Thursday, October 6, 2016

Science, Knowledge Acquisition, and Sexism

I've blogged many times before about the STEM fields and under-representation of women. There are a variety of explanations as to why women are so under-represented in these fields. But one PhD candidate thinks she knows the problem: the scientific method itself:
College science classes are hostile to women and minorities because they use the scientific method, which assumes people can find reliable truths about the natural world through careful and sustained experimentation, concludes a recent dissertation by a doctoral candidate at the University of North Dakota.
Yes, you read that right, and no, the article is not satire (which was my original thought when I saw the link). For her dissertation, Laura Parson reviewed 8 syllabi, looking for gender biased language, such as use of gendered pronouns. Instead, she found "language used in the syllabi reflects institutionalized STEM teaching practices and views about knowledge that are inherently discriminatory to women and minorities by promoting a view of knowledge as static and unchanging, a view of teaching that promotes the idea of a passive student, and by promoting a chilly climate that marginalizes women." What is she saying exactly?
Throughout her dissertation, Parson assumes and asserts that women and minorities are uniquely challenged by the idea that science can provide objective information about the natural world. This is an unfair assumption, she says, because the concept of objectivity is too hard for women and minorities to understand.

So, in other words, using logic and the scientific method are inherently “male” ways of knowing that women and minorities cannot employ. Rather than rejecting this insulting view of women and minorities’ intellectual and rational capacities, Parson uses it as a pretext to advocate that science classes abandon the scientific method itself (which rests on the assumption that truth is unchanging and knowable) and all other “male” forms of oppression, such as “weed-out courses, courses that grade on a curve, a competitive environment, reliance on lecture as a teaching method, an individualistic culture, and comprehensive exams.”
To explain, Parson is using poststructuralist feminist theory, which is based on the assumption that truth is relative - it's all based on your perspective and experience, and everyone's is different - and people construct knowledge subjectively. My truth is not necessarily your truth, but that doesn't make either any less true.

My head hurts.

But in all seriousness, this is the lens through which Parson is conducting her analysis, which explains her conclusions. This is her specific epistemology - a philosophy on how knowledge is gathered. And to be fair, there are many approaches to the philosophy of science - from positivism, which asserts that there is an objective truth that can be known through scientific study, to approaches that would align more with Parson's way of thinking, such as relativism or constructivism. But most scientists who don't consider themselves positivist have moved to what is called the post-positivist perspective - individual scientists cannot be truly objective, because our view of the world will be biased in many ways, but through a shared understanding and use of the scientific method, as well as knowledge sharing and replication with/by others, we can uncover the truth. Alone we are biased, but together we are objective.

Basically, we need the scientific method to keep us honest and on the same page.

It's interesting to me that in trying to suggest alterations to make science less sexist, Parson has used some of the most sexist language I've heard in academic writing. I'm resisting the urge to judge her. At first, I thought it bothered me that she was suggesting I was too stupid to understand science, but I know that I excel at science, and that an insinuation that I am stupid would only hurt me if I thought it was true at some level. But as I sit here writing this post, I realized what bothered me is the implication that I excel in science because I have bought into the sexism. That I am a party to it, and that in teaching the scientific method, I have spread sexism to my students. That is what Parson is saying between the lines.

I have been operating under the opposite perspective. I love science, and I think the main reason I do is because there is no elitism, at least in theory. If you follow the scientific method, you can discover the truth. There are no stipulations in the scientific method about the character or background of the truth-seeker. The seeker can be any age, any gender, any race, any nationality. Systems built around these basic tenets may have become elitist and sexist, yes, but at its basic level, science is open to all.

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