New Series: Profiles in Scientific Racism

Science is a human endeavor and the humans that engage with it have their own histories, cultural and social backgrounds, interests, influences, beliefs, practices, educational pedigree, and time period. All of these have an effect on the the types of questions asked, the approach to answering them, and the assumptions and biases brought in to the research. Science as an authoritative body of knowledge has a certain weight and influence, that if tarnished by ideology, bigotry, and self-interest, can have profound and long-lasting effects. Jon Marks, in an excellent article with NBC, said

“If you espouse creationist ideas in science, you are branded as an ideologue, as a close-minded pseudo-scientist who is unable to adopt a modern perspective, and who consequently has no place in the community of scholars, but if you espouse racist ideas in science, that’s not quite so bad. People might look at you a little askance, but as a racist you can coexist in science alongside them, which you couldn’t do if you were a creationist.”

Racist ideas in science go unchallenged and remain in the pool of knowledge, ready to be summoned at a moments notice. These racist ideas are employed gleefully by the alt-right, Nazis, and other white supremacist groups as we have seen so recently in Charlottesville, VA and around the country. Works by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein (The Bell Curve), Madison Grant (The Passing of the Great Race), Philippe Rushton (Race, Evolution, and Behavior), Nicholas Wade (A Troublesome Inheritance), and many others claim to demonstrate real, heritable differences in biologically determined races that places those of European descent at the top of a hierarchy, a new Great Chain of Being.

Scientific racism doesn’t have full reign though as racist ideas are being challenged. Ashley Montagu (Man’s Most Dangerous Myth), Tukufu Zuberi (Thicker Than Blood: How Racial Statistics Lie), Agustin Fuentes (Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You), Stephen J, Gould (The Mismeasure of Man), Jon Marks (Is Science Racist), and others have and/or are fighting against the production and perpetuation of racist myths in science. Myths that are not grounded in rigorous scholarship, but instead emerge from culturally produced assumptions and personally held prejudices of those that carry immense cultural capital and are elevated as experts in society.

This series will examine different scientists’ contributions to scientific racism in the United States. I think that understanding how scientific racism was perpetrated, we can have a greater understanding of the state we find ourselves in today.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Alistair Miller says:

    ‘Works by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein (The Bell Curve) … and many others claim to demonstrate real, heritable differences in biologically determined races that places those of European descent at the top of a hierarchy, a new Great Chain of Being’. I have read The Bell Curve, and there is no such claim made. The accusation, I’m afraid, is founded on ‘a culturally produced assumption’. Even though there is no prima facie reason that there should not be heritable differences between races (just as there are physical differences in athletic or swimming ability, or in eyesight), the evidence is that historical and cultural differences explain differential performance in such measures as IQ tests, as Thomas Sowell has argued compellingly in his work on race and intelligence. This explains, for example, why Northern blacks outperformed Southern whites on US army intelligence tests during the first World War, and why black children of West African Christian heritage outperform white children in English schools today. Or are these examples of ‘cultural racism’?


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