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.