Racial Pseudoscience on the Faculty

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Liam O’Brien was a master’s student in political science at Cleveland State University in 2019 when a screenshot from a new article, titled “Global Ancestry and Cognitive Ability,” crawled across his Twitter feed.

To the untrained eye, the abstract was highly technical. “Using the ancestry-adjusted association between MTAG eduPGS and g from the monoracial African-American sample as an estimate of the transracially unbiased validity of eduPGS (B = 0.124),” the authors wrote, “the results suggest that as much as 20%-25% of the race difference in g can be naïvely explained by known cognitive ability-related variants.”

The argument dressed up in that statistical jargon? That Black people are genetically disposed to be less intelligent than white people.

O’Brien was disturbed to see that debunked racial-hierarchy arguments popular in the late 19th and early 20th century had a toehold in modern academe. Scientifically rigorous research arguing that intelligence is inherited is itself controversial, but few geneticists take seriously the claim that intelligence is racially linked.

His dismay turned to outrage when he discovered that one of the authors, Bryan J. Pesta, was a tenured professor in Cleveland State’s business school. O’Brien’s home institution was essentially providing a soapbox for racist pseudoscience.

He had a history of political activism, so he did what came naturally, talking to students and professors about Pesta’s article, and trying to get him censured.

“I didn’t know anything about academia and how difficult it would be to do anything about it,” O’Brien said. Among his acquaintances at the university, he said, “I didn’t encounter a single person who knew anything about him.”

Publications like Pesta’s may fly under the academic radar, but can seep into popular misperceptions of race and lend them a scholarly veneer. Pesta was heavily involved, for example, in editing a 2010 version of Wikipedia’s article on race and intelligence, according to the site’s discussion-forum archives. At the time, the article cited both Pesta’s work and that of other “racial hereditarians.” The racist manifesto of Peyton Gendron, the man accused of murdering 10 Black people at a Buffalo grocery store this year, cited some of Pesta’s racial-hereditarian colleagues and predecessors.

Despite nearly a dozen publications over more than a decade arguing for the intellectual inferiority of Black people, Pesta earned merit pay for research and eventually promotion and tenure at Cleveland State. Finally, this year, after researchers at other institutions filed complaints, the university fired him.

But those complaints weren’t about the legitimacy of his research.

How Pesta got fired, and why it took so long, shows that racist pseudoscience can go unnoticed and unchallenged on a campus for years, even as it makes the rounds among lay readers. It also points to the difficulties faced by legitimate genetic scientists intent on protecting the reputation of their field.

Bryan Pesta had spent most of his adult life at Cleveland State University. He earned his bachelor’s, an M.A., and a master’s in labor relations and human services at CSU, according to his archived faculty page, before receiving a doctorate in the psychology of cognitive aging at the nearby University of Akron in 1997.

Pesta’s Google Scholar profile shows an eclectic collection of nearly 40 publications on management, labor, and aging across a handful of journals, along with articles on race and IQ as early as 2008. He was awarded tenure in 2010 and, by the time “Global Ancestry and Cognitive Ability” was published, in the fall of 2019, was earning more than $170,000 a year — an amount that could go far in Cleveland, where the median annual income is less than $22,000.

Cleveland State is on the East Side of the heavily segregated city, and residents of the surrounding neighborhoods are nearly all Black. With Black students making up about 13 percent of the student body, the campus is more diverse than its state-college counterparts scattered throughout Ohio, and it’s popular among Cleveland high-school graduates who want to study close to home.

A look at Pesta’s RateMyProfessors page shows students generally rated him very highly, describing him as “hilarious,” “interesting,” and “easy.” One warned: “If you’re easily offended, you might not like some of his jokes, especially when he compares certain graphs to phallic symbols.” But none of the 74 reviews complains about racism.

The Chronicle reached out to 10 Black students who graduated from the business school with bachelor’s or master’s degrees in 2022. Of the three who replied, none said they were familiar with Pesta.

“Literally 100s of Black students have taken my classes,” Pesta wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “I’ve won merit pay for teaching many times. I was regard [sic] as among the best teachers in the business college.”

“If I were racist, or even overly political,” he wrote, “I submit I would have been exposed by now.”

