Good Science Accounts for Bias, Prejudice, Saini Says
The best science challenges lazy thinking and looks beyond stereotypes, said Angela Saini, a British science journalist and broadcaster, in a recent lecture on “Gender, Race, and Power in Science,” presented by the National Library of Medicine at Lister Hill Auditorium, Bldg. 38A.
“When we bring our stereotypes and our assumptions into our work and look at the scientific evidence through those lenses, then we make mistakes,” she warned. “When we see everything through those assumptions, we start to assume the world is the way we’ve always imagined.”
Bias, discrimination and prejudice have been present since the birth of modern science during the Enlightenment, the 18th century period heralded for rationality. Influential scientists such as naturalist Charles Darwin assumed that biological differences between men and women explained gender gaps.
“Darwin ignored the possibility that society looked the way it did because of historic oppression and the denial of opportunities to women,” said Saini.
Girls didn’t have the same educational opportunities as boys, she added. The few who received an education couldn’t go to college. Until the middle of the 20th century, they were prevented from joining scientific academies. In 1911, for example, the French Academy of Sciences rejected the membership application of Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie.
“It wasn’t biology holding women back,” she said. “It was men, institutions, establishments and ideologies holding women back.”
Men, she said, have also used evolution to suggest male dominance is “hard-wired into our species.” Chimpanzees, for example, are one of humans’ closest relatives. Male chimps are violent and dominant over females.
“We forget this isn’t the full story,” cautioned Saini.
Another species closely related to humans is the pygmy chimpanzee. They weren’t studied because it was thought they behaved like their bigger relatives. Research has shown pygmy chimpanzees are female-dominated.
Scientific racism also emerged during the Enlightenment. Even Darwin—an abolitionist—believed “there were substantial differences between groups of people, and some were more evolved than others.” Saini said science was used to justify some of the worst atrocities over the past few centuries, including genocide, slavery, colonialism and apartheid.
After World War II, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO for short, released statements saying “racism is wrong, it has no place in science, the idea of race is a fallacy. It has no biological basis, it only has a social basis,” Saini noted.
Things didn’t change overnight. Today, well-intentioned scientists still use the language of the past. Saini interviewed one respected researcher who called mixed-race people “hybrids,” an inappropriate term that isn’t even scientifically accurate.
It is now understood that race is a social construct that has no basis in biology. Proximity, Saini said, explains the genetic commonality between people. A child, for example, most closely resembles his or her parents. There’s a weaker genetic connection between that same child and his or her cousins. That commonality gets weaker as a geographical area gets larger. At the continental level, statistical commonalities are very vague.
Routinely, Saini sees scientists who look for differences between socioeconomic groups that are defined using race. In the United States, for instance, more African Americans die from diseases resulting from high blood pressure. If hypertension was rooted in skin color, she’d expect to see the highest rates of hypertension to be found in African countries.
Yet that’s not the case. Germany and Finland—two countries whose diets are high in salty meat and cheese—had the highest hypertension rates when age-adjusted.
“If you’re poor anywhere in the world, but particularly in the U.S., your diet is likely to contain more processed foods, so it’s more likely to have fattier or saltier foods,” she said.
Even though there is a clear environmental explanation, scientists routinely look for a genetic cause. She added, “What is [actually] a socioeconomic gap is treated as a racial gap.”
She challenged scientists to keep pushing beyond bias and stereotypes.
“If we’re not, then we’re feeding the very prejudice and lazy thinking the public at large wants science to combat,” Saini concluded.