Thus Spake Zuska

When I was a postdoctoral student my supervisor sent me for three or four days to what we participants called “cancer camp”. It was a mini-course on the histopathbiology of cancer. We learned to interpret pathology slides, how to look at them, read them, identify cancer in all its various forms and stages. We were taught the vocabulary that pathologists use. Just as importantly, we were taught how to see. How to understand what it was we were looking at, to tease the meaning out of the brightly colored and oddly shaped masses we were looking at in the microscope. Without being taught how to interpret what we were seeing, the pathology slides would have made no sense to us, and the vocabulary would have been useless.

A few years before cancer camp, when I was still a graduate student, I took my first women’s studies course, on the history of feminist thought. In that course I also learned a vocabulary and a way of seeing that let me look at things that previously made no sense to me and make meaning out of them.

But here’s the irony:

If I were to talk today about pathology slides and cancer staging to non-experts, they would be in awe of my scientific knowledge and accept what I said as expert knowledge. If I were to talk today about gender issues in science to that same non-expert, chances are he or she would feel perfectly free to challenge me because they have an opinion, and they believe everybody’s opinion is equally important, and who’s to say that what I “believe” is any more right than what they believe.

If I were to make my comments in the context of Scienceblogs, with regard to the cancer pathology, I might get some agreement, some disagreement, some discussion about interpretation, but even those who disagreed with me would probably not conclude that I must not be a scientist. On gender issues, however, every crank in the woods feels free to offer his uninformed bigotry as proof I must be wrong AND that I must not be a scientist, merely because I take gender and science issues seriously to begin with.

All this is so even though I had a mere three days training in pathology compared to several years of formal training in women’s studies and actual job experience applying that knowledge to science and engineering. The specialized vocabulary of women’s studies and its particular way of seeing the world is not recognized as disciplinary knowledge; instead, it’s mocked as “political correctness”.

So when I talk to myself about gender, these are the kinds of things I think:

Why are there so many stupid jerks in the world? And why do those stupid jerks read my blog, if it annoys them so much? It is annoying beyond belief that people assume no expertise at all is needed to make grand pronouncements about the state of gender issues in science and engineering.

I think:

If I want to make this or that point on my blog, what kinds of asinine comments are the trolls likely to make? How can I steal their thunder, at least partially, ahead of time? For the gender trolls are ever inventive and never seem to tire of whining.

I think:

How pleasant it must be sometimes, to be male, and walk around blissfully unaware of gender. Then I remember how busy men are always policing each others’ masculinity and I don’t feel so jealous of them anymore. You could not possibly pay me enough money to go through adolescence as a boy, nor to be so limited in what is permissible to feel and express as grown men are. Though it must be nice to be automatically taken more seriously about everything just for having the extra dangly flesh.

I think:

Sometimes I wish I could un-know what I know about gender, because it is tiring to view the world through the gender lens. It’s tiring to watch t.v. and be constantly annoyed by the stupid commercials (“After all, boys are built different – and Tonka’s got the blueprint!” Because what little girl would EVER want to play with a truck? I guess my little sister and I were mutants. Well, it’s never too soon to start training the boys for the proper way to be a man, and that includes being Ford Tough, no doubt.)

I think:

My fellow Sciencebloggers are so lucky. They get to write about the fun parts of science – the nerdy, science-y, techie things that make our hearts race, the geeky stuff we all love so much. When I was little, even when I was starting out as an engineer in college, I never thought to myself “gee, I hope I grow up someday to spend exorbitant amounts of time thinking about how crappy things are for women in science! Because that will sure be a great way to spend my days!”

I think:

I am sick to death of thinking about gender and I weep for all the lost energy in women’s lives that goes to dealing with the obstacles, barriers, hostilities, and problems of institutionalized sexism.

I think:

Should I keep my hair long, because Mr. Zuska likes it that way? Or should I get it cut short, because I think I’d look better that way? My mother says “I can’t believe you let a man tell you how to wear your hair; I thought you were a feminist.” Hee. But I wear my hair long because it makes Mr. Zuska happy, and for the past four years when I have been really, really ill, he has been there for me every second of every minute that I’ve needed him, and never once complained; he acted like it was an honor for him to be able to help me; long hair is a simple thing I can do to show my love back to him. It’s maddening that something as simple as how I wear my hair can be fraught with gender connotations.

I think:

Enough thinking. I’m hungry. What about chili for supper?

Comments

  1. #1 Mecha
    October 29, 2007

    A PhD student I know in Mass Communications has a similar lament. Because he studies TV, Movies, Video Games, other media, along with Queer Theory, people with no expertise and knowledge feel infinitely qualified to tell him that his arguments are stupid and worthless because who doesn’t know about TV, movies, video games, and other media? And don’t even mention ‘queer theory’ around a number of people.

    Everyone gets that to some degree (see: Antivax/Evolution denialists), but I think social scientists get it more. It’s just that nobody’s allowed to think that it matters. Even around here. It’s sad that it happens around here, because as generally trained scientists, you’d think we’d at least respect other peoples’ knowledge and education.

