Contributing vs. Interfering in Science: What’s the Diff?

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.

Editor’s note: These people could be singing the harmony of science together regardless of whether they have a lab coat or not. I also want to point out that I recognize they also could be zombies approaching en masse. Win-win, really.

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).

What’s an Introduction For?

At the University of Michigan, I have been the Director of a Feminist Science Studies program, funded by our Institute for Research on Women and Gender, which means our group has had a lot of speakers come in. I haven’t introduced all of them, but I have introduced a lot of them. And, not to be all a bunch of bitches, but I’ve also given a lot of talks. Someone once said “DON’T SAY A LOT; SAY HOW MANY”, with the idea that someone might say “a lot” when they mean, like, four. So, maybe I’ve given 70-100 talks? And, maybe I’ve introduced 20-30 speakers? So, while I haven’t had as much experience with introductions as some, I’ve still had a pretty good share to think about. But only recently have I wondered what should actually be in an introduction. Or what an introduction is for. Or, for that matter, who it’s for. Or, for that that matter (the grammar police one), whom it’s for. Is it for the speaker, to welcome them or honor them? For the host, to explain why you invited the speaker? For the audience, to make clear why listening to the speaker is worthwhile, and/or to give them context for the expert/content/topic?

I can’t lie; I love this ppt template but you can’t just, like, use it. OR CAN I.

Sometimes, the more famous and fabulous the speaker is, the lengthier and more wonderful the introduction is. Arguably, though, this famous person is more likely to be known and therefore, perhaps paradoxically, be less in need of contextualizing for the audience than a less well-known person would be. But, does “Person who needs no introduction” really deserve no introduction? That feels a bit cheat-y. And, people coming to hear a talk might be coming for Super Famous Speaker (TM), but they might just be coming because it’s the Wednesday noon colloquium and that’s where they go on Wednesday noon times and they have no idea what’s on the menu. What if someone just wandered into the talk?

What if you ask the speaker what to say and they say “whatever you want to say is fine!”? Does that mean you can introduce them however you want? Clearly, no. there are still some expectations (but what are they?). And, what if the speaker feels like it would be rude to ask you to sing their praises, which is, incidentally, something that women and minoritized folks are socialized to feel (i.e., to take up less space than they deserve)? If you ask speakers, you might end up with really thorough elevating introductions for people who already occupy a position of privilege and sparse hellooos! to those that are less likely to be seen as gifted, accomplished, or leading experts by dint of their social position. In fact, this might happen anyway, if the host chooses what to say about the speaker, right? Like, the speaker might undersell themselves, but the host might do that too, because our culture tells all of us to see minoritized folks as less accomplished, able, brilliant, etc.

Why does this need to be a guessing game anyway? After some discussions with some thoughtful people, I came to the conclusion that, as host, I should aim to ask everyone for a set type of material – they can choose to give it to me or not, and they can choose to give me what I ask, more, less, or something entirely different. And, as a speaker, I would create a general bio, update it somewhat regularly, and send it out a few days before my talk to the host each time regardless of whether the host asks me for it. Will I feel kind of self-aggrandizing doing so? YOU ARE TALKING TO A PERSON WHO LITERALLY TEACHES A SEMINAR ON SELF-PROMOTION. Ok, yes, I will feel kind of self-aggrandizing. But so what? This introduction – this talk – this event – is not just about me, as counterintuitive as that may seem.

Another reason to ask for specific info and give it is that different people may value different things. Like, you as a speaker may be all “why didn’t they mention my Nobel Prize?” and they’re all “wow! this person was interviewed by Lindy West!” Or, you might be like “why didn’t they mention I have 200 papers?” (by the way, congrats on that!) and they’re all “no book!?” if you’re in different disciplines. Also, I would choose Lindy West over a Nobel Prize and you are duly warned, world.

What do I think should be in these bios? Let’s see… (oh, and aim for a paragraph unless you’re super famous, confident, or fabulous, and then do what you want with my permission!)

