Nicholas Wade was a leading New York Times science writer for three decades, at one point the editor of the “Science Times” section. He retired from full-time work at the paper in 2012, and in May 2014 published A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, a book that has been described as a full-throated defense of “scientific racism” (New Statesman, 5/20/14). Wade’s embrace of the pseudoscience of eugenics raises questions about his tenure at theTimes, and about corporate media vigilance when it comes to racism.
Media frequently fail to challenge racism in high places (FAIR Blog, 6/27/14) - in part because some highly placed corporate media figures are themselves attracted to racialist ideologies. Extra! (4/05) documented this after New York Times columnists David Brooks (12/7/04) and John Tierney (10/24/04) approvingly cited the work of Steve Sailer, a central figure in the promotion of racist and anti-immigrant theories.
For his part, Brooks praised a Sailer article in the American Conservative (12/20/04) that celebrated white people who flouted the Western trend toward declining birth rates, having lots of children and leaving behind what Brooks called the “disorder, vulgarity and danger” of cities to move to “clean, orderly” suburban and exurban settings where they can “protect their children from bad influences.” Sailer himself made clear what those bad influences were, mentioning “ghetto hellions,” “illegal immigrants and other poor minorities.”
In 1994, when Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray published The Bell Curve, a book espousing the so-called “academic racist” theories that black people are inherently less intelligent and more prone to crime than whites or Asians, the New York Times Book Review (10/16/94) published a fawning, credulous review by Times science reporter Malcolm Browne.
The Times wasn’t the only “liberal” outlet to praise a book that, according to co-author Murray (New York Times Magazine, 10/9/94), was largely based on sources so odious he would hide them from public view. The putatively liberal New Republic verily gushed over the book, with editor Andrew Sullivan dedicating an entire issue of the magazine (10/31/94) to it.
In that issue, Sullivan himself defended the book’s key premise: “The notion that there might be resilient ethnic differences in intelligence is not, we believe, an inherently racist belief.”
FAIR’s Jim Naureckas (Extra!, 1/95) answered Sullivan and fellow Bell Curve defenders:
In fact, the idea that some races are inherently inferior to others is the definition of racism. What the New Republic was saying–along with other media outlets that prominently and respectfully considered the thesis of Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein's book–is that racism is a respectable intellectual position, and has a legitimate place in the national debate on race.
It goes without saying that a right-wing outlet like the National Review, long steeped in bogus IQ science, biological determinism and plain old racism (Extra!, 4/05, 6/08; FAIR Blog, 4/11/12), was thrilled by The Bell Curve, dedicating most of an issue to the book (12/5/94), including an approving piece by Arthur Jensen, a patriarch of scientific racism, and one of the sources Murray had to keep hidden.
This brings us to A Troublesome Inheritance, in which a long-time New York Times science writer came fully out of the closet as an adherent of racist pseudoscience.
Wade argues that race is not, as many experts say, little more than a social construct, but rather centrally important, something like destiny. One culture's superiority over another, Wade argues, is determined by evolutionary differences—genetics—forged by differing environments and manifested in various cultures. This leads Wade to some crude conclusions, like suggesting that Jews are genetically selected to be good with money:
Populations that live at high altitudes, like Tibetans, represent another adaptation to extreme environments. The adaptation of Jews to capitalism is another such evolutionary process.
Expanding on the lack of economic success in African nations relative to those in Western Europe, Wade writes, "Variations in their nature, such as their time preference, work ethic and propensity to violence, have some bearing on the economic decisions they make."
Perhaps Wade's conclusions aren't surprising, considering his sources. As Jon Phillips writes in "Troublesome Sources: Nicholas Wade's Embrace of Scientific Racism" (Hatewatch, 5/28/14), Wade employed leading scientific racists Arthur Jensen and Richard Lynn—two of Murray's favorite sources—but didn't seem too eager to put their work in context:
Wade manages to write a summary of American eugenics that completely neglects to mention the Pioneer Fund. Founded by Nazi sympathizers in 1937, the Pioneer Fund was, and continues to be, the chief source of financial support for eugenic research in the postwar period. One cannot help but wonder if this omission is related to the fact that Wade approvingly cites Pioneer grantees like Arthur Jensen, and relies heavily on the work of the Fund's current president, Richard Lynn, for data on the low IQs of black populations worldwide.
