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Bustos ’16, Hammer GS, Kelly GS, Murphy GS, Porcelli GS: Raising the curtain on pseudoscientific racism

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Op-Ed Contributors
Friday, October 30, 2015

In the past few weeks, discussion over a controversial pair of columns in The Herald has shifted our attention to free speech, instead of fostering critical engagement with the author’s pseudoscientific racism. This devolution is highly dangerous for three reasons. First, as other op-ed contributors have rightly pointed out, this twist in rhetoric deflects attention away from the release and impact of columns resembling hate speech. Second, scientific knowledge, and biological determinism specifically, have long served as justifications for supposedly innate inequalities that were, in fact, created through conquest, violence, dispossession, slave labor and environmental destruction. Let’s not forget that colonialism and the Enlightenment happened at the same time. People have often drawn on “scientific knowledge” of this kind to normalize inequalities that aren’t naturally there.  Third, and perhaps most importantly, this diversion has allowed M. Dzhali Maier’s ’17 argument to go unchecked, risking the academic and moral integrity of our community.

Pseudoscience flourishes most readily around topics infused with contentious political consequence, given the power and legitimacy that invoking “science” carries in the contemporary world. White supremacy has a long history of propping itself up through the deployment of “science” to explain away socially constructed inequality amongst human beings. 

One of the most virulent forms pseudoscience takes is an argument that relies upon questionable data to make fallacious interpretations. “The white privilege of cows” falls under this paradigm. The author begins by looking for sources of “original” inequality across human groupings, which is problematic because it ignores the complexity of historical contingencies at all timescales besides the “origin,” the definition of which is arbitrary. In and of itself, however, this is not pseudoscientific (see work by author Jared Diamond), and it is true that agriculture advanced fitfully in different times and places on Earth. It also stands to reason that livestock played a role in this story. Suddenly, though, the author states, “It is still a question whether or not evolution endowed Eurasians with skills utilized to capitalize on the good luck of livestock animals.” This statement misrepresents near scientific consensus on the matter: Though a number of theories present themselves for disparate domestication of animals, human ineptitude is a ridiculous minority view. Overwhelming genetic evidence indicates that the genetic differences within “races” far outweigh the genetic differences between “races.”  Inasmuch as genes are the substrates for evolution, these facts undermine the hypothesis that certain populations could have evolved to be “more fit.”

The thrust of racial pseudoscience over the past 400 years of human collision has rested on this premise: Intrinsic biological differences mediate social behavior, and ergo “advancement.” But if we truly want to understand inequality among human beings, we must look at its creation and maintenance through social relations of dispossession, exploitation and marginalization. Only by ignoring these dynamics can one possibly conceive of white privilege as arising from the domestication of cows, rather than the systematic destruction of non-white civilizations through colonial relations of conquest and domination. 

Undermining scientific consensus is also quite common when it comes to other challenges to entrenched socioeconomic and racialized systems. Take, for example, climate change. News media outlets punt on expertise, distrust national scientific bodies and, in doing so, falsely present two equal sides of the story, despite their not being equally grounded in empirical evidence and support. Earth has been much warmer and much cooler in the past. Neither of these truths rebuts the consensus that modern anthropogenic global warming is likely unprecedented in its rate and presents a unique challenge to humanity and biodiversity. Yet these truths are used consistently and erroneously to defend a denialist approach to humans’ role in contemporary climate change. By claiming that the phenomenon is natural, poorly understood, and thus permissible, pseudoscience practitioners defend and thereby perpetuate the current economic paradigm.

By presenting the jury as out on biologically determined ability to domesticate animals, the author’s argument liberates itself of evidence, free to make wild conjectures in stark contrast to our best scientific data. Indeed, one of the final steps in the pseudoscientific process is to justify a false implication based on a neatly packaged but erroneous data set and interpretation: linking “strong” with “rich” and “weak” with “poor” (social Darwinism’s defense of “natural” inequality, in a nutshell). It is this falsehood — which ignores historical relations of exploitation between colonizers and the colonized, vast genetic similarity across humanity and enculturation’s dominant influence on behavior — that we find most virulent.

By choosing to publish one of the most historically caustic false pseudoscientific assumptions, The Herald compromised its journalistic standards and jeopardized the safety of our community. Propagating these untruths, and the assumptions they are built upon, risks an uninformed readership accepting them, even in some small part. Pseudoscience is historically successful for this reason; it is noxiously effective.

