Jenny Reardon. Thank God for the Absence of Hope: Asking Awkward Questions About Science, Race and Truth

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 In 1948, the newly formed United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) invited a panel of “experts” to UNESCO house in Paris to draft an Expert Statement on Race.  UNESCO asserted that science had the power to oppose racial ideologies, and to create the foundation for a united system of global governance—a United Nations—grounded in science, truth and human rights.  A short two years later, UNESCO found itself embroiled in a high profile dispute with leading physical anthropologists and geneticists in the United States and Great Britain, facing what one UNESCO “expert” described as “awkward questions” about the nature of truth, race and science.  These critical geneticists and physical anthropologists argued against the 1950 UNESCO Expert Statement on Race’s assertion that scientists rejected race as an appropriate conceptual tool for analyzing meaningful human traits.  They further defended their core belief in the existence of genetic racial differences through casting themselves as warriors on the front lines of Communism, upholders of ‘the truth’ required by free and democratic societies.  Along the lines then promoted by sociologist Robert Merton and science policy leader Vannevar Bush, geneticists and physical anthropologists cast themselves as members of the polity of science, a polity that defended the rights of individuals to think freely—even when those individuals included German geneticists and anthropologists who conducted research on human tissues collected from concentration camps.  I argue that this construction of genetics as an anti-Communist force that sought to defend scientific truths became central to the discipline’s moral economy, and allowed the discipline to quickly put to one side any need to interrogate its complicity with racist forces (e.g., Nazism).  I further argue that this moral economy has endured, creating conditions in which geneticists’ claims about human racial differences continue to be asserted as truths essential to democratic societies. The difference today is that we have lost our ability to ask critical awkward questions about science, and this is the real threat to democratic societies. 


Jenny Reardon is a Professor of Sociology and the Founding Director of the Science and Justice Research Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  Her research draws into focus questions about identity, justice and democracy that are often silently embedded in scientific ideas and practices. Her training spans molecular biology, ecology, the history of biology, science studies, feminist and critical race studies, and the sociology of science, technology and medicine. She is the author of Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics (Princeton University Press) and, most recently, The Postgenomic Condition: Ethics, Justice, Knowledge After the Genome (the University of Chicago Press). She is the recipient of fellowships and awards from, among others, the National Science Foundation, the Max Planck Institute, the Freiburg Institute of Advanced Study, the Humboldt Foundation, and the United States Congressional Committee on Science, Space and Technology.  Recently, she started a project to bike over one thousand miles through her home state of Kansas to learn from farmers, ranchers and other denizens of the high plains about how best to know and care for the prairie.