This conversation was recorded on 23rd March 2021. Host: Subhadra Das, Critical Eugenics Researcher, UCL Sarah Parker Remond Centre
Episode 1: The stories we tell are powerful
Guests: Chiara Ambrosia, Associate Professor in History & Philosophy of Science at UCL STS // Emily Dawson, Associate Professor in Science Communication at UCL STS // Rokia Ballo, part of Science London // Angela Saini, writer, science journalist and broadcaster
Subhadra Das: Welcome to What Does Eugenics Mean To Us?, a podcast from the UCL Sarah Parker Remond Centre. I'm your host, Subhadra Das, and for the last ten years I've been researching the history and legacy of eugenics at UCL, in the sciences and beyond. In this podcast I've brought together some brilliant researchers for some fascinating and insightful conversations across the disciplinary divides. Together, we are going to discuss, examine, critique and explode eugenic thinking. How are racism, ableism, sexism and class warfare embedded in our ways of thinking about and perceiving other people? What can we do to challenge and dismantle those ideas and structures? As a university and a community of researchers: what does eugenics mean to us?
The subject of this episode is Science and Technology Studies. When I first came to university, I had no idea that the history and philosophy of science was an actual thing that a person could study, let alone a thriving academic discipline with a whole department dedicated to exploring and uncovering the stories around our science.
My guests today are Chiara Ambrosio, Associate Professor in History & Philosophy of Science in the UCL department of Science & Technology Studies (STS), with a special focus on the history of art and science. Chiara is one of the co-founders of IMPROPERA, the improvised opera production inspired by objects from science museums.
Emily Dawson, Associate Professor in Science Communication at UCL STS. Emily was awarded the Philip Leverhulme Prize in 2020 for her work on the sociology of science and education, getting people to talk across the science / non-science disciplinary divide.
Rokia Ballo, who is part of the team who runs Science London, a volunteer led organisation dedicated to training and enabling scientists and science communicators to employ equitable practice within their work.
And, lastly, Angela Saini, award-winning writer, science journalist and broadcaster, whose two most recent books tackle and challenge the in-built inequalities in the life sciences. In Inferior, she looked at the science of gender, and in Superior, she looked at the science of race.
The first question that I have is: what is science and technology studies? The reason I ask the question is, when I came to university, I did not know that this was a topic I could study and I think, if I had known, I would have liked to. So, tell us about what it is as a topic.
Chiara Ambrosio: I can go first. I am in the Department of Science & Technology Studies, so I’m happy to break the ice there. Science and technology studies is the coolest discipline you can ever find out there in the range of academic disciplines. It looks at science, but it is a field that looks at science from the perspective of the humanities and the social sciences. So, our field covers areas like the history of science, where is it that science comes from? And you open a lot of archives connected to science, and you find the most incredible material that really challenges the view of science that we have in society.
We look at the philosophy of science, what grants the authority of science in our society, how do scientists reason, what kind of ethical questions come up in scientific research and what kind of ethical questions should come up in scientific research. We then also cover science communication, which is about how science is portrayed in the media; and we look at science policy, what is and what are the relationships between science and government. For example, we look at the governance of emerging technologies, we look at responsible research and innovation. So really it is the most amazing field you could think of.
Emily Dawson: Although maybe we should ask Rokia because she’s newer perhaps and less indoctrinated than you and I, Chiara.
Chiara: Fair enough.
Rokia Ballo: Well, for fear of sounding like an advert for UCL's STS department, similar to Subhadra I would say that, coming from kind of bench and lab science, if I had known that something like STS existed, I think I definitely would have gone down that route sooner. For me, it did all the things that Chiara said, but it gave me a place for asking some of the questions about how science can be better, and realising that science isn’t this objective gathering of knowledge and information that happens in a vacuum, and the way that it impacts society. My particular interests are the way that science and policy, as mechanisms of social order or social control, impact and kind of perpetuate existing inequalities and the way that we can use science and use scientific evidence to disrupt that, or combat that.