  • Maybe phonetically spelled out, now that I think of it! People always call me Suh-ree, or Seeree, or Sorry. It’s pronounced Sairy! It’s not even hard to say! Yes, it’s spelled like a garment but that is not my fault. Maybe we should do that.
  • Position and Institution. Should it matter whether you are a lecturer, named chair, graduate student, etc.? Should it matter if you are at the University of No One Knows It or Famous U? If your ideas are awesome, they should be judged as such. But, you do have a position and a location, in most cases, so let’s just say it unless you have really principled stances against doing so (and then: fair enough).
  • What You Study and Your Discipline. But just in a few words. Yes, everyone should know what you do by the talk title… maybe? Say your discipline/field/topics. I usually push people to say all of mine, which last an hour, because they help make what I do intelligible (or at least make its unintelligibility more clear ).
  • Your Big Deal Stuff. Maybe this is awards, fellowships, accomplishments, books, articles, places you’ve published, honors, your Nobel Prize (as if anyone cares). Someone once described these as gems? or jewels? Or sparklies? SHOW SOME SPARKLE. You judge what’s important. But don’t be disingenuous and be like: oh my, I couldn’t possibly decide what is sparkly on my CV. YOU KNOW WHAT IS SPARKLY. Also, don’t worry about offending people with your greatness. People won’t faint away when they hear your amazingness. Trust me: they’ll be able to manage. As we like to say in my house: don’t be so humble; you’re not that great.
  • Other Formal Metrics of Success/Accomplishment. You could say how many peer-reviewed papers you have published, your book titles, your art installations, your public outreach (twitter followers, e.g.!), grant amounts and/or funding sources, editorial positions, whatever. DO NOT BE SHY. Go be shy at a cocktail party. These people invited you to speak. By definition, they have decided what you have to say is worth hearing! Oh, and don’t say numbers unless they are impressive, is my unsolicited advice. You have 10 papers? Don’t mention that unless you’re a graduate student or in a field where 10 is impressive. Instead, say you have published in journals like X, Y, and Z.
  • You Do You. Are you a parent, and that’s an important part of your identity/academic experience, or you want people to expand their notion of what being a professor is? Say it! “And, Dr. So-and-So has three kids, one of which is a cranky cat.” If you can be funny (unlike me, there), do it. If there are other aspects of your life that are important to you and interesting to share, go for it! And consider sharing things that, as I noted about parenting, can expand people’s narrow ideas of experts and speakers by seeing you, who is X, do phenomenally well (but, um, don’t get stereotype threat-y). In addition, there may be social location factors that you need/want to say, from your gender identity to race/ethnicity to immigration status to tribe membership to all the things I should put here but amn’t.

Now, of course people will judge you by your introduction. If you are a minoritized person, your sparklies may be just what is needed for people to judge you as (just maybe) competent or exceptionally competent. But, of course, your sparklies may violate your social location norms – I mean, it literally violates the gender norms for women to be successful! rock, meet hard place! AMIRITE – and no one likes that. There might be eye rolls or internal sneers at you – who do you think you are, to have accomplished things and stuff! But, here’s the nice ticket: no one will know you gave this to your host! Your host is introducing you! They are saying these great things about you. So, even if you’re being too successful-read-uppity, the success will shine through more than the uppityness because it’s not coming from you! Win win. Yes, totally, your host may balk. More likely? They’ll be like: Yes! Now I don’t have to write an introduction! I love this person even more than I did when I invited them. So, introductions matter for you, your audience, and your host. They position us, they’re political, and they matter, so it makes sense to be more thoughtful about them. Go forth, and get that intro!

But, also, if I’m missing key things – let me know! Comment below.

The March for Science… and Politics?

This is a guest post by Anne Fausto-Sterling!

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.

Editor’s note: Remember all those witty signs, way back when, ONLY MONTHS AGO…

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

Editor’s note: I like!

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.

Since I’m made of particles, I’m a particle physics expert!

