How to Debunk Pseudo-Science Articles about Race in Five Easy Steps

by Latoya Peterson

PhD Comics

Justifying racism using “science” isn’t new, by any means. Every few years, it appears that someone needs to provide a rationale for bigotry, so they publish some sort of madness and hope most of the readers suffer from scientific illiteracy. The problem is that even with a thorough debunking, people latch on to articles like this to confirm their own biases. So, if you are suddenly confronted with racist foolishness masquerading as science, here is how to respond. Since it’s here, let’s use the Psychology Today article (available in full here) as an example.


Look at the Methodology

Whenever you hear the word “study,” start checking for the methodology. Oftentimes, a methodology will reveal more about the study than the summarized results.

A good example of this is a study we were alerted to a year or so ago. The Daily Mail covered a scientific study which proposed that racism may be hard wired into our brains. However, there was an obvious flaw in the study:

All the viewers were white but the researchers believe the results would still have been similar with any other group.

Now, this study wasn’t using basic things, like a sample representative of population. Yet the study authors felt confident in applying the results to everyone.

The same issue pops up in Satoshi Kanazawa’s piece. He actually doesn’t refer to his own research, but another study. And he doesn’t link to the other study, assuming that all readers will know the term “Add Health.” What he refers to is a rigorous, national study…about teen development and health.

The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (also known as Add Health, the Add Health Study, and the Add Health Survey) is a nationally representative study originally designed to examine how social contexts (such as families, friends, peers, schools, neighborhoods, and communities) influence teens’ health and risk behaviors. The study is now examining how health changes over the course of early adulthood. [...]

The Add Health Study surveyed 90,000 7th to 12th graders, and has re-interviewed the same group of teens as they age. The study is made public to assist others studying adolescent health, and collects information on the following:

What kinds of topics does the study address?
The study collects information on:

*Physical and mental health, such as weight and height, injury and disability, dietary patterns and physical activity, substance use, access to and use of health care services, and suicide and depression
*Interpersonal relationships and sexual behaviors, such as family relationships, friendships, interracial relationships, faith community interactions, sexual activity, and sexual orientation
*Education, including cognitive ability and individual, family, peer, and community influences on school performance
*Delinquency and violence, including individual, family, peer, and community influences on delinquency and violence and risk factors for delinquency and violence
*Involvement in adult roles, including parenthood, jobs, marriage
*Genetic characteristics and biological measures that indicate the presence of specific diseases and disease processes
*Measures of the environments in which participants live and go to school

So this study provides a lot of data on the lives of teens. However, Kanazawa tries to pull information that wasn’t intended to be studied from the report, with no further discussion or references, and present it as fact. (In fact, would you know what the Add Health study was intended to do if we didn’t look it up?) Problematic, to say the least.

We had issues with Allure’s report on the changing face of beauty in the United States, but at least their methodology was much more clear – we knew how many people were surveyed, the images of the models they were shown, what questions they were asked, and how that compared to a similar survey done twenty years ago.


Interrogate the Author of the Study

Kanazawa calls himself “The Scientific Fundamentalist,” and claims to take “a Hard Look at the Truths of Human Nature.” His other articles include things like “Are All Women Essentially Prostitutes,” “Beautiful People Really ARE More Intelligent,” “What I Have Learned from Barry Goldwater,” and this statement on Eva Longoria and Tony Parker’s divorce:

Yes, I called it, nearly two years ago. I knew their marriage was very short-lived long before they themselves did. Once again, such is the power of the evolutionary psychological imagination. We know everything, not because we are special, but because we are evolutionary psychologists.

I’m a Mac, and I predict events before they happen.

I’m afraid to click the links for that rationale.

Amazingly, Kanazawa’s work fits neatly into this bingo card, created by the Punk Ass Blog:

EvoPsych Bingo Card

Check for Scientific Racism

Wikipedia has a very useful summary (and a few interesting convos on the talk page) dealing with Scientific Racism. But the clearest example is actually found on the Wikipedia page for The Bell Curve, where an intrepid Wikipedian added a debunking guide for racist misapplications of science:

Evolutionary biologist Joseph L. Graves described the Bell Curve as an example of racist science, containing all the types of errors in the application of scientific method that have characterized the history of Scientific racism:

  • claims that are not supported by the data given
  • errors in calculation that invariably support the hypothesis
  • no mention of data that contradicts the hypothesis
  • no mention of theories and data that conflict with core assumptions
  • bold policy recommendations that are consistent with those advocated by racists.[38]
  • Be Wary of People Trying to Quantify What is Subjective

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And yet, every few years, someone tries to prove that x is definitively more attractive than y group. The closest science has been able to come to anything remotely resembling consensus is a link between symmetry and facial attractiveness.

