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How Science Can Combat the Alt-Right - Pacific Standard

How Science Can Combat the Alt-Right

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The alt-right has been attempting to support white supremacist ideologies through bogus scientific data. That makes independent research and media literacy more valuable than ever.

By Kristin L. Krueger

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Richard Spencer. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Scientific literacy is in danger, a point that’s perhaps best illustrated by the alt-right’s resurgence of the scientifically discredited idea that race is a biological construct.

This idea falsely links factors such as intelligence and crime rates to physical features, which can then be used to support discriminatory legislation. Unscientific, inaccurate misconceptions brought about by alt-right agendas risk being reinforced if the value and necessity of science is not urgently elevated.

In the alt-right journal Radix, Richard Spencer co-authored an article attempting to support white supremacist ideologies through scientific data. The piece is based on the notion of biological races, a completely discredited idea with foundations in 19th-century scientific methodologies and viewpoints. The premise is that specific physical features (i.e. skin color, hair texture, body shape, etc.) are genetically linked to non-biological attributes, such as personality or behavior. These linkages allow “races” to be ranked from superior to inferior. Since 1996, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists has taken a clear position that race is a social construct only. In fact, the AAPA states that “there is great genetic diversity within all human populations. Pure races, in the sense of genetically homogenous populations, do not exist in the human species today, nor is there any evidence that they have ever existed in the past.”

Spencer not only misrepresents scientific publications, but also cites bogus journals to support his conclusions.

It’s clear that the underlying foundation of Spencer’s position is embarrassingly outdated; however, he cites various sources throughout the article in an attempt to extend validity to his ideas. Spencer not only misrepresents scientific publications, but also cites bogus journals to support his conclusions.

Spencer cites one study as evidence that individuals have a “preference for one’s own” race, writing that, “three-month-old infants look longer at faces of their own race than those of other races.” However, this study determined that human categorizations based on ethnic facial differences are formed during the first three months of life as a result of increased exposure (i.e. social conditions) to the infant’s own ethnicity. Newborns did not show any preference, indicating again that this is learned behavior and not biologically innate. Taking only a piece of a study or ignoring the overall conclusions is manipulative, and counts on readers to accept selective facts without question.

The piece also cites The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education to support its conclusion that economic disparity does not account for gaps in SAT scores between whites and blacks. This could be a credible source, but a cursory search for the article shows no author listed. No masthead, no bylines, no editors, no submissions guidelines, and several pages of the site displayed “page not found” errors. This is hardly a credible source of vetted information.

To be sure, there will be those who claim this retort against Spencer is just another example of an Ivory Tower, elitism. Here’s the thing: Science is not a conspiracy theory. Critical thinking is essential, and more accessible than some might think with simple online research, basic media literacy, and a commitment to reading the full findings of a given study. Anyone can do this — you don’t need letters after your name.

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