Angela Saini educates UD on subjectivity in science


Ariella Frommer, Staff Writer

“Angela Saini does a great job of pushing us, as an audience, to rethink what we know about the world around us,” Science teacher and Dean of Faculty Dr. Matthew Wallenfang said. British journalist Angela Saini highlighted how race and science interact at Tuesday’s Upper Division (UD) assembly.

Saini, an award-winning science writer, has published three books, including “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong” and “Superior: The Return of Race Science.

 After Wallenfang taught “Superior” to his AP Biology class last year, he suggested Saini to the school’s assembly committee.

Saini began her presentation by discussing the origins of race as a social construct. She explained how Enlightenment scientists invented racial categories as an arbitrary way to classify humans — a framework that continues today, she said. “Race isn’t biologically real,” Saini said. “It’s a social myth that’s used to justify the unfair way we treat one another.”

She then spoke about the influence politics and personal biases have in the scientific fields. Skewed understandings of race bred misinformation during the first COVID-19 outbreak in London, Saini said. Since the virus hit the largely non-white working class the hardest, some prominent scientists falsely speculated that COVID-19 affected different races at varying degrees, rather than accounting for societal conditions that caused the disparity, she said.

After hearing Saini speak, Liam Kisling (10) reconsidered his understanding of the intersection of race and science, he said. One thing that stuck out to him was the message on one of Saini’s slides: “If bias exists in society, it exists in science.” Society is quick to accept discoveries in science more often than English and history, which feature more subjective topics, Kisling said. People do not always realize that science is actually quite subjective as well, he said.

Saini’s presentation on eugenics showed Kisling that not all scientific discoveries are completely based on facts, he said. He learned that some discoveries are a product of scientists’ prejudices, Kisling said. “Typically we are taught that science is factual when obviously race science has very little scientific evidence.”

While pseudo-eugenic understandings of race appear as a relic of the past, Saini explained how they continue to affect institutionalized medical practices like with hypertension. Doctors routinely assign different hypertension medication to Black and white patients, despite no proof that the condition is linked to skin color, she said. 

Alexis Gordon (9) was surprised by this disparity, she said. “It was hard to believe that trained medical professionals make decisions based on skin color that are proven medically incorrect.”

After Saini’s presentation, students in the Molecular Genetics, Evolution, and Ecology and Molecular Genetics, Cells, and Biology courses who read “Superior” for class led a Q&A session. Each student in the courses submitted at least two questions for Saini, Pustilnik said.

Wallenfang had not learned anything about scientists putting forward racist ideology in school before, so he taught Saini’s book to show his students about how biases influence seemingly factual science, he said.

The idea that humans are flawed plays into how students should understand research, Wallenfang said. “We do experiments, collect data, and analyze that data, and believe that to be the truth,” he said, “But, humans are flawed, and we will always bring our biases into our research.”

Saini’s presentation taught students to take scientific research with a grain of salt, she said. “Students with a passion for science of any kind should be aware of how seemingly objective research can be skewed to prove a certain point.”