Pseudoscience to Justify Blatant Racism
Scientific racism, sometimes termed biological racism, is a pseudoscientific notion that empirical biological, genetic, and physiological pieces of evidence exist to support or justify racial discrimination, racial inferiority, or racial superiority. Historically, scientific racism received acceptance throughout the scientific community, but it is no longer considered scientific.
Scientific racism is basically as old as what we now call science. From the age of Enlightenment (the 1650s to the 1780s), there was a big push to understand what race was. Somehow, almost all those early scientists agreed that a “white race” was “superior” and they utilized scientific mythologies to justify their prejudices.
During the famous, well supported, and well-accepted movement of pseudoscientific racism in the scientific community and society at large debates around various popular beliefs and concepts emerged. They included eugenics, phrenology, the heritability of IQ, the basis of sexual orientation, and sociobiology.
Let’s discuss a few creations of this scientific racism;
As the role of the brain in human behavior became clear, scientific racism spilled into the newborn area of neuroscience. That likely started with craniometry, measurements of the skull, which quickly turned to phrenology, the idea that head shapes can predict mental traits.
Under the influence of biological determinist beliefs, the American craniologist Samuel George Morton (1799–1851), and later the French anthropologist Paul Broca (1824–1880), attempted to measure the cranial capacities (internal skull volumes) of people of different skin colors, intending to show that whites were superior to the rest, with larger brains.
All the supposed proofs from such studies were invalidated by methodological flaws. The results were used to justify slavery and to oppose women’s suffrage
Those early examples of scientific racism paved the way for much of the eugenics movement in the 20th century.
Early ideas of biological determinism centered on the inheritance of undesirable traits, whether physical such as club foot or cleft palate, or psychological such as alcoholism, bipolar disorder, and criminality. The belief that such traits were inherited led to the desire to solve the problem with the eugenics movement, led by a follower of Darwin, Francis Galton (1822–1911), by forcibly reducing breeding by supposedly defective people.
By the 1920s, many U.S. states brought in laws permitting the compulsory sterilization of people considered genetically unfit, including inmates of prisons and psychiatric hospitals. This was followed by similar laws in Germany, and throughout the Western world, in the 1930s.
Intelligence in biological determinism and scientific racism:
Alfred Binet (1857–1911) designed tests specifically to measure performance, not innate ability. From the late 19th century, the American school, led by researchers such as H. H. Goddard (1866–1957), Lewis Terman (1877–1956), and Robert Yerkes (1876–1956), transformed these tests into tools for measuring inherited mental ability. They attempted to measure people’s intelligence with IQ tests, to demonstrate that the resulting scores were heritable, and so to conclude that people with white skin were superior to the rest.
It proved impossible to design culture-independent tests and to carry out testing in a fair way given that people came from different backgrounds, or were newly arrived immigrants, or were illiterate. The results were used to oppose the immigration of people from southern and eastern Europe to America.
IQ and Eugenics:
Lead by Henry Goddard and Lewis Terman, two prominent eugenicists, the US adapted and adopted the first versions of IQ tests, firstly created in France. Based on those tests, and combating what they called “feeble-mindedness”, eugenicists pushed laws for forced sterilization.
It is estimated that over 60,000 people, most of them minority women, in the US alone went through state-sponsored forced sterilization. The SCOTUS ruling that allowed this (Buck v. Bell) has never been expressly overturned.
After the end of World War II, scientific racism in theory and action was formally denounced, especially in UNESCO’s early antiracist statement “The Race Question” (1950):
“The biological fact of race and the myth of ‘race’ should be distinguished. For all practical social purposes ‘race’ is not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth. The myth of ‘race’ has created an enormous amount of human and social damage.”
Even after WW2, there’s still a whole lot of racism that goes into certain neuroscience topics, especially when discussing intelligence. Pseudoscientific books like A Troublesome Inheritance (2014) and The Bell Curve (1994) still reflect racist and eugenic views to this day.
As we get better at examining the brain in detail, there will likely be more misinterpretations and misuses of research for racist reasons. That’s why it is so vital to fight for inclusion, in an actual meaningful way.
The bottom line is: Science is not apolitical, and it’ll never be.