Science is often thought of as an organic, gargantuan undertaking that remains pure and untouched, removed from human constructions. We think of it as though it’s an infallible and abstract body of knowledge. Sometimes it’s even anthropomorphized and given agency! This elevation and misunderstanding of science is not only dangerous, but inaccurate. In fact, the very history of science, let alone the circumstances under which it is developed, dispute the common perception of science.
Science, like everything else in our society, is constructed and shaped by context. Science does not exist outside humanity, it does not exist in a vacuum, and it certainly does not just exist. Science is constructed by real humans with real thoughts, world views, beliefs, and cultures. We create science, just like we create any other societal construct. Research is conducted by humans, concepts and theories are developed by humans, and humans write the papers and articles that inform our understanding of science. Far from being removed from science, we are intimately involved in creating science.
Furthermore, science is not created, does not exist, and is not practiced in a vacuum. Quite the opposite. Science can have an agenda and it can look and act differently depending on the context. More importantly, science is located within the time and culture of its practitioners. It can be, and has been, used to justify behaviors and policies. Just take the scientific racism that ran –and still runs– rampant in American society. Real scientists, medical doctors, and public health practitioners used data and research to justify and substantiate their racist views and to carry out racist policies. Scientific racism has been used to justify eugenics, non consensual sterilization, and even the Holocaust. These events and issues did not happen devoid of context or some sort of guiding beliefs.
Something else to consider is who is allowed to do science and how that impacts what science is created. In the United States, women and people of color have not only been historically excluded, but also gone uncredited or had their research and theories stolen. Women and PoCs were not allowed entry into universities or even allowed to take courses in science, as they were deemed constitutionally unfit. To this day, women and PoC are severely underrepresented in industries and areas of research in science.
A science constructed solely by cis straight white men is a science lacking the enormity and diversity of human experience and knowledge. The language that is developed around a certain scientific issue or topic and the areas of research that are deemed important are influenced by the beliefs of those doing the research and developing the language. For example, women were excluded from clinical studies and thus, the symptoms of something like a heart attack and efficacy of medication for it are not in the mainstream awareness. Similarly, issues of women’s health have been pathologized or ignored for the better part of this country’s history due to the fact that the people who constructed the science were–and are misogynistic–and thus the science is, too.
So should we discredit science and relegate it to being “merely a social construct”? Absolutely not. In fact, as a scientist, I say that we should instead be critical and constantly examine the motivations behind how and why we construct our science. Are we catering to fear or prejudice? Are we truly able to separate ourselves from the science?