Why do some sciences seem more, well, science-y?

Do you ever feel like some types of science are more science-y? Like… maybe… physics > chemistry, chemistry > biology, biology >psychology (waaayyy more, right? is psychology even a real science?) (I’m in Psychology so I can make this joke), psychology > anthropology (ok, honestly? anthropology? are we letting everyone into this club?) (I’ve been given permission by anthropologists to make this joke), anthropology >… well, you get my point. If Science is an approach to gaining knowledge (an epistemology), how can some things be more science-y than others? Like, isn’t this a categorical distinction (science vs. non-science) rather than a continuous distribution (most science-y — somewhat science-y — not very science-y at all and really just picking your nose)? Here at GapJunctionScience, we tend to define Science as:

Science: (1) an approach/philosophy/ideology/epistemology to gathering knowledge about the world, that (2) uses systematic and formalized methods that are (3) replicable and falsifiable, and that (4) has a commitment to objectivity and (5) a belief that there is a truth (or multiple truths) that scientists can find.

So long as any discipline addresses its questions using these parameters, it’s science, right? Right? So why do we have that niggling feeling that it’s so obvious some disciplines are more science-y than others? Well, we also define small-s science somewhat differently, and maybe that’s what’s going on:

science: the ways that “Science” (above) is carried out. 

Oh, how I wanted those heart-shaped boxes of chocolates when I was young. Upon closer inspection, I’m not really sure that’s what they were meant to be. But young me was sure.

Wow. Small-s science has the easiest definition ever. Awesome. But what are “the ways that Science is carried out”? That leaves a lot of wiggle room.Wiggling around in there might be materiality. You might be thinking (if you’re my age, I guess): Madonna? Material Girl? And in some ways you’re not far off. Because materialism is the idea that you prioritize things of value – things that are thingy, things can that be sold and bought – over things that are ideas, like love, happiness, satisfaction. Since Madonna isn’t a scientist (so far as I know, BUT SHE HAS REINVENTED HERSELF SO MANY TIMES), what is materiality to scientists? I like to think of materiality as scientific variables you can cut. Literally. Like, you can cut a brain. A bone. A piece of metal. DNA. Cells. Living things. Nanoparticles. Yeah, there’s some things that are too small or finicky to cut right now, but with better technology – or to put it in more scientific terms: a better cutter-thing – you could cut them. For example, could you cut a planet? I don’t know. I have no idea. In science fiction, they can, and that’s good enough for me. So, yes, you could cut a planet. No, seriously! If you could imagine a cutter that could cut something, then that something is essentially cut-able. And if it’s cut-able, it’s material.

Depending on the kind of scientist you are, you might right now at this moment (because I have telepathy) be thinking: what isn’t material in science then? Or, what am I, chopped liver just because the things I study aren’t material? Scientists don’t just study materiality, they also study social constructions. What’s a social construction? Ideas. Human phenomena that reflect culture, like happiness, racism, coolness, etc. Can scientists study those things? They do all the time! Trust me. For example, try randomly assigning a group of people to a cotton candy condition and a dentist drill teeth condition, carefully doing a measure of happiness before and after and see if your hypothesis is supported. Tricky warning! It seems obvious, but remember that some people might be thrilled to have access to free dental work because of that pesky social construction of poverty. Or, remember that some people really like cotton candy (me). Is happiness material? Try to cut it. How would you? Literally, cut it so you have two halves. Go ahead! It’s not material, so I was just being tricky there. If you somehow figured out how to cut happiness into two halves, though, send me an email because I am curious!

