Its defenders claim to be standing up for uncomfortable truths, but race science is still as bogus as ever.
One of the strangest ironies of our time is that a body of thoroughly debunked “science” is being revived by people who claim to be defending truth against a rising tide of ignorance. The idea that certain races are inherently more intelligent than others is being trumpeted by a small group of anthropologists, IQ researchers, psychologists and pundits who portray themselves as noble dissidents, standing up for inconvenient facts. Through a surprising mix of fringe and mainstream media sources, these ideas are reaching a new audience, which regards them as proof of the superiority of certain races.
The claim that there is a link between race and intelligence is the main tenet of what is known as “race science” or, in many cases, “scientific racism”. Race scientists claim there are evolutionary bases for disparities in social outcomes – such as life expectancy, educational attainment, wealth, and incarceration rates – between racial groups. In particular, many of them argue that black people fare worse than white people because they tend to be less naturally intelligent.
Although race science has been repeatedly debunked by scholarly research, in recent years it has made a comeback. Many of the keenest promoters of race science today are stars of the “alt-right”, who like to use pseudoscience to lend intellectual justification to ethno-nationalist politics. If you believe that poor people are poor because they are inherently less intelligent, then it is easy to leap to the conclusion that liberal remedies, such as affirmative action or foreign aid, are doomed to fail.
Alt-right poster at Ohio State University, USA
There are scores of recent examples of rightwingers banging the drum for race science. In July 2016, for example, Steve Bannon, who was then Breitbart boss and would go on to be Donald Trump’s chief strategist, wrote an article in which he suggested that some black people who had been shot by the police might have deserved it. “There are, after all, in this world, some people who are naturally aggressive and violent,” Bannon wrote, evoking one of scientific racism’s ugliest contentions: that black people are more genetically predisposed to violence than others.
One of the people behind the revival of race science was, not long ago, a mainstream figure. In 2014, Nicholas Wade, a former New York Times science correspondent, wrote what must rank as the most toxic book on race science to appear in the last 20 years. In A Troublesome Inheritance, he repeated three race-science shibboleths: that the notion of “race” corresponds to profound biological differences among groups of humans; that human brains evolved differently from race to race; and that this is supported by different racial averages in IQ scores.
Wade’s book prompted 139 of the world’s leading population geneticists and evolutionary theorists to sign a letter in the New York Times accusing Wade of misappropriating research from their field, and several academics offered more detailed critiques. The University of Chicago geneticist Jerry Coyne described it as “simply bad science”. Yet some on the right have, perhaps unsurprisingly, latched on to Wade’s ideas, rebranding him as a paragon of intellectual honesty who had been silenced not by experts, but by political correctness.
“That attack on my book was purely political,” Wade told Stefan Molyneux, one of the most popular promoters of the alt-right’s new scientific racism. They were speaking a month after Trump’s election on Molyneux’s YouTube show, whose episodes have been viewed tens of millions of times. Wade continued: “It had no scientific basis whatever and it showed the more ridiculous side of this herd belief.”
Another of Molyneux’s recent guests was the political scientist Charles Murray, who co-authored The Bell Curve. The book argued that poor people, and particularly poor black people, were inherently less intelligent than white or Asian people. When it was first published in 1994, it became a New York Times bestseller, but over the next few years it was picked to pieces by academic critics.
As a frequent target for protest on college campuses, Murray has become a figurehead for conservatives who want to portray progressives as unthinking hypocrites who have abandoned the principles of open discourse that underwrite a liberal society. And this logic has prompted some mainstream cultural figures to embrace Murray as an icon of scientific debate, or at least as an emblem of their own openness to the possibility that the truth can, at times, be uncomfortable. Last April, Murray appeared on the podcast of the popular nonfiction author Sam Harris. Murray used the platform to claim his liberal academic critics “lied without any apparent shadow of guilt because, I guess, in their own minds, they thought they were doing the Lord’s work.” (The podcast episode was entitled “Forbidden knowledge”.)
Students in Vermont turn their backs to Charles Murray during a lecture in March last year. Photograph: Lisa Rathke/AP