We are at a unique moment in history. Two particular, ongoing events stand out. COVID-19 is one. The other is a long-overdue recognition of inequities among people in the US and worldwide, as exemplified by the Black Lives Matter movement. These issues provide a useful, timely lens through which to consider the role and value of African research.
There are many levels on which the future of the world, not just Africa’s, rests on African research. First, Africa represents the youngest and fastest growing population in the world. This makes intellectual investment an imperative, to harness talent that is a significant and growing share of the global population.
Second, Africans represent the oldest and most diverse genome in the world. Human genetics research has the potential to reveal some of the small differences in our genes that are influential in determining what makes Africa more susceptible or resistant to certain diseases. The findings can influence disease outcomes and response to treatment.
Such studies are critical not just to improve the health of Africans themselves, but also to shed light on diseases that affect people of African origin who reside all over the world.
Third, Africa carries about 25% of the global disease burden. This is rapidly shifting from communicable to noncommunicable causes. Of course, it’s good news that part of this equation reflects a decline in death and illness from AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and neglected tropical diseases.
But it is also a sad story of the rapid increase in incidence in the noncommunicable diseases that have for a long time dominated in the global North. Heart and other vascular diseases, cancer and diabetes in African countries are often driven by the same excesses that exist in societies that have been prosperous for longer: obesity, smoking, and lack of exercise. By investing in African science to address African diseases, we invest in the parallel prevention and treatment of the same diseases everywhere in the world.
Fourth, scientific research is a vital driver of economies. Currently, the African continent’s scientific output represents less than 2.6% of the world’s share, according to UNESCO. Without major investments in scientific research, particularly the kind of basic research that is often not considered cost-effective for private enterprises, African economies will be at a perpetual economic disadvantage.
All of this raises the question: is there world-class research in Africa? Yes, there is. Thanks to major investment in science infrastructure, human resource training and education, the continent is well placed to lead from the front.
We and our colleagues at the African Academy of Sciences created the Alliance in 2015 through a partnership with the African Union Development Agency, founding and funding global partners, and through a resolution of the summit of African Union Heads of Governments. The Academy’s research and training programs operate under the Alliance. Its mission is to shift the centre of gravity for African science to Africa through setting agendas, mobilizing research and development funding, and managing science programs.
The Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa has funded 186 grantees directly. Some of them in turn offer master’s, PhD and postdoctoral fellowships. This has led to a scientific community numbering over 2,000 scientists in about 40 countries.
All of this research can be applied in African countries and beyond. And more of it can be produced if the global scientific community, governments, funders and others come together to tackle the hurdles that African researchers still face.
These challenges include:
Inequities within and among populations and between genders. These result in much potential talent being lost to science in general.
Exploitation by commercial enterprises that regard the African continent as a source of large populations for clinical trials.
Funding. Until more African science is predominantly performed in Africa, by Africans, and for Africans, the full potential of this work will never be realized.
The nations of the African Union have all pledged to dedicate 1% of their respective GDPs to research and development but spend an average of 0.45%. These nations are grappling with many competing needs.
Basic research is almost never attractive to commercial funders, and African governments often do not have the resources to fill this void. Or they are not in office long enough.
Western funders tend to focus on health and medical research. This is worthy. But it leaves the physical, mathematical, and chemical sciences as underfunded orphans. Big innovations are built on the foundation of basic discovery. African scientists must enjoy the opportunity to contribute to that foundation alongside their peers in countries where public investment in basic science has been provided for decades.
This article is adapted from a longer piece in ACS Omega, available here.
So you’re intelligent. You’re a Christian. You love both of those aspects about yourself. It’s not enough for you to just get your praise on, you also get your study on.
You read the Bible, but you also read widely on many other subjects. You are in college and you don’t dread your courseload, except that one class. That one science class.
You imagine a professor opposed to anything that resembles religion or Christianity. You fear being embarrassed or ridiculed because of your faith. I’ve been there. Many of us who strive to represent our faith and use our minds for God’s glory have been there.