On his faculty page, Pesta expressed a tongue-in-cheek pride that he had been “rejected by many elite journals!” Under the “affiliations” heading, he wrote, “No one will accept me!”

Many of his papers about race ran in Intelligence, a peer-reviewed journal that has drawn fire for publishing other racial-hereditarian arguments. Three of his articles appeared in Mankind Quarterly, which a writer in The New York Review of Books once called “a notorious journal of ‘racial history’ founded, and funded, by men who believe in the genetic superiority of the white race.” Two were published in the Journal of Intelligence, an international, open-access periodical that advertises its quick review and publication process.

Many racial hereditarians present their claims as widely accepted but deliberately suppressed facts in the scientific community. They blame the political correctness of academe for the difficulty they have publishing in well-respected journals.

Their critics argue that shoddy scholarship and a refusal to account for developments in the study of genetics keep racial hereditarians marginal. Even respected scholars who believe genes play a role in intelligence argue that the role of environmental factors is too complicated and profound to disentangle. Behavioral geneticists like Kathryn Paige Harden and Eric Turkheimer repudiate the idea that IQ differences between races are rooted in genetics.

But in study after study, Pesta and his co-authors reference “race” without any caveats, and break subjects into racial categories of Black, white, Asian, and occasionally Hispanic, or try to determine how much genetic material they have from each category.

Pesta’s papers also consistently maintain that racial gaps in test scores can’t be explained by factors like discrimination or economic status. In 2008, for example, he published an article in Intelligence arguing that the gap between Black and white students’ IQ scores could be explained entirely by Black students’ lower intelligence rather than any bias in intelligence measures.

The article relied on a study of 179 students in Cleveland State’s introductory accounting courses categorized as either Black or white. Pesta’s co-author was a CSU accounting professor, Peter J. Poznanski, who has since retired. The university did not appear to be bothered by the article, even linking to it on its “EngagedScholarship@CSU” page. (After The Chronicle inquired about the paper, the university left up the abstract but removed the link.)

A 2014 paper Pesta published in Intelligence, “Only in America: Cold Winters Theory, Race, IQ, and Well-Being,” takes up the historically baseless theory that people who evolved in cold climates — Europeans and Asians — became smarter because cold winters made survival more difficult. Pesta’s paper finds that IQ and average temperature are correlated in U.S. states even though nearly all their residents are descended from people who came to America within the last 400 years, meaning the supposed difference couldn’t have been caused by evolution in place.

Instead, he proposes another hypothesis, the “founder effect,” arguing that certain types of people, genetically and culturally, were drawn to certain communities and areas — ignoring America’s long history of forced migration for people of color. He does add, though, that it’s “possible that significant historical events” — he mentions the Civil War but not slavery or segregation — could have also created regional differences in well-being and education. He also writes that his study doesn’t disprove the Cold Winters Theory, but shows only that phenomena other than evolution can drive geographic differences in IQ scores.

For “Global Ancestry and Cognitive Ability,” in 2019, Pesta had three co-authors: Jordan Lasker, John G.R. Fuerst, and Emil O.W. Kirkegaard. The Chronicle attempted to contact all of them via publicly listed email addresses, but received no replies.

Lasker listed his affiliation as the department of economics at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. However, he’s not listed on the department’s faculty page. Nor did he appear on any archived version of the page since 2016. The University of Minnesota didn’t respond to a request for information about Lasker’s affiliation.

Kirkegaard, a prolific writer of racial-hereditarian research without a Ph.D., lists his affiliation as the Ulster Institute for Social Research, a British think tank headed by the psychologist Richard Lynn. The author of the Cold Winters Theory, Lynn has warned that Europe is on the verge of being destroyed by immigration, and has recommended that majority-white states secede from the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. He was one of the researchers cited by Peyton Gendron in his 180-page screed, which also twisted nonracial genetics research to claim Black people are inferior to whites and must be eliminated from Western society.

Fuerst listed his institutional affiliation as Cleveland State. Records indicate that he was enrolled at the university off and on beginning as early as 2001. He started publishing papers with Pesta in 2018.

Fuerst was also the co-founder, with Pesta, and vice president of the Human Phenome Diversity Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization whose mission, according to official paperwork, is to “support scientific research on human phenotypic and biological diversity.” The foundation, set up in 2019, is tiny: It took in less than $22,000 in 2019, according to tax forms. That year, it reported spending about $5,000 on unspecified contractors.

