Professor of Anthropology Scott McEachern says he’s increasingly concerned by the prevalence of bad data in academic study—meaning data sets based on incomplete research.
This has provided some scholars, most notably perhaps the controversial British psychologist Richard Lynn, the fuel to propogate racist theories about sub-Saharan Africa. MacEachern, an archaeologist who has worked in central Africa for three-and-a-half decades, voiced these concerns in a recent faculty seminar titled “Fast Science and the Myth of African National IQ.”
MacEachern talked about what he means by “fast science,” and why this issue is so personal for him.
What is “fast science”?
It’s science that’s more concerned with the output than with the quality of the data going into the work. I call it “fast” science because you’re going so fast you fail to notice the inaccuracies. The data produced in this way are not necessarily flawed, but the people doing fast science are not too bothered whether or not the data are good.
Explain the concept of national IQ, and why it concerns you.
It’s a very simple idea with a really difficult concept behind it: that you can assign a single IQ test score to the population of a nation. On the face of it, it’s a ridiculous idea, even without looking at the data. Look at the variability of populations in any modern nation state, according to class, ethnic group, all kinds of variables. How are you going to boil all that down into a two-or three-digit number?
My lecture highlighted a set of really flawed studies that use a data set compiled by a psychologist named Richard Lynn that fundamentally and deliberately minimizes scores for African populations. The national IQ test score results imply that populations in sub-Saharan countries have intelligence levels that range from mild to moderate mental deficit on average.
How does Lynn come up with these scores?
In some cases it is simply through misrepresentation of the data. One egregious example is the score for Equatorial Guinea in central Africa. Its national IQ is supposed to be 59, which is the lowest in the world. But that’s based on one sole study, and if you examine that study you find out a couple of interesting facts: firstly, that the study was actually done on a sample of children with various kinds of cognitive deficits, some of them organic like brain damage, and some not; the second thing you find out is that the population being sampled was not actually from Equatorial Guinea. So that’s as blatant as it gets.
How did this research get published and gain any academic credibility?
It’s an interesting illustration of how pseudo science happens. Lynn originally published an early version of the data set in a journal that he was associate editor of, called Mankind Quarterly. This is a journal that was used as a sort of refuge for racist and neo-Nazi (in some cases) anthropologists after World War Two, so it was a journal pre-disposed to this kind of data.
More recently that journal has been published through a press called Washington Summit Publishers, which in turn is associated with a white supremacist organization called the National Policy Institute.
What’s really concerning is that Lynn’s data set ended up being cited in an article about cognitive ability that was published Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a prestigious academic journal for the biological sciences. This is a perfect example of how fast science can work, where people are really careless about the use of data sets.
I’m not implying that authors of that paper on cognitive ability are racist, just that they were extraordinarily careless and did not think through the implications of the data before they cited it. The interesting and depressing thing from my point of view is the trajectory that this data set went through, from a white supremacist source into an eminent journal like Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
What brought you as an archaeologist to this subject?
I’ve been working in sub-Saharan Africa for thirty six years, and am always struck, particularly where I work in the area south of Lake Chad, by the acuity and the intelligence of the people there. It’s such a politically and culturally complex region in terms of its indigenous culture, that I struggle to keep up. These are populations that I respect a lot, so I find those claims about their intelligence to be insulting, as well as completely nonsensical.
Aren’t you drawing more attention to these claims by talking and writing about them?
I have been asked that question a lot, and I would answer ‘no.’ I wrote a paper on this in 2006, and since then the national IQ theory has gained momentum and, as I have demonstrated, worked its way into the academic mainstream, so it’s clear that ignoring it isn’t going to make it go away.
Scholars who cite such erroneous data need to be forced to confront the origins and the implications of the research they’re using. So from my point of view, it’s something we need to confront. and not to argue about. I don’t want to argue about the intelligence of African populations. This has been established, it’s not up for argument.
What I want to do is to expose both the academic fraud and the racist underpinnings of this research. In 2018 I plan to revisit this topic and write another paper on the issue.
Scott MacEachern’s latest book, “Searching for Boko Haram: A History of Violence in Central Africa” is due to be published by Oxford University Press in January 2018.