There are many things I’m an expert on.  Here is a list:

  1. Weather. Why? Because I have experienced weather for all the years of my life.
  2. Existence. Why? Because not only have I experienced weather for all the years of my life, I have also existed for all those years too.
  3. Gravity. Why? Because do you see me flying off the earth? No.
  4. Milkshakes. Why? Because obviously.
  5. Lists. Why? Because I’m making one right now. And, I’ll add, I’ve made them before. A lot.
  6. House construction. Why? Because, apart from the years I lived in university residences or apartments, I’ve lived in houses. In fact, I’ve lived in a lot of houses. Have any of them fallen down on my head? No. Why? Because I’m an expert in house construction.
  7. Astronomy. Why? Because I have seen the stars and once I learned how to pick out Orion’s Belt. I even once wrote a poem that mentioned Orion’s Belt.
  8. Particle physics. Why? Because I am made of particles.
  9. This list could go on, ad infinitum (I am also an expert on Latin because I used that phrase without even looking it up).
Weather, which is something I’m an expert on.

Let’s be honest, it’s pretty easy to be an expert, right? OR IS IT?! (cue dramatic music!) It is remotely possible that I am being sarcastic or facetious (as if I know the difference) with my list above. Also, I’d like to make clear that as a child I thought there were two words: 1) facetious and 2) facetitious, the more detail-oriented version of the first (hence attention to all the facets). Now that we’ve cleared that up (phew!), let’s talk more about experts and expertise.

Here’s a funny fact: I actually am an expert and so are many of my friends. It’s kind of no big whoop to be an expert around these here parts, to be honest. Can you believe we’re such a bunch of bitches to actually call ourselves experts?! It doesn’t matter; we are. We all have PhDs, do research, and are internationally known (to rock the microphone) (just kidding, Rob Base & D.J. EZ Rock!). We’re not experts in everything. We have specific areas of expertise, even beyond being a bunch of bitches. For example, my areas of expertise include hormones, sexuality, feminist science, intimacy, gender/sex, sexual diversity, and other things. Who do I think I am? Mr. Big Stuff? Can you believe I have the nerve to call myself an expert?! It doesn’t actually take nerve. For me, it takes a Ph.D., an ongoing research and publishing program, and the respect of other experts. But, really, aren’t we all experts?


We’re not all experts. Why not? Because experience doesn’t equal expertise (see my list above). It takes learning, critical thinking about your experience, weighing evidence and ideas, and exchange of ideas, among other things. Why am I talking about any of this anyway? Because, feminists and scientists (and, wow, definitely feminist scientists) often hear people question their expertise. Like, someone might say: I have gender, so basically I know as much about gender as a gender scholar. Someone else might say, I’ve had peeny-bageeny sex (that’s actually the Latin term; I know, because I’m an expert), so I’m pretty much a sexpert. Someone else might say, I’ve seen Black people, so I’m an expert on race. Or, I have a race, so I’m an expert on race! But even though the two words start similarly with ‘ex’, expertise and experience (no matter how broad or deep) are not the same things.

Do you need a PhD to be an expert? Nope. Why? Because I like to ask questions that have ‘no’ in their answers ever since someone told me to mix up my writing with longer and shorter sentences and ‘no’ is about as short a sentence can get. Also because you can have a lived experience that you do critically engage with. Like, having a gender does not make you an expert on gender or feminism. But, you don’t need a PhD in those topics to be an expert on them. Maybe you’ve spent a very significant portion of your life thinking about gender, talking about it, reading and learning about it, and developing your own insights on it that add value to the way people understand gender. You’re able to communicate things about gender that make it make sense to others. You’ve figured out a lot about it and have a good grasp on what other thinking people think about it. You could be an expert on it then. I give you permission. This might be more likely if your experiences don’t fall along the majority of other people. Why? Because. (Another short sentence! I win!) If you’re too busy living the status quo, you might not even realize it in the way that fish don’t know they’re swimming in water (I know, because the fish told me). If you’re being excluded because of your gender, you might just stop to think ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ Otherwise, you might have little reason to think closely about gender. This is something called ‘feminist standpoint theory,’ which makes the point that critical reflection on your position, especially a marginalized or ‘non-center’ position, provides for invaluable and unique insights.

