“Is science gendered, racialized, ableist or classist?”
Princeton University is offering a spring course titled “Science After Feminism,” which purports to expose the racial and gender biases inherent in Western science’s search for truth.
The very notion of “objectivity,” according to the course’s description, is the construct of oppressive systems of thought and can never be free of the hegemonic mindset of the white men who had systematized its pursuit.
Though the complete syllabus is not yet available, the description does spell out the course’s line of inquiry:
We shall engage a number of key questions such as: is science gendered, racialized, ableist or classist? Does the presence or absence of women (and [other] marginalized individuals) lead to the production of different kinds of scientific knowledge?
Taken along with the two sources cited in the sample reading list (Heather E. Douglas’ ”Science, Policy and the Value Free Ideal,” and EF Keller’s ”Feminism and Science”), the blurb clearly hints that the course, which will be presented by Gender Studies postdoctoral research associate Catherine Taylor, is following a rich postmodern tradition.
(Credit to Jerry Coyne’s blog “Why Evolution is True” for spotting this course on the Princeton University Course website.)
Was science historically influenced by racism and sexism? Of course. The “Scientific Revolution” of the 16th century by white, Christian European men was ignited by the onslaught of colonialism. And, yes, many of the more perniciously antiquated beliefs of the time (about the difference between races or sexes, for instance) have too often crept into and deformed the work of scientists.
But the question Taylor’s course seems to be asking is not whether science can be biased by bad ideas, but whether it is intrinsically, irredeemably biased, and whether there can be “different kinds” (not to say, “alternative”) scientific facts.
At the heart of postmodernism is a compelling ― or at least provocative ― contention: that all knowledge is fallible. Because language is our primary tool for interacting with the world, it also sets boundaries to our capacity for objectivity, argue the critical theorists of the past seven decades. Language is a filter (Michel Foucault, the forefather of postmodernism, called it a “grill”) through which we process the world, and which is largely determined by our cultural upbringing.
And here’s the punchline: Every culture ―and therefore, every language (or, more accurately, “discourse”) ― is shaped by hierarchy, by the desire of dominant groups to maintain their social edge.
Following these axioms, the conclusion that the sciences ― and objectivity ― are suspect is almost inescapable. And with this conclusion comes a corollary: Maybe universities should explore intersectional science in order to break objectivity’s monopoly on truth? (A point argued most forcefully by philosopher Sarah Harding.)
Maybe we’ve been studying physics all wrong? Maybe feminism and critical race theory have the key to mysteries on the quantum level? A 2017 paper in The Minnesota Review (a Duke University publication) argued just that. “Combining intersectionality and quantum physics can provide for differing perspectives on organizing practices long used by marginalized people, for enabling apparatuses that allow for new possibilities of safer spaces, and for practices of accountability,” it proposed.
The superposition of electrons apparently mirrors the ambiguous nature of identity ― and vice verse.
And have you considered the study of “chemistry from a gender perspective?” What about introducing “feminist ecology” to the study of glaciers in order to promote more equitable ”human-ice interactions?”
This critical take on the hard sciences (no masculinity intended) as offered by Taylor ― whose doctoral dissertation was “A Foucauldian Analysis of the Science, Ethics and Politics of the Medical Production of Cisgendered Lives” ― has been around for a while, but seems to be gaining a new wind at a time of heightened identity politics. To some, the inter-faculty creep of unsystematic and ideologically-driven ideas from the humanities to the sciences is a challenge to the empiric method itself.
Marcel Kuntz, a research director in the French National Institute of Scientific Research, wrote in 2012 that letting postmodernism have its way within the scientific community could “[slow] down or [prevent] much needed scientific research.” Though parts of critical theory may be intellectually challenging and even motivated by lofty goals, Kuntz argued that their underlying aim of shattering the hierarchy of truth can be deleterious to progress.
“This form of postmodernist assault on science has been difficult to grasp for many scientists, because it comes disguised in the clothes of democracy, freedom of speech and tolerance of opinion,” wrote Kunts. “However… scientists will never be able to win in postmodern courtroom-style debates: all ‘social constructs’ of science are equal, but some are more equal than others.”