The debate in the past few weeks is not about freedom of speech. It’s about a readership rightfully decrying a lack of basic journalistic standards to ferret out a pseudoscientific argument that holds dangerous implications for a vast part of this campus and the broader community. Intellectually sound, controversial arguments are welcome generators of dialogue on a university campus such as Brown’s. Yet when opinions are not informed by empirical evidence and instead spread fallacies that historically were cited as “scientific” evidence for unequal treatment of peoples, high journalistic standards do not protect their dissemination. To say otherwise is foolhardy and risks so grossly misunderstanding the situation at hand so as to warrant student distrust. 

Camila Bustos ’16, Ricarda Hammer GS, Christopher Kelly GS, Michael W. Murphy GS and Apollonya Porcelli GS can be reached at maria_bustos@brown.edu, ricarda_hammer@brown.edu, christopher_kelly@brown.edu, michael_w_murphy@brown.edu and apollonya_porcelli@brown.edu, respectively.

12 Comments

  1. In the interest of providing a rebuttal of this article, I will go section- by- section:

    – “This devolution is highly dangerous for three reasons. First, as other op-ed contributors have rightly pointed out, this twist in rhetoric deflects attention away from the release and impact of columns resembling hate speech. Second, scientific knowledge, and biological determinism specifically, have long served as justifications for supposedly innate inequalities that were, in fact, created through conquest, violence, dispossession, slave labor and environmental destruction. Let’s not forget that colonialism and the Enlightenment happened at the same time. People have often drawn on “scientific knowledge” of this kind to normalize inequalities that aren’t naturally there.”

    I couldn’t agree more with the first point. It is grossly infuriating that debate over the content of “Cows” had to wait until the firestorm over the audacity of its writing has died down. Why couldn’t we discuss content from the get- go? I agree with the second point. Science and biological determinism have been used to justify acts both great and the terrible. However, I must point out that in no place did the article state any justification for any act. I also must object to the false dichotomy between “nature” and “nurture” the writers of this piece clearly state. Innate inequalities and inequalities created via conquest, violence, dispossession, slave labor, and environmental destruction do not have a gulf of difference between them. The whole point of the “Cows” article was to narrow this mythical division between them. Innate inequalities of ancestral humans, projected through material evolution amongst humans, resulted in conquest violence, dispossession, etc. As someone who has written thesis after thesis on the Enlightenment, I can say that colonization and the Enlightenment go hand- in hand, but I can also say that this isn’t unequivocally a negative thing. Modern africa, with its skyscrapers, railways, airports, and other trappings of modernity, stands atop technologies brought to the continent by Enlightenment Colonialists. Inequalities are there either because of “natural” innateness, or because of innateness reflected through materialism. Which one is “natural”? I don’t know.

    – “Pseudoscience flourishes most readily around topics infused with contentious political consequence, given the power and legitimacy that invoking “science” carries in the contemporary world. White supremacy has a long history of propping itself up through the deployment of “science” to explain away socially constructed inequality amongst human beings”

    There is a fine line between science and pseudoscience, as any philosopher in the field would know. There are many criteria proposed to delineate the two. If you take the Karl Popper route and determine that falsifiability is the key feature of science, then the argument of the “Cows” article *is*, in fact, falsifiable, and thus it is not pseudoscientific. What is pseudoscientific is White Supremacy. Science cannot say that white people are better than black people, or that cats make better pets than fish, or strawberry ice cream is better than vanilla ice cream. All science can do is conclude facts. White people have a lower risk of sickle cell anemia, cats require more living space than fish, and vanilla ice cream is much less likely to trigger a reaction in a person allergic to stone fruit than strawberry. No statement of “better than”, “superior to” or “Inferior to” can be falsified (for they are opinions), and that is why they are pseudoscientific. As for social constructivism, as I ask anyone who brings it up, from whence comes the “social”? out of a hat?

    – “The author begins by looking for sources of “original” inequality across human groupings, which is problematic because it ignores the complexity of historical contingencies at all timescales besides the “origin,” the definition of which is arbitrary”.

    Well, I guess we could look at inequality in the earliest living organisms, but really now. Do you propose we define the “origin” as the divergence of human ancestors from chimpanzee ancestors? what about at the evolution of Lucy? Rather, it makes the most sense to look at the human origin of inequality from the point where humans split apart from each other. Other archaic homo left africa and split apart into different species (such as Neanderthal) several million years before modern humans left africa and split apart (and, in doing so, interbred with various archaic homo they met in Asia/ Europe).

