Last time, we looked at sociologists’ accounts of the tribe of science.  The old-school picture of science we got from Robert Merton made it look like a pretty egalitarian community: all the members of the community share their ideas and results, everyone’s ideas are taken seriously, and everyone’s ideas are carefully scrutinized by the community. Merton makes this sound like such an egalitarian community that you might overlook a striking feature of the tribe of scientists he was studying in the 1940s: the tribe was composed almost entirely of white men. This doesn’t seem so egalitarian.
Does the exclusion of women result in bad science? We’ll focus on the way this discussion has come up in feminist critiques of science, but it’s worth noting that these critiques of science can be extended to deal with the exclusion of other groups from the practice of science. Our goals today will be  to identify the kinds of background assumptions that may influence scientific theories, and the way feminist critiques of science may help scientists deal with these background assumptions;  to examine the question of what is required to do objective science in the first place;  and to consider how the composition of the scientific community could make a difference to the objectivity of the scientific knowledge this community produces.
“Feminism” is a contentious term, and there are lots of different definitions of feminism in the political discourse. For the purposes of our discussion, however, it’s not a particularly loaded term.  We’ll use “feminism” to identify a commitment to examine and address unequal treatment of the sexes.
There are two main sorts of lines, then, that a  feminist critique of science could take.
One is to examine inequalities in who gets to participate in the tribe of science.
Another is to examine scientific theories that seem to support unequal treatment of the sexes to see whether these theories are good ones or whether they result from an initial assumption of inequality. In other words, the feminist critiques we’ll consider look at both the practice of science and the adequacy of the knowledge science produces. As we’ll see, there may be a connection between practice and product.
Until recently, of course, it was simply a social reality that high prestige jobs, whether in science or in any number of other fields, just weren’t open to women. (Indeed, in this country women didn’t even get the right to vote until 1920!) So the tribe of science was hardly unique in barring women from participation.
The tribe of science did, however, offer a number of  scientific theories to support the exclusion of women from science, and many other fields besides.
The upshot of these theories of difference was that women didn’t have what it takes to be good scientists.  Either their intelligence was insufficient (because of smaller brains)
they were emotional rather than rational
too much schooling would render them infertile and thus destroy their lives. In any event, the all-male tribe of science was able to show (at least to its own satisfaction) that males were uniquely suited to the rigors of the scientific enterprise.
As it happened,  these theories of difference fit perfectly with the norms of the larger society. These accounts of women’s lack of intelligence or rationality wouldn’t require any social changes at all; women could continue bearing and raising the children, raising and preparing the food, keeping the house clean, and doing low-status menial labor. The old-timey theories of difference seem laughable to us today — really, now, a college education will damage my ovaries? — but there is plenty of recent research along similar lines. Just to name two, scientists have studied the effects of levels of sex-hormones during prenatal development on mathematical ability in an effort to explain why boys are better at math than girls, and there have been controversial studies about heritability and intelligence which have claimed that IQ is strongly correlated with race.
Are the scientific pictures of the world given in these theories of difference good ones? How can the tribe of science decide? And, should the tribe of science have recognized certain of these theories as bad ones at the outset? We’ll come back to the question of what feminists think science could do differently in constructing and evaluating its theories in just a moment.
Science systematically excluded women, and even offered theories of sex-difference to justify this exclusion. Now, the general feeling is that this was a bad thing to have done. Here are two possible responses to exclusion of women from science.  The first response says, excluding women was justifiable at the time based on scientific theories which we now see were mistaken.
Now that we know better women are welcome to practice science. (Well, unless further scientific studies show that in fact they’re not equipped to be scientists.)
The second response says, the exclusion of women from science was a social/political thing and it was unfair.
Now that we recognize this as a simple matter of equality of opportunity, women (and others) are welcome.
