What Can Science Teach Us About Racism?

What Can Science Teach Us About Racism?

Cast as we are now into a state of civil unrest in some places, and massive peaceful protest in many others, it seems that racism is at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Indeed, this is a very real issue which is overdue for resolution. We, as a society, need to overcome both institutional racism, and widespread indifference to the very real struggles faced by the black community in America.

The Masonic Philosophical Society is an organization which values not only ethnic diversity, but also approaching problems with wisdom and objectivity. Particularly useful in the examination of any problem is to know what about it we can be relatively certain of? Science is the source of greatest certainty on any topic. In the case of the issues brought to the surface by the death of George Floyd recently, what can science tell us about racial bias?

THE SCIENCE OF RACIAL BIAS

Much of the rhetoric around racism is that it is learned, and we just need to unlearn it. However, if that were wholly true, then how would it have arisen in the first place? While it certainly seems true that racism is passed on culturally from generation to generation, there may actually be more to it, according to science. Most racism these days is not open or even necessarily conscious, but implicit and unconscious, at least in the majority of people. So how does this unconscious racism work?

Psychologists and neuroscientists have been studying racial biases scientifically for some time now, with many interesting findings. Much of it boils down to what many of us already know: We all carry implicit racial biases, which we would not consciously identify with, but in unconscious ways we nevertheless tend to treat people differently based on perceived race of that person. But why?

The theories of some experts are that our brains have a tendency to find patterns and to automatically categorize novel experiences or information according to those patterns, even when it isn’t rational to do so. This generalization becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy or feedback loop, as people of color are treated differently because of it, live in greater poverty, resulting in greater rates of crime, and the generalization lives on. This is a very difficult loop to escape, unless we expend conscious effort to change it.

So, based on this analysis, we can say that there is both a cultural and neurological component. Yes, we inherit it from culture, but the reason it keeps perpetuating is because of cognitive tendencies related to how our brains work, and perhaps why the phenomenon arose in the first place.

EMPATHY AND RACE

My experience as a white man with a majority of white friends and family has led me to believe that most white people do not overtly hate black people, although we surely carry some of the implicit biases described above, which we hopefully make efforts to override. I would say that the biggest issue in our time is not only implicit racism, but relative indifference to the struggles faced by the African American community among many people who look like me.

Science: Exploring the Human Brain, Race, and Empathy

The Human Brain, Race, and Empathy

In a way, you could say that this is actually the biggest problem we face, because it’s what prevents action being taken to stop the small, truly hateful minority from doing what they do to persecute innocent people simply for having black skin, especially in our police forces. If more people were seriously concerned about it, things would change, which is hopefully what we’re seeing with the current events.

This is where some other research concerning race and empathy becomes very interesting. Essentially, what was observed was that rats were much less likely to help other rats who looked different from them than they were their “own kind.” However, researchers later added a variable, where they raised the different types of rats together from birth, and the result was that the rats that were raised together were equally likely to help one another out.

The takeaway? We are cautious about those who are different from us, particularly when we are not accustomed to them. In a sense, a certain trust has to be built in our brain, you could say, by spending time with those who appear very different from us; otherwise, we will regard them with greater caution, and potential fear, especially when cultural biases already incline us to do so.

SEARCHING FOR SOLUTIONS 

The good news it that the parts of our brains that are primarily engaged in these kinds of reactions are the most basic, instinctual parts, such as the amygdala, the “fear center.” This area is activated automatically when we are shown pictures of people who appear very different from us, in some studies. Our higher reasoning ability is located in other places, such as the frontal lobes, and it has the ability to override these animalistic, automatic processes, through higher level decision-making and conscious effort, as many people obviously have done to become less racist.

Understanding the underlying biological factors contributing to implicit racism and lack of empathy for black struggles can help us not just to overcome this problem in ourselves, but also to understand why it’s there in the first place. Rather than placing judgments on people that they are “evil” or “without conscience” for being less concerned with racial issues than they ought to be, we can understand that a deficit of empathy to those perceived to be different from us is a natural bias which we must expend effort to overcome. 

