Anti-racist scientists and their accidental refining of scientific racism

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Adam Rutherford is a more than decent science writer and BBC radio broadcaster.  He has a book out on 6 Feb called; "How to argue with a racist". He's previewed it with a piece in The Observer and in this lecture. Rutherford's friends, some like Ewan Birney who are themselves well worth listening to on science matters, have been tweeting away about it. I hasten to add that all the talented folk I refer to here are motivated to improve the world through science, and that includes personal commitment to arguing against racism wherever it rears its head.

And yet the book appears to be the latest iteration of an insidious argument which actually refines scientific racism. I honestly don't think Rutherford, and other scientists like Birney who make the same argument, realise how or why this is.

The argument comes in 3 steps.

  1. Racism 'exists' only as "opinions" (see final para of link) which can be 'disproven' by scientific evidence.
  2. 'Scientific racism' therefore comprises assertions about race which can be disproven by scientific evidence, notably the idea that black people are genetically predisposed to have lower general intelligence than white.
  3. That said, "we don't know" (1.08:26 onwards) if science won't in future show that black people are genetically predisposed in this way.

It's not possible to unpack the full absurdity, and indeed insidiousness, of this argument in a blogpost so I've written a very modest academic paper here in fairly short order (do please let me have your feedback if you have time). For now, here are some key points.

First, proponents of this argument accept that black people are on average of lower general intelligence than white (although they express this obliquely), and indeed that this helps explain racial inequality. This is because they accept the science of IQ testing and therefore the scientific evidence of average black general intelligence inferiority (para  11 and 12). Science proves it so it isn't racist, the argument runs. So if you're black and you feel it's racist that your child has a much lower chance of access to a selective school - well then you're simply empirically wrong.

Second, they also accept that it's possible that it could turn out that there is scientific evidence that black people are indeed on average genetically predisposed to be of lower intelligence than white. In this event, this idea would not be scientifically racist after all.

Third, more generally, ideas like; "Race doesn't exist, racism does" (last para) are literally incoherent. They are a consequence of a profound misunderstanding of social constructions and even the nature of knowledge. The effect of the argument, aside from its incoherence, is to place scientists as the arbiters of what racism and indeed 'proper' knowledge is.

But asking a scientist for advice on how to argue with a racist is like asking a metallurgist for advice on the UK's balance of payments. Science gives us empirical facts, then these are understood by people alongside social constructs. Science gives us the bricks, mortar and fittings of BBC New Broadcasting House; society gives us the social construction 'The BBC'. Science gives us the empirical existence of a sharp blade, but society tells us whether it is a safe kitchen tool or a weapon. In life, one is not subordinate to the other any more than it would make sense to say that the BBC somehow does not exist or that we should imprison all chefs for the repeated possession of dangerous weapons.

Scientific method leads to results which are by definition morally neutral. Scientific constructions are created around them. Sometimes, society will choose to ignore science because it conflicts with moral principles people have chosen to value. Social constructions need not be 'true' or even coherent. But none of this means that science can ever be used to justify, for example, racism. The definition of racism is a matter for everyone. We choose to repudiate it in the strongest terms and to treat everyone equally (Rutherford does stress this point). We need not fear science because it is up to us how we use it.

The accidentally insidious argument of Rutherford et al seeks to reverse all this and place, erm, geneticists at our moral core. I say accidentally, but there is some artifice. They tend to go on about ancient errors of early scientists like Galton and Linnaeus, while implying that all contemporary scientific opponents are cartoonish racists, for example.

The best general advice to readers here, I think, is to ask scientists making scientific assertions where their peer-reviewed papers on the subject are. If they can't produce any - and instead they refer vaguely to 'other' work they've done or put out popular books reviewed as "remarkable" by TV vicars - then take whatever view you see fit.

[NB: For reference, I don't accept the scientific notion that black people are on average of lower general intelligence than white. This is to do with what I believe is the influence of social constructions upon the way science proceeds and the way data are categorised by scientists. I don't seek to argue the case for those ideas here and I accept that many scientists will disagree with me on that point].












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  • Why do scientists keep doing that thing? Do you remember when Margaret Thatcher (an Oxford educated Chemist) said 'there is no such thing as society'. Of course she was doing more than just playing with a bunch of ideas which we now recognise as neo-liberalism, marketisation and globalisation. The science that Eric writes about here is horrible: genetic selection for educational purposes- read social advantage. I assume the customers are parents who have private health care and have attended exclusive independent schools? Anyway, this biological science with very narrow definitions of ability and intelligence un-strangely overlaps with the Thatcher government (and others) discourse of individualism. Science writers and researchers who don't describe the potential market, the product value in development or the consumer in clear social terms are very often just failing to be transparent about their funding or market positionality- in short their ethics are dodgy. Positivist approaches and quantitative data have a role to play in developing knowledge or placing it in context but not like this- if what I have read so far is correct. Surely?