J. Robert Oppenheimer Considered Insecure

J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Sacco and Vanzetti. Alger Hiss. The Rosenbergs. Celebrity cases where so many expended endless energy arguing that the subjects were stitched up. All of them were, of course, guilty. From the start that was obvious about Sacco and Vanzetti, who were more than just a Soviet pencil factory and a bad folk song. Now we have ballistic evidence. After about half an hour it was obvious for Alger Hiss too, who was a knock-on effect from Sacco and Vanzetti, since it was that case that had radicalized him. Myths have consequences.

Sacco and Vanzetti. Guilty as charged. Guilty of much more.

Add to these J. Robert Oppenheimer, eminent physicist and scientific head of the Manhattan Project, who lost his security clearance in 1954 amid concerns about his trustworthiness. Was he hard done by?

The Energy Department seems to think so. Read it and wonder at the reasoning. They just restored Oppenheimer’s security clearance, posthumously, in the year 2022. Apparently he was the victim of a “witch hunt”. Now, the defining characteristic of witch hunts is that there weren’t any witches. It isn’t actually possible to fly to Algeria on your broomstick, there to succour Old Nick on your supernumerary teat, attractive though that might sound when work is scarce.

Whereas it really was possible to act in the interests of the Soviet Union because of your ideological delusions, and we have rather a lot of cases where people did that. And though for decades many did their very best to pretend otherwise, the Soviet union first got the bomb, and so quickly, through espionage. Every year another agent in the Manhattan or Tube Alloys project, or around it, is identified. There were already plenty of known ones in Oppenheimer’s era, not the least of which was Klaus Fuchs. Add to that Theodore Hall, David Greenglass, and Oscar Seborer. The Rosenbergs (see Greenglass) too. And we now know beyond any doubt that both Rosenbergs were guilty, so that old canard about innocent Ruth must fall away.

The Oppenheimer story is usually told in terms of framing. We are lectured that he was persecuted for coming to oppose the hydrogen bomb. Vindictiveness and politics led to his security clearance being revoked, with no real grounds. That frenzied witch-hunt. There is no evidence for that. But there is now substantial evidence that Oppenheimer perjured himself. He may well have been a direct Soviet agent for a period of time. Let us present a document, obtained from Soviet archives by Leona and Jerrold Schecter. Published in their Sacred Secrets (2002). See also this discussion from the Wilson Center.

Oppenheimer within Soviet Intelligence.

Comrade Browder was Earl Browder, head of the Communist Party of the United States, and a Soviet agent himself.

There is other evidence from Pavel Sudoplatov, a former KGB man who published memoirs with all sorts of stories in them, but these often contain so many clear errors that few would put much faith in them. So we will disregard that here, even though that is not the Bayesian method. (In such matters, RA Fisher may have been right.)

It comes down to this. The Schechter document suggests that Oppenheimer was also a Soviet agent. Can it be trusted?

There is corroborating evidence that Oppenheimer was a concealed Communist Party member, which may easily be obtained by consulting Haynes and Klehr’s comprehensive summary in Spies (Yale, 2009).

Haynes, Klehr and Vassiliev. Read it.

Oppenheimer also lied about being a member of the Communist Party. He did so repeatedly and under oath, most memorably in front of the Atomic Energy hearing in 1954, where he even admitted to giving a lot of money to the Party, dissimulated about joining fronts, but denied at length ever being a member, let alone a concealed member. The FBI already knew this was a lie from telephone taps and wealth of other evidence, not to mention common sense.

Haynes and Klehr are wary of placing much emphasis on the document obtained by the Schechters, since (of course) doubts were immediately raised. Is it genuine? Was the KGB officer merely bragging and claiming more influence over Oppenheimer than he really had?

With regard to forgery, this is always possible, but requires further evidence. What grounds do we have to believe that the document was forged? None so far. Merely raising the possibility is not enough. Until shown otherwise, it should be taken as it is.

As for bragging, and claiming too much, this is possible, but about which claims? Haynes and Klehr point out that other documents suggest frustration within Soviet intelligence that they were not getting all the information that they needed. The Soviets wanted more. They wanted it faster. Haynes and Klehr’s co-author, the defector Alexander Vassiliev, smuggled out notebooks which apparently have a lot of indications of this frustration, dealt with fully by Haynes and Klehr. And surely if Oppenheimer had been passing secrets, the Soviets would have got the bomb even sooner?

It isn’t possible to analyze claims like “the Soviets would have got the bomb sooner”. Sooner than when? What kind of secrets? How could we know one way or the other? They had technical challenges too. There were other factors. It is not a proposition to depend on. Not too much emphasis should be placed on those frustrations either. Information was kept siloed within Soviet intelligence. Others may have known more. Above all I must (respectfully) depreciate Haynes and Klehr’s conclusion that the documents they have establish that Oppenheimer was not a spy. The principal question is whether he had or had not spied at any point. By the time of writing he may simply have become inactive. Their documents do not speak to that. It is easy to speculate, let’s stick to what we actually know, and clearly identify supposition.

There is no rational basis to doubt that Oppenheimer concealed his CP membership. As such, he was a security threat. He had already lied under oath about it, a subject of intense national concern. He had not come clean, and never did. He even threatened to sue Haakon Chevalier when his former communist friend threatened to expose him. As a result, Chevalier had to obfuscate all that in the book he published.

Haakon Chevalier.

Robert’s brother Frank, also a physicist, was a CP member too. All along Frank had vehemently denied that. Until 1949, when he admitted he had been lying, and confessed to being a member until 1941. The whole truth? Frank, but not Robert. Oh, and Robert’s wife Katherine, formerly married to a CP functionary who had died in Spain serving in the Civil War, was a known CP member. Not to mention Robert’s landlady in Berkeley. It could happen to anyone!

