Article retracted after critics say it has “racist ideological underpinnings”

A psychology journal has retracted a controversial article about mental ability in South African women after a petition calling on the publication to withdraw the paper generated more than 5,000 signatures.  

The paper, “Age- and education-related effects on cognitive functioning in Colored South African women,” was published in Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition in March. It quickly drew attention, and outrage, from critics who objected to what they called racist overtones in the work, from the title on down.

According to the abstract:

Colored women in South Africa have an increased risk for low cognitive functioning, as they present with low education levels and unhealthy lifestyle behaviors. This study assessed the cognitive function and its association with age and education in a sample of young and middle-aged Colored South African women. A group of 60 women (18–64 years) were included in this study; they were separated into four age groups and two education groups. Cognitive function was assessed using the Montreal Cognitive Assessment and a computerized neurocognitive test. Education and age were significantly correlated with all measured cognitive domains (p < 0.05). An age-related decline was observed for all domains, with low scores observed for processing speed already in young adulthood. The high education group scored significantly better in all cognitive domains (p < 0.05). Young to middle-aged Colored women present with low cognitive function and which is significantly influenced by education.

The paper triggered the petition, led by Barbara Boswell, of the University of Cape Town, demanding retraction. The letter, addressed to the journal’s editorial board, stated:  

We ask that you retract it because of its racist ideological underpinnings, flawed methodology, and its reproduction of harmful stereotypes of ‘Coloured’ women.

The authors of the letter also argue that the paper, among other shortcomings:

is scientifically flawed. Its title, abstract and introduction infer that the results are applicable to all ‘Coloured South African women’. However, the authors acknowledge that they draw on a small sample size; that the 60 participants were from only one geographic community; and admit that their methodology produced a result that ‘is likely not fully representative of the larger Colored population of SA’ …

On these grounds we find the article fundamentally flawed. Their own data does not support their assertions. There is no new finding here; just a repackaged Verwoerdian paradigm. We thus ask that you retract this article.

The journal, on reflection, evidently agreed. Per the notice:

We, the Editors and Publisher of Aging, Neuropsychology and Cognition have retracted the following article:

Age- and education-related effects on cognitive functioning in Colored South African women by Sharné Nieuwoudt, Kasha Elizabeth Dickie, Carla Coetsee, Louise Engelbrecht & Elmarie Terblanche, Aging, Neuropsychology and Cognition, 2019, DOI:10.1080/13825585.2019.1598538

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 ‘colored’ 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.

Consequently, the Editors and the Publisher have taken the decision to retract this article. We have consulted with the Authors throughout this process and they have agreed with the retraction of this article.

We have been informed in our decision-making by our policy on publishing ethics and integrity and the COPE guidelines on retractions.

‘Huge debate in the department’

Prior to the retraction, Elmarie Terblanche, of Stellenbosch University, the senior author of the paper, tried to explain her group’s motivations in an interview with CapeTalk:

It is very unfortunate that that is the view because it was absolutely not the idea to highlight what is going on in a specific population. Rather, this is a group that is not often studied while there are similar studies on other population groups.

Terblanche told the outlet that:

There was huge debate in the department about using the term ‘coloured’

And she argued that the research was not an attempt to measure intelligence:

The study did not address intelligence but rather a cognitive functioning which is the very specific functions of our brain which helps us to pay attention to things, to remember things, and plan tasks. It is not a question of intelligence.

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4 thoughts on “Article retracted after critics say it has “racist ideological underpinnings””

  1. The word “colored” has a special connotation in South Africa and is not considered a demeaning characterization. It refers to South Africans of mixed white and black heritage, unlike South Africans of non-African or of tribal African origin. The colored citizens of South Africa have played an important role in the comparatively peaceful emancipation of the country and play a strong role in the leading non-ANC political party in charge in the Western Cape. It may be of concern to all if education is not supported to the extent needed by South Africans in general but particularly by groups that may have been deprived of adequate educational opportunities in the past. The use of the term “colored” may have been seen in South Africa as no more derogatory than terms such as “European” or “Afrikaner” or “Malay” or “Zulu” or “Xhosa” or “Sotho” that are in common use in the Western Cape, often supported by differences of native languages, but into which groups the “Colored” South Africans do not fit. This of course has nothing to do with flaws of the science presented in the paper.

    1. On the contrary, the fact that “colored” is considered a neutral census designation is a central issue with the paper. The paper attempts to address the disparities of structural racism, but it does so while reinforcing traditional color barriers.

  2. Albert – I think you should ask Trevor Noah how demeaning the word “coloured” is. I recommend his book “Born a Crime”, a funny but shocking story of apartheit and its legacy in South Africa. Coloured South Africans are people. Which groups do they fit into?

  3. The medical field in the US has often been criticized for not doing research targeting how various minorities react to medicines as opposed to research primarily on “white” people. This article targets research (of apparently dubious quality) that was done specifically on “colored” (using the SA definition) women.

    Are we going to continue to criticize research done on different ethnic groups when we don’t like the results?

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