Scientists push back against Angela Saini’s claim that they overlooked a legacy of racism and eugenics

April 20, 2020 • 9:00 am

On March 15, I highlighted an op-ed in Nature by science writer Angela Saini, in which she discussed—if “discussed” is the proper word for such a biased and tendentious piece—University College London’s (UCL’s) recent inquiry into the eugenic practices of Francis Galton and Karl Pearson, science pioneers who were also racists, and whose name was bestowed on UCL buildings, lecture rooms, and endowments. What irked the UCL scientists who responded below to Saini’s claims—and irked me as well, since I spent considerable time at UCL—was her repeated assertion that UCL scientists had swept its racist and eugenic history under the rug, and were lacking objectivity.

Here are some of her claims (click on screenshot to read the whole sorry piece):

Two excerpts. The first is an arrant whopper (in bold):

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.

That’s simply not true, as I’ll show in later posts. UCL biologists have been lecturing on Galton’s racism and eugenics program for decades, and have written popular articles about it. On that same day, in fact, I mentioned a piece published in the British medical journal The Lancet by UCL geneticist Steve Jones, who taught genetics at UCL for decades, and estimates having exposed about 10,000 students to Galton’s racism and UCL’s connection to eugenics.  Saini’s claim in bold is simple self-congratulation by a woke osculator of humanities—a claim that ignores the fact that UCL biologists have long “confronted”—and not “overlooked”—the “sordid history.”

Also, Saini was willing to indict others for their lack of objectivity, but refused to look in the mirror. Her own work, in which she highly politicizes science, is about as tendentious as it gets. This article is merely one example of her distortion of history to support her oppression-centered ideology. Second quote:

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 about their research and how it affects society. This isn’t just helpful — it’s vital.

Is Saini, then, willing to step up and acknowledge her own lack of objectivity? I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Anyway, a group of biologists from UCL have now responded to Saini by publishing a letter in the pages of Nature. Steamed by her misrepresentation, they submitted the following letter to the journal:

To the Editor

The statement in the article by Angela Saini (9 March 2020)1 that it was ‘not the university’s biologists, but its humanities scholars… who forced their workplace to confront a sordid history that some geneticists had been willing to overlook‘ is false. Our department (Genetics, Evolution and Environment, University College London) has direct historical links back to the Galton Eugenics Laboratory. However, for several decades our past and present members have engaged critically with this history, and the lessons learnt have formed important components of ethical debates relevant to our research, the development of genetic counselling protocols, and the debunking of the foundations of eugenics, as well as the related issue of ‘race’ as a biological concept. We have taught this pernicious history to the tens of thousands of students who have passed through our various courses, and many members of our department have also written and spoken openly and critically to the media and public on the subject. The failure of the UCL Eugenics Inquiry report to acknowledge this properly is one of several reasons why the majority of the Inquiry committee refused to sign it.

The published letter is below, which is pretty close to what was submitted. Note that there are ten authors, including scientists who also did popular writing, like Steve Jones, Nick Lane, and Adam Rutherford.

One telling thing is missing from the submitted version, though. Can you spot it?

What’s missing is Saini’s crucial claim, mentioned in the submitted letter, that “it was ‘not the university’s biologists, but its humanities scholars… who forced their workplace to confront a sordid history that some geneticists had been willing to overlook‘”.  Nature has simply omitted the bit about the “humanities scholars”. I doubt this was for lack of space; I suspect they simply didn’t want to mention (and thus implicitly criticize) the “humanities scholars” who, says Saini, put things right. Well, at least Nature published the letter, though who’s going to read such a short and terse response to Saini’s gaseous article without going back to see her insupportable claims?

I’ll put up a couple posts over the next two weeks detailing the ridiculously woke “Inquiry into the History of Eugenics at UCL” report (which even demands that UCL apologize—but to whom?), a report that might well have come from the faculty and staff of The Evergreen State College—or from the editors of Pravda.

22 thoughts on “Scientists push back against Angela Saini’s claim that they overlooked a legacy of racism and eugenics

  1. Concur. I have attended several universities in the US and abroad over the last 55 years plus have taught at three. NEVER HAVE THESE ISSUES been glossed over or not mentioned. Scientists, of all people, are fully aware and discuss all the issues that inhibit research & knowledge. As the father of bi-racial children & grand-children and father of 3 female students who have excelled in academia, I say this is unmitigated nonsense. JAC, as usual, you are 100% correct.