    -Mecha

  2. #2 Lee
    October 29, 2007

    Excellent post. I, too, sometimes wish that I could remove the “gender lens” and go back to being blissfully unaware of just how much of our culture is dominated by images of what a woman should be (or what a man should be for that matter.) But once you see it you can’t unsee it and it gets so overwhelming. How do you begin to make progress when EVERYTHING is saturated with symbols of gender conformity and when even the smallest of choices must be evaluated to make sure you are doing what YOU want to do and not what society says you must do.

    Sometimes I just want to crawl under a rock and not think about any of it any more. And then to hear someone spout off about how “it’s not a problem anymore” or “you’re just reading into things” when I am wearing myself out trying to make things better just drives me nuts.

  3. #3 Kimmitt
    October 29, 2007

    I don’t think having a hairstyle your partner happens to like needs to be a feminist issue, so long as you’re okay with it.

    Certainly, my hairstyle, sartorial, and facial hair choices are very much under veto power by my spouse, and I don’t think anything of it.

  4. #4 Drugmonkey
    October 29, 2007

    There are plenty of areas of scientific endeavor in which the lay person feels completely free to challenge the experts (or even the informed) without any grounding in the science itself.

    Take Watson and the intelligence thing. Firm opinions on *both* sides of this one (from race to g to ….). One doubts that all are really versed in the incredibly messy literature. There are facile repetitions of the usual platitudes on all sides.

    The mental disorders, from autism to depression to ADHD to substance abuse, are another biggie. Many of these are illustrated in SB posts and following commentary.

    Animal communication. Ditto.

    The list goes on and on when you are talking the behavioral sciences…

  5. #5 Miss Cellania
    October 29, 2007

    You said it so well… but at the same time, I can almost hear a certain number of men reading this, scratching their heads and thinking, “What is she complaining about?”

    Just last night, I watched the movie Ruby Bridges, and the scene went like this. White man: I never thought about integration until the past few weeks. Black man: You never had to.

    That blissful unawareness can be a hard shell to crack.

  6. #6 Russell
    October 29, 2007

    Suppose someone were to write the following:

    A few years before cancer camp, when I was still a graduate student, I took my first theology course, on the history of Christian thought. In that course I also learned a vocabulary and a way of seeing that let me look at things that previously made no sense to me and make meaning out of them. But here’s the irony: If I were to talk today about pathology slides and cancer staging to non-experts, they would be in awe of my scientific knowledge and accept what I said as expert knowledge. If I were to talk today about God in science to that same non-expert, chances are he or she would feel perfectly free to challenge me because they have an opinion.

    That last reads like a rather common criticism of The God Delusion, that Dawkins hasn’t studied theology, and therefore his opinion on gods and religion are largely ignorant. The rebuttal is that theology isn’t a science, that there is no evidence for its core theories, and so no matter how much those who study it feel that they have “learned a way of seeing that let them look at things that previously made no sense,” it provides no factual basis for an opinion on gods and religion. Specialized vocabulary and elaborate theories be damned.

    Which isn’t to say that everything taught in theology courses is crap. Theology courses teach quite a bit about language, history, and sociology that is every bit as valid as that taught in secular courses. Often, identical. It’s just that theology departments have a record of not well separating off their ideological parts from the valid knowledge they teach. And indeed, if theology departments were to do that, they would disappear as an academic discipline. As Dawkins has proposed they should.

    Gender studies has the advantage over theology that gender is real and demonstrable. But .. there is still the impression that gender studies often mixes quite a bit of “other stuff” with the “hard knowledge” parts. So the question of perception is how to get people to more respect that “hard knowledge” part, that it is there, and that the specialized vocabulary reflects that empirical knowledge. In other words, that it is like the biology of cancer, and not like theology, whose theoretical constructs have no basis in reality. People in the modern world generally accept that cancer is real, and that there is hard science behind the vocabulary and interpretation of its pathology. Views of gender studies are more mixed. Part of that is that people don’t realize that there is a “hard knowledge” component to gender studies. Part of that is that it is difficult to disentangle that component from the rest.

    Still, it seems to me that that perception should be challenged by emphasizing what there is there. Both the hardest of sciences and the most bogus of ideologies develop theory, vocabulary, and rhetorical discipline. It seems to me the perception issue has to be taken against this background of a variety of disciplines, which are perceived quite differently, sometimes for good reason, and sometimes for not so good reason.

  7. #7 Abbie
    October 29, 2007

    I dunno if that’s a great argument… some theists say you can’t criticize religion without having a thorough knowledge of theology.

    Obviously I’m not comparing feminism to religion. But I don’t see why the lay opinion is automatically irrelevant.

    It’s not like “feminism” is one monolithic creature. I’m aligned with it on the major points, but I think some branches of feminism get stuff very wrong (such as queer theory, cough cough.)

  8. #8 Jp
    October 29, 2007

    If I may, a few thoughts come immediately to mind.

