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No, Science Isn’t Unaffected By Society

A colourised image of a cell under a microscope

It’s a popularly held belief that science is pure, logical, and uninfluenced by society.

Arguments and misunderstandings on the internet often start with accusations of being unscientific.

This has become increasingly relevant after the circulation of fake scientific “proof” that chromosomes are equated to sex/gender from a video by Bill Nye. Alt-Right transphobes circulated an image of Bill Nye allegedly saying “Gender is decided by your chromosomes”. It has been proven that this is NOT what he said, but the image has already been shared thousands of times.

A lot of people argue bioessentialism (the idea that XX=female and XY= male, and that trans people are “biologically female/male no matter how they identify) on the internet, as if science has not also been influenced by the created and enforced the idea of gender binary.

And this sort of thinking has even more implications than just internet transphobia – transgender people often face misunderstanding from doctors who have not been adequately trained or educated to meet or understand their health needs.

The idea of infallible science also came up when discussing birth control for people with penises. The trial was discontinued due to side-effects, and suddenly everyone with a penis was a reproductive health expert. Many quoted infertility and a high number of side-effects which they believed to be unacceptable, however it is documented that most symptoms were considered mild/moderate.

Additionally, of the eight people who hadn’t regained fertility within a year, five regained it eventually, two declined to follow-up and only one participant had a reduced sperm count after 4 years. Assuming all three had fertility damage lasting more than four years, that is still only an incidence rate of less than 1%.

Now, I’m not trying to force contraceptives onto people, but it is frustrating to hear people say that the side-effects are “worse than in other trials”. This completely ignores the fact that the trials of The Contraceptive Pill in Puerto Rico targeted poor, uneducated people with vaginas and completely dismissed their side-effects – even leaving the deaths of three women in the trial still left to be investigated.

Even today, people with vaginas receive poor support when looking for contraceptives, and are even taken less seriously by the medical profession in other matters.

Scientific ethics have always been poor, especially as one of its driving forces is money, yet still some people believe that science is the objective moral gold-standard. They believe anything proven by science must be true, and anything unproven mustn’t.

In fact, this is far from the truth.

Throughout history, science has been influenced greatly by money, agenda, and those in power.

One of the fundamentals of science is that it must be repeatable (as you will learn in any and every physics classroom).

But sometimes, especially in expensive or risky studies, people don’t want to repeat the experiment.

Shinya Yamanaka did an experiment on cells in mice. He found out which genes were necessary for induction of cells to become pluripotent (or undifferentiated – with the potential to develop into any other type of cell). This discovery was, and still is revolutionary, and if replicable in humans could provide those with poorly functioning organs with completely new, genetically identical replacements.

There was large debate and disagreement about Yamanaka’s findings within the science community, and it wasn’t until Rudolf Jaenish’s lab in America repeated the experiment that the achievement was recognized – despite Jaenish’s motivation being admittedly because he believed Yamanaka was wrong. Yamanaka went on to receive the Nobel Prize for his achievements.

Sadly, in science, if the head of a lab believes that conducting a project would be a waste of money or simply doesn’t believe in the concept, the project will not be taken on.

This can be an important thing to consider when looking at science – because it means that not only does research already worked on go unnoticed, it means research which is seen as unworthy simply won’t be done in the first place.

This is where prejudices and societal pressure come into the spotlight. If a group is a minority, there will be less money invested into research relevant to them.

Or worse – money will be invested into research at their expense. For example, the Syphilis Study in Tuskegee is of the most horrific abuses of scientific power in modern history.

The Tuskegee Study was done under the guise of providing free health care for 600 black men, 399 of whom had syphilis, 201 who were healthy. Patients were told that they were being treated for “bad blood” –  a term applicable to illnesses ranging from anaemia to syphilis.

In reality, the men were subject to a forty year torture in order to see if syphilis affected black men differently to white men. Even when treatment was recommended by the military so subjects could be drafted for World War Two, the lab refused to give them it. Even when penicillin became the accepted treatment for syphilis, the lab refused to give them it.

All the men received were mineral supplements, placebos (fake medicine) and treatment for minor ailments while their health declined and hundreds of men died.

The study did not end until the same year it was condemned by the news – meaning it lasted from 1932 to 1972.

While President, Bill Clinton issued an apology for the tragedy and an out-of-court settlement was reached to provide lifetime health benefits and burial services to all participants in the study.

Again, this institutional racism is still echoed today. People of color are likely to be diagnosed at a later stage of skin cancer  than caucasians, which may have a link to doctors being less trained to notice symptoms in darker skin, but also has socio-economic factors involved.

In the face of such tragedies, we must remember that neither science nor medicine are perfect and free from prejudice.

Science and medicine must be more openly and loudly criticized for their lack of inclusivity of minorities and, eventually, scientific progress will catch up with social progress.

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Young, mixed-race student living in Scotland. Ready to talk about racism, sex education and feminism!

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