The journal that published “Global Ancestry and Cognitive Ability,” Psych, was brand-new when the article ran. In fact, it was the journal’s very first issue. The editor in chief was Bryan Pesta.

In a letter Pesta wrote to introduce Psych, he described the journal as an interdisciplinary project that aimed to bring research from new fields to bear on questions traditionally tackled by psychologists. “As such, the journal welcomes sociogenomics, cultural neuroscience, and other research which relates to classic social scientific questions,” he wrote. “In this regard, we would like to help bridge the gap between the hard and soft sciences.”

Pesta’s paper was not the only racially inflammatory one in Psych’s inaugural issue. In fact, Volume 1, Issue 1, was a special issue dedicated to the theme “Beyond Thirty Years of Research on Race Differences in Cognitive Ability.” Kirkegaard co-authored four of the 16 articles in the issue, and Fuerst’s name appeared on three. In all of those save one, the researchers claimed to show Black people were genetically disposed to be less intelligent than white people were. (One study that found no significant IQ difference between the children of Black and white American military men with Korean mothers said the sample size was too small to be conclusive.)

Richard Lynn was also among the cabal of racial hereditarians published in the issue. In addition to a paper he wrote with Fuerst and Kirkegaard arguing that more African ancestry in biracial Americans was associated with lower intelligence, he wrote a retrospective of his writing, under the label “editorial,” ranging from his support for eugenics policies in 1960s Ireland to claims in the 1990s that women with higher IQs are less fertile.

Shortly after the inaugural issue was published, Pesta was replaced as editor. He told The Chronicle he had been forced out because of Lynn’s essay. The ethics department of the journal’s publisher, MDPI, did not respond to queries about Pesta’s editorship.

Lynn’s essay “was the least controversial paper that we published,” Pesta said. “I mean, the papers before and after that were really getting at genetics and stuff, but they [MDPI staff members] ignored all that, published all that, and then blocked me on the Lynn paper. It was weird.”

Pesta shared a lengthy email chain in which an erstwhile MDPI editor, Martyn Rittman, allowed him to defend Lynn’s essay. It also includes the scathing comments of two anonymous reviewers asked about the essay after it was published. Both said it had no business appearing in a scientific journal.

The editorial office of Psych published an “Expression of Concern” noting that some of Lynn’s claims were not broadly accepted by experts, and retroactively labeling it an opinion piece.

Thomas E. Schläpfer, a research clinical psychiatrist at Germany’s University of Freiburg who studies
interventional biological psychiatry, took charge of the journal in 2020. He said he had been unaware until contacted by The Chronicle of Pesta’s publication or any problems with his brief tenure as editor.

After reading Pesta’s article, he wrote, “While the scientific methods sound impressive, I find the hypothesis both ludicrous and demeaning.”

When asked about Pesta’s research more broadly, the chair of Pesta’s department, the management professor Timothy DeGroot, defended its legitimacy. “I find it distasteful,” he wrote in an email. But “that is not the point,” he said. “There is a long history of research in this area.”

I find it distasteful.” But “that is not the point. There is a long history of research in this area.

Until complaints were filed, Cleveland State seemed unaware of Pesta’s publications on race. When asked by The Chronicle about the 2008 article that purported to find race-based differences in intelligence among the university’s accounting students — the article that had been highlighted in EngagedScholarship@CSU — David A. Kielmeyer, a spokesman, said he could not comment on it. But he alleged that Pesta and Poznanski hadn’t asked the university’s institutional review board to approve the study.

Pesta showed The Chronicle a copy of a 2006 IRB application for a study comparing students’ scores on cognitive tests with their grades. It made no mention of race or ancestry. (He said he no longer had a copy of the IRB’s approval.)

Presumably, university officials simply hadn’t read the study before promoting it.

O’Brien, the political-science graduate student, tried not to let Pesta’s work go ignored. He gathered students from various activist groups to make an action plan. One group put out an email blast inviting interested students to a Zoom meeting on the subject.

