Science’s Role in Reducing US Racial Tensions

The United States of America is embroiled in fights, debates, riots, and sit-ins over racial injustice. In 2012, the death of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, sparked protests about stand-your-ground laws in Florida. In 2014, the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City fueled anger over tough police action. Most recently the police deaths in Dallas have degenerated the relationship between police and public to an unprecedented low. To make matters worse, the presidential campaign and election of Donald J. Trump has uncovered a racist undercurrent in the United States that has caused many people from minority groups to fear for their safety. Every few months there is another report about police brutality or racially motivated hate crimes aimed at the minority populations that sets off a round of protests, civil unrest, and arrests.

In academia, a variety of race-related issues at Georgetown University, Princeton University, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Missouri, have caused administrators to resign, buildings to be renamed, and training on racial sensitivity to be mandated. College campuses are struggling to find solutions to make themselves more inclusive and promote diversity of thought. Often these goals collide, and university administrators will inevitably offend a party regardless of the decision they make. For example, how do universities foster safe learning environments, yet allow freedom of expression? How do they honor the generosity of certain benefactors, yet denounce their immoral stance on slavery and segregation? For the most part, scientists have sat on the sidelines of these debates. Scientists and scientific organizations have not been directly charged with racial insensitivity and it would be easy for us to say that this is a social problem that has very little to do with our disciplines. But science cannot be isolated from its social and cultural context and it is obvious that African Americans and Latinos are underrepresented in science. All scientists, ranging from social scientists to natural scientists, can contribute their expertise to this discussion.

Science informs and shapes much of the debate in the public square. Bureaucrats rely on scientific knowledge to guide policy decisions and the media often report on the latest discoveries to inform the public on pressing issues. In the current racially charged environment, scientific expertise can quell tensions and elucidate underlying forces that cause many of the apparent social problems. First, scientists need to disseminate research on stereotypes, prejudice, and implicit bias. For example, they can show that some of the traditional views about consciousness and volition are incorrect. A simplified view of human will is that we have conscious intentions and a person is able to rationally act upon them. The science on stereotypes, implicit bias, and rationality challenges these beliefs and shows that implicit biases can contradict conscious intentions and that humans display preferences at subconscious levels. The thought that our unconscious biases exert such strong influences on our behavior seems to grate against a commonly held belief that people have freedom and choice to act. As a result, scientists should continually remind the public and other scientists that we are subject to implicit biases.

In the current racially charged environment, scientific expertise can quell tensions and elucidate underlying forces that cause many of the apparent social problems.

Implicit biases are exposed in a variety of ways, but often they are revealed in nondeliberate and spontaneous actions, such as giving someone less eye contact or avoiding sitting next to a person at a meeting or social event. These are subtle actions, but they signal fear and discomfort. If someone has an implicit bias against a certain race or gender, then that person is less likely to show warm, unplanned actions towards the biased group.

Though the scientific literature since the 1980s has shown the prevalence of implicit bias, there are still many myths about it. Some say implicit bias does not exist or that only racist, sexist, or homophobic individuals have implicit bias. Another myth is that implicit bias is impossible to change so there is no reason to address the issue. However, research has shown that implicit biases can slowly change through interventions such as intergroup conflict training and counter-stereotype examples. Scientists need to discuss this research with the public and debunk the myths about implicit bias so that society can have more productive conversations about race. Scientists can explain that possessing implicit biases does not make an individual a “bad” person, but rather it is a cognitive shortcut that allows people to make quick decisions. Implicit biases help humans survive in a world with constant streams of information. Without biases, we would not be able to function in a complex world. The downside to this dependence on cognitive shortcuts is that they are prone to error, misjudgments, and false stereotypes. Fortunately, over the past few months, there is an ever-growing discourse by scientists in public forums such as National Public Radio and the New York Times that explain the nature of implicit bias and the effects it has on society.

