Objective. Dispassionate. Rational.
These are just some of the things that define the sciences. These disciplines tease out the truth about our physical world, and use those findings in innovative and helpful ways. But there have been multiple times when this discipline has fallen prey to beliefs not rooted in impartial thinking.
Not only does this limit scientific progress, it also lends itself to viewpoints that are to the detriment of certain groups and people. At the risk of sounding like a warning straight out of Scooby Doo, science in the wrong hands (or wrong perspective), can do a lot of damage. And it has:
1. The Shirley Card Algorithms
In the 1950s, when Kodak dominated the world of photography, the ‘Shirley Cards’ were developed. Based off the photo of a white-skinned woman (the eponymous Shirley), the company calibrated film colours in a way that excluded non-white people.
Canada-based artist Srutika Sabu comments: “Kodak got around to figuring out an algorithm that takes all colours in only when wood companies wanted to show colour gradations in their products, not because they needed to photograph brown people. That’s a technology bias.”
What this has led to is consolidating the idea that white skin is beautiful, and non-white skin is ugly.
2. Birth Control Is A Woman’s Problem
Copper Ts, morning-after pills, sponges, implants, vaginal rings, cervical caps – these are just some of the options listed by Planned Parenthood. You’ll notice most of these methods are for persons assigned female at birth. And even with condoms, the burden of responsibility falls to women. Worse still is when male partners are reluctant to use condoms at all. And let’s not forget the disastrous sterilisation camps in India that killed over 300 women between 2010 and 2013. Much of this can be put down to the fact that not enough has been done for male contraception. Because medical science relies on the cultural norm that men needn’t bother.
3. Period Pain Is No Joke
Called dysmenorrhea, these cramps, pains, and accompanying nausea and headaches are familiar to any uterus-possessing person after they hit puberty. In fact, research shows that it can be as bad as a heart attack. And yet medical professionals still don’t take menstrual pain seriously. Why? Because doctors don’t actually know what they’re dealing with! In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Georgie Bruinvels, a PhD candidate at University College London says: “[T]here’s still a massive gap of understanding around what actually happens at all phases of the menstrual cycle.”
This is due in part to how clinical research takes place. An already male-dominated field, it has long excluded women from clinical trials because of “inconveniences” like pregnancy, and different hormones. Underplaying women’s experience of physical pain means people are not getting the medical help they need.
4. Standards Are Male-Oriented
Gendered notions in medicine lead to many other kinds of misdiagnosis. Take autism for example. The symptoms typically presented by male children are taken as the standard. This leaves girls in the lurch. This is because of a phenomenon called ‘Social Camouflage’. Girls with autism present symptoms (being quiet, blending in) that are seen as ‘gender appropriate’. They’re never evaluated or treated. Dr Judith Gould, director of the Lorna Wing Centre for Autism, says: “There is definitely a gender bias towards boys when it comes to diagnosis.”
5. Cultural Biases In Testing
In the field of psychology, cultural biases can be a major limitation. And they show themselves in two ways. First is when testing criteria doesn’t take diverse identities into account. For example, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory – an extensive questionnaire used to understand the various causes of disorders. It comprises of 338 questions (567 in the older version). A product of 1943, it tends to be very cisheteronormative, and reinforces the gender binary. Cultural biases don’t stem normative sexualities and genders alone. Psychometric tests that were developed in the West are wrongly taken as the standard, and applied in other cultures. The results would then be inadequate.
The second limitation arises when these methods are used with a clear prejudice in mind. Take 1960s USA for example. ‘Minority testing’ in educational institutions was conducted in a way that would reinforce racial stereotypes about African-American students not being as bright as their white peers. The practice had to be strongly opposed by the Association of Black Psychologists.
6. Cruel Treatment Of Gay Men
Aversion therapy clinics became all the rage in the the UK during the ‘70s. Those who identified as same-sex attracted, or those who were suspected of being gay, were taken to these clinics to be “cured”. Doctors would try to eliminate a person’s natural sexual orientation using electric shocks. Worse still, patients were given medication to induce vomiting and defecation, and some were left in their bodily fluids often for days on end. This treatment was backed and sponsored by the UK’s National Health System, even after homosexuality was declassified as a mental disorder in 1974! This method still continues today. In fact, Gaysi found nine Indian doctors trying to ‘cure’ homosexuality, as recently as last year!
7. Sexual Performance As Norm
A moment of true alarm for the asexual community came in the form of Flibanserin, two years ago. It was developed to cure Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD), a sexual dysfunction that can be very distressing. But thanks to a lack of awareness, asexuality is often confused with HSDD.
The Textbook of Clinical Medicine states that there is a need to “identify whether trauma, a sexual secret, shame, a fear of intimacy, or a self-misdiagnosis is present. However, it is a mistake to assume that any of these factors are a cause of asexuality.” Because sexual activity and ‘productiveness’ is seen as normal, even by experts, it makes it easier to pathologie and medicalise this sexual orientation, causing a very real threat to the health and safety of.
Science, and scientific development since the days of “Flat-Earthers”, has undeniably been tainted by popularly held beliefs and biases. I’m reminded of an oft-retweeted message from American astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson:
“Objective truths are established by evidence. Personal truths by faith. Political truths by incessant repetition.”
Despite the evidence of our racial, cultural, and gendered diversity, science often gravitates towards the “political truths” of our society. But the solutions are right in front of our noses. We need to get better as identifying item biases in testing methods. And begin to account for the wide range of experiences amongst people. This will only enable us to better pursue the goals of science.