Shortly before an 18-year-old white supremacist entered a supermarket in a Black neighborhood of Buffalo, N.Y., and shot 13 shoppers and employees with an assault rifle bearing a racist epithet, he posted an online diatribe. Other white nationalist terrorists have done that, but this one was different: It cited a considerable quantity of scientific research to support its author’s racist claims and actions.
In the weeks since the mid-May shooting, journalists and scientists have discussed what to make of the Buffalo terrorist’s references to science. Overwhelmingly, these discussions describe the diatribe as relying on pseudoscience or discredited science and co-opting or misreading mainstream science.
But this framing doesn’t do enough to hold scientists and the institutions of science accountable for the societal consequences of racist science and scientific racism.
The term “pseudoscience,” as used in media descriptions of the Buffalo terrorist’s diatribe, obscures more than it reveals. Historian of science Michael Gordin has explained that “pseudoscience is not a real thing.” Rather, the term “is a negative category, always ascribed to somebody else’s beliefs, not to characterize a doctrine one holds dear oneself.” The invocation of pseudoscience in reports about the Buffalo shooting serves mainly to distance science from this horrific massacre, producing the false impression that “real” science can’t be racist.
But real science can be racist. A century ago, racist science was the norm rather than the exception, and the legacy of scientific racism continues to reverberate through the institutions of science. To be sure, some of the research cited by the Buffalo terrorist is outdated and has been discredited, meaning that it is no longer widely accepted as valid. The key words here are “no longer” — this research was once regular, acceptable science until other scientists began to question and critique it.
The discredited science from the Buffalo terrorist’s diatribe that is referenced most frequently in the press was produced by J. Philippe Rushton and Richard Lynn, psychologists whose research was heavily supported by the openly racist Pioneer Fund. From the 1980s to the 2010s, these men produced a raft of scientific articles and books that supposedly demonstrated the biological inferiority of people of African descent, purporting to show that they are innately less intelligent and more prone to crime and sexual promiscuity than people of European or Asian descent.
It’s important to note that Rushton and Lynn weren’t pseudoscientists working in pseudoscience labs or institutions. They were tenured professors, Rushton at the University of Western Ontario until his death in 2012 and Lynn at Ulster University until he was finally stripped of his title in 2018. They published in reputable journals, such as the International Journal of Neuroscience and Psychological Science, though they also published in shadier outlets, such as Mankind Quarterly and Personality and Individual Differences. Lynn was a member of the editorial board of the journal Intelligence until 2018. Rushton was a fellow of the Canadian Psychological Association and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. His work was praised and defended by Edward O. Wilson, one of the most celebrated biologists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Although much of Rushton and Lynn’s research is now widely recognized as racist garbage, it is still available through the journals in which they originally published, in print and online, and does not come with any kind of warning label. An unwitting student searching Google Scholar for “race and intelligence” could easily stumble upon their work, or a wide variety of similar research, and get no indication it is not to be trusted: It looks like science because it was — and in many cases still is — science.
Rushton and Lynn are just the most visible edge of a much larger phenomenon, the majority of which hasn’t come under the same scrutiny as these men and their work. Racist science is still regularly published in seemingly reputable scientific venues. A case in point is Michael Woodley, a scientist whose affiliation with the Vrije Universiteit Brussel was suspended only after a reference to one of his many racist publications appeared in the Buffalo terrorist’s diatribe, inspiring a petition by an international group of genetics researchers.
Openly racist research is not the only problem. The Buffalo terrorist also cited cutting-edge research in molecular genetics that is not explicitly racist. Most notable is a 2018 meta-analysis published in Nature Genetics that identifies genomic correlates of educational attainment in white people of European genetic ancestry. UCLA’s Daniel Benjamin, a co-founder of the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium, which coordinated the study, described himself as “horrified” by how the Buffalo terrorist used his group’s research. Indeed, their study says little about race other than that the genetic variants that predict educational attainment in white Americans do not predict educational attainment in Black Americans.
To suggest that this study shows any kind of systematic genetic difference between white and Black Americans that makes the former innately more intelligent than the latter is absolutely a misreading that was not intended by the study’s authors. Such misreading, however, does not occur only in online white nationalist cesspools. Research in behavior genetics has been consistently misread in this way by scientists since the birth of the field in the 1960s. These scientists include Arthur Jensen, Richard Herrnstein, Charles Murray, Glayde Whitney, and Bo Winegard, all of whom have advanced this misinterpretation — dubbed Jensenism — in a deluge of popular and scientific books and articles that continue to be published in reputable outlets.
For these scientists, Jensenism appears to be justified by the research. If there are genetic variants that make people smarter (the fundamental tenet of behavior genetics), and if genetic variants are distributed differently in different populations (the fundamental tenet of population genetics), then differences between racial groups in intelligence or educational attainment “must” be rooted in genetic differences.
These basic premises, however, are false. Scientists have not identified any genetic variants that promote intelligence or education, and racial categories do not represent biological populations. To their credit, some behavior geneticists have publicly denounced the drawing of racist conclusions from their findings. Nonetheless, scientific articles and the books scientists write to popularize their findings too often oversell the research in ways that invite racist misreading, which other scientists are only too willing to provide.
Science is a vitally important social activity, contributing positively to all areas of life. Yet scientists are not always right and their work is not always beneficial. If scientists and the institutions of science are to maintain their credibility, they need to do a better job of confronting and addressing their own racism and the press needs to hold them to higher standards.
Emily Klancher Merchant is an assistant professor of science and technology studies at University of California, Davis and the author of “Building the Population Bomb” (Oxford University Press, 2021).