So, yeah, science and technology studies, it gives you a lot of foundational information about where science comes from, who gets to be a scientist, what that means, the philosophy of science, but then, looking more contemporarily about the way we’re using science in society at the moment, and who is included and excluded from that - not just creating scientific knowledge but from benefitting from scientific innovation and technology.
Emily: Angela, do you want to talk about it from your perspective, because you are not a dorky academic like us, in a no-offence way.
Angela Saini: Yeah, and I didn’t study this; I don’t come from that discipline either, I come from engineering. And I think maybe, like Subhadra, if I had known that that course existed, I would have liked to do it as well. I actually did something adjacent to STS. When I was working at the BBC, I started doing a degree part-time at the Department of War Studies at Kings, which is a very realist but non-disciplinary department, it doesn’t really sit anywhere. But that’s where I was first exposed to feminist critiques of science and technology, particularly obviously weaponry and war, and critical race theory, and Foucault, and Popper, and Kuhn - things that I wasn’t taught when I was doing my engineering degree. And it really did help shape the way that I did my work later; even if I didn’t realise it at the time, it did help me question the things I’d been taught very deeply.
Subhadra: And the thing that I was going to ask you alongside of that is how do you go about doing that in your practice. So, I know that some of you do it academically, some of you do it in practice, some of you write things. What is your psyche on practice?
Emily: My undergrad was in biological sciences, but I did it at UCL, and I didn’t know about STS, but took a few history and philosophy and science policy modules, and then years later, found myself working in museums and in science museums and thinking, there are some really fishy things going on here. There’s some clearly racialised practices, there’s some clearly gendered practices. The class war seems to be central to how museums operate, what is happening? And so many more.
So, even in making exhibitions, which I only did for a little while, I could start to see these problems, and no-one else I worked with wanted to talk about them. So, I went into research and the research project I did eventually was looking at how people experience science in their day-to-day lives. They were all from the borough I lived in in London, Southwark and Lambeth, and they were grassroots community groups who'd coalesced around either a migration issue, or an issue that they’d faced in London. So, they were different racialised groups and, because of the boroughs and because of the way migration works for certain groups in this country, they weren’t living in poverty but they weren’t rich - it’s hard to say working class because migration had distorted their class trajectories. And it wasn’t that they were anti-science, and we often fall into these really shorthand ways of thinking about this; they weren’t anti-science but it was really clear to them that science wasn’t for them. I mean people know when something is built in such a way that it excludes them, and it excludes them on so many different fronts that it becomes quite problematic. So, their involvement in it, or their support of it, or their participation in it, is kind of foreclosed in ways that are very different to overcome and that they themselves recognise enough that they don’t want to do it. Like if you say to me, this thing is not for you, it’s not about you, actually when you do encounter it, it’s going to be at best neutral, at worst really offensive. You’re going to feel really uncomfortable and you’re going to be the one that has to do the work of making you fit - and that’s repellent stuff, isn’t it? No-one wants to do that.
So, I came to this sort of world of eugenics, history of science, from this idea that contemporary science in popular culture is really racialised, is really gendered, is really classed, it's homophobic, it’s heteronormative, it’s ableist, it’s ageist. It’s hugely problematic and its interests serve quite a narrow dominant group. And that’s not just because of the medium. It’s not just the way museum exhibits are done, or the way nature documentaries are done, although there are issues around that, but it's also because of the content, and some of that content is really repellent stuff; and eugenics offers us an upsettingly good case study of why science as a form of knowledge is deeply problematic.
Subhadra: Rokia, how do you and your colleagues at Science London go about addressing those problems?
Rokia: That work is kind of broken down into the training and the events that we put on that hopefully give scientists and science communicators some practical tools for how they can implement equitable practice in their work. So, some of it is a bit of an educational piece. It is bringing the history of science and things like eugenics into the forefront, because we are still having lots of conversations with scientists and science communicators about science as objective and kind of being insulated from some of these social concerns. So, a lot of the conversations in science communication are about reaching under-served communities, and who those communities are, without people possibly realising that it’s eugenic ideologies that have created these under-served communities in the first place; and the idea that some people can, I don’t know, inherently deserve to be excluded from science, or have been left behind because that was always the position within society that they were going to take, and now a lot of science communication seems to be trying to correct that without addressing how those people became under-served in the first place.
