Research on coloured women retracted following online petition

According to EWN a study published in the journal Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition has been retracted following an online petition.

What the researchers found was that a lack of educational opportunities along with bad lifestyles, led to poor cognition amongst women who came from mixed racial backgrounds.

According to The Citizen the ANC in the Western Cape had also called for the study to be retracted.

They pointed out that a sample of 60 was not enough to come to this conclusion, and “also, such deprivation cannot bring racialised stereotypes only to coloured people, as a group, and coloured women in particular, if the said conditions are not unique to this group only, as proven by many studies in SA, including the data on triple challenges we face: poverty, unemployment and inequality”.

They also slammed the University of Stellenbosch, where the research was conducted.

“Coloured women in SA cannot be denigrated as human beings using scientific studies from reputable institutions such as University of Stellenbosch.”

The university has since apologised for the study, stating, “We apologise unconditionally for the pain and the anguish which resulted from this article. We also have empathy towards current and past staff members, our students and our alumni who have had to endure criticism for their association with our institution.”

In its statement on the retraction of the paper, the journal in question stated, “While this article was peer-reviewed and accepted according to the Journal’s policy, it has subsequently been determined that serious flaws exist in the methodology and reporting of the original study. In summary the article contains a number of assertions about ‘coloured’ South African women based on the data presented that cannot be supported by the study or the subsequent interpretation of its outcome. Specific data that would be relevant to these assertions was not collected. In addition, the references provided are not supportive of the claims that are made about the participants in the study or about South African women more generally.”

My Take

So there is a mix of issues here that I think are worth talking about. The first is that this study probably shouldn’t have passed peer review in the first place.

The fact that the assertions made in the study couldn’t be supported is good reason to retract because supporting conclusions is what studies should be all about.

It is also a good reason to launch an investigation into who the heck reviewed this, and how they reviewed it, because it should probably serve as a question mark to them reviewing anything else.

The issues that were raised in this vein after it was published are perfectly legitimate ones and should have been raised during the peer review process.

However this all sort of reminds me an old article in Foreign Policy Magazine, all the way back from 2011.

The story goes that back in 1988, a group of sociologists came up with research that found that the way mining was structured in South Africa risked spreading AIDS across the whole country.

Basically because of the migrant worker system people who worked on the mines were ending up being more likely to engage in promiscuity than they otherwise would.

Cyril Ramaphosa took offense at this research and contacted the guy behind it asking for it to be retracted because he felt it made racist assumptions about black men.

Eventually the research was published but not in South Africa – and now we have the AIDS pandemic, which was in part made worse by former president Thabo Mbeki thinking the same way at the height of the crisis.

To me this study on coloured women should have been retracted due to the flaws in its methodology, but I can’t help but hear echoes of that kind of thinking when I read stuff like this quote from the Western Cape ANC on the study by the Citizen, “What is to become of the coloured women in SA and the world given this study? What should a young coloured girl-child believe about herself, when reading or presented with this scientific interpretation of her identity? Where were the supervisors, the ethics committee and the management of the US when such product was approved and given credence under their name, as the institution of the future?”

With regards to research we should be very careful not to dismiss it on emotional grounds, because the people we think we’re protecting aren’t necessarily being protected by that.

The reason the research was bad was that it reeked of confirmation bias. The study participants had several things in common other than their racial background, and yet the findings were about coloured women – not poorly educated women, or people for that matter, who had sub-optimal lifestyles.

It was like how old intelligence research found that immigrants performed worse on IQ tests – while ignoring the fact that the immigrants didn’t speak the language that the tests were written in and didn’t have the same points of reference that the testers did.

The flaw in this study isn’t a small one, and it is one that has a dark history to it.

However if the research had been better conducted and didn’t have this flaw and still made the same findings, say finding specifically the coloured schools were neglected or that racism had an impact on the lives of coloured people that was specific to them, then that argument that it was offensive due to stereotyping would still remain.

Being offended doesn’t solve problems, it is often used as a way to avoid addressing problems – such as poor primary and secondary education.

Sure these issues are not restricted to the coloured community by any stretch of the imagination, but surely the response should be to address those issues, not simply dismiss research that shows that failures in these areas do indeed cause serious problems?

Now as I said, I agree with retracting the study because of the problems in its methodology, but we should be careful when criticising science to keep it to the science, we’ve seen what letting other stuff interfere has done to us in the past.


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