Bryan Pesta no longer has a job. This is good news; Pesta was a professor at Cleveland State who was notorious for publishing racist ideas and promoting the work of his fellow racists. I wish that were enough to have gotten him fired, but it wasn’t — it took a lot of effort to expose him and discredit his work.
Publications like Pesta’s may fly under the academic radar, but can seep into popular misperceptions of race and lend them a scholarly veneer. Pesta was heavily involved, for example, in editing a 2010 version of Wikipedia’s article on race and intelligence, according to the site’s discussion-forum archives. At the time, the article cited both Pesta’s work and that of other “racial hereditarians.” The racist manifesto of Peyton Gendron, the man accused of murdering 10 Black people at a Buffalo grocery store this year, cited some of Pesta’s racial-hereditarian colleagues and predecessors.
Despite nearly a dozen publications over more than a decade arguing for the intellectual inferiority of Black people, Pesta earned merit pay for research and eventually promotion and tenure at Cleveland State. Finally, this year, after researchers at other institutions filed complaints, the university fired him.
But those complaints weren’t about the legitimacy of his research.
I knew about Pesta. RationalWiki had a short article on him (which needs to be updated, it still reports he is a professor). Is there just a tiny and frequently ignored minority of people who are aware of the hereditarian infection in popular science? It’s not as if he was subtle and hiding in the shadows.
Many of his papers about race ran in Intelligence, a peer-reviewed journal that has drawn fire for publishing other racial-hereditarian arguments. Three of his articles appeared in Mankind Quarterly, which a writer in The New York Review of Books once called “a notorious journal of ‘racial history’ founded, and funded, by men who believe in the genetic superiority of the white race.” Two were published in the Journal of Intelligence, an international, open-access periodical that advertises its quick review and publication process.
Many racial hereditarians present their claims as widely accepted but deliberately suppressed facts in the scientific community. They blame the political correctness of academe for their difficulty publishing in well-respected journals.
Publishing in Mankind Quarterly ought to be regarded as a great blaring klaxon alerting you that there is a huge fucking problem here.
Also concerning: Pesta has legitimate academic qualifications, “with bachelor’s, an M.A., and a master’s in labor relations and human services,” and also has a doctorate in psychology. Do you notice what’s missing? He has no background in biology or genetics, but he’s pushing radical distortions of genetics and using poor genetics methodology. From the description of his research, I’m unimpressed.
Pesta’s papers also consistently maintain that racial gaps in test scores can’t be explained by factors like discrimination or economic status. In 2008, for example, he published an article in Intelligence arguing that the gap between Black and white students’ IQ scores could be explained entirely by Black students’ lower intelligence rather than any bias in intelligence measures.
The article relied on a study of 179 students in Cleveland State’s introductory accounting courses categorized as either Black or white. Pesta’s co-author was a CSU accounting professor, Peter J. Poznanski, who has since retired. The university did not appear to be bothered by the article, even linking to it on its “EngagedScholarship@CSU” page. (After The Chronicle inquired about the paper, the university left up the abstract but removed the link.)
Wait, what? He makes sweeping conclusions that black people are intrinsically less intelligent than white people on the basis of a tiny study of his own students, categorizing them as black and white, and then…what? Assessing their intelligence on the basis of their performance in an introductory accounting course? That’s nuts. I wonder if the students knew they were being measured up as exemplars of particular races. Cleveland State seems to have had no problem with this kind of biased and inappropriate analysis.
Even if his methodology wasn’t weak and flawed, his ability to interpret the data ought to be called into question.
A 2014 paper Pesta published in Intelligence, “Only in America: Cold Winters Theory, Race, IQ, and Well-Being,” takes up the historically baseless theory that people who evolved in cold climates — Europeans and Asians — became smarter because cold winters made survival more difficult. Pesta’s paper finds that IQ and average temperature are correlated in U.S. states even though nearly all their residents are descended from people who came to America within the last 400 years, meaning the supposed difference couldn’t have been caused by evolution in place.
Instead, he proposes another hypothesis, the “founder effect,” arguing that certain types of people, genetically and culturally, were drawn to certain communities and areas — ignoring America’s long history of forced migration for people of color. He does add, though, that it’s “possible that significant historical events” — he mentions the Civil War but not slavery or segregation — could have also created regional differences in well-being and education. He also writes that his study doesn’t disprove the Cold Winters Theory, but shows only that phenomena other than evolution can drive geographic differences in IQ scores.
Wow. The reviewers were lying down on the job with that one — it should have been instantly rejected, unless the journal Intelligence just has appallingly low standards.
That didn’t get Pesta fired, though. What did get him axed was the discovery that he’d violated the terms of service in using (well, misusing and abusing) a confidential NIH database. Crossing NIH, from whom all blessings and large grants flow, is a really bad idea, not just for the individual researcher but for his institution.
Independently, Kent Taylor had a similar reaction to Pesta’s new work. Taylor, a molecular biologist and genomics researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles, wasn’t familiar with Pesta but found the article methodologically shoddy.
More important, he couldn’t see how such a paper could have passed ethical muster with the NIH.
Taylor fired off emails to the NIH, Cleveland State, and the University of Minnesota* alerting them to the article.
Taylor’s letter to Harlan M. Sands, who until this past April was CSU’s president, was short and to the point. It called Pesta’s article “both a violation of the data-use agreement and unethical.”
That was the last straw. He’s outta there.
Cleveland State declared that Pesta had been incompetent or dishonest in teaching or scholarship; neglected his duty, and engaged in personal conduct that substantially impaired the fulfillment of his institutional responsibilities; and interfered with the normal operations of the university. The letter declared Bloomberg’s decision to fire Pesta.
Pesta was officially fired on March 4, 2022, two and a half years after his article was published.
Unfortunately, the lingering stench of his published papers remains, still being cited, still being trotted out in every pseudoscientific argument by a Nazi on Twitter.
* Unfortunately, one of Pesta’s co-authors, Jordan Lasker claims to be affiliated with UM’s school of economics. He is not listed anywhere in my university’s directories, and seems instead to be at Texas Tech University? All these guys seem dodgy to me.