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Nov 18 2010

The scourge of “scientific” racism

As a scientist and a black man, I cannot describe to you how weary I am of having people throw “scientific racism” in my face. I don’t mean that people try to prove to me that black people are scientifically inferior; we’ve pretty much debunked that already. No, the thing I resent is when people say stupid things like “science used to say that black people were inferior – therefore everything that science says is suspect.” It is a wearying argument, because not only is it inaccurate, it is actually self-refuting.

First off, science never said that black people were inferior, at least not science in any way that I have described it in the past. Science is a process involving explanation based on observed data, controlling for alternative explanations. Scientists are people who purport to use that method. However, like all people, scientists are subject to human failings, and have been known to say some bullshit-stupid things. Luckily, we have a process for evaluating bullshit-stupid claims – it’s called science. The reason that we know that racial differences are largely sociologically-constructed (as opposed to genetic) is because of science. We didn’t use meditation or divine revelation or any of these “different ways of knowing” to figure that out – we used science.

As I said, the claim is both inaccurate and self-refuting. Scientists did, at one point, make claims about the inferiority of The Negro. They did not, however, base those claims on science. They made the claims, then looked for evidence to support their conclusions. That is not the scientific method; that is the religious method. The doctrine of white supremacy was not based on evidence, but on a supernatural belief in the manifest will of the Creator, who endowed white people with superior qualities. The doctrine absolutely did co-opt the scientific establishment into supporting its assertions, but when the shine was off the apple and real investigation was done, no differences were found. It didn’t have to be so – we could have found a great deal of genetic differences between different ethnic groups. The evidence, however, does not support any doctrine of supremacy (and yes, I have met actual black supremacists – they’re just as bereft of science as their white counterparts).

However, we cannot simply ignore the history that the scientific establishment played in the legitimization and mainstreaming of racism, as Ghana is teaching us:

The Council For Afrika, a UK-based think-tank has commemorated the third global campaign to combat scientific racism, reiterating its commitment to counter the marginalisation and dehumanisation of Africans. The council used the anniversary, which coincided with the first decade of the 21st Century, to draw attention to the escalation of afrophobia, attributed to the global recession. A statement issued to the Ghana News Agency in Accra, by Dr Koku Adomdza, President of the council, said: “Afrophobia has escalated based on discrimination against name, ascent, physical appearance, ethnicity and African ancestry in all spheres of life in the Global North.”

“Scientific” racism (I feel obligated to use quotations here, because it’s not scientific) is not a spectre of the past that we’ve thankfully moved beyond. The campaign started in response to bizarre comments made by James Watson (yes, that James Watson):

“[I am] inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa [because] all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.”

Dr. Watson said he hoped everyone was equal, but added: “People who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”

Stay classy, Dr. Watson.

Dr. Watson was making those claims based on “scientific” research that had been done into intelligence among different racial groups. Of course, like the phrenology studies of the early 19th century, this research was based on faulty assumptions and poor methodology. It has since been largely discredited. It becomes problematic when preeminent scientists start making recommendations about policy based on bad science, which is what happened here.

It is for reasons like this that I am a skeptic. Whenever someone tells me “well X and Y are true”, my first thought is “how do you know that?” Most of the time I ask out of genuine interest, particularly when it’s a topic I’m unfamiliar with. However, other times it comes out of a deep suspicion that the claim being presented is bolstered by nothing other than confirmation bias and anecdote. “Scientific” racism definitely falls under this category.

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  1. 1
    grassrute

    “They made the claims, then looked for evidence to support their conclusions. That is not the scientific method; that is the religious method”

    It’s not the Christian method either. In fact, when Christians use this method, it leads them astray. When church leaders use this method, it leads entire churches astray. Making claims and looking for biblical evidence to support them tends to lead to problems. Christians who submit themselves to true biblical teaching will yield much better results.

    “First off, science never said that black people were inferior”

    Neither did the bible. This demonstrates how much damage can result from the ill-conceived notions of either scientists or the religious.

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    Christians who submit themselves to true biblical teaching will yield much better results.

