Is science neutral? Most people think so. But science writer Angela Saini has made a career out of revealing how science can be sexist, racist and bigoted, because, of course, scientists can be all of those things.
Her latest book Superior: The Return Of Race Science (Fourth Estate) targets racial biases in science over the years. It is a subject that has fascinated her for a long time. Superior is a great companion to her 2017 book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—And The New Research That’s Rewriting the Story. Inferior revealed how science had constantly told women they were lesser; even Charles Darwin believed men were more evolved than women. Sexist scientists produced flawed studies telling women they were suited only to the nurturing professions, while men were told they were good at solving problems and logical reasoning. Saini used new studies to show that women had been deeply misunderstood and underestimated by shoddy science.
Superior follows a similar path, exposing the lie that some races are biologically “better” than others. “As a journalist covering science, I feel it’s important to do journalism in this area in the same way we would do journalism in any other. So uncovering bias, fraud, deception is important. We need to be able to see science for what it is: a noble enterprise, which does work, but always at the mercy of human fallibility,” says Saini in an email interview.
Who: Saini, a British-Indian, is an engineer who graduated from Oxford and then went into science writing and broadcasting. Her first book, Geek Nation: How Indian Science Is Taking Over the World (2011), took her on a journey through India to analyse how Indian science was being used to help ordinary Indians. Inferior exposed sexism in science. Her third book draws from her own experience of being in a country where her identity was always questioned. When Brexit came along, things got worse. “Not all, but some of those who wanted to leave Europe wanted a return to their own particular vision of Britain. Skin colour mattered to them because it was a visible baseline,” writes Saini in Superior. No wonder she was drawn to race science.
What:Superior is a slim book and reads easily. Do not be put off if you are not a science graduate. Saini is adept at making scientific studies accessible. She traces the earliest origins of race science, when European colonialists eagerly rushed to write off native people as primitive to justify their invasion. “By the 19th century, those who didn’t live like Europeans were thought to have not yet fully realized their potential as human beings,” writes Saini. One example is the Aboriginal people of Australia, who were systematically exterminated and had their children taken away from them because they were thought to be unfit parents. After the Nazis used eugenics as an excuse to wipe out entire Jewish populations, eugenics fell into disrepute.
But race science is making a comeback, fuelled by a broader culture that rants against “political correctness”. In 1994, political scientist Charles Murray and psychologist Richard Herrnstein wrote The Bell Curve, a best-seller which suggested that black Americans were less intelligent than whites and Asians. Most recently, in 2018, US President Donald Trump reportedly said, “Why do we want all these people from shithole countries coming here (referring to people from Haiti, El Salvador and Africa coming into the US)?” Trump then suggested that immigrants from Norway should be preferred.
It is a slippery slide. Saini convincingly argues that considering black people inferior allowed white people to justify slavery back then, and challenge affirmative action and similar social justice programmes now. If black people were less intelligent than white people, why waste scarce resources on them?
But, as she notes, numerous studies also show that children with black ancestry have the same IQ as children with white. What does make a difference are environmental and socio-economic factors. Saini notes, for instance, that in the UK, the group that achieves the lowest grades are white working-class boys, followed by white working-class girls, but while scientists have rushed to show that black people in the US are less intelligent, “they have not jumped to show that low intelligence is rooted in whiteness in the UK”.
Essentially, Saini argues, there is still no convincing data to conclude that intelligence is dictated by race, because we cannot control environmental and cultural factors. But the “race realists” try to deceive people into thinking there is.
Why: Read this if you want to uncover your hidden prejudices. Have you, for instance, ever nodded in agreement when someone said, “Brahmins are very intelligent”? Saini says she wrote Superior with India topmost on her mind. “As I explore in the book, caste is as relevant here as race. I consider caste another kind of racial hierarchy, separating people in the belief of some innate difference between them. I was stunned to speak to Indian scientists who buy into the notion that certain groups within India are naturally suited to different occupations.”
Indian nationalists who have fixed ideas about what it means to be desi might also consider the cautionary tale of “Cheddar Man”. Cheddar Man is a 10,000-year-old skeleton from the Mesolithic period, discovered in Cheddar, Somerset, in 1903. In 2018, scientists found that this early Briton had blue eyes and dark skin, so dark that he would be considered black today. There was outrage on far-right websites, and disbelief that a black man could actually be a Briton.
But, as Saini explains, one group of people were not surprised at all: geneticists. Pale skin is a relatively recent development. “The disbelief that met Cheddar Man’s probable blackness arose because many among the British public couldn’t help but assume that Britons had always looked a certain way,” writes Saini. “He was proof that there couldn’t be anything eternal or pure about race.”
Saini’s conclusion will be alarming to those STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) graduates who still believe science and data solves everything: She believes it is history that has the answers, not science.
“You need a good, thorough understanding of the science, its history and the social context,” she says. “With this broad education, it’s possible to counteract misunderstanding. Race is a social construct, so we won’t understand just with data. The data can remind us that it is a social construct, but only history can teach us how and why it was constructed.”
One sentence particularly stays with the reader of Superior: “Science is just a pawn in the bloody game.”
Superior will be available in India from 25 June.