Instead, Oppenheimer artfully made up stories about being only a member of fringe organizations like the Popular Front, not the CP itself. He was naive, he admitted, but no more. In fact, his loyalty had survived the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, a useful litmus test which had even driven Victor Gollancz out of the party, though not JBS Haldane. That shows will to believe and will to deceive. It shows effort and enterprise. So revoking his security clearance was the only defensible response. Restoring it retrospectively is silly, and in defiance of known facts.

Now with regards to Oppenheimer’s ultimate guilt, let’s lay out the possibilities, after first stipulating that he joined the Manhattan Project as a concealed Communist Party member answerable to Earl Browder and repeatedly lied about it to General Groves, the administrative head of the Manhattan Project, and under oath. What did he then do? Some alternatives.

  1. Nothing. He only ever acted in the interest of the United States and did not make any effort to further the atomic program of the Soviet Union in any way whatsoever. He was just embarrassed from the start about his CP associations, so he concealed them. (It would have to be from the very start, otherwise there is a definite window in which he was acting nefariously).
  2. Influence. He did not personally pass secrets to the Soviets but instead used his position to further their interests, perhaps by placing others in a position to do more direct damage, turning a blind eye. Caution led him to be discreet. He was a smart man.
  3. Espionage. Not only did he use influence, but he really did inform the Soviets that the program was underway in 1942, as the Schechter document baldly states. That in itself is a consequential act of espionage, not requiring disclosure of actual bomb plans as those became available. At some stage, perhaps early on, he became rattled, suspecting that the authorities were on to him, and then clammed up. This explains growing frustration within Soviet intelligence that he was no longer being so useful to them, that they were not getting more actionable intelligence.
  4. Full-bore espionage. He passed secrets including bomb plans, or consciously enabled others to do so. The indications of Soviet frustration merely reflect the intense pressure they were under and silos within their own structures.

Which is best supported by the known facts? Possibility 1 is simply infeasible. There would have been some period in which his loyalties were divided. That is what it means to be a concealed Communist Party member. You owe loyalty to a foreign power, and we can no longer pretend that CPUSA was anything aside from a wholly owned subsidiary of Moscow, acting in their interests. They paid for it, they ran it, they purged it, they stocked it.

Haynes and Klehr find 4 hard to reconcile, but impossible to dismiss 2. They do not, in my opinion, properly consider 3, which I favour. It seems pretty unlikely that the Merkulov would claim that Oppenheimer had informed them about the program if he had not. Exaggeration doesn’t fit here. Either he had or he hadn’t.

There were pretty stiff penalties for straight-up dishonesty about things that could be checked and would have been common knowledge within circles concerned with the atomic program of the USSR, involving a lot of research into frost resistance and lead tolerance. For the longest time Stalin, constitutionally paranoid, did not even trust the flow of information he got from Kim Philby and the Cambridge ring. (It seemed inconceivable to him that the West could be that lax. He even sent spies to spy on his spies. But not his best spies, their bad clothes immediately marked them out and rattled Philby.)

Based on the documents we have, Oppenheimer was an agent between 1942 when he told the Soviets about the atomic program and some later date, still unknown, when he may have developed cold feet. He not only deserved to lose his security clearance, he warranted perjury charges as well, maybe worse. That’s how Alger Hiss was settled.

Which reminds one of an interview David Remnick conducted with Victor Navasky about Hiss, an object of unremitting reverence to The Nation. What would you do, he asked, if Alger Hiss actually confessed tomorrow? I wouldn’t believe him. Navasky declared. Which is at least honest, in an oblique sort of way.

One gets the same feeling about Oppenheimer. A signed and sealed confession with a dozen witnesses, all held in a temperature-controlled vault, wouldn’t cut it now. The man simply must be innocent.

Behavior Genetics History IQ

Erasmus Darwin without Francis Galton

Erasmus Darwin is an interesting character. R.A. Fisher thought highly of him. But claiming that he invented a rocket engine on the basis of a vague, un-captioned doodle in his commonplace book is unwise. Desmond King-Hele has made a lot of far-fetched claims of that kind. They will backfire, like rockets do. Or injure the occupant, as that unstable bathchair carriage invented by the good physician did and crippled him for life.

As the editors of this collection The Genius of Erasmus Darwin (2005) note, Erasmus had a famous grandson, Charles Robert Darwin, the naturalist. That one. On reading this I was struck: did he not have some other famous grandson? Hmm.

Why yes, he did. Francis Galton! Who was rather more like Erasmus than Charles was, since he was a polymath too, and particularly shared his grandfather’s interests in machinery and instruments. He was also responsible for having a plaque erected to Erasmus at Lichfield.

But Francis had rather different ideas about heredity. Erasmus believed that one’s state of mind during copulation affected the characteristics of the offspring. The ultimate soft-heredity. De Candolle believed that too. It is a rich source for humour, and a good measure.

So I flipped to the index to look for Galton. Surely one of the other contributors to this collection would have mentioned him? The only Galton mentioned is one of Erasmus’s patients, Samuel, Francis’ other grandfather. Oh and Mary Anne too: Samuel’s daughter and Frank’s aunt. But no Frank!

Odd. So I turn to the scanned copy at google books and search that. This turns up a ref to a letter to Lucy Galton, Frank’s grandmother and a patient of Erasmus, not in the index. Still no Frank. So this is getting very weird.

The book has 24 chapters by all sorts of different people. I chose one of these chapters, which is about heredity. It mentions all sorts of things, including eugenics, but not Francis Galton, who coined the very word and is Erasmus’ Grandson! It mentions C.B. Davenport, a Francis Galton disciple, and all sorts of people connected, but no Frank. Zip.