For me, it was Anthropology 101. For others, it was physics or astronomy. As science explores the natural world, it is inevitable that questions about who created this natural world come up. The good thing is that science and your faith can co-exist.
They are not polar opposites, and belief and love of one does not cancel out your belief in and love of the other.
In my pursuit of reconciling faith and science, I have concluded that they both have an authority, but their authority is relegated to two different spheres. Science asks, “What’s out there?” Faith asks, “Why are we here?”
Albert Einstein categorized these two questions as questions of fact and questions of value. Although in many ways these two things overlap and play off of each other, I do not believe they cancel each other out.
Science answers questions about what is observable and what we can quantify. In other words, it doesn’t seek to ask questions regarding the meaning of what we observe and quantify. Those things we believe in before we do any experiments or formulate our theories.
We already enter the science lab or classroom with a bias toward belief or non-belief in a Creator. We already have a religious tradition we hold to or don’t. The answers of science bring these issues to the surface, but they can never give the final answer on these issues.
What’s interesting is that the Christian faith helped aid the development of science. Galileo Galilei, who was sadly opposed by the medieval church, was a Christian and believed God had given us our mental faculties to explore the world.
He believed “the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has not intended us to forgo their use.” It was this belief that prompted Galileo to explore the universe and confirm that the planets revolve around the sun.
Ultimately, this discovery would lead to him placed under house arrest by church authorities. Galileo firmly believed in the two categories of facts and value, as he stated, “The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.”
Although not a Christian, Albert Einstein believed in a higher power. His whole goal in pursuing scientific work was to see the mystery behind nature and to “attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is.”
Einstein did not adhere to traditional religion, but had a particular disdain for atheists, considering them to be missing out on the wonder of the world and “the music of the spheres.”
Einstein could grasp science and the existence of something beyond our world. It is this mindset that motivated him to say “science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”
Then there’s the man that conquered the peanut and saved the whole South. A devout Christian man, George Washington Carver always found time to teach Sunday School to the students at Tuskegee University.
His fervent work into the peanut was fueled by his belief of the outdoors being a “great cathedral in which God could be continuously spoken to and heard from.” Carver’s time in the “great cathedral” yielded over 300 uses for the peanut and 100 uses for the sweet potato, as well as numerous synthetic products like the dye still used in Crayola crayons.
When faith and science clash
So what happens when scientific discoveries clash with your beliefs? Discoveries and theories in regards to evolution, cloning, and astronomy may seem to come into conflict with classical interpretations of the Bible.
Here’s what the great African theologian Augustine of Hippo had to say about it:
“If they [the infidel] find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learned from experience and the light of reason?”
Augustine here is saying that instead of continuing to promote ignorance in matters of science, we need to be careful with making dogmatic assertions on things the Bible is not concerned about. The Bible contains science, but it is not a science book.
The Bible’s main purpose is spelled out by Jesus in John 5:39: “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” (NLT).
The Bible is the history of God’s interaction with His people pointing to Jesus Christ. Its purpose is to lead you to Jesus and draw you closer to Him. It is not designed to give you a thorough explanation and summary of physics, biology, or astronomy. It is designed to give you one thing: knowledge and love for Jesus.
When faith and science clash, we have to begin questioning our interpretation—not our faith. When we fail to do this, it only serves to cause those who don’t believe to mock and ignore us.
For example: In Psalm 19, David talks about how the sun revolves around the earth. It rises from one end and completes its course at another end like a runner in a race. We know from science that it is actually the earth that revolves around the sun.
This is what got Galileo silenced and put on house arrest by the church. Instead of insisting that we need keep up the belief that the sun moves around the earth, maybe a different
interpretation is needed. David was not a scientist, but he was a poet or a psalmist. Psalm 19 is an example of Hebrew poetry, and we know poetry is never to be taken literally.
So what can we say about David’s assertion that the sun revolves around the earth?
That the psalm’s point is not to assert that the sun revolves around the earth. It was, instead, David’s way of being in awe of nature—something that scientists and Christians can both agree on.
Science and faith are not opposites. They are just different ways of pursuing different types of knowledge. One deals with facts and the other deals with the meaning of those facts.
