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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Quashing Racist Pseudoscience Is Science’s Responsibility

Like other strains of misinformation, racist pseudoscience destroys faith in science, makes the act of conducting responsible research more challenging, and causes bodily harm. In the aftermath of the massacre in Buffalo, New York, at the hands of a white supremacist terrorist, scientists can no longer justify silence in the name of objectivity or use the escape tactic of “leaving politics out of science.”

By racist pseudoscience, I am referring to a collection of obsessive, fan-fictional notions that human beings can be meaningfully separated into groups with different essential characteristics on the basis of genetics. If human races are biological groupings picked out because they differ profoundly and meaningfully, then we can rank them. And if we can rank them, we have a justification for racial discrimination.

The proliferation of these false notions requires all of us who are able—the scientists, citizen-scientists, and journalists who compose our scientific ecosystem—to formally dedicate themselves to their demise. We should do so not only out of a moral obligation but also, perhaps chiefly, in the name of protecting science.

The Buffalo terrorist’s motives were documented in a manifesto that espoused the “great replacement theory,” a racist creed that has motivated acts of terrorism in recent years (e.g., in Christchurch and El Paso). The manifesto offered pages of cartoonish misinterpretations of human population and behavioral genetics research, and especially on topics that reify racial groups and affirm the inferiority of Black people.

In the attack’s aftermath, the question has emerged regarding whether, or to what degree, we should “blame” the subfields of genetics and its constituents—for the massacre. A related question asks whether this sort of research should be censored because of how readily it is weaponized.

These conversations are driven by a subset of geneticists—many of them behavioral geneticists—who fear a backlash because work from their field was mentioned in the manifesto. Among the responses, variations of two immature arguments have appeared:

Genetics research doesn’t kill people, people kill people (so don’t blame the scientists).Racist pseudoscience existed long before modern genetics research (so don’t blame the scientists).

Both claims distract us from a reality: Genetics research around human traits needed a reflection long before the terrorist attack. And reflection begins with being very clear about the two different kinds of study that influence public understanding of human differences.

Many modern studies conducted by reputable scientists use large data sets to identify the genetic contribution to human traits (including many genome-wide association studies). Misrepresentations appear as notions that we are “finding the genes for” certain phenotypes, or downplay the many (and important) caveats that should accompany the results of these studies.

The other sort of work involved in public misperception comes from the alt/dark “scientific” community of charlatans, who drive the existence of fringe journals (e.g., Mankind Quarterly) and routinely publish racist (and sexist) drivel. While very few respected scientists would ever claim that these alt-science spaces contribute anything useful, they persist as if they are adjacent to the mainstream, with all of its legitimacy.

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Though these two classes (the mainstream and the fringe) are very different, each contributes to the public confusion that directly or indirectly feeds the racist pseudoscience machine. For example, though the Buffalo terrorist was deeply entrenched in the alt-science world, his screed featured cherry-picked, out-of-context figures and data from mainstream science—published in Nature, about genes associated with “educational attainment”—to support his worldview. This is consistent with the work of scholars who have documented that white nationalist circles consume the mainstream genetics literature at a high rate.

The mainstream research that aims to resolve relationships between genes and traits that we care about (e.g., diabetes risk) is important to the betterment of life on Earth (and maybe beyond), and has delivered critical insights that help us treat disease, improve agriculture, and even aid in conservation efforts. Learning about how genetic information crafts traits across the biosphere is also an exciting frontier of science, independent of its practical value.

Even acclaimed geneticists acknowledge, however, that studies of humans are not without their flaws, and in particular as they apply to the statistical interpretation of the findings: the design and results do not warrant the sorts of headline-worthy conclusions that they’ve sparked. For example, results of the 2018 study of educational attainment (the same one mentioned in the manifesto) were summarized by Steven Pinker as “collectively predict[ing] a big chunk of variance in educational attainment.” This is misleading.

To most, the better summary is less tantalizing: Large genome studies often identify hundreds or thousands of genetic markers (single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs) associated with human traits or behaviors, all of which often “explain” (statistically) rather small percentages of the population-wide difference in a trait. These studies are important, but hardly “predict” anything in a meaningful way.

Consequently, even the honest work of well-intentioned scientists should be clearer about its messaging. Improved, more accurate communications of the results of genome-wide studies would sound less sexy, create less clickbait, and (perhaps) fame for the authors. But if the main message from honest work is distorted to dangerous ends—over and over and over and over again—then it is our scientific responsibility to participate in the course correction.

The work of the alt-genetics fringe science community requires a different intervention: an aggressive effort to extirpate any force which legitimizes the rot of racist pseudoscience. This would include actively holding the actors who author, platform, or propagate this misinformation accountable. In my view, helping to promote racist pseudoscience is akin to scientific malfeasance. Consequently, mass retraction, public shaming, termination, and defrocking should be on the table as reactions, just as with other large and consequential violations of the scientific process. For example, the work of Jean-Phillipe Rushton (and associates), whose professional existence has been built around a biological race fantasy, cannot be ignored. It should be treated with the same unforgiving hand used to address different destructive acts of impropriety (e.g., the Jonathan Pruitt scandal).

In the cases of either mainstream or fringe science, censorship is not a relevant issue–the question is not about what we have a right to ask, but about how we can let science do what it does best: select the useful ideas and discard the broken ones. Demanding the best of the work is not censorship. It is science.

What would a formal effort to correct misinterpretations look like? If the modern era of “big science” is good at anything, it is organizing institutions around ambitious goals. From Bell Labs to the Manhattan Project, Nixon’s “War on Cancer” and the Human Genome Project—science knows how to mobilize resources around topics that we believe to be important. While these large efforts can have mixed results, they at least draw attention to issues that we care about.

A unified effort is necessary, and it should be holistic and inclusive, involving funding agencies, school teachers, ethicists, physicians and everyday citizen-scientists. But it starts with geneticists, who should not view participation in these efforts as community service, but as protecting the science that keeps their lights on, and is the greatest knowledge-creating instrument in the universe.

The stakes are higher than ever. Anything else qualifies as complicity or cowardice.

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