Feminist Philosophy of Science: Contemporary Perspectives

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Feminists are a very diverse lot, but one thing they all share is a commitment to gender equality and a determination to bring it about. Feminist philosophers of science, along with feminist historians and sociologists of science and feminist scientists themselves, have focused especially on science, investigating both the ways science has helped to perpetuate gender inequality (their critical investigations) and the ways science can now help to eliminate it (their constructive investigations).

Critical Investigations

Feminists' critical investigations have dealt with fields as diverse as primatology and molecular biology, economics and medical research, and their claims have been jarring. For example, feminists have documented a history of misogyny in both psychology and biology. In psychology, a dominant theme has been the inferioritythe intellectual, social, sexual, and even moral inferiorityof women to men (Marecek 1995, Wilkinson 1997). In biology, a host of research projects have aimed to "explain" the origins and manifestations of these presumed inferiorities in terms of what is largely unchangeable: genes, brain structure, and hormonal structure (Schiebinger 1989, Fausto-Sterling 1992, 2000). Feminists have argued that other sciences, as well, have supported this view of women's inferiority: for example, the historical sciences (such as archaeology), with their modes of representation of the past, modes of representation marked by heroic exploits and spectacular accomplishments of men counterpoised with lackluster doings or outright invisibility of women (Conkey and Williams 1991). And they have argued that still other scientific fields have perpetuated or added to the problems of inequality women confront, but in different ways than by documenting women's inferiority. Neglecting women's needs and priorities in the employment and household sectors in economic model-building, they have claimed, has had dire effects on public policy relating to women (Waring 1992, Ferber and Nelson 1993, Nelson 1996). And neglecting women in both basic and clinical research until well into the 1990s, they have added, has had dire effects on women's health care (Rosser 1994, Weisman and Cassard 1994, Schiebinger 1999). Other scientific fields that have figured prominently in feminists' critical investigations are anthropology, sociology, and political science, and evenwith regard to their past and sometimes even present exclusionary practicesthe physical sciences and mathematics (Kramarae and Spender 1992, Stanton and Stewart 1995, Schiebinger 1999, Kourany 2002).

Constructive Investigations

Feminists' constructive investigations have been the site of considerable controversy, far more so than their critical investigations. It is agreed all around that science will aid the cause of equality for women if science works to replace prevailing ignorance and prejudice and misinformation about women with more adequate perspectives. But just how is this to be done?

the methodological approach

Many feminist scientists have pointed out that a great deal of sexist science is, by the lights of traditional scientific methodology, simply bad science. Thus, they have taken to task mainstream authors of androcentric and sexist scientific work for failing to abide by accepted standards of concept formation, experimental design, interpretation of data, and the like (Bleier 1984, Hubbard 1990, Fausto-Sterling 1992). If such standards were rigorously followed, they have suggested, the problem of sexism and androcentrism in science would be, at the very least, much reduced. Feminist health researchers, for example, have pointed out that until the 1990s diseases such as heart disease that affect both sexes were defined as "male diseases," studied primarily in white, middle-aged, middle-class males, and clinically handled accordingly. As a result, heart disease in women (who, as it turns out, differ from men in symptoms, patterns of disease development, and reactions to treatment) was often not detected and not properly managed when it was detected. Such problems could beand ultimately werehandled simply by following accepted methodological procedures such as designing clinical studies with groups of subjects that were more nearly representative of the patient population at large (see, for example, Rosser 1994 and the special report on "Women's Health Research" in Science 1995).

Other feminist scientists have explored ways of reforming traditional scientific methodology. Margrit Eichler (1988 and 1980), for example, has developed batteries of detailed sex- and gender-related guidelines concerning such aspects of research as concept formation, research design and instrumentation, and data interpretation to help scientists screen sexism and androcentrism out of their research, and the Biology and Gender Study Group (1988) conceptualizes such procedures as a new kind of experimental control to deal with gender bias. Feminist scientists have also explored new pedagogies to reform scientists themselves: for example, cooperative rather than competitive pedagogical methods and ones that take full note of the experiences of women and the contributions of women scientists (Rosser 1995).

All of these suggestions can be rationalized by appeal to the ideal of value-free science. According to this ideal, scientific investigations must be kept strictly free of ethical or political commitments. Since sexism and androcentrism embody social values, they simply do not belong in science. Indeed, they bias science and thereby jeopardize science as an impartial resource in the struggle for social justice. On this view of science, the only legitimate strategy for eliminating sexist and androcentric bias is to press for stricter adherence to the canons of scientific inquiry on the part of individual scientists. This view, that good method will yield science undistorted by sexism or androcentrism, can be called the methodological approach.

the social approach

Few feminist philosophers of science accept the individualistic and formalistic conception of science implicit in the methodological approach. Some of them, along with some feminist scientists, have opted instead for a social approach unallied with the ideal of value-free science. They argue that no scientific method, however rigorous and however rigorously applied, can be guaranteed to screen out the various values and interests that scientists from their different social locations (race, gender, class, and so on) bring to their research. Scientists' values and interests can and do determine which questions they investigate and which they ignore, can and do motivate the background assumptions they accept and those they reject, can and do influence the observational or experimental data they select to study and the way they interpret those data, and so on. As a result, changes must be sought in the communities that generate our scientific knowledge if the knowledge generated is to aid the cause of equality for women. After all, scientific communities have historically been dominated by menmen who have been raised within sexist and androcentric societies and trained within sexist and androcentric scientific traditions; men who, moreover, profit from this sexism and androcentrism. Small wonder, then, that sexist and androcentric values have shaped the scientific knowledge generated by these communities.

