Leave science to the scientists, AMIRITE? If medicine is a place where medical doctors do medicine, art is a place where artists do art, and music is a place where musicians make music, then science should be a place where scientists do science. It seems clear enough. Indeed, a major goal of the recent Science March on Washington was to protest political interference in science. And there is a long history of political interference in science that would be astonishingly egregious if we didn’t currently inhabit a political world that is continually redefining astonishingly egregious. For example, politicians have called for the revocation of scientifically-reviewed grants or cast doubt on solid scientific consensus; agency officials have advised scientists to remove certain words from research proposals (hello reproductive tract! goodbye vagina!); AIDS activists pushed scientists to stop neglecting HIV/AIDS; nonprofits provide money specifically for common diseases in the global south that otherwise go unstudied, etc.
Oh. Wait. Those last two aren’t exactly egregious, much less astonishingly so. They’re kind of great, actually, right? They show how “outsiders” have sometimes been crucial to changing science for the better, illuminating scientific malfeasance, and highlighting how science-as-usual can support problematic status quo’s (quos? quose? quoes?) (this was not tested on my Ph.D. quiz). Science for the Scientists! ends up being rather simplistic as a result, both empirically inaccurate and naive. Instead of restricting contributions to science to scientists and keeping out the brute hoards, which is an issue of who is allowed to be involved (plus an issue of me using hordes, which I feel mixed about), we could think about when or under what circumstances nonscientists/experts can be meaningfully involved, and how to adjudicate that.
How to decide when someone’s involvement in science (or other scholarship) is a contribution and not an interference? It seems hard but, luckily, scholars and experts have thought about when outsiders’ contributions should be seen as contributions, not interference. What have these experts said? One article I like to teach in my Sexuality and Science course is by Steven Epstein: “The New Attack on Sexuality Research: Morality and the Politics of Knowledge Production” (click here for the article). It gives some ideas about how to judge when non-scientists should get a say in science, and these can be extended to other disciplines or areas of expertise too. Based on Epstein’s piece and much else I’ve read in feminist science studies, I decided we needed a list in bullet form because lists!
It’s a contribution, not an interference, when…
1. People are educating themselves and learning the science they are critiquing and/or seeking to intervene in;
2. People’s involvement will lead to more effective, efficacious, accountable, and/or better science;
3. People provide engagements and/or critiques that are knowledgeable and relevant;
4. People provide careful assessments;
5. People have sincere concerns regarding scientific validity, reliability, and/or efficacy;
6. People have local knowledge and/or lay expertise that is unique and/or valuable (this is also known as epistemic privilege and so now you know a fancy word. Was I right about lists needing an exclamation mark or what?!);
7. People who are invested in process (by which I mean ongoing engagements and not a one-time soapbox shout-off) (which is not to knock one-time soapbox shout-offs in general because I would never offend soap);
8. People do not misrepresent the science;
9. The involvement is not based on opportunistic endorsement of predetermined political stances (note: this is NOT anti-political stance! It IS anti-political opportunism).
The January 21, 2017 Women’s March on Washington, DC was quite the eye-opener. I am not a naïve marcher, since my first such trek to Washington dates back some 60 years to the 10,000 strong 1958 Youth March on Washington for Integrated Schools. So I fully expected to see signs and slogans pledging solidarity with immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and women. I did not anticipate that the first signs I would see would be about science.
Given this existential moment, when the very idea that there are facts and true things is under assault, perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me. But still. As the geek at the party, inured to people announcing–right after being told that I am a biologist–that in high school they hated biology, I was fascinated. Participants in the March on Washington made it clear that the meaning of science itself is woven into our current political conflicts, and a group of scientists responded by announcing a March for Science, to be held on Earth Day– April 22, 2017. The organizers–an archeologist, a health educator, and a physiologist [Editor’s note: Can you believe I had to add in an Oxford comma here? That is the real scandal.]-–are not international science stars but rather educators and scholars who work “in the trenches”, and this is one interesting component of the march.
