Toby Young Accidentally Draws Attention to “Secret” London Conference on Intelligence

The Guardian reports:

University College London has launched an urgent investigation into how a senior academic was able to secretly host conferences on eugenics and intelligence with notorious speakers including white supremacists.

The London Conference on Intelligence was said to have been run secretly for at least three years by James Thompson, an honorary senior lecturer at the university, including contributions from a researcher who has previously advocated child rape. (1)

The conferences have come to attention now because of the participation of the journalist Toby Young, who has recently withdrawn from a new role as a member of the government’s new Office for Students. Young stepped down following controversy over a history of coarsely lecherous comments and trolling on Twitter (2) – he clung on despite the matter being put to the Prime Minister in an interview, front-page headlines and a question being raised in Parliament, but changed his mind a couple of days ago.

The initial narrative from Young’s supporters was that he had been forced out by a “Twitter mob” (Piers Morgan) and “armchair critics” (Jo Johnson) who had been unfairly making a fuss about the boorish provocateur image he has cultivated over many years (cue Brendan O’Neill on auto-pilot) [UPDATE: Zelo Street has a round-up here], although according to a Guardian report he finally went following a “barrage of nudges… from his colleagues on the board as well as allies in the Conservative party”. It was also just before his association with the conferences came to attention in the London Student newspaper and Private Eye magazine (1461, p. 11 – not officially online but widely bootlegged on social media).

Young was already controversial for an essay opining that the since the rich will soon be screening embryos to ensure the intelligence of offspring, the technology should also be made available for free to “low-income parents”. He described this as “progressive eugenics”, although when he gave the Constance Holden Memorial Address at the International Society for Intelligence Research in October 2017 he made a distinction between research into “group differences between human beings that have emerged as a result of differential evolution” and the “horrors” of the “eugenics movement”.

Young’s speech was uploaded to YouTube and unofficially transcribed on Medium. His main theme was that researchers are being vilified:

I discovered just how cautious scholars in this field can be when I was invited to attend a 2-day conference on intelligence at University College London by James [Thompson] earlier this year. Attendees were only told the venue at the last minute—an anonymous antechamber at the end of a long corridor called “Lecture Room 22″—and asked not to share this information with anyone else. One of the attendees, on discovering I was a journalist, pleaded with me not to write about the fact that he was there: he didn’t want his colleagues to find out. It was like a meeting of Charter 77 in Václav Havel’s flat in Prague in the 1970s. But these precautions were not unreasonable considering the reaction that any reference to between-group differences in IQ generally provokes.

For some reason, the London Conference on Intelligence organisers were unwilling to share the 2017 conference programme with Private Eye, and so the magazine instead looked at material presented in previous years:

LCI 2015 included papers arguing that racial differences in penis length  predict different levels of parental care, that racial “admixture” has a negative effect on population quality, that “skin brightness” is a factor in global development, and that country-level differences in the number of Nobel Prizes can be explained by racial differences in male hormone levels.

One paper presented at the 2016 conference argued that “low IQ, high fertility Southern non-Western immigration… threatens the sustainability of European democracy, welfare and civilisation…”

The Eye and London Student further note that Richard Lynn was a participant, and both cite the SPLC for background. Quotes from Lynn have been assembled by the SPLC here – they include comments provided by Lynn to VDARE and Right Now! magazine. I noted Lynn’s association with Right Now! on this blog previously, in connection with praise he received from Antony Flew. London Student goes into further details about Lynn’s Ulster Institute for Social Research and its journal Mankind Quarterly, noting the former’s funding by the Pioneer Fund and the historical discreditable associations of the latter.

The Eye asked Young for a quote; he replied that “I don’t accept that listening to someone express an idea constitutes tacit acceptance or approval of that idea, no matter how unpalatable”. But no-one had actually suggested such a thing, and one wonders why he chose such a response rather than explain where he in fact stands on the subject. The reference in his 2017 speech gives a strong impression of sympathy for the LCI’s project, which is obviously ideological and prescriptive.

The Eye also says that after James Thompson spoke with them on the phone, he then called back by mistake and asked for “Toby”; one wonders whether we should draw inferences about IQ from this example of incompetent handling of telephone equipment. Thompson has a blog, which is published on Ron Unz’s Unz Review website; some other material on the site has been lifted from other sources, but this is not the case with Thompson’s writing, which specifically refers to being hosted on the site. The Daily Telegraph notes some quotes here.

I’ll leave to others to discuss in detail the issue of intelligence and genetics, and the explanatory power or otherwise of IQ for understanding human behaviours and societies. However, I am sceptical that “intelligence” is one “thing” that will ever be usefully isolated from other variables (social, environmental, and genetic) for the benefit of human progress or understanding. One phenomenon I have observed in relation to this is the overlap between people who boast about their membership of MENSA and people who are cranks.

UPDATE: Toby Young has responded to the press reports in the Spectator, complaining of misrepresentation. As regards the conference:

I popped in for a few hours on a Saturday and sat at the back. I did not present a paper or give a lecture or appear on a platform or anything remotely like that. I had not met any of the other people in the lecture room before, save for Dr Thompson, and was unfamiliar with their work. I was completely ignorant of what had been discussed at the same event in previous years. All I knew was that some of them occupied the weird and whacky outer fringe of the world of genetics.

My reason for attending was because I had been asked – as a journalist – to give a lecture by the International Society of Intelligence Researchers at the University of Montreal later in the year and I was planning to talk about the history of controversies provoked by intelligence researchers. I thought the UCL conference would provide me with some anecdotal material for the lecture – and it did.

…Yes, I heard some people express some pretty odd views. But I don’t accept that listening to someone putting forward an idea constitutes tacit acceptance or approval of that idea, however unpalatable. That’s the kind of reasoning that leads to people being no-platformed on university campuses.

It’s perhaps unfortunate that he did not refer to the “odd views” in his anecdote, in which he instead merely mentioned research into “between-group differences in IQ” and chose to compare attendees with the Eastern European dissidents who worked against Communism.

It should also be pointed out that while holding a “secret” conference may protect an event from disruption and speakers from intimidation, the effect is itself a kind of “no-platforming”, in that only those likely to be in sympathy with the project will be invited or allowed to attend. Young heard “some people express some pretty odd views”, but were these outliers who were then criticised by the other attendees, or were they received with approval? And is the vague descriptor “odd” here being used to gloss over something more unpleasant?


1. The “researcher who has previously advocated child rape” mentioned by the Guardian is one Emil Kirkegaard, who runs the LCI website. On his personal website, he has suggested that sexual activity with a “sleeping” child could be “a compromise”, because “If they dont notice it is difficult to see how they cud be harmed”. In a defensive update to his post, he irritably explained that he he does not advocate any change in the law, and was merely making “a straightforward application of utilitarianism to a hot issue.” Perhaps most of us don’t have the IQ to understand why this isn’t a bit “off”.

2. Young’s comments on Twitter (now mostly deleted) included lascivious observations about breasts and a joke about having his “dick” up a woman’s “arse”. He also replied to a woman who said that she was upset by a scene of poverty in Africa on television with a joke suggesting that he was using the same material for masturbatory purposes. The woman concerned has no public profile and not many Twitter followers – thus this was not just a bad-taste comment but the coarse mockery by a celebrity of a random member of the public. We may now make further inferences about this “joke”.