In my view, everyone on earth, no matter who you are, has an egalitarian right to life and that no one is inherently a “better” human than someone else in terms of their fundamental or moral worth. Obviously, we should want to see this reflected in our neighbors, our society, and our government. Science is a great example of something that should be focused on improving the good of humanity: it is what progresses technological innovations, making our lives easier, healthier, and longer lasting. However, compounding historical and cultural events over hundreds of years have led us down a path that has ended up excluding and even exterminating marginalized groups in society, ergo keeping people from reaching their full potentials as human beings. But why has this happened, and how can we fix it? To us living in the United States and other western countries, although science has been framed as a search for objective truths, the proponents of this idea engage in the opposite. The promotion of the “heroism” myth explicitly contrasts with that of “objectivity” in order to uphold and maintain unjust hierarchies relating to white supremacy.
What we are told as children, and what is commonly accepted in society is that science is “objective”. Anyone can don a lab coat and get straight to researching. If you can handle the work, there is nothing limiting from achieving your goals, no matter your physical makeup. Unfortunately, there is overwhelming evidence of people in marginalized communities that have conducted research under the standards for “objectivity” yet are still not given the public standing that they deserve. Take Eleanor Lamson, an astronomer responsible for developing the instruments crucial to calculating sea level gravity from photographs. The problem is that Lamson never got credit as an author in the research paper, but rather was listed in the data appendix. The work she did was not just repetitive, simple work that could have been theoretically automated; it was new, groundbreaking research that would have left the entire project incomplete without it. There is no reason to believe this wasn’t scientific work and should be classified as such (Oreskes, 1996). Another famous example is Marie Curie, who for years because of her status as a woman in science was raked in the coals for things relating to her personal character, rather than the work itself (synthesizing radium), which was dismissed as simply rudimentary and technical rather than scientific (Redniss, 2015). The film Hidden Figures touches on the work of three important scientists who were black women during a time when the United States was still enforcing de jure segregation. These women’s work was substantial to providing launch calculations for NASA during the space race. However, just like Marie Curie, their only crime of their physical appearance being black was enough for them to be discredited and denied promotions and the credit for the work they did (Melfi 2017). This is a short list of the countless examples that can be found of marginalized communities that “donned the lab coat” but were never given their credit as scientists.
Looking at historical examples many women were denied their fair dues with their science performed deemed unworthy for some reason or another. By this logic, if it is not the science that is the problem, it must be something else this what is considered “objective”. Western science experienced a major boon and acceleration in the Renaissance, with many fields such as chemistry [Isaac Newton], biology [Gregor Mendel] and physics [Da Vinci] expanding in knowledge and setting the foundation for modern science as we know it today. It is worth noting that virtually all scientists acclaimed in this era would be considered white and male. During this time period, territorial colonization was rampant, caused by the same countries producing some of the greatest scientists to ever exist. Feudal monarchs of these countries believed in the idea of divine right, where a king or queen is pre-ordained, chosen by God Himself to control the royal crown of their land. Being inherently autocratic and hierarchical by definition required the entire structure of government to fit a theocratic doctrine, including any science taught there, and that there were simply people destined before birth to rule over the masses, going against the personal egalitarian value system I value in the intro paragraph. Those that were Christian were far more deserving of life than a non-Christian, especially males due to the masculine image venerating God and Jesus Christ. Because of the pseudo-science that existed at the time, those considered “white” were also superior, leading us to the origins of white supremacy, a major justification for colonization. Is it possible that science has adopted a colonization mindset as well?