    – “It also stands to reason that livestock played a role in this story. Suddenly, though, the author states, “It is still a question whether or not evolution endowed Eurasians with skills utilized to capitalize on the good luck of livestock animals.” This statement misrepresents near scientific consensus on the matter: Though a number of theories present themselves for disparate domestication of animals, human ineptitude is a ridiculous minority view”

    The whole thrust of “Cows” was the idea that livestock were incredibly important, so fair enough. However, the domestication of animals *is* still an open question, still being researched and hotly contested. You confuse the stating of an opinion with the stating of a fact. Maier speculates on regional differences in man’s ability to domesticate livestock, but you’re right. There is no smoking gun. However, Maier never asserted that there was. As for scientific consensus, there have been some studies that implicate certain alleles of certain genes in personality traits. One in particular, called DRD7R, has been implicated in novelty- seeking behavior (http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/01/125-restless-genes/dobbs-text). A new allele of this gene is thought to have arose roughly 10,000 years ago, coinciding with domestication of animals, the Neolithic Revolution, and the rise of the first cities in Mesopotamia and Anatolia. Maier considers the possibility that something like this had a hand in domestication of animals (a hypothesis spurred on by the noted lack of domestication of african animals, such as the zebra, by native africans, while European colonists were able to make novelty use of zebras). I must note that for the wider discussion over race, the question of biological enablers for domestication is irrelevant. Perhaps so, perhaps not. If not, then Eurasians just got really, really lucky in landing in places with naturally mild- mannered wild animals. If this is the case, I can still say that a white face in a crowd is a domestic face in a crowd is a privileged face in a crowd. Regardless of luck or skill, natural inequality exists (as Maier points out), and we can’t just get rid of that in order to make a more “equal” world. Finally, I must note that science is not a democracy. Minority views are sometimes right (just think of Ignatz Semmelweis, who instilled hand- washing in the medical profession. He got very strong pushback from his colleagues, who dismissed him out- of- hand).

    – “Overwhelming genetic evidence indicates that the genetic differences within “races” far outweigh the genetic differences between “races.”

    I want to point out that this is a FALLACY. In fact it has its own name: Lewontin’s Fallacy. This only applies to one allele or one trait, not a collection of traits. Take black hair, for example. Black hair could show up in anyone, and not track along racial lines. However, combine black hair with straight hair, fair skin, epicanthic folds, lack of prognathism, shovel- shaped incisors, brown eyes, lactose intolerance, alcohol flush reaction, and the new allele of the gene DAB-1, and you get a clear racial picture. Take a collection of visible traits and they correlate to likelihoods of invisible traits within the same person and along racial lines. Each trait, taken in turn, is distributed more within races than between races, but a collection of traits does, in fact, group with one race or another.

    – “The thrust of racial pseudoscience over the past 400 years of human collision has rested on this premise: Intrinsic biological differences mediate social behavior, and ergo “advancement.”

    In “Cows” Maier wrote about two questions occupying the same space in discussions of race; one, that there is biological diversity in humans, and two, that this means something. Here, in your premise, you hit both of them in one fell swoop (exactly what Maier warned you not to do). You are the one saying “ergo”, not Maier. Keep that in mind.

    – “But if we truly want to understand inequality among human beings, we must look at its creation and maintenance through social relations of dispossession, exploitation and marginalization. Only by ignoring these dynamics can one possibly conceive of white privilege as arising from the domestication of cows, rather than the systematic destruction of non-white civilizations through colonial relations of conquest and domination.”

    I agree. This is indeed the way to understand the intricacies of inequality, power, politics, and the human story. However, I ask again: from whence comes the “social”? There is no ignorance of social dynamics in Maier’s article, but rather a hypothesis regarding their origin. What made it possible for colonists to sail to non- white lands and enact conquest and domination? How were they able to build ships, store food, and develop guns to accomplish such a feat? Because of their longstanding history of agriculture, of inequalities in food and resources, and thus, inequalities in power. Many things are universal amongst humans. We all want what’s best for our children. We all want to adorn ourselves with ornaments reflecting our social status. We all want to satisfy our own needs and care for our loved ones. This gets reflected through our differences in material culture. We feed our children different foods depending on environment, we send them to concrete schoolhouses in New York City, or thatched roof schoolhouses in West Africa, depending on our material climate. People in polynesia adorn themselves with coconut shell and bone, while ancient people in Siberia used animal teeth as ornaments. They used what they could find. We get food by farming or by hunting- gathering, water by aquaduct or by well, and protection by spear or by rifle. When two cultures come into contact, however, the one with the stronger tools, social organization, or food technology, will dominate the weaker one. Whoever can develop to live in location A, and yet thrive in location B, will have a great advantage over whoever develops to live in location C, and cannot thrive in location D.