They both are needed and can help in our pursuit of truth. So instead of dreading interacting with your professor or hanging out with your really smart friend, maybe you could engage them with humility and an openness to see where science and faith can connect instead of clash.
It just might open up a new understanding and love for God for the both of you.
The writer of “The Scientific Fundamentalist” blog for Psychology Today apparently thinks African American women are less physically attractive than women of other races, and he cited unscientific “attractiveness ratings” from a recent study to justify his bias.
In “Why Are African-American Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?,” published on May 15, evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa used scientific language and multiple graphs to back absurd statements, claiming that he can “compute the latent ‘physical attractiveness factor’” from his data. Psychology Today eventually removed the post and issued an apology, but not before it drew plenty of fire from around the Web. A copy of the article was reposted on Quora.
The brief apology statement posted about two weeks later, just this past Friday, said Psychology Today “does not tolerate racism or prejudice of any sort” and that it had not approved the post. Editor-in-Chief Kaja Perina wrote, “We deeply apologize for the pain and offense that this post caused. Psychology Today’s mission is to inform the public, not to provide a platform for inflammatory and offensive material. … We have taken measures to ensure that such an incident does not occur again.”
However, the apology stopped short of detailing what measures would be taken to prevent future racist articles from being published. It also failed to point out the post’s scientific flaws, let alone denounce them. Merely recognizing the post as offensive is not enough; Psychology Today also needs to call out Kanazawa’s faulty science.
As many have pointed out, Kanazawa’s statistics are deeply flawed. A Scientific American journalist and other writers for Psychology Today recently conducted independent statistical analyses of the Add Health data and debunked Kanazawa’s claims. Just the beginning of how his claims didn’t make sense: Kanazawa used data from an Add Health study about how adolescent behaviors affect their health—not a study about race and beauty. It’s common knowledge that the population of any study needs to be an unbiased sample, and the people doing the beauty judging were Add Health researchers. Since when are the researchers themselves an unbiased sample?
Having presented these flawed statistics in his post, Kanazawa mused about the cause of this supposed attractiveness difference, passing up the “race difference in intelligence” as a potential cause (he claimed beautiful people are more intelligent)—as if such a racial difference exists. He just as confidently concluded that the only possible explanation he could think of must be that African American women have higher levels of testosterone—with no data to back up that outrageous claim.
Now, the London School of Economics is conducting an internal investigation of Kanazawa’s comments and students are calling for his firing, The Guardian reported.
Perhaps the most disturbing part is that Kanazawa has gotten away with other absurd claims until now (past posts include titles like “Are All Women Essentially Prostitutes?”), under the façade of fighting political correctness in the name of science. Which makes you think: How easily fooled is our society? Are racist or sexist beliefs suddenly okay if some statistics are thrown out there to justify them? It’s all too easy to take statistics out of context to back up ridiculous claims and hide the truth. Take race and the academic achievement gap—does such a gap prove some racial minorities are inherently less intelligent? Or does it prove that our society has systematically oppressed those same minorities for generations?
If pseudoscience can be so recklessly used to justify racism, then what can we do as Christians to combat these social messages? Perhaps we need to remind others of the truths behind Scripture such as Galatians 3:26-29 and the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that all humans are inherently equal and our society can only heal after we acknowledge the damage of racial prejudice and injustice. In doing so, we must reject Eurocentric definitions of beauty and instead define ourselves each as Christ does: children of God worthy of love regardless of how our society might attempt to rank our value.
Celebrities go to great lengths to obtain the children of their dreams. Singer Céline Dion recently announced that she’s pregnant with her second child through in vitro fertilization. Madonna and Angelina Jolie can’t seem to visit Africa or Asia without leaving with a kid. Then there was Michael Jackson, whose children’s mysterious origins continue to be the topic of endless speculation.
Whether their intentions are noble or egotistical, the rich and famous like to cross the lines of race, gender, and biology to get the children they want. But what if they could actually design and create a baby exactly the way they wanted? It’s a scary thought, but one that may soon become a reality.