    On the one hand, not all sciences are created equal. For one, some sciences are just wrong. If you go to phrenology camp and you learn to “see” the information contained in the bumps on my skull, I’m not any more likely to believe what you say you know about me from my skull. Secondly, there’s the so-called “hard science” distinction. Social sciences, even ones as well established as Anthropology are considered – by society at large, even by many scientists and academics – less “solid,” less certain, than oncology.

    I think there’s also an issue of experience, in the sense that people are less comfortable criticizing things they have no experience with. I’ve never seen cancer. On the other hand, I’ve had a gender all my life, and I’ve known women all my life. Not that I personally feel entitled to spout knowledge about what it’s like to be a woman, but I think it’s natural to feel that I know more about gender than I do about cancer. Whether I think I know enough to argue with you about it is a different question (I don’t, but others will). I personally know some people who are dealing with serious health issues, and others who work in health. The more they learn, the more they feel comfortable arguing. I think it’s natural for people to have opinions based on experience, and well, gender is something everyone has experience with in some way or other.

    One more point — pathology slides don’t get upset when you call them malignant tumors, but people do. Once in your writeup and once in the comments, it’s implied that men just don’t get it, apparently just by virtue of being men. The flipside of that is the implication that women don’t have this problem – that none of them “walk around blissfully unaware of gender” or wonder “”What is she complaining about?”. For one thing, this has a tendency to offend people, men in this case, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that they’d feel entitled to argue your points. Secondly, don’t you think it kind of cheapens your claim that your education in gender studies is extensive and should be taken seriously if apparenly one needs only be a woman to understand all of it? I’ll grant that sounds extreme, but I couldn’t think of another way to phrase it.

    Lastly, I’d just like to say that I do sympathize. I’ve met guys who have no respect for women, who can’t understand, or won’t admit, that society treats men and women unequally, and who believe that every individual is just some kind of Ayn Rand construction that can succeed with just the right amount of f-you attitude and money. I don’t claim to understand what it is like to be a woman, however, and I know next to nothing about gender studies, so I can’t critique it. I do know about being an ethnic minority, and I know a bit about ethnic studies and racial discrimination. From that vantage point, I can say I think I understand where your post is coming from. But I don’t expect that such social sciences as ethnic studies or gender studies will ever be accepted on the same level as oncology, nor am I convinced they should be. In my opinion, the goal of gender and ethnic studies (and many others, I’m sure) is, unlike with oncology, not to just diagnose the problem and prescribe a solution — the understanding, the “seeing” as you put it, is itself the cure. Telling people they’re discriminating and need to stop isn’t enough, teaching them to see is the only way to fix this particular kind of cancer.

  9. #9 Abbie
    October 29, 2007

    To clarify: I simply think feminism has too much political baggage.

    For instance: the feminists that claim that gender is *completely* a social construct. That is an ideological view. Some feminists see anything about inherent gender differences an attack on feminism.

    In my view, it doesn’t matter. We can agree that bias exists, and we can agree that pressing gender stereotypes onto children is wrong. The possible statistical mental differences between men and women is purely a scientific issue. (Obviously, findings can be abused to excuse egregious behavior… but that is a separate issue.) The points feminism makes are valid, regardless. Whether gender is a social construct, or if most boys love cars and most girls love dolls, cultural expectations of gender shouldn’t be forced on them. If (I’m not claiming this is true) girls are more inclined to like dolls, so what? That doesn’t mean that girls *should* like dolls, or that the ones who don’t are defective. It’d just be some quirk of evolution. Girls who show no interest in dolls- even if it’s very few of them- shouldn’t be criticized. Isn’t that the crux of the issue?

    For the record, a lot of my views were influenced by Julia Serano’s “Whipping Girl”.

  10. #10 Andrew Wade
    October 29, 2007

    That last reads like a rather common criticism of The God Delusion, that Dawkins hasn’t studied theology, and therefore his opinion on gods and religion are largely ignorant. The rebuttal is that theology isn’t a science, that there is no evidence for its core theories, …

    Which would tend to support the contention that Dawkin’s opinions are largely ignorant. Many Christian sects don’t actually hold that theology is a science. (That tends to be an American Fundamentalist affectation.) I haven’t read the God Delusion, so I don’t know if the criticisms of Dawkins are apt, but if one wishes to criticize religious beliefs, it is good to learn what those beliefs are. At a minimum, one would quickly learn that there is very little that is common to Christianity, never mind religion in general. Now, I’ve read nothing that’s swayed me from my atheism, but that’s hardly the only reason to study religion, theology, and philosophy.

  11. #11 jeffk
    October 30, 2007

    I had a bunch of comments but Jp already made them so I’ll just add one more:

    The whole “everyone’s opinion is created equal” bullshit was, sadly, invented by liberals (in the form of cultural relativism) and co-opted by conservatives, once they realized they were wrong about most things and that was convenient cover. Now it’s a non-partisan issue, and I think it’s to the benefit of everyone that we all realize, and that we teach kids, that the well-reasoned opinion based on evidence is most certainly not the equal of poorly-reasoned one based on, well, nothing at all.

  12. #12 Andrew Wade
    October 30, 2007

    The possible statistical mental differences between men and women is purely a scientific issue.