Tema Okun wrote a paper outlining traits inherent in white supremacist culture, and how even if we are not personally white supremacists ourselves, these traits can still exist inside us. We can use this in order to analyze if science has been affected by this, and compare it to the examples we gave in the first paragraph of marginalized scientists not being give the credit they were due and see a trend between the two. Eleanor Lamson was denied credit on the research paper she worked with; the people that were given credit were people that went out to sea in order to take the photographs Lamson would later decode. While in reality a quite routine, boilerplate expedition with the most dangers coming from seaboard illness, the public back on land was told it was an “expedition of conquest”: Meinesz, the sea captain, was the only one uniquely qualified to measure sea gravity. However, Meinesz was interested in making sure that the travel was made to be standardized and reproducible! In actuality this message was largely a result of budget pressure to get research funding, but the public has already grabbed the worm; hook, line and sinker (Oreskes 1996). Two major tenets of white supremacism involve only one right way and I’m the only one lines of thinking (Okun). The latter entails that a certain piece of work can only be done by “one” person due to their unique special skillset, and former states that there is one, singular tried and true method of achieving this work. In this case, the public was told Meinesz was singlehandedly capable of completing this work, and that this is the explicit way science is conducted. Fun story, but conveniently ignores the mundaneness of the whole trip, the crew helping and getting sick, and importantly Lamson, who wasn’t even allowed to be on the boat because it was forbidden for women! Eventually because the only science being considered done was physical science offshore and nothing else, Lamson was not given credit as a scientist, but rather a contributor to the appendix. Let’s take a look at Marie Curie, one of the only major acclaimed woman scientists well known to the public. Certainly, she received all her credit, right? Unfortunately, unlike the Lamson story where the boring parts of the trip were left out, only the boring parts of Curie’s work was left in! Her work of synthesizing radium even today is treated like menial labor, with Curie described as a “charwoman [rather] than a superman, slaving over hot vats for four years” (Oreskes 1996). If Meinesz was a woman, would he have been subjected to the same treatment and his work unacknowledged? So what’s the difference? There shouldn’t be any juxtaposition here under “objectivity”, but here we are.
Standpoint theory states that outside of the dominating viewpoint that permeates society, there are marginalized groups and people that have different standpoints on how they view society (Halpern 2019). In Hidden Figures¸ Katherine Johnson was smart enough to decode a complex math problem all from using redacted and classified data, something that only Harrison was able to admire. Someone that was prior never given a chance to succeed outranked the piles of people that had one. A major feminist critique of “objectivity” states the opposite of what is supposed to be happening: “heroism”, a idea rooted in Greek epics and European masculinity is what actually guides science, and is responsible for causing the skewed disproportionality of scientist representation we have today. Treating science like its 1492 again, European colonization is able to hold onto its roots and control science today, long after the empires of the Spanish, the British, the Belgians have faded. The same made up tales of Christ-led figures liberating and conquering other countries is now scientific dogma, and the field is fundamentally shaped by it. All these scientists I mentioned weren’t recognized because of individual discrimination — simply bad and unjust attitudes during their time. By merely existing outside of the traditional colonialist figure, they become unacceptable and unwanted; more only one right way tenet thinking of white supremacy. This is the central reason why these women, and so many more marginalized groups don’t get the opportunities and credit that should have.
It is gravely unfortunate we do not live in the unbiased post-discrimination world we are taught growing up, at least from my own perspective. As long as heroism dominates the floor of science, we will be restricted and held back as a society. How can we try to absolve the world of its colonial influence so that no person is denied freedom based on something they are unable to change about themselves? On an individual level, simply recognizing these white supremacist traits exist inside you no matter your social ideology is a substantial first step in how you treat people around you, and fixing your own faults with your perception of society. While this may not seem like a huge change, remember: “science” is dictated not by the actual work itself, but rather how it is received by the scientific and public community. Trying to question other people’s beliefs about society can also challenge the status quo. If enough people start coalescing around the idea that heroism is a bad thing, there will be enough organizing power to muster a challenge to the idea’s institutional foundation. On a more systemic level, having these ideas in power such as governmental structures can bring about more enforceable power. Brown v. Board was instrumental in breaking down segregation, which was only possible because the unanimous decision had all judges opposed to the de jure discrimination. While for the most part my outlook on life is quite negative, I do have an optimistic view that governmental change in regards to discrimination can happen, hopefully within my lifetime, and everyone will be able to live their life to the fullest.
Halpern, M. (2019). Feminist standpoint theory and science communication. Journal of Science Communication, 18(4), C02. https://doi.org/ 10.22323/2.18040302
Melfi, T. (2017, January 6). Hidden Figures [Biography, Drama, History]. Fox 2000 Pictures, Chernin Entertainment, Levantine Films
Okun, T. (n.d.). White Supremacy Culture. https://www.dismantlingracism.org/uploads/4/3/5/7/43579015/okun_-_white_sup_culture.pdf
Oreskes, N. (1996). Objectivity or Heroism? On the Invisibility of Women in Science. Osiris, 11, 87–113.
Redniss, L. (2015). Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout. Harper Collins.