Scientific knowledge is valued for its objectivity, as it helps us better understand the world. We often use scientific evidence to inform our decisions – but what happens when science is misused and scientific facts are distorted to promote interests that negatively impact certain groups of people?
Scientific objectivity is based on the idea that various aspects of science – such as claims, results, methods and researchers – are not influenced by biases, differing perspectives or values. This insight gives authority to scientific findings and is why we attribute such strong power to science to help guide much of our decision-making and thinking.
While scientific inquiry can lead us to objective truths, science has also been misused to reinforce and justify discrimination against certain groups of people. Throughout history, specific ideas with no scientific basis have slipped through the cracks, being presented as scientific truths to justify racial inequality.
Today, race is more commonly understood as a social construct, meaning it is believed to be based on the social meaning and cultural understanding of racial groups. However, not so long ago, race was once considered a biological distinction. Race is not entirely driven by genetic differences, and there is not enough evidence to support these genetic differences, but that hasn’t stopped people from situating race as a biological concept to impose the idea that some races are inherently superior or inferior.
One of the most common ways science is misused to reinforce racial discrimination is to claim that certain groups of people are better than others in terms of cognitive or behavioral traits due to genetic differences.
In the 19th century, some scientists were proponents of “polygenism,” which suggested that different human races were separate species. This theory used pseudoscientific methods like craniometry – the measurements of human skulls – which scientists said provided evidence for the idea that white people were biologically superior to black people. Supposedly, the shapes and measurements of the skull indicated genetically inherited traits that belonged to particular groups. Assuming that craniometry was a method that provided evidence of a genetically advantaged race resulted in racial discrimination against people who did not possess these supposedly genetically advantageous indicators.
Another example of the misuse of science to enforce racial differences has been the emergence of the idea that intelligence is a purely genetic trait. The premise was that IQ was an inherited trait and correlated to race. Confusing social differences with genetic roots and advancing these ideas as entirely science-based creates social animosity and makes society believe that these divisions are justified.
The authority of science carries incredible weight in society because it has the power to influence our understanding of the world. At a time when misinformation and disinformation are more prevalent than ever, the misuse and misrepresentation of science to advance interests that marginalize people can be extremely damaging.
Co-opting the authority of science to justify racial inequality by supporting unsubstantiated claims that attribute differences between different populations to biology has no place in today’s society. This is especially true when it comes to using unsubstantiated biological explanations to reinforce discrimination and advance the idea of a dominant population.
While concepts like race and ethnicity can certainly be determinants or help explain differences in health outcomes, advancing claims that merge social differences with biological explanations is a disservice to scientific objectivity. . Great strides are being made in society and in research to recognize the historical, political and social factors that may explain differences between populations, which should help us to move forward and strive to ensure that scientific research and communication are conducted with integrity.