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Do We Need “Feminist Science”?

In the nineteenth century, some scientists argued that the female brain was not big enough to sustain intellectual activity, and that studying too hard put females at risk for physical and mental health problems, including infertility, decreased immune responses, and “insanity.”

It took female scientists like Mary Putnam Jacobi and Leta Hollingworth to demonstrate that these claims were ill-supported and biased. It turns out that neither absolute brain size nor brain-to-body weight ratio correspond in any relevant way to cognitive capacities. Females, shockingly enough, have the ability to have babies, get an education, and manage not to die or go mad.

Here is the short story, according to feminist philosophers of science: female differences and experiences have been pervasively overlooked or categorized as deviant from their male counterparts across a number of different scientific fields. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find such a socially important organizer like gender shaping and influencing the scientific enterprise, which itself is a social institution.

Based on this reading, feminists have been arguing since the 1980’s that science is not value- or bias-free, nor should it be. In their view, the pervasiveness of sexism requires a more general solution to the methodology of science. We should embrace feminist values and inject them into scientific reasoning as appropriate means to steer science away from sexist results.

But is this really a good idea? Should we abandon the attempt to make science “value-free” and instead embrace “feminist science”?

The Value-Free Ideal

Historically, science has been conceived of as an empirical and rational inquiry into the natural world. The goal is to separate scientific reasoning from the influence of irrational or a-rational factors. The main idea is that science should be value-free. We can call this conception of science “modern science,” because it is associated with the developments of modernity, such as the enlightenment.

The core of scientific reasoning is theory evaluation. Once a theory has been proposed about the nature and function of the phenomena in question, the theory is assessed with respect to the available evidence and is subsequently accepted or rejected. In the modern scientific framework, the goal is to make these judgments based only on epistemic or cognitive values (values with a special connection to rationality). Non-epistemic values (values with no such connection, such as socio-political and personal values) should not be the basis of such judgements. The standard that restricts the legitimate values in the context of theory evaluation to epistemic values is known as the value-free ideal.

Epistemic values typically include:

  1. Empirical Adequacy. Is this theory consistent with the available evidence?
  2. Internal Consistency: Does this theory contain any logical contradictions?
  3. Predictive Power: Does this theory predict outcomes accurately and precisely?
  4. Explanatory and Unifying Power: How well does this theory explain different aspects and dimensions of the phenomena in question? How well does it explain phenomena in a variety of different domains?
  5. External Consistency: How well does this theory fit with other well-established scientific theories?
  6. Simplicity: Does this theory contain anything extraneous?

The intrinsic connection these values bear to rationality make them appropriate reasoning tools. The value-free ideal is essentially about what counts as good scientific reasoning and what does not, specifically within the context of theorizing.

Now, this is not to say that non-epistemic values do not play any role in science. Non-epistemic values can play a legitimate role in science, but in peripheral ways. These might include using socio-political values to choose what research to conduct; using social or personal values to generate hypotheses; using ethical values to provide guidance on practical matters, such as experimental and data collection methods; and using socio-political values for judgments concerning the application of a theory to a social problem or goal.

Feminist philosophers of science claim that non-epistemic values legitimately play even more intimate roles in science than these. They argue for this claim by denying that the value-free ideal is effective at ridding science of biases and non-epistemic values.

The Descriptive Argument for Feminist Science

The go-to feminist argument against the value-free ideal is what I call the descriptive argument. The descriptive argument highlights staple examples from fields of science such as primatology, the anthropology of human development, and the biology of reproduction. Issues ranging from poor experimental methodology, lack of theoretical alternatives, and unexamined sexist background assumptions all plague these fields, leading to the acceptance of inadequate theories.

From the modern scientific perspective, such cases are just instances of bad science. Many feminist philosophers of science disagree, arguing that even some of the best examples of scientific procedure appear to be value-laden in crucial ways. They claim that the value-free ideal, as a guiding principle, is ineffective at eliminating biases in science. Thus, it is not the application of the standard that is the problem but the standard itself. In their view, the solution is to interject feminist socio-political values into science as guiding principles. Since sexist science is bad science, feminist science will make for better science by making it non-sexist.

Feminist philosophy promotes a situated theory of knowledge: all knowledge is known from within a particular social situation or perspective that affects a knower’s access to information and the way they represent that knowledge internally (feminist epistemology). Within this framework, gender—as an important social situation—will impact the production of knowledge. Feminist science amounts to a close examination of how gender influences the production of knowledge within science, in particular, and a strategy for improving that process to better meet the feminist socio-political agenda. It is evaluated through and led by feminist values, with the aim of advancing the social welfare of women.

Here are some examples of feminist values, proposed by feminist philosopher Helen Longino, that could replace or work alongside the traditional epistemic values.