The funny thing is that people tend to get what I’m saying about expertise when it comes to, say, physics. They know that, unlike item # 8 above, being made of particles doesn’t make you an expert on particle physics. But when it comes to other things – things like gender, race/ethnicity, sexuality – somehow this logic dissipates. How do I know? My partner is a theoretical physicist! Surprise! And when people meet my partner, they’re like ‘wow, you must be very smart.’ They see my partner as an expert. This never gets said to me and, so, yes, this whole post is really just for me to complain and blow off steam and be like I AM SMART TOO! Thanks! Bye! Just kidding! But, let me tell you something: in my presence, no one, and I mean NO ONE WHO IS NOT A PHYSICIST (except for my dad – who, like all dads – is a special case) has ever tried to convince my partner that they know more about physics than my partner does or that their take on a particular aspect of physics is more right than my partner’s is. No one ever says to my partner: but why call it physics? Guess how many people who have given feminism about one second of thought have tried to convince me, with total and complete sincerity, that we should change the name of feminism? I want to be like: HOW ABOUT WE CALL IT PHYSICS?!?! There are people who have literally never taken a course on feminism or gender, read a book on either, or even sat down and given the topics some thoughts who will, nevertheless, tell me – and, I would roughly guesstimate, ALL OTHER FEMINIST SCHOLARS AND EXPERTS IN THE ENTIRE WORLD (I’m an expert on guesstimating too) – that their views on gender and feminism, rooted in their deep thought of about one millisecond, are as expert as my own. Ironically, I’m a big fan of questioning experts, but I’m not a big fan of doing so out of a place of ignorance. I suppose I’m not a big fan of ignorance, now that I think about it. I am a big fan of ignoring, less so of igniting, and even less of ignominy. Just so we’re all clear.

Obviously, the point I’m trying to make here is that (a) I’m always right, (b) bow down, bitches (to quote Beyoncé), and also (c) I am an expert on lists (see item #5 above). But, really, it’s more that expertise isn’t something you get by dint of existing. Expertise is something you earn. Whether you’re a physicist (like me), a gender expert (like me), or an expert in house construction (like me).

How don’t you know what you don’t know?!

True story: when I was a graduate student, I supervised a sort of mini-lab of undergraduates. For reasons that are completely opaque to me know but I’m sure made a lot of sense then, one of these students told me and my partner how his father would be like (and please read the following in a hilarious dad voice, which is how the student said it to us): How do you know what you know!? Of course this turned into a classic line for us and, not infrequently, my partner or I would turn to the other and demand (in all an all-caps voice): HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU KNOW! We dropped the question mark because, really, it obviously was intended to be a claim, or maybe an interrogation. Anyway, one day, I mentioned the line back to the student who was like: Huh? and also: That never happened and my dad never said that.But my partner and I have distinct memories of him telling us this. How do WE know what HE doesn’t know! Could he have unknown what he knew? Could we know something that isn’t? Were we in some secret dastardly psychology experiment about memory and truth given that we were, after all, in a psychology department at the time? How did WE know what we knew?! Anyway, the story above is useful in three ways. (1) It gives us the awesome question-slash-interrogation:

How do you know what you know?!

(2) It also gives us an example of competing knowledge claims. We knew he told us his dad said it, but he “knew” his dad didn’t and that he never told us he did. I put irony marks around his ‘knew’ because it’s important to cast doubt on other people’s authority in competing knowledge claims, and I learned that in the book of rules.

And (3) it’s also a good anecdote to lead to what all the cool kids are talking about: epistemologies of ignorance. And also awkward surpluses. Trust me, this is going to give you words for things.

So, let’s be honest, I could have also started with Donald Rumsfeld because that’s where all feminist philosophy of science starts AMIRIGHT!? More because he said this in 2002 (which I personally recall and Wikipedia also says is true):

Reports that say there’s — that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know. (fuscia mine ALL MINE!)

You can tell he’s knowing all your knowns right now. (from Wired)

Everyone laughed then, but they should have been careful because isn’t he the one who shoots his friends on camping trips? I, personally, recommend caution around friend-shooters. For example, instead of laughing like this HAHAHAHAHA, try ha ha; just saying. (OK, I know it was Dick Cheney who did that but allow me some fictional leeway here.) Actually, what he said was actually really interesting (I pass my proclamation). Good old Rummy was like: there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. Let’s finish that 2×2 and include unknown knowns. Am I just throwing words together? NO. Here’s why:

Known Knowns = How we know what we know? = epistemology

Epistemology is about different ways of authoritative knowing, like how knowledge comes to be accepted as knowledge, and how different ways of getting knowledge get slotted into different disciplines. HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU KNOW! SO FAR SO GOOD!

