[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!

IronFist1

Marvel, Please Cast An Asian-American Iron Fist

By Guest Contributor Keith Chow, cross-posted from The Nerds of Color

Yes, I am proposing that a major comic book institution change the race of one of its popular characters as it transitions to a new form of media. In this case, I want Marvel Studios to cast an Asian American actor to play the lead in the upcoming Iron Fist show it is developing for Netflix. It seems logical enough to me, though as always, there are fans who are urging Marvel to resist changing his race.

Now, I know the topic of cross-racial casting has come up time andtime again here at The Nerds of Color. And while there are a contingent of fans who don’t think such things matter — or worse, arevehemently opposed to such casting choices — I can’t help thinking that Iron Fist gives Marvel a chance to add even more diversity to its interconnected cinematic universe. Not to mention that this is a case where changing the race of the character has the potential to actually add layers of depth to the story of said character.

Continue reading

redskins032614

Race + Sports: Dan Snyder’s ‘Original Americans Foundation’

By Arturo R. García

Dan Snyder apparently attempted to sidestep the continuing criticism around his National Football League franchise on Monday, announcing the formation of an “Original Americans Foundation” in a four-page letter on his team’s website, the Washington Post reported.

Continue reading

Scandal 314B

Open Thread: Scandal 3.14, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”

By Arturo R. García

Olivia (Kerry Washington) finds herself — once again — paying the price for her own success.

The thing about requiem episodes is, they serve as a way for a show to reset itself while exploring how the characters doing so after a particularly noteworthy loss. In the case of Scandal, last week’s clearing of the decks also showed the show bumping up against its own self-imposed limits more visibly than usual.

SPOILERS UNDER THE CUT
Continue reading

Thursday Throwback: Dear Lena Dunham: I Exist

By Guest Contributor Kendra James (Originally posted on April 9, 2012)

Lena Dunham (third from left) and cast of Girls. Courtesy: Rolling Stone.

The advertisements for the new HBO series Girls presented us with main character Hannah referring to herself (while on drugs) as “The Voice of a Generation.” Salon calls the show a “generational event,” and other reviewers rave over the series’ realism and call it “spot on,” and the characters’ feature by Emily Nassbaum in New York Magazine refers to it as “FUBU: For Us, By Us.”

But which “us” are you talking about? And how is this a realistic? I asked myself, as I struggled to figure out exactly what I had in common with these four white girls.

I only became more confused when I remembered what Dunham and I actually do share.

We’re both the products of independent high schools. She went to St Ann’s in Brooklyn Heights, while I boarded at The Taft School in Connecticut. We’re both graduates of Oberlin College in Oberlin, OH, where we were separated by two years. Dunham majored in creative writing, while I majored in cinema studies and anthropology. We weren’t friends at Oberlin, and we weren’t acquaintances, but it’s a tiny school; I could have picked her out of a crowd by her tattoos alone. Like the character Dunham plays on Girls, Hannah, I spent almost two years after graduating toiling in a thankless, underpaid internship in my desired industry.

Here came the confusion: If Lena Dunham and I come from similar educational backgrounds, honed our writing and narrative skills at the same school (and likely with some of the same professors), and grew up spending time in the same city (she’s from Tribeca, and I was a bridge-and-tunnel kid from a nice New Jersey suburb about 30 minutes away), then how could we conceive such radically different images of New York City? Why would I feel so ill-at-ease with her critics essentially declaring her as my voice?

We have our differences. She has famous parents, and sure, there’s race. She’s white. I’m Black. But Oberlin’s a fairly diverse campus and, despite ridiculous tuition costs, those independent high schools are becoming a lot less white than they were. At Oberlin you could try and make your life and circle of friends look like the Girls poster or a scene from Friends or Sex and the City, but you’d have to make a concentrated effort. (And if you did that, then…well. We have other issues to discuss.)

Curricula, on the other hand, are distinctively less diverse.

Of the 20 or so courses offered within the Cinema department (not including private readings and one-on-one seminars), there are zero offered on African-American film, Latino film, LGBTQ Film, African film, and East Asian film. There are, however, seven classes you can take on the European film tradition, and one on framing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict via film. To find classes on African-American, Japanese, and Chinese film tradition you have to leave the department. The classes count towards a Cinema Studies major, but fall under East Asian or African American studies, as if they somehow don’t fully qualify in their otherness. Most importantly, students are not required to take any of these classes that deviate from the White Hollywood arc.

Nevermind the fact that the Nigerian and Indian Film Industries have both at times surpassed Hollywood in output and returns in revenue. The same goes for the Creative Writing department: while classes from the English department count towards a Creative Writing major, students aren’t required to take classes that focus on non-white or European writers and narratives. “There was no non-European requirement, and it was so white,” said a Korean-American friend who happened to be a creative writing major along with Dunham (and also attended an NYC independent school). “I would have to stop in the middle of class readings to explain to everyone what things like kimchi were.”