So this is like one of those movies in which the subject has a car accident and wakes up with some key element of history removed, to his utter confusion. Everyone he talks to gives him a blank stare when he mentions the erased person. Like that weak one about The Beatles.

One should certainly never attribute to artifice that which can be explained by stupidity and ignorance, and both of those are in full evidence in this collection. So we must ask: was this a deliberate editorial intervention? Or just plain stupidity and ignorance?

Accidental omission 24 times in a row and omission from all the directly relevant chapters, concerned with subjects Francis Galton contributed heavily to, cannot be plausible. Many key papers, letters etc. about Erasmus are in the Galton Papers at UCL. I have handled them there myself. Deliberate erasure then.

The collection is from a conference to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the death of Erasmus Darwin, apparently held in 2002. The book was published in 2005. I doubt if many have read it, since it is ridiculously overpriced.

Next, the new edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, with scissors.

I wrote more about Galton’s advocacy of his grandfather over at Ideas Sleep Furiously.

Breadsall Priory, last home and very brief of Erasmus Darwin. Visited often by Frank as a boy, when his grandmother lived there.

The Lawn Road Flats

The Isokon Building, or the Lawn Road Flats.

The architecture is instantly recognizable. Exterior balconies connecting doors to apartments (known as flats in that insignificant part of the universe called the Rest of the English Speaking World). Unadorned brutal concrete. Inside, dehumanized furniture of the metal stool kind, and a cafeteria called the Isobar, serving cheap food for aspiring proletarians longing to eat communally. Hardly an isotonic.

Cities all over the world are now groaning under the weight of similar buildings. This is the original of the type, the so-called “Isokon” building in Hampstead, London. Designed by Wells Coates, a Canadian under the influence of the bauhaus German, Walter Gropius, who actually lived in the structure for a while after it was built in the 1930s.

If you were told by an eccentric friend that the whole thing was a communist plot to subvert Western Civilization, you might dismiss that as just another unhinged monomania. But you would be wrong. Not only was Gropius a communist, the entire building was riddled with spies and fellow-travellers for decades. The details are in David Burke’s The Lawn Road Flats: Spies, Writers and Artists (2014). The list of these Hampstead spies resident in and around the Isokon building is prodigious:

  • Blewitt, Trevor
  • Blewitt, Phyllis
  • Deutsch, Arnold
  • Deutsch, Hermann
  • Deutsch, Josefine
  • Kuczynski, Barbara
  • Kuczynski, Brigitte
  • Kuczynski, Jurgen
  • Kuczynski, Marguerite
  • Lewis, Anthony Gordon
  • Reckitt, Eva Collett
  • Rothstein, Andrew

Those are just the known agents. There were also a number of resident fellow-travellers of uncertain employment but unwavering sympathies:

  • Childe, Vere Gordon
  • Moholy-Nagy, László

Hangers-on and regular visitors to the building included more Soviet agents, including the head of the CPGB, who was in practice just an agent himself, and the rest of the Kuczynski brood who ran the atomic espionage ring that included Klaus Fuchs:

  • Meynell, Francis
  • Foote, Alexander
  • Norman, William
  • Kuczynski, Berta
  • Kuczynski, Renate
  • Kuczynski, Robert (René)
  • Kuczynski, Sabine
  • Kuczynski, Ursula
  • Beurton, Len
  • Tudor-Hart, Edith (née Suschitsky)
  • Pollitt, Harry

Fellow-traveller visitors who may well have been agents as well included

  • Loeffler, Francis
  • Pritt, D. N.
The Lawn Road Flats by David Burke (2014).

Given this massive concentration of fifth-columnists one would expect MI5 to have been all over the building. Except they weren’t.

It would be useful to expand the above to make a comprehensive list of the known Soviet agents within the UK as a whole over the 1920 to 1990 period. It would of course include the Cambridge Five (Blunt, Burgess, Philby, Maclean, Cairncross) but to these many more would have to be added, including:

  • Blake, George
  • Bossard, Frank Clifton
  • Fletcher, Raymond
  • Fuchs, Klaus
  • Gee, Ethel Elizabeth
  • Hambleton, Hugh George
  • Haldane, JBS
  • Hart, Jenifer Margaret Fischer (née Williams)
  • Houghton, Harry Frederick
  • King, John Herbert
  • Klugmann, James
  • May, Alan Nunn
  • Montagu, Ivor
  • Norwood, Melita
  • Oldham, Ernest Holloway
  • Peet, John Scott
  • Pool, Phoebe
  • Rees, Goronwy
  • Smith, Michael John
  • Springhall, Douglas Frank
  • Stewart, R. J. “Bob”
  • Symonds, John Alexander
  • Vassall, William John Christopher
  • Wynn, Arthur Henry Ashford

Then there is the Oxford ring, never identified, but we know that they existed …

Behavior Genetics Eugenics IQ

Eugenic Taint

There is no more tired or trite argument than that some or other topic is tainted by association with eugenics. For instance, research into intelligence or behavior genetics in general. These aim to describe the world as it is rather than as it ought to be. Eugenics is a policy which attempts to alter the world, to fashion how it ought to be (did you need to be told that?) It was connected to genetics in much the same way that hygiene (a policy) was and is connected to medicine, which is why eugenics was described as “racial hygiene”. However you can describe the world without trying to change it, even if that logical distinction has been clouded by the “social justice” activism enthralling university campuses.