There's one encouraging sign resulting from the publication of A Troublesome Inheritance: The book has fared badly with reviewers, even in the outlets where the harsher, more malicious Bell Curve thrived. For instance, Wade's former home, the New York Times (5/15/14), ran a review that stated half-way in, "This is where Mr. Wade's argument starts to go off the rails." The reviewer is describing Wade's views on the differences "between tribal and modern societies":
At times, his theorizing is merely puzzling, as when he notes that the gene variant that gives East Asians dry earwax also produces less body odor, which would have been attractive "among people spending many months in confined spaces to escape the cold." No explanation of why ancient Europeans, presumably cooped up just as much, didn't also develop this trait. Later, he speculates that thick hair and small breasts evolved in Asian women because they may have been "much admired by Asian men." And why, you might ask, did Asian men alone prefer these traits?
The New Republic (5/25/14), which gushed over Herrnstein and Murray's book, called Wade's "racist" and its arguments "stupid," shooting holes in its scientific rigor and unsupported assumptions. Perhaps a different editor and the fact that the piece was a reprint from the leftish UK magazine New Statesman (5/20/14) made the difference, but the New Republic seems to have changed its mind about scientific racism.
Statistician Andrew Gelman (Slate, 5/8/14) elaborated on Wade's gene obsession, showing how his assumptions often get him into trouble. For instance, in one passage, Wade asks, "Capital and information flow fairly freely, so what is it that prevents poor countries from taking out a loan, copying every Scandinavian institution, and becoming as rich and peaceful as Denmark?" Wade wants us to assume that genes are the answer; however, writes Gelman,
one might just as well ask why can't Buffalo, New York, take out a loan and become as rich (per capita) as New York City. Or, for that matter, why can't Portugal become as rich as Denmark? After all, Portuguese are Caucasians too!
And Wade's genetic obsession isn't anything new. In "The Hunt for the Hat Gene" (Language Log, 11/15/09), University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman noted Wade's bizarre insistence in his Times reporting that every human action, cultural trait or behavior must have a corresponding gene, and how this apparent genetic fetish led him to over-interpreting or even fabricating the science:
Nicholas Wade is an inveterate gene-for-X enthusiast–he's got 68 stories in the NYT index with "gene" in the headline–and he's had two opportunities to celebrate this idea in the past few days: "Speech Gene Shows Its Bossy Nature," 11/12/09, and "The Evolution of the God Gene," 11/14/09.
Liberman explains why the first of these stories was "basically nonsense," while describing the second as "a completely hypothetical just-so story" that "verges on the bizarre."
Perhaps most telling, and damning, is the warm reception Wade's book got from openly racist outlets, including the website VDARE (3/14/14), where racebaiting former National Review writer John Derbyshire weighed in with "heartfelt" praise; former National Review contributor Sailer published a positive review in Taki's Magazine (4/30/14). Self-described white separatist Jared Taylor wrote his own fawning review on his American Renaissance website (3/2/14).
"Wade admits what Dr. David Duke and many others have long maintained—that there is indeed a biological basis to race," Duke's website (5/12/14) declared in a piece about "How Jewish Supremacism Attempts to Guard the Gates of Science."
The racists' adoring reviews revealed that they have had a fond eye on Wade for years, seeing in him a like-minded thinker. For instance, in his VDARE review, Derbyshire harshly criticized the New York Times' science section, but singled out Wade as an exception:
All the more reason to treasure Nicholas Wade, longtime science reporter at the Times. Wade belongs to the older tradition of science writer.... In his articles on genetics, he has distinguished himself for at least the past dozen years by writing frankly about biological race differences.
In Taki's, Sailer also praised Wade's Times work, including a Times editorial (6/15/11) he wrote blasting the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould for being too hard on a racist scientist.
Wade last wrote for the Times on May 27, three weeks after his book was released. It's striking that in all those years that the racist right was admiring Wade's work, the Times either didn't notice or didn't care.