The fight against racist science

June 1, 1996 — Interview

Written by CARF

An interview with Steven Rose

  • Why are we seeing a resurgence of racist scientific ideas now with books like The Bell Curve and The g Factor?

Scientific racism has been around for a very long time. The last big wave began in 1969 and was tied up with people like Eysenck in this country and Jensen in the States. There was a powerful campaign among biologists, psychologists, geneticists, alongside activists, which killed the issue. But with the development of the human genome programme in the last 10 to 15 years has come the claim that you can use genetics to map the entire genetic composition of humans – genes are seen as causing everything, from aggression to male domination, alcoholism and depression. This has given confidence to the scientific racists and came to the fore with the publication of The Bell Curve in 1994 in the States.

It is all tied up very much with the collapse of the social order, and the concern among right-wing politicians about single mothers on welfare, inner city violence, the development of a black ‘underclass’ and so on. Part of the campaign to control the cities claims that violence and discontent arises because inner-city people are genetically stupid and genetically incapable of coping with modern society. It’s a combination therefore of bad genes and bad rearing by bad mothers. That is a very attractive set of arguments for right-wing politicians in the US and those in Britain on the right of the Tory party and the theorists of the Adam Smith Institute. So there is tremendous political motivation and drive in puffing up again these long exploded ideas and dressing them up with the new science. It’s the same old gang: Richard Lynn in Ireland, Charles Murray in the US, Rushton in Canada and Chris Brand in Britain. Many of them are funded by the same right-wing source – the Pioneer Foundation in the US.

  • Is there anything qualitatively different in a scientific sense in what Murray, Herrnstein and Brand are saying now, from what Eysenck and Jensen said in the ’70s?

The Bell Curve arguments are very similar to what Jensen said but made much much more political. It is the stuff that Richard Herrnstein has been arguing ever since the 1970s, and Charles Murray, who is the theorist of the ‘underclass’, has been arguing for a very long time. But they put their arguments together and although it pretended to be a scientific book, it was very much a political book, with summaries and punchlines.

Brand’s comments on single mothers are tapping into an area of considerable right-wing concern, and his mixture of genetic and moral arguments make it a more heady political mix – a combination of bad scientific ideology and bad moral ideology.

  • How can we counter this type of racism which is dressed up as science?

We have to understand the politics and the ideology generating these arguments and demonstrate why the arguments are false. Brand needs to be judged scientifically and technically by his peers and found wanting. We need an alliance between activists and those who can look at and expose the genetic and psychometric claims being made. The arguments have to be driven home at all levels. If students find his lectures unacceptable they have every right to boycott his lectures and should be supported.

  • But is any scientific study of ‘race’ useful? It has been argued, for example, that it can be beneficial to study a possible genetic cause for the incidence of high blood pressure among African-Americans?

The biological concept of race amongst humans is meaningless. It implies that there are sharp genetic differences between populations. The concept of ‘race’ is essentially a political concept, and as it is applied, a racist concept.

It is the case that some population groups are much more likely to suffer certain sorts of diseases which are partially genetic and partially environmental eg, high blood pressure among African-Americans, Tay-Sachs disease among Jewish populations, cystic fibrosis in the white ‘Caucasian’ population. But the causes or treatments cannot be understood better by making a distinction on the basis of skin colour or ethnicity or religion. Reasons for high blood pressure among African-Americans will certainly include environmental factors; poor working conditions, living in a racist society, bad housing all contribute to high blood pressure. You can’t just pick out genetics as a reason. But at least you can measure high blood pressure.

The difference, and the problem with the claims that are being made about intelligence, is the question of whether IQ tests measure anything other than what IQ tests measure. It is essentially a social measure, like measuring something with a bit of elastic – it stretches the way you want it. It is known that during the earlier generations of IQ tests in the 1920s and ’30s there were certain test items on which girls scored higher than boys. The conclusion that girls have a higher intelligence than boys was unacceptable to the people developing the test so they moved the test items around until they got a test in which on average boys and girls scored the same, which was more acceptable. They made a prior decision that boys and girls would score the same.

Brand and Eysenck claim that there is one unifying thing called ‘g’ – crystallised intelligence, a lump of something inside the brain. But you cannot take all these complex aspects of the way in which we relate to the outside world – in terms of our linguistic skills, how we respond emotionally or how good we are at music or chess or whatever, and lock all of these into one single measure of general intelligence. It is an absurd idea for anyone who looks at how the brain solves puzzles; there are many routes in the brain to puzzle-solving, not just one. The psychometricians are locked into a 19th century concept of the way the brain’s intelligence is organised.

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The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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