Discriminating tastes: Why academia must tackle its “race science” problem

Former University of Toronto Professor of Clinical Psychology Jordan Peterson recently received a flurry of condemnation for a tweet in which he criticized Sports Illustrated’s choice to put plus-size model Yumi Nu on the magazine’s cover. His tweet (below) not only criticized her looks, but also suggested that her appearance was an authoritarian attempt by the left to force people like him to appreciate her beauty.

The backlash to Peterson’s comments was swift and broad, and included social media influencers; online political commentators (like Hasan Piker and Vaush); independent news outlets (like The Young Turks); mainstream news sources (NBC News, New York Post); and even international news outlets (The Independent, and Toronto Sun). In America’s current political climate, incidents like the one caused by the aforementioned tweet are becoming more common as culture war issues are at the forefront of the public mind. Popular intellectual figures like Peterson have built their careers off of stoking these hot-button issues and then claiming that they are being persecuted when others disagree with them. 

Interestingly, much of the blowback ignored Peterson’s follow up tweet (above), in which he justifies his position by linking to scientific articles that purportedly validate his opinion. Peterson raises an interesting question: Can science be used to measure whether or not someone is attractive? While some recent studies have tried to do just that, far more studies refute these claims. 

The sociology of human sexuality and race has long held that concepts like beauty and race are social constructions — determined by a range of cultural, biological, and other complex social factors. On some innate level, just about everyone recognizes this truism; famously, it was embodied in the classic The Twilight Zone episode “Eye of the Beholder,” whose lesson is that beauty is a local characteristic rather than a universal one. Yet, the intellectual dark web (of which Peterson is an adherent) and practitioners of this kind of “science” try to apply their model to nearly everything — linking and reducing all kinds of aspects of human behavior as serving an evolutionary function.

The crowd that engages in this type of oft-sophistic debate over beauty should be familiar to anyone who follows the machinations of this latest iteration of the culture wars. Sometimes dubbed the Intellectual Dark Web (or IDW for short), they constitute a group of disgraced academics and other pseudo intellectuals (including podcaster Joe Rogan, and conservative commentator Dave Rubin) who claim that their voices are being silenced by traditional institutions who have become overly concerned with political correctness or “wokeness.”  

Peterson’s claims run the full spectrum of biological determinism, from justifying social hierarchies as natural to claiming patriarchy should be the preferred organizing principle in societies.

However, researchers in the field of evolutionary studies (an area which focuses on how much of our behavior is a product of our biology) whose work is well-regarded tend to be far more cautious than Peterson and his ilk in their claims as to what we can definitely say about the so-called science of beauty. Against the overly deterministic model posed by the IDW, current consensus among scholars in this field is that human “nature” is a complex combination of biology and other social factors. These researchers are quick to note that they can’t tell us with any great deal of precision what their findings necessarily mean for society at large. 

The kind of model advocated by the IDW more closely resembles that of the 18th and 19th century biological determinism — the kind that served as the basis for eugenics programs in Nazi Germany and even here in the United States. Peterson’s claims run the full spectrum of biological determinism, from justifying social hierarchies as natural to claiming patriarchy should be the preferred organizing principle in societies. He also appears, at points in his book, to vindicate violent men — like the Buffalo shooter or the Uvalde shooter — by asserting that young men have to endure an unfair burden. To say that the ideas espoused by Peterson and the IDW connect to white supremacist ideology is more than just conjecture, as their ideas are observably trickling down from  academia to far-right groups online

RELATED: How the far right co-opted science

Indeed, the parallels between the rhetoric of the Buffalo shooter, and of the rhetoric espoused by Peterson and the like, are eerily similar. Far-right groups rejoice in Peterson’s claims that hierarchies are natural and good for society, as they serve as a “legitimate” scientific basis for promoting racist ideologies. Laced throughout the manuscript left behind by the Buffalo shooter are references to a range of claims espoused by race scientists. These include tweets, memes, and links to prominent thinkers in this field like Steven Pinker and his colleagues who have published and espoused flawed literature directly cited by the shooter. The most infamous of these models is Charles Murray’s book “The Bell Curve,” in which he argues that intelligence and race are correlated – the implication being that most people of color are “naturally” somehow less intelligent. These models continue to be invoked by prominent academics like Stanley Goldfarb, a former Dean of Medicine and current faculty at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, who also opposes anti-racist efforts in medicine.

Taken together, these events suggest that biological determinism has permeated the ivory tower of academia more than many realize. While some of the examples mentioned here are explicit in their bigotry, there are far more cases of miscommunicated or poorly communicated scientific research being co-opted by far-right groups. 

Some anti-racist academics in genetics have criticized their colleagues (above) and called for change from within. They emphasize that scientists can and should protect against the exploitation of their work in recognizing the importance of clearly communicating their findings.

When scientists fail to consider the ways their ideas might be used, for good and for bad, the results can be disastrous. Such was the case when some sociologists levied a social constructionist critique of the use of the psychiatric system, which was subsequently used by conservatives to justify dismantling the state public health system in the United States. Scientists must use caution when trying to convey their ideas — lest they be used to justify heinous acts, including terrorism. 

The radicalization of the Buffalo shooter should serve as a warning to other scholars, as he was one in a long line of domestic terrorists who relied heavily upon “race science” to justify their actions.

The radicalization of the Buffalo shooter should serve as a warning to other scholars, as he was one in a long line of domestic terrorists who relied heavily upon “race science” to justify their actions. The same kinds of logic have also motivated people to commit heinous attacks against the LGBTQ+ community.

While the Buffalo shooter may have lacked the scientific literacy necessary to understand the studies he cites, researchers must work to not be complicit in this process. Whether it be scientific racism to justify one’s beliefs, or a lack of full consideration as to the larger impact of one’s findings, scientists need to better understand how working in science is a social activity. Science itself is a powerful tool when used in pursuit of helping lead the way towards the betterment of society, and it is equally a tool for harm when used to naturalize hierarchies and inequality found throughout society.

Frankfurt School philosopher Max Horkheimer famously wrote a critique of instrumental reason, in which Horkheimer argued that science could be co-opted if it was not consciously guided by those practicing it. This was the focus of his classic work, “The Eclipse of Reason,” in which he showed how the Nazi party weaponized science by treating it as an end to itself, rather than a tool to be harnessed in pursuit of an goal. Today we face the same issues and problems in science, and for our collective good we must decide to what ends these tools are used — and what we as a society wish to prioritize. 

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