That’s part of the work we’re trying to do, to say that these people, it’s not that they were left behind by accident, or that this is some kind of blip in what has happened with the spread of scientific knowledge - they were left behind by design. Science was never designed to include them, the stories we tell about science don’t include them for a reason. They don’t include people like me and very much, speaking to what Emily was saying earlier, me coming into science very much felt like doing that work of making science fit around me, and having to have a lot of support from teachers, and my family, to go into spaces, academic spaces that were very white, often very male, and having to prove, over and over again, that I deserve be there. So, I completely understand why people don’t want to do that. Part of the work in Science London is that educational piece of the science that we all love isn’t perfect but here are things that we can do to make it better. We’re not critiquing science because we’re anti-science, it’s actually because we love science and we want science to do better, because the stories we tell about science are powerful and they have really shaped what modern science is.
Subhadra: There’s a lot involved in that and it’s interesting, the language has changed a bit; they are now under-served communities, they used to be hard-to-reach communities, but the perspective still tends to kind of be the same. How receptive have you found people to this idea that science in itself is not just some sort of neutral, objective beneficial- how receptive are people to this message in terms of how we get that news across?
Chiara: I think they are more receptive than it is normally portrayed. What I find is when I talk to scientists about their input in interpreting evidence, for example, you will always hear, 'yes, of course this is what we do, we interpret things in that particular way'. So, I think the question is how that challenge that comes from a field that is not construed as science is perceived, rather than what actually scientific practice consists of. And I think in my case, I’ve experienced this because when you introduce yourself as a philosopher of science, you are immediately on the black books, you are immediately 'oh we’re not going to trust you because you are going to undermine us anyway'. So, then you need to sort of really work harder for your credentials to be accepted. And I suspect, Angela, you probably have a very, very similar experience of that harder work that you need to put into just being accepted, not as the woman who is there like poking the theories but, in fact, as the person who is trying to understand and make sense, and dig a little bit deeper into the kind of philosophical assumptions underpinning certain concepts that are taken for granted.
My favourite line is that when we talk about objectivity, we are talking about the concept that has a history, and we’ve been theorising and thinking about what counts as objective evidence, or what counts as a matter of fact out there in the world, we’ve been theorising that differently. A lot of work that is done on visual displays really shows that the different ways in which we’ve been representing bits of science really have changed. They are subject to styles of representation, some of them have been more acceptable than others. So that kind of idea is not a matter of us looking or saying or being anti-science, it’s just fleshing out the complexity and the historicity of science, from my point of view.
Subhadra: Angela, does that ring bells with you, in terms of your experience?
Angela: I recognise that experience as I’ve seen it in others. I remember years ago, when I was writing an article about researchers in a lab working with a bioethicist, and the bioethicist was sitting in these meetings and being ignored the whole time and being undermined the whole time. She had to be there because they were required to have her there, but I knew that the scientists didn’t really want her there, or want to pay attention to her. And that tension, I think, still exists now, which is really tragic because I don’t think we move the sciences forward unless the philosophers and the bioethicists and the social scientists in those rooms are being listened to and engaged with.
From my perspective, yes, I do sometimes get pushback from scientists who don’t accept what I’m saying, or don’t want to incorporate it into their work, although that has changed. So, it’s been interesting for me how the reception to my books have shifted, especially as the politics has shifted. So, with Blacks Lives Matter, suddenly all these doors that were shut opened up completely and everybody wanted to jump on board, which I was so grateful for, but I did think that that’s interesting because it proves that then it is the politics that is driving you rather than the science, because the science doesn’t change, the politics is the thing that is changing, which proves our point really, that everything is cultural and everything is affected by the societies that we’re in.
