Science is looked at as an objective pursuit of fact. However, history has shown that it tends to reinforce the beliefs and biases of the scientists. Science has historically been and continues to be dominated by a single social group, namely middle- and upper-class white males, which has led to one-sided constructions of reality. Women, as well as other marginalized groups, are often targets of scientific studies that conclude their inferiority in some way. These studies, presented as objective and ignoring personal and cultural bias, have been and still are used as tools of oppression against these groups.
In the early 1900s, James Cattell “proved” that women were genetically inferior to men by collecting statistics of prominent scientists throughout history. He argued that since only a tiny fraction were women, men must be naturally better suited for scientific thought and reasoning. Cattell completely ignored social explanations as to why there might be fewer women in science; his findings rely on the ridiculous assumption (especially ridiculous considering gender politics at the time) that women and men have equal opportunity to pursue science. These findings provided Cattell and many others a “scientific” justification of their sexism, despite the findings’ use circular logic to discourage women from pursuing science (women shouldn’t be in science because they’re worse at it than men, which we know because there’s so few women in science).
Just as science has been recklessly applied to gender differences, it has been recklessly applied to other areas as well. Many scientists have attempted to racialize intelligence, attempting to scientifically prove intellectual superiority of white people over other races. An early example of this is the pseudoscience of phrenology, which studies the shapes and sizes of skulls, essentially in an attempt to classify whites as more evolved and intelligent. In fact, the term “Caucasian” comes from phrenology, referring to people from the Caucasus region who supposedly had the best skulls. Eventually, it became an umbrella term referring to anyone of white European descent, carrying with it the connotations of being the most evolved. Later on, starting in the 20th century, IQ scores were used to highlight differences in intelligence between races. Scientists such as Arthur Jensen compared IQ scores between white and Black people, attempting to link race and intelligence. Jensen eventually concluded that the lower score distributions he saw among Black people must be due to genetic factors. This study is another case of social ignorance and ingrained bias labeled as objective science. Jensen failed to consider that white people may have had more privileges and opportunities to develop the appropriate cognitive skills needed to succeed on an IQ test. His study also fails to discuss the implications of measuring general intelligence among different races with a test that was not only created by white people, but also measures modes of intelligence valued by those white creators. The IQ test is a product of white European and white American culture, so the results must be studied and conclusions must be drawn cautiously, acknowledging the inherent biases of the test.
It’s easy to look at the work of someone like Cattell and say that it’s outdated and that we know better nowadays, but we can still take valuable lessons from it. It shows how easily science can be used to justify prejudice. Even in present times, where we think of science as objective and safe from bias, we need to be aware of how our conclusions can be clouded by our preconceptions; we tend to get the results that we want or expect. This becomes especially problematic in situations where the expected result is derived from prejudice.