Rejecting the Roots of Racist Research

Science has long been complicit in the perpetuation of racism. Recently, psychologists confronted the fact that racist science is still being published.

June 19th, 2020 commemorated the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, a celebration of the day black emancipation was solidified in Texas. More recently, this August will mark the 7th year of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests that swell up around extrajudicial killings of black people by the police. However, concerns about racial disparities and bias are not found only in the streets with protesters, they also occupy the minds of many researchers and fill thousands of pages of research literature every year. Yet, this focus on understanding and alleviating racial injustice is relatively new in the social sciences. Much of the history of social and biological science is mired in racial pseudoscience that was used to justify hundreds of years of slavery and oppression. This past week, psychologists were confronted with the realization that these racist ideas that took root centuries back still bear fruit. 

For nearly 400 years, scientists played a pivotal role in the justification and perpetuation of racism. During the Enlightenment, various European scientists proposed that a gulf existed between “the races”. Then, the general scientific consensus that whites were superior to blacks aided and abetted the colonization and devastation of Africa, Australia, and the Americas. Pseudoscience was proffered by most American intellectuals to defend slavery through the majority of the nation’s history. Eugenics, or the idea that we should strengthen humanity by ensuring those with so called “unfavorable genes” do not reproduce, was a popular scientific idea that served as a defense of black mistreatment from the American Revolution through the Civil War and during the Jim Crow era. Eugenics didn’t fall out of favor until people learned of it’s terrible consequences that culminated in the Holocaust.

In the post-WW2 era, these ideas have been reimagined and repackaged with sanitized monikers, such as “race realism” and “racialism”. Eugenics and its more modern intellectual descendants took root largely in research centered around IQ, of the Intelligence Quotient, a measure of intelligence with a somewhat controversial history. This research attempted to “explain” the state of inequality between whites and Blacks. According to publications like Mankind Quarterly, foundations like Pioneer fund, and researchers like Richard Lynn and J. Phillippe Rushton, racial disparities in criminality, educational attainment, and economic success could largely be explained via genetic differences in IQ. This set of ideas is then often used to discourage the implementation of social programs because, as racialist scientists point out, IQ is hard (if not impossible) to change. In the year 2020 much of this is widely denounced (see Nisbett’s book refuting hereditarianism around IQ), but many psychologists are surprised to learn that the legacy of this racist science lives on. 

Examples of this legacy of racism have surfaced as recently as January 2020, when an article titled “Declines in Religiosity Predict Increases in Violent Crime—but Not Among Countries With Relatively High Average IQ” was published in Psychological Science. As its title indicates, one of the paper’s conclusions was that violence is curbed by religious belief, but only if the population has low IQs. The paper went through peer review and the paper joined the annals of research in one of the most prestigious journals for about 5 months. Then on June 11th, University of Kentucky faculty member, Dr. Will Gervais posted a critique of this paper to his Twitter

Dr. Gervais noted that the data used in the article predicts that 43% of Africans have an IQ below 70, which represents substantial cognitive disability. In fact the data indicates that the majority of people in countries like Cameroon, Chad, and Guinea have severe cognitive disabilities. Further, he notes that many of the countries do not have any IQ data. Instead, the IQ estimates of those countries were imputed (or statistically generated) using the IQ samples of neighboring countries. Unfortunately, these were not the only problems with the paper. 

In a separate Twitter thread, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine demographer Dr. Rebecca Sear elaborated on just how bad the data source for the Psych Science paper was. She describes that even for countries with IQ data, the data is composed of IQ scores from children and unrepresentative samples. For example, Sierra Leone has a population of 7.8 million and the IQ estimate for the whole country is based on 2 samples from only 1 ethnic group with a total sample size of 119 participants. This violates statistical norms around estimating traits about populations from very small numbers of people who may not represent everyone. And remember, this data was then used to impute the IQs of neighboring countries!

These threads point out what many academics would agree are egregious methodologies and statistical analyses . Furthermore, these errors serve to reinforce a racist narrative that Black people are intellectually inferior. However, the authors of the Psych Science paper did not gather this data. The data was originally published by Lynn and Vanhanen in 2002. Coauthor Richard Lynn is the aforementioned assistant editor of racialist science publication Mankind Quarterly who (according to his Wikipedia page) “associated with a network of academics and organizations that promote scientific racism.” Is it surprising, then, that the database Lynn produced would have methodological problems that severely underestimate the IQ of African people? 

The conversations around this Psych Science paper demonstrated that the racism in science still bears fruit. It is a hopeful sign that facing significant critiques to their research, the authors of the Psych Science paper released a statement that they will be retracting their paper because they “no longer have confidence in [their] findings” due to “highly questionable data sources.” Scholars on Twitter praise this move for two primary reasons: the conclusions of the studies are not trustworthy given the methodological problems, but also the authors did not fully grapple with the ethical implications of their research. Given the historical role social scientists played in promoting and reinforcing racism, many see it as the ethical responsibility of today’s social scientists to exercise extreme caution to ensure they do not continue to contribute to that history. 

The controversy surrounding the Psych Science paper could just be the beginning. A second paper has been retracted that proposes aggression is a function of the melanocortin system and pigmentation (i.e. black people are more aggressive because they are black). Unsurprisingly, this paper also relies on the Lynn dataset. A substantive criticism of the skin-color aggression paper has already been leveled due to it’s cherry-picked evidence, misrepresentations of theory, and nondisclosure of conflicts of interest (i.e. receiving funding from the aforementioned Pioneer Fund). In the wake of these retractions, a question remains: How many more papers reinforcing racist narratives using shoddy methods are out there?

Originally posted on The Pipette Pen.
Written by Manuel Galvan, @MGalvanPsych
Peer Edited by Brandon Le

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