  1. Theoretical Novelty. Does the theory offer novel alternative explanatory tools that significantly depart from accepted theories?
  2. Ontological Heterogeneity. Does the theory posit different kinds of entities and grant those entities causal parity?
  3. Applicability to Human Needs. Will the research programme provide us with knowledge applicable to human needs?
  4. Diffusion of Power. Does the research programme exclude others from participating by requiring highly technical skills, niche expertise, or expensive equipment?

Theoretical novelty rejects the primacy of external consistency with pre-established theories. This value aims to free science from its sexist past by offering new means of understanding and explaining well-known or new phenomena. Ontological heterogeneity promotes ontological pluralism and explains things in terms of the equal causal import of these different entities. This value aims to make women’s dissimilarities from men visible as signs not of women’s inferiority but of their equality in difference. This is opposed to the epistemic values of simplicity and explanatory unification, which seek to explain phenomena in terms of as few causally efficacious entities as possible. The last two values are more practical, seeking to put science at the service of feminist goals.

Challenging the Descriptive Argument

There are multiple reasons one might not be bothered by the descriptive argument. First, the argument depends on the quality of the examples brought up. For each example, we could dispute whether sexism affected the scientific reasoning itself. Metaphorical or illustrative language in popular science writing that does not pass feminist muster is not a threat to the value-free ideal. Feminists expect science to be sexist because they think society is sexist, but perhaps confirmation bias soils their conclusions.

Second, for examples on which we do agree, we can absorb feminist critiques and still maintain the value-free ideal by saying that the ideal helps to lessen the influence of biases over time, not eliminate them immediately (or even totally, for that matter). As an ideal, it might still be worth upholding. We could also implement some social policies that feminists recommend, such as increased representation of women in science. This could help counteract bias and generate alternative hypotheses. Theoretically, this would increase the likelihood that sexist and hegemonic biases and background assumptions do not go unchallenged, and that new ways of seeing and explaining phenomena do not go unheard.

None of this gives non-epistemic values any legitimate positive role in theory evaluation. The positive roles these values can play are still restricted to those peripheral roles outlined earlier.

Lastly, we might question the scope of such critiques. Most feminist examples of bias come from the social sciences or sciences that directly pertain to biological sex. Rather than making claims about science as a whole, why not just direct our ire at the social sciences and human centred subjects? We could focus on trying to install additional but scientifically respectable measures to help safeguard against the intrusion of social values and gender biases in these more susceptible forms of science.

The force of this argument for feminist science is just too weak to defeat the value-free ideal.

Feminists Should Embrace Modern Science

The aim of science—according to modern science—is to extract truths about the natural world. To achieve this aim, we need to produce the most reliable system of descriptions and explanations possible, as a grounding for rationally justified belief. The value-free ideal helps us achieve this epistemic aim. Scientific theories that are evaluated by the epistemic values produce good theories, because those values are the same values we use to judge the rationality of our beliefs. If rationality is a guide to truth, and we want our scientific theories to reflect truth as much as possible, then we need them to be rational.

The proposed feminist values, on the other hand, are either harmful or irrelevant to the rational merits of a theory. Consider “theoretical novelty.” This cuts directly against the epistemic value of external consistency with other well-established theories. For feminist philosophers of science, a marker of a good theory is if it disagrees with other theories—theories that we have good reason to believe are true. This leads us astray from rationality and thus away from truth.

Rigorous, empirical scientific research does not replace philosophical arguments about the nature of sex and gender or political arguments about how to accommodate sexual difference, but it can and should inform those debates. It is the job of our best scientific theories to tell us about the differences and similarities between female and male biology, from the function of the male and female endocrine systems and the stages of reproductive development to psychological sex differences and other empirically observable phenomena. We need these theories to be as close to the truth as possible in order to effectively advance a pro-woman agenda. This is especially true for sex-realist feminists, who emphasize the political significance of sexual difference.

Feminism, like any political movement, depends on practical action to bring about change. Purposeful action requires an effective strategy to achieve the intended end, which itself depends on the causal structure of the world we live in. This causal structure is uncovered by research in fields like chemistry, physics, engineering, and psychology. Feminist science and its values will not provide us with the reliable causal knowledge we need to formulate and carry out effective strategies.

If feminists seek justice, they must discuss, criticize, and persuade people who do not share their socio-political values. All of this requires a common core of knowledge, a set of agreed upon facts or standards to base our discussion, criticisms, and persuasive efforts on. In our pluralistic contemporary context, scientific inquiry offers a comprehensive and intersubjectively reliable framework. It can be understood and accepted by those who hold very different political and religious perspectives.

If we abandoned the value-free ideal and instead used feminist values to evaluate scientific theories, then the results of that inquiry would be overtly biased with respect to feminist values. Opposing communities might choose to develop their own kind of value-laden science with some different core of knowledge with respect to their own values. The already difficult task of communicating and debating across ideological divides would become virtually impossible.

Science is an indispensable ally in the fight for greater equality for women all over the world. Feminists should care about science and the discussions that take place in and around science. They should care so much that they should reject feminist science and defend the need for value-free scientific inquiry.