Become a Patron!

There are interesting questions in the population genetics and evolution of different human groups, and it would be nice if there weren’t wretched ideologues who will happily misinterpret every difference between two groups of people, or even two people, to turn a description of differences into a ranking of superiority. It’s the Jordan Peterson problem of turning everything into evidence of a hierarchy.

Jedidiah Carlson provides some specific examples of how the right wing mangles research. It’s easy to see when the current fad is for murderous mass shooters to provide manifestos with their interpretation of the science; they are happy to name the credentialed scientists who provide fodder for their delusions.

The Buffalo shooter’s scientific bibliography has clear echoes to a similar citation scandal that arose in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During this era, the National Front (NF), a neofascist political party in the UK that had been steadily growing throughout the 1970s, distributed a series of pamphlets with articles referencing mainstream academic research. Their goal was to justify the organization’s platform of ethnic nationalism, white supremacism, and eugenics using contemporary science. The first wave of NF propaganda proclaimed, “scientists say that races are born different in all sorts of ways, especially in intelligence. This is because we inherit our abilities genetically.” Here, the NF cited the work of Hans Eysenck and Arthur Jensen, two of the most vocal proponents of the hereditarian theory that genetics could explain IQ differences between racial groups. Steven Rose, a champion of radical science and coauthor of Not in Our Genes with Richard Lewontin and Leon Kamin, lambasted Eysenck and Jensen in a 1978 letter to the editor of Nature, calling upon them to “publicly and unequivocally dissociate themselves from the National Front and its use of their names in its propaganda.” Eysenck and Jensen both complied with Rose’s request, albeit without a hint of apology for the societal harm their research precipitated. Eysenck asserted that he was “absolutely opposed to any form of racism” and claimed that “No-one familiar with Professor Jensen’s or my own writings could possibly misinterpret our arguments about the mean differences between various racial and other groups with respect to intelligence as implying the kind of policies advocated by the National Front.” Jensen echoed this self-absolving and patently false sentiment but also took the opportunity to lash out against his leftist critics for being, as he believed, as guilty as the far right in their desire “to promote and to gain public acceptance of a particular dogmatic belief about the nature of racial differences.”

That’s fascinating. Jensen actually tried to argue that oh no, he’s not a racist!, while producing some of the most outrageously bad pseudoscience defending racist discrimination. This is an ongoing problem in recognition, because it is common for racists to deny they are racist, while promoting awful garbage that they will never deny. As the Southern Poverty Law Center points out, “Jensen worked hard to develop a reputation as an objective scientist who “just never thought along [racial] lines,” and to portray critics of his racist conclusions as politically motivated and unscientific.” Right. That’s why he has a long entry at the SPLC.

Jensen is way, way out there, and it’s patently obvious that he was a screaming bigot manipulating the data to support an evil conclusion. But there have also been other scientists, less aggressive about their racism, who have been quietly smuggling bad science into the literature. How about kindly old Grandpa EO Wilson, who, after his death, was found to have been supporting all kinds of openly racist ideas? On the one hand, we’re supposed to objectively evaluate scientific ideas, but on the other, we’re supposed to somehow ignore the biased presuppositions that have led to those ideas, which makes no sense. People regarded sociobiology with suspicion when it first came out, because we were supposed to consider only the limited set of facts presented within it, but somehow we should overlook the fact that it quickly acquired a following among the worst kinds of people, the ones who wanted a racist conclusion and could read between the lines and see that sociobiology was a tool to reach that conclusion? Only racists are allowed to see the obvious interpretations, critics are “politically motivated and unscientific”, which provides a useful ratchet to make sure only the racist perspective gets widely disseminated.

So what do we do about subjects like sociobiology or evolutionary psychology, which promote, with the authors’ open consent and approval, bad ideas like genetic reductionism or determinism? I don’t know. I don’t like the idea of censorship, so perhaps a better idea would be if the various channels of scientific communication, the journals and blogs and so forth, were more proactive in rejecting work that is so clearly constructed around fallacious premises? Good luck enforcing that. The gatekeepers seem to have mostly bought into the bad ideas, since they’re typically privileged beneficiaries of the biases.

And then even work in which the authors were not advocating racism (near as I can tell) will be chewed up and twisted by malicious actors to arrive at a malicious conclusion. There’s no avoiding that.

