A media furore has erupted in South Africa over a scientific article published in a British academic journal, Aging Neuropsychology and Cognition, in which the effects of poverty and low education on Coloured women are discussed. The University of Stellenbosch has publicly apologised for its researchers having engaged in such research, although it was internationally peer-reviewed and passed a research ethics test.
The article, entitled “Age- and education-related effects on cognitive functioning in Colored South African women” found that such women had “an increased risk for low cognitive functioning, as they present with low education levels and unhealthy lifestyle behaviors”.
Although the findings from the five Stellenbosch researchers were passed by the international reviewers as reasonable and factually-based, their university has now all but denounced their work by issuing a statement saying:
“We apologise unconditionally for the pain and the anguish which resulted from this article. We also have empathy towards current and past staff members, our students and our alumni who have had to endure criticism for their association with our institution.”
The five academics concerned, Sharné Nieuwoudt, Kasha Elizabeth Dickie, Carla Coetsee, Elmarie Terblanche and Louise Engelbrecht, are now being threatened with a witch hunt as a result of the media outrage.
According to the university’s deputy vice-chancellor for research, innovation and postgraduate studies, Professor Eugene Cloete, “The rectorate has… decided to request a thorough investigation into all aspects of this study, guided by the Stellenbosch University’s Policy for Responsible Research Conduct, as well as the university’s procedure for the investigation of allegations of breach of research norms and standards. Based on the outcome of this investigation, we will take corrective action, as required.”
The five researchers belong to the university’s Sport Science department and they have previously published on health and fitness, including cognition and the prevalence of obesity in certain socioeconomic groups.
For the current study, they used an international test known as the Montreal Cognitive Assessment that accord points on a scale of 30, measuring short-term memory recall, visuospatial abilities, verbal abstraction and orientation to time. It is commonly used to test for mental impairment in patients with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or other neurological disorders. It is therefore not an IQ test, but an assessment of cognitive functioning.
The five researchers conclude in their article that cognitive function among the target group of Coloured women correlated both with age and education level, which may not in itself seem controversial.
However, the Psychological Society of South Africa denounced it as “racism”, saying: “We are disturbed by and strongly opposed to the practice of misusing racial classification in scientific research and the consequent perpetuation of stigma, discrimination and racism within our society, as exemplified in the recent publication.”
The “Coloured” or mixed-race group in South Africa is also defined in legislation by the current ANC government, so conducting research on this group cannot be illegal. But the Psychology Society further denounced the study as “colonial”, stating that “(t)he article draws on colonial stereotypes of ‘coloured’ women, and portrays them as intellectually deficient, making broad, reckless and injurious generalisations on the basis of a flawed methodology”.
The British-based journal, Aging Neuropsychology and Cognition, is published by Taylor & Francis, which belongs to a listed UK media and communications group, Informa UK Limited. It is also a member of the FTSE 100 group of the largest companies on the London Stock Exchange.