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White supremacist statues must fall. Even when they are of famous scientists | Yarden Katz

There is no such thing as science, as a row on the father of gynaecology, who experimented on slaves, reminds us, says Harvard biologist Yarden Katz

Science’s most elite magazine, Nature, printed an editorial lately confessed that calling for monuments to characters such as J Marion Sims — often called the “father of gynaecology” — to be eliminated quantities to “whitewashing” history. Sims is praised for growing techniques in surgery and founding a women’s hospital in New York from the mid-1800s. But Sims experimented on babies and enslaved women, operating up to 30 times to perfect his way. Last month, a protest was staged by women wearing hospital dresses that were bloodied by the statue of Sims away from the New York Academy of Medicine.

Nature’s editorial triggered outrage along with also the magazine has now backpedalled. As critics pointed out, the magazine’s debate was basically the same as that for maintaining Confederate monuments such as the statue of Robert E Lee at the centre of recent protests at Charlottesville, Virginia. The idea that statues will need to remain put for history’s sake was staged from the discussion about Oxford University’s statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, that remains in place despite protests.

Science has its own own monuments to supremacy, as this latest controversy shows. These figurines should be removed. They are daggers into communities that have proven that white supremacy reaches far beyond the world of politics into medicine and science’s wounds. But eliminating these monuments will not be sufficient on its own. The row about Sims reminds us just how challenging the scientific institution works to present an image of science as “apolitical”. What’s needed is an of science politics and history — an evaluation of the kind that scientists have attempted to silence.

Even though Nature’s editorial purported to object into “whitewashing” the past, the magazine has done plenty of whitewashing itself. A profile of novelist HGWells last year described him as a “science-populariser” driven by a “want to use writing to make the world better“, frequently by casting “utopian” visions. It left Wells’s enthusiasm for eugenics out.

HG
HG Wells wrote of ‘swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people’ who would have ‘to expire and disappear’. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

Wells gave a glimpse to his flavour of utopia when he composed in 1901 that “those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people” that fail to be “effective” would have “to expire and disappear”. In addition, he produced screeds. In accordance with Nature, though, Wells embodied the character of “the scientific method”, which “conferred on its user the authority to rethink and challenge stale ideas”. When a #50,000 bronze statue of Wells was unveiled last year in Woking, Surrey, an official said the statue was meant to “inspire future generations of young people to remain in Wells’s legacy”.

Additionally, there are institutional monuments inside science to be revisited. Britain’s prestigious biomedical research institute, the Crick, is named after Francis Crick, famous because of his Nobel-prizewinning work on the double helix structure of DNA with James Watson. Both were proponents of eugenics. From the early 1970s, other prominent scientists who proposed a plan where folks deemed unfit would be compensated to undergo sterilisation were defended by Crick. Crick wrote in one letter that “over half of the gap between the average IQ of American whites and Negroes is due to genetic reasons”, which “will not be removed by any potential change in the environment”. He urged that steps be taken to prevent the “serious” consequences. Crick also proposed that “irresponsible people” be sterilised “by bribery”. From the brochure of this institute bearing his name, Crick is nevertheless introduced as a scientific hero known for his “intelligence and openness to new ideas”.

Regrettably, these hero mythologies are frequently repeated by mainstream histories of science. Horace Judson’s book The Eighth Day of Creation, perhaps the most celebrated history of molecular biology, verges on hagiography because it chronicles the lives of “great guys” such as Watson and Crick — leaving eugenics unexamined, while playing down Rosalind Franklin’s role from the discovery of the double helix.

The point isn’t that scientists should be held to high standards of behavior. Rather, it is that sexist and racist ideologies can and do make their way to scientific theories. Because these theories can provide the intellectual gloss for discrimination, it is essential to recognise this. A contentious memo lately circulated by a Google engineer, as an example, based its claim that women are less capable than men in certain tasks on evolutionary psychology — a claim that, as physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein afterward wrote, gains legitimacy from the unfortunate truth that “it is 2017, also to some extent scientific literature nonetheless supports a patriarchal perspective that ranks a person’s intellect over a woman’s”. There is no lack of examples of scientists who have discovered ways to see sexist or racist ideas as “universals” of character.

Nonetheless, there has been a persistent effort to manufacture a public image of science as being above the fray of politics . From the build-up to April’s March for Science, in Washington and throughout the united states, as an example, some scientists were chastised for tainting the project with politics (or worse, “identity politics”) by speaking about being marginalised within the scientific community or bringing up the roles science performs in warfare.

While some marches for science have since embraced science alongside social justice, the official March for Science group did not. Issues deemed “political” took a back seat to what was introduced as the greater threat: the risk that Trump and the Republicans would slash the funding of the National Institutes of Health, the greatest sponsor of biomedical research in the US. A college professor even argued in an article that social scientists (those scholars who may challenge the whitewashed histories of science) should remain home because they “risk doing more harm than good”.

So should the community come to terms with its history? 1 critic of Nature’s editorial suggested that because science is a “self-correcting field”, scientists’ conclusions about who one of them deserves to be honoured might self-correct too. But this appeal only sustains the fantasy of value-free sciencefiction. There is no magical characteristic of the scientific business that insulates it from society and endows it with “self-correcting” powers. But now, the fascination with CRISPR — a system that can be used to edit the genomes of human embryos –has revived fantasies of determinism of this kind that fuels eugenics. Science is composed of numerous fragmented and diverse disciplines and, in almost any other area of consciousness, it takes work to maintain demons such as racism at bay. Changes into the business come through struggle. It’s frequently said that figures such as J Marion Sims conformed to the standards of the time. But looks at history can revise conceptions of previous standards. Antebellum African-Americans, as Britt Rusert has revealed challenged the science of the day by drawing on Charles Darwin’s new signs that all people share a common ancestor. There were more options available at the time than is admitted. As the moves to remove those of colonial rulers, or statues, induce us to versions of background, so the movement to topple monuments into racist scientists provides an opportunityfiction.

Yarden Katz is a fellow at the department of systems biology at Harvard Medical School and also an affiliate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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