One of the benefits for me is that I don’t write for other academics, I write for the public. And I have to be very careful, I think, with that because what I don’t want to do is put out a narrative that undermines trust in science to the public, especially in the age of the pandemic, because that can do just as much harm as anything else. So, while I want people to understand the issues around objectivity in science, and the constraints around the assumptions that scientists have made in the past, what I also want them to do is realise that, at the same time, this is a project and a process that you can place your trust in relative to the conspiracy theorists or the mis-information pedlars online. And you have to be very careful with that, and it has worried me sometimes that when we put out a narrative, for example, about under-served communities in medicine, that certain clinical trials haven’t been broad enough, sometimes the message that the public hear is drugs tested on white people won’t work on black people, which is false. That is just incorrect and yet I hear that a lot. I think, not everybody, but some of the people who haven’t taken up the vaccine, it’s because of exactly that message. So, we have to be very mindful, I think, like Rokia said, about the narratives.
Subhadra: Absolutely. Emily, did you want to come in on that?
Emily: Yes, that was so interesting; even just what Angela said there makes me go into my research zone. What’s very interesting to me since I’ve been doing this kind of world of work is, if you look at the difference in how scientific communities respond to these kinds of questions versus what happens when they become public, and it’s going to sound really mean, but I find it really refreshing the way Angela has just framed that delicate balance between information and critique. Because what I’ve seen so many times, whether it’s in television documentaries, or it’s in museums and science centres, or other forms of public engagement, is there’s some weird shift that happens when science moves out into this public space - and I’m going to use the word 'scientism' and Sub’s going to laugh at me, and I will explain it, I promise - but almost that kind of malleability of certain aspects of science when it’s in process, when it’s in a scientific community, when it’s being worked on, sort of evaporates a little bit.
For instance, I’m thinking of a particular nature documentary about the missing, animal-origin ancestors. So, a particular fish fossil that might explain the move from A to B, or I’m thinking about - again, natural history - but exhibitions where things have been told in a very specific and, I suppose, drawing on Rokia’s point, one story way, and those stories themselves become fossilised. They become more traditional, more conservative in a small ‘c’ sense, more authoritative, and they start to take on what we might call the epistemic authority of science. So, that scientistic model is about science as the ultimate authority, the absolute explanation, often ignoring the cultural and political and social factors that go into making that particular set of knowledge. And, in my experience, it rarely comes from within the scientific community, but often does come in these spaces where science becomes public, so that the message that the public meet very often is not one mediated by a sense of something being worked out, or something that is still in flux, or something on which there are a number of opinions.
And, of course, we know from the climate change debates and the research on that that sometimes you do get a sense of polarised two different opinions, and that’s a particular piece of media work and again highly political. But when you look at something like natural history, for instance, there’s often one very dominant narrative once that becomes public, and I think that this highly problematic in a slightly different way.
Rokia: In terms of that one narrative, definitely in the work that I do on science advice and kind of policy relevant science, the creation of that one narrative, even around science like Covid which there are so many unknowns still, it’s something we’re realising is very much constructed behind-the-scenes by this kind of narrow pool of expertise that is brought in to create scientific advice. It’s a deliberate construct to give this veneer of consensus, possibly to stop the public from poking holes in the science, and to increase public trust in scientific knowledge, but also possibly because the scientific community don’t trust the public to deal with uncertainty. They don’t trust that the public can handle that, so they feel like they have to present this one narrative or, I don’t know, there’ll be chaos or something. But I think it’s definitely something that we see a lot in science as it relates to policy, this pushing of this one narrative, because otherwise the public just won’t know what to do, despite the fact that we know that people are very good at weighing up risks in their own lives anyway and, if you presented them with all of the options, they would make rational decisions.
Just coming back to how people respond to this kind of critiquing of science, or some of the messages that we’re putting out from Science London, just anecdotally, we recently put out a call for new volunteers, and despite it quite clearly explaining what we do and what we’re about on our website, we still had people request to join and then after further conversation, come back to us and say, actually I don’t think I can do this because I don’t want to talk about science as political. And there are still people who think that they want to be part of these conversations but are very resistant to understanding the way that science is embedded with social and cultural biases, and really wanting to hold on to that scientistic view of science; when it really comes down to it and implementing that in their practice, just finding it really difficult to let go of that. That’s definitely something we found quite interesting as a collective.
