Columns

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.