The work of Michael Woodley, a Briton who was cited by the teenager who killed 10 Black people at a supermarket in Buffalo, included pseudoscientific theories that have been used to justify racism.
BRUSSELS — The researcher claims there has been an I.Q. decline in France linked to large-scale migration from North Africa. He has co-written a book about the global decline of intelligence, stating a relationship between ethnicity and cognitive abilities. And he argues that humans can be divided into subspecies, a cornerstone of white supremacist ideology.
Despite his own extreme views, the researcher, Michael Woodley — a 38-year-old British man — has been affiliated with Vrije Universiteit Brussel, one of Belgium’s leading universities, and his controversial work was originally undertaken as he studied at some of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions.
The discovery that the gunman had cited Mr. Woodley’s work shocked many academics, who said they hoped it might now force institutions to confront questions about their responsibility toward society, academic rigor and the space they give to extremist ideas.
Alex Mas Sandoval, a Spanish researcher in population genetics at the University of Bologna, said he was “appalled” when he heard that the Buffalo gunman had tried to use science to justify his actions.
Scientists involved in the field of population genetics and other related areas were “concerned about the misinterpretation of our findings,” he said, adding that he had scrutinized the manifesto for all references to his field.
“In most cases, the killer decontextualized scientific conclusions,” he said. But, he added, one person cited by the gunman stood out for his extreme views: Mr. Woodley, whose expertise is in plant ecology, but whose work also includes research in human genetics and intelligence.
“Woodley has been explicitly racist,” said Mr. Sandoval, who started an online petition to get the British researcher suspended and his Ph.D. revoked. Mr. Woodley has received degrees from Columbia University and from Royal Holloway, University of London. “He has a history of spreading racist, white supremacist theories,” Mr. Sandoval said, adding, “He is questioning a consensus based on decades of research.”
Vrije Universiteit Brussel last week suspended its relationship with Mr. Woodley after Mr. Sandoval started his petition and a Belgian newspaper published a story about the researcher. In a statement, the university said it was “shocked” that an “element from a paper” by Mr. Woodley had appeared in the manifesto of the Buffalo gunman. A scientific committee from the university will now investigate Mr. Woodley’s work to decide on further steps, it said.
Mr. Woodley declined to comment, but Francis Heylighen, the director of the Leo Apostel Center, an interdisciplinary research institute at the university with which the British academic has been affiliated, described him as “absolutely devastated by the turn of events.”
Mr. Heylighen said the center did not have a position on Mr. Woodley’s theories, as “he has published dozens of highly technical articles in a variety of respected, peer-reviewed scientific journals, which people who lack the specific scientific expertise would find very hard to evaluate.”
At the core of Mr. Woodley’s article cited by the gunman is an argument that human beings can be scientifically divided into subspecies. One table in which he compared humans with a number of animal species, including jaguars and leopards, was used in the Buffalo gunman’s manifesto.
Theories like the one Mr. Woodley asserted have long been a mainstay of pseudoscientific attempts to justify slavery, colonialism and Nazism that have been widely rejected by contemporary mainstream academics.
Mr. Woodley’s academic interests over the course of his career have been eclectic, including papers on ways to communicate with the dead and intelligence in parrots, in addition to human genetics and intelligence.
A spokeswoman for Royal Holloway said that Mr. Woodley completed a doctorate in plant ecology there from 2007 to 2011, and that his 2010 article referenced by the Buffalo gunman was “written and published in a personal capacity.” The article described the author’s affiliation as “School of Biological Sciences, Royal Holloway, University of London.” Elsevier, a major, mainstream academic publisher that produced the journal that printed Mr. Woodley’s article, declined to comment.
Angela Saini, a British journalist who wrote a book called “Superior: The Return of Race Science,” said Mr. Woodley was a fixture in a group of far-right academics she researched, centered around an academic journal called The Mankind Quarterly, which has been accused of promoting scientific racism and in which the researcher has been published.
“I do think things have changed in recent years, partly because of political discourse,” Ms. Saini said. “And with the rise of ethnic nationalism and the far right, we have become more aware of just how risky, how dangerous these people are,” she said, adding, “They gained a huge following over the years.”
Vrije Universiteit Brussel declined to answer questions about who began the relationship with Mr. Woodley in 2013 and for what purpose. According to the university’s records, Mr. Woodley was a speaker at a seminar in April, but the video of his appearance is missing from the official website, which features the recordings of the three other speakers.
And on Mr. Woodley’s personal website, sections about his research and media appearances were removed over the past week.
Mr. Woodley’s status as an affiliated researcher meant that he was not paid by the Belgian university, and it remains unclear how he financed his work.
One of his papers mentions that funding was provided by the Unz Foundation, a nonprofit organization run by Ron Unz, a software entrepreneur. Mr. Unz is the founder of The Unz Review, a far-right website criticized by the Anti-Defamation League as hosting racist and antisemitic content. Mr. Woodley refers to himself as an “Unz Foundation Junior Fellow” in several other publications.
“I’m independently funded, and the person who independently funds me is not going to withdraw my funding because I’m involved in political research,” Mr. Woodley told Stefan Molyneux, a white-supremacist blogger with whom he appeared in a video in 2019. “As a matter of fact, he’s more likely to give me more funding because of that, so I’m very lucky.”
Multiple Vrije Universiteit Brussel employees expressed outrage over the fact that no one at the university had raised the alarm over Mr. Woodley’s views.
Karen Celis, a political scientist at the university, said she was shocked when she read Mr. Sandoval’s petition. “It is the actual opposite of what we stand for,” she said. “It made me wonder: How come, if it was known in certain circles, the alarm bells did not go off?”
She added: “Our university stands for humanistic values: freedom, solidarity, justice, inclusion. We also stand for free research, but sometimes there is tension between the two, and to me, it is clear which side we have to stand on.”