    1. At first I wondered how Prof. Saini could come to her conclusion. Then the obvious answer popped out: she’s probably never taken the classes she’s criticizing.
      Lord save us from philosophy/sociology of science “scholars” who don’t know how to calculate a pH.

      1. If you look at many of the ‘pile ons’ of Young Adult authors for alleged ‘thought crimes’ you find that many of the people who pile on the abuse didn’t actually read the book being pilloried, they read a review in which it was stated to be a ‘bad book’ and told the reader to complain loudly to the publisher and author. Which is the same thing as here.

        If you ‘know’ what’s wrong, why bother to check it.

        1. “If you ‘know’ what’s wrong, why bother to check it.”

          Yes – Saini lecturing scientists on objectivity is ludicrous. She wouldn’t recognise objectivity if she fell over it.

  2. I’m okay with Nature‘s omission. Saini might be trying to rope other humanities professors into her cause, but there’s no reason to believe they necessarily agree with her. Thus no reason to go after anyone but Saini for making false claims.

    1. Agreed, especially because her claim that scientists were “willing to overlook” these things is basically the same point, WAS quoted, and was refuted.

      1. It’s not the same point. Scientists willing to overlook Galton’s dark side is one thing. Claiming credit for a different group of scholars for doing something positive about it is another point. But it is true it is not the fault of the humanities scholars that Saini is telling untruths about them.

  3. Nobody will be surprised to learn that Angela Saini is beloved and fawned over, at the increasingly anti-science Pharyngula…and naturally, over at the Guardian.

    1. Ugh. Intellectually glad you shared this info but emotionally wish I didn’t now know it. Ugh ugh ugh, that blog…….

  4. I feel no need to abase myself before the shrine to bad past human behavior in order to do science properly.

    Science (properly done) is blind to politics.

    If politics enters into science, it creates bias, which harms the results.

    1. “Science (properly done) is blind to politics.”

      Some scientists do their work out of the belief that they are seeking knowledge without any motive beyond that. Others do their work out of the hope that their discoveries will better the world. In the latter category I include scientists whose work most people would consider evil, such as the creation of bioweapons. In their warped minds they actually think that mass murder has some better higher purpose. But what is common among all scientists whose work impacts the thoughts and lives of humans is that it usually gets enmeshed with politics. It is hard to avoid. In the pre-Civil War period the so-called science of the day “proved” that Africans were inferior to whites and that slavery was good for them. Later, the eugenicists thought they were helping the world by thinning the herd of inferior people. Dr. Mengele thought that his experiments were actually benefitting humanity. Atomic research led to the creation of the bomb. The development of vaccines has led to an anti-vaxxer movement.

      The above examples illustrate how difficult it is to avoid politics when the fruits of scientific research can affect lives. “Good science” will be attacked by those who see it as an assault on their cherished beliefs. “Bad science” will be rightfully attacked for its flaws. The lesson of all this is that scientific research is not an ivory tower endeavor. Even those engaged in fields the general public knows little about, such as physics, can expect attacks from the religious. Scientists need to be prepared to face the slings and arrows of the political arena. I hope most scientists realize this. Those who don’t will sooner or later experience a rude shock.

    2. If politics enters into science, it creates bias, which harms the results.

      Ideologies enter into science even when everyone tries not to let them. Scientists being human, we can’t simply decide to be unbiased and then it suddenly happens that we’re unbiased.

      This is one of the reasons for peer review, and for disclosure of funding sources. We aren’t just looking for bad-acting scientists. Those are in fact relatively rare. We’re looking for how good-acting scientists may have been fooled by their own biases. Which is a lot more common. We teach Galton because there’s a little Galton in all of us which we can’t turn off. So instead of saying “well, when science is done right we turn that bit of ourselves off”, we say that when science is done right we look extra carefully about how that bit of ourselves might have oozed into our research.

  5. One telling thing is missing from the submitted version, though.

    I find the above sentence a bit confusing. As far as I can tell, the published version omits the bit about humanities scholars but I read the above quoted sentence as saying there is something in the published version that was missing in the submitted version.

    I think it should read either “One telling thing is missing from the published version, though” or “One telling thing from the submitted version is missing, though”.

    1. I can make a suggestion. The original letter said flat-out that Saini’s allegation was false. The printed (‘edited’) version said merely that it was ‘misleading’. There is a world of difference.