There’s something to be said about Girls and the state of diversity in education. Dunham is a recent college graduate; one of the first in a new generation of young writer/directors who will–whether we like it or not–be helping to shape the pop culture we’re going to consume over the next decade. If these course requirements represent the average college graduate requirements, then pop culture might be in trouble. I don’t claim to know what Dunham’s course schedule was while she attended Oberlin, but the fact that there’s a chance that she–and the other writers and directors who will come after her–has never had to read a Langston Hughes play, watch anything by Chen Kaige or Oscar Micheaux, or study any type of non-white/European media narrative is troubling, and it’s unsurprising that it would lead to the creation of a show that highlights (I would even go so far as to say rehashes) the lives of four white girls in New York City.

Despite our similarities in background, our views of life in New York city seem to be radically different. An article in The New Yorker tells me that our circles of friends come from the same pools: Oberlin Students and high school friends that more often than not come from the same group of New York City day schools and New England boarding schools. Not only do I work with a WOC who attended high school with her, I have friends who went to high school with both her and her younger sister and, because my friends consist of Latin@s, Asians, Blacks, and whites, I know her life couldn’t possibly have looked as white as the posters for Girls (which is semi-true to life; she calls her character Hannah “another version of herself”) would have you believe.

Yet Girls, set in Brooklyn, where only one-third of the population is white, somehow exists in a New York where minorities are only called to cast for one liners and nanny roles. “Pleasantly plump” Latinas may also inquire within.

These are casting calls from April and May of 2011–when the show was still filming its first season–pulled from Breakdowns Express. There may have been (and probably were) more that have since disappeared from the site.

When asked about the lack of diversity, The Voice of Our Generation didn’t have much of an answer.

“When I get a tweet from a girl who’s like, ‘I’d love to watch the show, but I wish there were more women of color,’” Dunham told the Huffington Post. ”You know what? I do, too, and if we have the opportunity to do a second season, I’ll address that.”

But Dunham is the showrunner, writer, director, and star of Girls. I have the feeling that if she’d honestly wished for some diversity she’d have gotten some diversity.

Though perhaps with a Black homeless man catcalling Hannah on the street, an Asian girl with about fifteen seconds of dialogue taking the job Hannah believes she’s entitled to, mentioning Nigeria as a segue to a joke about the evils of working at McDonalds, and her boyfriend telling her emphatically not be a slave to anyone, Dunham thought she’d incorporated a perfunctory amount of color into the New York she’s created for Hannah. So far to be non-white in Hannah’s New York is something to subconsciously vilified.

Consider these statements from Dunham’s HuffPo interview and Nussbaum’s piece in NY Magazine:

“Our generation is not just white girls. It’s guys. Women of color. Gay people. The idea that I could speak for everyone is so absurd. But what is nice is if I could speak for me and it’s resonant for people, then that’s about as much as I could hope for.” – Dunham

“Still, like SATC, Dunham’s show takes as its subject women who are quite demographically specific—cosseted white New Yorkers from educated backgrounds—then mines their lives for the universal.”- Nussbaum

But why are the only lives that can be mined for “universal experiences” the lives of white women? Dunham’s statement on the other hand, makes me question her overall skill as a writer (you can’t write about anyone besides yourself?), while also implying that there’s some special way to write people who aren’t straight and white. That the problems she presents in Girls couldn’t be happen to anyone who doesn’t look like her.

Perhaps it would help if she were to hire a staff writer of color or a consultant for her writing team, because I’m not sure her staff gets it, either:

Courtesy: Girls staff writer Lesley Arfin, via Twitter

I can’t say if being mandated to take classes focused on a non-white experience have fixed Girls and Lena Dunham. I also wouldn’t argue that that’s the only thing wrong with her attitude (Dunham says in her profile in The New Yorker, ”Let’s call a spade a spade—a lot of times when you are a vegetarian it is a just not very effective eating disorder.”) or with the show, but I genuinely wonder if it would have helped. Or at least given her some perspective if she really had spent her time growing up in NYC completely oblivious to the brown folk walking past her on a daily basis.

I refuse to believe that you can sit through a Spike Lee film, study his work, read his screenplays, and then believe that this is the proper way to cast a show set in Brooklyn– even the wealthier areas of Brooklyn (I can’t wait to see what Blue Ivy Carter’s circle of high school friends looks like). Media studies programs–especially my alma mater’s–should take note of the work their students produce and the attitudes they display and seriously consider if that’s the legacy they’ve intended to release into the world.

Lena Dunham and I may have a bit in common, but regardless of what Emily Nussbaum says, I do not consider Girls to be For Us or By Us. Nussbaum’s “Us” and Dunham’s show eliminate not only the other two-thirds of Brooklyn that exist, the reality of a minority-majority NYC population, but also the reality that my friends and I are currently living. Once again, we’ve been erased from a narrative.

Is a change in curriculum going to fix that overnight? No, not overnight. But I’d feel a whole lot better knowing that those who are going to speak for and represent the “Millennial Generation” (as NY Magazine claims Girls does) have studied and learned something about people that don’t fit the show’s mold. Maybe that’s when erasure begins to fade.

Race, Culture, and Identity in a Colorstruck World