When ‘bad science hangs on horns of prejudice’ you’re in for a ...


Prof faces censure for asking the 'wrong' questions.

When ‘bad science hangs on horns of prejudice’ you’re in for a lynching

Academics have criticised a UCT prof’s study on black students in biological sciences, but some say it furthers debate

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Researcher Simba Dziwa said Nicoli Nattrass was 'onto something, but asking the wrong question'.
culturally prejudiced? Researcher Simba Dziwa said Nicoli Nattrass was 'onto something, but asking the wrong question'.
Image: 123rf/Anna Ivanova

Interesting topic, but bad science. That’s the majority view of academics responding to a controversial commentary about the shortage of black students studying biological sciences at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Responses from numerous academics appeared last week in a special edition of the South African Journal of Science, which published an “opportunistic survey” by UCT professor Nicoli Nattrass in its May edition.

Prof Nicoli Nattrass.
Under fire Prof Nicoli Nattrass.
Image: University of Cape Town

Nattrass has since defended her study, entitled “Why are black students less likely to consider studying biological sciences?”, but has been widely condemned by many of her peers. The commentary also prompted a rebuke from UCT and a review of the journal’s publication policies.

In her commentary, Nattrass said her survey suggested a “strong relationship” between pet-ownership and the likelihood of studying biological sciences. Results also pointed to a correlation between socio-economic status, materialism and education level as predicators of studying biological sciences, said Nattrass, who works in UCT’s Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa. 

However, most respondents featured in the journal’s special edition felt the commentary did not pass academic muster and should have been intercepted in a peer-review process. 

Unisa's Jimi Adesina.
Prejudice Unisa's Jimi Adesina.
Image: Unisa

“It is unclear if a scientific committee ever considered the study proposal at the university,” wrote Jimi Adesina, from the Unisa’s College of Graduate Studies. “If this was the case, the study should have been flagged. The summative conclusion is that what we have is bad science hanging on the horns of prejudice.”

Most respondents took issue with the survey parameters, noting that Nattrass’s questions exposed her biases. By including questions about pets and evolution — the vast majority of respondents felt humans are not descended from apes — Nattrass was inserting her own cultural prejudices, respondents said.

Researcher Simba Dziwa.
to be fair Researcher Simba Dziwa.
Image: simbadziwa.com

“So just because black people don’t usually jog with their dogs does not suggest that pets are invisible in the black family,” opined researcher and social critic Simba Dziwa. “And just because most urban black people live in town houses, which have strict rules on pet-ownership, doesn’t mean black people know zilch about pets. And black people in townships have pets, too. They may not sleep in the house, on the bed, but they are there.

“To be fair and charitable, Nattrass is onto something with her commentary, but unfortunately she is asking the wrong question,” Dziwa said.

Nattrass would have done better to question the extent to which bursaries draw prospective students of biological sciences into other disciplines, rather than frame potentially offensive questions around pets and materialism, some respondents said.

Prof Loyiso Nongxa.
opportunistic investigation Prof Loyiso Nongxa.
Image: National Research Foundation

“Framing a research question in itself requires some background research,” wrote Loyiso Nongxa, professor emeritus at Johannesburg’s Wits University. “Not every question is worth investigating: ‘How many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ is a common ‘example’. Jumping into an opportunistic investigation without the proper background work may be a sign of intellectual laziness.

“[The] highest-paying jobs in South Africa are disproportionately occupied by white people. Should we conclude that this is because white people are materialistic or is there a more plausible explanation for this observation?” 

However, some academics commended Nattrass for furthering the debate around transformation. While there was near-unanimous criticism of Nattrass’s  method — her analysis relied on responses obtained by approaching students during lunch breaks — a few respondents cautioned against censuring Nattrass for framing unpopular questions.

Prof Jeremy Midgley.
important issue Prof Jeremy Midgley.
Image: University of Cape Town

“Nattrass has taken the first step to address a long-standing, difficult, but important issue in conservation biology education at UCT,” concluded Jeremy Midgley, from the institution’s biological sciences department. 

Stellenbosch academics Hassan Essop (economics) and Wahbie Long (psychology) said the rise of social media meant researchers risked being cowed by public outrage.

“Unfortunately, if the current furore is anything to go by, then the ‘outrage porn’ so typical of social media has clearly begun to infiltrate the academic project,” they wrote. “And that is a prospect that should concern us all.”

Dziwa said outrage about the survey pointed to the need to resolve transformation issues.

“Transformation is an important issue in SA and it cannot be that 26 years into democracy we are still locked in transformation mode. We need to solve these transformation issues and move on to bigger and greater things in the developmental trajectory of the country.

“Nattrass has an opportunity to contribute to the solution,”  Dziwa said. 

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