Racism is a framework, not a theory

A couple of weeks ago, we had a discussion on the sister blog about racism, in the context of a review of a recent book by science reporter Nicholas Wade that attributed all sorts of social changes and differences between societies to genetics. There is no point in repeating all this, but I did want to bring up here an issue that is relevant to political science, which is how do we think about racism, not as a set of policies or even as a set of political attitudes, but as a way of understanding the world.

Wikipedia refers to “scientific racism” as “the use of scientific techniques and hypotheses to support or justify the belief in racism, racial inferiority, or racial superiority, or alternatively the practice of classifying individuals of different phenotypes into discrete races,” and this image from Wikipedia captures the mix of scientific reasoning, racial classifications, and value judgment that is characteristic of that way of thinking.

As with Freudian psychiatry, Marxism and neoclassical economics, the logic of racism can explain anything; it is unfalsifiable. In his book, Wade looked at economic inequality today and ascribed it to race. The study of differences in societies is interesting and I think Wade finds it interesting too (in his book, he has some conflicting lines, at some points talking about how culture is all-important and at other places disparaging those social scientists who are interested in culture). Cramming everything (including interest rates and, in another book, ping pong) into a racial framework is not so convincing to me, for the reasons I stated in my review of his book.

Philosopher of science Karl Popper and others have criticized such theories as being nonscientific because they are non-refutable, but I prefer to think of them as frameworks for doing science. As such, Freudianism or Marxism or rational choice or racism are not theories that make falsifiable predictions but rather approaches to scientific inquiry. Taking some poetic license, one might make an analogy where these frameworks are operating systems, while scientific theories are programs. That’s why I wrote that I can’t say that Wade is wrong, just that I don’t find his stories convincing.

Just to be clear: I’m not saying that racist theories can’t be scientifically tested and falsified. For example, a race-based model could be used to make a prediction about the comparative future economic performance of different groups, and then this prediction could be evaluated. Similarly, Freudian theories can be used to make testable, falsifiable predictions. The Popperian point is that, although they can be used to make falsifiable statements, these frameworks can retroactively explain anything and thus are unfalsifiable in that larger sense.

This can be seen in many popular works of racism including the book by Wade. His model is pretty sophisticated: genes affect culture which affects behavior. But it’s one of those can-explain-any-possible-data sorts of theories. If a group does poorly, it’s either bad genes or bad governance that’s unrelated to genes. If a group succeeds, it could be the good genes revealing themselves, or it could be that the genes themselves changed via adaptation. And if a society is poorly governed, this can have no effect on genes, or it can adapt people to behave in an uncivilized way (as in the Middle East and south Asia) or at can adapt people to behave in a civilized way (as in China). For example, Wade writes:

The Malay, Thai, or Indonesian populations who have prosperous Chinese populations in their midst might envy the Chinese success but are strangely unable to copy it. … If Chinese business success were purely cultural, everyone should find it easy to adopt the same methods. This is not the case because social behavior, of Chinese and others, is genetically shaped.

Wade offers no particular clue on what happened to make Thais and Malays such losers, but he makes it clear that he thinks their lack of economic success demonstrates that it’s their genes that aren’t up to a world-class challenge.

My feeling about Wade’s genetic explanations for economic outcomes is similar to my feeling about other all-encompassing supertheories: I respect the effort to push such theories as far as they can go, but I find them generally less convincing as they move farther from their home base. Similarly with economists’ models: they can make a lot of sense for prices in a fluid market, they can work OK to model negotiation, they seem like a joke when they start trying to model addiction, suicide, etc.

All-encompassing frameworks are different from scientific theories. Both are valuable — frameworks motivate theories and help us interpret scientific results — but I also think it’s important to be clear on the distinction.

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University. His books include Bayesian Data Analysis; Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks; and Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.
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