Embarrassing scenes from science history: Apartheid in ’85 “not all bad”…methodologically speaking

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Critics of science regularly suggest that applying empiricism to life serves to deny human beings their true dignity. Very frequently you hear complaints about sociologists, psychologists, and health scientists “treating people like numbers“. Because that’s what we do. We treat you like numbers. You number, you.

Take this guy. I think his priorities became askew somewhere. Here’s his scary abstract from back in 1985, from the journal Political Psychology. It’s from history, but that’s relevant. The article is called Random Sampling Might Not Be Impossible After All. Spoiler alert: The guy figured the South African apartheid-glass was basically half-full:

Treatises on sampling generally seem to assume that a random sample has been obtained. In real-life sampling, however, this seems never to be so — due to refusals to cooperate on the part of some of those drawn. Most of our statistics are therefore based on mythical assumptions. A way out of this problem would seem to emerge from a recent paper by Heaven (1983) which reports that in a door-to-door survey of white South Africans there were 106 completed interviews out of 110 planned. The present author has also carried out a random doorstep survey in another part of South Africa and obtained similar results. Refusals to cooperate are also very rare in India. It seems that with a little more effort the first truly random sample of a significant human population may be gathered from one of these two societies. Since white South African society is in almost all ways very similar to other Western societies, South Africa may be an important future venue for research where the theory to be tested demands rigorous accuracy in sampling.

I said he figured the apartheid-glass was half-full. Actually, I’m not sure he realised that there actually was a glass. Essentially, he felt the strangely comprehensive complicity of white South Africans somehow enhanced the prospects for extrapolation-based research. You see? That’s a good thing! He also felt that “white South African society is in almost all ways very similar to other Western societies“. Apart from the apartheid, that is.

The idea that the feasibility of random sampling amounts to a noteworthy benefit from the existence of 1980s white South African society might appear jarring to today’s ears. As does the straight-faced depiction of white South Africa as being just the same as other parts of the world (especially if your job is to conduct research into people’s political thinking). But this is not just hindsight. The article appeared in the middle of a decade that saw worldwide protests against South African apartheid, in which activism by scientists figured prominently. I guess the author of this particular abstract, who was based in Australia, just didn’t notice.

Those aforementioned critics might say that all this just goes to show how (social) scientists deprive people of dignity by treating them like numbers. My response is that this is just one guy. A guy who clearly had, shall we say, a narrow view on things.

But science is never just one guy. It’s a movement of intellectual history. Put simply, science is the use of empiricism to resolve uncertainties. It helps to tell us what is correct and what is incorrect. And this is important because we so clearly need an objective way of doing this — human judgement on its own can not be trusted.

For centuries, human beings have shown themselves to be capable of the most obscene forms of rampant prejudice, discrimination, and self-rationalizing hatreds. This is no more horrifyingly apparent than in the way racial supremacists have sought, time and time again, to oppress or obliterate out-groups. Sometimes it’s a mob rioting in the street. Other times it’s an entire empire or government. It is a recurring theme, notwithstanding its profanity.

But whereas our sense of morality might drive us to judge the views of racists as repugnant, it is science that will actually show us how wrong their underlying assumptions are. It’s your opinion versus the data. Your opinion: whites are superior; the data: no, they’re not. You lose.

I don’t advocate scientific literacy because I want people to understand more chemistry or physics. I do so because I believe that science helps propel the emancipation of human intelligence from under the yoke of prejudice and groupthink. Without it, there’d be less equality in the world.

Deal with it. You number, you.

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