Indeed almost immediately the hashtags #ThisIsWhataScientistLooksLike and #ActualLivingScientist appeared on twitter and then on the March for Science Facebook page. Soon hundreds of moving portraits of working scientists materialized—some by the scientists themselves, some by children honoring their parents, some focusing on the human story, and many joyfully zeroing in on caterpillars, cheetahs, glaciers, molecules, and atoms. The resulting picture displays diversity in the scientific workforce–white, person of color, old, young, male, female, field biologist, theoretical physicist, from many different nationalities and in the many things we study. Putting human faces on science produces an inspiring montage. And what we investigate perfuses all aspects of human life and the natural world.
But humans, even—or perhaps especially–-scientists, are a quarrelsome species [editor’s note: I disagree!]. So when the organizers announced the goals and basic principles intended to guide and unify the March, a crack or two appeared in the growing wall of science. The organizers hope to unite marchers around a set of basic principles: science serves the common good, cutting edge science education is crucial to democracy, public outreach should be inclusive, and we should use science to make evidence-based policy and regulations that are in the public interest. The April 22nd March itself has five more focused goals:
To humanize science;
To partner with non-scientists;
To advocate for open, inclusive and accessible science;
To support scientists;
(and, perhaps most important of all) To affirm science as a democratic value.
These seem non-controversial to me [Editor’s note: Me too! But then, again, we are feminist scientists…], although there certainly are those who think that science is and ought to be an elite activity. But when organizers articulated specific Diversity Principles, supporting inclusion, diversity and equality in science and stating that citizens are best served when we build and sustain an inclusive scientific community, it was
not the alt-right or climate deniers, but some very prominent scientists who objected. At the end of January 2017, psychologist Steven Pinker set scientists snarling at each other by tweeting: “Scientists’ March on Washington plan compromises its goals with anti-science PC/identity politics/hard-left rhetoric”. Nor is Pinker the only one to paint with the tar of anti-science, scientists who emphasize diversity and who think that scientists should use their talents to lessen inequality. Two recent publications, the first from evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and the second from a less well-known neuroscientist/science journalist Debra Soh strike a similar chord.
Coyne holds court on his blog “Why Evolution is True”, where, at the end of 2016, he posted a piece entitled “The Ideological Opposition to Biological Truth.” In it he did not attack creationism, ridicule Northern Kentucky’s extraordinary “Creation Museum”, or launch a jeremiad against climate deniers. Instead, like Pinker, he excoriated “the ideological left” for ignoring biological data that they supposedly believe conflicts with their leftist political preferences. Coyne offers two examples—the conflict about whether the human race is/is not a “real” biological entity, and conflicts over the evolution of “innate (e.g. genetically based) behavioral or psychological differences between human males and females.” To press his point on gender, Coyne starts with a generally accepted fact: in most (but not all!) primate groups males are physically larger than females. He provides evidence that this size difference derives from inter-male competition for females and that larger size provides a competitive advantage. As Coyne sees it, only ideologues or enemies of science (mostly misguided feminists) could possibly disagree with him.
His essay provoked a counter-attacking tweetstorm from Holly Dunsworth, an anthropologist at the University of Rhode Island. Coyne’s account of the evolution of size dimorphism, she writes, is simplistic and biased toward explanations which feature males while ignoring females. [Editor’s note: In case you’re new, this would be far from the first case of evolutionary scientists – or any scholars, really – ignoring females/women/femininity; there is literally a book by renowned evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy called “The Woman Who Never Evolved.”] Suppose, though, as a result of natural selection, that gestation, which is metabolically demanding, is more successful in smaller bodies. Pregnancy might limit growth. Indeed, it is possible that selection on women for small body size is an important force driving known sex differences in size. “Knowledgeable people,” writes Dunsworth “aren’t objecting to facts”…but to “biased story-telling” of the sort found in Coyne’s post. Dunsworth’s standpoint as a woman and a feminist leads led her to notice women and to think about how they form part of the evolutionary story. And this leads us back to the March for Science’s Diversity Principles. It is not just about being fair to previously underprivileged members of our society. It is that, unless we have scientists bringing diverse standpoints to the table of knowledge formation, the resulting science will be incomplete at best, and altogether wrong at worst.
