Gender Biased Science

The other day a woman on our message boards wrote to me to say that as a scientist, she didn’t always feel comfortable or welcome on our message boards exactly because she is a scientist, and (I assume) happy & proud to be one. She was aware of my strongly-held opinions about scientists, especially when it came to gender.

What’s always interesting about having someone confront you about your prejudices is having to recognize them for what they are. On the one hand, I really love science, and scientists; the fearless work many have done in terms of environmental science, or medical research, and into all sorts of other cool things that I may or may not care about. But I’m suspicious of science when it comes to gender, and I had to figure out why.

First, I’ve probably read way too much Fausto-Sterling than a lay person should.

Second, I read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions at a time in my life when I was – well, a humanities major, & a political one.

But all half-kidding aside, this is why I take issue with science, and with scientists who study gender: the field of science is pretty notorious for gender discrimination. That fact has been pointed out by scientists, many of whom wrote in response to Lawrence Summers’ vague theorizing about why women aren’t in as esteemed positions in research and higher mathematics. So you’ve got an industry – & especially the feminists within that industry – clearly pointing out that the FIELD of science is pretty damn discriminatory.

However, I’m told that scientists’ goals are objective, which I believe. I believe many aim to be objective (as do many journalists, judges, etc.). First, that doesn’t mean they ARE objective. It just means that’s their goal. It’s a good goal. But when you’ve got actual scientists pointing out discrimination against women in hiring, on the one hand, and scientific studies about the differences between male and female brains, on the other, you kind of have a problem. Unless you’re going to argue that the people doing the research on the male and female brains have nothing whatsoever to do with the people who are doing the hiring and firing and grant-giving, and I have a hard time believing that.

Aside from that, of course, are all the other reasons: how we once saw race as a legitimate way to compare brains. How we used to think smarter people had larger brains. How it’s pretty obvious that people want to use the findings of science to justify ass-backwards gender roles.

But mostly what I want to know, now, is how we can trust an entire field of study which regularly discriminates against women not to bring those kinds of prejudices into the evaluation of male and female brains.

I’d really like an answer, if anyone has one.

(A slightly different take, over at Feministing, but I think both were inspired by the recent reports that straight men & lesbians have similar symmetries of brain, as do gay men & straight women, which is, as usual, being totally blown out of proportion by the media coverage of it.)

17 Replies to “Gender Biased Science”

  1. Well, I am most definitely NOT a scientist, but I’ll try:

    It would be fatuous to deny the very real gender discrimination problems within the scientific community. And yes, science’s history is not encouraging when you look at a pattern of cloaking discriminatory attitudes in now-discredited hypotheses.

    All that said, to a layperson it does appear that science is beginning to identify some very interesting social, structural and other differences between the genders (besides our obvious sexual dimorphism). Some of these theories will no doubt be disproved, but perhaps we are indeed seeing baby steps toward a more nuanced understanding of gender. Like any area of scientific inquiry, the knowledge can be used for good or bad. Unlike many areas of scientific inquiry, the historical biases of scientists themselves counsel strongly in favor of proceeding especially cautiously before making any sweeping pronouncements.

    But to shy away from the pursuit of knowledge in this field on that basis alone? No. Pay attention to what the scientists say. Don’t hesitate to call bullshit when someone like Summers makes an utterly unfounded, sweeping claim that has nothing to do with science and everything to do with sexism. Keep them honest, and let science do its job of advancing the knowledge of the human race.

  2. Well, I guess I’m sort of a scientist. I have a phd in engineering, and will be transitioning early next year.

    Biases: yes, I believe everyone has biases and prejudices and preconceptions. In that regard, I don’t think scientists are any different than any other folks. And like most folks, I don’t think they like being told they’re biased when they haven’t recognized it themselves.

    I’m also Taoist/Buddhist. Being aware of one’s own prejudices is very hard, part of the basic awareness that we strive for.

