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Welcome to Gender and Science!

Anne Dalke's picture

Welcome to a new form, of a new forum, for a new course.


Liz McCormack and I are both very much looking forward to seeing what we can discover, this semester, about the intersecting matters of gender and science. One form that exploration will take is our informal conversation in this public space: a space to put your questions, and throw out ideas that others might find useful, and to find useful ideas and questions from others. We'll post a topic or question each week for you to respond to, but you're free to write about anything that occurs to you, as often as you like, and to respond to other people's responses as well.


Our first topic was ignited two years ago, with Larry Summers' provocative comments, and has continued in many other forums, like the recent Pinker and Spelke debate on "The Science of Gender and Science": How do the sex differences between men and women relate to the careers of women in science? What has been your experience in this regard? In what way do you find the evidence used by Pinker and Spelke--or any of the other writers we're reading now--useful? Might the question be asked differently from the way they frame it?

Flora's picture

Truth cannot be sexist?

"But it is crucial to distinguish the moral proposition that people should not be discriminated against on account of their sex--which I take to be the core of feminism-- and the empirical claim that males and females are biologically indistinguishable...Anyone who takes an honest interest in science has to be prepared for the facts on a given issue to come out either way...The truth cannot be sexist." -Pinker

Two parts of this statement made me ill at ease. First, his assertion that anyone who was not "prepared for the facts" did not take "an honest interest in science" felt insulting. As a feminist, I approach any scientific study of sex differences with a bit of skepticism because the academy's track record in that arena is not so hot. Pinker even mentioned one such black mark: Dr. John Money at Hopkins whose legacy of gender reassignment surgery of intersexual infants lives on to this day. I would argue that it is morally irresponsible to unconditionally accept any kind of "truth," especially in an area as socially charged as this. The second, his insistence on the separation between scientific "truth" and its effects on society is a theme I have encountered frequently in science. I find the separation of the two very problematic. It is evident, as seen in Summers' fumbling interpretations, that scientific findings will be used to define policy. In Summers case, it could cause the president of Harvard to suggest that it's not his institution's fault that it does not have more female candidates: it's human biology's. I understand Spelke when she says that scientists' "modest" contribution to society is to "find things out" and not to decide how to "use that information."


But the very act of finding things out can itself be a political act. Choosing what questions to ask in science and what is important enough to be funded are social, political as well as scientific decisions. Even defining what excelling in science means has social ramifications. Some writers did seem to "get" this. And I was impressed and interested in both Dr. Bug and Dr. Keller's thoughts on redefining what it means to do science, especially their assertion that changing an approach to science does not mean changing the academy into a land of Summers' "marginal hires."


In short, I was disappointed in the extreme single-mindedness found in some viewpoints, even if Pinker claims it is a necessary part of a genious' personality (whatever that means). I was also confused by Donadio's mentioning of Douthat's condenscending view of Harvard as "a well-trained meritocratic elite" in pursuit of power and achievement. I'm not sure that the debate around change in the academy greatly informs the issue of women in science and math. The collection of articles did leave a bad taste in my mouth. I kept feeling, as I did at a physics conference years ago, that I, as a woman, was being viewed as a statistical anomaly, the tail of a bell curve that was not expected to fit in.



Liz McCormack's picture


Welcome to our new course on Gender and Science.

We are launching the course with the familar, but newly sparked, debate that concerns the under-representation of women in the scientifc enterprise. What is the role of the nature of the scientific subjects, the nature of the practitioners, and most importantly, the nature of the enterprise itself, in shaping a scientific practice and community? What do feminist scholars have to say? What do some of the best observers of our society, (artists, film makers, novelists), have to say? And what do you have to say?

We are very much looking forward to the upcoming weeks of discussion.   Please see Professor Dalke's posting for specifics on our first set of readings.