Certainly, excluding approximately half of the population up front reduced the pool of talent science could draw upon. As a result, there were fewer scientists than there could have been, and this might have slowed progress on certain scientific problems. On the other hand, in a world where seats in classrooms, scientist positions at universities and in private industry, and funding dollars are all finite resources, having too many scientists can create economic problems for the scientists! So a sheer increase in the number of scientists would not necessarily be a good thing for science as a whole.
Did the exclusion of women affect what scientific questions were being asked? This wouldn’t be surprising. Even today, the focus of research may be driven by the interests of the people doing the research. (Compare progress in the development of drugs for erectile dysfunction with progress in the development of a male birth control pill.) But there are uncountably many questions science could try to answer, and scientists are mortal. So there’s no way to guarantee that all the possible scientific questions get answered.
Here’s the crucial question: Did the exclusion of women affect the goodness of the picture science gives us of the world? Would including women in the tribe of science have made the knowledge this tribe produced more accurate and objective?
One camp is inclined to say NO. As regrettable as it was from the point of view of basic fairness to exclude women from science, science is an objective enterprise so it doesn’t really matter who’s driving. Using the scientific method, any scientist produces good knowledge, whether male or female.
But there is another camp that says: YES! The kind of knowledge the tribe of science produces (and the goodness of that knowledge) depends on the inclusion of women (and others) in the tribe. For one thing, it seems that including women in the tribe might have led to the speedier demise of certain theories of difference. You want to know whether women possess sufficient rationality to be scientists? Why not put the question to an empirical test by letting women practice science?
They assert that you get BETTER science by taking account of feminist critiques of science. The idea is to use feminist critique as an experimental control to identify unquestioned assumptions that might make a difference in the science produced. This adds critical rigor to science.
Paying attention to feminist critique helps science live up to its own norms, in particular organized skepticism toward assumptions that are so common in the tribe of science as to be invisible.
The Biology and Gender Study Group sees the field of biology as one where unquestioned assumptions have run rampant. This has not only led to worse scientific knowledge, but a bad time for women kept out of certain arenas and locked into others by theories of difference. Feminist critique, they argue, could help counter these masculinist assumptions. One area of biology where masculinist assumptions have been quite influential is in accounts of fertilization.
millions of sperm fighting their way through harsh conditions, each struggling to be the first to arrive at the prize: the egg. The egg, meanwhile, is just waiting. At last, one heroic sperm completes the quest, burrows through the egg to fertilize it, and fulfills its destiny, triggering the chain of events that transform the passive egg into a rapidly dividing zygote. The story is one we know so well that it’s easy to overlook how well it fits with certain gendered stereotypes. The story assumes that the male reproductive cells will display “masculine” characteristics, and the female reproductive cells will display “feminine” characteristics.
In other words, the sperm will be active, heroic, and single-minded in its pursuit of the girl. The egg will be big, blobby, passive, and useless without a man. There’s no reason we need to assume these sorts of traits in the sperm and egg, but they do make for a compelling story. But, just because this story fits with gendered assumptions about masculinity and femininity, does that make it a bad account of fertilization?
Well, what do we need from a good account? Primarily, we’re interested in a story that fits with, and makes sense of, what has been observed. Is the gendered story the only one that fits with what has been observed? No.  You’ll remember that Quine, among others, told us that there are always multiple theories you can give to account for the same set of observations. If that’s the case, why should we go with the gendered account? Maybe, for whatever reason, the gendered story just seems to make better sense of the observations than do the alternative theories.
But there is reason to be cautious here. As it turns out, recent observations challenge the gendered story of fertilization. Scanning electron microscopy shows that when the sperm contacts the egg, there appear on the egg microvilli (small finger-like projections of the cell surface).  These microvilli clasp the sperm and slowly draw it into the cell. This is not exactly consistent with a story where the sperm does all the work and the egg just sits there. Biochemical data also complicates the active sperm/passive egg account. The activity of the sperm is capacitated by interaction with secretions from the female reproductive tract. Further, while the sperm carries an enzyme to digest the outer layer of the egg, this enzyme must first be activated by another female secretion. These data present a more complicated picture of fertilization, where both sperm and egg play an active role, and each relies on interaction with the other in order to perform its own function.