Much of the scientific community’s outrage in the aftermath of Buffalo centered around the shooter’s citation of a paper colloquially known as the “EA3” study (Lee et al., published in 2018 in Nature Genetics). This study, carried out in over 1.1 million individuals of European descent, identified hundreds of genetic variants associated with “educational attainment” (often abbreviated to EA)—i.e., the number of years of school completed, often taken to be an “easy-to-measure” proxy for intelligence. The shooter’s reference to the EA3 study came in the form of a screenshot of a plain-looking document (figure 1) proclaiming, “The latest findings on genetics and intelligence show that biological factors contribute to the gap in intelligence between European and African populations.” Beneath this image, the shooter weighed in with his own interpretation, punctuating his earlier claims that “whites and Blacks are separated by tens of thousands of years of evolution, and our genetic material is obviously very different.”

Many variations of this table can be found throughout the internet, but the earliest version can be traced back to a thread on 4chan (an anonymous and largely unmoderated online forum) timestamped to September 15, 2018, barely six weeks after Lee et al. was published online (on July 31, 2018). The original post that initiated this thread (figure 2) is a perfect example of what sociologist Aaron Panofsky calls “citizen scientific racism”: an individual, having come across the EA3 study, collected the top EA-associated variants from a supplementary table of the paper, annotated these variants with the allele frequencies in European and African populations using publicly available data from the 1000 Genomes Project, and curated a set of EA-associated variants with the greatest differences in population frequency to argue that Europeans are genetically predisposed to higher intelligence.

The responses to this thread rapidly crystallized into a simple propaganda strategy: turn these “findings” into a standalone unit of easily-digestible visual information—or a meme, for lack of a better term—and let it organically spread across other online spaces. Shortly thereafter, another user took these suggestions to task and independently reproduced the original post’s analysis, presenting the results in a table similar to that shown above. Within hours, this image began to circulate in other 4chan threads and mutate into alternate versions, often accompanied by zealous calls for diffusing these memes throughout the internet. “SPREAD THESE IMAGES LIKE WILDFIRE,” encouraged one user. “This is the new IOTBW” said another, referring to the racist slogan, “It’s OK to be white.” The meme was even passed on to a cabal of popular alt-right bloggers and Youtubers who “have several PhDs and can give you a hand…plus they’re fantastic propagandists.” This collective enthusiasm for propagandizing the EA3 study appears to have been wildly successful. Altogether, variations of this meme have been posted over 5,100 times on 4chan and regularly appear on more mainstream social media platforms like Reddit, Twitter, and Quora. Contrary to the scientific community’s prevailing narrative that the shooter was an isolated extremist who happened to stumble upon the study,20 these data demonstrate that the EA3 study has been a significant force in empowering far-right extremists for years, virtually since the day it was first published.

(Note that Carlson article includes many figures that illustrate the point he’s making, but he’s flagged all of them with a “do not replicate” watermark. They often come from places like 4chan, so I agree, let’s not promote these vile sources.)

One step forward that Carlson promotes is the revitalization of activist-scientists. We need to speak up on all fronts, rather than passively sitting by while nonsense gets published in multiple outlets.

Weaponized science continues to threaten far more than the public image of scientific authority. Today, it has morphed and evolved to find new victims and modes of victimization, and exploits whatever platforms and resources are at its disposal to promote its message. Synthesizing the lessons learned from past radical science movements provides us with a path forward: our collective response to weaponized science must be fiercely multimodal and operationally diverse, taking place in the pages of scientific journals, the digital streets of social media, and the physical spaces of our institutions and cities.

He also gives us three challenges.

First, we must further educate ourselves on the ecosystem of weaponized science. Second, we must actively resituate our appetite for scientific progress towards the service and liberation of our communities. Finally, we must channel this knowledge and desire for change towards the development and implementation of creative strategies to disarm weaponized science, inoculate against its normalization, build resilience and solidarity, and spread those ideas like wildfire.

All right, I think I’ve been doing the first. I’m depressingly familiar with the bad science that gets published in all kinds of outlets. I’ve been involved in the second already, too, as one of those people who strongly believes that science should be serving a larger social purpose. The third…I’m not sure about what creative strategies I could implement, beyond just telling all of you what sucks about some of our modern science.

This content was originally published here.