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Angela Saini: ‘An understanding of history reminds us race is a social construct’

Alvin Weinberg was director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, established during the second world war to provide nuclear material for the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb. In his 1967 book Reflections On Big Science he warned of the growing danger of specialisation in science, sending researchers into ever narrower fields of study at the expense of the broader perspective. “Only the specialist knows what he is talking about,” Weinberg wrote. “Only the generalist knows why he should talk at all.”

This was a problem that came to bite early on in the pandemic, when top-flight medical researchers began speculating as to whether gross racial disparities in death rates might be down to genetics, even though we know from decades of research that this is near impossible given the lack of genetic differences between what are socially defined racial groups. Even a shallow understanding of history would have reminded them that race is a social construct.

Scientific ideas sit in political and cultural contexts. For instance, modern intelligence research emerged directly out of the early British eugenics movement. IQ tests, and the false notion that everyone is born with an inherited and immutable level of intelligence, emerged from efforts to decide which children were worth investing in and which were not. They targeted the poor in particular.

I’m surprised at how few scientists, engineers and doctors I meet know the history of their own fields, let alone science more broadly. In the 19th century, beliefs in the biological exceptionalism of non-white people prompted serious investigations into the possibility that black people felt pain less than white people; that their skins were thicker and bones denser. A 2016 survey of medical students and trainees at the University of Virginia found that half still believed at least one of these bizarre racial myths.

This is not just about ignorance of history. Snobbery towards the social sciences also prevents scientists from fully accepting the ways in which knowledge has been constructed and how politics is embedded in the process. Without this long view, it’s too easy to repeat the mistakes of the past or persist in outmoded ways of thinking, not least around race and gender. We look to science to enlighten, but what if scientists are the ones in need of enlightenment?

One answer would be to fully integrate the humanities into undergraduate science courses, creating generalists. For every scientific concept they learn, students should also be questioning where that concept came from, who developed it, and – most importantly – why.