    I’ve spent much of my professional career being the theoretical heretic, and gently getting folks to realize what assumptions they’ve made that they didn’t even realize they made. These are usually on technical things, usually less sensitive than personal things (like “hey, did you know you’re a bigot?”), but it’s amazing how much ire even technical differences of opinion can raise.

    I’ve seen studies of scientific studies that have shown that an astonishingly high percentage of studies show what the scientists wanted to show when they started out. This in itself could be horribly shocking to most scientists. They are trained to think that they are the impartial observer, outside the system being observed, yet quantum mechanics and Eastern philosophy tells us that’s just balderdash. For them to think that what they believe could possibly affect their research results is just — mind-blowing, earth-shattering, reality-shifting. (Yes, I’ve become a skeptic of basic Cartesian deconstruction, if that’s the right term)

    It may be as well that, for whatever reasons, scientists may be more offended at being accused of biases/prejudices than other professionals. Perhaps this goes along with being the objective observer as I mentioned before. And so logical. I mean, I met folks in school that saw Dr. Spock from Star Trek as a personal role model. sheesh.

    Yet, good stuff does come out. Not all scientists are assholes, just like not all LGBTQ folks are open-minded, accepting liberals. Generalizations are ALWAYS wrong. Oh, wait, was that a generalization? oh, fudge…

    Do I have an answer? nope. Just ideas.

  3. Science has never been pure at any single moment. Truth is revealed over time and across social contexts; that which sticks is considered true. Right now we have a lot of data that has stuck, but it only represents half the picture and is therefore biased unless carefully taken in context.

    Who pays for science? Historically, research has been performed either by wealthy male individuals working toward proof of an idealism (or biased by one) or by State-sponsored researchers (and by “State” I include of course the Church). Now we have the latest twist on the theme, the Corporate sponsored researcher, often working at a University but funded by a corporate grant (not much incentive for repeating studies, there…).

    There has always been an agenda pushing the research performed and the results that get published. The counterbalance is that by peer review, flaws can be found and the truth revealed -or at a minimum, bad methodology identified. However, politics and gender imbalance are alive and well even within each body of peers. Once someone reaches a position of power within his field, anything that disrupts his “groundbreaking” (read: career building) research twenty years prior becomes a threat. The best we can hope for is that as the current cohorts finally end their careers (and therefore the influence they hold on the field as a whole), a new, better balanced group will be led by a different perspective.

    The Really Frustrating Thing to me personally is that we trans folk are the Phineas Gage of gender research and yet we don’t want to help due to our past relationship with science. We have so often been seen as lab rats with nothing at stake in the outcome of what is published. Wonderfully creative theories have been conjoured up from outside the experience -and then pushed on us based on the need to publish and build a career. Was this history based on gender? You bet. Will it change given a more ballanced scientific community? Another good bet.

    So, really the answer is simple: Educate, hire and promote a more gender balanced scientific community. Wait twenty years. Enjoy!

    Okay, where do we start…

  4. Hm…I never noticed an “anti-science” bias…. I noticed a reasonable scepticism about the politics of science. Partly as a “hard” scientist, my “cousins” in the soft sciences are people I’ve always viewed with a bit of a raised eyebrow. What I can do in a test tube they can’t do with human subjects.

    But I’d frame the context of trusting science differently: It’s the only chance we’ve got. Religion and philosophy have failed in a spectacular manner to treat women as people. And what other tools of understanding and action are there but Religion, Philosophy and Science? Science is the new kid on the block, historically speaking. We’ve got 10,000 years of philosphy and religion…much of it now provably wrong because of science, which has been at the game of understanding for what 200 years? And then there’s science’s handmaiden, technology. The effect of birth control on the politics of gender can’t be underestimated.


  5. An utterly fascinating thread that brings out the intellect in trans people. This thread is truly indicative of how wonderful Helen’s threads are and proves how uniquely intelligent trans people are…. except this humble author. (Is it because we use multiple brain functions by necessity?)

