Angela Saini is a British science writer who has two degrees: in Engineering from the University of Oxford and in Science and Security from King’s College London. She’s written three books:
- Saini, Angela (2011). Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World. Hodder Paperbacks. ISBN 978-1444710168.
- Saini, Angela (2018). Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story. 4th Estate. ISBN 978-0008172039.
- Saini, Angela (2019). Superior: The Return of Race Science. Beacon Press. ISBN 978-0008341008.
Although I haven’t read any of these in full, I’ve read several of her essays and watched several of her videos, as well as having read criticism of her latest book, which is largely an indictment of science for trafficking in racism, some of it unrecognized. More about that in a minute.
Last week Saini wrote a one-page “World view” piece in Nature that I want to discuss and criticize. Click on screenshot below; or get a pdf here
Most of the article deals with a recent controversy in which a committee of employees, students, and staff from University of College London (UCL) investigated whether the name of Francis Galton, a famous statistician, biologist, and polymath, should be removed from UCL buildings and endowments. Why? Because Galton was an advocate of eugenics, and helped set up commissions, journals, and organizations to study it.
Although none of Galton’s work ever resulted in any eugenic activities involving breeding or prevention of breeding, or the creation of British laws or government policies, his advocacy of eugenics is deemed sufficiently repugnant to warrant the creation of a UCL commission of inquiry whose task was to deal with how to erase Galton’s history. Most of the people on the commission weren’t scientists (there were a few), and there were a lot of people from diversity offices and the social sciences. Given that, the outcome was preordained.
I have a copy of the long report (ask and ye shall receive), which basically recommends that everything with the name of “Galton” on it be renamed. Further, there are recommendations that the University apologize (though it’s not clear to whom), and that everybody in UCL be given mandatory instruction about this shameful episode in the University’s history.
Saini makes two claims in her Nature piece. First, that the reexamination of Galton’s history was prompted by “humanities scholars” rather than by the university’s biologists. As we’ll see in a subsequent post, this claim is flatly wrong: UCL’s biologists have been teaching about Galton’s eugenic views for decades. Yes, humanities scholars were on the committee that decided to censor everything Galton did out of UCL history, but Saini’s claim below (in bold) is incorrect and disingenuous:
When a survey conducted as part of the UCL inquiry asked staff and students whether “we should separate science and politics”, it found agreement among higher percentages of those in the sciences and engineering than in the social sciences and history. In my coverage of the inquiry, I’ve seen that it was not the university’s biologists, but its humanities scholars — including curator Subhadra Das and historian Joe Cain — who forced their workplace to confront a sordid history that some geneticists had been willing to overlook.
There will be more on this as many UCL geneticists, including ones we’d consider liberal or woke, are taking violent exceptions to Saini’s claim above, as well as to the “erasure” of Galton that the committee recommended. When they speak out publicly, I’ll then write another piece.
As far as the “separation of science and politics” are concerned, that leads us to the second issue: Saini’s arrogant claim that we should all admit that we are not objective, even when we deal with science. All, that is, EXCEPT FOR SAINI, who apparently does not include herself in the list of “non-objective people.” Have a gander:
Scientists who imagine that bias lies in others, not themselves, fail to recognize that to live in the world today is to be drip-fed assumptions and prejudices that guide our thoughts and actions. If it were any other way, the demographics of academia would be more equitable, and the current strain of genetic determinism in governments wouldn’t be possible.
. . . Scientists rarely interrogate the histories even of their own disciplines. When I studied engineering at university, I was expected to write just one essay on ethics in four years. No wonder that new technologies perpetuate racial and gender stereotypes, or that automated facial recognition struggles to identify people with darker skin.
The best research is done not when we pretend that we are perfectly objective, but when we acknowledge that we are not. The UCL inquiry report recommends that students and staff be exposed to the history of eugenics, and that students be encouraged to value the history of their own fields. I would go further. Scientists need both history and the social sciences to develop the intellectual tools to think critically about their research and
What’s most curious about Saini’s self-exemption from The Biased is that she’s clearly biased: she’s uses Critical Race Theory in her analyses, is pretty much of a blank slater, and, from what I read in reviews (including direct quotes), and from what I’ve seen in her YouTube talks and interviews (e.g., here), she denies any usefulness of the term “race” (I avoid the term, too, but human populations are structured in biologically meaningful ways), and, most important, appears to have distorted and cherry-picked the biological literature on human differentiation to make the ideological point that differentiation isn’t particularly meaningful. Further, she appears to have the attitude that finding any difference between races, whether physiological or, especially, psychological, would somehow buttress racism.
I’ve argued against that latter view repeatedly, saying that regardless what science shows—and I can’t deny that many scientists were biased and propped up racism with specious arguments—our moral view on the equality of people should not be based on biological facts. If that were the case, and you make Saini’s argument that we really are biologically equal in the most important ways, and that such a finding dispels racism, then you become liable to future studies that might show biological inequalities between groups. And that would then prop up racism. Moral equality should be a philosophical, not a biological argument, but Saini appears to believe (or at least behave) otherwise.