In light of these recent findings, it seems fair to revise the earlier gendered description of fertilization. But before these findings, wasn’t the active sperm/passive egg model a reasonable one? Here’s the problem: although images of the microvilli were obtained with scanning electron microscopy in the 1980s, microvilli were first observed much earlier. Pictures of sea urchin fertilization that show microvilli were published as early as 1895. (Biologists love to study sea urchins because their reproductive cells are nice and big; you don’t need an electron microscope to see them.)  But though microvilli had been observed, they were largely ignored in accounts of fertilization.
Why?  Maybe because there was no good way to fit them into the gendered pattern biologists assumed a good account of fertilization would take. Even now, the role of the microvilli is controversial, which may show the kind of hold the familiar story exerts on biologists even today.
Taking feminist critique seriously as a control means being aware of gendered assumptions and striving NOT to build those assumptions into our scientific theories. Why assume the gendered pattern is true? Why not start out considering other possibilities as well (e.g., the possibility that both sperm and egg are active participants in the fertilization process)? Not only does this sort of scrutiny of background assumptions seem like the sort of thing hard-headed scientists should do, but it may increase the chances of our getting a story that makes sense of all the observations rather than ignoring certain bits because they don’t fit our expectations.
The Biology and Gender Study Group gives many examples of scientific theories that trade on gendered assumptions. Let’s look at just one more of these examples: the different models of the relationship between the nucleus and the cytoplasm in a biological cell.  In a diagram of a cell, the nucleus usually appears as a largish body within the cell. The cytoplasm is the label attached to the liquid filling the cell. But a simple diagram doesn’t tell us what biologist want to know about these parts of the cell: what do they do and how do they interact with each other?
In the 1940s, there were at least four different models proposed for the relation between the nucleus and the cytoplasm. According to the Biology and Gender Study Group,  these different accounts embodied four distinct societal views of marriage (with nucleus as husband, cytoplasm as wife in each).
The dominant model among German biologists described the nucleus as giving all the instructions to the cytoplasm and the cytoplasm serving only to fulfill those instructions, a relationship paralleling that between the autocratic Prussian husband and his obedient wife.
In the model offered by T.H. Morgan, an American biologist, the nucleus obtains information from the cytoplasm before giving it orders. This relationship was more like an American marriage circa 1930, where the husband is still in charge but exerts his authority after consulting with his wife.
Biologist C.H. Waddington, a British socialist, described the nucleus-cytoplasm relationship as a partnership between equals, where each performed useful functions and neither dominated the other.
Finally, another American, E.E. Just, described the cytoplasm as issuing the orders and the nucleus existing merely to fulfill them. Apparently, this model mirrored Just’s opinion of the relations between the sexes, as he felt himself dominated by his lover. There are some interesting features of this set of competing models. First, this is a nice case of multiple explanations being offered for a particular set of observations. Clearly, these biologists are not just reading the theory off the world, but rather striving for a theory to make sense of what we can observe. Second, we see a diversity of background assumptions about marriage, even in a field that (in the 1930s) was almost entirely male. Yet, there was agreement that marriage was a good analogy for the nucleus-cytoplasm relationship. Why marriage? What makes this a fruitful metaphor for scientific reasoning about the parts of a biological cell? And, there was a deeper background assumption in play, the assumption that a good explanation in biology identifies what controls what. Are there alternative patterns of explanation that might have shed more light on the cell? There may very well be.
Lots of scientists get their hackles up when they think someone is trying to trick them into supporting a political agenda. Many worry that this is precisely what a feminist critique of science aims for.  But the Biology and Gender Study Group is just arguing that science should live up to its own norms. In particular, science can use feminist – and other – critiques to be sure background assumptions are closely scrutinized.
One outcome of this examination of gendered assumptions might be  fewer theories of biological difference, especially if these theories enshrine our societal prejudices rather than good empirical science.
