Posted on June 2, 2022

Science Must Not Be Used to Foster White Supremacy

Janet D. Stemwedel, Scientific American, May 24, 2022

The white supremacist who drove 200 miles to a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket and opened fire, killing 10 people, had posted a screed. Most of the people he killed were Black. The document’s 180 pages cited not only racist conspiracy theories, but also scientific research on behavioral genetics. The research focused on finding heritable differences in IQ and propensity to violence between racial groups.


As an academic philosopher focused on how scientific knowledge is built, and on the ethical dimensions of scientific knowledge-building, I’m familiar with the argument that the knowledge scientists build is itself morally neutral—that, like a hammer, a finding is a tool that could be used to build good things or to inflict grievous harm—and that the sole responsibility of scientists is to seek the truth, whatever it might turn out to be. Scientists have more responsibilities than that here.

For one thing, they must be frank and vocal about the weakness of studies that purport to find correlations between race and differences in traits like intelligence or propensity violence. This includes methodological weaknesses like treating IQ as a good proxy for intelligence, or treating “race” as something with clear genetic grounding. {snip}

For another thing, scientists must do some soul-searching about why they are so motivated to look for evidence that traits like intelligence or propensity to violence are written in our genes, or that they would be different for people in different racial groups. {snip}

There’s a further question scientists ought to ask themselves when reflecting on why they study the scientific questions they do: What will the knowledge I’m building be good for? How could it be put to use? Do scientists imagine that a finding of genetic differences in intelligence among racial groups would be used to drive more school funding to Black and brown communities, or as a justification to focus school funding on white communities? Or that a finding of genetic differences in propensity for violence among racial groups would be used to do anything but double down on current overpolicing of communities of color?


Scientists must make clear that science cannot be used to support white supremacy, and they should put their backs and their scientific talents into breaking down systemic racism and helping build a world that supports the flourishing of all humans, whatever their genetic ancestry.