Django Unchained’s psychotic plantation owner Calvin Candie used the pseudoscience of phrenology to justify slavery. He claimed the submissive region of the brain was larger in slaves than in any other species on the planet. To try to justify slavery is abhorrent, but Tarantino pointed out the dangerous power of science, as phrenology was considered back then.
Writing in the Irish Times, University College Cork emeritus professor of biochemistry William Reville warned of the arrogance of science and how it was the role of philosophy to challenge it. It’s not an attack on science, but an observation that it is not infallible and should be scrutinised like any other discourse.
Science and gender
Science is sometimes used as a tool to prove so-called truths. Discussions around gender, for example, often draw on science to proclaim men and women are inherently different. Anatomically, they do differ. But their bodies largely work in the same way. What’s dangerous about the use of science in the gender debate is that it can be used to support the supposed innate differences between men’s and women’s brains. Have you noticed there’s far less energy put into trying to suggest our other organs are ‘wired’ differently?
A recent study claimed men’s and women’s brains were vastly different because some showed varying neural circuitry. Tabloid journalists jumped straight to the conclusion this meant men were ‘wired’ to be able to park cars and build engines, while women were obviously born to wash dishes and talk. What everybody chose to ignore, or was ignorant to, is that neural connections are determined by stimulation. So yes, if you give male children bricks and female children dolls, they might develop different strengths. However, the people around you, the environment you grow up in and the way society treats you also help shape the development of your brain. Neural connections change throughout a lifetime too. The same study could have said white people are ‘wired’ differently to Asian people. But can you imagine Western reaction if headlines used this to prioritise one ethnicity over another?
A separate study claimed men were more likely to be geniuses than women because they only have one X chromosome, which is responsible for intelligence. The basic premise was that having a single X chromosome meant a second X chromosome could not ‘water down’ its strength. However, genetics notes that all but 15% of genes in the second X chromosome are deactivated in women. And those 15% can help explain why women tend to be less vulnerable to autism and other related disorders. In other words, women have a back-up X chromosome that can protect against faulty genes. Reports on this study also failed to ask why, if a second X chromosome could dilute the effects of a single one in cases where it’s weaker, could it not also complement the first chromosome if both were strong?
Tabloids recently quoted Dutch neuroscientist Dick Swaab’s claims that smoking during pregnancy can lead to children being gay. Pollution and stress were also highlighted as ‘causes’ of homosexuality. Professor Swaab’s observations are noted in his book on pregnant women’s lifestyles and children’s sexuality.
It’s also too easy for journalists to draw on sources like EurekAlert and rehash weak scientific experiments as fact. However, many of the scientific press releases on EurekAlert acknowledge the inadequacies of their studies because of the tiny groups involved and the different influencers on each subject. That is, if the subjects are even human, which in the majority of cases they are not.
Easily-consumable ‘scientific’ studies cheapen genuine solid research. Whether he meant to or not, Tarantino reminded us that the good name of science is often used to manipulate attitudes. Prejudice gets wrapped up in scientific ‘reason’ making it acceptable. Subordinating an ethnicity is disgusting. It’s just a pity society is yet to feel that way about gender and sexuality.