When science is hampered by more feminine ways of thinking
In part 2, “Science in different cultures”, I have discussed the thinking of men. But it may be argued that this is different from the thinking of women. Most women, in some respects, are more like East Asians. They also tend to see individuals as enmeshed in an all-pervasive environment of social influences, not as singular independent units.
We may think of the differences in thinking along two dimensions. One dimension goes from individualism (West) to collectivism and holism (East). Another dimension goes from individual self-reliance (men) to focus on social relations (women). Common to both these dimensions is that they have individualism at one end of the scale. However, the two dimensions are not the same. This has been the subject of an international investigation of five cultures. People were asked about how important it was to them to be emotionally connected to others. In four out of five cultures, in the East as well as in the West, this was more important for women than for men. People were also asked how they weigh regards for the group that they are part of relative to own interests. For both sexes, regards for the group carry much more weight in Eastern cultures (Japan, Korea) than in Western ones (USA, Australia). So the two dimensions vary independently.
Men tend to be interested in things, machines and abstract thinking, whereas it is typical for women that relations to other people are of greater importance than they are for men. Women score on average somewhat higher on the psychological measure of “agreeableness”, that is they want to agree with others. It may even be so for many women that keeping a social bond intact bears more weight than the importance of seeking truth. Such a mentality will of course hamper scientific progress, which, by definition, is the seeking of truth.
Some feminists and other women directly oppose science. There are more women than men that believe in alternative medicine or in astrology. Some feminists are strongly against all natural science – among these are Carolyn Merchant, Jane Flax and Sandra Harding. Harding has had a large influence on later feminist thinking and will be referred to again in part 4.
In recent decades there has been much discussion of why women even today are underrepresented in the top echelons of the academic world and also underrepresented in the STEM fields. Contrary to what is often claimed, this is not due to discrimination. Rather there is a trend that even those women who are very gifted leave such fields of study and prefer occupations with many relations to other persons. Women who stay in STEM fields often become depressed and motivated to leave.
An explanation that is often put forward by women is that they are hampered by a scarcity of role models. If we see a role model as a type of social relation, at least mentally, then here once again we see the greater importance of social relations to most women. But Christopher Columbus did not have a role model when he ventured to cross the Atlantic. Famous scientists like Pasteur, Darwin and Einstein did not depend on role models when they dared to present radically new ideas. Scientific progress is often connected to shifts of paradigm. This is something that appeals to more men than women – many men are willing to stand alone and be self-reliant and oppose “the king”, like citizens did in ancient Greece. The very concept of paradigm shifts goes against the purported importance of role models.
Luckily, there are many women who accept the more typically masculine way of thinking. Many women are just as good as men at thinking scientifically, and some very clever women may come up with radical new thoughts – I personally know one or two examples of this. But, statistically, it seems somewhat less likely for a woman to be like that than it is for a man.
Feminist philosophy, as stated by the much cited Seyla Benhabib, rejects the Enlightenment idea of an independently thinking self and assumes that the subject of reason is formed by the process of socialization. She criticizes male thinkers: “Enlightenment thinkers from Hobbes and Descartes to Rousseau, Locke and Kant believed that reason is a natural disposition of the human mind, which when governed by proper education can discover certain truths”. They also assumed, she says, that these truths were so clear and distinct that this would ensure agreement among like-minded rational thinkers. This is, one may say, the core of what most of us understand by science. But she rejects that and insists that one must consider the social process whereby such thinking arises. So her feminine way of seeing things goes against the possibility for science as most of us understand it.
Her way of thinking is fairly much in line with that kind of modern academic thinking that is designated postmodernism, poststructuralism, or social constructionism. Adherents of such postmodernist thinking have a concept of the self that diverges radically from that of most European men. The predecessors of postmodernist thinking refused to acknowledge the concept of a self that is continuous over time. That is true for Ludwik Fleck (1935) and the sociologists of science Berger & Luckmann (1966). Pierre Bourdieu (1998) claimed that a man is not masculine, and a woman is not feminine, in and of themselves – they become so every day anew only because the social environments enforce their masculine or feminine behavior. Likewise, more recent discourse analysis treats the self as socially constructed: “We all lie at the heart of a complex set of language-games that is the process of self-production”. Thus, social constructionists believe that the self is constantly formed by inputs from the social environment. That is, a person can never step outside of the social environment and consider it from the outside. He can never get an independent thought that originates from himself. Therefore objective knowledge is not possible. Neutral, disengaged observation is not possible, and therefore, there exists no objective truth.
