Only dishonest mental gymnastics can hold up the hypothesis of race ‘science’

In 1998 Andrew Wakefield published an article which found a link between the combined mumps, measles and rubella vaccine and autism — It was a lie (Shaun Curry, AFP)

In 1998 Andrew Wakefield published an article which found a link between the combined mumps, measles and rubella vaccine and autism — It was a lie (Shaun Curry, AFP)

One man made thousands — possibly hundreds of thousands — of children sick. Many of them died and many will continue to die, because one man passed bad science off as legitimate.

In 1998 Andrew Wakefield published an article in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, which found a link between the combined mumps, measles and rubella vaccine and autism. It was a lie but it took more than a decade for the journal to fully retract that paper. It has been thoroughly debunked but today some parents still refuse to vaccinate their children, and a large part of that fear is based on one scientist whose lie had the protection of the scientific academy for 10 years.

But what happens if false science had been held to be true by most scientists for decades, even centuries?

Scientific racism is not new. These days, we refer to it as a pseudoscience — a convenient way to paint as crackpots those who use science to justify (usually their) racial superiority.

The label of pseudoscience, mostly reserved for tinfoil-hat wearers worrying that they might fall off the edge of the flat Earth, allows us to pretend that race science wasn’t mainstream, that Western science didn’t throw funds and time and expertise into defining races, that scientists didn’t use “empirical methods” to show that different races came with different characteristics, some of which had more value than others.

In those days, it was called race science, and it was considered a noble and important area of research, one that would unlock the true story of human evolution. The tenets of race science have long since been debunked but they are often still at the heart of racist comments and arguments.

“I now understand why black people haven’t contributed a single invention to the world ... There is no perfect race [b]ut please explain to me why black people’s IQs are lower?” This statement, made on social media, went viral last week. It could as easily have been said 100 years ago. In fact, it was.

Famed South African scientist Raymond Dart and most others of his generation in the early 1900s thought the same thing. Their argument in a nutshell: a person’s technological and intellectual ability is determined by their race, with some races having greater abilities than others. These ideas have been around for decades, and the “science” they’re based on is as flawed now as it was then.

Science has a lot to answer for about race. It was and continues to be the barracks behind which racist beliefs fester. It also helped to build the walls in the first place.

We hold science up as glowing beacon of empirical value, a superior way of understanding the world. It deserves its privileged position for many reasons: it involves experimentation, peer review, repeatable results, all of which help to strip out bias.

But what if you do not know that you’re biased, or that your assumptions are colouring everything you do? And all your peers have the same prejudice?

Back at the beginning of the 20th century, through an alchemy of science, power, prejudice and self-importance, scientists in South Africa were hunting for specimens of “pure” races to study the evolution of humans. In their minds, they, white men of European descent, were at the top of that ladder of evolution, the greatest specimen of human technological advancement; the Bushmen were the lowest rung of that ladder.

In the 1700s, Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus developed a way of categorising the natural world into discrete units: species, families, taxa. A hundred years later, Charles Darwin published his The Origin of Species, in which he laid out what is now the theory of evolution. He made a note that humans were also animals, which had most likely evolved from apes. When these two pillars of scientific thought — Linnaeus and Darwin — were brought together, combined with the existence of people who looked different, and Europeans’ innate ideas of their own superiority, you got race science.

Race science said that humans could be divided into “types” and that this could be shown scientifically. Some types, however, were better than others.

Saul Dubow, in his book Scientific Racism in Modern South Africa, writes: “The typological method [breaking groups down into types] lay at the heart of physical anthropology. It was based on empirical principles of classification and taxonomy originally developed in the natural sciences. The conception of race as ‘type’ encouraged a belief in the existence of ideal categories and stressed diversity and difference over similarity and convergence. This was overlaid by binary-based notions of superiority and inferiority, progress and degeneration.”

Scientists, with their fixation on type, measurement and empiricism, went in search of “pure” examples of different races. But this measurement and classification was completely arbitrary and was, in short, bad science. There are many examples of the ridiculous ways scientific method was perverted to preserve scientists’ certainty of their own superiority — and that of the society they were in.

For example, skull size was very important to scientists of the early 20th century. They thought that, because people think with their brains, the size of the brain determined the sophistication of the person’s thought capability. They could measure this, they argued, by categorising skull volume.

It was rather awkward when they found that some black groups in Southern Africa had similar skulls to white Nordic people. Instead of considering that their hypothesis had been incorrect, the scientists decided that, although the brain volume was the same, the black people had more slanted foreheads and thus parts of their brains were smaller. They decided that this part of the brain housed reasoning and technical ability. Thus, their assumption had been true: black people with slanted foreheads did not have the intellectual capabilities of whites. It was empirical fact, after all.

These are the sorts of mental gymnastics required to stand by the fundamental hypothesis of race science — that physical racial characteristics are imbued with certain values, and that some characteristics come with superior traits and those of others are inferior.

Similar acrobatics were necessary in the 1920s with IQ testing. IQ testing is a controversial measure of intelligence for several reasons: it is context-, culture- and language-specific, and there are many things that it does not test for. In the 1920s, tangible measurement was de rigueur in South Africa, including measuring intelligence. Black children got very low IQ scores, which authorities said pointed to the intellectual inferiority encoded into their biology.

But, by 1928, South Africa had seen the growth of what was known as the “poor white problem”, and many white people were poor and unemployed. The United States’ Carnegie Corporation administered IQ tests to poor white children and found that their IQs were below average. The reason for this, they wrote in their report, was because of the children’s economic and social conditions. If black children got low IQ scores, it was because they were black; if white children did, it was because of their socioeconomic circumstances.

Race science was not pseudoscience back then. It was not a shameful belief that people only voiced in certain company (which appears to be the way scientific racism is doled out these days). It was the basis of policy, it was scientific evidence used to subjugate and oppress, and it was mainstream. White scientists and researchers perverted the scientific method to give their society a justification for oppression.

But it is more comfortable for us to call scientific racism pseudoscience, and so when someone says that black people are intellectually inferior to whites, we can dismiss them as a racist crazy. It is much more difficult to admit that those ideas came from science, and that the reason they are still alive and kicking in modern South Africa is because they are still protected by the old immunity they once had.

Sarah Wild will present some of these ideas on the Science journalism, authoritarian regimes and pseudoscience panel at the World Conference of Science Journalists in San Francisco this weekend

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild

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