A New York Times column exploring why 'Jews are smart' is prompting heavy criticism and cancelled subscriptions

Business Insider US
Pictured: (l-r) Bret Stephens, Columnist, The New York Times; MSNBC Contributor, and Carol Lee, NBC News National Political Reporter appear on "Meet the Press" in Washington, D.C., Sunday, June 17, 2018.
Photo by: William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC Newswire/NBCU

  • Controversial New York Times op-ed writer Bret Stephens published a new column exploring the assertion that Jewish people, especially Ashkenazi Jews, are more intelligent than other ethnic groups.
  • He used a 2005 paper that measured IQ, the accuracy of which has been scientifically questioned. It was authored by a professor with ties to white nationalist groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
  • Backlash to Stephens' latest piece was swift, including from a US senator and prominent Jewish writers. Stephens is also Jewish, and rose to prominence for his conservative opinions.
  • Some Times readers said they cancelled their subscriptions in response to the piece - which isn't a new response to Stephens, who has provoked anger repeatedly with columns that rely on questionable science.
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A new op-ed from controversial New York Times columnist Bret Stephens has provoked outrage from some Times readers, including a US Senator and prominent Jewish writers.

In "The Secrets of Jewish Genius," Stephens explores the assertion that Jewish people, in particular the Ashkenazi Jewish ethnic group, are predispositioned to be more intelligent than other groups. Many critics responded that this argument forms the basis of the eugenics school of thought, which suggests that the human race can be improved by encouraging the reproduction of populations with "desirable" traits - an ideology that was foundational to systems of slavery and to the Holocaust.

Brianna Wu, a candidate for the US House of Representatives and target of Gamergate harassment, said the same argument about Ashkenazi Jews was used by white supremacists who sent death threats to female video game developers during Gamergate.

In his column, Stephens relies on one 2005 study that measured IQ tests of Ashkenazi Jews compared to other ethnic groups. IQ testing has been characterized as highly misleading in other scientific studies, in part due to sociological factors and the limitations of what the standard IQ test measures.

One of the authors of the study cited by Stephens has been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an extremist due to his ties to white nationalist groups.

Not only was Stephens' column branded as offensive, but it's not the first or second time he has been accused of drawing on dubious science and cherry-picking from historical sources. His Times debut cast doubt on climate science and he was widely mocked and criticized for an August column that suggested the insult "bedbug" was anti-Semitic.

Backlash to Stephens' column quickly spread online

The Times highlighted a comment agreeing with Stephens to pin to the top of the comment section, whereas most of the "Reader Picks" are critical of the column. The comment section was closed the day the article was published.

"Bret Stephens" trended on Twitter, where the response to the column was overwhelmingly negative. The Times tweet of the article was "ratioed," which means the tweet had significantly more critical replies than likes or retweets. Some of the backlash included people saying they canceled their Times subscriptions and instructing others on how to do so.

It's certainly not the first time a Stephens column has provoked the same backlash, nor is it the first time his work has prompted people to threaten to cancel their subscriptions. But for prominent figures, this column left more of an impact.

Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii wrote that the column "crossed a very important line and for no reason other than to be provocative," compared to Stephens' other controversial work.

"Bret Stephens latest piece is not like the other ones. I mean it is bad, like the other ones," Schatz wrote. "Well, consider me provoked."

David Klion, the news editor of Jewish Currents, which publishes from a left-leaning Jewish perspective, wrote that the explanation for "Jews are better-educated than the typical American" doesn't need to depend on race science, and has "straightforward sociological explanations."

"Bret Stephens is a perfect case in point: born wealthy, educated at a fancy boarding school, UChicago, and LSE, put on a fast-track to elite media success," Klion wrote in a follow-up tweet. "His intelligence is at best average, but he's had every advantage owing to his social position. Lots of us are like that!"

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