In a recent op ed in the LA Times, Debra Soh similarly lit into a non-existent group she labeled “gender feminists.” [Editor’s note: When I heard this term, I laughed and laughed and laughed. It’s like the fake news of made-up labels.] The headline and lede give the message. Whoever these gender feminists are (and like Coyne she doesn’t name nor directly cite the scholarly work of the anti-science nemesis), they refuse to acknowledge the role of evolution in shaping the human brain. (The term “gender feminist” was invented by Christina Hoff Sommers in 1994 in her book Who Stole Feminism, which attacks “feminists who believe that “our society is best described as a patriarchy, a ‘male hegemony,’ a ‘sex/gender system’ in which the dominant gender works to keep women cowering and submissive”, as “gender feminism” [taken from Wikipedia].
This seemed to me to be such an outrageous accusation that I consulted a group of evolutionary psychologists who are inclined to validate Soh’s claims to see if they could name these anti-evolution feminist scientists. The best a listserv of over 100 active respondents could do in an extended interchange was identify one feminist psychologist who, in some of her writing, writes some sentences that with malice could be interpreted as supporting Soh’s account. [Editor’s note: Some scientists hate when you ask for evidence for their anti-feminist claims, because: irony.]
Such attacks present us with a conundrum. One side of an intra-science debate has charged the other with refusing to accept facts and data and thus with being anti-science and political. When launched at someone whose life’s work has been dedicated to the advancement of scientific knowledge and love of rational thought, these are truly fighting words. But even while squabbling with each other, both sides are horrified at creationism, anti-vaxers, climate deniers, and tobacco, oil and gas companies which claim (using paid scientists!) that their products and activities are harmless. How do we identify and counter the real science deniers while at the same time accepting that political differences also and often legitimately shape the conclusions of scientists who are passionately committed to producing reliable results using the tools of objective investigation?
One reason this is such a complex task is that science is porous. It is not always easy to tell when we have crossed some line between legitimate scientific critique and science denial. Obviously, as compellingly laid out in Naomi Oreskes’ Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Bloomsbury Press, 2010), the economic interests of large actors such as tobacco and pharmacy influence knowledge production as they seek to control public policies that might curtail the sale of their products. Sometimes, too, a special interest lobby successfully enforces ignorance about a topic. When this happens, it is not that results are doctored but that we refuse to obtain data needed to make sound policy. Science critic Robert Proctor coined the term “agnotology” to denote the study of culturally-induced ignorance. [Editor’s note: In the feminist science studies literature, this same approach is largely called “epistemologies of ignorance” and you could check out our post on it here.] Indeed, we are in a moment of agnosis so serious that scholars have set up guerrilla teams to save data that are rapidly being purged from US government science websites.
But even while science is molded from without, the attitudes and cultural perspectives of individual researchers also shape scientific inquiry. The social standpoint that you enter the lab with frames what questions you pose, how you pose them, the level of evidence you require before accepting a result, and how you interpret your findings. This is why, in order to have productive debates about many types of research, scientists themselves must learn how to acknowledge their differing standpoints.
Starting in the late 1970s and thinking and writing furiously especially in the 1980s and 1990s, feminist science studies scholars grappled mightily with the concept of scientific objectivity. If science was completely objective, the diversity of the scientific workforce shouldn’t matter. But (all male, all white) communities of scientists always found that women or people of color were biologically inferior while women and scientists of color refuted such claims. [Editor’s note: if I could do that fancy typed out ironic shrug emoticon sort of thing, I would! But it looks hard.] In an infamous example I cite in Myths of Gender (Basic Books: 1985), Darwin and others described as fact that women were more biologically variable and hence more unreliable and less suited for the public sphere than men. But in the early 20th Century, the (still) all white male science cabinet found that men were biologically more variable, and declared variability a virtue that, while it produced more men of inferior ability, it also meant that the extreme high-end geniuses were going to be men, not women. Many examples of this sort addressing women, people of color and the intertwining of race/sex theory can be found in older books such as Cynthia Eagle Russett’s Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood (Harvard: 1991) and newer ones such as Melissa Stein’s Measuring Manhood: Race and the Science of Masculinity 1830-1934 (University of Minnesota Press: 2015).
