Vincentian Chair Lecture Discusses Bias in the Sciences

Angela Saini
December 1, 2020

As objective as science purports to be, truths have often been obscured throughout history by human beings with their own biases and agendas. That was the message delivered by Angela Saini, an award-winning British science journalist and author, during her lecture, “Race, Gender, Science, and Power,” held via Webex on November 16. 

Each academic year, the Vincentian Center for Church and Society sponsors a series of academic lectures around a specific theme pertaining to equity and human rights. As part of the 2020–21 Vincentian Chair of Social Justice Lecture Series, “Women of Color in the Academy,” Ms. Saini discussed the question of sexism in science and the consistent misrepresentation of women and people of color throughout modern history.

In her two most recent books, Ms. Saini focuses on the issues of gender and race. Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, published in 2017, deals with the consistent misrepresentation of women throughout history. Her 2019 book, Superior: The Return of Race Science, discusses how the misconceptions about race are still pervasive in science today.

Ms. Saini highlights the role that science plays in the perpetuation of false ideas in society, including racism, both now and in the past. “We imagine science to be perfectly objective—that this world of truths sits apart from politics and society. Of course, that is not the case. In real life, science is explored by human beings; what fascinates me is how personal and political agendas can sometimes collide with the researcher’s desire to get to the truth, and sometimes even obscure their perception of the truth.”

Bias within the sciences always seems to reside in the past and is not something that we have to worry about today, Ms. Saini observed. However, she believes the opposite to be true. “Damaging legacies of how Western science began thinking about race and gender still plague us today in deeply pseudoscientific ways,” she stressed. Racial categories used today were devised by enlightenment naturalists and developed by European scientists for many hundreds of years, with the implicit aim of reinforcing the idea that humans could be divided into groups, she said.

“There are no black genes, there are no white genes. There is no natural dividing line at all between us as human beings, and there are no genes that exist in all members of one so-called race and not in another, so whenever we subdivide people, that endeavor has to be by its nature arbitrary, and it really depends on the perspective of the person doing that categorization,” Ms. Saini explained.

What makes this issue even more challenging, Ms. Saini asserts, is that scientists have not always done a good job of challenging outdated ideas around race and sex that are still so pervasive. “At the outset of modern Western European science, along with racialized assumptions about human difference, there was also an assumption that women were not the intellectual equals of men,” Ms. Saini said.

Women were routinely barred from the scientific academies of Europe, which did not admit women until the mid-20th century, and from universities. And someone as eminent as naturalist Charles Darwin, who contributed so much to the study of human evolution, believed these assumptions about the differences between men and women. This had a devastating effect on gender equality.

“This is how damaging these assumptions of natural difference of biological inferiority are,” Ms. Saini stressed. “They prevent people from believing the evidence of their own eyes.”

As long as people and society contain bias and prejudice, the only way to achieve neutrality and objectivity is to be vigilant and watch out for those who intentionally or unintentionally perpetuate biases and political beliefs in their science. “We need to challenge everything all of the time,” she said.

“Clearly, Ms. Saini’s vision insists on the similarity and equality of people,” said Rev. Patrick J. Griffin, C.M., Executive Director, Vincentian Center for Church and Society. “Her repeated emphasis on race as a social, rather than biological, construct is powerful. Genetics unites us.  Science is meant to help us understand this world that God has made, and the wonder of all of God’s children. Within our St. John’s community, we must continue to seek this understanding.”