Scientific knowledge is valued for its objectivity, as it helps us understand more of the world. We often use scientific evidence to inform our decisions — but what happens when science is misused and scientific facts are misrepresented in order to further interests that negatively impact certain groups of people?

Scientific objectivity is based on the idea that various aspects of science — such as claims, results, methods, and researchers — are not influenced by biases, differing perspectives, or values. This idea offers authority to scientific discoveries and is why we ascribe such a strong power to science to help guide much of our decision making and thinking.

While scientific inquiries can lead us to objective truths, science has also been misused to reinforce and justify discrimination against some groups of people. Throughout history, specific ideas without bases in science have slipped through the cracks, being framed as scientific truths to justify racial inequalities. 

Today, race is more commonly understood as a social construct, which means that it is believed to be based on social meaning and cultural understandings of racial groups. However, not too long ago, race was once viewed as distinguishing biological differences. Race is not wholly dictated by genetic differences, nor is there sufficient evidence to support such genetic differences, but this has not stopped people from situating race as a biological concept to enforce the idea that certain races are inherently superior or inferior.

One of the most common ways that science has been misused to reinforce racial discrimination is through the claim that some groups of people are better than others in terms of cognitive or behavioural traits due to genetic differences.

In the nineteenth century, some scientists were proponents of “polygenism,” which suggested that different human races were distinct species. This theory used pseudoscientific methods like craniometry — the measurements of human skulls — which scientists believed provided evidence for the idea that white people were biologically superior to Black people. Supposedly, skull shapes and measurements indicated genetically inherited traits that belonged to particular groups. Positing that craniometry was a method that provided proof of a genetically advantaged race resulted in racial discrimination against people who did not possess these supposed genetically advantageous indicators.

Another instance of misusing science to enforce racial differences was the emergence of the idea that intelligence is a purely genetic trait. The premise was that IQ was an inheritable trait and correlated to race. Conflating social differences with genetic roots and advancing these ideas as fully based in science creates social animosity and makes society believe that these divisions are justified.

The authority of science holds incredible weight in society, as it has the power to influence our understanding of the world. In a time when misinformation and disinformation are as prevalent as ever, the misuse and misrepresentation of science in order to further interests that marginalize people can be extremely harmful. 

Co-opting the authority of science to justify racial inequalities by furthering unfounded claims, which attribute differences among different populations to biology, has no place in society today. This is especially true when it comes to using unfounded biological explanations to reinforce discrimination and further the idea of a dominant population of people. 

While concepts like race and ethnicity can certainly be determinants or help explain differences in health outcomes, furthering claims that merge social differences with biological explanations is a disservice to scientific objectivity. Great strides are being made in society and in research to recognize historical, political, and social factors that can explain differences across populations, which should help us advance and strive to ensure that both scientific inquiry and communication are being conducted with integrity.