Biologists Ruth Bleier (Science and Gender: A Critique of Biology and Its Theories on Women, 1984), Ethel Tobach (Challenging racism & sexism: Alternatives to genetic explanations, Genes & Gender VII. The Feminist Press: 1994), and Ruth Hubbard (The Politics of Women’s Biology, 1990) led the way with critiques of biological theories about women. They opened intellectual doors that the philosophers, especially Sandra Harding (The Science Question in Feminism, 1984), Helen Longino (Science as Social Knowledge, 1990), and Elizabeth Potter (Gender and Boyle’s Law of Gases, 2001) stepped through. By the time (1988) that Donna Haraway wrote her still widely-read essay “Situated Knowledges: the Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” a review engaging with Sandra Harding’s 1984 book, science studies scholars (see also Daston and Galison’s Objectivity: 2007) were heatedly debating the meaning of objectivity and attacking the idea that science dis-covers objective facts that lie passively awaiting revelation. Exploding the idea of objectivity gave way, in turn, to debates about strong and weak objectivity, standpoint, and situated knowledge.
It is the idea that objectivity is always partial, shaped by the collective standpoints of theorizing and investigating scientists, which feminist evolutionary biologists such as Dunsworth and primatologists such as Linda Fedigan (Primate Paradigms: Sex Roles and Social Bonds, University of Chicago Press: 1992) bring to debates about human evolution. At the heart of Coyne’s, Pinker’s, and Soh’s attacks on feminist resistance to their understandings of evolution and sex differences in the brain, and the resistance to seeing a March platform for inclusion and diversity as essential to the future of good science, is that they cling to an out-dated vision of the scientific process itself. Thus—figuratively speaking—Soh does not blush when she exhorts feminists and transgender activists to stand down and simply let science speak for itself. [Editor’s note: I’m curious how this would even work and I would like some answers! Because sometimes I yell at my data and IT DOES NOT EVEN RESPOND.] Nor does she acknowledge the many years of scholarship from Shapin and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life (Princeton: 1986), to Bruno Latour’s ground-breaking books all of which show that scientific facts emerge through a process of negotiation, theory and experiment and that their shape reflects the specific cultures and historical periods of their production. [Editor’s note: This is asking scientists critiquing feminist science studies to actually read feminist science studies or, put another way, collect evidence. How. Dare. You.]
Where, then, does this leave us? Even as scientists argue with each other about the nature of the enterprise which, quite apparently they deeply love—each in their own way–larger forces threaten empirical knowledge projects and decision making based on the best existing data and analysis. As I write on March 16, 2017, news is spreading about Donald Trump’s budget proposal. Agencies that fund scientific research—the NIH, NSF, EPA, NOAA, DOE, and more do not fare well. Proposed cuts would further the agnotology agenda by defunding research on climate change, rising sea levels, and the effects of pollution while interfering with beloved and productive basic research programs. On the inside, progressive scientists can legitimately struggle with their more cautious or conservative colleagues to push science towards the service of social justice, but at the same time progressive and conservative scientists need to unite to protect the enterprise as a whole.
Figuring out how to have substantive debates that engage different standpoints within the big science tent and without denouncing opponents as anti-science is not easy. Recently historian Alice Dreger tweeted “when the science march happens I plan to be with my fellow historians and sociologists of science in the ‘yes, but’ crowd.”: To which historian Ben Gross responded: “What do we want? Ans: Acceptance that science is a complex social process! When do we want it? Ans: After a well-researched historical discussion.” It is a tricky dance.
The March for Science is important. It demonstrates our numbers as well as our concern for the nation’s future. It provides a counter-message to the idea that scientists are haughty elites who do not care about the common welfare, and it creates a narrative, long forgotten, I am afraid, that science is essential to democracy and that part of our job description as scientists is education and explanation. Pinker is wrong. The political messages of the March for Science will strengthen our hand and create space for us to have our internal spats. And although it would be nice to disagree without calling each other mean names, perhaps that is too much to expect from #ActualLivingScientists.
Once, an undergraduate student told me she was experiencing depression, but that she had been concerned about telling me she was on anti-depressants. Why worry about telling me? I asked. She explained that she was worried I would think badly of her for using meds. I sat there, stunned, frantically running over the entirety of anything I had ever said to her or in front of her, wondering where this idea would have come from. Coming up blank, I asked her why she thought that. She explained to me that feminists were against anti-depressants. Again, I was stunned, did the frantic scrolling-through-the-entire-history-of-the-world thing, and came up blank. Of course, I congratulated her for getting treatment, for discussing mental health when it is more typically seen as taboo, and we had a long discussion. And it hit me, then or a bit later, where this all came from…
Feminists are very often against medicalization, but almost none are against MEDICINE. Do those words look too similar to mean different things? Kind of, eh? I mean, objectively they are different words, but they are so same-lookish! Maybe one is just a fancy way of saying the other? Nope. Medicine and medicalization are not the same. Even if they have the same first five letters!
