Scientific Racism and the Validity of Racial Categorization

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The following is based partly on posts previously published in 2008 and 2012. It’s been consolidated and revised to be accessible to audiences new to this discussion. Images used in the post are mine taken at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s exhibit on race, developed by the American Anthropological Association, first mounted in 2008, and revived in 2017.

“Scientific racism” refers to the attempt to justify racist beliefs and policies through the use of scientific studies. Proponents of scientific racism, unsurprisingly, prefer to use less-loaded terms like “race realism” or “human biodiversity”, but even “scientific racism” can lend an unfortunate patina of validity to the arguments they make. It suggests–reinforced by many of those sympathetic to the claims involved–that the arguments we’re all having over race are merely political. It says those of us who fight scientific racism object to the policies promoted, to the racism, but that the whole enterprise is sadly, regrettably, unavoidably scientific.

However, this simply isn’t true. While scientific racism is decidedly racist and particularly anti-Black, it fails to be scientific. How badly does it fail? The very concept of “race” as used by scientific racists isn’t scientifically valid.

Photo of fake street signs at the intersection of Privilege Place and Race Road.
This isn’t to say that race is never a valid scientific concept. You’ll sometimes see people say, “Race is a social construct”, as though this invalidated the concept. It doesn’t. Race is a social construct, but it’s been a durable and very powerful construct. We have scads of documentation of how race has been defined, redefined, and enforced over time. People have lived and died en masse over race. Governments have been organized around the concept of race. Race is not only valid but critical in studying social and societal dynamics.

That isn’t how scientific racists use “race”, though. A socially constructed conception of “race” doesn’t support their arguments. In fact, it’s more likely to expose their racism than justify it.

No, scientific racists are using a more essentialist concept of race. Given the age of much of the research they cite, this may not explicitly be a concept based in genetics. Even their modern research often doesn’t refer directly to genetics (studies that do tend to fall out of favor for reasons I’ll get to), but the implication is that the qualities studied are fixed and inherent to the racial categories being used. We know this requires a shared genetics even if this is never said.

The problem for scientific racism is that race is not a valid concept within human population genetics. Continue reading “Scientific Racism and the Validity of Racial Categorization”

Scientific Racism and the Validity of Racial Categorization
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Justice in a “Just World”

This is not the text of my Skepticon talk I gave at Skepticon with the same name, because that isn’t how I give talks. It is, however, an introduction to the same information for those who prefer their information in written form. So if you watch the video, you’ll get a slightly different experience.

Life’s not fair.

If you’re at all like me, you hear that statement in the voice of an aggrieved three-year-old child. As it turns out, that’s actually a pretty decent place to start with this topic. We’re introduced very quickly to the idea that we live in an unjust world, and we never do much come to like the idea.

Unlike most three-year-olds, however, humanity has had a lot of time to work on ways to deny the problem. And deny it we have. Continue reading “Justice in a “Just World””

Justice in a “Just World”

Hard Science Vs. Harder Science

This is one of the essays I delivered to my patrons last month. If you want to support more work like this, and see it earlier, you can sign up here.

I started university life as a physics major and ended it with a degree in psychology. Along the way, I was a tutor and a teaching assistant in physics and a research assistant in psychology. Graduating with honors in psychology also meant I had to run an independent research project. I chose to replicate an important study in a novel population and was lucky enough to be able to recruit one of the original authors as my adviser.

Photo of a stone, probably quartz, with a feathery vein of gold running over its surface.
“Dendritic crystalline gold” by James St. John, CC BY 2.0

While I ultimately decided I didn’t want to work in either field, the whole experience gave me a–perhaps unhealthy–interest in the fuss over “hard science versus soft science”. I’ve spent an absurd amount of time arguing over whether there’s a real difference between types of science that falls along those lines, including a delightful bit of argument with former science journalist Susan Jacoby, which was unfortunately brief, as it happened in the middle of a workshop I was running on a different topic.

Just this past summer, I sat on and moderated a panel discussion on the topic at CONvergence, with physics, geology, and psychology represented. I was hoping the video would be available by now, but the short version of the panel goes like this: None of us recognize any meaningful distinction in the practice of science between fields that are generally classed as “hard” sciences and those classed as “soft” sciences. None of these fields are more science-y or less than the others, and we’re all kind of tired of saying so.

Yet the idea that only some of these fields are “real” science, and particularly the idea that social sciences are somehow not scientific, persists. Continue reading “Hard Science Vs. Harder Science”

Hard Science Vs. Harder Science

The Problem with Physics

Sean Carroll has a pair of posts up, one of which is aptly titled “Physicists Should Stop Saying Silly Things about Philosophy“. Both posts are concerned with the reasons physicists often give to dismiss philosophy as a discipline and why those reasons are wrong. Both are worth reading.

It is also worth pointing out that Carroll is not focusing on physicists simply because he himself is a physicist who relies on the work of philosophers. It’s a problem common to a lot of physicists and more common among physicists than it is among scientists of other disciplines. Think of three well-known physicists, then check Carroll’s list of dismissive big names. Look at the amount of overlap between the two lists. Now come up with another group of people educated in a single topic who are similarly dismissive of philosophy.

As I said elsewhere when James Croft pondered the proper response to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s comments on philosophy.

