen any mech eng textbooks modelling cows as spheres – yet. But I’m pretty sure any cows would either be considered negligible or modelled as mooing point masses/particles.

  11. Rob Curtis says

    @ridana #6
    It’s not a quote or thought experiment.

    It’s a reference to the way physicists build models to describe phenomena in order to understand the basic operating principles of the universe. The models all break down if you try to apply them outside of the their region of validity.

    The real world is messy, and you get poor agreement of your model with experiment if you oversimplify.

    In that xkcd comic, it is pointed out that if you actually ignore friction and air resistance, you can’t get anything useful done.

  12. jrkrideau says

    which is kind of hard to imagine, since they simultaneously believe that everything is in their domain

    For a moment there, I thought you were describing economists..

  13. Pierce R. Butler says

    The illustration indicates that agricultural geneticists have made great progress towards creating the perfectly spherical chicken.

  14. garnetstar says

    rietpluim @8, ITA. I’m a chemist, and I can synthesize just about anything, and have synthesized a lot of compounds that never had existed before in the history of the universe. Hsu couldn’t do a single one of those syntheses, no matter how much math he knows. I’m good at algebra, and that’s about it (I don’t remember calculus or statistics very well), but I can make things.

    The reason I’m a good chemist is that I like art, and also that I read a lot of fiction and non-science humanities stuff. (I started college as a History, Arts, and Letters major.) And then, the only metric that correlates at all with whether applicants will be successful in chemistry grad school is their Verbal GRE scores. Not their GPAs or math scores, Verbal.

    Doesn’t seem that Hsu would be a good chem grad student.

  15. davidc1 says

    @1&2 Over here in good old Britain ,they breed Turkeys so fat they can’t stand up ,and the weight is sad to put extra strain on their hearts .A lot of Turkey farms are in the East of England where there are a few RAF/USAF bases ,i have read somewhere that Jets breaking the sound barrier and causing sonic booms so startle the Turkeys that a lot of them drop down dead of heart attacks .

  16. drew says

    Waitaminute! A rotten apple spoils the bunch. You’re a biologist and would know that. Was that a science joke?

  17. ORigel says

    @6 It’s a reference to a joke on how physicists make simplifying assumptions to make the math more elegant.

    A farmer writes a physicist asking him to find a way to get his cows to produce more milk. The physicist does some calculations and writes back, “Imagine a spherical cow in a vacuum..”

  18. Bruce says

    We know intelligence does not correlate with brain size.
    But if it did, then a Hsu plan for smarter people would be breeding people with larger brains. In 1957, most mothers could give birth to a baby with a head the size of a chicken. If we do a simple physics extrapolation, by 2005, every mother who gave birth without a severe C-section would have died.
    So would a future Hsu-style world have PTA meetings composed mostly of widowers? Terrible.

  19. chrislawson says

    That Zuidhof paper is pretty interesting. But Hsu, of course, didn’t understand it.

    .1. Those chicken strains were bred for meat production, specifically to improve the ratio of feed:meat as the feed is the most expensive part of raising the chicken and the meat is what they are sold for (these are not breeds for eggs). Just because we can breed chickens for meat productivity, it doesn’t follow that all traits can be easily bred for in all species, especially one as complex and environmentally sensitive as intelligence.

    .2. Those changes were not all beneficial. From the Zuidhof paper: “Unintended consequences to selection have proven challenging for the broiler industry, and will likely continue to emerge in spite of a high level of diligence manifested through comprehensive balanced selection programs. Many unintended changes such as increasing sexual dimorphism are not likely to become problematic, but musculoskeletal biomechanics, changes in immune response, and implications of huge growth potential for the welfare of breeding stock will undoubtedly challenge primary meat-type poultry breeders for the foreseeable future.”

    .3. The very concept of an IQ of 1000 shows a lack of understanding of what IQ means. Strictly speaking, an IQ of 1000 means someone 60 standard deviations about the mean. To put this in context, the average US male height and standard deviation is 178 cm and 8 cm. So Hsu’s statement is like saying we can breed American men to be 898 cm (29’6″) tall — that’s much taller than a giraffe, taller even than a T. rex.

    .4. Of course, that doesn’t even address the question of how to design an IQ test that would scale to 1000 and still be meaningful. The breeding of those chickens was based on an easily measurable set of outcomes. IQ is not.