Would you like some fancy definitions for the terms that I just made up? OF COURSE YOU DO! Medicine’s fancy definition: something you put in/on your body to reduce the negative effects of illness/sickness/bad health. And part of defining a term is thinking about who are the experts for that term. So, who is an expert on medicine?
Bon Jovi, obviously. This is what Jon Bon says: Your love is like bad medicine | Bad medicine is what I need | Shake it up, just like bad medicine | So let’s play doctor, baby | Cure my disease. Wow. That’s a bit confusing because why does anyone need bad medicine? And, is it all medicine that needs to be shaken, or just the bad kinds? Who else is an expert on medicine? Doctors, pharmacists, some biomedical researchers, epidemiologists, all in addition to Bon Jovi, the reigning champion.
Ok, now for the fancy definition of medicalization: something that unnecessarily grabs a phenomenon from the ‘regular life’ box and puts it into the medical domain box. Who is an expert on medicalization? Here, Bon Jovi lets us down as does music in general (try to get on with life, though) – there are no songs, brilliant or otherwise, about medicalization. Who is left to be an expert on medicalization, then, without the frosted hair contingent? Sociologists of medicine, feminist scholars, medical anthropologists, people with the lived experience of whatever’s being medicalized, and other critical thinkers.
Well! Easy peasy lemon squeezy! Medicine means one thing and medicalization another! Phew. Medicine = good; medicalization = not so good. Except that the line between the two isn’t so clear. In fact, that blurriness is kind of the point of the concept of medicalization: on one hand, medical folks think a phenomenon IS a legitimate medical target while, on the other hand, scholars and community folks do not. Who is right? This is a case of ‘competing knowledge claims.’ How do we decide which knowledge claim (medicine! or, medicalization!) is right? Helen Longino, a superfamous feminist philosopher of science, argues the only way we do this is with a “community of knowers,” which is a fancy way of saying ‘people.’ But she also argues that this community needs to be diverse. So, you can’t just have, say, MDs arguing over whether something is medicine or medicalization – in fact, the question of whether a thing that is already IN medicine might actually be not-medicine would probably not-occur to most or many mediciney people.
Tricky question: are pharmaceutical companies and their people experts on medicine? Some would argue that they can be experts on medicine but also that they are expert medicalizers. For example, they might have a medicine but no disease! What to do in that case? The case of the missing disease? Make one up! Critical scholars have demonstrated how diseases sometimes get manufactured so that an existing no-use medicine can be sold. Or, how something that is regular (like balding in men, or small breasts in women) gets repackaged as a disease that can be solved by 10 easy installments of $$$ CALL NOW!
So the line between medicine and medicalization can be blurry because people with differing perspectives and goals will argue about whether the same phenomenon is one thing or another. But the line can be blurry in another way. For example, I’m super preggers, if by ‘super’ we all agree to mean having a really superior experience of the worst parts of pregnancy but don’t worry: if you get pregnant, it will be the best part of your life I PROMISE BECAUSE I HAVE THAT KNOWLEDGE AND POWER. So, why is my pregnancy the worst? Well, I’ve spent many months in bed or on the couch, super nauseous and vomity and uncomfortable and NO, GINGER WILL NOT HELP and YES, I AM ALREADY IN THE SECOND TRIMESTER AND I’M STILL CRAPTASTIC and PLEASE, SOMEONE BUILD A TIME MACHINE SO I CAN FAST FORWARD TO THE BIRTH NO WAY AFTER THE BIRTH NO WAY TIL THE KID IS FIVE YEARS OLD. So, it’s pretty bad and I’ve been doing a lot of complaining (hey, do what you’re good at, eh?). My friends were all like: um, hey you friend of mine, do you know about this medicine for pregnancy nausea? And I was like yes, thank you, but things aren’t that bad yet. As things got worse, and my complaining ramped up, these friends were like: hey you friend of mine, seriously, there’s this medicine. For pregnancy nausea. Get it. Take it. And I was like, sure, when things get bad enough. Why? Because so much of pregnancy is medicalized, and I was trying to find the personal line between medicine and medicalization (and, no, I don’t need a ‘talking-to’ in the comments).