    Things are not so simple; there is a gap, sometimes quite large, between the abstract concepts we wish to measure (intelligence, affability, empathy, etc…) and the tests that purport to measure these quantities. And once you have a statistical difference in hand, there is another large gap between the result, and extrapolations from that result. Different (cultural) assumptions can lead to very different predictions from the same data.

    The points feminism makes are valid, regardless. Whether gender is a social construct, or if most boys love cars and most girls love dolls, cultural expectations of gender shouldn’t be forced on them.

    Sounds good to me. I don’t think, however, that gender as a social construct can be untangled from gender as biology.

    If (I’m not claiming this is true) girls are more inclined to like dolls, so what? That doesn’t mean that girls *should* like dolls, or that the ones who don’t are defective. It’d just be some quirk of evolution.

    If a quirk of evolution is involved, it is a quirk of evolution that is interacting with a particular environment and social context. Which is neither here or there. My fear is that many people don’t appreciate that science is descriptive, not proscriptive.

    Girls who show no interest in dolls- even if it’s very few of them- shouldn’t be criticized. Isn’t that the crux of the issue?

    This I can very easily agree with. And of course the flip sides as well, girls (and boys) who show interests in dolls shouldn’t be criticized either. Choice is good.

    The thrust of my post is not to disagree with your principle, which is a good one, but to caution against underestimating the subtle and non-obvious effects that bias and prejudice can have.

  13. #13 Mecha
    October 30, 2007

    Abbie: There is a difference between ‘lay opinion irrelevant’ and ‘lay opinion which purposefully and constantly contradicts discipline with no respect or regard for the discipline, how it works, what words it uses, and what it has done, nor any real desire to learn it.’ You know what you generally call those sort of people in any other discipline around here? Cranks. You know what they call them when they’re talking to feminists who are talking about how women are disadvantaged/males are advantaged? ‘Everyone who matters.’ It’s a little different.

    There’s been discussions on this blog where people purposefully said ‘I don’t have time to do research into gender studies, _and therefore can dismiss your entire argument freely_.’ Treating feminism as the cranks, as the crazies, as the hysterical. People who _don’t_ agree that there’s bias, or that anything can be done, like you said ‘we’ can do. People who defend the status quo because ‘there’s no problem.’ Denialism. That’s the kind of thing Zuska is talking about here, not just a ‘lay person.’

    “Girls who show no interest in dolls- even if it’s very few of them- shouldn’t be criticized. Isn’t that the crux of the issue?”

    That’s a big crux… but in my opinion, the crux of just one issue. When you go beyond that, you then end up after that asking ‘what does it mean not to be criticized?’ That nobody says ‘YOU SUCK’? Or that people are silent about it? Or that people affirm the choice? And what does it mean if people are silent, but all your friends are doing the ‘normal thing’?

    It’s a normative thing. Do that research, so that you can say ‘girls statistically tend towards X, and boys towards Y’. And then _in no way imply_ that a girl who likes X is ‘more normal’ than one that likes Y. What happens when you do that comparison a thousand times? Isn’t the girl that fits in the X box in every one ‘the most normal girl’? Breaking that concept requires making a very close cut, closer than most people seem capable of.

    And that normative (and very Queer Theory, to my view) concern is but one piece of the puzzle. What if there was no norm, but women still were seen as lesser? Sure, they can be interested in science, or trucks, or whatever, they’ll just suck at it. That’s not a norm. It’s perfectly reasonable for a woman to suck, in that worldview. But hey, if they just stayed to doing what they’re good at… And so on, and so on, and I could ramble forever, but the point, I guess, is that it’s complicated. More complex than just making it okay for girls to play with trucks, or video games, or chemistry sets, and boys to play with dolls and cooking.

    Miss Cellania: That sort of thing is why I’m glad I’ve learned so much about feminism, and other minority rights movements. And as people have said, it’s hard… but I don’t want to not think about it. Humanity deserves better than that.

    -Mecha

  14. #14 Albion Tourgee
    October 30, 2007

    Wait! Isn’t it males who are the ones who can get away with posing as an expert in cell pathology based on 3 days of learning the lingo? Isn’t it the woman who is dismissed merely on the basis of gender when she really has understood the subject? Or, is it that women are listened to when talking about cell pathology, but not when talking about gender?

    And then I read, “You could not possibly pay me enough money to go through adolescence as a boy, nor to be so limited in what is permissible to feel and express as grown men are.” and I think, wow! You really know a lot about men! I can see why you are so upset with the “stupid jerks” and “trolls” who have posted comments disagreeing with statements reflecting such deep expertise in the subject of gender. But, it makes me wonder, if the “stupid jerks” are men, well, what do you expect, given the impaired emotional makeup of the male, which gender studies seem to so clearly reveal?

    Namecalling and overgeneralization detract from the really important work of exposing sexism and convincing people that gender discrimination is wrong and that life is fairer and happier without it.

  15. #15 RyanG
    October 30, 2007

    Most people have little education in gender issues, but decades of experience. It seems reasonable to think that if they had decades of experience in pathology they might have strong opinions about that as well.

