Dr. Jeff Baker

Huang Fellow Megan Richards reflects on a seminar with Dr. Jeff Baker.

Certainty is what drew me to science. I like the idea that if we were to just quantify enough, analyze enough, study enough, debate enough, we would rise (even if only a little) out of the quagmire of uncertainty that life can seem to be. As such, I tend to idealize science, trusting that by its critical nature, it’s almost infallible.

Walking into Dr. Baker’s talk, I knew generally of course that science had made mistakes. I’d sat in front of powerpoint presentations like everyone else on Nazi science practices and human trials before regulatory agencies were created. But none of those had qualified my view of scientific infallibility because of one important distinction: I saw these as bad individuals. Bad individuals who clearly used science for terrible things, but as long as I could categorize these historical events as extreme exceptions, as long as I could put them in a “bad apples” category, I could still cling to the vague notion that science was an institution: Secure. Stable. Reliable.

Dr. Baker brought us to Duke’s medical history archive, pairing us off and giving us time to look through some of the old books he had selected. We sat down and read, then explained to the rest of the group what the general viewpoint of the piece was. Rishabh and I were assigned a book about beauty and women. I asked myself, “how could this possibly be about medicine? How could this be science?”

Soon we were reading about how all women have a primary and innate desire to feel beautiful, and how this was a moral desire. But then that beauty was the exception and not the rule in the world. The book defined itself as a scientific prescription guide to this moral deficiency, even claiming to draw back the curtain on human ignorance. The entire book was science-encoded sexism. We learned that both authors were doctors, and one of them was a woman. The other books included scientific arguments for eugenics, medical textbooks featuring extraordinarily sexualized female photographs right alongside respectful male ones, and scientific studies of skull size that were used to justify racism.

After we had seen all of these, Dr. Baker talked about the connection between science and the western narrative of progress. We’ve long placed advancement as the moral good, and sometimes the singular consideration, forgoing important ethical concerns in the process. We see science as the determinant of absolute truth, because we as humans want almost nothing more than to know, and to know securely. But in this blind institutional optimism, we forget that science is done by people. That many of the ideas we saw in these books weren’t anomalies, weren’t a “bad apple.” These were highly respected, largely encouraged, broadly accepted belief systems. These were the renowned scientists of their day, representing what they described as science. After all, they were measuring, categorizing, dissecting, debating, thinking. But we would say in the modern day that this wasn’t science, or that it wasn’t good science, because it’s based on false social assumptions. And it’s right in this differentiation where my ideological framework broke. Science wasn’t this clearly distinctive, isolated institution, the pristine pillar of logic that I wanted it to be. Science was a lot more like people, who each have their own biases, their own social identities, their own connections, their own beliefs, trying to find the truth. Science can’t be divorced from the people who do it.

As one might imagine, this was a disappointing realization for me, and I began to grapple with some daunting questions: how determinable is truth then? if science were vulnerable to these extreme levels of human error, how could we possibly proceed in a way that didn’t make these mistakes? If I can’t isolate my science from my bias, how can I know I’m being as moral as I want to be? My muddled thought cloud was broken by everyone getting up, and I heard Ishaan ask Dr. Baker some of these same questions, his response inspiring a new perspective. Dr. Baker described how the only way to move forward when you fully understand the humanity in science is to embrace a critical consciousness mentality. The idea is that by being adaptable and reminding ourselves of our potential to error, being skeptical of the assumptions that underlie our work, we can do better. Maybe not perfect, but better. It’s not isolated, or distinct, or above humanity. And it isn’t certain. But I think that better, even if it isn’t as comforting as certainty, is a lot more worthwhile.

Megan Richards, Huang Fellow ’22

Megan RichardsMegan is from Orlando, Florida and is studying Biomedical Engineering and Global Health. She sings in Duke Chorale and works in Pediatric Immunology.