Science should not be used to promote the superiority of white

The white supporter, who drove 200 miles to a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and opened fire, killing 10 people, had posted putty. Most of the people he killed were black. The 180-page document cites not only racist conspiracy theories but also research on behavioral genetics. The study focuses on detecting hereditary differences in IQ and the propensity for violence between racial groups.

There is no reason to believe, based on his screed, that the Buffalo shooter understood or even read the scientific papers. He is more likely to have collected them, such as the racist images he reproduces in the document, from bulletin boards and social media channels whose users stick to headlines that seem to promise scientific support for white supremacy. Scientists who study the genetic basis for complex behavioral traits using genome-wide association studies have called for attention to be drawn from the findings of public funds, and especially to the way their scientific results are communicated to the general public. But there is compelling evidence that research on the evolution of socio-behavioral traits finds an impatient audience among white nationalists.

Scientists must recognize that their research can be armed. They need to think hard not only about how their findings can be misinterpreted or misused, but also about the meaning of even conducting research on the differences between racial groups. Above all, scientists must take an active role in combating both violence and white supremacy.

As an academic philosopher focused on how scientific knowledge is built and on the ethical dimensions of building scientific knowledge, I am familiar with the argument that the knowledge that scientists build is in itself morally neutral – that like a hammer, the statement is a tool that can be used to build good things or do great harm – and that scientists have the sole responsibility to seek the truth, whatever it may be. Here, scientists have more responsibilities.

On the one hand, they need to be candid and vocal about the weakness of research that seeks to find correlations between race and differences in traits such as intelligence or propensity for violence. This includes methodological weaknesses such as treating IQ as a good proxy for intelligence or treating “race” as something with a clear genetic basis. The finding that certain genes or sets of genes are associated with complex behavior does not demonstrate a causal relationship or excludes the importance of environmental factors – and indeed, the assumption that genes and the environment vary independently is usually incorrect. The average difference in trait associated with a set of genes between two populations does not exclude that individual variations within these populations may be larger than the mean difference between population. All this means that it is difficult to draw conclusions that are strong, clear and well supported by much of this work. Since racial science is just a bad science, scientists have to point it out instead of letting it stand.

On the other hand, scientists need to do some mental research as to why they are so motivated to look for evidence that traits such as intelligence or propensity for violence are written in our genes or that they would be different for people of different racial groups. Of all the particles of truth that could be discovered about our complex world, why this focus? Is it possible for scientists to follow pre-existing prejudices, biases that come from being people living in a culture built around those biases – or that funders are looking for scientific evidence for their biases? Any scientist who has ruled out this possibility has forgotten that objectivity requires a common project to study scientific conclusions to find out how they can go wrong.

There is another question that scientists need to ask themselves when thinking about why they study the scientific questions they make: what will the knowledge I build be useful for? How can it be used? Do scientists imagine that the discovery of genetic differences in intelligence between racial groups will be used to attract more school funding to black and brown communities or as an excuse to focus school funding on white communities? Or that the finding of genetic differences in the propensity for violence among racial groups will be used for anything other than doubling the current overpopulation of colored communities?

Of course, most members of the scientific community are not behavioral geneticists, and not all behavioral geneticists contribute to racial science that helps white supremacy. But all scholars have responsibilities not only as seekers of truth, but also as members of the human community.

Showing basic respect for the humanity of blacks is something that white scientists have historically struggled with, as seen in the treatment of subjects in the notorious U.S. Public Health Service syphilis study, or experimental enslaved women, or Henrietta Lax. and her descendants from the biomedical research community, which benefits immensely from her “immortal” cells while failing to address racial inequalities in research and access to health care. In fact, scientists have all too often refused to defend their peers or intellectual predecessors, such as James Watson or EO Wilson, as people whose support for white supremacy must be approved because of their scientific achievements.

Scientists need to make it clear that science cannot be used to support white supremacy, and they need to put their backs and scientific talents on breaking down systemic racism and help build a world that supports the prosperity of all people, regardless of their genetic origin.

This is an article for opinion and analysis and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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