The shame­ful his­tory of race ‘sci­ence’

Al­though it is to­tally dis­cred­ited, its per­va­sive in­flu­ence still colours per­cep­tions be­cause of its long as­so­ci­a­tion with em­pir­i­cal va­lid­ity

Mail & Guardian - - Comment & Analysis - Sarah Wild

One man made thou­sands — pos­si­bly hun­dreds of thou­sands — of chil­dren sick. Many of them died and many will con­tinue to die, be­cause one man passed bad sci­ence off as le­git­i­mate.

In 1998 An­drew Wake­field pub­lished an ar­ti­cle in the pres­ti­gious med­i­cal journal The Lancet, which found a link be­tween the com­bined mumps, measles and rubella vac­cine and autism. It was a lie but it took more than a decade for the journal to fully re­tract that pa­per. It has been thor­oughly de­bunked but to­day some par­ents still refuse to vac­ci­nate their chil­dren, and a large part of that fear is based on one sci­en­tist whose lie had the pro­tec­tion of the sci­en­tific acad­emy for 10 years.

But what hap­pens if false sci­ence had been held to be true by most sci­en­tists for decades, even cen­turies?

Sci­en­tific racism is not new. Th­ese days, we re­fer to it as a pseu­do­science — a con­ve­nient way to paint as crack­pots those who use sci­ence to jus­tify (usu­ally their) racial su­pe­ri­or­ity.

The la­bel of pseu­do­science, mostly re­served for tin­foil-hat wear­ers wor­ry­ing that they might fall off the edge of the flat Earth, al­lows us to pre­tend that race sci­ence wasn’t main­stream, that West­ern sci­ence didn’t throw funds and time and ex­per­tise into defin­ing races, that sci­en­tists didn’t use “em­pir­i­cal meth­ods” to show that dif­fer­ent races came with dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter­is­tics, some of which had more value than oth­ers.

In those days, it was called race sci­ence, and it was con­sid­ered a noble and im­por­tant area of re­search, one that would un­lock the true story of hu­man evo­lu­tion. The tenets of race sci­ence have long since been de­bunked but they are of­ten still at the heart of racist com­ments and ar­gu­ments.

“I now un­der­stand why black peo­ple haven’t con­trib­uted a sin­gle in­ven­tion to the world ... There is no per­fect race [b]ut please ex­plain to me why black peo­ple’s IQs are lower?” This state­ment, made on so­cial me­dia, went vi­ral last week. It could as eas­ily have been said 100 years ago. In fact, it was.

Famed South African sci­en­tist Ray­mond Dart and most oth­ers of his gen­er­a­tion in the early 1900s thought the same thing. Their ar­gu­ment in a nut­shell: a per­son’s tech­no­log­i­cal and in­tel­lec­tual abil­ity is de­ter­mined by their race, with some races hav­ing greater abil­i­ties than oth­ers. Th­ese ideas have been around for decades, and the “sci­ence” they’re based on is as flawed now as it was then.

Sci­ence has a lot to an­swer for about race. It was and con­tin­ues to be the bar­ri­cade be­hind which racist be­liefs fes­ter. It also helped to build the walls in the first place.

We hold sci­ence up as glow­ing bea­con of em­pir­i­cal value, a superior way of un­der­stand­ing the world. It de­serves its priv­i­leged position for many rea­sons: it in­volves ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, peer re­view, re­peat­able re­sults, all of which help to strip out bias.

But what if you do not know that you’re bi­ased, or that your as­sump­tions are colour­ing ev­ery­thing you do? And all your peers have the same prej­u­dice?

Back at the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury, through an alchemy of sci­ence, power, prej­u­dice and self­im­por­tance, sci­en­tists in South Africa were hunt­ing for spec­i­mens of “pure” races to study the evo­lu­tion of hu­mans. In their minds, they, white men of Euro­pean de­scent, were at the top of that lad­der of evo­lu­tion, the great­est spec­i­men of hu­man tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment; the Bush­men were the low­est rung of that lad­der.

In the 1700s, Swedish sci­en­tist Carl Lin­naeus de­vel­oped a way of cat­e­goris­ing the natural world into dis­crete units: species, fam­i­lies, taxa. A hun­dred years later, Charles Dar­win pub­lished his The Ori­gin of Species, in which he laid out what is now the the­ory of evo­lu­tion. He made a note that hu­mans were also an­i­mals, which had most likely evolved from apes. When th­ese two pil­lars of sci­en­tific thought — Lin­naeus and Dar­win — were brought to­gether, com­bined with the ex­is­tence of peo­ple who looked dif­fer­ent, and Euro­peans’ in­nate ideas of their own su­pe­ri­or­ity, you got race sci­ence.

Race sci­ence said that hu­mans could be di­vided into “types” and that this could be shown sci­en­tif­i­cally. Some types, how­ever, were bet­ter than oth­ers.

