GRAD 219 Course – The Black Experience in American Medicine – Week 2

This is a guest post by Eliza Gaylord, Ph.D. Candidate, UCSF Developmental and Stem Cell Biology (DSCB) Program

What you publish in science is soaked in opinion – regardless of the objectivity it tries to maintain. What you publish in science is accessible forever – regardless of the truth it holds. And if science is opinion, and science is accessible forever, then by definition of the mathematical transitive property of equality, opinion-based published literature perpetuates throughout the years and is treated as fact simply due to its accessibility to read and cite. However, just because something was published does not mean it is sound or accurate. What are the consequences when this undying nature intrinsic to publication is mixed with ‘bad’ science, written to immortalize the author’s opinion instead of biological truth? One familiar example is Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s work published over two decades ago where he wrongfully claimed that the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella vaccine caused autism in children. Despite the retraction of his paper, multiple lawsuits, and the uncovering of conflicts of interest that inspired his original piece, thousands of individuals across the world still believe in his work over twenty years later and put their children at risk by refusing to vaccinate them out of the false fear of developing autism.

Though the harmful consequences from this specific example have only persisted 20 some years, another harrowing example of fabricated and harmful science has persisted for over a century: the collection of work centered on identifying physical racial differences. These studies relied upon the torture and robbery of Black people’s bodies and highlighted false ideologies of biological differences between the races to justify slavery and perpetuate racism. And doctors still reference and support these false beliefs to this day, many ignorant to the racist history that gave rise to the findings. These works are dangerous to the Black community, as they ensure implicit bias, inferior medical treatment, and structural racism will persist in the American health care system. Like the Wakefield study, a first step toward improving the Black experience in American medicine demands the identification and retraction of these false and dangerous studies. But beyond the retraction of these works, medical education programs must incorporate coursework to actively discuss and condemn these racist ideologies and the fabricated works that support them. 

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