By Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
Stop Equating “Science” With Truth
Evolutionary psychology is just the most obvious example of science’s flaws.
It’s 2017, and people are still debating whether or not women are intellectually inferior to men, and whether we are entitled to a workplace that isn’t toxic to people simply based on their gender and sex. The Google employee memo about the apparent harms of diversity policies in Silicon Valley is both a shocking news story for the general public and for many women and gender minorities—especially of color—working in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine, a banal sign of normalcy.
At least science is helping us make progress, right? Science is sold to us as an almost holy, objective pursuit: a pure endeavor, a way of pursuing truth and only truth. As a high school senior planning to study physics and astronomy in college, I was thoroughly convinced that solving quantum gravity would trickle down to improved human relations. Of course, I was adorably naïve about both the difficulty that quantum gravity presented us (we’ve made little progress in the 18 years since I started university) and about the relationship between science and humanity’s various imperfections.
My education as a scientist did little to disabuse me of this simple view of science as a great unifier, as an objective means of distilling information. When skeptical members of my family argued that physics was dangerous because of nuclear weapons, I pointed out that it wasn’t science that was the problem but rather how people used it. But nowhere is it more evident that this perspective is flawed than when we consider the uses and abuses of evolutionary biology and its sibling, evolutionary psychology.
It is impossible to consider this field of science without grappling with the flaws of the institution—and of the deification—of science itself. For example: It was argued to me this week that the Google memo failed to constitute hostile behavior because it cited peer-reviewed articles that suggest women have different brains. The well-known scientist who made this comment to me is both a woman and someone who knows quite well that “peer-reviewed” and “correct” are not interchangeable terms. This brings us to the question that many have grappled with this week. It’s 2017, and to some extent scientific literature still supports a patriarchal view that ranks a man’s intellect above a woman’s.
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It’s easy to end up in an endless loop of using our prodigious scientific skills to carefully debunk the shoddy science that props up this argument. This is important and valuable work, but it’s also worth considering why this loop exists at all. Science’s greatest myth is that it doesn’t encode bias and is always self-correcting. In fact, science has often made its living from encoding and justifying bias, and refusing to do anything about the fact that the data says something’s wrong.
Most saliently in the context of the Google memo, our scientific educations almost never talk about the invention of whiteness and the invention of race in tandem with the early scientific method which placed a high value on taxonomies—which unsurprisingly and almost certainly not coincidentally supported prevailing social views. The standard history of science that is taught to budding scientists is that during the Enlightenment, Europe went from the dark ages to, well, being enlightened by a more progressive mindset characterized by objective “science.” It is the rare scientific education that includes a simultaneous conversation about the rise of violent, imperialist globalization during the same time period. Very few curricula acknowledge that some European scientific “discoveries” were in fact collations of borrowed indigenous knowledge. And far too many universally call technology progress while failing to acknowledge that it has left us in a dangerously warmed climate.
Science’s greatest myth is that it doesn’t encode bias and is always self-correcting.
Much of the science that resulted from this system, conducted primarily by white men, is what helped teach us that women were the inferior sex. Racial taxonomies conveniently confirmed that enslaving African people was a perfectly reasonable behavior since, as Thomas Jefferson put it, black people were “inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind.” Of course, this apparent inferiority never stopped Jefferson from repeatedly raping his wife’s half-sister, Sally Hemings, herself a product of rape. Jefferson is remembered as a great thinker, but when one reads his writing about race, it becomes immediately evident that rather than being much of a scientist, he was a biased white supremacist who hid behind science as a shield.
The problem is that science was just the shield he needed in the 18th century, and unfortunately, it seems that it continues to function that way today. In other words, pseudoscience has always been a core feature of post-Enlightenment scientific knowledge and it remains that way because scientists refuse to integrate contemporary science, technology, and society studies research into university curricula. And so too many of us get out of school and end up in a world where we are suddenly forced to grapple with the reality of how science, in practice, is not as objective as we hoped. Enough of us have heard a man, sometimes the president of our college, sometimes our research adviser, express the view that women’s brains “just work differently” and “aren’t suited to technical skills” the way men’s are. Nonbinary people don’t exist, and transgender people are de-normalized in these narratives. Women of color listen to white women normalize Europe as the birthplace of scientific intelligence while telling us that our curly hair isn’t professional-looking. Senior men who we would hope could be mentors turn out to be our sexual harassers, and with some frequency, senior women tell us to suck it up and lean in, rather than helping us.
Last month, a study of women in astronomy and planetary science led by University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign professor Kathryn Clancy found that women of color especially suffer from hostile working environments. In June, I contributed to a Nature Astronomy feature on gender discrimination in astronomy. As someone on Twitter reminded me last week when I posted a new paper on particle physics, because the authors of the paper are women, based on the results of one featured study in that Nature Astronomy issue, we can expect 10 percent fewer citations.
Google bro would argue that we ought to consider the possibility that white women and racial minorities simply produce lower-quality work, which is why we struggle to be recognized as competent knowledge producers. It’s time to turn the tables on this debate. Rather than leaning in and trying endlessly to prove our humanity and value, people like him should have to prove that our inferiority is the problem. Eliminate structural biases in education, health care, housing, and salaries that favor white men and see if we fail. Run the experiment. Be a scientist about it.
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Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a particle physicist, philosopher of science at the University of Washington, and editor in chief of the Offing. Follow her on Twitter.