Science has emerged as the new religion of contemporary Western civilization, raising the status of its practitioners to the level of secular sainthood and its findings increasingly taken as the voice of God. Never in history has such a patently unscientific approach to science been so prevalent as it is today in the midst of this global health crisis, where people with a Ph.D. or MD after their names are looked to for their decrees and proclamations about what is and isn’t acceptable in the face of a mysterious virus, which ironically enough, might turn out to be the biggest failure of modern science to date.
Nothing more than a methodology, the political uses of science are not new. Pseudo-scientific assertions were rampant during Victorian times when Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was bastardized and used to rationalize racism and the pillaging of resources in far off lands populated by brown-skinned people. Skull sizes, finger length, and many other arbitrary measurement devices were employed to build bogus narratives that helped the colonizer’s mind validate his own inhumanity and racism. Science, after all, is simply a way to pose a question. But, if the question itself is dishonest science – as such – loses all of its value.
COVID-19 has disproportionately affected communities of color in the United States, with some estimates calculating infections among African Americans to be 2.4 times higher than White Americans. The explanations put forward by such renowned institutions as the Lancet for this disparity follows the same pseudo-scientific designs prevalent in the waning days of the British Empire and exported to the thirteen colonies of the burgeoning American state.
Despite admitting outright that there is “little to no data to support or refute” the idea that ethnicity plays any part in the lopsided rate of infections, the prestigious British institution nevertheless calls for policy-makers to “ensure” that ethnicity forms a part of minimum datasets to “permit identification of potential outcome risk factors,” and urges that these unproven hypotheses “directly […] inform public health interventions globally.”
The core of the problem rests on the attribution of the statistical realities of a higher incidence of COVID-19 in minority populations of color as being the result of some inherent genetic factor instead of the actual reasons driving the vulnerabilities of these communities. Blaming a set of co-morbidity factors like diabetes and hypertension on genetic predisposition promulgates a racist paradigm that uses “science” to effectively cast a majority of the world’s population as genetically inferior species who must be saved by the mythical White knight and his miracle medicines.
Dismissing the truth with science
The very question of whether racism was at the root of the African American community’s greater risk to COVID-19 was recently posed to Republican Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana – a state with an egregious track record of health-related issues in its most marginalized areas and one of the clearest examples of the direct relationship between socio-economic oppression and fatal disease.
When Cassidy was asked directly whether he thought the claim made by fellow Congressman Cedric Richmond (D-LA) that higher COVID-19 hospitalization rates among the state’s African American population were due to the deleterious health consequences brought on by systemic racism, the Senator immediately pulled out his medical credentials and dismissed any such accusations as nothing but rhetoric. “As a physician,” Cassidy stated, “I’m looking at the science.”
Pressed by the interviewer, the Senator dug deeper into the pseudo-scientific playbook and used all of his political savvy to double down on the tacit superiority afforded to scientists over mere mortals by laying down the ostensibly unassailable argument embedded in our genetic make-up. “The physiology,” he continued, “is that if you have an ACE inhibitor – excuse me, an ACE receptor, that’s where the virus hits.”
Science thus allows politicians like Cassidy to ignore underlying realities and focus on the symptoms of a problem, as Aspirin manufacturer would prefer people to keep treating the headache instead of the tumor that might be causing it.
Neo-feudal lords in white coats
One of the most salient examples of the endemic racism that runs in certain scientific circles can be grasped by the debate surrounding widespread assumptions within the scientific community that hypertension among African Americans is the result of genetic factors.
A 2003 study titled “The Slavery Hypertension Hypothesis: Dissemination and Appeal of a Modern Race Theory” takes a deep dive into the pseudo-scientific narratives developed out of the findings that African Americans suffered from nearly twice the level of hypertension of White Americans. The authors examine a plethora of scientific literature that “presumed racial equivalence between Africans and African-Americans” despite all evidence to the contrary.
Peer-reviewed articles with titles such as “Is the Pathogenesis of Hypertension Different in Black Patients?,” “Hypertension in Blacks. Is it a Different Disease?” and “Hypertension in African-Americans: A Paradigm of Metabolic Disarray” are dissected in the study to reveal the inherent racism of these insidious claims and rightly exposed as “ideology” and not science.
Nevertheless, examples like these abound in the broader scientific community and its pernicious influence on a society, which is increasingly conditioned to accept the declarations of scientists as gospel poses a risk as serious as that effectuated over feudal societies at the height of the Catholic Church’s power when only monks and priests were permitted the luxury of literacy and a monopoly over the interpretation of biblical scripture.
The science of slavery
In a recent editorial for Scientific American, Medical Anthropologist Clarence Gravlee effectively exposes the links between racism and modern-day scientific inquiry as it relates to current ratios of COVID-19 infections between Black and White populations in America. Gravlee traces the roots of White supremacist ideology to the medical frontiers of Atlantic slave societies and the medical experimentation colonial physicians engaged in to “improve plantation labor efficiency, safeguard colonial and civic interests, and enhance control over black bodies“.
The racial-genetic component touted in so many so-called scientific papers is not limited to COVID-19 or hypertension but stretches across a number of other health problems like obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases. When taken together, what emerges is nothing less than another form of what is known as structural racism and, perhaps, its most dangerous manifestation.
The endemic levels of poverty, malnutrition, and marginalization demanded by capitalist models of production are being subtly obfuscated by a pseudo-scientific narrative, which attributes the dire health consequences of this unsustainable economic paradigm to fallacious claims of genetic weaknesses of the most vulnerable populations.
The perpetuation of racist ideologies cloaked behind a veneer of science could be the most perilous threat we face as human beings at this particular moment in history. If we allow the systems of oppression and exploitation to spread under the guise of science, convincing us that it is not the destructive momentum of unbridled consumerism that is killing us and the planet, but rather our own genetic misfortune, no amount of rioting and protests will keep our demise at bay.
Feature photo | People wait for a distribution of masks and food from the Rev. Al Sharpton in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, after a new state mandate was issued requiring residents to wear face coverings in public due to COVID-19, April 18, 2020. Bebeto Matthews | AP
Raul Diego is a MintPress News Staff Writer, independent photojournalist, researcher, writer and documentary filmmaker.