  16. #16 Brian
    October 30, 2007

    “It’s maddening that something as simple as how I wear my hair can be fraught with gender connotations.”

    I’m not sure I got the point in this paragraph. If Mr. Zuska was, instead, another Mrs. Zuska, hair preferences would be okie dokey? I realize this is sort of a minor issue, but it’s gotten me confused. Aside from your mom’s comment, that issue really seems to just boil down to “do something for someone I love” vs. “do something for me because I want to.” Where’s the gender issue?

  17. #17 The Ridger
    October 30, 2007

    Gender issues are like language: everyone has a gender so they feel like they know. I love this Mark Liberman quote:

    I hate this role of correcting elementary errors of linguistic analysis, or questioning unthinking prescriptions that are logically incoherent, factually wrong and promptly disobeyed by the prescriber. Historians aren’t constantly confronted with people who carry on self-confidently about the rule against adultery in the sixth amendment to the Declamation of Independence, as written by Benjamin Hamilton. Computer scientists aren’t always having to correct people who make bold assertions about the value of Objectivist Programming, as examplified in the HCNL entities stored in Relaxational Databases. The trouble is, most people are much more ignorant about language than they are about history or computer science, but they reckon that because they can talk and read and write, their opinions about talking and reading and writing are as well informed as anybody’s. And since I have DNA, I’m entitled to carry on at length about genetics without bothering to learn anything about it. Not.

  18. #18 Susan
    October 30, 2007

    JP wrote: “On the one hand, not all sciences are created equal. For one, some sciences are just wrong. If you go to phrenology camp and you learn to “see” the information contained in the bumps on my skull, I’m not any more likely to believe what you say you know about me from my skull.”

    Has Phrenology ever actually been considered a science?

    Gender bias has always held a fascination/frustration for me. I accept that there may be things that boys are drawn to more then girls etc. But I also believe, from my own observations, that the differences are much, much smaller then society tends to believe. The thing that gets me is, in the last couple of decades, there seems to have been an effort in the popular media to point out these differences. I suppose a lot of people consider themselves experts on gender because they read the latest John Gray book, or saw the latest scientific “proof” that boys prefer blue and girls prefer pink. I don’t know why there’s this need to keep reinstating these personal biases by all the so called experts who trot them out. Maybe it’s a backlash against feminism. I find it weird and annoying.

  19. #19 bsci
    October 30, 2007

    I don’t think this is a unique issue to the pathology/gender studies divide. It’s really an issue of any topic where people have regular interaction/biases. As a neuroscientist, I regularly hear people’s theories about how the brain works. An economist I know has it even worse because anyone is perfectly able to access, critique, and reject or promote extremely mathematically complex economic issues (and they often ignore basic facts when they oppose the topic du jour).

    People spout off an many topics they don’t know anything about, even to people who know much more. The real issue here is that ignorance and biases regarding gender issues often hurts people.

  20. #20 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 30, 2007

    Which could be why “the closer you get to humans, the worse the science gets”.

    Things are not so simple; there is a gap, sometimes quite large, between the abstract concepts we wish to measure (intelligence, affability, empathy, etc…) and the tests that purport to measure these quantities.

    And besides, wer misst, misst Mist (“whosoever measures measures garbage”) — physicists’ proverb.

    Has Phrenology ever actually been considered a science?

    I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised. After all, it makes plenty of testable predictions. It just so happens that those predictions have all been tested and found to be wrong; being wrong and being unscientific isn’t the same.

  21. #21 David Marjanovi?
    October 30, 2007

    Oops, my first line refers to “plenty of people believe they’re experts on language because, after all, they speak one”, which I deleted because it has been explained at length in comment 17.

  22. #22 Russell
    October 30, 2007

    Andrew Wade:

    Which would tend to support the contention that Dawkin’s opinions are largely ignorant. Many Christian sects don’t actually hold that theology is a science.

    No, but they believe some of what theology proposes. Or to put it differently, theology pretends to be an academic study of the very object in which theists believe: a god.

    At a minimum, one would quickly learn that there is very little that is common to Christianity.

    Would you call anyone a Christian who did not at least believe in a god?

    Someone who would point out that the evidence is completely against the notion of four fundamental elements — earth, water, fire, and air — doesn’t really need to know the many and diverse schools of thought that were built on that concept. Nor is he saying that everything done in those schools was wrong. One school might have developed a perfectly good procedure for making oil of vitriol, for example.

  23. #23 jeffk
    October 30, 2007

    I’d like to add that while I agree with many of the points that have been raised about the differences between a social science like gender study and something more quantitative, I wish that the social sciences were more recognized and more respected. They’re trickier in some ways, I think more difficult, more prone for error, more caught up in current politics and culture, but despite this, it’s important that there’s a scientific effort to learn about social issues; I think we should recognize expertise in these areas and ultimately use it to inform public policy.

  24. #24 ecogeofemme
    October 30, 2007

    Great post. Thank you for thinking these things so that younger female scientists, like me, don’t have to think them (as much) because the gender biases we face at the start of our careers aren’t so bad as they once were (in some fields). And thank you for thinking and talking about this long enough that many men I know are starting to talk about it too.

