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When Culture Meets Science

Authored by Yelenia Almonte

Art by Audrey Trivedi

Perhaps one of society’s most common misconceptions is the notion that science is an objective truth. For centuries, people have turned to science through observation and experimentation to understand their surroundings and their societies. As a result, scientists have made some incredible discoveries, some of which we can observe as recently as the development of CRISPR technology or the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. It would be deceptive to suggest that science does not produce some of the great, universal truths of the world. However, it would be just as deceptive to neglect the real and prevalent ways that science, namely biological science, has been constructed and maintained on the various cultural norms within which it is contextualized. 

The so-called objectivity of science appeals to the human desire to claim a truth that cannot be disproven, but the reality is that science is not always unbiased. Instead, as Aimi Hamraie states in Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability, it grants the “power and authority of supposed truth and objectivity”, even where objectivity may not be present [1]. Following the Scientific Revolution, modern societies have placed high value on certain notions of “reason” or “logic” as the qualifiers of truth and, ultimately, power. A symptom of this turn to logic and science is the repositioning of normative ideologies and the justification of societal hierarchies within the framework of objective science. Under a scientific guise, many “biological theories have provided the scientific justification for ideologies that support, explain, mystify, and obfuscate patriarchal relationships of power, domination, and control” [2]. For example, in the book Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity, the author highlights how J. Marion Sims – often regarded as the “father of gynecology” –  not only performed experimental vaginal procedures on enslaved women, but described the lives of some of his patients as “ones of suffering and disgust” [3]. Not only is this ethically corrupt, but it demonstrates how revered biological and medical scientists have meaningfully contributed to the construction and reproduction of harmful social structures that have functionally excluded and marginalized already othered populations.

For the larger part of western medicine’s existence, medical professionals have played a crucial role in legitimizing existing power structures. A striking example of this can be found in Kevin McQueeney’s detailing of the slave-based economy and healthcare system that was built in New Orleans, Louisiana [4]. Not only was racism prevalent, but it was so culturally ingrained that scientists and doctors could not separate it from their practice and sought out scientific logic to justify it. Some physicians went as far as to say that “there was ‘no doubt’ the Africans were of a different species … an intermediate between the Caucasian Race and the Anthropoid apes” [4]. These doctors were not the first nor the last to weaponize Darwin’s theory of evolution in favor of the White race, but they do serve as a pertinent, more overt example of how culturally accepted truths fix themselves within science. Whereas the medical narratives of “peoples of African descent as having innate immunity to tropical diseases” were once supported, one might now find cultural acceptance of Black patients having innately higher pain tolerance as justification to medical negligence. This provides just one example of how scientists have advocated strong claims about the “social and political” roles of various marginalized groups, “claiming all the while to speak the scientific truth” [5]. Furthermore, these schools of thought repeat themselves when the very people who are advocating for their use go on to educate future generations of doctors and scholars in the field. 

This is why it is important to recognize that the voices and experiences of marginalized populations are not and have never been in a position of privilege or power to be equal participants in the production of knowledge capital [6]. This exclusion not only omits their input from the conversation, but also gives dominant voices more of a platform to speak on their behalf and make normative assumptions of what is required to help or treat them.

Current research still fails to address how our culturally accepted truths influence medicine and science, and will likely continue to do so in the future. Because there is always a human doing and interpreting scientific research, it is almost impossible to separate societal context and science. Narratives around obesity, for instance, are often developed and amplified within a larger trend of fatphobia and arbitrary measures of “healthy” BMI which develop into scientific discourses on “curability” through simple diet fixes that will cure the gut microbiome or detox the body. These notions completely overlook why there is even an urge to “cure” these “diseases” in the first place and how much of the widespread fear stems from cultural norms.  Even the field of genetics carries the dark remnants from eugenics, a heavy past aimed at purifying the nation’s body of racialized and disabled communities. Thus, I urge scientists and healthcare professionals to reevaluate the way we approach so-called “neutral” questions, and investigate why it is we ask certain research questions. Who are they helping (or hurting)? How are we acquiring this knowledge? How might the things we know be shaped by a broader normative framework?

Works Cited

  1. Hamraie, A. (2017). Building access: universal design and the politics of disability. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  2. Ratcliff, K. S. (2002). Women and Health: Power, Technology, Inequality, and Conflict in a Gendered World (1st ed.). Prentice Hall.

  3. Snorton, C. R. (2017). Black on Both Sides : A Racial History of Trans Identity. Univ Of Minnesota Press. 

  4. McQueeney, K. (2023). A city without care: 300 years of racism, health disparities, and healthcare activism in New Orleans. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press

  5. Fausto-Sterling, A. (2008). Myths Of Gender (2nd ed.). Basic Books.

  6. Schiebinger, L. (2013). Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science. Rutgers University Press: Rutgers University Press.

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