Angela Saini is an independent political science journalist and author. Her latest book, Superior: The Return of Race Science, was published in 2019 and has been named a book of the year by the Financial Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Sunday Times. Angela was invited to speak by the BAME Staff Network at the University of Sheffield for Black History Month.
“Science feels unpolitical, as it’s always been there, but it’s not.” We tend to think of science as neutral and objective, yet it is continuously being shaped by the socio-political context in which it operates. As Saini explains, science cannot be truly objective for, contrary to popular belief, scientists are not rational or objective observers. Scientists and non-scientists alike, we are all the product of our environment and we naturally internalise the beliefs and assumptions of the society we live in. When we live in a society which is institutionally racist, racism will inevitably shape the production and influence of knowledge.
The best example of how science and politics are intertwined has to be the history of race science. In the eighteenth century, European scientists looked to prove Black people were biologically inferior to their white counterparts as a means to prop up a racialised hierarchy of power which placed people who looked like them right at the very top. They measured everything from the distance between people’s eyes to the gap between their thighs, effectively creating what we know today as race, desperately searching (without success) for innate genetic differences to justify the evils of European colonialism. However, these racial categories didn’t fade away but were absorbed into popular discourse. Nowadays race is an unsettlingly familiar term which dominates our social and cultural lives, forming a large part of how we see ourselves and see other people. It seems so tangible and real that we can’t imagine that race doesn’t have a firmer biological basis.
Saini points out how, despite the overwhelming lack of evidence, some prominent scientists have continued to look for proof that race is biologically real. This insistence on the validity of race has very real, very dangerous consequences. In May, when the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published a report showing Black people are twice as likely to die from Covid-19 as white people, medical researchers began speculating if there was some innate reason why Black people were so disproportionately affected by the virus. Pointing out that those of Afro-Caribbean descent have a higher risk of hypertension and diabetes, they argued the answer could lie in their genetic makeup. Saini says this was a pointless enterprise, for it’s not possible for socially defined groups to be genetically different. In fact, studies have shown that there is more genetic variation within the same race than between different races. It would have been far more useful to instead focus on environmental and social factors for, while there are few differences between ethnic groups, there are huge health gaps between the rich and the poor with the poorest twice as likely to die from Covid-19. But we brush over these issues, “desperately trying to find something in our genomes”. Perhaps it reflects a widespread reluctance which spreads beyond the scientific community to acknowledge the way our society treats different people in very different ways. The prevalence of structural racism in Britain continues to endanger people’s lives.
How can we get past this? Saini says we need to teach scientists about the history of their discipline. It’s more important than ever to question where the theory we are taught comes from, who developed it and why. By teaching political and cultural contexts of scientific theory, we can halt the spread of outdated beliefs and move on.