Newton In Drag
June 1 1990 by Chief Executive
When Evelyn Fox Keller studied molecular biology in graduate school in the mid-1960s, she believed that science could discover truths about the way the world worked, which would both expand the horizons of knowledge and contribute to human life. A few years later, however, Keller found herself experiencing enormous personal and professional difficulties in her own scientific field. Moreover, she found relatively few women in the scientific disciplines, especially physics. These problems determined her “to document my growing disenchantment with science as part of a more general phenomenon reflecting…an underlying misfit between women and science.”
Other experiences in Keller’s life, such as becoming a mother and reading books on psychoanalysis, convinced her that she was wrong to have thought that objective knowledge could only be obtained scientifically, using verified data, controlled experiments, and extrapolated outcomes. Rather, Keller remarks, “I now understood that important kinds of knowledge about the world could he acquired through internal experience rather than merely by external factors.”
Keller, who is now professor of mathematics and humanities at Northeastern University, has emerged as a leader of the new feminist criticism of science. Feminists have launched a campaign in the universities which goes beyond calls for hiring more women to reduce “disproportionate representation” of men in physics, chemistry and biology. Feminists are now criticizing the scientific disciplines themselves as male-oriented and hostile to women. They call for, as Keller puts it in Reflections on Gender and Science, “not a juxtaposition or complementarity of male and female perspectives…but the transformation of the very categories of male and female, and correspondingly, of mind and nature”-no short order.
Similar exhortations are proclaimed in other texts of feminist protest, such as Ruth Herschberger’s Adam’s Rib, Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Myth of Gender, Ruth Bleier’s Science and Gender, Janet Sayers’ Biological Politics, and Sandra Harding’s The Science Question in Feminism. These books have created a good deal of controversy in the scientific community, and working scientists, both male and female, have rejected their arguments as based on a misunderstanding of what science is about.
For Keller it all boils down to the fact that female scientists have adopted a “masculinist” perspective. “The exclusion of values culturally relegated to the female domain,” she writes, “has led to an effective masculinization of science.”
What does this mean? In the American Scholar, Margarita Levin outlines some of the specific feminist grievances against “masculinist science.” Feminists have faulted science for: the “master molecule” theory of DNA functioning; for thinking of evolution as a “struggle of survival,” giving physical strength a significant role in human development; and for advancing the theory of scarcity of resources generating “competition” among animals, another perceived male trait. Even the notion that forces act upon objects, thus creating an active-passive relationship, is not spared. Levin writes that most scientific notions imply force, violence or hierarchy and should be denounced as chauvinist.
A clue to the reason for feminist pique may be seen in a recent study by the Center for Women in Policy Studies, a feminist think tank, which concluded that the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) is biased against women. Reviewing a recent test, the Center found that most of the questions tended to be about “science, sports and war,” which were said to be masculine interests, while only a few questions were about “relationships, clothing and appearances,” which were feminine strengths. The superior performance of men over women on the SAT was explained as a result of the test’s male orientation.
Immediately, the problem with this line of reasoning becomes apparent. For years feminists have argued that the differences between men and women are not natural, but largely conventional. Apart from the very few fields which require physical strength, feminists have asserted that women can perform as well, if not better, than men, and spurned the ancient stereotype of females as homemakers. But paradoxically, feminists now attack aptitude tests which treat men and women as equally capable.
The problem, of course, is not the test, which is simply a measure of differences, not a creator of differences. To attack the test seems akin to denouncing the thermometer for registering a disagreeable temperature. It is all very well to denounce Newton as a “white male,” but it is hard to see how his scientific ideas are limited by his cultural status.
Much of feminist criticism comes down to semantic quibblings. Keller, knowing no irony, triumphantly produces quotations from Francis Bacon, the founder of empiricism and thus the scientific method. Bacon said that the new knowledge required a “virile” mind, indeed “a chaste and lawful marriage between Mind and Nature.” All this proves is that our ancestors did not speak in what today is called “gender inclusive” vocabulary; it does not affect their inventions and scientific theories.
In America, we think of the sciences as protected from the rough-and-tumble of special interest manipulation. Feminists, who are already well-established in other disciplines, are now laying siege to the citadel of scientific truth, with consequences that are unhappy for scientific progress, and for the men and women who bring it about.
Dinesh D’Souza is a research fellow in social policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was senior domestic policy analyst in the Reagan Administration.