Black Skeptics talk Scientific Racism at CFI Los Angeles

by D Frederick Sparks

This past Wednesday, the Black Skeptics of Los Angeles were featured at CFI Los Angeles’ Cafe Inquiry for a presentation titled Debunking Science as Savior: Is Science Infallible.  The talk focused on the history and present reality of racism and racist exploitation in science, specifically with respect to medical science and medical research.

Black Skeptics members Frederick Sparks and Daniel Myatt gave a brief overview which covered several topics, including the history of scientific notions of racial superiority, exploitation of African Americans in medical reasearch (which included discussions of Thomas Jefferson’s experiments on his slaves and more recent testing of AIDS drugs children of foster care in addition to the wider known Tuskegee syphilis study) , and medical misdiagnosis based on race including the overdiagonosis of schizophrenia in African American Men.  This history was then connected to current mistrust of the scientific and medical establishment among African Americans today, and how this affects attitudes towards everything from the  Theory of Evolution to HIV denialism.  The lack of diversity within scientific fields  (notwithstanding rock star astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson) was also touched upon as a continuing contributing factor to cultural myopia and racism within the practice of scientific and medical research,

Black Skeptics of Los Angeles members Daniel Myatt and Frederick Sparks with CFI’s Jim Underdown

The question and answer session that followed was lively and covered such topics as how even the basics of the scientific method, making observations and forming hypotheses, are affected by cultural perspective.  And while this specific talk focused on black Americans, it was noted that those who are marginalized in society due to economic circumstances are also more vulnerable to abuse from the medical establishment.  The group also discussed the challenge of increasing African American participation in needed medical studies given the historical back drop of abuse and exploitation.

Special thanks to Jim Underdown from CFI Los Angeles for coordinating this event with BSLA.


Black Skeptics talk Scientific Racism at CFI Los Angeles

24 thoughts on “Black Skeptics talk Scientific Racism at CFI Los Angeles

  1. F

    Is there any possibility that there is a recording or transcript or notes of some nature on this? My legs just are not long enough to get me to LA. I’m aware of several of the subjects which have been given links, but I’ll certainly check them out.

      1. F

        That would be fantastic.

        I really don’t and can’t get out much (I’m poor and a cave-dweller), but I’d certainly make a serious effort if Frederick or Sikivu or someone they would recommend were speaking in my area.

  2. 3

    If there are recordings, and you guys want transcripts made, you can ask A+scribe to help!

    I’m the founder, and (ostensible) leader.

    Contact us at (at) gmail.

    1. F

      Oh, thank you! I personally appreciate this, but more significantly, I believe it is very important to have these thoughts, ideas, analyses, etc., recorded for the wider world and for posterity. Especially for the internet, which is data-dense but information-poor.

  3. 6

    Hi Frederick,
    I’m a white male, and I really, REALLY, don’t want to come off as if I am lecturing you or anyone else about the black experience, but I think there are some points that should be made:

    -Science is a tool, nothing more. If a tool is misused and a bad result occurs, it’s really not the tool’s fault. If a corner of my house fell down because the wall studs were improperly nailed, it wouldn’t be right for me to blame the hammers that were used on it.

    -Medical Doctors usually make lousy scientists. To become an MD mostly requires a whole lot of rote memorization and very little of the combination of logic and imagination that scientific discovery demands. In fact, some of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard said about evolution and global warming have come from MD’s. So please don’t blame Science when MD’s screw up.

    -Thomas Jefferson was a deeply flawed man, but he died almost 200 years ago. Science wasn’t even “Science” back then. It was called “Natural Philosophy”, and just as many stupid ideas came from Natural Philosophers back then as come from modern Philosophers today. In both cases, it stems from somebody thinking an idea has so much “common sense” that it should just be accepted without all that messy business of actually gathering evidence to support or refute it.

    -According to the article, SOME of the foster kids were given experimental AIDS drugs without the approval of an independent child advocate. That is inexcusable. But your description makes it seem as if foster kids were experimented upon because they were disposable people, and I don’t think that’s true. Remember that back in the ’80s & ’90s AIDS was virtually a death sentence. And when a kid was diagnosed with AIDS was he/she more likely to be from a middle-class nuclear family, or from a situation that would make him/her a candidate for foster care? I think there was most likely a correlation between AIDS and foster care, and these kids were given experimental drugs because, at the time, the alternative was almost certain death. Certainly the researchers wanted to get scientific data from these unfortunate kids, but they were also giving the kids the best chance at a healthy lifespan that was available at the time.

    1. 6.1

      Well I appreciate your “non white man lecturing” comment which pretty much ignores the substance of the post. And I love how you sweep this history of medical and scientific exploitation under the rug with your “Dont blame science” defense. It’s not guns that kill people, but people. I get it…

      ” But your description makes it seem as if foster kids were experimented upon because they were disposable people, and I don’t think that’s true”

      Even though there is a history of marginalized people being abused by the scientific and medical establishment.