    You keep saying this, without understanding the glaring fallacy contained within. How do you define which biblical teachings are “true”? What is the standard by which the “truth” of the Bible is judged? You can’t say history – the Bible is ahistorical. You can’t say “revelation” or “God” since there is no standard definition of those concepts either. You can’t say “science” because the Bible makes several claims that are completely non-scientific. You yourself made the claim that flood water can create geological features like sedimentary rock – it can’t.

    The entire “truth” of the bible is subjective. There is no external standard against which claims made from the Bible can be judged. If I claim that Jesus physically walked on water, or I say that it was a metaphor for something, or that it wasn’t actually walking on water but it just looked like that, all of those claims can be made with equal “truth”. How do you decide which truth to believe?

    Neither did the bible

    It depends on who you ask, and when. Christians today say that it doesn’t say that. The early church and the European churches during the 18th century absolutely did find that the bible thinks that black people are inferior. This is, once again, a symptom of there being no external standard by which to judge the “truth” of the bible. We no longer think that black people are inferior, but that wasn’t a reaction to biblical teaching; in fact quite the opposite happened – man believed differently, and his understanding of the bible shifted to accommodate that.

  3. 3
    Katy

    “They made the claims, then looked for evidence to support their conclusions. That is not the scientific method; that is the religious method.”

    LOVE IT! How can we make science fit our creation myth? How can we make science explain the undeniable fact that our dogma is simply refuted by evidence? Of course the answer to that is a whole lot of creative storytelling and fact interpreting, combined with some fancy backpedaling.

    I just came across your blog from Jen’s; love your writing.

  4. 4
    Crommunist

    Thanks for the comment and the kind words!

  5. 5
    Brian Lynchehaun

    It’s not the Christian method either.

    I’m confused.

    You claim to be a Christian, yet are entirely ignorant of what it is that Christians do.

    How does this work in your head?

  6. 6
    grassrute

    Crommunist

    “How do you define which biblical teachings are ‘true’”?

    All are true

    “What is the standard by which the “truth” of the Bible is judged?”

    It is by the God of this Bible that all humankind will be judged.

    “You can’t say history – the Bible is ahistorical.”

    Incorrect, it’s the most reliable recording of history. The authenticity of its text exceeds that of Plato’s. http://www.str.org/site/DocServer/EnhancedSG0910Final.pdf?docID=4901

    “You can’t say “science” because the Bible makes several claims that are completely non-scientific.”

    Are you referring to miracles? They wouldn’t be miracles if they could be scientifically explained. During the time of Moses, the people knew it was impossible for the waters of the Red Sea to be divided. During the time of Noah, the people knew it was impossible for the entire world to be covered by water. They knew it was impossible…but they didn’t know that all things are possible with God. We are to accept in faith that Christ rose from the dead. “Blessed are those who don’t see and believe”

    “You yourself made the claim that flood water can create geological features like sedimentary rock – it can’t.”

    I did? I believe my words were “water is heavy.” I won’t pretend to know what mass amounts of water and the currents that would result could do to the earth’s surface. Science has in no way disproved the flood, nor has it proved that rock is millions of years old. Radiometric dating has its flaws http://mall.turnpike.net/C/cs/basics/sld024.htm
    When it comes to the age of rock, what you consider fact, others consider fiction.

    “The entire “truth” of the bible is subjective”

    Both Radiometric and carbon dating are subjective

    “If I claim that Jesus physically walked on water, or I say that it was a metaphor for something, or that it wasn’t actually walking on water but it just looked like that, all of those claims can be made with equal “truth”. How do you decide which truth to believe?”

    I unapologetically believe everything in the bible happened, unless it is specified otherwise, e.g. parables, visions. (stop laughing!)

    “The early church and the European churches during the 18th century absolutely did find that the bible thinks that black people are inferior.”

    So now you’re telling me that European churches in the past found the bible ‘thinks.’ Thankfully, I know what you mean and unlike others, can carry on a discussion in spite of poor wording:
    The early churches also:
    -burned people at the steak
    -engaged in church governance
    -crusades
    -withheld the bible from the common people

    Scripture doesn’t permit any of the above. Do you think that simply because a number of individuals break the moral code they claim to hold high, the code becomes void? How many Canadians aren’t in prison, yet we don’t refer to the Canadian Constitution, Charter of Rights or Canada’s laws as being subjective. Even the KKK attempted to use the Bible to justify their actions. The same can be done with a science book when an individual with evil motives wants them justified. You can refute him, but who’s to say your right and he’s wrong.