I’m not even so sure I see it as *his* failing as much as I see it as a common failing of a physics education. Modern U.S. physics education at the college level and beyond is notorious for producing scientists who can’t manage the complexities involved in biology, much less the social sciences. Bob Park once told a physics professor friend of mine that there is no pseudoscience so ridiculous you can’t find a PhD physicist who will support it. (Though in retrospect, I’m guessing he would have made an exception for the crankery that gets mailed to physics departments all the time.)

There is a simplicity to physics, in the sense of limited variables, that there isn’t in most of the rest of the world. In many places, that simplicity is embraced as scientific superiority, and that sense of superiority is passed on with the basic knowledge of physics. It is entirely unsurprising that we continue to see physicists saying silly things about philosophy.

Not that this tells me anything about how to address the problem.

Holler if you have any ideas.

The Problem with Physics

TBT: Exactly Wrong

This was originally published in May 2009. I may have a bit of button, easily pushed by people using simplistic (mis)understandings of behavioral psychology.

I’m always fascinated by how “common sense” works. All too often, the first part (“common”) is presumed to imply the second (“sense”) when it does no such thing. I came across a great example today.

I was having brunch with Greg and Ben after today’s radio show, when Greg mentioned someone he’d recently heard go off on an anti-open source rant. “If I have a problem, I want the person helping me to be someone I’m paying, not some bunch of teen-aged geeks–”

“What?!?” I cut Greg off. I don’t do that to people often. Really. I did not actually put my face in my hands, but I was tempted.

Okay, here’s the problem. Continue reading “TBT: Exactly Wrong”

TBT: Exactly Wrong

On Trigger Warnings and "Scientific Arguments"

In case you haven’t noticed, the fires of the Great Trigger Warning Debate are burning high again, this time in the halls of academia. Students at UCSB have called for trigger warnings in course syllabi, prompting the New York Times to equate dissociative spells, nightmares, and anxiety attacks with “squirming”. Now, along comes Pacific Standard with an article that tells us science says we shouldn’t give sexually assaulted students with PTSD even the same consideration we give television viewers who don’t like nudity on their screens.

As the article was written by Dr. Richard J. McNally, who directs clinical training for Harvard, I didn’t expect to find fault with the science he cited. This turned out to be mostly true. I found the argument presented in the article pretty appalling, however.

On a side note before I get to the arguments: You may well have the impression that “trigger” is a concept unique to post-traumatic stress disorder. If you do, you’re not alone. I saw someone on Twitter just a few days ago suggest that a broad view of trigger warnings was somehow appropriating the experience of PTSD sufferers. Reading the article won’t disabuse you of this notion–it’s entirely a discussion of PTSD–but this isn’t true.

Think of a trigger the way you’d think of a stimulus in classical behavioral psychology. It is an event that provokes a response over which someone has very little control. Pavlov’s bell was a salivation trigger in his dogs.

Of course, we’ve moved on a good bit from strict behavioral psychology, and people aren’t dogs. “Trigger” these days describes an event to which we react in a way that is significantly but not entirely automatic or beyond our conscious control. Suppressing a reaction to a trigger requires cognitive and emotional resources, executive function, but it can be done. “Trigger” now applies to events that provoke a wider variety of maladaptive responses as well, such as bingeing in someone with eating disorders or self-hatred in someone with depression.

But on with the article.

Continue reading “On Trigger Warnings and "Scientific Arguments"”

On Trigger Warnings and "Scientific Arguments"

Um, About Those "Male"- and "Female"-Wired Brains

A few days ago, an article came out that excited some people who identify as skeptics. Brain scans had finally revealed what these people had always known: Men’s brains and women’s brains were fundamentally different! As one tweeter put it, “Damned science and facts, always getting in the way of SOCIAL JUSTICE!”

Were gender-essentialist skeptical types the only people to jump on this reporting? No, of course not. However, they are the people who should know that situations like these are exactly the ones in which to exercise a bit of skeptical caution. After all, there are two stances here in which they have a serious emotional investment–that gender roles are dictated by fundamental differences between the (two, discrete, dichotomous) sexes and that we social-justicey, feminist types are completely divorced from science and skepticism. That’s a rather large source of potential bias to be confirmed, so care should be taken.

What kind of care? Continue reading “Um, About Those "Male"- and "Female"-Wired Brains”

Um, About Those "Male"- and "Female"-Wired Brains

Sexual Assault Plus

Yesterday, Richard Dawkins issued an apology. In talking about his own sexual assault at a young age, he had generalized their experience from his. He was relatively unaffected by the experience and expressed his opinion that the same was true of “all of us”. He apologized for doing so.

Dawkins’ apology was very welcome, if incomplete, as was his admission that he should not speak to the experience of other victims of sexual assault. Alex has a pretty good take on what it missed. I don’t agree 100%, but I’m close enough not to quibble. Instead, I’d like to dig into this idea of degrees of assault. What Dawkins has had to say on the topic isn’t entirely wrong, but his naive take on the topic obscures as much as it reveals. Continue reading “Sexual Assault Plus”

Sexual Assault Plus

So You Want to Argue About Evo Psych

Or at least about what a bunch of us had to say on the topic at SkepchickCon/CONvergence. Then maybe you should watch the video to find out what we actually said:

Or even read the transcript. Though, if you only read the transcript, and you get hung up on one tiny piece of language, you might want to watch that bit of the video anyway to make sure it was captured correctly.

Then, and only then, might it make sense to argue with what we had to say.

So You Want to Argue About Evo Psych