Even thought scientists sometimes love to hate the notion of social constructions (seriously, I think they have a picnic to celebrate their hatred together, with balloons!) and social constructionists frequently abhor the notion of materiality (these folks have a house party to celebrate their abhorrence with good cheese!), they’re not mutually exclusive; they can coexist. Think of a chair. You like to sit in it! Who doesn’t? You could cut it – get a saw and try it (don’t). Is a chair material? Yes. No doubt. And good thing because I hate sitting on social constructions. Ha ha, right?! Like, I hate to sit on the floor. It’s so uncomfortable. And when I was a kid I totally understood that the people in power (teachers) sat on chairs while we were supposed to be all criss-cross-applesauce. No thank you! (Clearly, I was a delightful student.) Obviously, chairs are the sitting object of choice. Oh – unless you’re from a culture where people actually sit on the floor all the time. Or you do yoga (in which case, enjoy your “flexibility;” the irony quotes there are just me sucking my teeth at your flexibility in a way that is meant to poke fun but really reflects my envy, I’ll be honest). Somehow, early on, my culture taught my body to prefer sitting on a chair. And that people who sit in chairs are the leaders of people who sit on the floor (again, I guess unless you’re at yoga. I wouldn’t know because – as you might have gleaned – I can’t sit on the floor because I am a horrible person who has never done yoga). So a chair is also a social construction. It’s not natural in the sense that if I lived somewhere else, I’d prefer sitting on the ground, or at least find it perfectly comfortable and appropriate. You don’t need a chair. You could sit anywhere (not me, though! CHAIRS FOREVER!).

I wish this had sound effects, because the sound of cutting paper is SO satisfying. WHO’S WITH ME?

So, wait, scientists could be studying something that is simultaneously material and a social construction, depending on the level of analysis? Yup. Is everything simultaneously material and a social construction? Weeeehhh–ellllllllll (that’s a lot of l’s), here’s where things get tricky. Some scientists claim that material things are only material. Some feminist scholars claim that those things also always social constructions. But some feminist scholars are interested in a concept called ‘material agency’. What’s that, you say? Think back to the chair. So comfy! The floor: so uncomfy! Social construction! What about a desk? Sit on that. Probably less comfy than a chair, but better than the floor if you grew up in a culture like mine. What about a bookshelf? Not so good. A block of ice? Also not good (unless you need to cool off, I guess). What about a pencil. SERIOUSLY. What about a pencil? I’M NOT EVEN JOKING. What about the pointy end of a pyramid? I guess a small pyramid. Like a chair that had a pyramid instead of a more traditional (non-pointy) seat. Not comfy, right? YIKES, right? Sometimes, materiality just resists social constructions. It’s hard to imagine any person finding pencil-sitting comfy. It’s hard to imagine any culture socially constructing comfy pencil-sitting. Or pointy-pyramid-sitting. So some things have material agency. Material agency is when things fight back (which is an awesome name for a really bad horror movie). Like, try to gestate a fetus in your biceps. Good luck! That’s gross! There’s just something about a uterus that makes it good for gestating and a bicep that makes it not good for gestating (which is obviously not to say that every uterus should or could gestate or that uteri can in the absence of a body; just that NO biceps can, and uteri are the only things that can) (are you glad I got to use the plural of uterus? I AM.).

Materiality is what makes some sciences seem more science-y, because materiality can have material agency, which ‘resists’ social constructions and some people presume that social constructions make science less science-y. I don’t know why people think studying social constructions is less (okay I do) because Science is an approach that can certainly apply to ideas and non-material things. But, well, tradition, I guess. The other interesting thing that you may have been confused about is that there are lots of things scientists study that aren’t really material. They’re kind of like honorary material things but are not cut-table: e.g., evolution, magnetism, gravity, mathematics, [insert what you study here that makes sense]. Why are these things thought of as more material than, say, happiness or homophobia? One reason is that they have material agency despite not being material; they can’t ‘just’ be socialized. Another is that though they aren’t cut-table, they result in things: like you can see their effects even if you can’t see them. So if you saw a chair being cut, you’d know it was material: but you’d also think that what did the cutting was material (what cuts can be cut!) even if you couldn’t identify the force that did the cutting. So, forces seem material because they have material effects. Doesn’t homophobia have material effects? Or poverty? Yes. But those can still be understood as effects of social constructions. It’s muddy, I agree.

