"Keep Politics out of my Science!" or, Why Bias in Science is Something We Cannot Ignore / by Adeene Denton

In the aftermath of the last election I find myself being told more often than ever to keep politics out of science – to “focus on my research and the rest of it will work out.”  I write this post because I fundamentally reject the idea that we should all keep our heads down and do science, as this a) plays into the archetype of the disinterested academic rather than the engaged citizen, and b) doing so only benefits the most privileged of us.  The scientists among us that are vulnerable – women, people of color, LGBTQA+ individuals – are told to keep working hard, and the moral compass of American will swing around and benefit us. 

 I am here to dispel some myths about science as a profession, and the people that practice it.   Science is the love of my life, but it is a human establishment that thrives on growth and change, and I believe I am entitled to critique an institution that I love.  Without further ado, here is my response to the “sit down and make good science" approach:

1. Science does not operate in a vacuum.

Science does not operate in a vacuum, and it is foolish to think otherwise.  We are not, nor have we ever been, free to study whatever it is we want all day.  That doesn’t make science bad or corrupt – that’s just being real about the work we do.  Oftentimes we study what NASA or the NSF or other big organizations are funding, because research costs time and money.  Many of us end up working with the government, especially the Department of Defense, or with big corporations that may not share our personal interests.  Scientists may in many cases have pure intellectual curiosity at the heart of their research (I know I do!), but we also have to pay our electric bills.

If you take a look at the history of any field of science, it’s very easy to trace the rise and fall of different outside influences on the field in question, and how those have shaped our intellectual and technological advances.  Take oceanography, for example: as the end of World War II slowly bled into the beginning of the old War, the Navy recruited oceanographers in droves to produce the best, most accurate passive listening devices and bathymetric maps of the seafloor in order to better track enemy submarines.  Working for the Navy was a blessing and a burden for oceanographers, because while the Navy readily funded projects at a rate that no civilian agency matched, it also kept scientists from publishing their classified results for years at a time and limited the technology developed, such as the first submersibles, for military use only (Figure 1). 

 Figure 1: ALVIN, the first submersible - the Navy and the NSF had a very polite catfight over who got to use this cute little (17 ton) thing.

Figure 1: ALVIN, the first submersible - the Navy and the NSF had a very polite catfight over who got to use this cute little (17 ton) thing.

Important scientific developments came out of oceanography’s partnership with the Navy – Naval cruises led to the discovery of mid-ocean ridges and the “zebra stripes” that have given us our modern understanding of plate tectonics.  That said, we would be foolish not to ignore the political climate in which these advances occurred (that is, the motivation to go after the Soviets) that disproportionately benefitted oceanography over other fields.  The oceanographers themselves were aware of it, and argued amongst themselves over what was the “right” thing to do – pursue international cooperation and lose funding, or make massive technological advances that could not be publicized?

I say all this because it’s important to note that a science degree does not automatically elevate a person to a higher plane of intelligence, immune from outside influences or fallibility.  I should know – I have a science degree, and I tried to microwave a Solo cup because all of my coffee mugs were dirty.  Science is a human endeavor, full of mistakes coexisting with successes.  My second point is this: understanding the history of our fields is important, because even theories that are the backbone of what we study are not independent of the political climate in which they were born.

2.  Science has historically been used to prop up racist, sexist, and homophobic ideas by giving them intellectual credibility.

Science in its current form and as it is practiced worldwide is historically a white man’s institution.  This is not news to anyone.  However, sometimes we can get so absorbed in our own research and in trying to solve our own small puzzles that we miss the small ticks that let us know that, in many ways, the system has not so much changed as it has very slightly given way in a few places.  Thinking about the ugly parts of science’s history is not a fun endeavor, but it is a necessary one in order to understand why science looks the way it does today.

When I say science was and is a white man’s institution, what I mean is that “modern” science (beginning in the 18th century or so) has historically been used to prop up western dominance.  In the much the same way as I make a numerical model knowing the question I’m asking as well as an idea of the answer I want, entire fields of study in past century have been devoted to propping up theories and hypotheses that are, at their core, racist, sexist, and/or homophobic.

The biggest example of this is of course eugenics.  I’m not here to belabor the point, but it’s important to remember how widespread eugenics really was, and how recently it was taken to be a legitimate scientific field.  The European eugenics heyday was in the 1910s and 1920s, but eugenics also rose to prominence in the U.S. in the 1940s.  There were real journals, conferences, and the other trappings of a scientific field (see Figure 2, below).  American and Europeans scientists were very, very stoked on the idea of creating a “pure Aryan race,” right up through WWII.  The US was also the first country to pursue sterilization laws based on the arguments for a “pure” populace, and sterilization fell disproportionately on people of color and the mentally ill.

 Figure 2: Just look at that pleasant logo from the Second International Eugenics Conference of 1921.

Figure 2: Just look at that pleasant logo from the Second International Eugenics Conference of 1921.