Many of the attendees were familiar faces. But one, who joined the call under a pseudonym and left his camera off, made organizers wary. He said he was an undergraduate but offered little else by way of introduction. After some prodding, he messaged one of the organizers his CSU email address, which contained his last name: Fuerst.

The organizers shut down the meeting, then reconvened among themselves. They had been infiltrated. If Fuerst knew they were going after Pesta, then Pesta himself surely also knew.

Pesta told The Chronicle he knew students were organizing because a colleague had forwarded him an email about the Zoom meeting.

“I do agree they [students] have the right to protest whatever they want,” Pesta wrote in an email, adding, “I bet none of them have ever read anything I’ve written on the topic.”

Ultimately it didn’t matter. Just as the organizing effort was getting off the ground, the first cases of Covid-19 were found in Ohio. The campus was shut down. The campaign sputtered. O’Brien finished his master’s degree online and never returned to campus.

But across the country, geneticists at other universities had set in motion institutional processes focused not on Pesta’s racist claims but on his violation of the norms and regulations of academe.

He had already been on one geneticist’s radar when “Global Ancestry and Cognitive Ability” was published in Psych.

Luke Miller (a pseudonym) is an early-career scientist who has long been rankled by racial hereditarians. As a geneticist, he said, he feels a responsibility to combat the harm done by the fringes of the scientific community. (The Chronicle has used a pseudonym for Miller and left some other early-career researchers in this article unnamed because they fear professional repercussions.)

“Global Ancestry and Cognitive Ability” stood out from similar articles Miller normally saw. The first thing that struck him was its publication in a journal from MDPI, a mainstream publisher, unlike typical vehicles for racial hereditarianism like Mankind Quarterly.

More alarmingly, the paper cited data from the National Institutes of Health’s Database of Genotypes and Phenotypes (dbGaP). The federal agency has strict controls governing who may use its data and how. It struck Miller as improbable that the NIH had given Pesta’s paper the green light, or would have even given him access to the data, if the agency had known what he planned to do with it.

Genetic data is intensely personal. With a person’s genome, in theory, one could deduce a person’s hair, eye, and skin color; diagnose genetic illnesses that haven’t manifested themselves yet; or even tie the person to crime-scene evidence.

Most of the NIH’s requirements for data use are meant to ensure that information is protected. Only specific people named on the data-use application and approved by the NIH are allowed to use the data. The researcher must get special permission to use cloud-computing systems. Failing that, NIH guidelines instruct researchers to “make sure these files are never exposed to the internet” after they’re downloaded from the NIH.

And principal investigators have to submit a request explaining what they’ll be studying. Pesta submitted several in 2018. One, submitted in December that year, said he planned to study whether polygenetic scores — estimates of how likely people are to have a trait or disease based on their genetic profile — were accurate across different ethnic groups if used to predict educational attainment and schizophrenia, since the scores had mainly been studied in people of European descent. Another request said he planned to focus on differences in brain morphology between sexes. A third said he planned to study whether genes predicted mental illnesses like depression and schizophrenia differently in different ethnic groups. None said he would study whether one racial group was genetically less intelligent than another.

Miller was tapped into a network of researchers across the country who felt similarly about hereditarianism. Together, four of them combed the methodology section of Pesta’s article and compiled evidence that he had violated NIH policies.

According to the paper’s methodology section, the data was uploaded to at least two servers: the Michigan Imputation Server, a University of Michigan program that deduces genes that haven’t been included in a sample; and HIrisPlex-S, a web application that deduces phenotypes like eye, hair, and skin color from genetic data. While only Pesta received permission to use the NIH data, and named none of his co-authors in the requests, Miller said he and the other whistle-blowers had inferred that others would have had to have access to it to do the analysis the paper described.

In September 2019 the group of four scientists signed letters listing their concerns to both the NIH and Cleveland State. They also alerted the researchers who had gathered the original data. Documents leaked to The Chronicle by someone knowledgeable about the subsequent investigations, as well as interviews with whistle-blowers, detail what happened next.

Independently, Kent Taylor had a similar reaction to Pesta’s new work. Taylor, a molecular biologist and genomics researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles, wasn’t familiar with Pesta but found the article methodologically shoddy.

More important, he couldn’t see how such a paper could have passed ethical muster with the NIH.

