Revisiting the Nazi Problem


Dan Hicks


June 7, 2023

In theory this will be a quick post. In theory.

At a conference a couple of weeks ago, I was talking (read: complaining) about how, as far as I’m aware, no one has ever really responded to the “Nazi Problem,” a concern about Longino’s conception of objectivity raised by Natalia Baeza in a grad seminar she and I took with Janet Kourany at Notre Dame circa 2007 and that I wrote up in my first publication a few years later (Hicks 2011). Yet, with the revitalization of race science over the last 8 years or so, the Nazi Problem is even more urgent today than it was in 2007-ish. Heather Douglas told me she had a brief solution in a recent paper of hers (Douglas 2023). In this post, after summarizing the Nazi Problem, I’ll present Douglas’ solution and my response.

A key implication of Longino’s conception of objectivity is that it requires the active cultivation of a wide range of perspectives, in order to ensure the critical scrutiny of implicit assumptions made by the scientific mainstream. For Longino this provides an epistemic argument for the active cultivation of women (feminist) and POC (antiracist) scientists. The “Nazi Problem” is that this reasoning seems to apply equally to Nazi/sexist/racist scientists, and therefore it seems that Longino’s account of objectivity requires actively cultivating them as well.

The primary solution to the Nazi Problem that I consider in the paper1 was to point out an incompatibility between the political liberalism built into Longino’s account — ideas like formal (epistemic) equality — and Nazi anti-liberalism. A sexist can’t authentically comply with norms that require them to treat women as equals, and so we just qualify Longino’s account by saying that it doesn’t require the active cultivation of inauthentic perspectives. On the few occasions where people have responded to the Nazi Problem in print, this is the response they give (for example, Rolin 2017, 123–24).

The problem with this response, for me, is that it also rules out feminist standpoint theory. Because they think certain standpoints are epistemically advantaged, standpoint theorists also can’t authentically comply with norms that require them to treat disadvantaged standpoints as formal epistemic equals. I make a similar point about the commitment to neutrality between comprehensive conceptions of the good life and communitarian feminists.

Douglas (2023)’s response to the Nazi Problem is raised in the context of identifying some key differences between inquiry (science) and democratic politics. A key contribution in this paper is the notion of inquirer façades, “faking one of the central norms of inquiry without following through on its demands.” Douglas proposes that “When inquirer facades are discovered, they can be legitimately ignored by those within the space of inquiry” (Douglas 2023, 133).2 Here’s Douglas on the Nazi Problem:

One might worry, though, that fostering diversity can include bringing into the space of inquiry ideological views impervious to criticism (Hicks, 2011). However, if we keep in mind that all participants in the space of inquiry must be responsive to criticism (norm 2), this concern is alleviated. The ideologically pre-committed cannot survive the demands of criticism and response for long, revealing the fact that they are inquirer facades and thus can be legitimately ignored within the space of inquiry. (Douglas 2023, 136)

I have four comments. My first point is that Douglas has reframed the Nazi Problem in terms of closed-mindedness or “dogmatism.”3 But, like Alcoff (2006) and Yap (2015), I don’t regard closed-mindedness as such a severe vice. As Yap puts it, “values such as respecting women’s autonomy and self-determination should be seen as basic commitments and not ‘up for grabs’ in the same kind of way” as our taste in music (Yap 2015, 5).

Second, rather than thinking the problem with Nazis is that they’re closed-minded, the problem with Nazis is that they’re Nazis. They hold odious racist, sexist, and anti-democratic beliefs, and often embrace offensive political violence as a means of achieving political power.4

Third, the history of behavior genetics shows how a scientific community can protect racists and sexists by deflecting values-based critique while still responding to technical criticism (Panofsky 2014). Panofsky argues that, prior to Jensen’s 1969 “How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?” paper, behavior geneticists explicitly marginalized eugenics and race science, with the goal of avoiding controversy and having their work compared to Nazi race science (Panofsky 2014 ch. 2). Consequently many behavior geneticists were at least deeply uncomfortable with the controversy (and Nazi comparisons) that Jensen attracted (Panofsky 2014, 80). However, in reaction to broad criticisms of behavior genetics as such by Lewontin, Kamin, and other critics, behavior geneticists adopted a kind of fortress mentality — with the field under constant threat of repression by political radicals (Panofsky 2014, 114) — along with an “absolutist interpretation of intellectual freedom” that did not include any sense of social responsibility for, for example, racist appropriations of behavior genetics research (Panofsky 2014, 194–97). At the same time, behavior geneticists — including those who continue to study intelligence and race — have at least somewhat engaged with technical critiques, at least nominally rejecting a strong hereditarianism in favor of gene-environment interactions, and shifting from twin studies to GWAS (genome-wide association studies) and polygenic indices as genomics technology has developed (Panofsky 2014 ch. 6). These changes in the field are regarded as inadequate by many critics, both internal (Turkheimer 2022) and external (Downes and Kaplan 2022). But they do give behavior geneticists ground — however thin — to claim that race-and-intelligence researchers are responsive to criticism.

