Science is not the oppressor.
This post was originally published at Restructure! Some tense and time markers have been updated.
Some anti-oppressive thinkers distrust powerful institutions, and end up distrusting the scientific institution and even scientific knowledge itself. However, scientific knowledge and scientific practise are not inherently oppressive. The oppressions that appear to come from science actually come from the upper-class white male domination of scientific disciplines.
Science is not the enemy; the practise of science is a productive method for understanding ourselves and our world. When some scientific studies overgeneralize and/or neglect certain groups of people, the problem is bad science, not science.
One of the serious problems with the lack of diversity in the practise within certain knowledge domains is that some important aspects of reality are not even considered, leading the researchers to overgeneralize and draw incorrect conclusions. This problem comes from the fact that scientific practise is a social activity, subject to the biases and prejudices of the scientists. In contrast, the scientific methods of gathering empirical data to refute hypotheses, and using statistical methods to determine statistical significance, are perfectly sound.
It is illogical to assume without reason that the results of a given scientific study (especially one that you do not particularly like) must be false. There is no contradiction between truth and justice. Anti-oppressive thinkers should not be afraid of science.
For example, in a Feministing post about using yoghurt to treat yeast infections, Courtney wrote:
There’s no question that the personal is the political, even when it comes to our most individuated health and wellness choices. But it’s got me wondering, is it “less feminist” to resort to store-bought cures or is this one of those things that we should lay off on politicizing?
Commenter FrumiousB responded:
Well, if you found it by Googling, it must be right. Since when is trusting random strangers to dispense medical advice a feminist action? Since when is using evidence based medicine resorting to the man? And how do you know yogurt doesn’t have any drug interactions? Next time you want medical advice off the internet, use Medline.
Of course, by searching Medline, one can find a scientific study that concludes that ingesting yoghurt that contains Lactobacillus acidophilus reduces vulvovaginal candidal (yeast) infections by threefold, which is an example how scientific knowledge can be empowering by giving women more choices. Of course, this does not mean that using store-bought cures is “less feminist”. Courtney received a lot of criticism for this line of reasoning from Feministing commenters, although there were also many anti-science supporters. In response to a commenter that advocated trusting folk remedies over “traditionally male-dominated western medicine”, commenter BluePencils wrote:
No, it’s not a feminist issue. It has nothing to do with the patriarchy. It has to do with anecdotal evidence versus the scientific method. I’ll go with the scientific method, thank you. Yes, there are natural remedies that work, of course there are. It’s just rare to be informed of any side effects and interactions, which leads to many people believing that if a treatment is “natural,” it doesn’t have any side effects. Which is ridiculous.
In addition to its anti-intellectual and self-oppressive properties, science-hating by some prominent feminist bloggers isolates women and feminists who love science. Commenter moley wrote:
Oh, and can we stop saying that science is one giant woman-hating shit show?
As a female scientist, I am fully aware that there have been extremely unethical practices in the past, and that we’ve yet to reach a point where there is equal attention paid to men and women’s health, but c’mon man. The venom with which you so flatly shoot down science is really frustrated. I’m a chick, and I love science. Not in a, “wow this is interesting” kind of way, but in a “I want to devote the rest of my life to this” kind of way.
So, please just be a little sensitive when you insult my first and true love. Yeah, it’s not perfect. I KNOW THAT, that’s why I’m trying to change it. Please don’t say its completely politicized. Have you been to medical research labs? Have you seen the GREAT work people are doing to cure things like breast and cervical cancer? It’s just insulting that you brush it off so easily.
Yeah the FDA sucks big time, but you demean the work I do with your comments.
Oh and probiotics work, just not at the low concentrations they put in the “active naturals” yogurts. Just get organic yogurt or take probiotic pills (they’re expensive but they work). Oh and just a warning: DO NOT take probiotics if you have compromised immunity.
Oh yeah, and douching doesn’t work, I agree.
Another commenter Kayt wrote:
As a female scientist with training in pharmacology, I can both understand and shake my head at the medicine-is-a-feminist-issue rant. No, paternalistic doctors are not good. But if you have a bad infection, you need to get rid of it.
Most of us who are reading this blog grew up with clean communities and ready access to antibiotics, so we fail to fully appreciate that infectious disease can be very damaging, if not fatal. Many antibiotics are derived from microbes and other natural sources, and they are often more concentrated than the helpful organisms/compounds that you find in yogurt or garlic. As a result, the antibiotics that you purchase are often at least if not more effective than the less concentrated source product, and efficacy matters if your infection is extensive. If you want to speak out against medical condescension towards women, a sometimes poor attention to education by people in medical fields, or excessive corporatization of medicines, then I am with you. However, if you’re attacking the objective study and effective treatment of infectious disease as being inherently masculine, you risk alienating those who devote their time to finding effective treatments for everyone. In addition, I have heard the Western-medicine-and doctors-are- anti-feminist-argument from people who won’t vaccinate their kids, and that is a dangerous route to take. Obviously yeast infections aren’t usually as serious as many diseases, but once you start following an overgeneral line of reasoning, you really set yourself up for primitive conditions for women (and children and men)-which seems pretty anti-feminist to me.
