The talk that the political scientist Charles Murray attempted to deliver last month at Middlebury College in Vermont must have been quite provocative — perhaps even offensive or an instance of hate speech. How else to explain the vehement opposition to it?
Before Mr. Murray’s arrival on campus, an open letter to the college from several hundred alumni protested that his scholarly opinions were “deceptive statistics masking unfounded bigotry.” And when it came time for Mr. Murray to give his speech, which was based on his 2012 book, “Coming Apart,” an analysis of the predicament of the white working class in the United States, he was shouted down by student and faculty protesters. In chants they accused him of being a racist and a white supremacist. Some of the protesters became unruly and physically violent, forcing Mr. Murray to flee.
Mr. Murray ended up giving a version of his talk later that day, via livestream, from another room. How extreme were his views?
We have our own opinion, but as social scientists we hoped to get a more objective answer. So we transcribed Mr. Murray’s speech and — without indicating who wrote it — sent it to a group of 70 college professors (women and men, of different ranks, at different universities). We asked them to rate the material on a scale from 1 to 9, ranging from very liberal to very conservative, with 5 defined as “middle of the road.” We also offered them a chance to explain why they gave the material the score they did.
American college professors are overwhelmingly liberal. Still, the 57 professors who responded to our request gave Mr. Murray’s talk an average score of 5.05, or “middle of the road.” Some professors said that they judged the speech to be liberal or left-leaning because it addressed issues like poverty and incarceration, or because it discussed social change in terms of economic forces rather than morality. Others suggested that they detected a hint of discontent with the fact that Donald Trump was elected president. No one raised concerns that the material was contentious, dangerous or otherwise worthy of censure.
We also sent the transcript to a group of 70 college professors who were told that the speech was by Mr. Murray. The 44 who responded gave it an average rating of 5.77. That score is significantly more conservative, statistically speaking, than the rating given by the professors unaware of the author’s identity (suggesting that knowing Mr. Murray was the author colored the evaluation of the content). Even still, 5.77 is not too far from “middle of the road.”
Finally, we divided Mr. Murray’s speech into 10 portions and got ratings on each portion from a paid sample of 200 American adults via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, an online marketplace for jobs and tasks. These participants identified themselves as having an average political orientation of 4.21, or leaning slightly liberal. When their ratings for the 10 sections were averaged, they too gave the talk a centrist score: 5.22. (Average ratings for the 10 portions ranged from 4 to 6.)
Our data-gathering exercise suggests that Mr. Murray’s speech was neither offensive nor even particularly conservative. It is not obvious, to put it mildly, that Middlebury students and faculty had a moral obligation to prevent Mr. Murray from airing these views in public.
Of course, many of the protesters may have been offended by Mr. Murray’s other scholarship, in particular his controversial 1994 book, “The Bell Curve,” written with the Harvard psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein, which examined intelligence, social class and race in America. Or rather, they may have been offended, as many people have been, by what they assume “The Bell Curve” says; only a small fraction of the people who have opinions about that book have actually read it. (Indeed, some people protesting Mr. Murray openly acknowledged not having read any of his work.)
“The Bell Curve” has generated an enormous literature of scholarly response and rebuttal, a process that is still underway. Many scholars have deemed the book’s most provocative argument — that differences in average I.Q. scores among races may have genetic as well as environmental causes — to be flawed and racist. Some have judged it to be judicious and reasoned, if still controversial. But its academic critics have nonetheless treated it not as hate speech to be censored but as a data-based argument with which they must engage in order to disagree.
This is not how the Middlebury protesters treated Mr. Murray’s talk, and that is an intellectual disappointment. It is incumbent on each of us, in the spirit of free inquiry, to make a decision for ourselves — after actually reading a book or listening to a speaker — about how the views in question hold up to critical scrutiny. It is also incumbent upon colleges to offer protesters meaningful opportunities to share alternative views.
Not everyone deserves to get to speak at a college campus. But those like Mr. Murray who use reasoned, evidence-based approaches to investigate matters of scholarly concern shouldn’t be forcibly silenced after they have been invited to do so.
Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci are professors of human development at Cornell.