‘Could Somebody Please Debunk This?’: Writing About Science When Even the Scientists Are Nervous

‘Could Somebody Please Debunk This?’: Writing About Science When Even the Scientists Are Nervous
‘Could Somebody Please Debunk This?’: Writing About Science When Even the Scientists Are Nervous

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Noel Aseme is a black high school student in Winston-Salem, N.C., who does not appear in my article on Thursday’s front page about how human geneticists have been slow to respond to the invocation of their research by white supremacists.

But the story of how he struggled last spring to find sources to refute the claims of white classmates that people of European descent had evolved to be intellectually superior to Africans is the reason I persevered in the assignment, even when I felt as if my head were going to explode.

Noel had vowed to take up the subject for a persuasive speech assignment in his Rhetoric class. Googling for information that would help him, however, yielded a slew of blogs and videos arguing the other side. “There’s only one scientific response for every hundred videos or so,” he told me when we spoke on the phone.

“Could somebody please debunk this blog post, if it can be debunked?” he finally posted on the Reddit forum r/badscience. “It’s convincing me of things I really don’t want to be convinced of.”

I was introduced to Noel by Kevin Bird, a white graduate student at Michigan State University who had answered Noel’s Reddit query, and others that had been flooding that forum about claims of racial differences that invoke the jargon and scientific papers of modern genetic research.

I had misgivings about simply reporting on the rise of a kind of repackaged scientific racism, which I had been tracking as a national correspondent who writes about science. Under the coded term “race realism,” it implied, falsely, that science had found a genetic basis for racial differences in traits like intelligence and behavior. Why draw attention to it?

But a series of Twitter posts from Mr. Bird late last year crystallized a question that had been on my mind. Unlike in the case of climate change, vaccines or other areas of science where scientists routinely seek to correct public misconceptions, those who study how the world’s major population groups vary genetically were largely absent from these forums. Nor was there an obvious place for someone like Noel to turn for basic, up-to-date facts on human genetic diversity.

“Right now the propaganda being generated from misrepresented population genetic studies is far outpacing the modest attempts of scientists to publicly engage with the topic,” Mr. Bird

“Why,” he asked in another tweet, “are scientists dropping the ball?”

In the course of investigating that question, I spent many hours digesting scientific papers on genetics and interviewing their authors. Some of them, I learned, subscribed to a common ethos among scientists that their job is to provide data and let society decide what to do with it. Others felt it was not productive to engage with what they regarded as a radical fringe.

It was more than a radical fringe at stake, I would tell them. Lots of nonscientists were just confused. It wasn’t just Noel. Mr. Bird had fielded queries from a graduate student in applied physics at Harvard and an information technology consultant in Michigan whose Twitter profile reads “anti-fascist, anti-bigot.’’ I talked to an Army veteran attending community college in Florida and a professional video gamer who felt ill-equipped to refute science-themed racist propaganda that they encountered online. It had come up in a source’s book group in Boston. They wanted to invite a guest scientist to tutor them but couldn’t figure out who.

But another reason some scientists avoid engaging on this topic, I came to understand, was that they do not have definitive answers about whether there are average differences in biological traits across populations. And they have increasingly powerful tools to try to detect how natural selection may have acted differently on the genes that contribute to assorted traits in various populations.

What’s more, some believe substantial differences will be found. Others think it may not be feasible to ever entirely disentangle an immutable genetic contribution to a behavior from its specific cultural and environmental influences. Yet all of them agree that there is no evidence that any differences which may be found will line up with the prejudices of white supremacists.

As I struggled to write my article, I began, sort of, to feel their pain. With each sentence, I was striving not to give credence to racist ideas, not to misrepresent the science that exists and not to overrepresent how much science actually does exist — while trying also to write in a way that a nonscientist, like Noel, could understand.

It was hard. It did almost make my head explode. I tested the patience of a very patient editor. The end result, I knew, would not be perfect. But every time I was ready to give up, I thought about Noel. Here was a kid making a good-faith effort to learn, and the existing resources were failing him. If I could help, however incompletely — even if just to try to explain the absence of information — I felt that was a responsibility I had to meet.

A few weeks ago, as I was getting the story ready to go, I asked Noel for an update. “I’ve read a lot more papers since then,” he wrote. (He aced his presentation.) “Many of my arguments are stronger, some have been discarded. I’ve also become much more aware of this stuff around me. In some ways, it’s regrettable, but in other ways, it’s satisfying knowing so much.”

Amy Harmon is a national correspondent covering the intersection of science and society. She has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for her series “The DNA Age,” and as part of a team for the series “How Race Is Lived in America.” Follow her on Twitter @amy_harmon.

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