    “We no longer think that black people are inferior, but that wasn’t a reaction to biblical teaching”

    Those Christians who used the cursed line of Ham to justify racism against black may be interested to know that Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba are in the genealogy of Jesus and are all descendants of Ham.

    Wife of Moses was a Cushite which is an Ethiopian. (Num 12) Miram, Moses sister, grumbled about the interracial marriage and God punished her with leprosy.

    “in fact quite the opposite happened – man believed differently, and his understanding of the bible shifted to accommodate that.”

    It’s easy for you to point to the evil committed by the various religious groups, but difficult to point to the good. Do I need to remind you who pioneered the abolition of slavery? Read up on William Wilberforce and what his faith inspired him to do. Today, it’s this faith that gives Christians joy and hope. It’s what motivates them to give generously of their time and money to humanitarian causes.

    We can continue to have exchanges on who’s right and who’s wrong. Science, interpretations aside, will never disprove the Bible. I will continue to unapologetically believe everything in it, and my life will continue to reflect that. Because Christians are no better than anyone else, they will stumble and fall. And anti-theists will always be there when it happens, to point their finger, “see, look what he did.”

  7. 7
    Crommunist

    I’m going to reply to this in the morning. Until then, Brian: avoid the temptation of low-hanging fruit :P

  8. 8
    Brian Lynchehaun

    Dude, you’re like psychic…. I was half-way through a reply when this update appeared in my mail.

    I’ll hold off. But it’s getting beyond the pale at this point.

  9. 9
    Crommunist

    I know… especially when my writing style is criticized and then he uses the phrase “burned at the steak” in the next breath. Don’t worry, he’ll get his.

  10. 10
    Crommunist

    Okay. I slept on the couch last night (friend in from out of town, I get up early… it’s a whole thing). So I’m going to try and address what is a LOT of errors as nicely as possible.

    As a preface, I should say to you that I have no personal interest in tearing down your beliefs. You’re 100% entitled to believe as you like. For the most part, and to your eternal credit, you don’t appear to be here to proselytize as much as you are here to provide your personal perspective. I appreciate that. We don’t have to argue over who’s right and who’s wrong (spoiler alert: I’m right), but I will point out errors in your logic for the sole purpose of arming erstwhile readers who might encounter these kinds of statements.

    The point I was trying to make is that the teachings of the Bible have meant many different things at many different times. You keep talking about “true Christian” this and “true Christian” that, but you have provided absolutely no mechanism for identifying what a “true Christian” is. You simply assert again and again that your interpretation of the Bible is the “true” one, and that other ones are false. How do you know that? Better question: why should I believe you? What proof do you have that your Biblical interpretation is better than that of a Catholic, or a Quaker, or a Presbyterian, or an Episcopalian, or an Eastern Orthodox Christian, or Fred Phelps? All of these subsections of Christianity have different theological schools of thought – what makes you think that your own version is “true” (to say nothing of the Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Sikhs, Baha’i, etc.). How about through the past? You denigrate the theologians of the previous centuries, but provide nothing to back up your rejection of their approach besides the assertion that they are not following scripture. Sure they were, they just didn’t read it the way you did.

    Until you can find a way to reconcile the fact that 1,000 different people can look at the same book and get 100,000 different answers to the same question, your assertions about the truth or falsity of the Bible will continue to be rejected out-of-hand (by myself and by others).

    The authenticity of [the bible's] text exceeds that of Plato’s

    The authenticity of The Da Vinci Code exceeds that of both of those books – doesn’t mean it isn’t fiction. Nobody considers Plato the true word of anything. We use archeology/paleontology, historical records, various types of dating of artifacts, and intersecting narratives from a variety of people to determine the level of truth of any story. There were no Jewish slaves in Egypt. There was no wandering in the desert. There was no flood that covered the whole world. The time in which Jesus supposedly was born never happened. The bible is only “the most reliable recording of history” if you a) ignore all other evidence, and b) get all of your history from the bible. Under that premise, I can claim that The Land Before Time is the most historically accurate movie ever made.

