During her career as a broadcaster, researcher, and investigative journalist, Saini has shined a light on racist and sexist science.

“A lot of people whom you might call scientific racists,” broadcaster and science writer Angela Saini told me over tea at her home in North London, “are also very often scientific sexists as well.” Saini has spent years fighting against those who attempt to use science to back up their own prejudices and “take us back to a time when women had their place and minorities had that place. 

“As we’re seeing now, there are many people that would like to return to that kind of world,” she said. 

Saini’s two most recent books expose the resurgence of sexist and racist pseudoscience, and also debunk claims that whiteness and maleness are inherently better. Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, came out in 2017; Superior: The Return of Race Science was published in spring 2019. Both books systematically argue against the warping of “scientific” ideas to show that women and non-whites are predisposed to and deserving of disenfranchisement, and can’t be helped with any amount of social intervention. This pseudoscience affirms that white men deserve their current monopoly on wealth and power.

Superior and Inferior offer powerful responses to our time. As she writes in Superior, “The recent worldwide rise of populist politics is again empowering disturbing opinions about gender and racial differences that seek to misuse science to reduce the status of both groups and individuals in a systematic way.”

She counters such racist and sexist ideology with a flurry of examples that show how “scientists were too often turning to biology to answer questions that could so clearly be better explained by social inequality.” This issue is demonstrated by the achievement gaps among non-white populations, which are often attributed to the “science” of race, while white populations are considered separately. In the United Kingdom, for example, white working class boys achieve the lowest scores on IQ tests, but “scientists haven’t leaped up to claim that low intelligence is rooted in whiteness.” Saini’s examples demonstrate that “race is not a universal constant [or] a biological rule.”

Gender imparities are also often backed up by bad science. Lawrence Summers, then the president of Harvard University, infamously claimed in 2005 that men achieved better scores than women in math and science because of genetics. But while 40 years ago, American boys were 13 times more likely than girls to have exceptional mathematical talent, today that ratio is estimated to be as low as two to one. “If mathematics ability were rooted in biology and sex differences were fixed,” Saini argues in Inferior, “then we wouldn’t expect to see these changes over time.”

As feminist activist Caroline Kennard wrote to Charles Darwin in 1881, annoyed by his sexism, “Let the ‘environment’ of women be similar to that of men and with his opportunities, before she be fairly judged, intellectually his inferior, please.” (The title of Saini’s book comes from this exchange of letters; Darwin had previously written to Kennard that “I certainly think that women though generally superior to men [in] moral qualities are inferior intellectually.”)

Saini was born in the early 1980s, and in her lifetime, she’s seen some backward momentum around equality. “In the 1970s,” she notes in Inferior, “sex difference research had experienced a decline because gender scholars and women’s rights campaigners argued that it was sexist to look for biological gaps between women and men, just as it was racist to look for differences between Black and white people. Gradually, though, it became acceptable again.”

Saini was raised in London by Indian-born parents. When she was young, she lived in a very multicultural neighborhood, but then her family moved to a less diverse part of the city at a time of increased racial tension. It was 1993, and British society was shaken by the murder of a Black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, in an unprovoked racist attack by a gang of white youths in southeast London—not far from where Saini lived as a child. Five suspects were arrested but not convicted, touching off mass protests. Recalling this period in her life, Saini said, “For the first time I was conscious of my race…people were noticing it in ways that they hadn’t noticed it before. The dominant prejudice I had in my life was racism.” 

Saini’s early life was also shaped by sexist ideas. She was one of three sisters and grew up in an egalitarian household, but at school, she got the message that it was unusual to be a girl who was interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). She was the only girl in a lot of her physics and chemistry classes, and internalized the idea that “in being good at math, I was not like other women, and in being good at physics, I was not like other women.” 

Writing Inferior, Saini noted, helped her realize that “women are just as good and capable at these subjects as anybody else. What made me the only woman in those rooms was cultural and social factors.” Saini said that she grew up thinking “if my dad can be an engineer, I can be an engineer. And other girls weren’t getting that message.” She also learned a lot from her mother, who taught her how to sew, knit, and mend things. “That was really useful,” she mused, “because the act of fixing things and making things is the work of an engineer.”

Saini did a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree in chemical engineering at Oxford, and was also involved in student politics. After graduation, Saini decided to try journalism, figuring she’d always have her engineering background to fall back on. She soon got a job at the BBC, where she won an award for an investigation into bogus universities. While working full-time for the BBC, Saini completed a master’s degree in science and security from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. One class focused on feminist interpretations of scientific knowledge, which Saini became espcially interested in. 

