In her essay “A Feminist Primer for Philosophers of Science,” philosopher Janet Kourany describes science’s ugly history with women. From perpetuating androcentric societal biases to neglecting women’s health needs, science, Kourany argues, has been instrumental in decelerating feminist social progress. Now, in a social rebirth of feminism, does science have an obligation to undo its harms by joining the feminist movement? To answer this question, I first explain how science has slowed the progress of women in the United States.
Then, I define the terms I use to evaluate Kourany’s two arguments in favor of science joining the feminist fight. As does Kourany in her essay, I then contemplate broader conceptions of science’s interplay with feminism by considering the alignment of scientific inquiry with a social and political cause, affirmative action for women in science, and the place of feminist viewpoints in science. Though I do not definitively conclude that science should never endorse feminism, I find the existing arguments for a science with feminine influence unconvincing.
First, Kourany contemplates science’s role in subordinating women by both validating androcentric biases and overlooking women’s health. Implicated as guilty of the former injustice, psychology is the first discipline to meet Kourany’s crosshairs as she laments its “central images,” viz. “women are inferior to men – intellectually, socially, sexually, and even morally. ” To manifest these tenets, Kourany cites a psychological report, authored by Doreen Kimura, which not only draws several distinctions between men and women (e. g. men have superior mathematical reasoning), but also endorses complacency and acceptance of these truths.
Kourany thus argues that as this example demonstrates of psychology, scientific disciplines that probe their proverbial magnifying glass between demographics will invariably enshrine the more dominant demographic as, in some way, superior. With respect to the latter of the two aforementioned misdeeds, neglecting women’s needs, medical science is likely the worst offender. Until 1993, when Congress legislated the “inclusion of women and minorities in U. S. medical research,” women were dramatically underrepresented in studying treatments of heart disease, AIDS, and breast-cancer, three illnesses of particular concern to women.
Unfortunately, the repercussions of the medical sciences’ androcentric practices persist, for particular types and dosages of drugs designed for men have invoked and continue to invoke dangerous and potentially fatal responses in women. With the concerns of science perpetuating female inferiority and neglecting women’s fundamental needs in mind, Kourany offers two reasons why science should now serve, in part, to support the women’s movement. However, before I evaluate these two arguments, I must first explain my conceptions of objectivity and bias.
These terms are central to my analysis, and without them, my standard for objective science would be arbitrary. First, objectivity is the freedom from preconceptions. In humans, pure objectivity is nearly unattainable, though it is nonetheless a worthwhile pursuit. How, then, do we pursue objectivity? I argue that we approach objectivity through the interplay of biases, which are predispositions engendered by experiences, worldviews, and backgrounds. To demonstrate how objectivity can arise from bias, envision a jury adjudicating a sexual harassment case.
If it were composed entirely of women, who, by statistics and logical extrapolation, harbor a more personal, emotional understanding of sexual harassment, then the jury may have a bias against the defendant and/or impose excessively harsh sanctions. Oppositely, a body of men, with a likely more detached conception of sexual harassment, may view the perpetrator as harmless, perhaps even falsely accused, and propose an extremely light or nonexistent punishment for the guilty aggressor. The most just punishment in this sexual harassment problem, as is often the case, likely lies in the middle of these two extremes.
Thus, I argue that the same balance that would be desirable in this jury is conducive to objectivity in science; science needs competing yet coexisting and coequal biases in order to approach objectivity. Given this framework, I shall now address Kourany’s arguments directly. Kourany’s first reason for science actively siding with women in their struggle for equality is that science is indebted to women; it must rectify the harms of the past with changes in the present. First, as a general complaint, I fear the implication that science will “take a stance” on a politically and socially charged subject.
If science takes sides, it may become no better than a field of FOX News or MSNBC pundits, who actively dismiss arguments, however logical, from those whose views do not comport with their own and exclusively voice, with any sort of respect, the arguments of those with whom they agree. How woeful the day would be when parents tell their children, “do not listen to science; it only gives you one side of the story. ” Indeed, if science loses its credibility, a credibility which is embedded in its social neutrality, then science loses its potency.
