Review: The Science Question in Feminism by Sandra Harding

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Review: The Science Question in Feminism by Sandra Harding

by Mike Wold

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 19, No. 2, March-April 1987, p. 27

The Science Question in Feminism By Sandra Harding Cornell University Press, 1986

Is science above politics? The ideologists of science say yes: science is simply an objective way of looking at the world, unaffected by personal biases or social discrimination. In practice, of course, science has been used to support political tendencies of both the right and the left: racism and antiracism, Marxism and Social Darwinism, sexual repression and sexual liberation. Typically, science is appealed to as the final arbiter — the objective judge.

Sandra Harding, in The Science Question in Feminism, points out that science is the one discipline that expects its methods and descriptions of its own practice and motivations to be taken at face value. She compares this to studying a society and taking as absolute truth the statements that people make about themselves. Science, to be consistent, needs to be open to question and criticism.

Feminism has had an ambivalent relationship with science. On the one hand, it has appealed to the idea of “scientific objectivity” as a means of gaining its goals. At the same time, it has posed a challenge to science and scientific methodology itself that earlier social movements did not.

Harding gives some insight into the clash between feminism and science, and makes provocative claims about the role that feminist science will play in the future. She points out that there is no single feminist critique of science. Criticisms have ranged from the way that science has excluded women to the idea that masculine bias in scientific theory and inquiry has reduced its ability to be objective. Feminists have also denied that value neutrality is possible and that science, in attempting to be purely objective, ends up serving the powers that be.

Harding usefully distinguishes among these sometimes conflicting critiques, and considers them in their own terms. She argues that the scientific establishment has found all of them threatening in some way. Even affirmative action, which one might consider the least threatening to scientists, has been met with a great deal of resistance. Science, she says, is like the military: for many of its male practioners, it is a way of proving oneself a man — a way of being superrational, emotionless, and objective. Women entering the field have therefore threatened this self-image of the scientist.

She distinguishes between feminist critiques and broader critiques of the nature of science itself. Feminists argue that science’s objectivity has been compromised by taking on the sexist, classist, or racist biases of its practioners. Other critiques see science as a worldview, claiming that scientific methodology itself partakes of the biases that were present in its originators. Both approaches, she suggests, have validity, though they differ in that the feminist critique of “bad science” implies that there could be a “good science.” But the feminist critique of bad science applies mainly to results and interpretations. The critique of science as such applies to the questions that are asked and the types of hypotheses that are formulated.

This latter is apt to be the most controversial of her claims. Harding argues that science itself is flawed, that its origins betray a masculine bias — an ideology of controlling and even raping nature — that is still present in the practice of science today, even if not overtly stated. She also points out that scientific methodology is not as clear-cut as scientists claim.

Physics and mathematics, which have been considered the paradigm of scientific methodology and the purest forms of science, are, in Harding’s view, only a special case in scientific investigation. They may have been elevated to an ideal methodology precisely because they fit a superrational ideal of methodology. As science takes on more complicated subjects, such as living beings, ecosystems, and societies, the methodologies that imitate physics and mathematics have generally proven to be reductive and often reactionary, losing important aspects of the phenomena they are studying.

Harding suggests that feminism, rather than destroying science, is necessary to complete it. She compares the changes in society that gave rise to the scientific revolution to those taking place today. In the late Middle Ages, there was a vast gap between mental and manual labor, with a taboo on manual labor for the aristocracy and a lack of education for those who did manual labor. This gap was bridged by the rise of specialized artisans, shipbuilders, mariners, miners, foundrymen, and carpenters who, even if they could not read or write, had a great deal of specific knowledge and learned through experimentation. These were, in a sense, the first modern scientists.

Today, there is a comparable gap between intellectual and emotional, intuitive labor, and feminism may provide a means to bridge that gap. I don’t think Harding is saying that physics will necessarily take on an emotional component, but that fields like biological and social sciences would benefit from a bridging of this gap. Indeed, physics may cease to be the paradigm of the scientific method. In a future society, the questions on which physics focuses may be considered to be relatively unimportant and rather irrelevant to the problems society is facing. Instead, sciences like biology, ecology, and psychology may become the important sciences, against which the others are judged.

The book is provocative. Its main fault is that it seems aimed at an audience of the convinced, and an academic one at that. While its consideration of the differences and contradictions among the various feminist critiques of science is helpful, it provides few concrete examples of the problems it is talking about. Its extensive bibliography might make it most useful as an entry point for someone studying the subject in depth.