Category Archives: science

[Thursday Throwback]: How to Debunk Pseudo-Science Articles about Race in Five Easy Steps

by Latoya Peterson

This was originally published on 5-17-2011

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!

Scientific American Does Not Stand With DN Lee

By Arturo R. García

The science blog community was lit up — and rightly so — after the disturbing treatment of DN Lee came to light.

As Lee explains in both the video above and at Isis The Scientist, Lee was approached by Biology-Online.org for a guest blogging stint. When Lee asked about payment, B-O said they did not pay for guest contributors, but argued that her work would benefit from being exposed on the site.

When Lee declined, however, B-O replied — and we quote — “Because we don’t pay for blog entries? Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?”
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Race + Feminism + Science: #Rose4Space Nears Milestone Victory

By Arturo R. García

It’s anybody’s guess whether the people at Axe Malaysia imagined Roshini Muniam would be in this position. But as of Wednesday morning, the 27-year-old graduate student is seemingly poised to win the online poll determining the country’s representative at its “space academy” in Florida.

The great Jaymee Goh has been following and promoting Muniam’s candidacy — which picked up online speed under the #Rose4Space tag — and defending her against a spate of online trolls who are aghast that a woman is crashing what they see as their club.

As Goh Hosannas posted on Saturday:

1) Rose is a woman of colour from a particularly oppressed minority group in Malaysia.

2) I am a woman of colour, and from the same minority group.

3) I’ve been called every nasty name under the sun for exhibiting “male behaviour” that – were I male – would result in the exact opposite (i.e. I’d be called “straight-talking” and “solid” instead of “nagging Indian bitch” “shrill feminazi”.

4) QED, it’s personal, brah. My voting for Rose is pretty fucking personal.

5) If your friend can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen. Internet competitions are run on popularity/sentiment. He knew that.

The balloting is officially closed, with the winner to be announced on Sept. 24. But, the last reported standings were still visible on Axe Malaysia’s Facebook page:

Based on that tally, Muniam leads her closest competitor by 31,287 after completing an impressive surge to the finish line, considering that, as the Malaysian Insider reported on Saturday, she was in last place less than a week ago, and targeted for harassment on top of that:

[The newspaper] reported yesterday that the post graduate student was discriminated against and insulted on her profile featured in Axe’s Facebook page, due to her gender.

A comment posted by Syed Wazien expressed surprise at a woman’s desire to go to space while another, by Dimitriy Mirovsky, was more insulting, saying that women should be prohibited from the competition as they menstruate.

A check by The Malaysian Insider today showed that the sexist comments had been removed by Axe’s Facebook administrators.

Axe, in a statement to The Malaysian Insider, said it is committed to ensuring its online platforms are regulated and the sensitivities of its fans and consumers are safeguarded.

“We do not condone remarks that are offensive or discriminatory and have processes in place to ensure these interactions comply with our communications guidelines.”

One of the upsides to Muniam’s burgeoning campaign is, even (Heavens forbid) in the event of an 11th-hour comeback by one of the young men competing against her, Axe Malaysia would no doubt face tremendous online pressure to verify any sudden drop of hers in the standing, not to mention a side-eye for any future contests. Meanwhile, Muniam’s supporters are unlikely to fade away. As Goh mentioned on Monday, “One of the best things about this #Rose4Space campaign is finding so many cool Malaysian Tumblrites.”

And if they’re organizing now, who knows what they could do in the future if they keep coming together?

Edit: The first blockquote has been correctly atributed to Hosannas.

From Science Class To School-to-Prison? Criminalizing Black Girls

By Guest Contributor Sikivu Hutchinson; originally published at Feminist Wire

kiera wilmotHigh stakes test question: a female science student conducts an experiment with chemicals that explode in a classroom, causing no damage and no injuries.  Who gets to be the adventurous teenage genius scientist and who gets to be the criminal led away in handcuffs facing two felonies to juvenile hall? If you’re a white girl, check Box A; if you’re an intellectually curious black girl with good grades, check Box B.

When 16 year-old Kiera Wilmot was arrested and expelled from Bartow High School in Florida for a science experiment gone awry, it exemplified a long American-as-apple pie tradition of criminalizing black girls.  In many American classrooms black children are treated like ticking time bomb savages, shoved into special education classes, disproportionately suspended and expelled–then warehoused in opportunity schools, juvenile jails, and adult prisons.  Yet, while national discourse on the connection between school discipline and mass incarceration typically focuses on black males, black girls are suspended more than boys of every other ethnicity (except black males).  At a Georgia elementary school in 2012, a six-year-old African American girl was handcuffed by the police after throwing a tantrum in the principal’s office.[i]  Handcuffing disruptive black elementary school students is not uncommon.  It is perhaps the most extreme example of black children’s initiation into what has been characterized as the school-to-prison pipeline, or, more accurately, the cradle-to-grave pipeline.  Stereotypes about dysfunctional violent black children ensure that the myth of white children’s relative innocence is preserved.

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Starcrossed: Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Bizarre Anti-Mayan Rant

By Arturo R. García

At the end of last month, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson posted this missive on Twitter:

Just two days later, our one-time Crush of the Week either forgot his own advice or let his trademark snark veer off toward a disturbing, unprovoked bit of culture-shaming.
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Racialicious Crush Of The Week: Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

By Andrea Plaid

Neil deGrasse Tyson. Courtesy: thehumanist.org

When I announced at Wednesday night’s late night editorial meeting–I’m still recovering from it!–who this week’s Crush is, the Owner/Editor exclaimed, “That’s what I’m talking about!”

Anyone who can cause the otherwise unflappable La Editrix to flap…yeah, so this week’s Loved-Up.

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Excerpt: Monique Poirier previews her vision for Native American steampunk

Native Science understands that nature is technology – a compost pile is a massively-tested super-applicable multifaceted waste management system resulting from four billion years of research and development where you put food waste in and get high-yield fertilizer out and the whole process is carbon neutral!

I imagine a Steampunk North America (Turtle Island) in which the buffalo population wasn’t deliberately eradicated for genocidal purposes and which thus still enjoys the resources of vast areas of tall grass prairie (you need buffalo to have prairie as much as you need prairie to have buffalo because many seeds will not germinate correctly or thrive without passing through a buffalo’s digestive system unless human intervention is applied). I imagine a Turtle Island in which deforestation is severely curtailed and vast areas of old-growth forest are deliberatly maintained. I imagine city architecture utilizing rammed-earth walls and green roofs on large communal buildings, and time-tested local building technologies on smaller, private residences. I imagine populous cities designed for walkability and communal pedestrian culture. I imagine a North America in which the Black Hills are not defaced with gigantic carved graffiti of doofy white dudes.

By the 19th century in my alternate timeline, Turtle Island has a thriving, technologically advanced pan-Indian culture, a collective of independent nations with distinct regionalisms that has a UN-like organization to engage with the global community. A group of nations that meets Europe as equals and trades technology and cultural influences as such.

- From “Musing About Native Steampunk”

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. [...]

Continue reading