The University Record, January 23, 1996

Monthly 'Evenings at Rackham' series debuts

By Sally Pobojewski
News and Information Services 

Less than 100 years ago, the hottest field in science was racial hygiene. It was based on the premise that human behavioral characteristics were determined by race. The principles of racial hygiene permeated Western society in the early 20th century. U.S. immigration laws, policies promoting mandatory sterilization of the mentally retarded, and the "final solution" in Nazi Germany all were based on the belief that race defined behavior.

Although easy to ridicule now, it is important to remember that racial hygiene was the "mainstream science of its day," according to Joel Howell, professor of internal medicine, of health management and policy, and of history. "It was as hot then as gene therapy is today," Howell said.

Racial hygiene is just one of several historical examples showing how scientific research is never as objective and bias-free as scientists and the general public would like to believe---according to Howell and three other panelists who discussed "Science, Discourse and Power" during a public forum last week. James S. Jackson, the Daniel Katz Distinguished University Professor of Psychology, moderated the discussion.

Although he stressed that medical research has produced new drugs and treatments that have helped many people, Howell said it is important to keep in mind that cultural values determine which research is funded and who is most likely to benefit. To ignore the social context of scientific work is dangerous," Howell said.

In her presentation on the changing relationship between women and science, history Prof. Regina Morantz-Sanchez explained that the 15th and 16th-century Renaissance culture of western Europe regarded education, knowledge and intellectual activity as "feminine." Until well into the 18th century, she said, women were active participants in and patrons of science, even though their contributions were often behind the scenes and made through husbands or fathers.

Cultural changes during the 18th century profoundly changed the role of women in science, said Morantz-Sanchez, as science and reason took the place of old cultural values based on the authority of the Church and nobility.

"The new allegory for science became the efficient male with a white coat alone in a modern laboratory actively pursuing knowledge," she said. The belief that `natural laws' explained differences between men and women and racial groups were widely accepted at this time and cited as the basis for excluding women from science.

This change in society's attitude toward women still affects medicine today and accounts for the lack of knowledge on how heart disease, AIDS and other diseases affect women, said Morantz-Sanchez. "Science is embedded within culture," she said. "It is never objective and value-free."

"Science has always been in the maelstrom of ideological conflict," said Robert Chrisman, lecturer in English and in Afroamerican and African Studies and editor/publisher of The Black Scholar. Chrisman pointed out that the Age of Enlightenment occurred simultaneously with development of the slave trade from Africa. "Pseudo-scientific explanations that Africans were fundamentally different from Caucasians" were common among the educated elite in Europe and America and were used as a justification for slavery.

Last week's forum was the first in a monthly series of public presentations on current issues called "Evenings at the Rackham," organized by the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies. "These `Evenings' are intended to appeal to a diverse audience, and each will feature a panel of outstanding speakers to talk about subjects of wide interest and controversy," said Robert Weisbuch, interim dean of Rackham. Future topics this term will include results of the Galileo spacecraft's exploration of Jupiter, poetry inspired by U-M Museum of Art collections and the impact of welfare reform on America's future.