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

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 nonbiased 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.





You may also like...

3 Responses

  1. Stacey Ritz says:

    If you ask me (you didn’t, but I CAN TYPING!! http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/image-of-the-week/files/2013/02/10yvf8m.gif), one of the biggest issues contributing to this problem is that there is absolutely no attention given in science education to the idea of epistemology whatsoever. Most scientists have no idea what “positivism” or “empiricism” are, even as they subscribe to those positions completely. And because they are invisible to them (as the water is to the fishes), they aren’t even on the radar as possible subjects for critique. I did a minor in philosophy, which helped me to figure this shit out, but even still, it was a slooooowwww process….I was well into grad school before I really started to critique positivism and empiricism. It would be tremendously useful if every science program everywhere incorporated a mandatory first-year course in the philosophy of science.

    Even more useful would be if such courses were taught by people with experience of BOTH philosophy AND science…..someone who can bridge those discourses. Because I have found that there is no better way to piss off a bunch of scientists than to have someone who doesn’t have first-hand knowledge of scientific practice tell them how to science.

    Also, we need more people who can speak science AND philosophy fluently to do the translational work, otherwise we tend to have philosophers and scientists talking completely past one another. It is not a simple thing to bridge these discourses constructively: it’s not just a matter of “translating” across discourses, but rather of really trying to put ourselves into alternative discourses and understanding them on their own terms. It’s not about which discourses are “right”, but rather a question of what different discourses can tell us about the same thing. I recall a protracted argument with a philosopher friend of mine about the “purpose” of reproductive organs in people who do not use them for reproduction. I was willing to accept and discuss a constructivist discourse of uteri, but she was unwilling to take seriously the scientific discourse of evolution in the emergence of uteri. It was a frustrating argument for me, because I felt that she was trying to “convince” me that her discourse was “correct”, when I felt that both discourses were useful and had things to offer in our understanding of uteri. She and I aren’t friends anymore.*

    So yeah. It would be nice if we could stop seeing our discourses as “competing” and recognize that a multiplicity of discourses enriches our understanding.

    * Though this has nothing to do with our differences of opinion regarding uteri.

  2. Stacey Ritz says:

    Thanks for posting this Sari; as a result, I ended up in a conversation with a colleague this morning, and I’ve now drafted a very rough sketch of a course I might try to propose to the Faculty of Science as a mandatory course for all incoming students, tentatively titled “Skills for Scientific Inquiry”, which will include training on: doing lit searches and reviews; reference management and citation practices; writing skills — scientific papers, abstracts, essays, lab reports; developing a question and hypothesis; argumentation and logical fallacies; philosophy and epistemology of science; and giving talks.

  3. Sari van Anders says:

    Stacey: I agree. It’s not just scientism we’re steeped in, it’s a “culture of no-culture” as others have called it, as if science just happens and there’s no way to think critically about it (which is kind of a strange partner to scientism).

    And, I also agree that non-scientists telling scientists how to do science is a sure way to get steam blowing from ears. I often think: NO expert wants to be told by someone outside their field how to do their work. Whether that’s a philosopher not wanting an engineer to tell them how to do philosophy or a chemist not wanting a classical studies professor to tell them how to do chemistry. I agree it would be great to have philosophy of science – in theory. But there’s also sociology of science and other ways to critically engage with science. And, I agree that having someone who lives in both science and criticality would be useful in teaching this.

    Your course sounds awesome! As someone living in “both” worlds, or someone living in a world where both matter, you’re a great person to teach this. Maybe we could do some posts about incorporating criticality into “regular” science courses? I’m sure you would have some great ideas, as would many in the community.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *