White People Swim, and Black People Run? Race, Science, and Athletics

by Latoya Peterson

phelps swimSo I am up at five, again, but this time for a good cause. The Takeaway (NYC) is hosting a show on a new study that is causing tongues to wag:

Biomechanical researchers analysed 100 years of athletes’ heights, weights and running and swimming records, and demonstrated how the placement of one’s center of gravity affects one’s athletic performance. No big deal, right? People got jumpy, however, when the International Journal of Design & Nature and Ecodynamics published the paper: “The Evolution of Speed in Athletics: Why the Fastest Runners are Black and Swimmers are White.”

We talk with two of the scientists behind the study: Dr. Adrian Bejan of Duke University and Edward Jones, of Howard University, about why their team embarked on this project, the science enlisted in their research, and the specifics of the study’s outcomes.

We also talk with Latoya Peterson of Racialicious.com about why these sorts of studies make so many people squeamish, and whether, in a post-racial society, it makes sense to conduct studies on groups of people based on shared physical characteristics. What’s your take? Are race-based studies inherently racist?

The show is live at 6 AM ET – or, you can listen to the podcast and comment here a bit later in the day.

Update:

Just finished the show, and, as usual, the supertight constraints of radio mean a lot was left unsaid.

I received the papers by Bejan and Jones last night as part of my prep for the segment, and noticed something interesting.  Bejan has published two other studies that didn’t grab headlines: “The Evolution of Speed, Size, and Shape in Modern Athletics” (2009, with Jordan D. Charles) and “Constructing Animal Locomation from New Thermodynamics Theory” (2006, with James H. Marden).  For Bejan, this is another paper in a research cycle, looking at changes in speed and dynamics through a variety of lenses.  But the reason this paper grabbed headlines is because of the racial angle.

I am reminded of the PhD comic linked to by a reader a while back:

PhD Comic on Science and Journalism

And this is kind of what happened with this study.  The actual paper states in the third paragraph (or fourth, if you count the abstract):

Our approach is to study phenotypic (somatotypic) differences of human locomotion in different media (terrestrial vs. aquatic), which we consider to have been historically misclassified as racial characteristics. These differences represent consequences of still not well-understood variable environmental stimuli for survival fitness in different parts of the globe during thousands of years of habitation [3–6]. Our study does not advance the notion of race, now recognized as a social construct, as opposed to a biological construct. We acknowledge the wide phenotypic and genotypic diversity among the so-called racial types.

Yet, the study is being distilled simply as blacks are better runners, whites are better swimmers.

When this happened on air, I forfeited a statement spot* to push the question back to the study authors. The researchers used the terms “black” and “white” but were really talking about regions, particularly in the case of runners. However, when the segment wrapped, I hoped listeners had taken some of the more important parts of the study with them. The point of the convo was not to have people to rail against research, but to understand and critically analyze research and context.  Jones sent out an email to those of us on the segment, saying:

1) My contribution was in bringing the relevant comparative body composition literature to the table.

2) Future research design that would seem logical to do, if this science is deemed sound, useful and relevant to pursue — may include a longitudinal, prospective (from this point forward) study that attempted to standardize factors such as socioeconomic status, access to similar athletic training swimming or running), and other such factors among different members of a representative sample from different population groups (e.g., blacks of various subtypes, whites of various subtypes, and Asians of various subtypes) to see if the differences remain. Technically, this type of study could be argued as required before the findings in the recent paper by Bejan, Jones & Charles (2010) might be considered proved/disproved. Retrospective studies such as this are useful, but clearly have methodical limitations given the lack of standardization and control in study designs.
This is similar to something Restructure said back in 2009, in her post “Scientific findings are not public service announcements:”
When a newspaper publishes an article about a recent scientific study concerning humans, it is almost expected that people with a political agenda will pick and choose parts of the article that support their view, and ignore those parts that invalidate it. The science writers may even intentionally and deliberately insert clarifications and disclaimers to make sure the article is inconsistent with a popular incorrect political view, but people with an agenda will ignore the clarifications and disclaimers because they don’t understand it, they reject nuances, or because they simply ignore information that does not fit into their worldview. [...]
Of course, this is a complete misunderstanding of how scientific research works. Almost all scientific studies are not done to educate the general public; they are done to explore the unexplored territory in the field. The primary audience of a scientific paper is other scientists in the field. Only after the original paper endures years of debate and replications among the scientific community do the new findings make it into the canon of an undergraduate textbook. Most published studies do not make it into this canon, and are read by only a small circle of specialists.

In other words, many members of the public assume that scientific studies are conducted for them instead of for other scientists. Given this assumption, it is not too much of logical leap for them to suppose that the scientists conducted a particular controversial study with the nefarious intention to advance a political (e.g., right-wing) agenda.

The whole reason I jumped on the radio this morning was to say this: Talking about race and science are similar because both topics become a bit distorted in national conversations, despite efforts by anti-racists and by many scientists to make sure that everyone is working from a clear understanding of the underlying assumptions and principles.  The problem with research around race isn’t that simple research exists – its that people take this research and consider it the absolute truth, which is then used to prop up existing prejudices.

Now, I’m not saying that scientists can’t be racist or put together flawed studies in support of prejudice.  But I am saying that these matters are complicated, and we should be skeptical of what conclusions are drawn from what types of data.

*I said forfeited a statement spot, which is a direct result of my media training. While listening to the scientists talk during their segment, I realized they were trying to answer the questions as thoroughly as possible – which meant they kept getting cut off.  The radio and tv environment does want some clarity, but they really thrive on soundbytes.  So, now when I am asked a question, I’m not thinking “what’s the best way to answer this question?” but rather “what’s the best way to answer this question in 30 seconds and in a way that will be remembered.” Our super condensed media cycle may also be an explanation as to why its hard to have clarity in larger national conversations.

(And I need to give a big thank you to the commenters on Racialicious who are part of the science community -  you all have really helped shape how we approach these discussions.)