    Everything else is informed by personal preferences, how one interprets beauty, and cultural messages about beauty – which again, do change. What was beautiful in the 1980s and 1990s isn’t necessarily valued today. And globally, the idea of beauty shifts often. So trying to definitively state what is attractive and what is not is a bit of a losing game.

    Remember that race is a social construct

    Racebox.org shows how these alleged racial categories have changed over time. Here’s who you could be in 1890:

    1890 Census

    1940:

    1940 Census

    and 1970:

    1970 Census

    Combine that with the shifting categories of “black” and “white” and how people have been included and excluded based on political whims, and trying to explain definitive differences becomes an exercise in futility.

    Related:

    White People Swim, and Black People Run? Race, Science, and Athletics – Racialicious
    Scientific Findings are not Public Service Announcements – Restructure
    Interview with Joseph L. Graves – Addicted to Race
    Guest Rant: Joseph L. Graves – Addicted to Race
    James Watson’s Racism – Addicted to Race

    (Image via PhD Comics, by Jorge Cham)

    Thanks to readers Ruthi, Karen, and Lorenzo for sending in copies of the article!

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    • Norman Howell

      Pseudoscience at its worst.  There is no “peer review”, references or actual data to support conclusions that seem to come out of the air.  No methodology is stated or referenced.  No indication of what statistical tests were used and their confidence intervals.  As a white man I see beautiful women in every race and women that are not my type in every race–so what is new under the sun?  I am not afraid to look at the horizon all around me, not just through blinders.  Psychology Today has just put another nail in their coffin of blatantly unjustifiable conclusions taken as scientific fact without any kind of peer review.  Shame on them.

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    • Cmryals

      All this incompetent fool has to do is look around to see that his supposition is incorrect.  There are beautiful people in all races, and there are ugly persons in all races.  He must be one,  (an ugly person, to try to push such racist bunk!)

    • William Craig

      Thanks very much for this.  I’ll be directing my students to it as we examine (in our course Myth in US Culture) the myth of a race-blind USA.  Shame on Psychology Today for publishing that libertarian quack!

    • Anonymous

       Well my father used to sum up this kind of “study” by telling me..”Figures don’t lie but liars often figure!” 
      You can find statistics to prove just about anything you want and its pretty obvious what this “researcher” wants to find.

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    • Melody

       Thank you! My disgust with Satoshi Kanazawa led me to your fabulous page. I’ll be back soon!

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    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HN33P23RSX3JSVNETPCACBZZJQ Sean

       I cannot believe we’re in the 21st Century and there are still DENIERS of racial differences, diversity and human biodiversity.   What else can be done to get rid of the ignorance?  Decoding of the human genome and DNA studies will not stop as we move forward, therefore the “we’re all the same” types, who rely on pseudo-science will have to resort to even more hysterics and outright lies to support their dishonest and unfactual positions.

      • Anonymous

        Diversity and human biodiversity = valid.

        “Racial differences” = highly subject to politics and interpretations, frequently co-opted by eugenicists and other racists, varies based on who is allowed into/barred from certain racial categories. Easy check: Are genetic differences between “races” being used to advance an superior/inferior narrative? Motivations there are suspect.

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    • Guest

      Well, as a black woman scientist, I am not going to hate research findings just because they “offend” me or “make me feel bad”. I just need to critically review his study. And, well, there was no study there, just random musings. There’s not much he could do to improve it though…the field of social science is hard to take seriously when so many opinions are tossed around. How about some facts?

      • Tpoteat

        Does the entire field of social science have to go because this guy did it poorly?  Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.  High quality social science happens all the time. 

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    • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

      Thanks for the tip…from browsing around the internet I’m appalled at coming across a lot of die hard believers in HBD who are lurking around everywhere not just on racist websites like you would think. And the worst part of is alot of them are stubborn in their beliefs so that when someone more rational comes along to disprove their “theories” they dig in and keep repeating their BS over and over because they think the more you repeat it the more it’ll come true. Their real agenda is to target folks who may not be as “scientifically literate” as they should be into believing their nonsense. 

    • dersk

      Expand this to *any* science reporting in the mainstream media.  Especially climate change, anti-vaxxers, homeopaths, and that sort of thing.

