The supporter of white superiority who drove 200 miles to a Buffalo supermarket, New York, and opened fire, killing 10 people, published a manifesto. Most of the people he killed were black. 180 pages of the manifesto cited not only racist conspiracy theories but also scientific research on behavioral genetics. The study aimed to identify hereditary differences in IQ and predisposition to violence between racial groups.
There is no reason to believe, based on his crossword puzzle, that the Buffalo shooter understood or even read the scientific papers. Most likely, he collected them, like the racist traits he recreated in the document, from bulletin boards and social media channels whose users use titles that seem to promise scientific support for the benefits of whites. Scientists who study the genetic basis of complex behavioral traits using genomic associations urgent help in the conclusions drawn from the means of the population, and especially in the way in which their scientific results are communicated to a wide audience. But there is convincing evidence that studies of the evolution of socio-behavioral traits find a willing audience among white nationalists.
Scientists must recognize that their research can be used in weapons. They need to think carefully not only about how their conclusions may be misinterpreted or used, but also about the meaning of even conducting research on differences between racial groups. Above all, scientists must take an active role in combating both violence and white supremacy.
As an academic philosopher who has focused on how scientific knowledge is built, and on the ethical dimensions of scientific knowledge creation, I am familiar with the argument that knowledge created by scientists is inherently morally neutral, that like a hammer, discovery is a tool which can be used to create good things or to do serious harm – and that the only responsibility of scientists is to seek the truth, whatever it may be. Scientists have more responsibilities here.
On the one hand, they need to be open and vocal weakness of research aimed at finding a correlation between race and differences in traits such as intelligence or propensity for violence. This includes methodological shortcomings such as treating IQ as a good proxy for intelligence or considering “race” as something with a clear genetic rationale. Detecting that certain genes or sets of genes are associated with complex behaviors does not demonstrate a causal relationship and does not preclude the importance of environmental factors – and indeed, the assumption that genes and environments change independently is usually erroneous. The average difference in trait associated with gene set between the two populations does not rule out that individual variations inside these populations may be larger than the mean difference between population. All of this means that from most of this work it is difficult to draw strong, clear and sound conclusions. To the extent that the science of race is simply a bad science, scientists must call it, not let it be disputed.
On the other hand, scientists need to understand why they are so motivated to look for evidence that traits such as intelligence or a tendency to violence are written in our genes, or that they will be different in people of different racial groups. Of all the pieces of truth they could learn about our complex world, why this trick? Could it be that scientists are adhering to their previous assumptions, biases that stem from the fact that people live in a culture built on these slopes, or that sponsors looking for scientific proof of their bias? Any scientist who rejects this possibility has forgotten that objectivity requires a joint project to study scientific findings to find out how they can be wrong.
There is another question that scientists need to ask themselves when thinking about why they study the scientific questions they do: what is the useful knowledge I am building? How could this be used? Do scientists believe that identifying genetic differences in intelligence among racial groups will be used to attract more school funding to black and brown communities or as an excuse to focus school funding on white communities? Or that the detection of genetic differences in propensity to violence among racial groups will be used for anything other than doubling current excessive control over color communities?
Of course, most members of the scientific community are not behavioral geneticists, and not all behavioral geneticists contribute to racial science, which helps proponents of white supremacy. But all scholars have responsibilities not only as seekers of truth but also as members of the human community.
Showing a basic respect for the humanity of black people is something that white scientists have historically struggled with, as seen in the treatment of the infamous U.S. health service. syphilis studyor from the enslaved women over whom they experimented, or from Henrietta Lax and her descendants a biomedical research community that has benefited immensely from its “immortal” cells by failing to address racial inequality in research and access to health care. Indeed, scientists too often have not defended their peers or intellectual ancestors, for example James Watson or E. O. Wilsonas people whose support for the superiority of whites should be obtained because of their scientific achievements.
Scientists need to make it clear that science cannot be used to support white supremacy, and they need to put their backs and their scientific talents to break down systemic racism and help build a world that supports the prosperity of all people, regardless of their genetic background.
This is an article of opinion and analysis, and opinions expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily opinions Scientific American.