“Is Science Racist?” Book Review.

It may seem to be a rather silly question, but you might be able to find a reasonable argument for the premise. Maybe scientists are racist, and we need to take the proper steps to recognize the bad guys. Perhaps certain scientific practices are harmful and we need to update our research methodologies and have a serious discussion about ethics. But surely science itself, in terms of its knowledge, can’t be racist, right?

Not if you ask biological anthropologist Jonathan Marks. In his recent book Is Science Racist?, Marks asserts that his titular proposition is “not about the institutions and practices of science, however, but about its content.” To the author’s credit, he warns readers that if you find this a silly premise the book is not for you. How is it though, that science is racist?

Marks claims that it is racist “to the extent that its practitioners may be narrowly trained and particularly shielded from the knowledge about race that differs from their folk knowledge or common sense.” Marks’ concern isn’t so much that the content of science is racist as it stands, but that it is constructed in such a way as to allow what he views as evil factual premises into its knowledge base. He highlights four of the foundational pillars of science that he views as epistemological vulnerabilities. These are: (i) naturalism, the idea that the natural world can be comprehended without recourse to the supernatural (which Marks claims is impossible due to the characteristics of human thought, while riffing on creationism); (ii) experimentalism, the idea we can study the world in controlled settings (which Marks says is impossible because things are different everywhere); (iii) rationalism, the idea that reason should govern scientific practice; and (iv) accuracy, the idea that scientific ideas should be factually correct.

Marks claims that all these premises are unusual and do not make for a better mode of thought when compared to other modes of thinking. This argument is, frankly, bizarre, given that Marks concedes that science must pronounce authoritative facts about the world.

In laboring to tear down the four pillars of science, Marks demonstrates a critical misunderstanding of science’s fallibilistic nature. The very point of science is to fail, to find weaknesses, expose them, and to stumble towards truth, which it describes with gradually increasing clarity. As Marks says, a lot of science is based on inspiration and intuition, but we must remember that most scientists’ intuitions are poor. This is precisely why we have experimentalism and a focus on accuracy. Marks claims that the wrongness of partial results poses a problem—but why? Marks clarifies that anthropologists are not, in fact, scientists—an idea probably shared by the American Anthropological Association, which controversially removed science from its mission statement eight years ago. So, what is anthropology? According to Marks, its purpose is to interpret the intersection of science and society, nothing more. This is unsurprising given that Marks’ other book, Why I Am Not a Scientist, makes the same argument.

So, if all of science’s four pillars are wrong, what does science have to contribute? In the era of open access, gridlocked academia and open code, Marks claims that the only thing science is good for is gatekeeping. Gatekeeping has its values, but what are they without independent verification through experimentation and a focus on accuracy, which Marks claims is impossible.

Addressing science’s contribution to racism, Marks claims to have evidence of places where he can indict science itself—rather than its application—as responsible for crimes against humanity. His history of eugenics in America and his historical view of the development of racial concepts is actually pretty intriguing (he is a subject matter expert here, and it shows), but included in science’s sins are Wernher von Braun’s invention of the V2 rocket, the chemical synthesis of zyklon gas and eugenics. Are these science? Arguably, all of these examples fall under the application of science, rather than the process of discovery. Of course, science has sometimes been badly misapplied—all of Marks’ examples are real. But they are dishonest in that they fail to show that science is the causal agent. Even when discussing why the notion of racial differences in IQ might be problematic, Marks fails to make this distinction. He argues against the application of such knowledge, rather than its content (specifically, he believes that a focus on race and IQ immutability harms social programs designed to help others).

Marks’ real rallying cry in this book is against consumer and medical genomics, which apply race on a limited level to help with simplification. For most people who work in genomics, the use of race is applied as a conceptual scaffold, not as a fact of discreteness. Marks’ critiques of race and IQ are familiar to people working in these fields. Of course, we know that most variation is clinal and local (and, as Marks admits, this does not remove the fact that there are group differences). We know that a cluster of global genomes partitioned into two groups will give you Africans and the rest of the world and that a cluster partitioned into five will give you Africans, Europeans, Asians, Native Americans and Oceanics, but that these clusters don’t reflect exactly how people move around. Everyone knows that the boundaries are fuzzy, and the only people imposing a strict usage of race concepts are the people in Marks’ strawman version.