Specific to this particular indebtedness reasoning, however, I would ask Kourany to clarify the harms that she aspires to ameliorate with science’s support of female interests. If Kourany means to address the aforementioned medical harms to women, then the remedy should naturally be medical: actively include women in clinical studies, accelerate medical inquiry into heart disease, AIDS, and breast cancer, etc. Likewise, if Kourany refers to the stigmatic harms perpetuated by psychology and other social sciences, then psychology should devote its resources directly to undoing those stigmas.
These reparations should be tailored narrowly to fix the purported harms, but trying to remove the medical or stigmatic harms to women by joining them in their struggle for equality is like hitting a kid with a car and then driving him to the nearest dentist’s office rather than the nearest hospital. While the dentist’s office may certainly offer some medical care, the best treatment for our poor kid would be at a hospital. Thus, science can still undo its injuries to women without necessarily endorsing feminism.
In a separate argument enjoining the same conclusion, Kourany proposes that because women, as members of society, fund science, it should reciprocate by joining in the feminist fight for equality. I wholly agree with publicly funded science’s need to consider the society for which it works when considering its priorities, but I take issue with Kourany’s conception of the word “society. ” Society is singular and whole. To argue that science should be responsive to society is fair, but to argue that science should be responsive to one demographic within the greater society is unjustifiable.
Furthermore, if we accept Kourany’s argument that science should be particularly responsive to the people who “ultimately [pay] for science,” should science, then, ignore or be less responsive to the people who pay less? Should science focus primarily on ailments that consistently affect Caucasians? Should science ignore the disconcerting prevalence of diabetes among less wealthy demographics because these communities contribute less to science’s monetary base? I, and I imagine most Americans, would oppose these suggestions in favor of a science uniformly responsive to the needs of the entire society.
For these reasons, I find Kourany’s argument unmoving. Attempting to engender a debate, Kourany asks if scientists should pursue gynocentric (female-centered) research and deprioritize non-gynocentric research. I reject this proposal for several reasons. First, overt favoritism of gynocentric inquiry would stifle the desirable diversity of bias for scientific objectivity. To clarify, I do not object to gynocentric scientists, but I do object to the general prioritization of gynocentric scientists over non-gynocentric scientists.
In my view, they are equal. Second, whereas scientific pursuit promises no conclusions and begins only with questions, this proposition asks science to anticipate conclusions before the process of inquiry even begins. The strange idea of solely encouraging science that will produce socially favorable results rejects science’s method of asking questions and impartially working toward answers. Similarly, Kourany asks if society should implement affirmative action policies for women in science so as to bend science toward feminism without hijacking it.
However, would affirmative action, even in the scientific fields that Kourany indicts as sorely reprehensible, be productive? A 2011 New York Times article reports that 58% of bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees in biology are awarded to women. Likewise, in 2005, an astounding 72% of PhDs in psychology were awarded to women. Thus, affirmative action for women in science, perhaps palatable in theory, is not a pragmatic way to achieve our desired diversity in scientific fields, for that diversity already exists.
A complement to the affirmative action proposal is that scientists should be exposed to feminist viewpoints. In theory, I do not reject this notion. Yet again, however, I envisage this “exposure” policy as practically unproductive. First, the diversity that I claim is essential for objectivity is composed of deeply entrenched views, views established and solidified by life experiences that forever change the way individuals think about particular issues (like sexual harassment).
These viewpoints are not sufficiently inculcated in a Feminism 101 class, so I doubt that mere exposure to feminist viewpoints would stimulate our desired objectivity. Thus, while affirmative action for women and greater exposure to feminist viewpoints would not necessarily compromise scientific objectivity, they would do little to enhance objectivity and are thus nonessential. Reprehensibly, science has harmed women. While I do not claim to have any superior understanding of human impulses, I hypothesize that our desire for justice would demand that science takes measures to undo the harm it has done.
I join in this opinion, but I do not ask science to do its reconciliation in reckless ways, ways that would undermine the fundamental principles of scientific inquiry, render scientific conclusions unreliable, and produce no favorable results, and I would certainly never ask that science’s reparations be paid to a problem it did not create. Put succinctly, I am supremely hesitant of using science as a means to an end, unless that end is truth.