AAAS Kavli Lecture: Angela Saini on Speaking Truth to Power

Emily Hughes

Scientists have a huge amount of power in society, author Angela Saini told an audience at the University of Maryland recently, and that power can be used to skew our perception of the natural order of things.

Saini, who is fascinated by the relationship between science and society, said she works to explore “what happens when a scientist’s personal prejudices or biases collide with their desire to get to the truth.” 

In an Oct. 30 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award lecture at Maryland’s Phjlip Merrill College of Journalism, Saini described ways in which scientific information can be distorted or misused, including the persistence of race as a scientific concept despite decades of research showing that is has no biological meaning.

Angela Saini

She also spoke of historic discrimination against women in science, noting Charles Darwin’s remark that a man can attain “a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than woman can attain” and the refusal of the French Academy of Sciences to grant membership to Marie Curie even after she had won two Nobel Prizes.

Saini, a 2015 AAAS Kavli award winner, seeks to hold science accountable for such underlying biases in her recently published book, “Superior: The Return of Race Science,” and her 2017 book, “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong - and the New Research That's Rewriting the Story.”

Prejudices are inevitable, Saini argues, and can be found just about anywhere. “I’m a very big science fiction fan,” she told her audience as she presented a series of stills from the “Planet of the Apes” movie franchise. “Almost all the action in each of the Planet of the Apes movies is centered around male apes,” Saini noted. Bias has been so conditioned into our way of thinking, she said, that the choice is unnoticeable for most viewers.

Saini cited moments throughout history when biased views on gender hindered science and led to the exclusion of female students from admittance to universities. It was the “assumption of natural difference, of biological difference,” said Saini, “that lay at the heart of all of this. That prevented people from seeing the evidence.”  She added, “It wasn’t biology that was holding women back. It was men.”

Assumption of biological differences also was at the heart of race science, Saini said. “Enlightenment scientists not only ranked men and women,” Saini told her audience, “they also ranked races.” She added that “in the history of bad science,” race science is “probably the worst example. This belief that the human species can be divided into groups … and that there is a hierarchy then between these groups was used since the birth of modern science.”

While researchers turned away from eugenics after the horrors of World War II, there has been a disturbing resilience of scientific racism to this day, according to Saini. Mankind Quarterly, a journal founded in the 1960s by a former Nazi scientist and a British eugenicist, is still being published online. Some mainstream scientists, geneticists and medical researchers still invoke racial categories in their work, she said.

Courtesy of Beacon Press

Saini first became interested in race issues as a child, when a young black student was killed at a bus stop near her school in London. “Because of that,” she said, “when I went to university to study engineering, I got involved in the anti-racism movement. I joined the anti-racism committee at university. I started writing for student press.” Without that experience, said Saini, she may have never become a journalist.

Now Saini believes it is her responsibility as a science journalist to expose the hidden biases in science and society. “Science journalism is about putting scientific ideas in context,” Saini said. She tries to take the long view, “looking back into history and trying to understand exactly where these ideas come from.”

Journalism must contextualize science, she said, to provide the caveats that help the public interpret scientific findings. “Our job is to emphasize caveats,” Saini told an investigative journalism class during a workshop earlier that afternoon. “My instinct as a journalist is to specify and caveat as much as possible.”

During the same workshop, she warned student journalists to always be wary of data, telling the group of aspiring journalists that “facts are not always as clear cut as we think.” She brought the same sense of careful skepticism to her lecture that night. “Every fact,” she told her audience, “even from the very best scientists in the world, is always predicated on the possibility that they might be wrong.”

As a powerful case study, Saini relayed the history of hypertension research in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Hypertension, or abnormally high blood pressure, is “one of the most racialized conditions in the world,” Saini told her audience. In the UK, doctors advise treating patients with this condition differently based on their skin color, while in 2005 the US approved a drug meant to target only black patients. These actions were based on studies that showed higher rates of hypertension in black patients, as well as higher rates of death.

Two experts in the field, Richard Cooper and Jay Kaufman, took a closer look at the research surrounding these claims, Saini said, and found that assigning different treatment strategies based on race is barely more effective than tossing a coin.

“If hypertension were linked to skin color,” Saini pointed out, “you would expect Africa to have the highest rates of hypertension.” Instead, Africa has the lowest rates of hypertension, while Finland and Germany have the highest rates. “So the question is,” said Saini, “why do more black Americans die of diseases caused by hypertension?”

When discussing and researching hypertension, biologists were using race as a proxy for socio-economic status. “We know that stress is associated with higher blood pressure, having more years of education is associated with lower blood pressure, Saini said. Black Americans have poorer access to health care and tend to live in poorer neighborhoods, she said, and “they suffer the stress of structural racism.”

By inappropriately bringing social science into biological research, scientists can perpetuate untrue narratives about racial differences, Saini said. They are “projecting contemporary notions of race onto the actual evidence,” she said. “They’re reconstructing a truth around the myth of race.”

Saini said she does not believe racism will ever go away. But she places her trust in the journalists who expose hidden biases and prejudices within science. “We need people who are interrogating what science is doing,” Saini told her audience. “Science journalism is about speaking truth to power.”