Gender & Science: What Counts as `Science'?

Feminist critiques of science do not end with trying to purge science of sex- or gender-biased results--that is, to identify "good-versus-bad" science. For some, the repeated failures of science to eliminate its own biases serves as an occasion to question "science-as-usual." That is, they pose questions about science itself as developed primarily by males/masculine personalities in the West since the Scientific Revolution. Here, the issue is ways of knowing conventionally associated with certain sexes--but only as we have dichotomized the sexes in our culture. The question is not whether men do science differently, but whether science has a `masculine' nature. It is the personality, not the person. The significant feature is gender, not sex.

Some feminist thinkers (male, as well as female) contend that in the past three centuries, we have led ourselves to an imbalanced or incomplete view of what counts as `knowledge'. If so, then we have excluded as peripheral or non-authoritative valuable knowledge. In this view, the whole fabric of science and its process, not merely its theoretical content, is androcentric. One may vividly re-express the question borrowing from the familiar dichotomy in the Taoist thought of the East: is our current science more Yang than Yin?

A comprehensive framework for an alternative science may not yet exist, but one may construct an image of how science might be otherwise by drawing on examples. Traditionally, for instance, we say objectivity relies on a clear distinction between observer and observed. Yet Jane Goodall, in her landmark work on primate behavior, in some cases interacted with the chimpanzees she studied. Likewise, to understand language development in primates, Penny Patterson taught a gorilla to use American Sign Language; her relationship with Koko was integral to the system she was studying. According to Evelyn Fox Keller, Nobel Prize-winner Barbara McClintock acquired her knowledge of genetics in maize by developing "a feeling for the organism." These examples challenge our notions about the male-gendered features of detachment, distance or neutrality as a basis for scientific understanding. Do we need to reassess the meaning of `objectivity' or its role in warranted knowledge?

A feminist might also ask us to consider how we typically associate science with general or universal laws, rather than with the understanding of particulars. Have we privileged such knowledge or given it higher status because it is male- (Yang-) gendered? In evolution, for example, we may apply general rules about natural selection, but we are typically interested in specific structures and their specific histories: how did the feather evolve? from what did it originate? what environment or function shaped its development? Here, though general laws may prevail, they are insufficient. Likewise, general laws about the weather do not tell us what specific weather we can expect tomorrow. Again, theory may guide us, but we rely equally on the details. Yet we tend to emphasize the power of general theories, not their incompleteness. In the classroom, do we stress the structure of the periodic table to the exclusion of familiarity with the elements themselves?

Similarly, do we emphasize abstract over concrete? In physics, why do we typically use depersonalized objects, such as metal balls or carts, to test ordinary phenomena? Why not examine motion on an inclined plane by rolling a soup can (complete with label!)--or examine freefall using a heavy physics textbook(!)?

Feminists also challenge the prevalent reductionist approach which seeks to understand things primarily in terms of their parts. A female-gendered approach, by contrast, would give equal emphasis to context or the larger system in which a thing operates. For example, we tend to reduce sex to chromosomes (see "Philosophy of Sex," page 10), suppressing the role of development in how the genetic information variably unfolds. We talk about genes, rather than the contexts in which genes are or are not expressed (say, for fetal hemoglobin). Likewise, we tend to characterize matter in terms of atoms. Yet the character of atoms is affected by neighboring atoms and by bonds. The chemistries of glass and ceramics are formidably complex just because we cannot predict the outcome based on the component parts. Yet we might learn quite a bit about copper, say, by analyzing the various contexts in which it produces different colors or changes the texture in a ceramic glaze. Lasers lase due to a similar dependence on the environment--in this case, of other stimulated atoms. A reduction-istic approach is limited, though we often regard it as part of a scientific posture.