  20. nifty says

    “Consider a spherical cow” is also a classic book on environmental modeling by John Harte. The point is that you can use assumptions like that to get “order of magnitude” type estimations for problems such as “what is the surface area of a cow”-which is the problem the title is focused on. The major take away from this, which often seems to be forgotten, is to be explicit in the process. Harte know he is making oversimplifications, but you can still find some ranges of reasonable estimates for interesting problems. For a person with solid algebra skills and maybe a bit of calculus, it is actually a really good book on learning how to do things such as population modeling, estimating life-times of pollutants in lakes and atmospheres, and the like. The appendices have great values on the the major stocks and flows for all kinds on environmental resources.
    Take away- approximate modeling is good, if you remember the goal is an approximation and you have the proper transparency and humility about what your assumptions are and how far off your answers could be.

  21. Rob Grigjanis says

    nifty @21: Yeah, if someone asked me to calculate the terminal velocity of a cow dropped from a great height, I would assume a spherical object with the density of water. Both simplifications, but they give a quick answer which is probably a fairly good approximation. If someone wants to calculate corrections due to deviations from sphericity, etc good for them!

  22. Ridana says

    Thanks for the answers. I think seeing it twice in 2 days where I’d never seen it specifically like that before made me think it had a specific origin. I can see now that it doesn’t need one. But surely the “spherical cow” has one? Otherwise, why is it always a cow and not a pig or cat or snake? The original spherical cow must’ve made enough of an impression for people to repeat it, knowing they’d be understood without further explanation (what? why the hell are you on about cows now?). The combination of the “frictionless in a vacuum” and “spherical brain” tropes led me astray, on the former at least.

    I think I’ll stop now and hand the shovel off to someone else. ;)

  23. bcwebb says

    You’re willing to share a bathroom with a physicist? I’m just not sure I can get used to a perfectly spherical toilet in a vacuum.

    … covering the only spherical “___” that has been missed in the comments.

  24. blf says

    bcwebb@24, “I’m just not sure I can get used to a perfectly spherical toilet in a vacuum.”

    It’s analogous to the Tardis: The perfect sphere in a vacuum is on the outside.

  25. Rob Grigjanis says

    Ridana @23: The earliest reference I know to anything like that is in a 1952 paper by Alan Turing, but he uses the horse. He’s talking about the sphericity of the blastula, and how that symmetry could be broken as the thing develops. It obviously doesn’t stay spherical;

    But a system which has spherical symmetry, and whose state is changing because of chemical reactions and diffusion, will remain spherically symmetrical for ever. (The same would hold true if the state were changing according to the laws of electricity and magnetism, or of quantum mechanics.) It certainly cannot result in an organism such as a horse, which is not spherically symmetrical.

    There is a fallacy in this argument…

  26. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    Wait a minute. So we can breed smarter people… but women are inherently less suited to certain things? But the modern environment has rigorously selected for competitive urges, and Flynn’s data shows that women have higher IQs now, so why isn’t he assuming that women are adapting the way he thinks everyone else can?

    The bigots are essentialists one moment and attack essentialism the next. Because it’s a grab bag for their irrational hopes, dreams, prejudices and fears. If only everyone could get on the same page about realizing that just because one is a grownup with a degree one still may think girls are icky and have cooties on some deep level.

  27. nomdeplume says

    Another area in which great damage has been done by scientists speaking outside their area of expertise is climate change. Geologists are the worst offenders here, but you also get physicists and chemists etc making ignorant statements about climate change which are then picked up by the media in the form “Scientists say…”.

  28. Wop Wopp says

    @7 Agreed with timgueguen. Am Asian myself. Too often I’ve come across certain Asian & Asian American intellectuals do bad takes regarding race & women and being chummy with bigots in the name of “freeze peach” without taking in the context the oppression dealt by many minorities, including their own.

  29. jack16 says

    Even after all the years “Consider a spherical cow.” still makes me laugh.

  30. publicola says

    “All you have to do is imagine an immense perfectly spherical brain floating in a frictionless vacuum”. Reminds me of the original Star Trek episode, “The Gamesters of Triskelion”.

  31. Josh Chang says

    Hsu, for someone who is such a grand proponent of certain psychometric instruments (particularly IQ and SAT/GRE), appears to understand absolutely nothing about the models behind them including the limitations of their inference and interpretation. The 1000 IQ thing is such a red flag to anybody who has worked on item response theory (the model framework behind these psychometric instruments). His blog is a guilty pleasure of mine though. I like to titrate a bit of right wing insanity into my information feed for shits and giggles.

  32. says

    I suspect that an immense perfectly spherical brain floating in a frictionless vacuum is their idea of the perfect human, the final product of evolution.