Subhadra: Where do we think that comes from? Because in a way, one of the discourses that we’re really used to hearing about, despite it not necessarily being grounded in as much history as it should be, is that difference between science and religion, and the idea that science is truth, big ‘T’ little ‘t’ truth, and that religion is based on some kind of aspect of blind faith and believing things you can’t see. Scientism to me sounds almost like a religion in that kind of way.
Chiara: I think the history of the relationship between science and religion actually casts quite a bit of light on that, because historians of science have dissected that history quite in detail, and they have come up with very sophisticated historiographical explanations that actually point to the fact that the parting of ways of science and religion is a relatively recent phenomenon. So, I think, to a certain extent, it’s kind of scary to live in a secular world. It’s terrifying to live in a world without God and I say it because I come from a deeply Catholic country and from a deeply Catholic upbringing, that sense of comfort that you get from religion. And independently of the psychological comfort that you get from the religion - and here I’m going very philosophical - you need the metaphysics, you need some kind of framework that says this is what there is and that we are investigating how that works. And I think that, however anti-metaphysical scientists might be, it is actually that replacement of a metaphysical framework. You’re just replacing it with what is purported to be a rational explanation, based on facts and objective measurements, and the empiricism, but I do think that it is itself a by-product of the kind of articulation of the relationship between it, and I think it’s not a coincidence that scientism is going so hand-in-hand with a certain atheist world view.
Angela: Yes, I would agree with that. I think that’s true. We have to also remember that it’s not a universal thing that science and religion are separated. In India, for instance, there is far less separation between science and religion and, in fact, sometimes they’re deeply interwoven. For example, I remember when I went to the Indian Space Research Organisation, they told me that before each big rocket launch, the scientists would all go and give an offering at the temple to hope that it went well. It was woven into the way that they thought about the science and sometimes also directing what the scientists did in terms of what they wanted to explore and what they didn’t want to explore and what they were trying to prove. That can be problematic sometimes when it mixes with religious nationalism, or ethnic nationalism. It can feed those ideologies, but that division is a Western thing rather than a universal thing.
And I agree that there is a degree of faith involved in trusting science. You have to trust the establishment of science and the people who are doing it, and that involves a leap of faith to some extent, because we’re not doing science ourselves. We’re not all doing the experiments and observing things ourselves. We’re trusting the people who are doing it for us. So, there is a degree of faith involved there.
Chiara: And the scientists are trusting their own instruments. And, of course, they’ve got good reasons to trust their own instruments, but sometimes they don’t. One of the things that got me into eugenics in the very first instance was, in fact, Galton’s composite portraits, the composite photographs, and that kind of takes me back to how we started this conversation. I learned about the expression ‘composite photograph’ through philosophy. There was a philosopher I was studying who used composite photography as a completely innocent philosophical metaphor to talk about ideas. So, I just inherited it and I was using it - I mean, this was many years ago - but I was using it myself quite innocently, taking it for granted. And then I said, maybe I should go and dig a little bit more into the history of this expression. One of the things that really opened my eyes was a beautiful essay by the historian Carlo Ginzburg, who actually goes all the way back and traces the genealogy of that expression and how it was rooted into material culture, material practices.
Now, you go and look at how Galton talks about composite portraits and he says this is the ultimate form of empiricism, this is how ideas would be generated if we were unlimited human beings; because there is a photographic process that does the portrait, then what you have is an automation of how you identify typical traits, and you sort of separate accidental traits and you just get the typical traits emerging from the centre of the portrait. And then you go and dig into the process and it was ridiculously flawed because he had worked out exposure times fractionally, he had worked them out lineally. So, ultimately, when you go and expose the portraits to a single plate, what you have is that the last portrait is always taking over the previous one, and you can’t do it with more than eight portraits and yet Galton says these are real generalisations. So, he was placing on the instrument on the apparatus a level of trust and authority.
At that point, you need to pull apart, the rhetoric about what the apparatus can achieve versus what he was really doing with the apparatus itself. I think it’s one of the most problematic aspects of the history of eugenics that then made me question everything, because I had inherited a very innocent expression but it also speaks, I think, of issues of measurement, of what kind of evidence do we have, and what kind of account of the practices scientists give us and how we go about dissecting it historically, and what we learn from that.
