It strikes me as ridiculous that many people believe the study of history is worthless. On the surface, I suppose that yes – I don’t build products when I do historical research, not like when I code for my job or in my spare time. I am not actively producing anything which can be patented and monetised when I write about the books and papers I read.
But history is important, as the last few years have taught us. History is not a dead subject, which is how it is too often framed in high school classrooms. There is no set date on which history ceased and the present began. History is alive, in the sense that every aspect of a person’s life is shaped by the views and legacies of past generations. In the US this has been made amply clear by the lasting impact of slavery and Jim Crow: although both are technically illegal now, four hundred years of brutal anti-Blackness have moulded American society into one built on a foundation of white supremacy, creating a myriad of issues. Some have been well-publicised, such as the disproportionate imprisonment of Black Americans and police brutality against Black people – but less talked-about, outside of some activist circles, is the effect of racism on scientific study.
There is this idea that the STEM fields, from medical research to computer science, are the last bastions of apolitical, deracialised thought. In her book Superior, which I have discussed before, science journalist Angela Saini destroys this myth in detail by talking about the impact of eugenic and racist thought patterns on modern genetic studies. Race is an arbitrary grouping, something created by European colonists out of a desire to attach a kind of legitimacy to their actions. In truth, there are no hard-and-fast genetic delineations between “races” of people. Yet it is given great value by a number of geneticists who insist, with no real science to back them up, that race is a biological fact which can impact intelligence and physical ability. So-called professional psychologists like Arthur Jensen, for example, claim that standardised testing and IQ scores are tied to race; that Black Americans are inherently less “intelligent” than white Americans. However, what people like Jensen fail to acknowledge is that race is a cultural factor, not a biological one. A person’s perceived race often impacts the access they have to the resources which they need to succeed in various fields – in the case of traditional measures of intelligence, like standardised testing, many Black high schoolers don’t have the same access to test-prep programs and textbooks as do a lot of white high schoolers (whose families earn a median of about 40% more than their Black counterparts). Why? Generations of systemic racism and the poverty that brings have had a severe impact on Black communities in America: lower-income neighbourhoods within cities – many of which contain schools that have no funding for books and modern equipment – are often majority-nonwhite. So when Jensen made his claim, he was ignoring the simple fact that the distribution of education resources in this country is heavily biased against Black (and Latin and Indigenous) students. He was dismissing the impact of history – and so are the many scientists who praise him and attempt to build off his work with their own.
I see people like Jensen (and the numerous others Saini mentions in her writing) as dangerously anti-scientific. For me, being a good scientist entails understanding how the ways in which different people live and interact with the world are shaped by their histories. Using race in studies as a cold hard biological fact, without understanding why race (or rather, systemic racism) can influence certain outcomes leads to terrible science. Generations ago, some medical researchers set forth the idea of Blackness being intrinsically connected to hypertension. They claimed, without any basis, that the transatlantic slave trade selected for a population of Black Americans who retained salt more easily than their non-Black counterparts, and used this idea to essentially claim that a predisposition to hypertension is inherent and immutable among Black communities. But this ignores the many cultural and social factors which lead to hypertension. Thanks to systemic racism, many Black Americans earn lower wages than white men in comparable jobs; and, as a result, are forced to live under a form of food apartheid, in communities with disproportionately less access to fresh produce and healthy food. A diet high in sodium can lead to hypertension. Cultural and historical context are incredibly important here – yet for decades they were ignored in favour of an explanation which framed race as the defining “biological” factor which impacts the prevalence of hypertension in Black communities.
I’ve stepped a bit out of my usual arena to write this. Angela Saini’s research primarily concerned genetics and medicine, so that’s what I focused on here. However, an understanding of history and an awareness of systemic racism are both deeply important in my field too. As a computer scientist, I’ve talked to an alarming number of people who are genuinely proud of the fact that they read nothing but science books, that they despise history for being “boring” and “fluffy” and “worthless”. But that closed-off attitude, that cultivated ignorance, is exactly the attitude which leads to the construction of racist and sexist artificial intelligence algorithms, or automatic soap dispensers which can’t properly sense darker skin. You don’t have to be a person of colour to understand systems of bias and actively create products which take those biases into account. All it takes is an understanding of history. In other words: to be a truly wonderful scientist, you just need a little humanity.