This argument can go to breathtakingly ludicrous lengths, as in the idea that “frequentist” statistics is somehow tainted by the great statistician R. A. Fisher, who happened to be a staunch eugenicist at the same time. (It is worth pausing over the depressing fact that contemporary academics feel compelled to keep a straight face while discussing childish arguments, instead of simply laughing them out of the room.) As the entire scientific establishment before 1939 was in favour of eugenics as a policy, the scope is more or less unlimited for detecting, or not detecting, the eugenic taint anywhere the fancy of the witch-sniffer directs. Any field is a candidate. The mediocrities churned out by the academic-research complex must pursue politics over science to make a living in the fields of pretense. Here the unwholesome process led to statistics and Ronald Aylmer Fisher.

RA Fisher, statistician and eugenicist

The essential idea here has been reused many times in bad science fiction movies, as in The Hands of Orlac (1924). The celebrated pianist Orlac loses both hands in an accident and has new hands grafted on. But they are the hands of a murderer! Aaaargh! Chop off those frequentist hands! They are the hands of a eugenicist!

The Hands of Orlac
The Hands of Orlac!


Freeman Dyson, Useful Idiot

Freeman Dyson made his reputation as a first-rank theoretical physicist. He also had a sideline in popular essays and mildly controversial opinions in other fields. The following anecdote is taken from a collection of these for The New York Review of Books, The Scientist as Rebel (2006). (It is curious that scientists are always rebels in their own minds, no matter how orthodox their opinions.) It is a collection that reflects the general worldview of that organ more or less faithfully. The incident is said to have happened in 1956, and shows Dyson to have been one of those “useful idiots” the USSR was always assiduously cultivating. Usually this worked by appealing to their overweening egos, by constantly suggesting that scientists were important people in the Soviet Union. The Worker’s Paradise as a whole was, after all, run on strictly scientific lines, not just its Gulag.

After the Moscow meeting ended, I went with a group of foreign scientists to Leningrad. Accompanied by two Intourist guides, we went sightseeing along the shore to the west of the city. We walked by mistake into a coast guard station, evidently a restricted military area. An ordinary Russian seaman came out to shoo us away, shouting Nelzya, which means “forbidden.” At that moment we noticed that our guides, afraid of being held responsible for our error, were walking rapidly away in the opposite direction. So we stayed and had a friendly chat with the seaman in our broken Russian. When I said we were foreign scientists, he broke out into a broad smile and said, “Oh, I know who you are. You are the people who came to the meeting in Moscow, and you know all about pi-mesons and mu-mesons.” He pulled out of his pocket a crumpled copy of Pravda which contained a report of our proceedings. After that, he invited us into the station and proudly introduced us to his comrades. We sat with them for some minutes and did our best to explain to them what we had learned in Moscow about pi-mesons and mu-mesons. When we said good-bye, our host shook our hands warmly and said, “Why do you not come to our country more often? Be sure to tell the people in your countries, and your wives and children, that we would like to see more of them.” As I walked back into Leningrad and reflected upon this encounter, I found myself sadly wondering whether an average American coast guard sentry, confronted unexpectedly with a group of Russian physicists speaking broken English, would have greeted them with equal friendliness and understanding.

The Scientist as Rebel (NYRB, 2006)

Even writing as late as 2006, when this collection appeared, Dyson appears to have been unaware how easily he was gulled. It was just some marvelous coincidence that he ran into the world’s most scientifically mature and engaged Coast Guard, who just happened to know all about his conference, and it was certainly a stroke of good fortune that the Intourist guides beat a retreat at just the right time to leave them alone together …

Dyson was not alone. Paul Hollander produced a marvelous collection of this sort of thing in his Political Pilgrims: Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society (1981), which has now gone into a fourth edition. David Caute produced another, far too kind, collection in his The Fellow Travelers (1973). Kind because Caute himself was a sympathizer and Marxist, but there was only so much he could swallow.

History Statistics

Colonial Atrocity Porn

Thanks to Adam Hochschild, King Leopold of Belgium (1835–1909) is now known as one of history’s greatest mass murderers. At 10 million, he keeps company with Joseph Stalin (perhaps 30 million), Mao (perhaps 60 million) and that little house painter with the silly mustache (usually credited with 6 million).

Carrying out a genocidal plundering of the Congo [Leopold] looted its rubber, brutalized its people, and ultimately slashed its population by ten million.

King Leopold’s Ghost (1998), front flap.

It’s all in King Leopold’s Ghost (1998), so college students are taught and untold millions believe. The book has sold well over 600,000 copies, possibly over a million by now. Only it isn’t really so.


Hochschild was quite candid when describing his motives for writing the book. The civil war in the Congo had torn the country apart in the 1990s after Big Man Mobutu’s deposal. Irredentist Tutsis and other foreign adventurers were ransacking the country. Savage massacres and destruction dominated the news. The Rwandan genocide oozed down to the oceans. So Hochschild decided to put it all “in context”. Sure, things look bad now, in the mid-1990s. The crocodiles look fat, but you should have seen them bulging in King Leopold’s day! Rwanda was child’s play. The colonials murdered millions of Congolese. Actually, ten times that. So Hochschild claimed. It caught on like wildfire.

Before going any further, consider the units involved. Given his purpose, Hochschild is really forced to use units in millions. That is because the Rwandan genocide was initially calibrated at around a million. With that number in circulation, stating that King Leopold had murdered 10,000 people would risk bathos. Nor would 100,000 do, since that is still not even in the same league. Hochschild has to see 1,000,000 and raise it. He multiplies it by ten. Far better to go for broke.

Even back in the early 1900s, when Maxim guns had subdued the plains of Africa, King Leopold could find few to defend his personal colonial project in the Congo, with its forcibly staffed rubber plantations. Henry Morton Stanley, an undeniably great explorer but nothing if not ruthless, had been happy to get it started in the early 1880s. But by the 1900s the Boer War had given imperial projects a bad odor. An international campaign, led by the likes of Mark Twain and Roger Casement, had a field day with reports of gratuitous cruelty on the plantations and economic looting of the country for personal gain. Leopold’s paid defenders added some ineffective counter-blast. Eventually Leopold relented and in 1908 ceded control of the Congo to the Belgian state. A year later he was dead. Commissions of Enquiry were launched and duly reported.