    My research has implications for climate change. Everybody seems to have an opinion about that too — “you don’t *really* believe in global warming, do you?”

  25. #25 PhysioProf
    October 30, 2007

    “For the gender trolls are ever inventive[.]”

    They are? My experience has been that they have only about a half dozen canards that they just recycle endlessly.

    Anyway, great post! Whenever you get exhausted, just remind yourself that your efforts definitely do influence the thinking and actions of male scientists who are committed to a reality-based treatment of gender issues in science.

  26. #26 Brian
    October 30, 2007

    “Has phrenology ever actually been considered a science?”

    Oh my, absolutely. Phrenology was basically all we knew (i.e. ‘nothing’) about the brain until the start of psychology as a legitimate discipline. While it’s ludicrous to think that little bumps in the skull would really reflect “bigger” parts of your brain (and, by extension, improved functioning in those areas), there’s actually a strong trend toward that type of thinking in neuroimaging today. Next time you read a paper or article where someone claims that they have “found” music in the brain, or where “love” is, realize that the idea of any localization of function at all comes from phrenology.

    It’s actually kinda unfortunate, since it’s much more likely that cognitive processes are distributed, not localized. It’ll take a long time to escape that messy point of view. But yes, phrenology was totally legit for a long time.

  27. #27 Caliban
    October 30, 2007

    I may be totally ignorant here, but i’d like to think that our social inequalities are “naturally” improving with a mix of education, exposure, public awareness and with the older bigotries of previous generations dying off from old age.

    After all, it was only a hundred years ago that lynchings were seen as openly public, wholesome, family gatherings for the community. Things have improved quite a bit since then for blacks as they have for other minorities, women, and most recently, gays.

    The pervailing societal attitudes on these things even 50 years ago are commonly lampooned by our current culture (movies about the 50’s) for thier primitive, backward ways which we now enjoy mocking. So, it seems to me that such things will continue to get better.

  28. #28 Brian
    October 30, 2007

    They do improve over time, Caliban, but the point is that they don’t NEED to exist in the first place. Time heals all wounds… slowly. In 1000 years we’ll laugh at the notion of gender biases, but why wait so long?

    When we know how to cure a disease, we cure it. We don’t let it run its course. Why should bigotry be any different?

  29. #29 LJG
    October 30, 2007

    All I have to say is THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU to my family who were equally thrilled when I made matchbox car traffic jams all over the floor, as when I played with Barbies with my friends. THANK YOU Parents who let my brothers play with female Disney action figures as well as male, and THANK YOU to my aunts, uncles, and grandparents who came to my basketball, soccer (when I played on the boys team), and track meets. I am a very lucky female who got to grow up not thinking about what toys I was ‘suppose’ to be playing with or that I wasn’t ‘suppose’ to climb trees, and if I wanted to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, I could be!

  30. #30 Zuska
    October 30, 2007

    Wow. This is a fantastic conversation. A few responses from me:

    In comment #8, JP says

    Once in your writeup and once in the comments, it’s implied that men just don’t get it, apparently just by virtue of being men.

    I’m not sure what JP’s talking about. I wrote:

    If I were to talk today about gender issues in science to that same non-expert, chances are he or she would feel perfectly free to challenge me because they have an opinion…

    I talked about “people” and “trolls”. Unless JP assumes all people and all trolls are male…? JP also asks:

    Secondly, don’t you think it kind of cheapens your claim that your education in gender studies is extensive and should be taken seriously if apparenly one needs only be a woman to understand all of it?

    I have no idea how JP arrived at this conclusion. Nowhere in my post did I state that one needs to be a woman to understand gender issues. To the contrary, the point I’m advocating here is that just living and possessing a gender is not sufficient to give one expertise in gender issues. This is equally true for women as for men. Women might be more likely than men to be aware that gender is a problem for women, but they don’t automatically have an adequate vocabulary to describe the situation they find themselves in, nor adequate analytical tools to assess the situation and propose changes. That’s what you get from the disciplinary knowledge of women’s studies and gender studies. And that knowledge is available to anyone who wishes to study it, female or male.

    It’s difficult to talk about gender, though, without talking about the difference in the likelihood that women versus men will attend to gender issues. It is simply stating a truth that most men spend most of their time in a state blissfully unaware of gender- with a caveat. They are less likely to attend to how gender affects the world for women, but they are exquisitely attuned to what gender means for men, and this is the policing of each others’ masculinity that I referred to.

    This is also why I said you could not pay me enough to go through adolescence as a boy. Albion Tourgee in comment #14 completely misunderstands the context and meaning of this statement. It’s not, as he pretends, a belittlement of men. On the contrary, it actually expresses my feeling that boys have a very, very rough time in adolescence. The process of “becoming a man” in the U.S. is not, from where I stand, a pleasant prospect to consider, and it requires constant attention to defending one’s normative heterosexual masculinity against the suspicion of homosexuality. It must be exhausting. Girls may be mean to each other, but they are allowed a far wider range of emotional existence and behaviors than boys are. It’s a pity.