Those who bash science seem unable to make a distinction between scientific methods and the patriarchy of the scientific community. It is healthy to criticize individual scientific studies because of specific flaws in reasoning due to the authors’ biases. It is healthy to criticize the social aspect of scientific activity that shuts out certain members of society and their associated ideas. However, it is very unhealthy and counterproductive to reject science as a whole and trust anecdotal evidence over properly-controlled studies. Using anecdotes over controlled studies, using personal experience over real statistics, is a common practise of bigots who make false generalizations about entire groups of people. Anti-intellectualism is not progressive. Anti-intellectualism and ignorance are the problem.
Over at Shameless, and inexplicably filed under “Geek Chic”, Thea blogged about a study of the relationship between women’s fertility and hip-swaying:
A Friday Funny (though this could also fall under the category of a Friday Cry-y): Women sway their hips the most when they’re least fertile, according to Queen’s University study.
Scientists at Queen’s are apparently blowing the minds of current zoology, claiming that women, contrary to a popular belief, make themselves less, not more, attractive when they’re “fertile.”
The study got 40 women (my goodness! 40 whole women!!) to wear clothes with special markers on them so that computers could track their movements, and then asked the women to walk up and down in a 6-metre area.
I keep on trying to come up with a clever critique of this study, but honestly I’m speechless. How and who came up with the idea for this study? Why is the degree of swayiness of my hips considered important? What is humanity supposed to do with this breakthrough information? And when are they gonna do a study on the boys, so I know when my man is most virile? Vomit!!
First of all, it is very annoying to people who have taken some basic statistics when somebody criticizes the sample size of a scientific study for being arbitrarily too small, as if scientific researchers are not trained in statistical methods and statistical significance. Secondly, it is generally oppressive to dismiss the interests of a small minority with “Who cares?”, as if what counts as “important” is decided by majority and popular opinion. Thirdly, geeks who love theory and factual details are already marginalized if their interests do not have immediate, practical applications, so requiring that the results of a scientific study should have an immediate, practical application to aid humanity to be considered “important” repels many “Geek Chics”, those to whom the post is meant to appeal.
Back to a post on Feministing, Miriam blogged about a telephone-survey study that found women on average eat more fruits and vegetables:
Studies like this, and the simple reporting that outlets like the NYTimes does upsets me for a few reasons. One, it is really that useful? Could we also do a telephone survey and find that brunettes show different trends in eating than blonds? How much does this research just reinforce our already concrete ideas about gender difference? Of course men eat more meat than women! It’s because they need more protein for all their manly activities.
Once again, a feminist blogger asks, “One, [is it] really that useful?” as if a study needs to have an immediate, practical application that is immediately obvious to the average person in order to be considered “important”. Secondly, she criticizes research on gender differences, as if finding that there exists a gender difference is equivalent to saying that the gender difference is an innate and biological sex difference. Thirdly, even the existence of biological sex differences — such as that most women menstruate and most men do not — is not necessarily justification for sexism.
Should we stop collecting data that can be used to track gender disparities and gender socialization? Should we be gender-blind and pretend that gender does not exist? Is the goal of feminism to move towards a society where gender and gendered people do not exist? Of course not. People should be more, not less, conscious about gender. The fact that many gender-conscious people are gender-conscious in the sexist way does not mean that gender-consciousness as a whole is a bad thing. Data and information are good.
Miriam also criticized the tendency of newspaper articles to distort scientific research, and scientific researchers often complain about this as well. However, many of the commenters were hostile to the study itself and seem unable to distinguish between “women on average are less likely to eat asparagus than men” and “no women like asparagus”. Commenter Ithika responded to this absurdity:
Hm, I like asparagus, and yet I lack a penis. There must be something wrong with me.
What gives you that impression? That’s as absurd as looking at the global population, seeing that there are more women than men and concluding that there must be “something wrong” with men.
I realise your statement was somehow in jest, but I still don’t see what a contradictory anecdote has to do with the matter.
It is good that scientifically-illiterate statements are being criticized within anti-oppressive blog communities, but the general anti-science and anti-intellectual memes needs to stop. This anti-intellectualism may be a reflection of the general anti-intellectualism of contemporary North American [?] culture, but in any case, it is a significant hindrance to productive anti-oppression work.