It had all blown over by the end of the First World War. But all that written material was left lying around, waiting to be reused at an opportune moment. Enter Hochschild. Nothing in his book shows any evidence of original archival research, or any command of the subsequent literature, aside from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Everything he felt the need for had already been produced before 1920 and was to hand. He selected what suited him.

Which brings up the talk about genocide. This is a curiously slippery subject when one starts delving into the text to find out what, exactly, is being claimed and with what evidence. Genocide is a deliberate attempt to wipe out an entire race. It is from the beginning an absurd idea, since neither Leopold nor the Belgian state had any motive or known desire to do that. Hochschild recognizes this and inserts a concession to cover the objection.

Furthermore, although the killing in the Congo was of genocidal proportions, it was not, strictly speaking, a genocide. The Congo state was not deliberately trying to eliminate one particular ethnic group from the face of the Earth. Instead, like the slave dealers who raided Africa for centuries before them, Leopold’s men were looking for labor.

Except, the charge of genocide and 10 million murders is repeated numerous times in the book anyway, dangled before the jury but quickly withdrawn when objections would be obvious. Recall the claim that Leopold slashed the population by 10 million. One has to plough through nearly to the end of the text to track the supposed basis of that slashing claim.

It isn’t easy to kill 10 million people. The Hutu in Rwanda seem to hold the world record for the largest number of people killed systematically in the shortest space of time, using machetes (they really were slashing) and other hand-weapons, not even bombs. If King Leopold’s agents had killed that many, the logistics need to be explained. Unlike the Hutu, there simply were not that many colonial agents in the country. How did they do it? In fact the question does not need to be answered since, as one discovers later, Hochschild is not even claiming that the King or his men murdered all those people. Though he believes that many people were indeed murdered, and spends many pages rehearsing the details, he is conscious that the numbers involved from those sources are modest even if one concedes every single case he corrals. Recall that he needs units in the millions. The vast bulk died instead, we are told, from disease!

As with the decimation of the American Indians, disease killed many more Congolese than did bullets. Europeans and the Afro-Arab slave-traders brought to the interior of the Congo many diseases previously not known there. The local people had no time to build up immunities—as they largely had to malaria, for instance.

(Technical note: the Congolese did not “build up immunity” to Malaria, they inherit a sickle-cell genetic mutation that protects them at significant functional cost). Yes, disease. Nothing daunted, Hochschild shakes that off and talks everywhere else of murder and genocide anyway, going so far as to repeatedly drag the Gulag and the Nazi concentrations camps into the discussion at the same time. The techniques of yellow journalism.

It gets worse. Hochschild’s argument is really at an extra level of indirection: yes, the incursion of outsiders into the Congo brought the usual infectious diseases like smallpox, sleeping sickness and the flu, but maltreatment by Leopold weakened the locals so much that they were unable to withstand the consequences. And so Congolese deaths were greatly multiplied. Well then, one asks, by how much were these deaths supposedly multiplied? It is curious that the author makes no attempt to estimate this effect, which is really what he is claiming. The only figure bruited about is the total death count, not the part Leopold might be accountable for. Alright then, let’s be generous and overlook this sleight of hand. How many died overall? Where did the 10 million figure come from?

Now things get really strange. The Congo is a very large place, roughly the size of Western Europe. How does one actually count how many people died of disease over a period of say 20 years? The answer lies, Hochschild believes, in the first Congo census. In 1924 the inaugural census produced an estimate of the population at 10 million (we will pass over the vexed question of how accurate that figure is). We are told that a colonial official, Major Charles C. Liebrechts, guesstimated in 1919 that the Congo population might have halved since 1880, a year for which nobody has any solid idea how many people inhabited the country. There’s your figure anyway: 10 million missing. The reader may wish to read that again.

How, you may ask, can we know that the population halved since 1880, a rather precise starting date? Aside from the offhand guesswork of one man, who did not show his work, what evidence do we have to go on? Why had it halved since 1880 and not, say, 1865? Hochschild is aware that this is a potential problem for his argument, so he marshals some support.

The most authoritative judgment today comes from Jan Vansina, professor emeritus of history and anthropology at the University of Wisconsin and perhaps the greatest living ethnographer of Congo basin peoples. He bases his calculations on “innumerable local sources from different areas: priests noticing their flocks were shrinking, oral traditions, genealogies, and much more.” His estimate is the same: between 1880 and 1920, the population of the Congo was cut “by at least a half.”

page 233

Vansina has no systematic analysis either, which is why he resorts to vague hand-waving like “innumerable local sources”, inscrutable “oral traditions”, and imponderable “genealogies”. Innumerable local sources? There is a simple problem with his method, such as it is: ascertainment bias. You need a random sample, or close as you can get it, before you start making these inferences. If you deliberately track down reports of declining populations, you will find … declining populations. Were they declining all over? By how much? What was the population basis from which they declined? How do you tie that basis to 1880? This before even asking: were the flocks of priests declining because the population was declining, or because the power of religion was ebbing and flowing? Were people dead or migrating? The appeal to authority, “greatest living ethnographer”, is not going to paper over basic defects in method.