    As to science, as many know, although I am not a “scientist” per se, I do retain post graduate degrees in business, statistics and consciousness studies.

    One of the most fascinating realizations recently encountered in Quantum Mechanics Physics pertains to two extremely perplexing phenomenon.

    1. Quantum physics now confirms that the mere observation of a quantum event changes that event. The observing human consciousness by its observation alone, literally alters reality on a sub atomic basis!

    2. The observation of a quantum event is registered in a related, or non related but separate quantum event that is not observed “before” the observation “and” the actual observed event occurrence! Sub atomic reality is influenced “before” events manifest!

    Consciousness itself influences reality at levels of causality we have not even begun to codify much less recognize.

  6. Sometimes I think we’re all discussing how many angels can dance on the head of pin. Sexuality, for all we know could be a construct of the influence of a dimension we cannot sense, let alone define in this stage of human evolution. Recognizing that, I’m beginning to prefer letting the mystery be. It’s actually a lot more sexy that way.

  7. Catrina,

    Your interpretation of quantum physics is incorrect. In the first place, physicists have known for centuries that observation of phenomena effect the phenomena; measuring the voltage across a circuit has a direct affect on the voltage itself. This is called the “Observer Effect” and is not to be confused with Quantum Mechanical uncertainty as expressed by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, though often it is. Nor is the act of observation somehow a mystical expression of consciousness on the subatomic universe. The problem, as usual, comes from applying classical physics language to nonclassical situations, such as a subatomic wavefunction.

    The human mind does not alter reality at the subatomic level. I’m not even sure what your second point means, but it does not sound like any of the quantum physics I have studied or taught or used. If you are referring to entanglement, then I suggest that you are more careful in when you use the term “observation,” because there is no consciousness implied in the quantum mechanical measurement that reveals the state of a quantum system.

    I find this so bloody typical and exasperating, frankly, of would-be new age interpretations of quantum physics.

    On the other hand, the Observer Effect is quite real, but much more mundane in physics than you suggest. The Observer Effect in social sciences I would imagine is much more important–do people behave differently if they know they are being observed? Ask Margaret Mead.

  8. Hi Dr. Savoy Truffle: (Dr. added with respect and knowing you are a Physicist)

    Sorry for the delay, I am trying to buy a car. Car salesmen are all XXXXX.

    Thanks. I am familiar with Heisenberg as a lay person and as a statistician. From a statistics standpoint and to use KIS for the boards, what I understand Heisenberg stated was that there is a sum total of possibilities to predict at any point in time “where” an electron is placed within a certain field. Heisenberg’s principle codifies statistical field probability distributions. It is, of course, far more complex. Your more expansive comments are welcome.

    My comments do not pertain altogether to Heisenberg. With that said, maybe we are approaching the same issue, perhaps defined as “what is reality and how is it constructed” from two disciplines. There is an emerging science of consciousness that is discovering there are aspects of consciousness that do well align, or expand our understanding of reality constructs by means of understanding human consciousness and its multiple layers.

    Might I suggest some books written by physicists on the issue. These books are not some mystical “feel the vibes man” hippie crap…. i.e. New Age. They are attempts to commence bridging the functional academic silos for a more unified understanding of reality. I think you will find them illuminating. It is here where my contentions are grounded. They are:

    “The Physics of Consciousness, The Quantum Mind and the Meaning of Life”
    Author, Dr. Evan Harris Walker, Ph.D Physics U of Maryland
    Perseus Books, Copyright 2000

    “The End of Time, The Next Revolution in Physics”
    Author, Dr. Julian Barbour, Ph.D. Physics
    (Also author of “The Discovery of Dynamics”)
    Oxford Press 1999
    (Received an Award from American Publishers for its Physics section)

    These tomes contain specific experiments, interpretations of events and commentary that hypothesize and better relate the details of my commentary. (Yes, what they are hypothesizing in these works is an expansion of the “Observer Effect” to include human consciousness itself.)