I’ve read several reviews of Saini’s latest book, and found the one below the most cogent and reasonable. Yes, it’s in Quillette, and I do take issue with a few of its clams, but it seems quite even-tempered and rational on how we should regard genetic differentiation in humans. (I note that both authors were dismissed from their jobs for their work on race, yet I can’t see any grounds for dismissal from this review, at least.)
The long piece below pretty much damns Saini’s book, using direct quotes. Click on the screenshot to read it:
As I said, I take issue with a few of the authors’ claims. I haven’t read The Bell Curve, so I can’t speak to their argument that many scholars signed a petition defending the book. And I was pretty critical of Nicholas Wade’s book on race, “A Troublesome Inheritance,” which Winegard and Carl think was “unfairly condemned” (see my posts here and here.) But other claims, like Saini’s misunderstanding the “Lewontin Fallacy” committed by my Ph.D. advisor in defense of the genetic equality of races, are accurate, and make one realize how tendentious Saini’s claims really are. (Lewontin, god bless him, was also tendentious and wrong on several issues.)
It’s a long review and I’ll give only one quote. This is about using science to prop up morality.
Finally, by far the most prominent fallacy in Superior, one which lies at the very heart of Saini’s book, is the fallacy of equating any claim that genes might contribute to population differences on non-“superficial” traits with racism. (For the sake of brevity, we shall refer to this as ‘the fallacy of equating hereditarian claims with racism.’) Indeed, this fallacy encompasses the third and fourth of the theses that we laid out in the introduction.
By way of illustration, Saini employs the terms “scientific racism” or “scientific racist” 17 times in the book, and she employs the terms “intellectual racism” or “intellectual racist” an additional 11 times. In Chapter 1 she describes the supposition that population groups “may have evolved into modern human beings in different ways” as “unconscionable.” And in Chapter 6, when discussing the work of famed geneticist Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, she writes, “as he saw it, racism was just a scientific idea that turned out to be incorrect.”
Before proceeding, we should be clear about what we are not saying. First, we are not denying that research into the genetics of human differences has been misused for appalling purposes at various points over the last two centuries. Second, we are not denying that some of the scientists who have undertaken such research were motivated by racial animus or by a desire to subjugate other people. Hence we understand the temptation to assume the worst about anyone who might be willing to entertain what we have called ‘hereditarian claims.’ Nonetheless, equating hereditarian claims with racism is a fallacy, and one that we believe is likely to end up doing more harm than good.
As Steven Pinker argued at length in his book The Blank Slate, those who equate testable scientific claims with various ‘isms’ (sexism, racism, fascism, etc.) are effectively holding our morals hostage to the facts. By using the word ‘racist’ to describe a claim such as ‘genes may contribute to psychological differences between human populations,’ they are implying that:
- The claim must be false; but also that
- If the claim were ever shown to be true, then racism would be “scientifically correct.”
Yet as Pinker notes, this is a complete non-sequitur:
I hope that once this line of reasoning is laid out, it will immediately set off alarm bells. We should not concede that any foreseeable discovery about humans could have such horrible implications. The problem is not with the possibility that people might differ from one another, which is a factual question that could turn out one way or the other. The problem is with the line of reasoning that says that if people do turn out to be different, then discrimination, oppression, or genocide would be OK after all.
The argument that we should not hold our morals hostage to the facts has been made over and over again by scholars interested in the genetics of human differences. As far back as the 1960s, one of the 20th century’s leading biologists, Ernst Mayr, said the following:
Equality in spite of evident non-identity is a somewhat sophisticated concept and requires a moral stature of which many individuals seem to be incapable. They rather deny human variability and equate equality with identity […] An ideology based on such obviously wrong premises can only lead to disaster. Its championship of human equality is based on a claim of identity. As soon as it is proved that the latter does not exist, the support of equality is likewise lost.
The market for woke books is huge, and you won’t get anywhere claiming that scientists should be studying genetic differentiation between sexes and races because it’s interesting (one must of course always be sensitive to how people feel about this). Ergo you can get away, as Saini has, with being deeply tendentious. A parallel is Cordelia Fine, whose books on gender always are supercritical of studies showing differences between males and females, but go easy on studies that claim the opposite (see my posts on her work here and here).
In view of Saini’s own ideological biases and tendentious treatment of the literature, it’s ironic that she chastises scientists for not recognizing their biases, while completely failing to recognize—or at least mention—her own. Or is she the only writer completely free of bias?. I have ordered her book and will read it, but I already discern from her essays and interviews, as well as excerpts from Inferior, that she is no less ideological than the so-called “nonobjective” scientists she criticizes. The parable about motes and beams in one’s eye applies.
h/t: William L.