Taylor fired off emails to the NIH, Cleveland State, and the University of Minnesota alerting them to the article.

Taylor’s letter to Harlan M. Sands, who until this past April was CSU’s president, was short and to the point. It called Pesta’s article “both a violation of the data-use agreement and unethical.”

“As a genomic-research investigator,” he wrote, “I am shocked that data we work so hard to collect on behalf of the NIH is used in this way in violation of data-use agreements, and I would appreciate your help in locating the persons responsible.”

Taylor works on an NIH-backed project called the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. His work uses genetic data from across ethnicities to look at risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

The painstaking approval processes he and his colleagues must go through — applying for IRB approval for every study, taking yearly refresher courses on the ethics of using human subjects, and signing data-use agreements — is “cumbersome in many ways,” he said.

It was actually a children’s study. That sort of upsets me even more.

”We complain about it to each other as well, but it’s necessary,” he added. Such safeguards in human research came about because of past abuses that poisoned many people’s faith in medical research. They’re designed to ensure that scientists don’t use subjects’ personal information in ways they would find abhorrent.

Taylor said he was particularly appalled when he looked more closely at the particular dataset Pesta had used: the Philadelphia Neurodevelopmental Cohort, which focuses on participants ages 8 to 21. According to Pesta’s paper, the median age in the sample he used was 14.2 years old.

“It was actually a children’s study,” Taylor said. “That sort of upsets me even more.”

Administrative wheels began slowly turning at both the NIH and Cleveland State in response to the geneticists’ complaints.

The NIH began an investigation in September 2019. In 2021, the agency sent a letter to the university confirming that Pesta’s use of the NIH data to examine cognitive functioning had violated his data-use agreement, since he had received approval to study mental health, not intelligence. The NIH also found that Pesta had failed to report the publication, as required, until he submitted his close-out report for the project, in February 2021, more than a year after the article came out in Psych. And it found that he had violated his data-use agreement by uploading restricted data to an “unapproved online forensic DNA-phenotyping service.”

“The use of the data described in the publication and preprints arising from these projects raises the potential for harm to the research participants, their families, and groups of which they may be members,” wrote the NIH’s deputy director for extramural research, Michael Lauer. “This incident causes NIH to be concerned about whether CSU staff have been properly guided and trained in how to responsibly handle scientific data and how to adhere to terms and conditions agreed to when accessing controlled-access data.”

The letter set a June 2021 deadline for the university to destroy all initially approved copies of the genetic data and find out whether any unapproved copies of the data had been made. The agency also revoked Pesta’s permission to use NIH data for any existing projects, and banned him from obtaining any NIH data for the next three years.

The NIH declined to comment on the investigation, saying it did not discuss whether investigations were in progress against individuals. When a reporter pointed out that the inquiry appeared no longer to be going on, a spokesperson replied, “Our prior response still stands.”

In line with its union agreement, Cleveland State set up a faculty committee to investigate Pesta’s alleged violations of university policy. It was not until September 2021, according to Miller, that CSU replied to his and the other whistle-blowers’ 2019 complaint, asking to interview them. After reviewing documentation and interviewing Pesta twice, the committee uncovered a raft of additional sins.

According to a letter sent to Pesta by the then provost, Laura Bloomberg — who has since been tapped as CSU’s president — the university confirmed the NIH’s findings. It also found Pesta had lied to a staff member in CSU’s research office when he said the data would be kept in a university-owned laptop and he would be the only one with access.

Instead, the letter said, Pesta put the data on a machine purchased with funds from the Human Phenome Diversity Foundation, of which he was president.

Pesta said he had requested and received approval from both Cleveland State and the NIH to store the data on a home computer.

“Those bastards totally ignored me when I pointed it out,” he added.

He told investigators that the only other co-author with access to the data was Fuerst, and that Fuerst could see it only on the foundation-purchased computer at Pesta’s home.

But the investigators found that somehow Fuerst had obtained his own copy of the data. Pesta professed ignorance about how he got it.

“I’m responsible for that, but I don’t know that he still has the data,” the provost quoted Pesta as telling investigators. “He’s sort of gone a little bit rogue, and I suspect there’s no way he would talk to any CSU people.”

In an interview with The Chronicle, Pesta said all the allegations against him were false, except that he had uploaded the data to a phenotyping service.