    Controversial? Yes, but certainly valid initiatives for research. Subject to their research, their hypothesis are compelling and intriguing.

    Please do not become “frustrated”. Yes, there is a lot of mystical stuff out there. I would hope however, as a physicist yourself that one would not demean some one’s work, or some one’s actual discipline, that pursues a valid stream of research. Working within cross disciplines has allowed investigation of some intriguing new fields. 🙂

  9. I am not impressed with titles, on books or attached to people. I think, too, that your interpretation of quantum physics, as I said before, is tied down to classical thinking and inappropriate for quantum systems. I think, too, that you are confusing HUP with wave mechanics.


    1. This is the same Evan Walker who said that quantum physics explained Uri Geller’s “psychic abilities” AND claimed that Einstein was not responsible for the Annus Mirabilis papers of 1905. These alone place his work in suspicious territory for me. As far as Walker’s physics arguments relating to consciousness are concerned, his main argument seems to be based on quantum tunneling between synapses, something that seems speculative at best especially as a bootstrap between physics and consciousness.

    2. Barbour’s attempt at freezing out time, particularly as presented in his popularized book, is based on an attempt at quantizing gravity that has been put in the dustbin. His “no time” solution is obsolete. I imagine the prize garnered by the book is for the historical section (the first part of the book), and not the physics, which, again, was obsolete even when he wrote it.

  10. I am not familiar with Dr. Walker’s comments concerning Einsteins Annus Mirabilis papers nor his contentions concerning Geller’s psychic abilities as Geller was exposed as a fraud in the 80’s. I personally do not study “psychic phenomenon”. Linking that to consciousness studies is just as frustrating to me as my points are to you.

    As advised, I am ABD in consciousness studies, not physics. I do stand humble to your extensive knowledge of physics, a discipline that is a component, but not focal to the research I do. In this context, I am familiar with the differences between HUP, wave mechanics etc.

    Walker’s hypothesis concerning consciousness are more broad scope beyond “synapsis” at least as they are codified in “Physics of Consciousness” as I recall. It has been awhile since reading the book.

    As to Barbour, again as I recall (read it about 8 years ago), “Time” does not address just “gravity” but addresses time in relation to human consciousness in the context of creating “reality packets”. It hypothesizes how reality is created by human consciousness.

    BTW: Have you read any of those books?

  11. Forgive me, I thought you were the one who said you were psychic.

    The human brain is too large a system for quantum mechanical effects to be significant; the superposed states suggested by people like Walker and more recently Penrose would not remain coherent nearly long enough to explain neurological function.

    If you insist on carting out titles in order to bolster the authority of an author, you ought to as well point out that Barbour, for example, has not worked in academia since his PhD defense in the 1960’s. While working independently in science might have been the thing to do 400 years ago, working in isolation now means, usually–and I think in this case especially–that you are out of touch with the times and current research.

    And no, I have not read these books. I have read synopses and criticisms of these books, and I am familiar with the crankier aspects of these two authors. I don’t have to eat shit to know that it tastes bad.

  12. Thank you so much for your courteous comments. Yes I have commented that I have some psychic ability. But we all have some psychic ability. It is a component to human consciousness and deserves to be studied in a legitimate way. It has also been proven that it can be consciously developed. It has been the focus of significant government funded and directed research. Many universities have funded research on its event too. It is no longer outside the framework of legitimate research.

    Taken in context of the totality of consciousness studies though, it is only an outlier of consciousness studies research. Understanding outliers can unlock new understanding of life. It is the exception that creates the rule. However psychic, or ESP events are not the central point of Consciousness Studies. They never have been. It is merely a component because it is an outlier. Its cause is unknown. Consciousness studies pursues causality that seeks to derive the inclusiveness of such events as one of its goals.

    Please be aware that partially studying ESP or acknowledging a component of it within ones self, (not a part of my professional research, of course) is not espousing telekinesis ala the fraud Yuri Gellar. They are two totally distinct events.