Critically, for Gap Junction Science, what’s a feminist scientist to do with the concept of material agency? Because many feminist scholars have put their eggs in the social construction basket. What happens when you can’t deconstruct a scientific concept (which means to critique it in a way that makes general understandings devoid of sociocultural engagement seem too simplistic). I would argue that taking material agency seriously – as seriously as scientists do – is key to feminist science practice. Because we scientists work with scientific variables that we see as material – that fight back – all the time. In fact, that’s one reason many of us scientists are scientists: because we can study things that we don’t entirely pull the marionette string for. We love the unexpected results (well, um, definitely once we figure out how to make a publishable story of them, anyway).  What’s the tricky part? Well, if a scientific variable exists outside of culture, people tend to think that makes it hard to engage with on sociocultural terms or as feminists.

A central insight from feminism is this:

No fact exists without context.

What does that even mean? It means that no result can be separated from interpretation. Feminist scholarship over the past century or two makes a really really compelling argument for this. The only problem is that this is sort of exactly opposite the point of materiality and material agency, whereby some things, things that are more thingy, do resist culture. What’s a thinking feminist scientist to do? I don’t know.

Just kidding! I have a few ideas and so do other folks. First, no matter how much material agency a thing has, it is going to be studied by people, and all people (except you, scientist-raised-by-wolves) exist in cultures. So, the ways that people interpret their results, the applications that people imagine for their findings, and whom is believed about what things — all these are sociocultural and subject to feminist engagement. Like, crystallizing hormones: it takes a culture able to want or imagine controlling reproduction to turn that into hormonal contraceptives. And it takes a culture that sees reproduction as a woman’s responsibility to make women’s but not men’s bodies as the target. It takes a culture that cares more about Western than non-Western bodies to experimentally test these hormones outside of the country of main intended use. It takes a culture that sees women’s bodies and gestation as everyone’s property to make hormonal contraceptives illegal or accessible only to ‘women of high moral character’. You can see where I’m going here.

It may be that some scientific variables have more material agency and, at this point in my thinking, I can’t help but agree with this premise. Maybe because, as a culture, we tend to diminish the importance of culture because culture often brings along that annoying baggage of power differences, oppression, and privilege, we tend to accord higher value to sciences that have more materiality or material agency because they are more thingy and less socially constructed. Therefore science that is seen as having less room for culture is seen as better, as more science-y. But Science is an approach, an epistemology, and anything that uses Science is equally scientific (you’re like: you would say that, Psychology Person!). At the end of the day, Science is still and always will be a human endeavor, which means that feminism is always going to be relevant. But equally scientific doesn’t mean the same science. Maybe some sciences are different than others, because they deal with materiality vs. ideas, forces vs. things, etc. It stands to reason, right? Which means that we, as people interested in feminist science, should continue thinking about how feminism might engage with idea science, vs. force science, vs. materiality science. Putting all our feminist eggs in the deconstructive basket can be problematic because there might be some thingy things that resist deconstruction. After all our critique, some things still have something thingy about them.  Maybe we need different feminist projects for different scientific projects. Maybe it’s not just facts or science that can’t exist outside of context; maybe it’s feminism too.

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8 Responses

  1. Stacey Ritz says:

    I will have more to say later, but for the moment, I just want to point out that I believe *I* was the first one to use the word “uteri” on this website, so that trophy should have my name on it.

  2. Mya says:

    All very good points. But I think there is something more to it… (Alert: physics snobbery to come.) I think the ordering you identified has more to do with the conclusions generated by the various types of science than the process. What I mean is the breadth of applicability and the generality of the conclusions. Which of course is inversely related to the complexity of the topic. We think of physics as the most sciency science because it generates “laws” that have stood the test of time and can be applied to a huge variety of phenomena. It probably doesn’t hold up in a philosophy sense, but that’s how my biases play out.