The feeling that one has an independent self seems to be necessary for one´s ability to make objective science. One must be able to take a mental step away from oneself and look at oneself from the outside. Those who can not or will not do that – postmodernists and many women – tend to think that everything affects everything else. They typically dislike looking at one element at a time and one factor at a time. But if you insist on looking at the effects of many factors simultaneously, you will hardly be able to find any causal connections – unless you use very advanced statistics, which such persons also refuse to do. When I search my mind to find examples where such persons – very socially enmeshed persons, feminist academics and postmodernists – have contributed markedly to scientific progress, to the widening of human knowledge, I can think of no examples. Much of what they produce does not have the character of science, but rather of moralizing. As they also claim themselves – they are not able to make objective science. All that they make is subjective. Subjective moralizing is not science.
All of this is in contrast to the common type of thinking, especially in men, that persons have properties of their own – innate genetically determined properties, or properties acquired and fixed during early development. Therefore it is natural for men to stress that some persons are more talented, clever or intelligent than others. In their opinion, in order to promote science you should pick the most clever persons. Such men stress the importance of meritocracy. Many women, on the other hand, dislike such conceptions. There is a trend that some women think merit is not important for academic work. Cambridge academics are being discouraged from praising students for their “genius”, “brilliance” or “flair” because these are seen as male qualities.
To many women, it is important to maintain that personality is something that can be changed, corrected and improved – if this were not possible, it would mean that many professions dominated by a female workforce, such as all pedagogical professions, would be nearly useless. Most women are not willing to draw such a conclusion.
Postmodernism / social constructionism in its pure form is not true. There is a lot of scientific evidence that persons do have innate propensities, more or less independent of the social environment. Nearly all aspects of personality are more or less under the influence of genes, or due to genetic dispositions. On the other hand, when I tried to find evidence for some of the central tenets of social constructionism, I could find none. For instance, there is no evidence for its claim that biology is irrelevant to our personality.
Maybe this should be no wonder. The leftist (male) philosophers that laid the basis for the `alternative curriculum´ in the humanities and the social sciences were never interested in presenting it as some form of science that could withstand criticism. They wanted to achieve a new kind of truth different from that of the despised “bourgeoisie”. Jürgen Habermas (in Technology and Science as Ideology, 1968) thought that almost everything that is identifiably wrong with bourgeois society can be traced, in the end, to the operation of “purposive-rational” thought and action – that is, the nuisance that should be fought was rational thinking aimed at a purpose. To Louis Althusser (Reading Capital, 1968) it was important to avoid refutation, but not, as science avoids it, by calling for and surviving counter-arguments. No, refutation must be evaded – that is, opponents must be ignored – so that the truth within the dogma can be protected from “the malice contained in real things” Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (in A Thousand Plateaus, 1996) aimed primarily at assaulting the language that we know as rational argument and the pursuit of truth.
The academics that have grown up in this kind of school have learned to evade all conflicting evidence. When such evidence is presented to postmodernists, their response is to ignore it. Theories that ignore contradictory evidence do not, of course, deserve the designation “science”. So large parts of modern Western universities, especially the humanities and arts departments, have been taken over by a non-scientific way of thinking. I think that this has become possible because the proportion of women among students and teachers has risen enormously. Those women who gravitate towards the social sciences and the humanities are, on average, much more prone to thinking that all personality is just a product of the social environment and to downplaying the importance of a masculine “purposive-rational” way of thinking.
Historically, the science that has contributed to the widening of human knowledge was to an overwhelming degree a product of “white men”. They were of European descent, and they were men, i.e. not women. There are several factors contributing to this pattern, also factors not dealt with here, but my claim is that all this is no coincidence. The creation and proliferation of scientific endeavor did, historically, require just that way of thinking which is found mostly in a few particularly gifted men of European descent.
Today, women contribute in large numbers to science. They do this, often excellently, to the extent that they have learned to think like men think. Throughout history, East Asians have been clever at solving technical problems, and today, East Asians are still excellent at such tasks. If we evaluate the contributions to science based on Nobel prizes in physics, chemistry and medicine, we see that within the last 50 years, 11 women have received the prize in medicine, 2 in chemistry, and 1 in physics. East Asians have received many prizes, especially in recent years in physics. But even today, the vast majority of prizes have been given to men of European descent.