    I unapologetically believe everything in the bible happened, unless it is specified otherwise, e.g. parables, visions. (stop laughing!)

    None of that makes me laugh. Rather, it reminds me of the years I struggled to make the Bible make sense to me. It wasn’t a good feeling. I can only imagine what kind of mental gymnastics you have to do to sort out the huge list of contradictions in that book – hardly the work of an omnipotent deity that wants its people to know its wishes. It looks more like what would happen if several generations of scattered people finally wrote down their oral history in a multitude of languages and then cobbled together certain versions into a more-or-less coherent narrative (which is exactly what happened). There are entire books that didn’t make it into the Bible, voted out by committee. This doesn’t bother you?

    The same can be done with a science book when an individual with evil motives wants them justified. You can refute him, but who’s to say your right and he’s wrong.

    The evidence. If someone says to me “black people are inferior”, I can challenge him to provide evidence. “It says so in this book” is not evidence, it’s just an appeal to authority. He’d be laughed out of the room instantly. Observed evidence is the standard by which we judge the truth of claims, not simply what is written in a book.

    Kush isn’t Ethiopia. I don’t know who told you it was, but they were mistaken. It’s not really important to your argument, I just thought I’d point that out.

    It’s easy for you to point to the evil committed by the various religious groups, but difficult to point to the good.

    It is trivially easy to point out how religious belief motivates people to do evil, but I do point out when religion is used for good. You can motivate people to do good without religion though. I volunteer, I give money to charity, I help old ladies on the subway – none of that is done for religious purposes. However, you can’t get someone to massacre a neighbouring tribe or blow themselves up on a bus or cut off a young girl’s clitoris without appealing to their belief that there is a deity that demands that they do it.

    But whether or not religion is nice is of secondary importance. The most important question is whether or not it is true. It is there that religion fails again and again, because it can produce no evidence for its claims, relegated instead to trying to cast doubt on science to crowbar a tiny crack in the story of the universe for its god to hide in.

  11. 11
    grassrute

    I respect you for your response. Rather than hurl insults at me, you exercised self-control. I will take the time (could take weeks/months) to investigate the concerns you raise, but of course, will approach it from the angle that there are satisfactory answers.
    One thing, the whole point of Christianity is having faith. The day the Bible is proven, faith will no longer be necessary. I am not trying to prove that God did what He claims in the Bible, nor do I see the importance of proving it.
    Thanks for the discourse.

  12. 12
    Crommunist

    Sure, but what things should you have faith in? If I tell you that God wants you to murder your first-born son, you’d probably demand that I prove it, or at least give you some reason. Would you accept “you’ve just got to have faith” as an explanation?

    There’s a great scene from a sitcom called Louie where the main character goes into a public washroom, and there’s a glory hole in the wall (a hole used for anonymous fellatio). The hole has a sign that says “HEAVEN” with an arrow pointing to the hole. Another guy comes into the washroom, sees the sign, and starts to unzip his pants.

    “Whoa, whoa, are you really going to put your dick in there?” asks the main character.

    The other man just shrugs and says “You’ve just got to have faith.”

    Unimportant questions perhaps don’t require proof. I don’t see the need to prove to you like I like Neapolitan ice cream – you can just take my word. But for the really important questions: “how should we treat each other?” “how did our species come to be here?” “what is in store for us in the future?” “should I put my dick in this?” – we shouldn’t just take those questions ‘on faith’. It seems to me that the higher the stakes, the more proof we should demand, and the less we should just make up the answers.

  1. 13
    links for 2010-11-27 « Embololalia

    [...] The scourge of “scientific” racism « The Crommunist Manifesto However, like all people, scientists are subject to human failings, and have been known to say some bullshit-stupid things. Luckily, we have a process for evaluating bullshit-stupid claims – it’s called science. The reason that we know that racial differences are largely sociologically-constructed (as opposed to genetic) is because of science. We didn’t use meditation or divine revelation or any of these “different ways of knowing” to figure that out – we used science. [...]

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