    I fully recognize I am not anywhere near adept at your discipline. Within that context though, might I suggest that your commentary indicates you possess as much knowledge of consciousness studies as I do of physics? 🙂

    Outlining certain books that are read via the discipline and perception of consciousness studies, a qualitative discipline, not a quantitative science such as statistics or physics was not meant to impress. At my stage in life, there is no need to impress anyone. They were meant to reach out in a spirit of goodwill offering a means to more elaborately relate some concepts in the framework of the lens of your science.

    As to Barbour, his career was spent in publishing scientific journals for physicists. In that role, he appears to to have had a great deal of exposure to the latest work in academia. It was his choice of careers. He considered his career a plus because it allowed him an opportunity to work, research and conceptualize outside of crystallized academic orthodoxy that plagues most of academia, including physics departments and many physicists.

    I most certainly would defer to your commentary and expertise as it pertains to the quantitative science. However, some of the concepts related in these conceptual volumes are of significant interest to the qualitative discipline of consciousness studies as they relate hypotheses concerning the state of consciousness itself, not necessarily the physical reality that has been the focus of physics research.

    As a discipline, consciousness studies are admittedly in its infancy. We do take concepts from across multiple disciplines while studying the consciousness that derives them, such as the consciousness of a physics professor. After all, why shouldn’t human consciousness be subject to the laws of physics and other disciplines? It is a part of nature as well.

    Essentially consciousness studies espouses the energy of consciousness, not materiality, manifests reality. Matter is subordinate to consciousness, not the other way around.

    There is an old saying, “The pioneers always get shot by arrows.”

  13. No one has ever demonstrated *under reliable, controlled studies* that psychic phenomena exist. No one. No. one. NO. FUCK. ONE. Parapsychology is most certainly outside the framework of legitimate scientific research.

    All add to your old saying: “Some pioneers starved to death because they were too damn ignorant.”

    I’m done wasting my time with this argument.

  14. Again why are you focusing on the outlier comments concerning parapsychology instead of the focus of consciousness studies?

    Your frustration is misguided in the context of the comments made herein. It is obvious you have some kind of massive negative obsession about even the mention of psychic phenomenon. Yet my comments have advised psychic phenomenon research to be merely an outlier of consciousness studies itself!

    By all means, consciousness studies are evidently not a component of the scope of your science. However, I personally do not think they are outside the limitations of your intellect especially if one keeps an open mind.

    Not to drop names, but just to clarify however, the US Government, MIT, Stanford, U of Chicago, U of Texas and others all have conducted ad funded some kind of research on psychic phenomenon “in addition” to research on other attributes of consciousness studies. Those aren’t puny institutions that do illegitimate research or waste money. They are usually funded in the psychology department.

    Yet, again parapsychology is an “outlier” “outlier” “outlier” of consciousness studies, not its focus.

    As to starving? I’ve never had a problem with that. I live on the North Shore of Chicago.

    Thanks Dr. Truffle. I have learned much from our discourse.

    BTW: Who was arguing?

  15. Hi Dr. Truffle:
    After pondering our discourse last night, it reminded me of the relationship between Scalia and Ruth NBader Ginsberg. They couldn’t more disagree on the meaning of the Constitution, but of all the people on the Court they could socialize with, Scalia and Ginsberg are the best of friends.

    In the spirit of goodwill and harmony, I would like to contribute a book to your library. I can assure you it has nothing to do with “parapsychology”. However, although you still might disagree with the direction of thought, it should provide you with a better base to understand the direction of Consciousness Studies.

    I know you are up at Lawrence. In fact we have met. I, of course, can not have Amazon ship the book to “Dr. Truffle” at the Physics Department at Lawrence. Can you be so kind as to provide your mailing address by PM? I am Catrina on the MhB boards.

    I also intend to try and find the peer reviews of two physics experiments that underscored some of my initial comments. Your courteous expert commentary on them will be appreciated. (If I can find them). 🙂

    Thanks again for an interesting debate.

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