Mull over the supposed use of genealogies to measure population growth and decline, which is what Vansina claimed to have done, without telling us the crucial details. How would that work? Obviously you would construct family trees by explicitly asking people who their ancestors and relatives were, given that there were no written records, especially no marriage registers. Then you have to estimate missing survivors. A lot of people are involved in this data gathering, enough to account for an area the size of Western Europe. Enough to fairly represent 10 million people. You need to incorporate inbreeding estimates, and the well-known fact that most people ultimately leave no descendants since their family lines die out. Anyone who has constructed real genealogies can tell you that it is a laborious exercise for a single family, let along many thousands. Relatives die from natural causes, and you need some estimate of that attrition rate, etc. etc.

Invoking Dr. Johnson, let us have no more of this. Vansina simply repeated Liebrechts’ guess.

On the question of the spread of diseasesmallpox, sleeping sickness from tsetse fly, and later Spanish Fluat least two sources of infection are known. Arab slave traders like Tibboo Tip from Zanzibar were there by the 1850s and likely much earlier than that. Coastal dwellers and colonists followed rather later. The dynamic was repeated all over the world in much the same way. The destruction was a function of the lack of previous exposure and lack of natural resistance. Thus the island of St Kilda in the Hebrides was almost obliterated by smallpox in the early 1700s when passing ships transmitted it to the islanders. That so many were wiped out by it is a reflection of previous isolation. No special explanations are required to realize large mortalities. And it is certain that no matter how historical events played out, uninfected areas would have been infected over time.

Let us concede for the sake of argument every single one of the depredations gathered by the author, including punitive and by all accounts fairly brutal raids against those who refused to work for minimal reward on the company plantations. Hochschild really has no idea to what extent these events had anything at all to do with the impact of disease at a population-wide scale. Just as he has no real idea how many people at that population-wide scale died from disease in the first place. In any event we can be sure, and again Hochschild slyly concedes deep within the text, that King Leopold and the colonists had no intention of causing the massive deaths alleged, whether by neglect or not, since that would only rob them of greatly-needed labor on their rubber plantations. That labour was not easily replaced in those days, quite unlike the example of the Gulag so gratuitously introduced by the author, where endless supplies could be produced by troika.

Someone who wants to get an accurate estimate actually worries about being accurate, and goes to considerable lengths to test competing estimates. An honest investigator would have to account for reductions in deaths due to suppression by the state of internecine conflicts, endemic to the area before an effective state existed there. Hochschild went through no such exercise, which would be extensive. He had the figure he wanted to hand, so he banked it.

Constructing incendiary charges like genocide in this unscrupulous way, from unknown proportions of unknown quantities, is just a kind of information pollution for profit. But if the grounds for this claim of genocide and figure of 10 million murders are so flimsy, and the methods used so devious, how is it then that it has been repeated so often? In the age of Wikipedia, that is easily answered: because it could be. However it goes further than that. There is widespread demand for this type of material. A film runs through it. Numerous awards for court jesters are on offer, and the author has received them gladly. If Hochschild had not fed the demand, someone else would have been glad to. The best description for the genre is colonial atrocity porn. Intellectual smallpox.

Further Reading

Hochschild is no historian and his book shows absolutely no concern for accuracy. For a more balanced view of Leopold by a real historian, based on research, see Leopold II Of The Belgians: King Of Colonialism (1979) by Barbara Emerson.

Ethology Sociobiology

Bill Charlesworth on Washburn

Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt (right) and Hans Hass (left). Hans Hass was a diving pioneer who led the first Xarifa Expedition.
Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt (right).

Since he has a name virtually unpronounceable in the Anglosphere, the great ethologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1928-2018) is not nearly as well-known as he ought to be outside of specialist circles. German is also a language that is really hard to render idiomatically in English, so his many books take some getting into. That is a pity. They are first-rate, in the great tradition of Eugene Marais, Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz. See especially Ethology, the biology of behavior (1970) and Human Ethology (2007). How else would one uncover wonderful quotes like the following? Here the late Bill Charlesworth responds to Sherwood Washburn’s bog-standard and tiresome guilt-by-association stuff about sociobiology. It is a zinger.

Speaking of rhetoric, there should be an editorial rule that sentences associated with sociobiology, with efforts to “justify slavery, imperialism, racism, genocide, and to oppose equal rights or ERA” [a quote from S.L. Washburn] should always appear next to sentences associating environmentalist/learning theory, with efforts to justify propaganda, psychological terror, false advertisement, public indoctrination of hatred of foreigners, class enemies, minority groups, and so on and so on. Juxtaposing sociobiology and learning theory in this manner ought to show how unproductive it is to claim through innuendo or otherwise that science will lead to pseudoscience, will lead to man’s inhumanity to man: ergo no science. Actually, one could argue that since man is such a cultural/learning animal we should have greater fear of learning theory since learning has far more power over man’s behavior than genes. More specifically, if humans were not such learning animals, they would not learn all that Galton trash: ergo stop learning research so that bad guys will not use the data to teach the trash more effectively.

William R. Charlesworth, “Comments on S.L. Washburn’s review of Kenneth Bock’s HUMAN NATURE AND HISTORY: A RESPONSE TO SOCIOBIOLOGY” Human Ethology Newsletter (Volume 3, Issue 3, September 1981, p.22)

Documentaries Psychopathy True Crime

Errol Morris Gets Lost in the Wilderness

Wilderness of Error, cover page.jpg

Errol Morris is a well-known documentary film-maker. His Thin Blue Line (1988) helped to free a man on death row for the murder of a cop in Texas. Many of his other works, all in interview form, were first-rate—especially Vernon Florida (1981, crazy southerners) and Tabloid (2010, Miss Wyoming 1973 and the Case of the Manacled Mormon). His short-lived TV series First Person (2000) was also very good in parts. Late in his career, motivated perhaps by something like nostalgia for his first triumph, more likely hubris, he got involved in the never-ending Dr. Jeffrey Macdonald case. The result was a book, Wilderness of Error (2010), rather than a film.

