Wilful ignorance: Science’s refusal to inspect its racist past

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Jin-Gyu Chang

Think back to what you learnt in school about the history of racism, and you will find that it’s a very simplified and discontinuous narrative that goes something like this: slavery and empire (which is quite often portrayed as a good thing, or at least a necessary evil), the Nazis and WII and then finally the Civil Rights movement in the US which ended racism everywhere forever. Whilst there are a growing number of people that are critical of this narrative, the same criticism has not been levelled against the history of science.  

Science was used as a tool of the West to colonise peoples around the globe. Carl Linnaeus (yes, the guy who invented the way that we name species) justified the subjugation of Native Americans by claiming it was simply ‘in their nature’ to be oppressed [1]. Later on, the eugenics movement gained popularity in the late 19th and early 20th century with the backing of notable figures such as Francis Galton, an influential statistician responsible for innovations such as standard deviation. He believed that humanity could be improved through selective breeding after reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species[2]. Eugenics was not a fringe idea during this time either, and it certainly wasn’t solely practiced by the Nazis and Galton. The Rockefeller foundation funded multiple major eugenics institutions in Germany during the 20’s [3] and in 1934 the superintendent of the Western State Hospital in Richmond Virginia commented that “The Germans are beating us at our own game” [4].

Science was used as a tool of the west to colonise peoples around the globe

Yes, these people are products of their time, and no one is trying to erase their achievements by talking about their racist views. But we ourselves are a product of our time; how we talk about our history reflects upon us, and how we’ve progressed since then. Even then, post-war research, including the research that we do today, is tainted with racist and colonialist ideas. James Watson, one of the scientists who ‘discovered’ (read: stole from Rosalind Franklin) the structure of DNA, believes that Black people are genetically less intelligent than white people [5]. There are still academic journals such as Mankind Quarterly, which frequently publishes white supremacist articles [1]. Modern conservation policies are heavily influenced by colonial ideas and often result in the removal of native peoples from their ancestral lands (if you want to find out more about this search up ‘green militarisation’).

Again, these are not ideas being peddled by groups in the fringe or that have no financial power: James Watson is one of the most influential figures in modern genetics, Mankind Quarterly has huge financial backing from the Pioneer Fund [1], and conservation efforts still largely ignore local beliefs and land rights [6] in favour of imposing Western ideals of ‘pristine nature’. These are just a few examples of the way that racism and colonialist ideas are still found in modern science, but the list certainly doesn’t stop there. I strongly recommend reading Angela Saini’s Superior, which does a really good job at providing a continuous narrative of race science up to the modern day.

Asking scientists to consider the political impact of their research should really be standard scientific practice

I’m certainly not saying that we should abandon science for its problems because the scientific method is a powerful tool with which we can try to make sense of the world. What I am saying is that scientists are human and thus have their own worldviews that will inevitably influence what data they collect, how they collect it and how they present it. When reading anything, whether it’s a research paper or an article on a popular science website, it is essential to consider the aims of the author and consider the material critically, and how it might be used.

What I’m suggesting isn’t even that radical. Reading papers critically is already standard practice, and anyone that doesn’t do so is considered a ‘bad scientist’. Science never has, and never will, exist in a vacuum with no political, cultural, or economic context. Asking scientists to consider the political, cultural and economic impact of their research is not over-politicising science, it’s something that should really be standard scientific practice. Talking about the history of science and the role that scientists currently have within systems of injustice is not about political correctness; it’s about accuracy.

Of course, a lot of scientists today would not consider themselves racist. However, to parrot a phrase that has been used a lot in the last year, it is not enough to be not racist, we must all be anti-racists. Unless scientists take active responsibility and are critical of previous and current research, science will never break free from the legacy of colonialism.

[1]          A. Saini, Superior: the return of race science. Beacon Press, 2019.

[2]          N. W. Gillham, “Sir Francis Galton and the Birth of Eugenics,” Annual Review of Genetics, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 83-101, 2001/12/01 2001, doi: 10.1146/annurev.genet.35.102401.090055.

[3]          S. Kuhl, The Nazi connection: Eugenics, American racism, and German national socialism. Oxford University Press, 2002.

[4]          E. Klautke, “‘The Germans are beating us at our own game’ American eugenics and the German sterilization law of 1933,” History of the Human Sciences, vol. 29, no. 3, pp. 25-43, 2016.

[5]          E. Durkin, “DNA scientist James Watson stripped of honors over views on race,” The Guardian. [Online]. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/13/james-watson-scientist-honors-stripped-reprehensible-race-comments

[6]          T.-M. Liu and K.-K. Leung, “Volunteer tourism, endangered species conservation, and aboriginal culture shock,” Biodiversity and Conservation, vol. 28, no. 1, pp. 115-129, 2019.

photo credit: “‘Sailing-Ships’ (c. 1886-1890) – Constantinos Volanakis” by Tilemahos Efthimiadis is licensed under CC BY 2.0