More generally, if Longino’s account can justify excluding Nazis who are closed-minded and/or not responsive to criticism, it would still seem to require actively cultivating Nazis, so long as they’re open-minded and engage in uptake. And, over the past decade or so, right-wing intellectuals and provocateurs — including proponents of race science — have adopted at least the posture of open-mindedness and the value of debate and free speech (Robin 2017; Reiheld 2018; Taylor 2018).

Fourth and finally, I didn’t develop my own solution to the Nazi Problem in Hicks (2011). A decade and change later, my own solution would align with Douglas’ recognition that “Both societal and epistemic responsibilities generate reasons for excluding some topics and methods from legitimate inquiry” (Douglas 2023, 129). Indeed, Douglas discusses the case of behavior genetics:

Current debates over restraints often combine moral, political, and epistemic concerns. Consider the debate over the legitimacy of research on race-based or gender-based intelligence. The history of such work has been so consistently shoddy that doubts have been raised about whether this is an epistemically productive line of inquiry (Rose, 2009). Further, it has been so socially harmful that it may not be unreasonable to declare such work outside the space of legitimate inquiry at this point (Kourany, 2016). Merely pointing to generic scientific freedom or the need to pursue truth is inadequate in the face of these concerns (Ceci & Williams, 2009). Well-formed and reasoned restraints on the space of inquiry have a long history of legitimacy. (Douglas 2023, 130–31, my emphasis)

I’ve emphasized the moral argument, which comes closest to the grounds on which I would exclude racists and sexists. But rather than the downstream social harms of research, I would point directly to the racism and sexism itself. These values — and acting in line with them — are odious and not to be tolerated (Schroeder 2022). Nearly 80 years after the formal demise of Nazism, there is good reason why it is almost universally reviled.

The problem with Nazis is that they are Nazis, and this is also the reason why we should not actively cultivate them, in science or elsewhere.


Alcoff, Linda Martín. 2006. “Commentary on Elizabeth Anderson’s ‘Uses of Value Judgments in Science’.” Symposia on Gender, Race and Philosophy 2 (1).
Douglas, Heather. 2023. “Differentiating Scientific Inquiry and Politics.” Philosophy 98 (2): 123–46.
Downes, Stephen M., and Jonathan Michael Kaplan. 2022. “Changes in Heritability: Unpredictable and of Limited Use.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 45 (January): e159.
Hicks, Daniel J. 2011. “Is Longino’s Conception of Objectivity Feminist?” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 26 (2): 333–51.
———. 2022. “When Virtues are Vices: ‘Anti-Science’ Epistemic Values in Environmental Politics.” Philosophy, Theory, and Practice in Biology 14 (0).
Panofsky, Aaron. 2014. Misbehaving Science: Controversy and the Development of Behavior Genetics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Reiheld, Alison. 2018. “A Gimlet Eye: The Journal of Controversial Ideas and Jonathan Anomaly’s ‘Defending Eugenics’ (Guest Post).” Discrimination and Disadvantage. November 16, 2018.
Robin, Corey. 2017. “The Critic and the Clown: A Tale of Free Speech at Berkeley.” September 11, 2017.
Rolin, Kristina. 2017. “Can Social Diversity Be Best Incorporated into Science by Adopting the Social Value Management Ideal?” In Current Controversies in Values and Science, edited by Kevin C. Elliott and Daniel Steel, 1 edition, 113–29. Routledge.
Schroeder, S. Andrew. 2022. “The Limits of Democratizing Science: When Scientists Should Ignore the Public.” Philosophy of Science 89 (5): 1034–43.
Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. 2018. “The ‘Free Speech’ Hypocrisy of Right-Wing Media.” The New York Times, January 20, 2018, sec. Opinion.
Turkheimer, Eric. 2022. “This Time I Mean It: The Nature–Nurture Debate Is Over.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 45 (January): e177.
Yap, Audrey. 2015. “Feminist Radical Empiricism, Values, and Evidence.” Hypatia, November, n/a–.


  1. which was my response to Natalia during seminar↩︎

  2. One thing that’s a little unclear to me is the extent to which this definition depends on intentions or authenticity rather than behavior. “Faking” suggests something like inauthenticity, a mismatch between actual and voiced commitments, that I think can be difficult to get at empirically (Hicks 2022, 4n3). But norm compliance is often operationalized in behavior. For example, as I understand it liability in tort law generally doesn’t depend on intentions or anything else about mental states.↩︎

  3. I dislike this term, because I suspect etymologically it’s entangled with anti-Catholicism.↩︎

  4. I include “offensive” here to leave room for views, such as those of Malcolm X and Franz Fanon, that political violence might be necessary for community self-defense against a violently oppressive state.↩︎