In addition to participating in the public discourse of implicit bias, scientists must be on the lookout for racism within the profession. Science professionals are not immune from holding racist views and conducting racially insensitive research, yet many scientists believe that science is bias-free because the researcher makes judgments based on facts. There are classic examples, like the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, in which scientists allowed untreated syphilis to persist in African American males to study the effects of the disease. The participants were not told the full extent of the study and they were not given penicillin after it became available. The “well-meaning” scientists committed a grave injustice in the pursuit of knowledge. The researchers’ inaction potentially led to the death of over 100 black men and the further spread of syphilis. The scientific community has learned from some of these mistakes and set up mechanisms, like the Institutional Review Board, to protect research participants, but science professionals should not believe that they have solved all of the problems of racial injustice in science. Mistakes like the Tuskegee Experiment may not happen again, but other issues will arise. For example, minority populations may have fewer chances to participate in scientific experiments because it is more costly and difficult to recruit this population. As a result, the benefits of research in areas such as personalized medicine may not accrue to minority populations, which can lead to further marginalization of disadvantaged populations. The lack of minority participation in scientific experiments is well documented in biomedical sciences and unless scientists make concerted efforts to develop inclusive scientific studies, research studies could perpetuate racial inequality.

Parallel to the problem of the lack of diversity in research topics and subjects, scientists must confront racism that affects the nature of scientific inquiry. One of the Mertonian norms of science, universalism, says that the merits of a scientific discovery should be based only on the discovery itself and not on socially defined characteristics, such as the race, culture, and gender of the discovering scientist. Yet, philosophers of science have shown that science is not as neutral and independent as the profession portrays. Rather, society’s unequal power dynamics easily invade scientific reasoning to further marginalize minorities, despite individual scientists fighting against racist ideals. Scientists carry biases with them when they judge the merit of discoveries, review proposals, and hire faculty, and, therefore, it is hard for them to uphold the standards of universalism. To make matters worse, the systems to mitigate biases, like peer review, have flaws that allow favoritism and discrimination to creep back into the scientific process. For example, a reviewer may have an unconscious bias against foreign scholars or individuals in certain academic circles. Many of the biases unfairly affect minority scholars and prevent them from disseminating their research, building scientific careers, and conducting fruitful research. Recently the former editor of Science, Marcia McNutt, wrote an editorial piece about implicit bias in the peer review process and how it hinders diversity in scientific publishing. She suggests using blind peer review mechanisms and diversifying the reviewers and editors of journals.

The current racial tensions in the United States are not solely the problem of police or university administrations and scientists cannot complacently allow other parts of society to wrestle with these difficult questions.

We also see failures of universalist principles in science when we consider the lack of diversity of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce, despite decades of research and programs to combat inequality. Students who are poor and from an underrepresented minority group have almost no chance of attaining a higher education degree in a STEM field. In addition, scientists and faculty from underrepresented groups face unique hurdles developing scientific networks, earning promotions, and obtaining grants. Studies show that underrepresented minorities (URM) feel disenchanted with the promotion and tenure process and have higher exit rates from academia than non-URM. In 2013, fewer than 4% of science, engineering, and health doctorate holders at universities and four-year colleges in the US were black. In comparison, black Americans are about 13% of the US population. The lack of a diverse scientific workforce hurts scientific competitiveness and decreases the range of ideas. Improving URM participation in academia is one of the demands of the recent university protestors across the United States. Scientific institutions need to find more ways to increase diversity and reverse many of the negative trends in the scientific workforce.

The current racial tensions in the United States are not solely the problem of police or university administrations and scientists cannot complacently allow other parts of society to wrestle with these difficult questions. Scientists can add to the discussion by helping people understand the nature of bias and that scientific institutions are culpable of their own racial injustices that impact education, research, and the quality of life for people. Scientists should work toward building and reforming institutions so they promote diversity and fairness. They can encourage their professional societies to make statements repudiating racism and promoting double-blind review processes to minimize implicit bias in the scientific process. They should improve the hiring, firing, and tenure process to make it more inclusive. Providing scientific expertise and implementing reforms will not erase racial inequality, but it does allow scientists to work toward a more just and equal society.

Your participation enriches the conversation

Respond to the ideas raised in this essay by writing to [email protected]. And read what others are saying in our lively Forum section.

Cite this Article

Woodson, Thomas S. “Science’s Role in Reducing US Racial Tensions.” Issues in Science and Technology 33, no. 2 (Winter 2017).

Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, Winter 2017