Unknown Unknowns= How don’t we know what we don’t know? = epistemology of ignorance

The exact opposite of known knowns is unknown unknowns. I mean, really, there are like a million things you don’t know; why? Maybe some things are just unknowable, like why milkshakes are so boss. But some things? It seems like we could know them. Like, hey, in France they don’t collect statistics on race/ethnicity, so no one can really measure state-wide discrimination by minority ethnic/racial status. BUT THEY COULD. They don’t know about rates of ethnic/racial discrimination because they don’t collect the stats. That’s how they don’t know what they don’t know. I just happen to like that factoid (I hope it’s still a true one) and I’m not picking on France because j’adore les baguettes.

Do you want to read more about feminist epistemology of ignorance? WHO DOESN’T? (That’s kind of a pun!) Try these great articles by Nancy Tuana (on topics near and dear to my sex researcher heart):

Known Unknowns = How do we know what we don’t know? = epistemology of ignorance

This is kind of another opposite of known knowns, and another way to think about epistemologies of ignorance. Like: think about the France example (with melted brie soooo goooood). I was a bit tricky up there because the rates of ethnic/racial discrimination are unknown in France, but are they known to be unknown? Or unknown to be unknown? Obviously, for us to discuss an unknown, someone’s gotta have an idea about it. But is it an unknown to the majority of people for whom it would be relevant? You could argue that the lack of French stats on ethnic/racial discrimination might be a known unknown to those who are discriminated against (they certainly know there is a lack of information that could be important and useful about their experiences) and an unknown unknown to the people in power who just happen to not see these things are worth knowing (like, one could not even have the idea in one’s head about it, so it’s not a debate about whether to measure these stats, it’s just a not-there issue). Anyway, the known unknowns are basically things we might want to know (or not) but don’t. They are gaps in knowledge we know exist, unlike gaps the majority of us don’t see. Known unknowns are like discomfort with the knowledge status quo, whereas unknown unknowns are like status quo is all we need.

Unknown Knowns =  How don’t we know what we know? = awkward surplus

I like unknown knowns a lot because I see a lot of academic work that exists in this space. You know that paper that shows that thing that kind of calls into question what everyone’s doing? And you know how everyone knows about that paper but ignores it? That’s because that paper exists in the land of awkward surplus (not quite as delicious as the land of Dairy Queen (R), to be honest). Awkward surplus is like that weird fourth cousin thrice removed who you just wish would disappear at your family event. It’s like the one bad book your favorite author wrote. It’s like when I was in grade 2 and realized that people could see, from behind, everyone’s bums wiggle when they walked, which was definitely Really Embarrassing! and Not Okay! such that I decided I had to drop that knowledge immediately from my mind in order to live. It’s like you have a little box to put papers and books and pieces of knowledge in when you don’t want to pay attention to them. You close that box and put it far away, in the corner of your attic and let spiders spin cobwebs around it and maybe cast a curse on the box too, while you’re at it, but that part is optional. You don’t deny the knowledge. You don’t debate it. You don’t even disbelieve it. You just ignore it. It’s so awkward! It’s wearing plaid pants! Can’t it just go away if you close your eyes and go lalalala?!

Do you want to read more about awkward surpluses? You’d rather not know? Ha ha, another pun. Anyway, I highly recommend this great piece by Joan Fujimura, again about some topics I love (Love All The Topics!):

Bonus! Unknown Knowns = How do we come to unknow what we once knew? = epistemology of ignorance

I think there are two ways to have unknown knowns. One is the above (awkward surpluses) which is more about how we don’t know things we know now. But we could also think about how we don’t know things we once knew. Like, you know those things you learn randomly, like, say, people used to pickle watermelon rinds?! WHO KNEW THAT! I mean, people who pickled watermelon rinds, OBVIOUSLY, but um, since then, like now, who knew?! Or, people used to know that it was good for women to move around during labor but medical science largely is like: staying still is the bestest way to have a baby since pickled watermelons. And, now, everyone’s like: wait! Remember the moving?! That was better apparently! And when I say ‘everyone’ I mean mostly ‘midwives’, but without the irony quotes because midwives are awesome (full disclosure: I’m not a midwife but one of them helped a baby out of my vagina) (full disclosure: I will mention that I have a vagina in this post) (full disclosure: that disclosure was too late). Why are there pieces of knowledge we now think to be true and thought were true originally, but somehow got erased in between? How do pieces of knowledge that have truth to them become fully out of the scope of what most knowers know now? Good thing there is epistemology of ignorance! Otherwise we’d never know. Another pun!

