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Are Racist Beliefs Pseudoscientific, and What Do We Do about Them?

TERENCE HINES

One of the defining characteristics of a pseudoscience is nonfalsifiability. Although racist beliefs can certainly be made nonfalsifiable, most are simply wrong. Nor do they, usually, involve esoteric and mystical mechanisms. No one (as far as I know) argues something like “Blacks are inferior because they lack the karmic vibratory structure of the quantum consciousness that Aryans have.” Thus, it is more accurate to think of racism as junk science—if it’s science at all (most racists don’t even bother with the junk science theories of the Nazis).

A counter-protester gives a white supremacist the middle finger. The white supremacist responds with a Nazi salute. Charlottesville, August 12, 2017.
Photo: Evan Nesterak

But the cognitive processes that maintain racist beliefs are quite similar to those maintaining many pseudoscientific and paranormal belief systems. The major one is confirmation bias. The racist who sees a minority individual doing something negative will be more likely to remember that than if they see that same person doing something positive. Racist beliefs share another feature with paranormal ones: stereotyping. There is little difference, cognitively, between holding that African Americans have natural criminal tendencies and saying that people born under a particular astrological configuration are more aggressive.

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Skeptical Inquirer
January February 2018
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