The Internet Is a Cesspool of Racist Pseudoscience

The author of *Superior: The Return of Race Science*
<> knows this from firsthand
By Angela Saini <>
on July 29, 2019
[image: The Internet Is a Cesspool of Racist Pseudoscience]
Credit: Getty Images

Last month, I temporarily deactivated my Twitter account following a
colossal dump of racist abuse into my feed, including a man in Texas
whipping up his followers to phone into an NPR radio show on which I was a
guest to ask about “white genocide.” Others played a guessing game around
my skin color in the belief this would help them gauge my IQ. On YouTube,
one of the editors of *Mankind Quarterly,* a pseudoscientific journal
founded after the Second World War to argue against desegregation and
racial mixing, imitated me by dressing up in an “Indian shirt” (I am
British; my parents were born in India). The comments underneath said I
should I go back to where I came from.

It’s just another day online.

The abuse I’ve seen isn’t unusual. Others receive worse, especially if they
are in the public eye. My particular crime was to have written a
well-reviewed popular science book about why racial categories are not as
biologically meaningful as we think and how, in fact, they have been used
to justify slavery and the Holocaust. These are ideas so widely accepted in
mainstream academia that it should be blandly uncontroversial to repeat
them. Yet to read some of the comments I’ve received, one might imagine I
was hopelessly deluded.

In *Superior: The Return of Race Science*
<>*,* I interview researchers at
the cutting edge of research into human difference to journalistically
expose the dangerous history of scientific racism. It is ground that has
been trodden by respected scholars in the past, including evolutionary
biologist Stephen Jay Gould, historian Evelynn Hammonds and anthropologist
Jonathan Marks, as well as journalists such as Amy Harmon at the *New York
Times*. Despite all our efforts, sometimes it feels as though we are no
further along.

If anything, the public debate around race and science has sunk into the
mud. To state even the undeniable fact that we are one human species today
means falling afoul of a cabal of conspiracy theorists. The “race
realists,” as they call themselves online, join the growing ranks of
climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers in insisting that
science is under the yoke of some grand master plan designed to pull the
wool over everyone’s eyes. In their case, a left-wing plot to promote
racial equality when, as far as they’re concerned, racial equality is
impossible for biological reasons.

How did we get here? How did society manage to create so much room for
those who genuinely believe that entire nations have innately higher or
lower cognitive capacities, who think that mixed-heritage children are
genetically impaired, who assume that someone’s skin color can tell you
something about their IQ, and who are actively working to resurrect

As the media landscape flattens, drawing audiences away from traditional
outlets to a plethora of online ones, those with outdated views have found
themselves elevated from the lonely shadows into the light. They have moved
on from letters in green ink and pulled up a seat alongside reputable
writers and academics. The internet has opened the door to racists and
sexists, and they have happily walked in. They’re trampling over our
carpets with their grubby shoes even as we offer them a drink. They have
normalized extremism, pseudoscience and crackpottery.

The blame can be spread widely. Social media corporations, such as Twitter
and Facebook, have allowed racist networks to proliferate. Recent research
from Western Sydney University, looking at a decade of cyber-racism, has
shown that race-hate groups are sophisticated and creative in disseminating
racist propaganda to their followers online. The Gab social network and the
journal *Psych* seem to have been set up expressly to give these elements
their own unfiltered space. Online magazines such as *Breitbart*, and the
companies that advertise through them, are complicit in presenting a glossy
front to bigotry. And then comes the second tier of publicity when, even if
only in outrage and disbelief, this content is shared online. This, in
turn, has infected mainstream political discourse, lowering the tone a
little further every day.

The racists like to couch this as a freedom of speech issue. They argue
they have the right to say what they want, that the world needs more
“diversity of opinion.” But do the rest of us have a duty to sit and listen
to racist pseudoscience? Is society obliged to give them platforms, however
much nonsense they come out with? Doesn’t it have a responsibility to
protect those whose humanity and safety is threatened by the minority who
seek to deny people equal rights and freedoms based on race or gender?

People once imagined that social media would somehow regulate itself, that
only the truth would survive in the marketplace of ideas. If the only
racists left in society were uneducated thugs at the fringes of everyday
life, what harm could they pose?

But as I was reminded when I researched* Superior,* racists exist at all
levels of society, including in academia, science, media and politics. They
have money and power. The abuse dished out by these smart racists is not
the fist-throwing kind, but the racism of rhetoric. It is characterized by
clever euphemisms (the term “race realist
<>” is a perfect example),
carefully manipulated arguments and abusive cherry-picking of data.

Scientists have already been warned. The journal *Nature* has published a
number of editorials in the last few years warning researchers about
extremists looking to abuse their work, particularly population geneticists
and those working with ancient DNA. One researcher told me that as soon as
he or his colleagues post data online, they can see it being mined by those
with political agendas. These manipulated “findings” then get pumped out on
blogs and social media as racist pseudoscience.

What has started with a gentle creep through the back door of our computers
could end, if we’re not careful, with jackboots through the front door of
our homes. Populism, ethnic nationalism and neo-Nazism are on the rise
worldwide. If we are to prevent the mistakes of the past from happening
again, we need to be more vigilant. The public must hold the Internet
giants to account, recognize hatred dressed up as scholarship and learn how
to marginalize it, and be assiduous in squeezing out pseudoscience from
public debate. This is not a free speech issue; it’s about improving the
quality and accuracy of information that people see online, and thereby
creating a fairer, kinder society.

*The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily
those of Scientific American. *
Rights & Permissions
Angela Saini

Angela Saini is a science journalist and broadcaster based in London. Her
latest book, *Superior: The Return of Race Science*
<>, is out now from Beacon Press.
She is also the author of *Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong*
which came out in 2017. Visit her website
Recent Articles

   - The Science of Sex Differences: Still Under Construction