Feminist Glaciers and the Science Culture Wars

Steven Pinker recently penned a massive essay for Chronicle called "The Intellectual War on Science." I'm generally a pretty big fan of Pinker, but I am skeptical of this narrative that there's a "war on science," fed by some sort of postmodernist view that truth is relative. This is a popular narrative among people like Jordan Peterson and Gad Saad, who seem to think postmodernism (and the damn feminists!) are ruining science. Saad, for example, recently mocked an event purporting to address feminist issues in science, saying sarcastically, "I've always thought that research on the distribution of prime numbers was biased by the male gaze. Let's have a more diverse and inclusive understanding of number theory."

Before proceeding, I want to lead with a quote by one of my favorite scientists, cognitive linguist George Lakoff. In his book Philosophy in the Flesh, he remarks,
Science, as Kuhn rightly observed, does not always proceed by the linear accretion of objective knowledge. Science is a social, cultural, and historical practice, knowledge is always situated, and what counts as knowledge may depend on matters of power and influence. Accordingly, we reject the simpleminded ideas that all science is purely objective, that issues of power and politics never enter into science, that science progresses linearly, and that it can always be trusted.
And with that in mind I want to talk, briefly, about a reference Pinker made in the article. He snidely referenced a research article that purported to discuss feminist issues in climate change:
Many scholars in "science studies" devote their careers to recondite analyses of how the whole institution is just a pretext for oppression. An example is a 2016 article on the world’s most pressing challenge, titled "Glaciers, Gender, and Science: A Feminist Glaciology Framework for Global Environmental Change Research," which sought to generate a "robust analysis of gender, power, and epistemologies in dynamic social-ecological systems, thereby leading to more just and equitable science and human-ice interactions."
Steven Pinker
Google is your friend, here. Now, I'd be the first to tell you there are serious issues in science regarding the quality of research being done, whether it's done just to generate headlines, and the notorious replication crisis. But sometimes something that seems like low-hanging fruit contains more nuance than one might imagine. The author of the "equitable human-ice interactions" study was interviewed by ScienceMag, and once you actually read the interview, it becomes difficult to square his research with Pinker's assertion that it is a "recondite analyses of how the whole institution is just a pretext for oppression." I recommend reading the interview, of course, but here are some choice quotes:
Our paper argues that social science and humanities research can contribute to the development of appropriate strategies for specific and diverse societies to adapt to change. A woman’s experience securing postdisaster aid, rebuilding a home, and raising a family after a glacial lake outburst flood has destroyed her community is different than those of men. And for glaciologist Erin Pettit, the founder of the Girls on Ice program for young women to study glaciology, there is something productive and empowering that happens when high school girls learn science and conduct field research in an environment without boys.

There is a large and ever-growing community of researchers in science and technology studies who have been analyzing science through the lens of gender since the 1980s. The research is partly about men versus women in science but more deeply about issues of credibility and legitimacy in science: Who is able to make credible statements about the natural world, given the larger societal structures of inequality? What qualifies as legitimate science? In our current era that increasingly recognizes the importance of indigenous and other local knowledge, there has been more pluralizing of environmental knowledge, which has helped draw more researchers to the study of gender and science.

Let's consider that in light of Lakoff's statement. Contrary to Gaad's insinuation, science is not purely objective; it's a deeply human enterprise. Accordingly, questions of what kinds of research should be done and who should do it are strongly influenced by sociocultural norms, including gender norms. Addressing these in a field like Glaciology isn't anti-intellectual; it's a social scientist exploring how sociocultural norms intersect with the practice of scientific research.

I think there's a certain irony in Pinker criticizing what he sees as a trend of anti-intellectualism while carelessly misrepresenting another scientist simply because the title of one of that scientist's papers appears, at an uncritical glance, to support Pinker's narrative. The moral is: be skeptical of narratives, even when they come from people you respect.


Popular posts from this blog

Why Christianity is bullshit, part 1: The Bible is stupid

Why Christianity is bullshit, part 2: The Bible isn't true

There is no such thing as sophisticated theology