Saul Dubow, in his book Sci­en­tific Racism in Mod­ern South Africa, writes: “The ty­po­log­i­cal method [break­ing groups down into types] lay at the heart of phys­i­cal an­thro­pol­ogy. It was based on em­pir­i­cal prin­ci­ples of clas­si­fi­ca­tion and tax­on­omy orig­i­nally de­vel­oped in the natural sci­ences. The con­cep­tion of race as ‘type’ en­cour­aged a be­lief in the ex­is­tence of ideal cat­e­gories and stressed di­ver­sity and dif­fer­ence over sim­i­lar­ity and con­ver­gence. This was over­laid by bi­nary-based no­tions of su­pe­ri­or­ity and in­fe­ri­or­ity, progress and de­gen­er­a­tion.”

Sci­en­tists, with their fix­a­tion on type, mea­sure­ment and em­piri­cism, went in search of “pure” ex­am­ples of dif­fer­ent races. But this mea­sure­ment and clas­si­fi­ca­tion was com­pletely ar­bi­trary and was, in short, bad sci­ence. There are many ex­am­ples of the ridicu­lous ways sci­en­tific method was per­verted to pre­serve sci­en­tists’ cer­tainty of their own su­pe­ri­or­ity — and that of the so­ci­ety they were in.

For ex­am­ple, skull size was very im­por­tant to sci­en­tists of the early 20th cen­tury. They thought that, be­cause peo­ple think with their brains, the size of the brain de­ter­mined the sophistication of the per­son’s thought ca­pa­bil­ity. They could mea­sure this, they ar­gued, by cat­e­goris­ing skull vol­ume.

It was rather awk­ward when they found that some black groups in South­ern Africa had sim­i­lar skulls to white Nordic peo­ple. In­stead of con­sid­er­ing that their hypothesis had been in­cor­rect, the sci­en­tists de­cided that, al­though the brain vol­ume was the same, the black peo­ple had more slanted fore­heads and thus parts of their brains were smaller. They de­cided that this part of the brain housed rea­son­ing and tech­ni­cal abil­ity. Thus, their as­sump­tion had been true: black peo­ple with slanted fore­heads did not have the in­tel­lec­tual ca­pa­bil­i­ties of whites. It was em­pir­i­cal fact, af­ter all.

Th­ese are the sorts of men­tal gym­nas­tics re­quired to stand by the fun­da­men­tal hypothesis of race sci­ence — that phys­i­cal racial char­ac­ter­is­tics are im­bued with cer­tain val­ues, and that some char­ac­ter­is­tics come with superior traits and those of oth­ers are in­fe­rior.

Sim­i­lar ac­ro­bat­ics were nec­es­sary in the 1920s with IQ test­ing. IQ test­ing is a con­tro­ver­sial mea­sure of in­tel­li­gence for sev­eral rea­sons: it is con­text-, cul­ture- and lan­guage-spe­cific, and there are many things that it does not test for. In the 1920s, tan­gi­ble mea­sure­ment was de rigueur in South Africa, in­clud­ing mea­sur­ing in­tel­li­gence. Black chil­dren got very low IQ scores, which au­thor­i­ties said pointed to the in­tel­lec­tual in­fe­ri­or­ity en­coded into their bi­ol­ogy.

But, by 1928, South Africa had seen the growth of what was known as the “poor white prob­lem”, and many white peo­ple were poor and un­em­ployed. The United States’ Carnegie Cor­po­ra­tion ad­min­is­tered IQ tests to poor white chil­dren and found that their IQs were be­low av­er­age. The rea­son for this, they wrote in their re­port, was be­cause of the chil­dren’s eco­nomic and so­cial con­di­tions. If black chil­dren got low IQ scores, it was be­cause they were black; if white chil­dren did, it was be­cause of their so­cioe­co­nomic cir­cum­stances.

Race sci­ence was not pseu­do­science back then. It was not a shame­ful be­lief that peo­ple only voiced in cer­tain com­pany (which ap­pears to be the way sci­en­tific racism is doled out th­ese days). It was the ba­sis of pol­icy, it was sci­en­tific ev­i­dence used to sub­ju­gate and op­press, and it was main­stream. White sci­en­tists and re­searchers per­verted the sci­en­tific method to give their so­ci­ety a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for op­pres­sion.

But it is more com­fort­able for us to call sci­en­tific racism pseu­do­science, and so when some­one says that black peo­ple are in­tel­lec­tu­ally in­fe­rior to whites, we can dis­miss them as a racist crazy. It is much more dif­fi­cult to ad­mit that those ideas came from sci­ence, and that the rea­son they are still alive and kick­ing in mod­ern South Africa is be­cause they are still pro­tected by the old im­mu­nity they once had.

Prej­u­di­cial sci­ence: Ray­mond

Dart (left) was mar­ried to the idea that in­tel­lec­tual abil­ity is a con­di­tion de­ter­mined by race. He and many other sci­en­tists be­lieved that Euro­peans were at the top of the evo­lu­tion­ary lad­der and that the Bush­men (top) were on the low­est rung. Th­ese ideas have been around for decades, and the ‘sci­ence’ they’re based on — in­clud­ing that of cer­tain psy­cho­log­i­cal and IQ tests (be­low) — is as flawed now as it was then. Pho­tos: Marvin New­man & Or­lando/ Three Lions/Getty Images

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