    – “Undermining scientific consensus is also quite common when it comes to other challenges to entrenched socioeconomic and racialized systems. Take, for example, climate change. News media outlets punt on expertise, distrust national scientific bodies and, in doing so, falsely present two equal sides of the story, despite their not being equally grounded in empirical evidence and support”.

    Climate change is beginning to speak for itself. We’ve just had the strongest recorded hurricane on record, and superstorms Sandy, Juno, and Nemo show how much our climate and weather is in turmoil. Climate change, like the shape of the earth, is a settled issue. There is no controversy. Race and human evolution *is* still an open question. We have Lewontin’s Fallacy, evidence of human- Neanderthal interbreeding, and the discoveries of Homo naledi in africa and human- butchered mammoths in Michigan to contend with. The stories of domestication of the dog (https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn28361-first-domestication-of-dogs-took-place-in-asia-not-europe/) and cows (http://www.natureworldnews.com/articles/17778/20151027/domesticated-cattle-farmers-continued-breed-cows-wild-ox-new-study.htm) is still very much in debate. Not to mention, there is a sense of urgency (and a sense of shame) surrounding climate change. We have to act now, damn the holdout studies. We also caused this, so we have the tools to turn the ship around. Human evolution is out of our hands. All we can do now is look towards the future.

    – “when opinions are not informed by empirical evidence and instead spread fallacies that historically were cited as “scientific” evidence for unequal treatment of peoples, high journalistic standards do not protect their dissemination”

    I agree with this point. However, it is this article that spreads the fallacies. There is no advocacy for unequal treatment of peoples in Maier’s article, in fact I interpreted it as an article of compassion, looking to use history and science to make our treatments of other people as effective as possible. Heifer International is an organization that seeks to do this. By all means, the Herald should censor falsities, but they published this piece, so as of October 20,2015, they have failed to do so.

  2. This column completely misses the point that I and others have tried to make regarding the state of free expression on the Brown campus. We do not wish to “devolve” or “divert” attention from a discussion of the actual columns that started this controversy. Far from it. In fact, as we wrote in the BDH on 10/15/15, “We strongly support the rights of all who have criticized controversial opinions pieces published by the Wesleyan Argus and The Herald. We hope that they will continue to express their critical opinions and take issue with the controversial views contained in those columns.”

    Indeed, the claim that a “diversion” towards free expression has allowed Maier’s arguments “to go unchecked” is ludicrous on its face. That column has been publicly attacked and rebutted over and over again since its publication. In addition, as a biologist, I quite agree with the substantive point made today by Camila Bustos and cowriters, that the differences within “races” do indeed far outweigh any genetic differences between “races.” However, today’s column went well beyond a substantive rebuttal of Maier’s piece. It adopted the language of harm by claiming that the mere publication of this opinion piece “jeopardized the safety of our community.” Really? Is there a single person on this campus whose life suddenly became less safe the morning after the BDH published the offending column?

    The real diversion here is the one in today’s column, which invokes the language of harm in the name of suppression of free expression. Note that the authors generously state that “intellectually sound” arguments are welcome at Brown. But who will decide which arguments meet that criterion and which do not? Clearly, the arbiters of legitimate opinion will be those who, like the authors of this column, have the “correct” political viewpoints. Therein lies the inherent danger of much of the current dialogue on campus. It is one thing to respond to controversy, as 90% of this column does, by saying, “You’re wrong – and here’s why!” But once one embraces the claim that the expression of a disagreeable opinion causes harm or endangers “safety,” the stage is set to stifle free expression and put a lid on the discussion of anything genuinely controversial. That, and the abject failure of our Administration to speak in defense of free expression, is the problem we wrote about back on 10/15/15.

    • I do not think you understand “safety” in the same way the these writers (and others that disagree with you) view it. To ask whether someone’s life became less safe after the BDH published Maier’s column is similar to the commenter below positing that a written rebuttal might “break the author’s nose.” You both sound irrelevant and ridiculous – surely this is not what the author’s wrote or intended (read the next sentence in that paragraph to see what they did indeed write and intend!). Any research on what anyone in the history of the term has meant when they say “safe space” should have cleared this up fairly early on.

      The argument about “who will decide which arguments are intellectually sound” also seems removed from the reality of the situation to me (and, likely, anyone who has worked or written for a publication). Surely, there are opinion pieces that the BDH would not publish that would have been published in the past (e.g. any pro-slavery argument voiced less than 150 years ago). This process is intellectual gate-keeping, but that fact never seemed particularly tyrannical. To argue otherwise is to say that these views haven’t really are currently up-for-debate, a point to which I think few would agree with you.