  31. #31 Lab Cat
    October 30, 2007

    I too would like to switch the gender awareness cap off. Earlier this week, not for the first time, I was shouting at the radio as during Sunday Edition they were addressing an issue without being aware of their biases. This week it was about a successful feminist (the founder of NOW?) who was being interviewed with her daughter. Her daughter had struggled as an adolescent and young adult which was basically put at her mother’s door. Mom being too busy fighting for women’s rights outside the home. There was little mention of where “dad” was with all of this. Link: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15707845

    Earlier it was a discussion about men and women’s vocabulary. I had to switch the radio off during that one when Dan Gottlieb suggested men didn’t talk much at home to their families as at work they talked a lot problem solving. WHAT THE FUCK DOES HE THINK WOMEN ARE DOING THESE DAYS? Oh, POHS* and the the radio was tuned to silence. I won’t listen to Dr Gottlieb any more; he lost my respect with that one statement.

    Reminds me of the statement that man don’t gossip; they just talk business.

    *My abbreviation for puke on his shoes

  32. #32 ScienceMama
    October 30, 2007

    I know it can be irritating and beyond tiring to hear from the loud mouthed assholes who feel like they have to post their asinine comments. But I also hope you know that for every one loud mouthed asshole, there are 100 men and women who are learning how to identify and speak intelligently about gender issues. Thank you for fighting the good fight and for refusing to let the trolls win.

  33. #33 Mecha
    October 31, 2007

    I thought about responding to Tourgee, but I was sure Zuska would have gotten around to him eventually. Many younger guys can easily think back to high school (or more recently, depending on what your hobbies are) to put what she said in context.

    If something’s bad, if you show an emotion, if you shed a tear (for any reason but winning something in sports), that’s gay. Long hair? Gay. Dyed hair? Totally gay. An earring? Oho, that’s gay. Studying? Geeks that never get laid (and are probably gay anyway.) At the same time girls are coming into their own as being able to be objectified and treated like trophies and shamed for having girl parts, guys are being told by peers and media, ‘You want to have sex, you need to have sex, and if you’re not you must be gay. If you’re not like the rest of us, you must be gay.’

    Considering how often I hear people complain that feminists ‘never think’ about male issues, I thought it was a very nice toss over to one of the ways the patriarchy hurts men too.

    -Mecha

  34. #34 Alexis
    October 31, 2007

    Having studied the history of science myself, I’d say the problem you describe is not so much that people have too little awe of the rightness of gender studies but rather too much awe for the rightness of science.

    What we feel is absolutely irrefutable today in another 200 years will be considered ludicrous, whether scientific, social, or other. To that end, science has an infallible luster it hardly deserves. It maintains its luster by being specialized, by being a little clique that only those with proper training can access (how many times have we heard on this blog and others in your channel about the uselessness of amateurs, after all?). Science strives to maintain its distance and its stature.

    Social sciences, on the other hand, are lived every day. People find them more accessible – they speak about tangible, lived events that we must all navigate as a routine part of our lives. It gives the mistaken impression that we know every thing there is to know. There is no specialized knowledge seen in the social sciences, because above all the are accessible.

    But you are asking the impossible. You are asking people to come to grips with the fact that there is no such thing as truth – that it is a fluid, changeable thing – even though the notion of truth allows us to make tangible, noticeable progress in our lives. Believing that we can attain truth allows us to build systems and interact with each other in ways that actually work, even as the foundation behind them is imaginary. You are asking people to come to grips with one of the greatest paradoxes of life.

    Maintaining faith in science, in a universal goal, in a truth, is easy…..perhaps(?) even necessary. Maintaining that illusion for humanities is not.

  35. #35 Zuska
    October 31, 2007

    Alexis, I agree with you – to a point. I am not quite ready to give up completely on truth. I mean, I think there are some things we can actually know, and be pretty sure that we know, and know reliably. There has to be a way to distinguish between valid and invalid knowledge. Otherwise, who’s to say my critique of science is any more valid that some creationist’s critique of science?

  36. #36 Jp
    October 31, 2007

    Hi Zuska,

    Thanks for replying to me. Here’s me replying to your reply:

    In comment #8, JP says
    Once in your writeup and once in the comments, it’s implied that men just don’t get it, apparently just by virtue of being men.

    I’m not sure what JP’s talking about. I wrote:
    If I were to talk today about gender issues in science to that same non-expert, chances are he or she would feel perfectly free to challenge me because they have an opinion…
    I talked about “people” and “trolls”. Unless JP assumes all people and all trolls are male…?

    I got this from two places. One, as I mentioned, from your post, another from the comments below. Here they are in order:

    1.) How pleasant it must be sometimes, to be male, and walk around blissfully unaware of gender.

    2.) You said it so well… but at the same time, I can almost hear a certain number of men reading this, scratching their heads and thinking, “What is she complaining about?”

    Granted, you didn’t make the (second) comment. Perhaps it was my mistake to tack that on to the line in your post, but added together, I got the implication that men not only don’t get it, but that it specifically has to do with being male, and not with being undecated when it comes to gender studies. Even just your line about being “blissfully unaware of gender” implies to me an inborn inability to understand gender issues.