Macdonald was a Fort Bragg medic in the Green Berets. In early 1970, for reasons unknown, he murdered his wife and two young daughters, bludgeoning and stabbing them to death in a frenzy. In his version of events, hippies attacked the family and, while they chanted “acid is groovy”, murdered his wife and daughter, overpowering him in a struggle which left him with superficial injuries. If this is true then, as one observer remarked, he must have been the biggest pussy ever to serve America’s Best. Certainly the least competent sparring partner of their boxing team.

But perhaps these were not your ordinary hippie, but rather the super-fit, disciplined, martial-arts kind of hippie, considerate in their careful handing of furniture and personal effects at the remarkably tidy fight scene, even while grooving on LSD. Careful also to leave the Green Beret himself only lightly wounded, even after he had lost consciousness, despite viciously tearing into his wife and daughters. Patriotic hippies perhaps, keen not to injure one of America’s Best too seriously. Surely they were trained by MOSSAD, given that they left no evidence whatsoever of their presence: no fingerprints, none of their long hair, no blood, only the blood of the victims. Oddly forgetful hippies nonetheless, since they took none of the stash of drugs that Dr. Macdonald kept in the house.

Initially absolved by the army, whose investigation of the crime scene was by common consent lax and incompetent, Macdonald was eventually convicted in 1979 and imprisoned. He was put away in most part through the efforts of his remarkable father-in-law Freddie Kassab, whose step-daughter he had clubbed to death before staging the improbable hippie fight scene. This was a long row to hoe, but as the dogged Kassab (of Syrian descent) put it early on, “I am only 52, and I have the patience of Job”.

Ever since his conviction the doctor has filed a string of appeals and habeas corpus motions. Sometimes he has found temporary success on procedural grounds—there seem to be no end of judges willing to ignore the facts of particular cases in order to try and remake the legal system to their own liking—but ultimately he has lost where it really counted. He is still in prison, probably writing up yet another groovy demonstration of his innocence.

Before Morris dipped his webbed foot in, the case was the subject of the best-selling and distinctly damning book Fatal Vision (1983) by Joe McGinnis, adapted as a popular 1980s mini-series on TV. It should be no surprise that Morris believes Macdonald was probably innocent, though technically he claims to be merely unsure, latching on to “reasonable doubt”. He is fond of waving at the case as “incredibly complex”, which seems to be a dare to disagree with him (accepted). In so far as he has an argument, it is that the trial was unfair. Of course. The Mean ol’ Judge defense, with unlettered hick jury thrown in for good measure. It is not a very strong argument.

Morris makes no real effort to confront the prosecution evidence, the single most compelling piece of which is the undisputed fact that Macdonald’s pajama top pocket was torn after it acquired a bloodstain from his family, which is impossible to square with his (completely necessary) claim that he was fighting with the demonically effective “acid is groovy” gang when it was torn. (“Hey long-hair, you tore my PJs! Stop it!” “Far out, man”.) Certainly his murdered family members could not have torn it. There is much more forensic evidence, but that is enough on its own.

However the most interesting thing here relates not to Macdonald but to Morris himself. In taking up cases like this one can act as an historian, or at the very least that uncertain facsimile, a journalist, and attempt to weigh up the facts from a considered distance. One can at the very least first check the facts. Or one can write a brief for the defense, which is the route Morris chose, in which case every incentive is to not look too closely at the “new evidence”. In so far as there is any “new evidence” in Wilderness of Error it is hearsay at several additional removes, and it does not check out. Take the allegations by Jimmie Britt, a former marshal who in 2005 made some curious claims in serial sworn affidavits. These related to Helena Stoeckley (often spelled Stokely), a Fayetteville drug addict and schizoid police informer who had made many confessions that she was part of a hippie gang which attacked the Macdonalds. Each of which stories differed from the others—sometimes it was a satanic cult, at other times a drug ring. Each of which story the mentally-fricasseed addict retracted subsequently. That is when she was not denying that she knew or could remember anything at all about it, which is how she testified under oath at the trial in 1979. After that, Judge Dupree wanted to hear no more from Stoeckley. Macdonald has spent the rest of his life embracing this miserable phantom, and Morris follows dutifully.

Britt claimed among other things that Stoeckley was threatened by the prosecutor, hence her coyness at the trial, and that she told Britt all about the murder while he was transporting her to the trial on a long journey from out of town, where she had been marinating in a trailer, nursing an arm broken by an incident involving a tire iron. After yet another appeal and yet another hearing in 2012, by which time Britt himself was long dead, these claims could be tested. They were no tall order to refute. Britt had lied about transporting Stoeckley, basic records showed, and he was not present at discussions between the prosecutor and Stoeckley. He had in fact made two different sworn statements, so one could choose which one to read. The first had placed none other than John Edwards (the famous one, later to earn distinction of a sort) at the trial, something that could also be refuted easily. So Britt refuted it himself in a second sworn statement, at least as thoroughly sworn as the first, but only after the facts were pointed out to him. It turned out that the ex-marshal was a disturbed and embittered man with many axes to grind and spite to indulge.

Now, it is easy to see why the defense did not check up on all this, they were desperate and clutching. But any historian or even reporter worth his salt had the duty to do so. Morris did not, or he would not have embarrassed himself by appearing outside the hearing in 2012 to tell news cameras how confident he was that Macdonald would be exonerated by this dog’s breakfast. He would have saved himself the deep disappointment that he professed when it all led to exactly nothing. If there is a wilderness here, Morris is lost in it—his credibility torn to pieces by cruel thorns, which do not accept excuse notes.