I mean, look, I’m a feminist scientist, a reproductive sciences person, a hormone researcher, and etc. I am generally pro-medicine and anti-medicalization. But knowing the difference in individual cases can be a nontrivial problem. Is taking anti-nausea pills self-medicating or self-medicalizing? Does it turn an incredibly common (horrifically so, given how debilitating it is) and regular part of the pregnancy “experience” into some sort of disease-like condition/state? I mean, my physical health wasn’t actually compromised since I was able to eat and, mostly, keep food down (sometimes women or other people gestating can’t, and very clearly need medical support to even just live). My psychological health was definitely another story: it’s a misery situation. Obviously, each person is going to have to figure this out for them. Once I finally decided the meds were medicine I took them and never looked back, feeling so much better, and happy with my choice.
So, the line between medicine and medicalization can be blurry, because what counts as a medical problem can be culturally situated (should there be a pill for lots/not much hair? are sticky-outy ears a medical issue? do periods have to be regular?). And, it’s not even always the case that we boo medicalization, because sometimes there might be benefits to putting something in the ‘medical’ box. Still, the presence of medicine (or a pill or a surgery) doesn’t magically transform whatever the medicine is for into a disease UNLESS YOU ARE HARRY HOUDINI AND THEN I RESPECTFULLY WITHDRAW. Feminism is, in part, about engaging with these distinctions (about medicalization vs. medicine, not Harry Houdini YET) even while supporting medical choices. Yes, there’s a tension there, but where isn’t there? (milkshakes.)
I know, right?! HOW COULD I EVEN SAY THAT?! Could I be a more worstest person??!? Quickbeforeyouleaveletmeexplain:
If you’re a feminist and you say words, you often end up explaining to people why you’re a feminist. Equo pro icqum, if you’re a feminist scientist, you often end up explaining to scientists, even scientists who are feminists, why you do feminist science and why you make up fake Latin logic statements that sound fancy (answer: you can’t make up real ones). Even the most well-meaning folk, who identify as feminists and bring feminism into every other aspect of their lives, want to know: why bring feminism into science?
Lately, when people ask me why feminist science, I’ve been answering: because it works; because it makes sense of the world. Equo pro icqum, scientists use theories that work and make sense of the world (are you impressed I remembered to italicize my fake Latin for optimum veracity?) (I AM). But is feminism a theory? Feminism is a social movement, a lived experience, a guiding principle. To a lot of people, whether feminism is a theory is irrelevant to their activism and life work. But here, I’m talking about how it’s also a theory. Did you think I would back down from my title? DO YOU EVEN KNOW ME? (Here’s a handy test to see if you know me: (a) Will I back down from a title? (b) Do I like milkshakes? (c) Do I enjoy listy things? No, yes, and who doesn’t?!)
Ok. So, feminism is a theory (among other things). But most anti-feminists want to argue that feminism is a political ideology and therefore evil. This is one of my favorite anti-feminist science arguments, because it equates political ideologies with evil and the picking on feminism is pretty obvious if you insert other ideologies: HUMANISM IS EVIL! PACIFISM IS EVIL! DISARMAMENT IS EVIL! WEARING WHITE BEFORE LABOR DAY IS EVIL! (or is it after?! BOTH ARE EVIL!). In my book, the book of evil, I reserve ‘evil’ for things that deserve the moniker, like walls you stub your toes on (jerks!), plants that won’t grow despite your best efforts (a-holes!), and paper cuts (the nerve of that paper!!!). Yes, feminism is an ideology but, and here is the refrain in my song: feminism is also a theory. I will explain more because even I know that saying the same statement over and over again doesn’t make it true (despite what many academics have tried to teach me. har har! academia jokes!).