On a larger scale, we frequently `reduce' human behavior to the physiology or chemistry of the brain; and we reduce chemistry to physics. Implicit in the process is a hierarchy among the sciences. Yet the very chemistry of biological energy transduction is affected by the organization of membranes on a cellular level; and the physical properties of fiberglass depend on the chemical arrangement of the polymer and matrix molecules, making fiberglass stronger than the sum of the two components measured separately. Feminists might challenge any hierarchy as exhibiting a male-gendered focus on levels of unequal importance or power. In science, the layering of biology-on-chemistry-on-physics may actually blind us from noticing interactions that do not follow the "proper" direction of causality from smaller to larger, part to whole. An alternative science would see more inter-actions. Indeed, the very concept of levels may be an artificial and inappropriate metaphor.

A feminine-gendered approach might even challenge our basic notions of causality. Our analogies or images of causes are mostly mechanical. We use models of billiard balls striking one another, as in a demonstration of the conservation of inertia, or of ping-pong-ball-like molecules striking one another, as in an ideal gas. The action of genes or hormones might be cast in the same mechanistic or impact model. Further, causes follow one another in linear series, like dominoes falling. With such images of causation, surrounding conditions seem less relevant. We are not encouraged to look for multiple simultaneous causes. In a state-system model, however, the values of all the variables in the system determine the state of the system at the next instant. We might imagine a chessboard, for example, where possible next moves are influenced by the status of all the interrelated pieces on the board at the same time. Thus the pH of a solution can be as important as the reaction itself; the medium of propagation as important as the wave; the ribosome and exon-excising enzymes as important as the mRNA. A richer approach to causality, suggested by a gender-oriented appraisal, includes contextual factors as equally significant and considers that many causal factors may act simultaneously.

Finally, a focus on gender might highlight the very nature of experimental design. We might question, for instance: invasive dissections; ecological studies which remove vegetation or organisms from a given area; or bombardment of matter with sub-atomic particles. All rely on manipulating--even destroying--nature, rather than observing it merely. Indeed, every interventive experiment in science may emerge from a male-gendered disposition to control. Do such practices exemplify the best science?, a feminist might ask. Do we fail to pursue more complex observations because we are too engaged in controlling our experimental set-ups? Perhaps (a feminist might suggest) we learn something different when we shift our emphasis from experimenting to more inventive or sophisticated observing.

These various critiques--of experiment, of linear and singular causality, of reductionism, of abstraction and generality, and of the subject-object distinction--cut to the very core of science as we conventionally portray it. Indeed, many women scientists (who otherwise consider themselves feminists) disagree with many of these notions or find them problematic. Science is not gendered, they say. Conversely, some male scientists are already sensitive to these issues. For them, if science is gendered, they have already learned their lesson. The feminist approach, here, clearly cuts across any differences between men and women. Rather, the focus on gender highlights a set of cultural biases in how we conceive and practice science as a way of knowing. The value of the perspective is that it makes us more aware of these biases, especially where they lay unnoticed, and it begins to clarify the alternatives.

What might a non-male-gendered, more "Yin" science ultimately look like? Ruth Ginzberg (1989) and others (see also Dalmiya and Alcoff, 1993) have suggested that midwifery may be paradigmatic of the alternative. It is non-experimental. All knowledge is accumulated through experience. Stories and narratives of examples substitute for principles, derivations and law-like expressions. The knowledge is largely practical or skill-oriented, not embodied in symbolic theories. It is sensitive to particular cases. The interaction of the midwife and the patient is also personal, and emotion is never been far from the intellect. A midwife attends holistically to a large number of variables acting simultaneously. Yet the knowledge of midwives can be extraordinarily sophisticated: they knew in the 16th century how to turn babies in the womb to prevent a breech in presentation. Many of their herbal remedies, developed without formal pharma-cological "science," are used today in obstetrics. Though many midwives have been illiterate--in the sense that they could not read or write--they were often more knowledgeable than their physician counterparts. Is midwifery a proper, but neglected science of pregnancy and childbirth?

It is hard at first to envision how physics, as we now view it, might follow the model of midwifery. How physics--or analytical chemistry or molecular genetics--might be transformed by shifting from its currently gendered context surely stretches the imagination. Even feminist philosophers cannot yet complete the task. We are still exploring the implications of the feminist view. Yet the challenge certainly invites us to explore it more fully.


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