The sequel to this is the engaging documentary series with the same title as Morris’ book, Wilderness of Error (2020). For once, Morris does not direct. The interviewer is interviewed, and though it takes a very long time to get around to the point, it is easy to show that there are more holes in Morris’ case than a speed limit sign outside of Lubbock TX. The coup de grace is audio from poor disturbed alcohol-pickled Helena Stoeckley recorded by private investigators in Macdonald’s employ shortly before she died in the early 1980s. By that time they had been coaching and badgering her for weeks. She describes the crime scene. It matches no known facts. Plainly she was not there. Pressed, Morris squawks out that her memory could have failed her. It was a long time ago. We all forget things. Then, as he does throughout, he argues that reality is broken! We may never found out the truth! All because of that TV series Fatal Vision! Unlike, one supposes, that film The Thin Blue Line.

When one of Alger Hiss’s more die-hard defenders was asked by David Remnick what he would do if Hiss suddenly confessed to being a Soviet agent after all, he replied that he would not believe him. Morris is well down that road.

Macdonald will doubtless die in prison before confessing. He shows all the traits of the full-fledged psychopath, especially the glibness and superficial charm, the callous disregard for anything that doesn’t further his needs. He has even acquired another wife while in prison, a (hopefully hard-headed) woman who is willing to fight his corner tirelessly. And foolishly. Morris is just another victim of that sort of folly, but Macdonald merely pulled where hubris pushed. More distasteful is Morris’ insinuation that the Fayetteville jury of Southerners who found his lost cause guilty were unlettered and ignorant. As Joe McGinnis pointed out in his riposte Final Vision (2012), the Macdonald legal team loved the jury when it was selected. It matched their polling advice (yes, they got polling advice). All but one of the jury were well-educated. As the good doctor himself noticed, one of the jurors was even a Green Beret, from Fort Bragg no less. That bond is strong! he boasted.

One further point remains. Macdonald’s chief lawyer was an oleaginous character by the name of Bernie Segal, originally from Philadelphia but later known to disport his curly chest and ponytail on the West Coast. Bernie liked to represent “civil rights” cases in an ostentatious way. McGinnis reports that Segal enjoyed brandishing a coffee mug proclaiming “your reasonable doubt … at a reasonable price”. The author, who was embedded with the Macdonald legal team during and after the trial, was astonished to discover in 2012 that the trial transcript Segal had provided him with omitted some pages which he could now see for the first time. Presumably Bernie had deliberately removed them. The pages concerned out-of-jury and public earshot exchanges between Segal and the Judge. In these the Philadelphia lawyer falsely claimed that Stoeckley was cooperating with the defense. In fact, as McGinnis knew since he was present when she was interviewed, she had refused to cooperate with the defense. Segal had responded by haranguing and threatening her. She did not budge. But Judge Dupree would put no price on this chicanery by “your reasonable doubt”. Stoeckley had already phoned the judge twice on a Saturday evening to tell him that she was in fear of her life from … Bernie Segal! And so the Judge ruled that nothing further need be heard about her.

Behavior Genetics IQ Statistics

Experts Weigh In

Experts are not always helpful, especially when they are experts on other topics. Richard Hamming, inventor of Hamming Codes, has ideas about intelligence:

We will now take up an example where a definition still bothers us, namely IQ. It is as circular as you could wish. A test is made up which is supposed to measure “intelligence”, it is revised to make it as consistent internally as we can, and then it is declared, when calibrated by a simple method, to measure “intelligence” which is now normally distributed (via the calibration curve).All definitions should be inspected, not only when first proposed, but much later when you see how they are going to enter into the conclusions drawn. To what extent were the definitions framed as they were to get the desired result? How often were the definitions framed under one condition and are now being applied under quite different conditions? All too often these are true! … Brains are nice to have, but many people who seem not to have great IQs have done great things.

The Art of Doing Science and Engineering (1997)

When you spend many years at Bell Labs, sharing an office with Claude Shannon while he invents Information Theory, it is not surprising that restriction of range prevents you from appreciating deficits in ability.

IQ pioneers have wrestled long and hard with the definitions they employ, a history Hamming seems not to be aware of. Not only were they competent statisticians, they invented many of the techniques commonly used today. Galton coined the term “Normal Distribution” and invented regression and correlation techniques for bivariate normal variables, Karl Pearson generalized them to (most) distributions, Cyril Burt and Charles Spearman invented Factor Analysis, and so on.

The assumption of normality has strong support from the Central Limit Theorem once you realize that IQ is polygenic, and is in any case merely convenient. Contrary to Hamming’s suspicion, no important facts depend on the assumption of normality. IQ will not be more or less heritable if you change the distribution to one with fatter or thinner tails, or skew it. If you are prepared to lose efficiency and think it is worth your while you can instead use non-parametric methods like the bootstrap. People have not done that because it would gain them next to nothing of importance, not because they do not understand the issues. See for example the long discussion about normality by Arthur Jensen in Bias in Mental Testing (1980). As he points out the assumption of normality is almost certainly false, as it usually is in other fields, but modest departures from normality like slightly fatter left tails (due to harmful mutations) are not worth losing sleep over.

Wading in, boots and all, to other fields is not necessarily a bad idea for statisticians and other experts. It may even be helpful. See for example David Bartholomew’s helpful Measuring Intelligence (2004). But usually it backfires, as in the case of Bernie Devlin et al Intelligence, Genes, and Success: Scientists Respond to The Bell Curve (1997). They would help behavior geneticists figure out bread-and-butter ideas like heritability. Instead they triumphantly produce a slightly lower estimate of narrow-sense heritability (0.39) by front-loading their sample of twins with adolescents. Heritability increases with age, see Plomin et al Behavior Genetics (2017). Far from improving the techniques used, Devlin et al shed darkness where there was light.