Worst of all is his unabashed use of guilt by association: “There is a reasonable line of thought that goes, ‘If the Nazis like you, you’re probably despicable.’” Such an argument has been levied against many biological theorists, including W. D. Hamilton and E. O. Wilson, but we can’t go on refusing to cite them, can we? Even more curiously, Marks later dismisses the association of left-wing academics with Marxist ideology as “paranoid red-baiting, classic in American politics, but not science.” Going after people who have cited the work of Philip J. Rushton, Marks states that to cite someone who has been accused of racism destroys your own credibility as a scientist because you thereby acknowledge that you are ideologically driven. Yet Marks also argues the contrary: that “bloodless androids” perform “Nazi science. Cringily, he alludes to Vulcans at least five times in the book’s 120 pages, to highlight the inability of scientists to think outside their emotions and ideology (he claims that the Vulcans would agree with him on this). It is rather curious that, in talking about scientists’ biases, at no point does Marks admit his own (though you can join the Marksist Society biological anthropology group on Facebook, which is ironically dedicated to fighting anti-science narratives, to get a hint of whom he and his colleagues admire).

One might be surprised to find a biological anthropologist arguing such a postmodernist position, but this is not a stance restricted to a minority of anthropologists. Scholars who have praised Marks’ book include Alondra Nelson, president of the Social Science Research Council and Dean of Social Science at Columbia University; Agustin Fuentes, professor of anthropology and endowed department chair at Notre Dame University; and noted science popularizer and biological anthropologist, Barbara King. The book was also cited in a recent controversial blog post by science communicator and biological anthropologist Holly Dunsworth—posted both on the Evolution Institute’s website and PLOS Blogs—which received quite a bit of traction online. It is somewhat jarring to see such a postmodern attack on science appreciated by so many biological anthropologists.

At the outset of the book, Marks makes it clear that it was written for him and his friends. At last year’s annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, he referred to the founder of the organization, Ales Hrdlicka, as “a dick.” On his popularly read blog, Marks refers to the founder of human population genetics, the late Luca Cavalli-Sforza, as “Gregor Mendel with just a dash of Mengele” and hopes he will not rise from his grave to become a “vampire geneticist.” Anyone who has been to the biological anthropology meetings will know that Marks is pretty important. He does television specials, people walk around with red and yellow posters (in classic Soviet style) with his face on them—he’s one of anthropology’s biggest figureheads, especially in public discussions of race. The fact that so many biological anthropologists have endorsed his anti-science exposé suggests a much deeper issue in the field.

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16 comments

  1. ” …naturalism, the idea that the natural world can be comprehended without recourse to the supernatural (which Marks claims is impossible…” No reason to continue, full stop.

  2. @“A New Radical Centrism”

    Bravo – a comment worth publishing as an op/ed in any of the country’s leading papers. I’d add further that it seems as if more and more are coming around to this conclusion, one which most of us have suspected all along (and half of which have feared was true and tried to extinguish through smear). Science will ultimately settle the great political debate that has preoccupied humanity since Marx published his manifesto. The jig is up, and the left has lost.

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  3. I am a well-published scientist in several fields (not the social sciences). Marks’ claim that science is racist is simply incoherent. Please go visit Fermi Lab in Illinois and point out how the search for neutrinos is racist. Is the search for a cancer cure racist? How about astronomy? Chemistry? Math? It simply makes no sense. As New Radical pointed out, it seems to be all about groups and IQ.
    There have certainly been people claiming math and rationalism itself are racist and sexist and ist. This seems to me to be a different claim. This claim is based on an aversion to logic and evidence in favor of feelings and narrative that the Left is fond of. And yet these same people are happy to take advantage of the latest technology.

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  4. “To the author’s credit, he warns readers that if you find this a silly premise the book is not for you.”

    so the book is only for people who already agree with the book? is it too much to ask that people making bold claims in book form at least *try* to persuade their readers of them?

  5. “One might be surprised to find a biological anthropologist arguing such a postmodernist position…”

    I’m also surprised to see a poststructuralist position described as postmodernist.

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    1. How exactly is this a poststructuralist position? Marks denies there is any structure to be described at all. My understanding is that poststructuralists keep structure and drop meaning, if anything the view that races are a conceptual scaffold with no biological significance is a poststructuralist position – denial of this entirely would be postmodernist, which I think safely describes Marks.

