Scientists must recognize intersection of social issues, quantitative study

Anuradha Lingappa

Opinion_Hernandez_Social Justice Scientists_5

Illustration by Lya Hernandez.

When I think about my future, I always picture myself doing something related to medicine or scientific research, not politics or policy. This makes sense because I am studying biology, not social science or the humanities. I would be more than happy to spend all my waking hours in a laboratory, running sucrose gradients and gels until I keel over, but I find the idea of being surrounded by lawyers and bureaucrats absolutely terrifying.

Social problems like racism and sexism appear to have nothing to do with malaria proteins or glucose metabolism or most of my other academic interests. However, even though I’m not studying these issues, I can still see the problems around me everywhere. I can’t just pretend they don’t exist. I want to do something about them.

When climate change comes up in a debate on TV, there is typically a scientist making the case for why everyone should care about the environment, regardless of race, gender, profession, socioeconomic status or level of education. People believe these scientists because they’re smart and well educated, and they’ve applied the scientific method to come to horrifying conclusions about how messed up our ecosystem has become.

So, when equally well-educated people talk about how messed up our society is when it comes to militarized police brutality or rape culture, why isn’t the call to action universally felt? Everyone should be expected to care and try to do something about these problems.

Unfortunately, I’ve gotten the sense from fellow scientists, both at Whitman and in the bigger outside world, that since our field deals with the empirical and unemotional, scientists don’t have to care about social issues. I rarely hear fellow science majors talk about the importance of feminism or ending oppression. Since we don’t learn about these things in our classes, those of us who care have to seek out other venues to learn about them.

Scientists tend to understand things quantitatively. We need numbers and experimentally derived evidence in order to believe something exists. When it comes to racism and sexism, there are numbers and statistics that prove these problems are real. However, if scientists don’t seek out this discussion, they might never have to confront the fact that both racism and sexism still exist. If people can’t recognize how the problems manifest themselves today, they maintain oppressive systems because they don’t know any better.

Science, which is supposed to be objective, has a long history of perpetuating racism and sexism. Biologists should know how Linnaeus, in addition to classifying many species of plants and animals, also fixed racism into the life sciences by extending his taxonomy to humans. He thought there were four different human races, of which Caucasians were the most advanced, and he included an extra species for the crazy and savage creatures that looked human but couldn’t possibly be.

Chemists should know how Marie Curie wouldn’t have won her first Nobel Prize if her husband hadn’t demanded that the committee include her at the last minute. Despite her contributions to science and two Nobel Prizes, the French Academy of Sciences never had a majority of voters willing to give her membership. When she had an affair several years after her husband’s death, the tabloids vilified her so much for it that an angry mob congregated outside her home.

Today, one way that sexism and racism manifest themselves is in the ratio of male and female scientists and white to minority scientists –– especially in the fields of physics and engineering.

Scientists should care about more than just the intersection of racism, sexism and science. Attending only to how these “-isms” arise in science would be treating a symptom rather than the cause. In order to rid science of institutional racism and sexism, we have to rid society of institutional racism and sexism. That is a scary prospect, especially for someone who doesn’t want to go into politics or policy. However, the first step is to care, to confront sexism and racism when encountered, and to educate others to do the same. I think I can do that.