  6. I was a member of staff at UCL last August when we were asked to take the online survey about UCL’s involvement in eugenics. One group of questions (26-28) asked if we agreed with a list of proposals. The questions and my response were:

    26. UCL should embed a mandatory induction on the history of eugenics for all students and staff.
    27. All UCL graduates should know about the history of eugenics at UCL.
    28. There should be a permanent exhibition/public outreach on the history of eugenics at UCL so that the whole university is familiar with this history.

    [My response]: The statements tested in questions 26 – 28 all proceed from the assumption that UCL bears the indelible stain of a form of institutional Original Sin, and must permanently, and continuously, abase itself for some great historical crime of epic proportions. The rhetorical exaggeration implicit in this assumption is ludicrous; the emotional blackmail involved simply insulting. The great majority of students at UCL will be studying for degrees that have no connection to eugenics, biology, or the history of ideas. The idea that *all* of them must undergo a mandatory course on UCL’s involvement in eugenics shows a disturbing monomania and lack of proportion.

    [My response to an earlier question about exposing students to dangerous ideas:]

    Any student who has managed to get into UCL is quite capable of understanding the historical context in which the early eugenicists worked and in which their assumptions and world-views were formed. They are also capable of understanding that later events (the Nazis, the Holocaust) that act as lenses through which we view earlier ones cannot have formed part of the understanding of people who lived many decades before they took place. And I’m sure they’re capable of understanding that people in the past might simultaneously have held views that to us seem contradictory, but did not seem so to them (for instance, many of the first generation of feminists were, for perfectly understandable reasons in their context, supporters of prohibition, which to us seems a socially illiberal and thus contradictory position for a feminist to hold). Treating students like children who must be shielded from such complex and unsettling ideas shows them scant respect.

    1. 26 – No, but the Biology department should incorporate a unit about it into one of their early core classes…which I suspect they already do. From the professors’ response, it seems to me they have the issue well in hand.

      27 – See answer to #26

      28 – I have no problem giving it a display case or even a corridor of display cases in a building. But for exactly the reasons you noted, it seems overkill to demand every student study this aspect of history.

  7. I would disagree that Saini believes she is objective, but unfortunately, that doesn’t make her argument any better. She’s attacking objectivity in general to immunize herself from criticism.

    It’s a preemptive rhetorical trick; no one’s objective, we live in a racist society, everyone is a product of this racism, thus we need the humanties to educate us…in Saini’s politics of course.

    There is no valid disagreement with her views, just a refusal by ignorant and obstinate people to confront their own racism.

  8. From her article:

    “They [the concepts of eugenics and biological race] can only be truly understood as age-old intellectual threads, embedded in politics as much now as ever.”

    This is the Woke Critical Social Justice manoeuvre… view everything as a narrative of power, seen through a political lens, and be the Hero come to rescue the oppressed.

    Which means that to Our Hero objective self-correcting science must be subordinate to subjective politics…

    Nope. Not going to fly outside of the inward looking Critical Social Justice brigade.

  9. It is interesting that these humanities scholars don’t care about conservative Christians having to take courses on evolution as part of school curriculum, a semester-long torture for those faithfuls that these scholars don’t see as instances of injustice.

  10. “The best research is done not when we pretend that we are perfectly objective, but when we acknowledge that we are not.”

    Contrary to what Saini appears to think, this notion is central to the scientific method. Scientists observe the World and have ideas about what is going on and how and why. These ideas are then tested through controlled experiments, using cold-hard data and rigorous statistical protocols for interpreting the results. Trials are carried out ‘double-blind’ in order to eliminate potential biases. Their findings are then exposed to peer review and scrutinised for any flaws in the methods, analysis or interpretation. Once they are published they continue to be scrutinised and tested to see if the results are replicated by others and when evidence comes along that shows old interpretations are incorrect then the accepted theories are dropped and replaced with new ones that better fit the known facts. Of course this process is not perfect (or always perfectly followed) but it implicitly recognises that we are subjective creatures who are easily drawn into false conclusions if we do not include such rigorous checks and balances.

    In contrast the likes of Saini are highly subjective in their approach – they decide something is (e.g. a failure by scientists to acknowledge or consider past eugenic ideology of nineteenth century researchers) because they think it is and they will not be shaken from that position by anything so inconvenient as actual evidence.

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