      1. Racism is a group behavior.
        Group behavior originates in the mammalian region of the brain. That’s the root of it.
        All human characteristics have a bell curve.

        Hope that gives some clarification on this behavior.

        Friend me on Facebook if you like.


        Lane F.

      2. I’m sorry, Frederick but I don’t get how that AIDS study abused anybody (with my aforementioned shock at those cases where no proper advocate for the child provided informed consent). What would you have done? On the one hand, there were these kids who would die of AIDS if nothing was done. On the other, there were these drugs that had helped adults with AIDS but had never been given to kids, so they were, by definition, experimental drugs. Would you have decided not to try the drugs?

    2. 6.2

      Sounds like you require further education and enlightenment on this subject from Afr-Am scientists as an antidote to “white man lecturing mode.” See Harriet Washington’s “Medical Apartheid,” Doris Roberts’ “Killing the Black Body” and Joseph Graves’ “The Race Myth”

    3. 6.3

      Science is a tool, nothing more. If a tool is misused and a bad result occurs, it’s really not the tool’s fault.

      That point was made during the talk.

      Daniel Myatt said, more than once, “Science is great–it’s people who fuck up.” (Paraphrased from memory.)

      1. OK, I’m glad the point was made.
        Frederick’s synopsis included this:
        “the history of scientific notions of racial superiority”. I’m pretty darn sure no honest scientific study has ever found evidence of racial superiority, so whoever was the source of that sentiment was painting a false picture of Science, IMO. If Frederick was quoting or paraphrasing that from someone else, then I misunderstood and I’m sorry.

        1. You seem to be making some No True Scotsman distinction here. If it was bad, then it wasn’t actual science. Scientific consensus on a particular subject often turns out to be wrong. Does that mean that the previous consensus wasn’t “Science”?

    4. F

      -Science is a tool, nothing more.

      I think Frederick, and anyone considering the same things, is addressing Science as a cultural segment, how it is practiced, and how it is used. They aren’t discussing the Scientific Method, which is a very simple proposition, and doesn’t bear a lot of rational discussion for the most part.

      If a corner of my house fell down because the wall studs were improperly nailed, it wouldn’t be right for me to blame the hammers that were used on it.

      Simultaneously: “Lolwut? Science, how?” + “Yeah, I see what you are trying to do there.” Way to essentially accuse Frederick Sparks of magical thinking and assigning blame according to a prejudice. In a non sequitur.

      So please don’t blame Science when MD’s screw up.

      Again, the blame is on the whole cultural mindset.

      And no, “science” has certainly been perpetrated against Black people without regard for their well-being, rights, and their self-determination. Similar has been done to all sorts of people, but all minorities suffer the most from this, especially when the “science” is particularly dangerous or intended to create a weapon. The testing in the case in question here violated it own protocols, so I can’t see any valid argument that this was for the benefit of the children.

      1. ” “science” has certainly been perpetrated against Black people without regard for their well-being, rights, and their self-determination.”

        I’m very sorry if I left the impression that I denied this. The Tuskegee study was an absolute horror show. The Henrietta Lacks case is very sad to me.

    5. 6.5

      Just to echo what F and others have said, I think the term Science covers a range of concepts. At its core is probably some ideas about the nature of truth and the importance of evidence, experiment, falsifiability, etc. That’s all fine. But these ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. They have to be held and put into practice by people, and those people are shaped by their environments and theoretical paradigms. So there is a broader culture of science. The scientific culture as a whole tries to minimise bias and be as objective as possible, but sometimes it fails, and it has failed significantly in the past. This failure might not have been part of science (the core values) but it was part of Science (the broader culture/community that forms around those values). And the two are linked, because science can’t carry itself out – it needs a community of fallible humans to do it.

      It takes quite a bit of money and training to become a professional scientist. You need to go to a college/uni and have the opportunity to engage with practicals and lectures. So it happens that poorer and less privileged people, and racial minorities, have tended to be underrepresented in the scientific community. That means that the kinds of biases present in the scientific community have historically been those of people from a narrow range of backgrounds. That can affect the way theories are formed, the way scientific research is carried out, and the way results are interpreted. We should be aware of these biases because it will help us to ensure that research is as objective as possible. It will also help us to understand why some groups are wary of science and feel they have historically been excluded from or mistreated by the scientific enterprise.

  4. 8

    I wasn’t aware of this possible over-diagnosis of black men with schizophrenia. I am very interested and experienced in the topic and simply haven’t encountered this information. I’m off to do some research now! Thanks for sharing this.

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