“I should have gotten what’s called prior approval to upload these data to that server, but it just didn’t occur to me that I needed to do that,” he said. He added that a paper published in Nature had used the same phenotyping service, so he believed it was secure.

Bloomberg ultimately found that Pesta’s conduct had damaged the university’s reputation and could impede other professors’ ability to do research.

Cleveland State declared that Pesta had been incompetent or dishonest in teaching or scholarship; neglected his duty, and engaged in personal conduct that substantially impaired the fulfillment of his institutional responsibilities; and interfered with the normal operations of the university. The letter declared Bloomberg’s decision to fire Pesta.

Pesta was officially fired on March 4, 2022, two and a half years after his article was published.

In a February 2022 paper by Pesta, Kirkegaard, Fuerst, and Lasker, Kirkegaard still lists his affiliation as the Ulster Institute. Fuerst has dropped mention of Cleveland State, now listing himself as at the Ulster Institute as well. And Lasker now lists Texas Tech University as his home institution. His Substack profile says he is a Ph.D. student there.

“It’s obvious I am unemployable in academics now,” Pesta told The Chronicle in an email. “I’d rather not share my current employment status, but it’s been tough.” He said he is suing Cleveland State over his termination, and called both the NIH and CSU investigations “kangaroo courts.”

“Everything they accused me of didn’t happen — with one exception, but it was an oversight on my part that caused absolutely no harm,” he said.

And he pointed out that years of publications on race and intelligence had done nothing to hamper his career. “It was never an issue before,” he said. “So here you have CSU rewarding me for my research and then ultimately firing me for it because some external people complained.”

He also vehemently denied that his publications were racist. In a written statement that he said he had also provided to the university’s investigatory committee, Pesta said that he pursues research on race and intelligence for the benefit of all mankind. Given the correlations between intelligence and measurements of well-being, he said, determining the cause of racial gaps in intelligence measures “would do more to increase global human well-being than would solving any other problem faced by social science.”

“A lot of people think that I’m studying race and IQ, and I’m really not,” he said in an interview, “at least not in this paper that got me fired. I’m looking at genetic ancestry. I agree that race is a social construct and has no scientific merit.”

In a follow-up email, he added, “I am currently still agnostic about the cause of group differences.”

Bryan Pesta’s racial-hereditarian scholarship did not go completely unchallenged by other researchers. Evan J. Giangrande, a doctoral student working with Eric Turkheimer at the University of Virginia, refuted a 2020 article Pesta co-authored, and has called on publications to reject hereditarian work that doesn’t hold up to scientific scrutiny. He said he had been filled with dread when he learned that the alleged shooter in Buffalo had invoked genetics to justify his actions. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen racist statements allude to genetic science.

We need to really be aware that there are individuals out there that are actively trying to and actively are looking for anything that can reify their own belief.

Some geneticists have included statements in published articles disavowing potential racist misreadings. But that will go only so far to prevent their data from being misrepresented to support racist ideologies — especially when the internet can give pseudoscience such wide distribution.

“We need to really be aware that there are individuals out there that are actively trying to and actively are looking for anything that can reify their own belief,” Giangrande said. And that means “not just ignoring it.”

O’Brien, the political-science grad student who tried to call attention to Pesta’s work, said he takes some comfort in the NIH’s censure of Pesta, and in the fact that he was fired. But he doubts Cleveland State officials would have taken action unless the NIH had forced their hand.

“I don’t see them taking a firm stand against race science,” he said. ”They weren’t attentive to what their professors were doing, what their name, Cleveland State, was associated with. They weren’t being diligent about that. Some people either knew [about Pesta’s work] or they didn’t, and either way those are problems.”

“We strongly believe our faculty are entitled to full freedom in their research,” Kielmeyer, the university spokesman, wrote in an email, “but they must adhere to the highest standards of honesty, integrity, and professional ethics. Anytime those standards are violated, we will take the appropriate action.” He said the university would have no further comment.

But the afterlife of Pesta’s publications can’t be so neatly quashed.

As of September 2022, “Global Ancestry and Cognitive Ability” was ranked as the Psych article that had been viewed the most in the journal’s history. The site’s metrics say the article has been downloaded 6,835 times.

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