      1. Poststructuralism was an effort to unpack the political positions that inform observations. It has/had nothing to do with “structure” but rather with a different response to the point that all observations are made from a position: Lyotard summarized “postmodernism” by noting that it rests on a rejection of grand narratives, while the poststructuralists asked, nonetheless, what political motives drive those narratives. Regarding “meaning,” poststructuralists ask how meaning is enacted politically. Marks’s work is very much about the politics of positions on race, and I believe is, consequently, more accurately described as poststructuralist.

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  6. This review only flits around the reason that I believe that the scientific method is coming under intensified and coordinated attack from the activist left in academia –- and that reason is preemption. It has to do with cutting off the opposing army before it can land the final devastating and humiliating blow: Direct evidence for the genetic basis of important group differences.

    2018 was a year in which you began to get the sense that the environmentalists in the nature-versus-nurture debate on differences in individual cognitive and behavioral traits finally threw in the towel. Huge genome-wide-association studies (GWAS) and tools like polygenic risk scoring took over where twin studies had fairly convincingly left off, but added the coup de grace –- hundreds of specific genes and variants were identified and associated with traits and outcomes like cognition and educational attainment

    As the year faded, standard bearers for the left like the New York Times, the Guardian, and New Statesman -– each aggressively hostile over the years to genetic arguments (the case of Nicholas Wade at the NYT is an example of what happens when you dare to go against the environmental orthodoxy) –- began to start to walk a tightrope across the chasm between what their readers (indoctrinated in the pleasantries of the blank slate religion) wanted to read and what science was actually saying. Sometimes you had to read between the lines, but the message was clear: We’ve got some bad news for you. To be able to maintain any credibility among the scientists doing the most important research, these papers all realized that they had to back down from their pro-environment positions, and they did.

    And so, with respect to individual differences in these traits, the verdict appeared to be in: Genes had finally won. This was especially true with respect to intelligence. It is now estimated -– based upon large studies conducted over the last several years — that by mid-adulthood about eighty percent of individual differences in intelligence can be explained by genes. With respect to certain executive cognitive functions, a large study found that up to 100 percent of these are heritable.

    But the genes-versus-environment battle over individual differences isn’t the big one for the left. The big one -– potentially Armageddon –- is the battle over group differences. A genetic basis for the consistent and significant gaps in IQ between racial groups (e.g., a staggering twenty-point difference between African Americans and Asian-Americans) has the potential of destroying the foundation upon which much of the progressive-left project in the US has been built, leaving it no more excuses, no more facile blame-throwing at “oppressive social forces.” The statistical and empirical evidence for a genetic basis for racial IQ gaps –- called “circumstantial” by the left –- is already overwhelming, consisting as it does of IQ data from over 500,000 persons obtained through a variety of different scientifically-validated tests (some actually deliberately designed to skew toward blacks or against Asians), adoption studies, racial admixture studies, controlled-for-SES studies, brain studies, and so on. The desperation of the left, evidenced in tactics such as its endless smear campaigns against honorable and respected scientists like Arthur Jensen, suggests that it quietly (and perhaps even subconsciously) suspects that the worst is true. Otherwise, why would it so aggressively fight against the idea of funding for rigorous scientific research which should, to their way of thinking, ultimately produce the promised egalitarian result?

    If 2018 was the year in which the genes-versus-environment battle over individual differences was finally decided in favor of genes, then 2019 is already shaping up as a year in which a preemptive strike by the activist left in the battle over group differences is going to be launched. Is Science Racist? is just a bit player in this spectacle. Most of it is going to play out in places like the New York Times, which in the past two weeks alone has gone after after James Watson (low-hanging fruit) and now –- predictably after his courageous NYT op-ed back in March 2018 attacking the scientific validity of the notion of race as a purely social construct — even the formidable David Reich. The attacks will be shameless, involve diversions and strawmen like “white supremacy” — shouldn’t it be “northeast Asian supremacy” or “Ashkenazi Jewish” supremacy, anyway? — and, as always, be thin on the actual science. Politically-motivated hacks like Amy Harmon, the NYT’s hitwoman (a science reporter with no training in a scientific field), will interview third-rate scientists with deep activist resumes (or will simply avoid interviewing scientists at all) and avoid eminent figures (like Richard Haier or even James Flynn) who she knows will tell her things that she and her editors and readers don’t want to hear. Institutions like the Times may believe that morality and compassion are on their side, but their fervor and desperation suggest that they already know that science isn’t.

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