Subhadra: That’s something I definitely sympathise with - when you know about eugenics, suddenly you see the world in a completely different way, in ways that you haven’t before. Does anyone have anything else they want to add in terms of how did you come to eugenics and did it shift your view of the world, or how is it shifting your view of the world, and does it continue to do so?
Rokia: I think, as I mentioned earlier, coming to eugenics is something that I’m still coming to terms with, and the way it’s so deeply ingrained in science and in popular culture, and I think the way that it’s made me see the world differently obviously in the research that I do, but even in the things that sit on the periphery of scientific knowledge, like science fiction. I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy and just realising that, even in fiction, or even if you watch something that is post-apocalyptic, or that sits on the kind of edges of science and sci-fi, hierarchies within society are always written into these things and there is always some kind of hierarchy based on some kind of innate characteristic. We're creating imaginary worlds with species of beings that don’t exist, but there is always a hierarchy. And I think understanding the history of eugenics made me see how that kind of logic feeds its way into scientific knowledge, into fantasy, into the popular culture, just this need for there to be a hierarchy, for there always to be winners and losers as if that is inevitable; and the way that we internalise those kinds of logics in our own lives, and the way particularly marginalised communities internalise inequality and internalise their position within society, their relationship to science as inevitable. So, yes, more to learn but it has definitely opened my eyes.
Emily: I would absolutely agree with that. There is so much to unpick about this idea of eugenics and how it has permeated so much of the worlds we encounter. From a research perspective and someone with one foot in science and technology studies and one foot in education and learning, there is so much to think about in terms of how we measure, and not just within what we might call ‘pure scientific communities’, but any form of measurement of humans, whether it’s sociological or educational, it’s all deeply embedded in these constructs. And Katherine McKittrick last week was talking about - race is a fiction, but it’s a fiction that we live through all the time.
If you look, for instance, at work on how students are measured, how educational outcomes are measured, they are highly impacted by these very old ideas of eugenics that, as we’ve said, are really racialised, really gendered, really classed and so on. So, we have to try and unpack. If you look, for instance, at recent work in genetics and some of the implications for education, and often people in genetics more recently, as David Gillborn’s work suggests, they shy away from talking about race in clear terms, but often it is there and it’s implicit within what they are saying. And this idea that, even taking environmental factors into account, some element of genetic determinism creeps through. So, I think, in terms of doing any research ever and I know in my own research practice it’s something that I’m really painfully aware of – whenever we construct any kind of survey, or an interview, to try and think through how all of those implications will fan out.
But then, given that a lot of my research is on science and popular culture, we were talking last week about Assassin’s Creed, because I share Rokia’s love of dreadful fantasy films and books, and Assassin’s Creed obviously is based on a game, and I don’t know who else has seen it, and I’m not really advising you watch it, unless you want to see a case study of eugenics in popular culture, but that is a film entirely premised on ideas of eugenics; the whole film. And there are some other what we might call dodgy science ideas in there too. But this idea that you could inherit characteristics around criminality, around violence, around being a murderer, and what that then means for these people, it’s completely embedded in that story in a way that there’s no real comeback to that. There’s not really a critique of it within the film, it’s just a kind of accepted thing. I was watching it with my family and it was only really me spluttering and eye twitching, I presume, at this point, because of a long-term indoctrination by science and technology studies that, what on earth is happening here, how are these stories going through?
So, if you think about it, not only are we swimming in- this idea in sociology that you swim in a soup of socialisation, and the soup that we’re swimming is one where eugenics is a significant ingredient, even if it’s not one that we can always easily name or talk about very often.
Subhadra: Well, here’s hoping the folks in the English department are listening, because there is so much scope, there is so much more research that could be done along these lines, and hopefully there's inspiration for lots of other scientists and storytellers to widen the scope of their practice and think about how we can all work together to change science for the better. Emily Dawson, Rokia Ballo, Chiara Ambrosio and Angela Saini, thank you so much for joining me, for bringing your voices to the table, and for sharing your stories.