People have said to me “oh, the eugenics example is too easy! A terrible blip in the history of our proud profession!” Those people need to read this post again from the top, slowly, because eugenics’ rise and fall was not an isolated event (also, if you’re trying to minimize the effect of eugenics, you are a douchebag).  One only has to look into scientific literature at any earlier time to see it.  This stuff persists, and it’s been there since the beginning. 

Carl Linnaeus’ taxonomic nomenclature from 1767 extended from flora and fauna to the “five varieties” of human species, naming the Europeanus as being “acute” and “inventive,” while Africanus was “careless,” and “crafty.”  Women’s legal subservience to men up through the 20th century was supported by science stating that women possessed “smaller brains” and inferior bodies (one study claimed they were “failed men”) that made them incapable of taking care of themselves.  The first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the primary publication of the American Psychiatric Association, listed homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disorder” before upgrading it to a “sexual deviation” in 1968 (it was finally removed in 1973). 

These were considered legitimate scientific practice at the time, and had terrible, long-reaching ramifications.  Does that mean science is forever tainted? Are we, the scientists practicing now, guilty by association with past terribleness? No, but it’s important to know where science as a profession has been.  It keeps us humble, respectful, and aware that we as scientists are not immune from society – and we have to make a choice about how to react to that.

 Figure 3: A cute, but no less relevant example of the ramifications of those scientific practices.

Figure 3: A cute, but no less relevant example of the ramifications of those scientific practices.

3. Bias in science has controlled who gets study science.

My third and last point follows directly from the above point – all that scientific work that legitimized racism, sexism, homophobia and more didn’t just affect society at large.  It also impacted the scientific community itself.  Women, people of color, LGBTQA+ folks, and other marginalized groups have historically had an incredibly hard time practicing science and having people take their work seriously.  Scientists have historically been white men, and that’s a trend that still shows up today in both overt and insidious ways. 

No, women are no longer barred from getting doctoral degrees, but they still get sexually harassed in incredible numbers by other members of their field.  Just ask us, we’ll tell you! Universities are no longer segregated, but I still see successful professors at some of the best schools in the country complain about reverse racism and how hard it is for white men in science now.  Homosexuality is no longer classified as a sexual deviation (…yay?) but science remains aggressively heterosexual in many ways.  For minority groups, making it to graduate school in science and beyond is tough, but the tiny ticks against us can make it difficult to stay.  Removing the obvious barriers has not removed them all, and it certainly cannot remove the ramifications of centuries of scientific research designed to prove those same minorities’ inferiority.  Reaching gender parity among the graduate students in a department doesn’t magically erase sexism (especially if female professors are conspicuously absent), for example.

As both a woman and a member of the LGBTQA+ community, I cannot separate my practice of science from where science has been and how far it has to go.  I love science, and I feel incredibly lucky that I get to study rocks in space for a living.  But I didn’t get to leave sexism and homophobia at the door when I started down this path – I get to spend part of my time deciding what comments I have to ignore in favor of furthering my career, and what I simply cannot abide. Where do I draw the line? Being asked by a colleague if I’m a stripper in my spare time?

 Figure 4: Nobel laureates by region. WEIRD HOW THIS BREAKS DOWN IN FAVOR OF WESTERN EUROPE. HOW ODD. Also of note, only 40 Nobel winners have been women. I WONDER.

Figure 4: Nobel laureates by region. WEIRD HOW THIS BREAKS DOWN IN FAVOR OF WESTERN EUROPE. HOW ODD. Also of note, only 40 Nobel winners have been women. I WONDER.

In Conclusion

I’m not here to complain about subtle prejudices in today’s scientific community.  They’re there, if you know how to look.  You don’t even have to look that hard!

I’m just here to note that science is not, nor has it ever been, independent of things like politics.  In fact, it has a long and storied history of influencing and being influenced by society, politics, and personal beliefs.  It’s time we admitted that to ourselves and owned our past, even if we don’t always like what that past looks like.  By owning our past we can shape our future.

Personally, I cannot separate science from politics.  I (a queer woman) get to study science because several overarching societal ideas slowly transformed into other ideas, and I will always be aware of that.

I love science.  I’m just out here asking science to love me (all the parts of me), and have my back in return.

 Figure 5: Art seen at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, and an excellent example of how science can continue to grow. (photo taken by me)

Figure 5: Art seen at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, and an excellent example of how science can continue to grow. (photo taken by me)

Selected References

Hamblin, Jacob Darwin. “The Navy’s ‘Sophisticated’ Pursuit of Science: Undersea Warfare, the Limits of Internationalism, and the Utility of Basic Research, 1945-1956.” Isis, 93.1: March 2002. 10.

Kevles, Daniel J. “In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity.” Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1985.

Oreskes, Naomi. “A Context of Motivation: US Navy Oceanographic Research and the Discovery of Sea-Floor Hydrothermal Vents.” Social Studies of Science 33.5: October 2003. 702.

Oreskes, Naomi. “Plate Tectonics: An Insider’s History of the Modern Theory of the Earth.” Westview Press: Cambridge, 2001. 27-28.

Rainger, Ronald. “Science at the Crossroads: The Navy, Bikini Atoll, and American Oceanography in the 1940s.” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 30.2: 2000. 354.