  3. Sari van Anders says:

    Dear Stacey: I actually invented the uterus in 1986. That’s actually a lie. I will put your name on that trophy 🙂

  4. Sari van Anders says:

    Mya: Thanks for the interesting insight. And I don’t think it’s physics snobbery; we all have a love for and belief in our disciplines… otherwise why would we be in them? And, anyway, most disciplines have some sort of physics-envy, not least of which is Psychology 🙂

    One thing that occurs to me, though, is that there are some areas of scientific (or science-like) knowledge that are pretty old, like agricultural knowledge, animal behavior, and animal husbandry (isn’t there a better word than husbandry??). These knowledge bases seem to have stood the test of time and are widely applicable and useful. Another pretty old discipline is astronomy, though I know that it’s often coupled with physics (though it often isn’t). All that said, I do think that the broader the rule, the more ‘science-y’ something is seen to be. But should that be how Science works? And, I guess I’m wondering how we define ‘broad’ – I don’t think that there’s a natural way that applies to science. Like, why do we think that the things physics applies to are more broad or represent more diverse phenomena than the things other disciplines apply to (e.g., all behavior, biomatter, chemical structures, etc.). This has got me thinking!

  5. Ann says:

    This was such a great post. I’ve heard it argued that psychology isn’t thought of as science-y because of the gap in effect sizes. Even using the general guidelines, I’d give my eye teeth for an r^2 of .25, whereas a physicist with an effect that size would be laughed right out of her program. Their variables are so much more controllable than ours! Materiality, I shake my fist at thee!

  6. Katy Goldey says:

    I’ve been thinking about this question (why some sciences seem more science-y) quite a bit lately, because I’m teaching a first-year seminar on science writing and my students are each working with different topics in different disciplines. There’s become a bit of a hierarchy in that the students working with engineering topics feel they have the biggest challenge, followed by the students working with biology, and then comes psychology. And, it’s hard for me not to subtly (or not so subtly) reinforce this, given that I can generally help the students when they have questions about psych topics (since I’m in psych), but just have to kind of shake my head when they ask me about dynamic magneto-optics. I’m trying to get across the idea that the disciplines are just different, or have different challenges, but at the same time I can’t shake the idea that psychology is just more accessible (at least to beginners) than microbiology or physics or some of the other disciplines my students are grappling with. I’d be curious to hear others’ suggestions for approaching this in the classroom — ways to challenge the idea that some sciences are ‘harder’ or less accessible than others?

  7. Sari van Anders says:

    Thanks Ann! There never is enough fist shaking, so I’m glad you’ve added yours. 🙂

  8. Sari van Anders says:

    Katy: Accessibility is another interesting entry point to the science-hierarchy argument. This is so fascinating to think about! First off, it seems fair to think that some disciplines do have a steeper entry slope. Do those that require the most classes or background seem the most science-y? For example, it would be harder for me to become an expert on Hungarian than English literature because I don’t know Hungarian (I do know Hungarian food, though, and I’m definitely would like to become an expert on that). If so many people can ‘get’ psychology, even without background, does that make it less science-y? Is Hungarian literature somehow more science-y than English literature? I don’t think ‘the steeper the slope, the more science-y the science.’

    But what about another angle? Are the sciences that are most TECHNICAL the most science-y? So, the more abstracted from daily or regular life, the more science-y? There is precedent for thinking this. Many feminist science studies scholars have pointed out that the abstract is valued over the concrete in academia. Perhaps a sign of abstract is more technical language – even when technical language is very concrete, it still is harder to understand (and more ‘abstract’ in a less strict sense) than less technical language.

    Interestingly, any discipline has its own specialized language – but when that specialized language is in the humanities or social sciences, it often gets labeled jargon. When that specialized language is in the sciences, it often gets described as ‘technical’.

    Another angle that comes to mind is that the more TECHNOLOGICAL, the more science-y a science. So, the more it uses technology (like gadgets and whizzy things), the more science-y it is perceived to be. Because technology is often conflated with Science (the epistemology), maybe because it’s often a big part of science (the day-to-day endeavor of doing science).

    I do think, though, that trying to position all disciplines as the same in any way eventually backfires because their differences are so apparent on many levels (including the day-to-day of engaging with them or learning them). So another issue is: how do we stop difference from equating to value? That’s a question for any feminist.

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