Woke research rules will hurt vulnerable groups

Omar Al-Ubaydli

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The leading academic journal Nature Human Behaviour published an editorial indicating that it will explicitly discriminate against research that “undermines — or could reasonably be perceived to undermine — the rights and dignities of an individual or human group based on socially constructed or socially relevant human groupings.” This principle will hurt the groups it seeks to help by undermining the rigorous scientific inquiry that allows us to develop new solutions.

I am a proud Muslim Arab with over 20 years of experience conducting economics research. It is evident to me that Arab and Muslim countries economically underperform today. Through my reading of history, it is also clear that Arab and Muslim peoples were economic overachievers in the eighth and ninth centuries. The economic historian Dr Timur Kuran has called this “the great reversal.”

My responsibility as an academic economist is to produce scientific knowledge that helps my fellow Arabs and Muslims address their economic underperformance. A logical starting point is to analyze the great reversal: when and why did it happen? What might have prevented it, and what can we do about it now? Many economists have used advanced methods to try to answer these questions.

Some scholars and social activists – including supporters of the sentiments expressed in Nature Human Behaviour’s editorial – reject the notion that our culture or religion has anything to do with our economic underperformance. Instead, they ideologically favor explanations that focus on the adverse effects of colonialism or Islamophobia.

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They might be right, though I doubt it. My suspicions are fueled by my application of scientific criteria to the arguments presented in favor of each explanation. As an illustration, in a book about this topic, Dr Kuran argued that Islamic inheritance laws might have stunted the growth of corporations in the Islamic world during the middle ages and renaissance, as rich merchants’ wealth was distributed among their multiple wives and numerous children, leading to commercial fragmentation. In contrast, European merchants adhered to primogeniture (the eldest son receiving the entire inheritance), allowing greater wealth accumulation over time.

Since Dr Kuran made this non-woke argument, some scientific criticisms have been made, and some new, scientifically grounded theories have been advanced. Anyone who wants to improve the economic lot of Arabs and Muslims today stands a much better chance of success if they have read that literature and favor scientific criteria over woke ones for judging the merits of the different hypotheses.

On the other hand, if the academy were to wholesale adopt the position taken by Nature Human Behaviour’s editorial board, then none of this enriching inquiry sequence would be possible. Instead, we would be artificially restricting ourselves to a very narrow selection of solutions to our economic problems, with an over-emphasis on demanding retrospective compensation from our former colonial masters. Whatever the moral virtue of such a path, I think it is unlikely to bear fruit soon, condemning Arabs and Muslims to continue economic underperformance.

There has been a lot of interdisciplinary research on the effect of consanguineous marriages (marriages between close relatives) on many aspects of humans’ lives. When I married one of my distant cousins, we had to do a blood test because scientific inquiry demonstrated the heightened risk of thalassemia caused by such marital unions. We are all the better for such science.

There has also been equally rigorous research on how the same phenomenon can generate inferior economic outcomes through its impact on the development of social institutions. Given that Arabs and Muslims have a higher propensity to engage in consanguineous marriages than Western people, this may be part of the solution to the puzzle of economic underperformance. Yet, supporters of the woke agenda reject such science; apparently, it’s OK to use it to learn about Arabs being predisposed to certain diseases, but not toward certain forms of behavior.

Despite my criticism of Nature Human Behaviour’s actions, I support their transparency. The worst situation involves all academic journals copying Nature Human Behaviour’s practices without an explicit declaration.

That leaves academics in an intellectual limbo: was my paper rejected because it wasn’t woke or bad science? Do I need to improve my method and data, or do I need to find some way of interpreting the findings consistent with woke maxims?

For example, I have seen papers investigating the impact of affirmative action on the groups it favors. Due to the lack of transparency in editorial boards’ attitudes toward this kind of research, I am often left with the suspicion that research concludes that affirmative action works are more likely to be published than research that concludes that affirmative action doesn’t work or that it is counterproductive.

Nature Human Behaviour’s manifesto allows us to make more accurate evaluations about what rules we should apply to publish research. As an individual who might benefit from affirmative action, I have a personal stake in wanting to know the scientific answer to this question. If my suspicions regarding the biased publication process are true, then I regard such perversion of the scientific approach as counterproductive.

There are ways to research the role of culture and religion that do not humiliate or denigrate groups. More importantly, what constitutes humiliation should not be decided upon by a small collection of unaccountable gatekeepers. Fortunately, as the American physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson once remarked: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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