FREEMASONRY AND TRUE EQUALITY

In that case, is it any wonder that many people haven’t put forth the effort to do that inner work, especially when not much in their culture demanded it from them? We must all overcome natural tendencies, for instance when we resist things like greed, lust, gluttony, or laziness.

Really, this is simply an aspect of being an upstanding moral person. We could simply add racial bias and indifference to that list of problematic natural tendencies, and consider it something which we must put forth conscious effort to overcome, especially since lives are at stake. We can also make a conscious effort to diversify our friend groups, so that we are less inclined to live in a bubble of only those who look like us.

Meet on the Level

Masonry and the Promotion of Equality

As Co-Masons, we are implored to overcome our bodily passions and unhealthy tendencies, and to function according to a higher purpose of aspiration to knowledge, and the betterment of humanity. We can and should consider overcoming our racial biases to be an important part of that process. 

We are well aware of the unfortunate historical reality of mainstream Freemasonry’s past and even present (in some places), when it comes to racial segregation or exclusion. Although we are an entirely separate institution, we would like to make it clear to all that race is not a factor which we even remotely consider, when it comes to accepting new Masons into our ranks. People of all ethnicities, political views, genders, and religions are welcome in our temples.

 

The Science Debate

The Science Debate

One would think there is no debate about science. The scientific method is, quite simply this: “a method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.” What I find extremely interesting about this statement is the use of the word “nature,” or rather, natural science. It bears noting that “natural sciences” are those sciences which have to deal with the physical world – astronomy, physics, biology, geology, etc. In other words, it is a study of, you guessed it, the natural world.

At a recent M.P.S. meeting discussing the impact of humanity on the earth’s physiology, or eco-system, many arm-chair scientists spoke up and theorized on the state of our globe’s atmosphere. One person noted that there is a “layer of bacteria” it the atmosphere, and this could be the cause of some of the earth’s climate issues. Skeptical, as always, I wanted to know more. Using the internet and what I hope were reputable sources, I determined there is not a “layer” of bacteria but viruses and bacteria do get swept up into our atmosphere and in some cases, may be able to thrive there. There is no indication, however, of their impact on Earth’s changing or evolving climate.

img_0451The activities I undertook to understand what someone was saying were also a topic of this very same discussion. We have many ways of obtaining information and while the internet and search engines are helpful, they are not the “end all” of research. When libraries and bookstores were the norm, the person doing the research had to know the topic area, perhaps some reputable authors or scientists, and then searched and read through information to find data to support, or deny, whatever message they were researching. Now, it is slightly backwards – we’re provided the data quickly, but with little background on who, or what, produced this data.

While the tools may have also made the data easier to find, we have become less able to do actual research. In a recent airport visit, I watched a “Big Story” about a man who became fascinated with sea horses. He moved to California from his native Iowa, and during a dive in 2016, he spotted sea horses in the Long Beach harbor. He became fascinated with the creatures and now averages 1500 miles per year, driving and diving up and down the coast of California, to study sea horses. He is not a biologist or scientist of any kind. Yet, over time, he’s taught himself to start taking data, creating biomes for these creatures to study them, and become one of the foremost authorities on sea horses. Why? Because they fascinate him. He is passionate about them. Dare I say, he loves them.

We normal humans have become subjected to being fed “science” and rarely make the time or foment the passion to study a single piece of nature. We might find flowers beautiful or animals majestic, but we move right back to our computers and away from the natural world. When we get out into the world, we begin to understand it in a way that computers and spoon-fed data can never provide. Rather than find a path to learn, we are mortified by “not knowing” and become fearful. We look for information to make us feel better, to generally support our suppositions. We do not gather data based on observation or theory, like our friend above, nor do we really obtain knowledge. We lack understanding. We take what we hear, and return to the world around us a feedback loop of information that is consumed but not subsumed.

483c5e6d-977b-48b0-9d69-bbbc4c60790a-921-000000d05cd6384bWhy is science, a respect for science, important? For two reasons, I believe. The first is our ignorance of true science, of true nature, ignores the facts of the world around us. It drives us away from being of nature, when in fact we are nature. We lose context and disseminate false information. Fake news isn’t fake because someone simply lies; fake news is fake news when we perpetuate it without solid understanding and investing in personal research. We then make choices about how we live and how humanity thrives based on misinformation.

