Over at A Most Curious Planet, Alexandra Jellicoe offers a story with the provocative headline Is Science Sexist?, which spins off an anecdote from astronomy:
I was listening to Radio 4 a few months ago and the discussion about gender intelligence lodged in the deeper recesses of my brain unthought-of until recently when I went to see Jocelyn Bell Burnell talking of her ‘Eureka’ moment. She discovered the existence of neutron stars called Pulsar’s in 1967 and I think she can safely be considered one of England’s most pioneering and gifted scientists. I was struck by her comments that she intuitively knew she had discovered these stars months before it was proved. Her colleagues (mostly male) didn’t believe her until she systematically followed due scientific process and offered a logical and evidence based explanation of what she knew to be right.
The part of this I find interesting is the role of male and female intelligence and their role in science. At this point I think I may change my definition of the different types of intelligence. I prefer to use ‘Masculine Intelligence’ to describe a step-by-step, logical approach to problem solving and ‘Feminine Intelligence’ to describe an intuitive approach to problem solving. The distinction being that it is possible for a man to have a more feminine intelligence and vice-versa rather than brain power being defined purely by your private parts. Although I think on the whole the general differences in gender still hold true.
She talks a bit about her own career, and then returns to the provocative question:
The question I am really asking here is, is the entire structure of scientific research sexist? Is there no scope to include this more feminine intelligence? And more importantly, is our society significantly losing out as a result?
My honest reaction to this is “Huh?” Not so much because I don’t know what “includ[ing] this more feminine intelligence” would look like, but because I’m not sure what’s supposed to be missing. Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s experience as described there doesn’t sound to me like the crushing of feminine intelligence by an excessively masculine structure, it sounds like every other great discovery story in science.
I mean, think about the great foundational myths of physics. They all take this same basic form: somebody has an intuitive leap, and then spends a great deal of time doing the hard work necessary to support it.
Isaac Newton supposedly had a flash of insight about gravity while sitting under an apple tree. He spent the next twenty years inventing calculus to make it work.
Einstein had a great insight about objects in free fall in 1907 or so. He spent the next eight years turning that insight into General Relativity (learning a whole bunch of new mathematics in the process).
Nobody’s really clear on what inspired Bohr to propose his quantum model of hydrogen, but if that doesn’t count as an intuitive leap, I don’t know what does. Louis de Broglie proposed the wave nature of electrons because it seemed to have a nice intuitive symmetry with the particle nature of light; it took a few years before Davisson and Germer and Thomson did the experiments demonstrating it. Feynman initially had a hard time getting his version of QED accepted because it involved a new way of thinking about the problems that he found very intuitive, but had to convince other physicists was valid.
And on, and on, and on. Intuition isn’t punished in science, it’s celebrated. Name a famous scientist, and there’s almost certainly a story about how their most noted work arose from a flash of insight followed by months or years of hard work to provide the evidence. And most such stories will involve male scientists. I suppose you could decide to say that those great geniuses were somehow “more feminine” in their approach to science, while the bulk of the structure of science is “more masculine,” but given that these people are held up as the examples to which we all aspire, that seems kind of silly.
Every scientist hopes for that “Eureka” moment, that inspired moment of understanding that illuminates a problem. But Science as a whole relies on the long and tedious accumulation of evidence because that’s what separates genius from failure. Not every flash of inspiration is correct, and the only way to know for sure if your intuition is correct is by checking it against reality through experiments and observations.
Now, if you want to argue that Jocelyn Bell Burnell had a harder time convincing her colleagues that she had discovered pulsars than one of her male colleagues would have had with the same evidence, that would be sexism at work. I don’t know the details of her case, but the history of astronomy includes some fairly deplorable things done to female scientists, so it might very well be true. But that’s a different, sociological argument, that doesn’t have anything to do with masculine and feminine intelligence or the structure of science as an intellectual endeavor.
(Jellicoe link originally via Sheril Kirshenbaum on Twitter.)