I regret offence, not my science: race-row prof

News

I regret offence, not my science: race-row prof

Author of article on black students in biological sciences hits back at critics and a Times Select story

Cape Town bureau chief
Prof Nicoli Nattrass says she is not ‘racist’, and defends the practice of cultural analysis.
Rejoinders Prof Nicoli Nattrass says she is not ‘racist’, and defends the practice of cultural analysis.
Image: University of Cape Town

The University of Cape Town academic whose article about a shortage of black students in biological sciences classes caused a furore has acknowledged “useful suggestions” about her work from other academics.

Last week, the South African Journal of Science published a special edition which contained 12 papers responding to Prof Nicoli Nattrass’s article, “Why are black South African students less likely to consider studying biological sciences?” in its May edition.

The special edition concluded with a lengthy response from Nattrass, in which she disputed that her research was racist.

“I acknowledge some useful suggestions for further and fuller research to enhance an evidence-based understanding of the challenges of transformation facing the University of Cape Town and the conservation sector more broadly,” she said.

Nattrass said her two-page commentary in May had been criticised by people who had misrepresented or misunderstood her research.

I can do little about the offence that my commentary might have caused other than to record my regret that it did so. But I can and do defend my exploratory research and published commentary as acceptable social science.
Prof Nicoli Nattrass

“My hope, in writing the commentary – and again through the additional context I have provided here – is that my research be understood as exploratory, reasonable and grounded in an extensive scholarly literature,” she said.

“Rather than being condemned as ‘racist’, it should be seen as a contribution to the early stages of thinking and conceptualising that might inform a wider and more interdisciplinary research initiative on a topic that clearly is worth researching: transformation.

“Our universities and our society as a whole will be better places when our professors, lecturers and students reflect better the rich diversity of our society here in Southern Africa, and when we can draw on global scholarship as well as local understandings to address the pressing social and environmental challenges of our time. I hope that the debate over my commentary will contribute to this objective.”

Nattrass also thanked the science journal for resisting the pressure of “cancel culture” and refusing to withdraw an “explicitly exploratory” article that had “evoked an extraordinary volume of outrage and debate”.

She added: “I can do little about the offence that my commentary might have caused other than to record my regret that it did so. But I can and do defend my exploratory research and published commentary as acceptable social science.”

Criticism of the commentary began with UCT’s Black Academic Caucus, then the UCT executive issued a statement condemning it, and in her response Nattrass said these two documents set the tone for what followed.

Her lengthy response tackles criticism of each of the questions UCT students were asked in what Nattrass calls a “quirky” and informal lunchtime survey, including an examination of whether the students had been raised with pets and their attitudes to UCT’s starling population.

“What should we make of the argument that by even asking questions about experience with pets and whether students ‘liked’ the local wildlife I was being ‘racist’ because the results could feed into a negative trope or stereotype about black South Africans not liking animals?” she said.

Many academics and students have expressed concern about the wave of condemnation and hatred that rolled cross the social media about my commentary.
Prof Nicoli Nattrass

“If there is a ‘trope’ out there about black South Africans not having or caring about pets, it is not one that I have come across or hold,” she added, dismissing an allegation by one critic that her question amounted to “whiteness talking very loudly”.

Nattrass also defended the practice of cultural analysis, saying any move to shut this down would be “a first step on a dangerous slippery slope that could quickly cut off many important areas for social research ... making it harder to design policies aimed at alleviating poverty and reducing racial inequality”.

She acknowledged that “more and better questions could have been used to inform my exploratory survey and the data analysis and accepted criticism that a commentary format was not ideal for presenting” her exploratory research.

However, “many other natural scientists, social scientists, people working in conservation and members of the general public have written to me to say that they see nothing wrong with the commentary as originally formulated and titled”.

“Many of the academics and students have expressed concern about the wave of condemnation and hatred [and I do not use these words lightly] that rolled cross the social media about my commentary.

“A common theme in these e-mails is that they supported me, did not think that I or my work was racist, but were too scared [again, I do not use this word lightly] to speak out in any forum at all.”

This was a manifestation of her view that “condemnatory pronouncements and statements of truth-by-assertion rather than argument has largely replaced genuine academic engagement about race on my campus”.


In response to Times Select’s article on Thursday (above) about the special edition of the SA Journal of Science dealing with her commentary, Nattrass sent the following letter:

In an extraordinary oversight, writer Bobby Jordan seems to have failed to note that the special issue includes a 36-page rejoinder in which I defended my methods and responded to critics.

Jordan cherry-picks issues from the criticisms and ignores my rejoinder entirely. Jordan made no attempt to contact me – thereby contributing to the “lynch mob” rather than reporting objectively.

In ignoring my rejoinder, Jordan repeats the existing misrepresentations and misunderstandings of my exploratory study. In my rejoinder I elaborate on the finding in my commentary that attitudes and experience were better explanations than crude racial categories.

Yet the Times Select headline continues to imply that my work was prejudiced and bad science. There is nothing racist or prejudiced about my research. Nor is it bad science.

Jordan quotes several criticisms that I have already answered in my published rejoinder. Jordan quotes Prof Loyiso Nongxa on the importance of background research. Nongxa is, of course, correct; I encourage him to read my detailed rejoinder and the 188 references listed therein. It is unfortunate that Jordan overlooked these and implied that I had done no background research.

Jordan quotes Prof Jimi Adesina’s statement that “it is unclear whether a scientific committee [at UCT] ever considered the study proposal”. In my rejoinder, I confirm – as the SAJS has also confirmed – that my mini-survey was indeed approved through UCT’s research ethics procedures. It is unfortunate that Jordan overlooked this fact too.

One of the easy targets that Jordan picks up on are Simba Dziwa’s ridiculing of my questions about pet ownership. If Jordan had read my rejoinder, he would have realised that I address this criticism at length also.

The special issue is freely available online. I encourage interested readers to access it and – unlike Jordan – to read my rejoinder.

Previous Article