What kind of thing is feminism? It’s lots of things. To be honest, I’m not sure most of my feminist-identified people would have a ready answer to describe what feminism is (in terms of a type of thing) (but maybe I am projecting). Saying feminism is a theory could be troubling in another way because many anti-science folks would say that theories are ‘just theories’, that they’re unproven conjectures, which means that calling feminism a ‘theory’ provides a load of additional kindling for those people who want to burn feminism on the anti-feminism+anti-science pyre. If feminism is a theory, then it’s just a random guess, right?! And then feminism slinks away, tucking its loose armpit hair into its shapeless clothes, weeping, but stridently so, wondering why it ever thought stupid things like payment equity were worth considering. (Full disclosure: I’m pro-armpit hair AND pro-payment equity! Surprise! That was irony! I’m pro-stridency, too, but that is just good sense, not irony BECAUSE WHO DOESN’T LIKE STRIDENCY?!?!)
Are theories ‘just’ theories; guesses and random conjectures? No. Theories aren’t just random guesses. They’re not unproven conjectures. They’re incredibly valuable, important, and insightful models of the world. Last I checked, no one can understand the entirety of the world all at once, so theories are a way to make sense of aspects of the world and guide our engagements with it. For scientists, theories are why we get up in the morning because, without them, the world might just be a big bunch of worldness. How to make sense of it? With a theory, of course! Like, take evolution. We use evolution as a way to make sense of the living matter we see in the world and how it has come to be. Evolution is a theory in all the amazing ways we mean theory: it explains the shit out of the world. Its explanatory power is off the charts!
Feminism is a theory like evolution is a theory: feminism explains the world we see. That’s why students who take a feminist class are so often like: I was blind but now I see. For realz! Because feminism explains things you can’t make sense of otherwise. It’s like putting on the right prescription glasses and realizing everything had been out of focus before. I, myself, have -8.5 eyesight (which is worse than most people but who would be competitive about their bad eyesight? Definitely not me, but my eyesight is worse than yours) but my eyesight was literally – LITERALLY I PROMISE – -300 before I got my feminist glasses (quirky yet stylish OF COURSE).
This whole way of thinking is useful in another way. I often have students ask me: what if I do a project where the results don’t jibe with feminism? What if my science contributes to anti-feminism, misogyny, inequities, racism, etc.? What if I am still using jibe but no one else is?! I used to think about this myself and worry, so I understand the students’ concerns (jibe is never out of date). Few feminists want to do work that hurts women or undermines feminism. Contrasting this with evolution is useful: no one worries that their evolutionary biology experiment will call evolution into question because evolution is such a strong theory that it will almost inevitably explain the finding. Same with feminism: it’s such a strong theory, a truth of our world, that it will still explain the finding. Because that’s what truth does, make sense. There is no way that one finding will undermine either evolution or feminism and, instead, there is all likelihood that evolution and feminism are strong enough to make sense of unexpected results. That’s why we have them and that’s why we use them. That’s not tautological, where theories explain themselves; I mean that both evolution and feminism will legitimately make sense of even the most head-scratching seemingly off-target results because why? Because feminism and evolution make sense like a boss.
Of course, that’s not to say that evolution and feminism, like all awesome theories, can’t be revised or improved. For example, bringing modern genetics and now epigenetics into evolutionary theory has transformed evolution in wowish ways. Similarly, bringing intersectionality into feminism has transformed feminism in I-can-see-clearly-now-the-rain-has-gone ways. It’s always possible that a theory is wrong – OF COURSE! – but the strongest theories are supported by the available data and continue to be useful. They continue to make sense of the world in such important ways that the world would go unexplained without them.
So, when someone asks you why feminism? think of me in the background saying feminism because it makes sense of the world. Because it works. Because it’s right. Just like evolution. And watch their head explode in all the best ways. Though that is not the best image to leave you with, so also you could imagine me saying that doing the running man because that will definitely up the awesome ante.
p.s. I checked with some feminist philosophers of science as to whether I was allowed to make this analogy. I’m not sure they were entirely happy with it but they gave me the go-ahead. They may have sneaked side glances at each other while they were doing so, thinking I couldn’t see them but I could. So basically what I’m saying is that if you disagree with me or poke a hole in this argument, I cannot be held responsible for anything I have said, ever, and that is a given, unless you want to hold me responsible for awesomeness and THEN GO RIGHT AHEAD WITH MY PERMISSION.