Since the days of Plato, thinkers have wrestled with what makes for a just society, and whether the responsibility for justice rests with the individual or with government. Over the centuries, those questions have evolved from the realm of the natural philosophers into new fields of science, including sociology (first called “social physics”), psychology and economics.
With our country facing a reckoning on its legacy of racial violence and inequity, sparked by police killings of black people and the subsequent worldwide protests, the sciences help us better understand how we came to this moment, and how those inequities can be overcome. As science journalists, we not only explain the workings of science and scientists, we also use science as a lens to examine human behavior, societies and the world around us.
A browse through the Science News archive reveals that the magazine has a long history covering race and policy, including the landmark 1965 report coauthored by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a U.S. Department of Labor assistant secretary. Moynihan used social science research to reveal the failures of civil rights laws to ameliorate economic and racial inequality. Often this magazine’s approach was quite pointed, as when it criticized President Lyndon Johnson for failing to act on the 1968 Kerner Commission’s finding that pervasive racism fueled civil disorder.
Other reports in our archives read like they could have been written today, including Bruce Bower’s story from 1996 on how a keener scientific understanding of stereotypes could help ethnic groups or nations identify the cultural disparities that trigger distrust (SN: 6/29/96, p. 408).
This year, we’ve described the challenges scientists face in accurately defining race for the U.S. census (SN: 3/14/20, p. 16), explained how long-standing health disparities have made African-Americans more vulnerable to COVID-19 (SN Online: 4/10/20) and explored the world of birders and other naturalists during Black Birders Week (SN Online: 6/4/20). I knew that just a small percentage of U.S. scientists are African-American, but I was startled to learn reading staff writer Jonathan Lambert’s article that less than 1 percent of Ph.D.s granted in 2018 in ecology, evolutionary biology or wildlife ecology went to students who identified as African-American or black.
And though journalists often feel as if we stand outside, observing history, we are not immune to it. This magazine has a shameful history of endorsing the racist pseudoscience of eugenics, and of perpetuating ethnic and gender stereotypes that are embarrassing to read today. We’ll be taking a deeper look at that coverage as we approach the 100th anniversary of the magazine.
We like to think we’re doing better now, but just like our nation, we’ve got much work to do.
If we’re going to accurately report where science succeeds and when it falls short in encompassing the breadth and diversity of the human experience, we have to make sure that we’re not blinded by our own biases and assumptions. You can help us in that task. Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.