Saini left the BBC after two years to pursue a freelance career where she could work at her own pace and have more time to look into the science and technology she reported on. Her background in scientific research, as well as her mastery of the relationship between the sciences and the social sciences, makes her uniquely suited for the role of science journalist. This beat, she said, is “a slightly odd one, because on the one hand we’re cheerleaders for science. On the other hand we are also antagonists.

“But I think this is how science should work. That it is always constantly questioned, is always improving, is always correcting. And in order to do that you have to point out mistakes.” 

Today, Saini writes for an array of publications, including New Scientist, The Guardian, Wired, Wallpaper, Vogue, Stylist, the Economist, and GQ. She also produces science programs on BBC Radio and does STEM outreach with young women. She once wrote a piece about the Girl Geek Dinners, organized by a group of women in tech who used to meet up regularly in London, and now she does many talks at schools and universities. Her first book was Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World, published in 2011. 

Saini came up with the idea of Inferior while researching a 2014 article on menopause for the Observer. Her investigation turned up two competing theories explaining the evolution of menopause: One is that “older women become infertile because men don’t find them attractive;” the other is the “grandmother hypothesis,” the idea that older women are vital to their families’ survival. Saini found that more men tended to back the first theory, while more women tended to back the second. “I found that interesting,” she said, “because of course we imagine science to be completely objective and unbiased. And if it is, then why would people be having such different theories along gender lines?” 

Inferior debunks many of bad science’s most sexist ideas, such as the theory that men became smarter than women because of the challenges of hunting. Scientists have in fact found that “child care may have been one major factor in driving up human intelligence.” In general, hunter-gatherer societies were far more egalitarian than previously thought, partly because many theories have been based on chimpanzees. Primatologist Amy Parish explained to Saini that “we built all our models of evolution based on a chimp model: patriarchal, hunting, meat eating, male bonding, male aggression toward females, infanticide, sexual coercion. Bonobos turn this all on its head.” Bonobo females—like other females in the animal kingdom, including elephants—dominate males. The female Bonobos do the hunting and hungry males offer them sex in exchange for food. Even though male Bonobos are larger, the females’ greater skills at cooperating gives them the upper hand. 

The 19th century psychologist William James (brother of Henry James) is reputed to have written, “Higgamous, Hoggamous, woman’s monogamous; Hoggamous, Higgamous, man is polygamous.” Saini also challenges this old idea, citing how animal behaviorists determined that females often mate with multiple males, possibly because those males will help support the offspring. She also points to societies which traditionally allow women sexual freedom, including the Himba, a farming people who live in Namibia. Saini recounts how Himba women asked a visiting anthropologist from UCLA why men weren’t coming to her hut. When the anthropologist told them she was married, they told her, “He’s not going to know; it’s okay.” While male researchers have twisted science to argue that men are promiscuous and women are choosy and chaste, “women had been compelled by men to behave more modestly” for thousands of years through female genital mutilation, isolating women in menstrual huts, and the ironing of girls’ breasts to keep them from looking like women as long as possible. 

Throughout Inferior and Superior, Saini shows that science is not some pure objective form of knowledge—it is influenced by human prejudices, and then used to make these biases seem natural and inevitable. When, in fact, they are the products of history and culture.

Saini now has a 6-year-old son and sees firsthand how these prejudices can be formed and fought. When her son was about 3, he informed her that “doctors are boys and nurses are girls.” This was especially surprising because his grandmother is a doctor and his pediatrician is a woman. She speculates that he got the idea from popular culture, “because he’d seen lots of male doctors on television and lots of female nurses.” Instead of just telling her son he was mistaken, Saini patiently engaged with him, asking him why he thought that way. She communicates with people who may have picked up sexist or racist ideas in the same fashion, trying to “gently kind of coax someone else out of that way of thinking, seek[ing] to persuade rather than hit them over the head and tell them how wrong they are.” 

The fact that Saini’s work is reaching an ever-wider audience is a testament to her skill at convincing people through deeply researched but accessible arguments. Her goal, she emphasized, is to help others “lift the mental barriers to equality—the straitjacket in our minds. I’ve needed to go through this process. Every single one of us needs to go through this process.” 

Fran Bigman is a journalist and cultural critic living in New York City (and sometimes London) who writes most often about books, art, and reproductive politics. She has a PhD in English from the University of Cambridge and an MA in journalism from NYU, and her work has appeared in New York Review Daily, the Washington Post, the Times Literary Supplement, Lit Hub, Words Without Borders, and Granta.com. You can find her on Twitter at @franbig.