The second reason true learning of nature is important is because understanding nature stops fear and anger in its tracks. Understanding the larger cycles of the earth, geologic cycles, helps us understand better what is, and is not, human impact. It complicates what we want to be simple, but it complicates it because it is complicated. Nature needs to be understood by our individual selves, otherwise, we’re not really learning. We are part of this great body of animal, mineral, and vegetable. We’re made of stardust and earth, of air and water. We’re electrical and chemical. So is the world around us. If we seek to understand the universe, we are really seeking to understand ourselves. Destroying this ignorance destroys fear and hate.

48b17022-8269-4ce9-9a6e-1e009bd6dc11-921-000000d41d537600While I think we should question everything, I am not so sure there should be debate about science – about its existence and use in our lives. There should be no debate about nature, about physics or chemistry, no debate about exploration nor about the extrapolation of research. We should all become our own scientists in this world, curious and intuitive, passionate about life. Humanity isn’t separate from nature; humanity is nature, and thus, we study nature, we study ourselves. We learn. We grow, We become better.

Hidden Mysteries of Science

Hidden Mysteries of Science

Science is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” We all perform scientific acts each and every day. Being aware and present in our actual work, home life, educational pursuits, and leisure all encompass some aspect of “science,” as described above. Do we not learn relationship interaction through observation and experimentation? Of course we do! Do we study others and then experiment with things like cooking, clothing ourselves, cleaning the house, and raising children? Absolutely. Life is science.

And yet… there are the science doubters. The Washington Post did an article, in 2015, on science doubters. Entitled, “Why is Science so Hard to Believe?” the article goes on to discuss confirmation bias, the discipline of the scientific method, and why so many people would rather believe media hype or misinformation from friends rather than actual science. Media is not science and it is not gospel. We consume the media that’s easy to consume rather than do the work for ourselves. It’s easier to doubt than to verify.

Neil deGrasse Tyson has an interesting quote: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” He also said that “the universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.” Both of these quotes speak to the hubris of humans – we think we know much more about the word than we really do.

In a quote from an article on National Public Radio, the author quoted his friend, a professor of Jewish philosopher, as saying “science tries to make magic real.” The author goes on to specifically outline activities, now commonplace human activities, as ones that we once thought of as magical, for example, flying. We fly without a second thought; yet, 500 years ago, to say one flew was heresy, possibly leading to death. Other examples are the knowledge of “invisible” animals capable of making humans ill, or being able to see great distances into space (the past) through a telescope. The ability for our phones to “think” and talk with us would have been quite astounding to the medieval mind.

The author continues his journey with the main difference between science and magic: his belief is that the power of magic originates within us, where as science’s power originates outside of humans. Science is a set of immutable laws of the universe. Right?

Well, no. Science updates theories based on knowledge gained from further expressions of the scientific method, and then new theories are postulated. Science is evolving, a never-stagnant set of data that we are constantly testing and proving or disproving. Magic is generally seen as not obeying the laws of nature, being outside of those “rules” or “metaphysical,” as it were. Yet, we’ve all said it: couldn’t what we see as magic just be unexplained scientific laws that we do not understand quite yet?

Why are Freemasons charged to examine and study nature and science? Nature AND science? It seems that it might be because the world is made up of both the understood and the mystery. We have many questions to answer about nature and we use science to get there. Perhaps we could say we have many questions to answer about magic and science is the method. There’s no reason we can’t have wonder and reason hanging out together in our minds. We can appreciate the brilliant stars and the awe of an eclipse and still want to know how it happens. Knowledge does not take away wonder.

I want to believe that perhaps science and magic are part of the same evolutionary cycle – what starts out as magic becomes understood by science, which breeds questions within our curious minds, wonder at something unknown, triggering us to embrace the tools of science to explore. Freemasons get to play in both realms, being co-creators on the path of humanity.