Contemporary, visible feminism doesn’t seem to get science. This is a trend which does nothing to progress women’s issues, in fact it hinders them.
The distrust towards science and scientific methods is most salient in women’s magazines and news-sites which run such headlines as What science gets wrong about female desire or Everything you’ve ever been told about fertility is wrong, offered up by self-identified feminist writers. Such pieces are usually a concoction of glib arguments taken from fake experts (those without adequate training in scientific areas) to promote specific feminist agendas.
In an article titled Five myths that need to be busted about women in 2013 published December 2012, the commentator Clementine Ford started her opine with a statement calling for an end to research conducted in the field of evolutionary biology – an area of inquiry which she described as “unfounded”. Another piece titled When you’re attracted to an alpha male discusses archetypes of romance novels while declaring that evolutionary psychology was nothing more than “mere speculation”.
Although these largely benign, light-on-evidence articles can easily be dismissed as fluff, they do reflect attitudes which should be raising eyebrows in 2013. Whilst headlines can be purposefully sensational, when the articles also contain sweeping statements that portray science as having a veiled plot against women, we should be giving pause. In July this year, one piece proffered that:
“Whereas once religion was used to control women and define their role and status in society, more and more, we are finding that science is being used in exactly the same fashion.”
Which lands us in conspiracy theory territory. The same writers that portray science as controlling women, are the same commentators who seemingly have no problem with cervical cancer vaccines or breakthroughs in areas of reproduction and fertility technology, or obstetric medicine that prevents mothers and newborns dying in childbirth.
A distrusting attitude to the scientific method is misguided. We need scientific research to inform our feminist advocacy. And we need more focus, not less, on psychological and medical research that helps women to lead healthier and happier lives.
Far from “controlling” women, fields such as evolutionary psychology help shed light on facets of our experience which are most important to us. Combined with literacy in social and cognitive psychology, we are much better equipped to distinguish between the universals of human experience and those which are shaped and exaggerated by culture. A working knowledge in these areas is empowering. Ignorance is not.
Unlike the internal cultures of political movements, the very practices which define science (self-criticism, open debate, peer review and double-blind methods) foster humility and reduce the errors caused by bias. It is also important to remember that producing scientific knowledge is hard, it requires proficiency in statistical methods and ability to reason quantitatively. All scientists must offer up their work to be closely scrutinised by colleagues before getting published – these methods are in place specifically to reduce prejudices, not enhance them.
We would not want our doctors to be practising medicine that was not up-to-date. And we generally like our lawyers to be abreast of the latest developments in matters of case-law and legislation. Likewise, our policies and public discussions about women’s issues are not benefitted from old theories and ideas that need revision, no matter how well-intentioned they are.
While it may be healthy to criticise specific scientific studies, it is unhealthy and counterproductive to reject science or entire scientific disciplines as a whole. There are legitimate feminist scholars in neuroscience and psychology who have made careers out of questioning research data. And this is the most effective way to criticise – learning about the methodologies used in studies, then highlighting the potential flaws of such methodologies. But all of this requires education and training.
The use of anecdotes or personal experience over real statistics in public discussion is dangerous. Historically, this has been the common practise of those in the business of making faulty generalisations about entire groups of people. It is precisely for this reason that we must resist indulging in such tendencies, even if it comes from a place that is well-meaning. For feminism to continue to do its important work it must avoid continuing to scaffold itself on an anti-intellectual platform.