Feminist Critiques of Science

Feminist Critiques of Science

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It is no great secret that all through history, and in practically all cultures, men have been dominating women. In a good many contexts they have also been oppressing women in overt and in subtle ways. As in all contexts where one group oppresses another, for many long centuries it did not even occur to the oppressors that they were engaged in unconscionable behavior, and in most instances, the victims learned to live with their unfortunate status, often imagining that that was how it was meant to be. Periodically, the downtrodden have risen in rebellion, sometimes succeeded in freeing themselves from the shackles. It was only in the twentieth century that it began to dawn in the collective consciousness of humankind that there is something morally wrong in one group looking down upon, mistreating, or exploiting another.

One of the positive elements of postmodernism is this awakening, and its relevance in the context of women in science. There are at least three aspects to the issue of women in science. First, there is the obvious fact that there have been very few famous names of women in the history of classical science and mathematics. It is sadly remarkable that this has been the case in practically all civilizations. The second relates to correcting this situation. And in order to do this we need to find the causes for the disparity in numbers. In other words, the third aspect has to deal with an explanation of why this came to be so.

The first is simply a fact of history. There is very little we can do alter what has transpired. Perhaps men can collectively apologize to women, and promise not to continue the practice in the future. So let us turn to the second aspect: namely, correction. This has been attempted by the adoption of several strategies most of which try to recruit more women to scientific fields. These efforts have been reasonably successful in that the numbers of women in science courses and programs have risen sharply over the past decades in many countries, though the number of professional women scientists has not yet grown in significantly impressive proportions.

A main reason for the paucity in numbers of women scientists in the past was that women were allowed only a basic level of education up until the end of the nineteenth century. True, a few women managed to go beyond and even distinguished themselves in some fields. But even then, serious impediments were placed on their way, and institutions like the French AcadÈmie des Sciences did not even allow women to become members of such prestigious bodies.

In this context, some scholarly spokeswomen have put forward theories that not many in the scientific establishment (which includes many  women) accept. Sandra Harding, a formidable pioneer among them, wrote an influential book (Whose Science, Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives, 1991)in which she developed the notion of what she calls feminist standpoint epistemology. In essence, it says that because women have had gender-specific experiences such as suffering and being oppressed, they are privy to truths which are beyond the grasp of men. Therefore their perspectives will enrich science, and make it achieve an objectivity that is beyond its scope without women’s participation in the scientific enterprise. She presents the thesis that there are two kinds of objectivity, weak and strong. Weak objectivity has as its goal an amoral, uninvolved, cold and unconnected knowledge.  In weak objectivity, all kinds of social interests and values are eliminated in scientific activity. But, she goes on to argue, “not all social values and interests have the same bad effects upon the results of research. Some have systematically generated less partial and distorted beliefs than others.” Strong objectivity, on the other hand, involves “anti-authoritarianism, anti-elitism, and anti-domination tendencies,” and has “increased the objectivity of science and will continue to do so.”

Two things may be said about this thesis which many scientists would regard as unacceptable, if not preposterous. However, it is more fair to say that Harding’s thesis, which, in her terminology, is a strong objective analysis, becomes relevant in some fields like psychology, cultural anthropology, history, and the like, where factors affecting the human condition come into play. But it is irrelevant, and has the potential for much confusion, in the physical sciences.

Harding also feels that the marginalized of the world, by which she means all of humanity save white males, should join hands and enter the white male dominated citadel of science in order to make it better. For her, “The paradigm models of objective science are those studies explicitly directed by morality and politically emancipatory interests – that is, by interests in eliminating sexist, racist, classicist (sic), and culturally coercive understandings of nature and social life.”

From the enlightenment point of view, the first part of the call is sound: One and all, irrespective of race and gender, must join the enterprise of science which is admittedly dominated by white males today. This can only make science even more fruitful than what it has been thus far. But the claim that the marginalized status of people would somehow reveal to them deeper insights or enable them to make greater discoveries, though it sounds like the Blessed are the meek line in the Sermon of the Mount, carries little weight in actuality. Arrogant white males could argue that without the participation of women and the marginalized, they have done quite well, thank you, and that while everyone is heartily welcome, no one group is particularly more essential for the progress of science than any other. Whether or not one makes contributions to science depends on factors like one’s commitment to the field, one’s hard work, one’s intelligence, and in some cases even one’s luck, and the like, and these are fairly independent of whether or not one has been oppressed or marginalized in society or history.

The fact of the matter is, notwithstanding such interesting theorizing, it is workers in the lab and in research centers – male and female, white and otherwise – who make real contributions to science. The scientific discoveries and contributions of prolific philosophers who write and lecture about what science is or ought to be, have generally been minimal, if not non-existent.

Susan Bordo, another feminist who has criticized scientific striving for objectivity, (The Cartesian Masculization of Throught, 1996) psychoanalyzed the Cartesian dichotomy of res extensa and res cogens as an effort to run away from the organic female so as to gain control. Some might exclaim that there are really no limits to postmodernist fantasizing.

It should be added that not all feminist scholars and women scientists embrace such views. Many of them distinguish legitimate political struggle for equality and fairness from scientific quest per se. After all, there have been outstanding women scientists even in the past when male dominance ruled the world, and today the number of women scientists and engineers (let alone in  other fields like law, politics, the military, etc.) is considerably higher than ever before. They realize that once there is a level playing field, science and the world would become a better place. To achieve this in the context of science, one needs determination on the part of women to fight for full equality and inspiration from other women, much more than whining and claiming special gender-based science capacities. Thus Cassandra Pinnick (Feminist Epistemology: Imlications for Philosophy of Science, 1994) rightly pointed out in her critique of Harding that “despite shortfalls, historical evidence apparently supports its (objectivity’s) epistemological worth.” Ellen Klein is another scholar who has challenged the extremist claims of Harding and others. In a an essay entitled “A Feminist Critique of Science (Feminism under fire, 1996) she perceptively says: “I am not sure if feminists who criticize science really would claim that if there is this psychological problem, that it is equally endemic to both men and women. If they say both, then feminism itself becomes one of many biases forced by one’s own psychological make-up. If they say women suffer less from this problem than men, they would have to support this claim….”

In a world dominated by the dualities of victors and victims , oppressors and  the oppressed, haves and have-nots, the strong and the weak, producers and consumers, creators and beneficiaries, the powerful and the powerless, there will never be a spirit of harmony, even in such a collective and purely intellectual enterprise as science.