      What I understand most to be arguing is that Maier’s pseudo-scientific views on race and genetics should be in the same category as other bygone white supremacist editorials. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine a BDH opinion board who already thought this way, and would have thus declined to publish Maier’s piece. What I am so confused about is whether you actually believe that any opinion piece should be published, and if not, why this weird and racist take on race/genetics should be in the realm of “plausibly published articles.”

      More generally though, you (and those who agree with you) are responding to ideas that have never existed beyond your head. There aren’t calls for censorship according to political alignment – there’s calls for the basic human awareness to not publish long-discarded white supremacist ideas (if you don’t see a functional difference, please say why). Nobody believes that a column (well, this column) will result in a punch in a nose, but many believe the deluge of support for Maier’s white supremacist column has made Brown a worse place to live only for students of color – see any joint statement from students to get a better understanding of why.

      • except that Maier’s articles were neither racist nor white supremacist. Your argument falls apart.

        • You can argue that! I would side with the article above, which argues that it was “a pseudoscientific argument that holds dangerous implications for a vast part of this campus and the broader community.”

          But either way, this disagreement shows that the “free speech” conversation is a diversion. We’re arguing about what Maier wrote, and whether it is racist or white supremacist or racial pseudoscience or had some other quality not deserving of publication – not some abstract principle of whether or not free speech at college campuses is at risk.

          • I agree that the “free speech” conversation is a diversion – one brought about by the removers of the article!

  3. I would post a rebuttal to this piece but I fear breaking someone’s nose.

  4. Luther Spoehr says:

    The authors of this article base their arguments on the truthfulness, accuracy and authenticity of their understanding of science, as opposed to the “pseudoscientific” theories of the past. That’s all very well and good, but they seem oblivious to how their own theories have emerged—that is, from debate, argument, and disagreement. For example, many people deemed Galileo’s and Darwin’s ideas “harmful.” But fortunately for the authors of this article (and the rest of us), attempts to silence them ultimately proved unsuccessful. And their ideas emerged all the stronger for having been subject to challenge.

    Moreover, even ideas as apparently definitive as theirs have been modified, tweaked, and adjusted in the light of subsequent research. Are the authors of this article confident that their own ideas are the last word on the subject? And would they prefer that everyone else just take their word for it, rather than engage in argument, however mistaken? And on the basis of what authority will they claim the right to say who will speak and who will not?

    Back in the 19th century, Lord Melbourne said of the famous historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, “I wish I were as sure of anything as Macaulay is of everything.” These days we could use more Melbournes and fewer Macaulays.

    Luther Spoehr

  5. Man with Axe says:

    Science = what I believe to be true. Pseudoscience = what I don’t believe to be true.

    The authors are convinced that catastrophic climate change is underway and is caused by human activity. Anyone who disagrees, including some distinguished scientists, are “deniers” engaged in pseudoscience. Not just wrong, but akin to holocaust deniers and charlatans. So say the undergraduates.

    If the climate hysterics (only fair, right?) are allowed to have their way many trillions will be spent (wasted?) on reducing carbon emissions with very little if any appreciable effect on the climate by their own admission. Doesn’t it make sense to have a wide-open debate on the issue before we doom most of the world’s population to permanent poverty?

    One of the commenters blames recent hurricanes on climate change. The recent Pacific storm, so powerful before landfall in Mexico, turned out to be a non-story. Hurricane Sandy was a category 1 hurricane, if memory serves, when it hit the US coast. The last really strong hurricane to hit the US was Katrina a decade ago. But none of this proves one way or the other that climate change, if it happens, is going to be catastrophic. Maybe it will be a good thing on balance. Maybe we can adapt to it. Or maybe it will doom all of mankind. I don’t know.

    But for God’s sake, let’s not squelch debate because you are so certain that you are possessed of the truth.

  6. Man with Axe says:

    Having opinions about the characteristics of races of people is not ipso facto racism. There are races. They do share certain tendencies. It is as foolish to suggest that race explains nothing as it is to suggest that race explains everything.

  7. mono no aware says:

    —Overwhelming genetic evidence indicates that the
    genetic differences within “races” far outweigh the genetic differences
    between “races.”—

  8. mono no aware says:

    —Overwhelming genetic evidence indicates that the
    genetic differences within “races” far outweigh the genetic differences
    between “races.”—

    The same is true of the genetic differences within and between dog breeds. Still, a golden retriever is not a chow.

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