Swimming up from scientism

One of the tricky things about inviting feminism and science to the same party is that most of us scientists are swimming in ‘scientism.’ Scientism refers to the belief that science is better than all other forms of knowledge acquisition (epistemologies), or even that science is the only legitimate way to learn about, well, All The Things. Like, seriously: anything. So, according to scientism, art teaches us nothing worthwhile about visuality, literature, nothing worthwhile about empathy, qualitative work, nothing worthwhile about lived experiences. Or at least nothing worthwhile relative to what science could show us. To be clear, scientism is not loving science, thinking science is worthwhile, doing science, or even believing that science provides superior knowledge in some domains. Rather, scientism = Science > Non-Science. Full stop.

But scientism isn’t really discussed by scientists, so it’s hard for many of us to see it. I mean, you don’t grow up thinking about the air you breathe (until that one day when you think: OMG, what if I STOP breathing? Am I stopping RIGHT NOW? My lungs are in a rib cage. A CAGE OF RIBS! BREATHE!). It’s particularly hard to think about things that aren’t particularly noticeable. Like that saying: do fish know they’re swimming in water? (Maybe that’s a question. Can questions be sayings?). I mean, fish probably know they’re not swimming in Jell-O, but how can they be sure? Obviously, if fish could be scientists, they could do experiments but, much to our shared regret, I agree, fish do not make very good scientists. Because our training (us scientists; not the fish) in some ways teaches us to value science over other epistemologies but does so in mostly implicit ways, it’s hard to challenge that lesson because of the obvious difficulty of challenging things you’re not really ‘knowing’ as in aware of. I mean, I haven’t seen any lesson plans that are like: Item 1) teach scientists to scoff at non-science. But that lesson is being taught in a number of ways that go under the radar, and how do you notice a blip on your consciousness from something that is under the radar?

Fish Swimming in Water. Or is it Jell-O? HOW DO THEY KNOW??
Photo Credit: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

One of the weirdest parts of swimming in scientism is that somehow a core tenet (at least as relevant to Gap Junction Science) is that only science can be objective and bias-free, and that frameworks like feminism are inherently biased. It’s a strange idea, because feminism is explicitly about examining bias, at least bias in relation to gender and intersecting social identities. Though science is supposed to cancel out bias because of the diversity of scientists (and you know we could debate how diverse scientists are for quite some time), scientists are specifically not supposed to reflect on their own social location or that of other scientists (i.e., the source of biases). It’s a funny system where ignoring bias is supposed to result in more objectivity than examining and exposing bias. It’s an even funnier system when you acknowledge that one of the only successful conduits for exposing gender bias in science has been feminism. Apparently those ‘diverse scientists’ haven’t been able to cotton on to their own bias, or weren’t willing to. Shocking! Obviously, feminism is imperfect at rooting out bias, but it at least tries. Its imperfections are actually proof of concept, in a way.

So where are we? Scientism holds that science is the best way to know things about stuff (that’s right! I said ‘things and stuff’!) in a non-biased way by never attending to bias, whereas feminism is supposed to increase bias by attending to bias and trying to eliminate it. I’m not a logician by training, but I put it to you that you don’t have to be a logician to trip on them logical banana peels. It’s logic holes like this (feminism = examine bias! = bias! whereas science = ignore bias = bias-free!) that are only able to exist when they go unquestioned. It’s a way of turning something (feminism) that names problems (like bias) into the problem itself (feminism = bias). Let’s bash feminism, rather than bias! Right? right? ‘Cause otherwise we have to do something. Mischaracterizing feminism is easier than addressing bias, I’ll agree. It’s less useful to science, though.

Sometimes I explain how I had to ‘swim up from scientism’ to be able to see how science and feminism were not only great party invites, but awesome sitters-at-the-same-table. That’s hard to see when our epistemology is blinding us to the value of other epistemologies (translation: hard to see water when you’re a fish swimming in it). For me, it literally feels like I whooshed out of water, like when you go to the bottom of the pool, and push yourself up really fast so that you’re kind of like a reverse cannonball – of course, when you’re a kid you do this. Not now. Because playing in water is not what Adults do. Anyway. Like some sort of reverse gravity (momentum? hmmm.) pulled you out and you felt the difference from the water to the air in a striking and somehow profound way.

Anyway, how do we do this ‘swimming up?’ I think many of us see inequities in treatment of scientists, with men and women treated differently, ethnic minorities and majorities treated differently, etc. Some of us see how feminist questions are vilified as driven by impure thoughts (like – shhhhh… – social justice) whereas somehow other parallel approaches aren’t seen in parallel as being related to cultural values (which, to be clear, I do not think is inherently bad — or good), like translational work, or applied work, or profiting from developing patentable knowledge. Some of us talk with feminist scholars who love science and wish it was subject to less gender bias, and we realize that the painting of all feminists as anti-science is ideological, not fact-driven. Some of us read historical or cultural studies books that lay out bias in science in heartbreaking detail. However we swim up, though, there’s no going back. Once you see the water you’re swimming in, you can’t pretend it doesn’t exist.

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