But if changes should be made in the communities that generate our scientific knowledge, exactly what should be the nature of these changes? Here advocates of the social approach differ. Feminist-standpoint theorists argue that womenwho also have been raised within sexist and androcentric societies and trained within sexist and androcentric scientific traditionsare still in a better position than their male counterparts to uncover and critique sexist and androcentric scientific perspectives and replace them with more adequate perspectives (are still in a better position, for example, to uncover and critique sexist assumptions about the sexual division of labor in prehistory made by male archaeologists and replace them with questions and hypothetical answers suggestive of new lines of research). "They have less to lose by distancing themselves from the social order; thus, the perspective from their lives can more easily generate fresh and critical analyses" (Harding 1991, p. 126, and cf. 1986). The upshot is that women's perspectives should not only be welcomed into scientific communities, but they should also be privileged over men's perspectives, at least in gender-relevant areas of research, if the knowledge generated by those communities is to be an adequate basis for social justice.

Feminist empiricists such as Helen Longino and her followers, on the other hand, argue that standpoint theorists fail to take note of the diversity of perspectives of both women and men. There are women, for example, who have participated in research that is damaging to women, and there are men who have done just the opposite (see, for example, the diversity of perspectives in the special report on "Women's Health Research" in Science 1995). As a matter of empirical fact there simply is no one standpoint shared by all and only women, and hence, no "women's standpoint" especially conducive to uncovering and correcting prevailing ignorance and prejudice and misinformation about women. If science is to provide us with more adequate views about women, Longino urges, scientific communities must finally be made into inclusive places where women and feminist perspectives are given an equal though not a privileged hearing. More specifically, scientific communities will have to have public venues for criticism, publicly recognized standards by reference to which criticism can be made, "uptake" of such criticism (that is, the criticism will have to be taken seriously and responded to), and "tempered equality" of intellectual authority among all parties to the debate, among whom "all relevant perspectives are represented" (Longino 2002, pp. 128135; and cf. 1990). Only if scientific communities are organized in these ways, says Longino, will the necessary "transformative criticism" of our current views of women be possible. But Longino gives us no reason to believeand certainly no empirical evidence to suggestthat organizing scientific communities in these ways will issue in that transformative criticism, that is, will dispel the ignorance and prejudice and misinformation about women of which we are now possessed.

the political approach

This motivates yet another approach different from both the methodological and social approacheswhat might be called the political approach. Like the methodological approach, the political approach recognizes that sexism and androcentrism must be rooted out of science if science is to replace prevailing ignorance and prejudice and misinformation about women with more adequate perspectives, but unlike the methodological approach, the political approach also recognizes that rooting sexism and androcentrism out of science is tantamount to implanting egalitarian social values into science. Again, like the social approach, the political approach recognizes that social values inevitably enter into science, but unlike the social approach, the political approach recognizes that we as a society have a definite saythrough funding priorities and restrictions, for exampleas to what these social values will be. Indeed, given that science is both a profound shaper of society and a profound beneficiary of society, these social values should be chosen so as to meet the needs of society, including the justice-related needs of society.

Under the political approach, in short, our scientific views (and hence, ultimately, our generally accepted knowledge) of women would no longer be plagued by sexism or androcentrism simply because those would be the morally justified political conditions under which scientific research would be conducted (Kourany 2003, Anderson 1995, 2004). But would this political structure for science jeopardize science's objectivity? That is to say, would it render science's resultant "knowledge of women" not genuine knowledge at all?

the naturalist approach

Feminist naturalists provide a possible answer. A naturalist approach to the philosophy of science rejects a priori prescriptions about the conduct of inquiry or the composition of scientific communities. This approach advocates instead a close look at successful scientific practice in order to identify those of its features that contribute to and explain its success (Antony 1993, 1995). Such observation shows, feminist naturalists point out, that egalitarian social values need not compromise the objectivity of science any more than do other features of scientific communities such as competitiveness, deference to authority, or the desire for credit for one's accomplishments.

Indeed, such observation shows, feminist naturalists point out, that egalitarian social values can be aids in the acquisition of objective knowledge: when these values are allowed to influence science (for example, by motivating particular lines of research or the maintenance of particular social structures), that science can actually be more developed and more empirically adequate than before (Wylie and Nelson 1998, Campbell 2001). And when we reflect on the effects of feminism in science during the last three decadesthe wide-ranging critiques of traditional science in such fields as psychology, sociology, economics, political science, archaeology, anthropology, biology, and medical research, and the new research directions and results forged in the wake of these critiqueswhen we reflect on the effects of feminism in science during the last three decades, the claims of these feminist naturalists seem especially convincing. Egalitarian social values in these cases have seemed to yield better rather than worse science, more objective rather than contaminated science (Schiebinger 1999; Creager, Lunbeck, and Schiebinger 2001).

