when bigots hijack science
Imagine being a geneticist trying to figure out what makes humans different because you want to understand how our species evolved and spread across the world. Then, one day, you read the news and find that your paper has been hijacked by racists to demonstrate their supposed superiority, cherry picking and distorting everything you said. This unpleasant scenario is playing out across countless labs in which scientists are trying to explore human diversity for insights into what makes us what we are while racists stand by to twist and abuse their papers to justify how a certain skin tone makes them ubermensch.
This is by no means a new development. As long as scientists tried to genuinely study human origins and development, there have been racists and bigots looking for any excuse to crown themselves the rightful pinnacles of evolution. But today, researchers are acutely aware of the problems this causes and do not want to see their research warped to justify hateful policies that harm others to soothe the fragile egos of neo-Nazis and white supremacists driven primarily by anger and fear, oscillating between trying to keep their own work inside academic circles and preparing pre-emptive debunkings of potential cherry-picking of their results.
One of the biggest problems they face are the admittedly imperfect ways to measure subtle differences and put them in proper context, and nowhere is this more fraught when it comes to studies of intelligence. Intelligence is extremely difficult to measure, and performance on IQ tests, or any standardized test in general, is often best predicted by household income, not any neurological or genetic trait being studied. In fact, the scientists in question often go out of their way to point out that culture and environment are the biggest contributors to many of the differences they see, the others revolving around certain diseases and subtle traits.
And while you’d think that counting the differences in red blood cells or the ability to digest lactose wouldn’t be of much interest to racists, you’d be wrong. Groups of neo-Nazis are making a big show of chugging milk to prove their genetic superiority over those who can’t, blissfully unaware that they’re not the only ones capable of eating dairy and cattle herders in East Africa also have the genetic hardware to process lactose. This is the level of cherry-picking and self-absorption with which scientists are dealing and it’s no wonder they’re upset about it. They can’t even test elements of ethnic groups’ diets without bigots ready to abuse their charts and stats on standby.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing they can do about it other than speak up early and often about the context for their findings. But while some are up for the challenge and happy to start tackling the problem so they can continue looking for insights into human diversity, others are not so sure…
Some scientists suggest that engaging with racists would simply lend credibility to obviously specious claims. Many say that they do not study race, in any case: The racial categories used by the United States census correlate only imperfectly with the geographic ancestry groupings of interest to evolutionary geneticists. “Black,” for instance, is a socially defined term that includes many Americans who have a majority of European ancestry.
Technically, they’re correct. They don’t study race and the way race is colloquially defined isn’t exactly done with peer-reviewed scientific precision, so it shouldn’t be their duty to show how their research is applicable to the racial discourse. However, like racial categories in America, their responsibility to defend their research from abuse and being used to vilify and demean their fellow humans is also social. In the absence of pushback, people who don’t know enough about a topic will just assume that what they tend to hear most often is the truth and by refusing to engage and protect their research, these scientists are just ceding more conversational space to racists, which is exactly what those racists want.
Today, it’s not enough to do science and engineer new things. With so many bad actors around the world hoping to use your results for ill gains, you have to be willing to defend what you’ve published or built. Scientists and engineers erecting and maintaining firewalls between their labs and the real world and its messy people and politics do so at their own peril and to the detriment of those against whom their work is used. We may not take an explicit oath to do no harm like doctors, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have the same responsibility as both experts and decent human beings.