I like this article by Londa Schiebinger about the topic (and, full disclosure, I don’t think it’s a difficult read intellectually, but I found it difficult emotionally because it covers some gruesome but important colonial medical history among slaveholder treatment of various slave groups):

I also like this article by Vandana Shiva about indigenous people’s landcare practices versus those of colonizers:

The end!

Memoirs by Scientists vs. Memoirs by Women Scientists?

There is an interesting blog post on National Geographic about Memoirs by Scientists. It started via a twitter crowd-sourcing effort to find good examples – as Carl Zimmer noted: “I started thinking about especially good examples–in particular, ones that manage to balance the personal experiences of the author with the professional accomplishments.” Then, a Gap Junction Science member tweeted this:

I started to wonder a few things (and here they are in handy list form):

  1. As Mallory Bowers pointed out, few of the Memoirs by Scientists on the list were by women (I didn’t check myself, but I rely on Bowers in all things) (though we don’t know each other. But she has posted on GJS’s facebook page and that is reference enough for me, plus it sounds truthy). Is that because few Memoirs by Scientists by women are getting recommended? Or are there few Memoirs by Scientists by women at all?

    I could also call this post “Beyond Marie Curie.” Or I could caption this picture: Marie Curie is thinking about the question I pose at the end HARD.
  2. There is a lot of interesting scholarly and popular writing about women’s literature being a genre unto itself – sort of by force. Like, Literature: we won’t let you into our club! Women: Ok, I guess we’ll start a Women’s Literature club then. Literature: Yeah, we represent the human experience. Which just happens to be a certain type of men’s experience. You only represent women. You’re like a special interest group. Women: What’s new, alligoo? (No one actually says this, including women, no one). Literature: It’s too bad that your writing just doesn’t speak to us. Surprisingly, only writing by “serious heterosexual guys” does. Women: What’s new? That’s why feminism. Oh right, I’m making a point here, but this conversation IS AWESOME and its pretty fun imagining Literature speaking to Women. Anyway, I wondered: Would people think of Memoirs by Scientists by women as an even more particular subgenre? A subsubgenre, if I may? Just because, you know, there’s scientists and there’s women scientists. So there’s Memoirs by Scientists and there’s Memoirs by Women Scientists. Without invoking women explicitly, and using a category that implicitly (and often explicitly!) excludes women, would the average person think of women? (Hint: Research says No.) (That wasn’t really a hint, was it.)
  3. I could imagine that people aren’t thinking about Memoirs by Scientists by women to recommend, and that’s probably a major reason why few are being recommended. But I also thought that there probably aren’t that many written to recommend; I COULD BE TOTALLY WRONG and I’m the first to admit it because I have not done a “rigid search” to quote my favorite hilarious search-related line. Without casting aspersions of writers of memoirs, I wonder what it takes to see one’s self as worthy of self-memoirizing. On one hand, wouldn’t we all like to think that one day we will feel like our lives and contributions have been important enough to merit a memoir? Um, for those of us who have enough enoughness to even think about that. On the other hand, women tend to be socialized to think of themselves as team players rather than leaders, as nurturers rather than pathbreakers (these are all false dichotomies but that doesn’t mean they have no realness), and men tend to be socialized to think of women this way too. And, All The Research shows that women tend to be penalized more for success exactly because success contravenes gender norms.

So what would it take to have a list of Memoirs by Scientists that included women and wasn’t called “Memoirs by Women Scientists”? And other minoritized identities? Obviously feminism and social justice. Solved! But, seriously, what concrete, real steps would it take?