Angela Saini: Addressing Race Science

A Q&A with the science journalist on her latest book, SUPERIOR: THE RETURN OF RACE SCIENCE
24 May 2019
by Daneet Steffens
Angela Saini and cover image of Superior
Author image credt: Henrietta Garden

Angela Saini is a London-based science journalist who holds master's degrees in engineering and in science and security. She was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT between 2012 and 2013, and won the American Association for the Advancement of Science Kavli Gold Award for radio reporting in 2015. Her first book, published in 2011, was Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World. Her second book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That's Rewriting the Story, was named 2017's book of the year by Physics World.

Her latest book, Superior: The Return of Race Science, is published this month by Beacon Press. In it, Saini explores the historical and contemporary misappropriating of science to advance racist agendas, theories, and policies. In an eloquent and highly accessible narrative, Saini interweaves scientific readings and her interviews with an expansive range of scientists, alongside her own observations in settings that include the Australian Outback, London's Natural History Museum, Paris' Garden for Tropical Agriculture, and Walt Disney World.

Q: Superior tracks how scientific racism, which began with colonialism and the birth of Western science, became taboo after WWII, but didn't actually go away. Why are these voices emerging again now?
A: I think the voices have always been there but have been either ignored or haven't had the platforms that they needed. There are a number of reason why they're so vocal now: one is the Internet — social media makes it so easy for them to get together and offers them platforms that just didn't exist previously. And there's the rise of ethnic nationalism and the far right and populism which resurface periodically. It's a confluence of those things that makes these voices both visible and powerful in ways that they weren't before.

Q: Does the ability of race science to resurface stem from a lack of understanding history?
A: Wasn't it Churchill who said, "Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it"? Although, ironically, he was also a eugenicist. But this is the weird thing: I think history is not a simple linear narrative, not just a story of the good guys and the bad guys. It's always more complicated than that. Whenever these ideas re-emerge, we think that most of us are immune to them, that the mistakes of the past can't happen because we're better than that.
In fact, the reason they reappear is not because we forget history, but because we forget that, at the time these things happened before, ordinary people bought into them, like eugenics in the early 20th century. It was a very mainstream, liberal progressive thing to be a eugenicist before the Second World War. And we forget that the reason for this is that, at the time that these ideas reappear, they are packaged in such a way as to seem logical and rational and attractive, to make perfect sense for the age that they're in. That's how they manage to always crop up again. They don't take exactly the same form as the last time, even though they are very often the same ideas; they're tailored and massaged in order to be appealing to the times that we're in. And that's exactly what is happening now: this is why these racists don't call themselves racists anymore, they call themselves "race realists." They don't talk about racial differences, they talk about statistical differences in population groups, they use terms like "human biodiversity." They have a more sophisticated way of talking about it, but it's not new. And if you understand the history, you see that it's not new.

Q: You're a double master of science. How does it make you feel when people use — or, rather, mis-use — science to advance their own personal and political beliefs?
A: Well, to some extent it's inevitable because science sits in society — it's done by human beings — and, as much as scientists try to be objective and rational, they are always at the mercy of their own political beliefs. This is something I try to make clear in the book: that even well-meaning, well-intentioned scientists can fall into these traps because they're not aware of their own biases, and they think they're above politics. But assuming that they're better than the politics allows them to repeat the same mistakes. We have to understand that we are all victims of this and we are also perpetrators of this.

Q: So there's an element of unconscious bias that plays into it?
A: Yes, absolutely there is unconscious bias. Of course, there's conscious bias as well, but it's the unconscious bias that plays on all of us. That's the kind of bias that I have: I feel like I'm an anti-racist, but actually when I interrogate myself, when I actually force myself to think about the way that I think about groups of people, the way I think about myself, the way I think about human difference — I know I have my own biases that I have grown up with, that I've been inculcated with by the society I live in, by my parents, by the world at large. And we have to understand that we are all part of this.