This might, in turn, lead to greater numbers of female scientists. But, it’s not clear that applying feminist critique as an experimental control requires that there be more women in the tribe of science. You could produce less biased science by following the norms of science more closely, even if you didn’t make any changes to who was in the tribe.
In particular, it’s what anyone could see using the appropriate method for getting rid of the subjective stuff. The appropriate method for seeing the world objectively, we might imagine, is simply the scientific method. We already have a general sense of this methodology: you design an experiment, calibrate the instruments, make accurate measurements that your labmates check, then use these to build or assess your hypotheses and theories. While some of the pictures of science we’ve discussed allow as how certain moments in science might be more subjective – say, in the imaginative task of coming up with new hypotheses or theories – they assure us that the end product, scientific knowledge, will be objective because of the objectivity of the testing. You determine what the theory predicts, you set up an experiment, and you determine whether or not the predicted outcome actually occurs. By applying the rules of science to the data, the scientist is supposed to be able to get an accurate picture of what’s really going on.
Different scientists, applying the same rules to the same data, can get different pictures of what’s going on
 Plus, we haven’t dispelled the worry that observations are theory-laden. This means that my experiments don’t give me facts anyone could observe.
Rather, they yield facts that reflect how the world seems to me through the lens of my theory. Is objectivity out of the question, then? Longino doesn’t think so. She says objectivity is where the community structure of science becomes very important.
All by myself, all I can get is how the world seems to me.
In a group,  I can find out what others see when they look at the same parts of the world.
I can tell them what I see. Not only can we compare the features we agree and disagree on,
but we can also go back and look again at the same parts of the world to see if they look any different now that we know what others see there.
Peer review is a mechanism within science where this kind of communication takes place. Suppose I’m a scientist. I do an experiment, observe results,
and  write a paper about what I saw and what it means. In order to communicate my results to other scientists (and establish my priority)
I send my paper to a journal. Rather than just publishing it, however, the editor of the journal
sends my manuscript out to other scientists so that they can evaluate it.
Sometimes their evaluation is unequivocal: “this is perfect!” or “this is awful!” Most of the time, however, the scientists reviewing the manuscript will find things in the paper they agree with and other things about which they’re not so sure. When I receive the reviewers’ comments on my paper, they may say
I don’t need to make all the changes the reviewers suggest, but I must justify what I’ve done (and the things I’ve decided not to change) in the light of what they’ve said.
Even then, other scientists can dispute my findings. But, to count as knowledge worth publishing, my manuscript must go through this process.
What’s the point of this peer review process? The goal is to figure out what we agree upon and to filter out the influence of subjective preference as much as possible. Which parts of how the world seems to me are due to the world, and which are due to my subjective preferences? The parts we tend to agree on might be the best candidates for the features of our experience that correspond to real features of the world.
If we make the tribe of science as diverse as possible, we increase the chances that scientists are bringing different subjective preferences to the table. This, in turn, makes it harder for my own subjective preferences to sneak by unquestioned. If a tribe of scientists with very different background assumptions can build a body of knowledge they all agree upon, this might be as close as we can get to an accurate picture of what the world is really like. Alternative points of view are essential if we are to examine our own point of view. This is part of why sociologists are usually outsiders rather than members of the tribe they are studying: to you, your own culture is largely invisible. Your background assumptions are so far in the background, you don’t realize you’re making them. But to someone from a different culture, making different background assumptions, your culture and background assumptions will be easier to recognize.
PHIL 160 PHIL 160 "Feminist Critiques of Science"
Biology & Gender Study Group Feminist critique of science can lead to better science. PHIL 160
Biology & Gender Study Group Feminist critique of science can lead to better science. PHIL 160 Helps science live up to the norm of organized skepticism by questioning unquestioned assumptions.
PHIL 160 “… masculinist assumptions have impoverished biology by causing us to focus on certain problems to the exclusion of others, and they have led us to make particular interpretations when equally valid alternatives were available.” Biology & Gender Study Group