The Disturbing Return Of Race Science Has Been Festering For Decades

A new book documents and debunks the long history -- and disturbing return -- of pseudoscientific beliefs about race.
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The defeat of the Nazis helped discredit race science, which through fields such as eugenics had fueled the belief that some human beings are inherently inferior. Scientists from around the world came together after World War II to condemn the ideology that had led to the Holocaust, and to expose its main tenets as irrational and unscientific.

But race science never really disappeared. For decades, wealthy benefactors and organizations footed the bill to keep racist journals in print and funded researchers to push pseudoscience about the differences between population groups. Sometimes these scientific racists, as they’re known, appeared in established media or were welcomed into the halls of power ― a professor active in the movement was appointed to a civil rights commission during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Although race science advocates still carried a deep historical stain and were largely kept to the fringes, they managed to persist.

Now scientific racists have edged back into mainstream politics and society, despite legitimate scientists continually debunking their claims. Far-right politicians have embraced ethnonationalism, prominent media figures such as Joe Rogan and Sam Harris host race science proponents, and white nationalist YouTube channels spread racist theories to massive audiences. Like measles, a blight that science made great efforts to defeat has come back.

“What the internet has done is give a forum for these people to network at an unprecedented rate and in unprecedented numbers to reach people who before they would have really struggled to reach,” said science journalist Angela Saini, who documented the don’t-call-it-a-comeback of race science in her new book, “Superior.”

The proliferation of racist ideologies through social platforms and digital media has given renewed life to a range of outdated scientific racist arguments, largely based on junk science and poor research methods. But the people and platforms promoting these views ― whether it’s YouTubers such as Stefan Molyneux or opinion sites such as Quillette ― have tailored old talking points to new audiences and attempted to give a veneer of respectability to what usually amounts to run-of-the-mill racism.

“We have imagined for so long that the only racists in society are the ignorant ones, but that’s not the case.”

- Science journalist Angela Saini

In “Superior,” Saini documents how this recent crop of scientific racists is a natural outgrowth of a decades-long attempt by race science proponents to regain respectability after being widely discredited following World War II.

Part of this effort was to create serious-sounding academic journals such as Mankind Quarterly to host their writing, while others used their titles at universities or wealth to legitimize themselves. What became clear to Saini was that networks of scientific racists have long carried out a very deliberate attempt to work their way into influential positions to promote their beliefs.

“We have imagined for so long that the only racists in society are the ignorant ones, but that’s not the case,” Saini said. “There are racists at every level of society ― in universities, in politics and they know exactly what they’re doing. They’ve been doing it for decades.”

Race science advocates have often sought to co-opt the work of legitimate scientists. In Saini’s book, Swedish archaeologist Kristian Kristiansen recounts how he would continually see a “racially motivated cherry-picking” of scientific data whenever he published studies. Sometimes the manipulation came from within academia itself, and Kristiansen remembered exchanging emails with an academic at another university before coming to realize that the professor was a white supremacist ― he had only been interested in Kristiansen’s work to find data that would reinforce his beliefs.

Race science proponents and their enablers have also consciously packaged their views as a kind of forbidden knowledge (the name Harris gave to his podcast that featured race science advocate Charles Murray.) But the reality is that these views are not so much forbidden as they are easily accessible but simply rejected by the vast majority of legitimate scientists and researchers, Saini said. Modern science has found that individual differences massively outweigh any slight variation between population groups.

“There’s no shortage of research into the effects of racism and discrimination and the political idea of race. It’s all there,” Saini said. “But (race science advocates) would like us to believe something is being covered up, and they do that purely for political reasons.”

Scientific racists have additionally benefited from developments they couldn’t have foreseen only a short time ago. The boom in DNA ancestry kits such as 23 and Me has promoted the false assumption that race can be a quantifiable statistic and linked to specific nationalities. Such tests are wildly misleading and reinforce pernicious ideas about race, Saini said.

For one, these kits compare a customer’s DNA against living people who have also had their DNA tested, rather than giving an indication of someone’s actual ancestry. They are “at best trivial and at worst astrology,” geneticist Adam Rutherford told Gizmodo last year.

“They’re presented in such a way to make you believe that they’re linking you to a place rather than to living people,” Saini said. “Not only is it dangerous, but it’s scientifically inaccurate to think of yourself that way.”

“They have a place in universities and politics now and they’re not afraid to say the things they were afraid to say in public.”

- Saini

But what Saini said is most disturbing is that even as journalists have exposed race science advocates’ true beliefs and some within the academic community have raised alarms about them, society has still allowed the movement to grow. Defenders of race science have co-opted free speech arguments to demand to be heard, rebranded themselves as crusaders against political correctness and taken advantage of new platforms to spread their beliefs without challenge.

“Through our lack of oversight, they’ve managed to enter mainstream discourse ― they have their own journals, they have their own magazines,” Saini said. “They have a place in universities and politics now and they’re not afraid to say the things they were afraid to say in public.”