Q: After talking to all these people — social scientists, biological scientists, historians — how do you think that we move beyond this? And does expanding diversity in science play a role in addressing this situation in which science is being co-opted to drive personal and political agendas?
A: Representation definitely matters. But one thing that's astounded me is how even the well-intentioned population geneticists keep resorting to race. Unless we see that there are voices outside our little groups that have an input here that have something to say, then I think we're in real trouble. And I think that the population geneticists' failure to engage with the social scientists on this is perhaps the worst and most egregious example of where they go wrong: they only look at genetics, they don't look at the huge body of work within the social sciences and the work that other people are doing, especially people of color. Critical race theorists, race scholars, have been studying this for years. There are some very good scholars who are slowly — especially within anthropology and psychology — who are starting to shift the debate. Stanford University's Jennifer Eberhardt is one; Kim TallBear, at the University of Alberta, is another. There are people who are very good voices on this who are starting to be listened to. But I think this is also a matter of showing humility and a willingness to look outside one's own subject area and read more widely.

Q: What surprised you most in working on this book? What surprised you the least?
A: I think what surprised me the most was how modern-day scientists still so often routinely resort to race in their research even though we are told by them that race is a social construct. Honestly, to this day it baffles me how they manage to do it; it's just cognitive dissonance. What surprised me the least was that scientific racism never went away, that it continued, that there's a direct line from the Nazi racial hygiene of the Second World War, and the eugenics of the early 20th Century, and 19th Century racism that we still live with today. It's the same language, the same ideas, the same stereotypes.

Q: What gives you hope that the direction of race science may be changing in a positive way?
A: I'm not as hopeful now as I was a few years ago. Five years ago, when my son was born, Barack Obama was still in power and it felt like Europe was in quite a good place: the far right was becoming more popular, but it did feel as though they were being kept in check. That's not the case anymore, and it's really quite terrifying. I hope that we are wise enough as a species, with all the knowledge that we have, to move beyond it. But I think the Internet is the crucial thing here - it makes it so easy to manipulate people and misuse information. We saw this play out during the American presidential election, we saw it play out during the Brexit referendum, this manipulation of people using false ideas and false facts. And in those kind of spaces it's easy for science to be misused, and you don't need to misuse a lot of science to convince people.

Q: In your acknowledgements you say, "This is the book I have wanted to write since I was a child...." Why this book? Why now?
A: The reason I got into journalism was because I grew up in quite a racist part of Southeast London, and when you live with these kinds of things, you cannot get away from it. It's always there. I would have loved to have become an engineer, but I got involved in student politics because of the need to fight racism at that time; that's how I started to write for the student press and that's how I became a journalist. So this is the direction my life has taken me because of the experiences that I've had, and it couldn't have been any other way.

Q: Your 2017 book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That's Rewriting the Story, is an engaging expose of the way many women scientists have been dismissed or excluded from the history of science. There's been a terrific and successful campaign to get this book into schools in the UK, in the US, and in Canada. Where would you like to see Superior land? Who, ideally, would you like to read this book?
A: To some extent, this idea that we can argue with racists using science and somehow they'll be convinced and then the world will be a better place is, I feel, pointless. For the most part, racists are not racist because science has convinced them that this is the truth; they're racists already and the science is just a prop for them to justify their prejudices to themselves and to the public. So I've really written the book for everybody else as a check: don't get sucked in to their rhetoric, don't get sucked in by these ideas of nationalism, don't think of yourself as being superior, or internalize the message that you're inferior. Try, if you can, to distance yourself from the message that they are trying to give you — which they have tried to give for centuries to our parents, to our grandparents — and try to understand difference for what it is. It's the hardening of biological difference that was the platform on which we were separated, segregated, and treated as different: that runs exactly counter to the fight that we're fighting.

Cool bookgiveaway alert: SPIE will be giving away 50 copies of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That's Rewriting the Story at our 2019 Optics + Photonics' Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion reception.

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