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    • http://bjarne.holmes.socialpsychology.org/ Dr Bjarne M. Holmes

       I’m a behavioral scientist myself… all I can say about your analysis is… superb :)

    • Monica

       Yes to everything. I might also suggest reading ‘White by Law’ which does an awesome job of deconstructing how the Supreme Court has been using pseudo-science for decades

    • Polythremian

      It’s so nice that Mr. Cham had to throw elderly women under the bus in order to make his point about an uninformed, confused public.

      Oh wait, he didn’t.

      It’s so nice you had to use an ageist comic in order to head up your otherwise awesome post.

      Oh wait, you didn’t.

      Protip: Oppressing someone else isn’t awesome just because you’re oppressed.

      • http://twitter.com/DYomoah Doreen Yomoah

         What?

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    • Trudy

      Absolute brilliance. Thank you. And that BINGO card nearly put me in cardiac arrest from laughing. Sadly, that is how many people operate and call it science. I think the field of science was insulted more than Black women were yesterday by Satoshi. No wonder so many people think science is utter BS, and that is not true. Only the charlatans with personal axes to grind make it seem that way when they do what Satoshi did.

    • Revolicious

      Race is a social construct. Tolerance is also a social construct. Genetics are not.
      People come from different genetic backgrounds. Not racist to point out differences between genetics. 

      In fact it’s much more humane to point out these differences and build a world that makes sense rather than take the ostrich approach and put everyone in the same system with no allowances or modifiers to account for genetic differences. 

      • Anonymous

        Sooo not interesting in arguing this point (especially when geneticists do a much better job explaining than my layperson knowledge). But here’s a check: do genetic differences exist? Yes. In both in groups and out groups. Are there times when it is important to consider them, like in health care research and development? Yes. Can we attribute social factors to genetics? Nope. Subjective things like beauty? Nope. Intelligence, of which we only have imperfect measurements and depends on how we define it? Nope.

        People are different. We accept these facts easily. Trying to argue someone is inferior by warping the idea of genetics, as most of these articles do? Not science, just bigotry.

        • numol

          couldn’t agree more.  angry trolls will be angry, but this is the truth.

      • MichelleToo

        Unlike most readers here, I totally agree with you.

        I long for the day when every person lines up for their little genetic test to tell them their worth as a person.  That way we can, as you say build a world that makes sense, rather than assuming that an unintelligent person is ever going to offer much no matter how hard they work.

        And when that day comes, how about YOU stand in line first!  Cause right now, I feel like you are assuming that you might be a little bit more genetically solid than maybe you really are.  

        As a Black woman, I don’t really have anywhere to go but up!  I’m ugly, fat, less intelligent, I have tons more testosterone than other women, I look kinda like a man, I like to eat pig’s feet and I am prone to gingivitis.  So, I don’t really have anything to lose!  What about you?

        • michelle ramaekers

          Michelle3-ditto!   

        • Jenni

          you forgot the part where we are ALWAYS really loud have and “attitude”, roll our eyes, snap our fingers, (and our neck), when we talk…. LOL

      • Ain’t I an African

        So black women are ugly? Get to your point. 

        • Max Tollenaar

           whoa, Whoa, WHOA.  Let’s give the man’s interpretation a fair characterization.  After controlling for the fact that black women are fat and stupid, they’re STILL ugly.  Not bigoted racism, I am sure he would say; rather, science, a harsh reality, an inconvenient truth.  Get over it and move on, already.

          Now, seriously.  The first paragraph of Latoya Peterson’s article, from “Justifying” to “biases”, is much needed poetry.  The sad fact is that the crass generalizations of this blog will be remembered by those who want to believe it long after the argument has been thoroughly debunked.

    • Anonymous

      This totally made my day!  

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    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cara-Lisa-Berg-Powers/21501471 Cara Lisa Berg Powers

       Thanks for this! Also interesting to look at the link between these types of studies and early standardized testing as a means to justify eugenics. Was proud that one of my students made that link right away and debunked. Thanks for this effective and important commentary!

    • Tiffany Gonzalez

      This article was helpful in the sense that it articulated everything I find wrong with EvoPsy and who is actually behind these archaic ideas.   Love the bingo

    • Anonymous

      *Smile*

      I take no pleasure in fighting opponents who aren’t worthy of the time. Hence why this is a service piece, not a takedown. I’m more miffed at PsychToday, though I always find their articles unsatisfying. They choose to give this fool a platform for the last three years.