Feminist naturalism, however, faces at least one large problem, one that stems from a problem for naturalized epistemology in general: It threatens to eliminate the normative in favor of the descriptive, and in doing so, eliminate the grounds for normative critique. It is impossible, after all, to say a priori which values will be aids and which will be hindrances to the acquisition of objective knowledge. Racism and sexism and egalitarian social values, all are possible aids or hindrances to the acquisition of objective knowledge, and all must be empirically tested to see which they are. There is at least the suggestion, therefore, that any of them will do if only they can prove their mettle in scientific research. So if, for example, a close comparative study of German science before, during, and after the Third Reich discloses that Nazi social values produced the best scientific results, the most abundant and most empirically successful science, then Nazi social values would be "good" values and should therefore be welcomed into science. Or if such a study discloses that Nazi social values produced a science just as good as the others, but no better, then it should be a matter of complete indifference whether Nazi social values or the other sciences' values should find their way into science. In short, feminist naturalists do not tell us what considerations, other than empirical adequacy, ought to govern our choice of social values. Some feminist naturalists emphasize that social values are empirically tested by an interrelated system of facts and values (Nelson 1990, 1993; Anderson 1995, 2004; Campbell 1998), but it is unclear whether this move is sufficient to address the general problem.

The Contribution to Philosophy of Science

Feminists have pursued still other approaches in their constructive investigations of science, but what do they, or the critical investigations that preceded them, have finally to do with philosophy of science ?

Nearly a half-century ago, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, Stephen Toulmin, Norwood Russell Hanson, and others issued a challenge to philosophers of science to make their field more relevant to actual science. That challenge, over time, has elicited a number of useful responses: first, efforts to "historicize" philosophy of science, to make philosophy of science relevant to the actual development of science, both past and present; and second, efforts to "socialize" philosophy of science, to make philosophy of science relevant not only to science's conceptual products but also to the actual knowledge-productive social practices that have led to those products. But very few efforts have thus far been made to "societize" philosophy of science, to make philosophy of science relevant to the ways in which science interacts with the wider society in which it occurs, the ways in which science both shapes and is shaped by that society. The unit of analysis for philosophy of science has tended to remain (an historical, social) science-in-a-vacuum. Feminist philosophers of science, in collaboration with feminist historians and sociologists of science and feminist scientists themselves, provide philosophers of science with a start to a societized philosophy of science.

First, feminists have situated science within its wider social context when philosophizing about science. Indeed, feminists have been especially concerned with the social consequences of sciencein particular, the ways science has all too frequently perpetuated and added to the problems of inequality women confront. This concern with science's social consequences has led feminists to scrutinize those features of science that help to shape its social consequencesnot only the research strategies of scientists but also their social location and training, the social as well as epistemic values that inform their practice, and the funding priorities that direct their research. What's more, in all this feminists have been motivated, not only by the need and desire for understanding, but also by the need and desire for social change, and they have explored social/political/epistemic initiatives intended to bring about that changenew funding priorities for science, for example, or new kinds of recruitment or training programs, or new social or epistemic values.

In short, feminist philosophers of science, in collaboration with feminist historians and sociologists of science and feminist scientists themselves, have been pursuing a comprehensive analysis of science-in-society and a comprehensive plan of action to bring about needed change in both science and society. This is the first way in which feminists have given us a start to a societized philosophy of scienceby giving us a ready-made example of such philosophizing.

In addition, the ready-made example of societized philosophy of science that feminists have given us can be generalizedthis is the second way in which feminists have given us a start to a societized philosophy of science. Indeed, science has all too frequently perpetuated and added to other kinds of inequality besides gender inequalityinequality relating to race and sexual orientation and physical ability and disability, for example. And science has all too frequently perpetuated and added to other kinds of social problems besides those relating to inequalityproblems relating to the environment, for example, and problems relating to the inability to achieve peaceful coexistence among nations. What's more, with different kinds of funding priorities, or different kinds of recruitment or training programs, or different kinds of social or epistemic values, or the like, science can not only cease to put obstacles in the way of solutions to these problems, but more effectively help to bring those solutions about. So there is much descriptive and normative philosophical work to be done on many fronts, philosophical work that can, at least in part, be modeled on the work already done by feminists.

Finally, the work done by feminists provides not only a generalizable example of societized philosophy of science, but it provides important additional resourcesas wellinsights concerning the relations between epistemic values and social values and the place of social values in science, for example, insights concerning what makes for scientific objectivity and what threatens it, insights concerning the ultimate goals of science and the methods that are appropriate to them, and the like. This is the third way in which feminists have given us a start to a societized philosophy of science.

See also Feminist Epistemology; Feminist Metaphysics; Feminist Philosophy; Feminist Philosophy of Science; Philosophy of Science; Sexism.


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