    I’ll also quickly note this line of your post:

    On gender issues, however, every crank in the woods feels free to offer his uninformed bigotry as proof I must be wrong AND that I must not be a scientist, merely because I take gender and science issues seriously to begin with.

    In which I couldn’t readily tell if you were using “his” to be gender-specific, or if you were intending to be “gender neutral” (I’m not sure if that’s the right term for when “he” or “his” does not mean to specify gender).

    In any case… you address my points in the rest of your comment. I just wanted to point out where I got that from.

    Another interesting point from your comment:

    It is simply stating a truth that most men spend most of their time in a state blissfully unaware of gender- with a caveat. They are less likely to attend to how gender affects the world for women, but they are exquisitely attuned to what gender means for men, and this is the policing of each others’ masculinity that I referred to.

    I wonder, do you feel that women are more understanding of what gender means for men than men are understanding of what gender means for women? I ask because your comment made me reflect on my own upbringing and my own awareness of gender growing up (which I think is somewhat atypical – I was not a “guy’s guy” ever, and always associated with girls. I was one of the “policed” and never one of the “policers”, so to speak). I agree that there is this “policing” aspect you speak of, although, in my own life anyway, I’m not sure many other women see that – see that “maleness” is a kind of role a man is expected to play. In fact, it occurs to me I’ve had arguments with my wife about this, but that’s a long, other story. ;) What are your thoughts?

    -Jp

  37. #37 Zuska
    November 1, 2007

    Jp, thanks for your response. Regarding me saying “how pleasant it must be sometimes, to be male, and walk around blissfully unaware…” I thought it was obvious from the context of the post that what I was saying was this: it is tiring to be ALWAYS aware of gender, it is tiring to be a woman in a world where women are second class citizens. How nice it would be to walk around as one of the first-class citizens, blissfully unaware of the things women always have to worry about, like “is this man staring at my tits or paying attention to what I am saying?” or “should I submit this journal article with my full name or with just my initials to ensure I don’t get a gender-biased review?” or “can I turn on the t.v. and watch it for thirty seconds without being reminded that women are viewed as sex objects who exist to gratify men?” I don’t think most men think about these things because they are not things that men have to worry about.

    Regarding the cranks: 95% of the cranks on this blog are men. I think nearly every crank who has accused me of not being a scientist has been a man. So yeah, there I was being gender specific. In general I try not to use “he” to mean “he or she”. Because I don’t see “he” “him” “his” etc. as gender neutral terminology, anymore than “she” “her” “hers” is.

    Finally, I do think that women are more likely to be aware of how gender affects men than vice versa, although certainly not all women are. It’s not uncommon for girls to defend boys now and then when the taunting gets too vicious. Conversely, there are some women who understand all too well what the terms of normative masculinity are, and use those terms to manipulate men. That may not be a well articulated understanding of gender, but let’s say it’s an attuned consciousness or attentiveness to what gender means and what the stakes are. The reason that women are more likely to be aware of what gender means for men than vice versa is because it is always to the benefit of the oppressed to study the norms and behaviors of the oppressor. In the same way, people of color are more attuned to white people than vice versa; they have to be, to survive in a white-dominated world.

    Note that these are not absolutes and there are various points of existence along a range of possibilities; it depends upon one’s experiences, as well. If you exist somewhat outside the norms, you are going to have experiences that will tend to make you more aware of gender or race issues. If, as you note, you are more policed than a policer of gender, you will have more cause to think critically about what it means to be a man. If you were, as I was, taunted by your classmates because your skin seemed too dark to be a “real” white person, you might have more cause to think critically about what it means to be white.

    And then, hopefully, you begin to look for sources of information and knowledge that can help you make sense of it all – someplace to gain the vocabulary and specialized knowledge that turns the incomprehensible pathology slide into a detailed slice of information and understanding.

  38. #38 Alexis
    November 2, 2007

    Zuska,

    Absolutely. I agree with exactly what you’re saying, and that is precisely the conundrum. When one looks at the history of thought…well, it changes. Notions – facts, even – go in and out of fashion. Our understanding grows, shrinks, and changes. From a pragmatic standpoint, I have no reason to believe that our modern ideas will suffer a different fate. It is possible of course (I am thinking specifically about an analogy to do with the sun rising every day?) that we will hit upon some truth that will not alter even over history, but it is unlikely based on past experience.

    That said, believing in the truth of our ideas is nonetheless productive. We make progress and create and learn new and wonderful things, and develop real, honest use out of being able to say that such and such a thing is true (whether or not it actually turns out to be so). To that end, truth is a necessary fiction.

    But you made an interesting statement about “valid knowledge” and “invalid knowledge.” I think these are actually much better ways to think about information – is it valid, based on everything else we know? Is it useful? Does it allow us to make progress? To me, these are better measures and questions than “is this true?” In Inventing Temperature, Chang has a wonderful plea to consider “progress” a more useful barometer than “truth.” If you have truly decided to take a tiny break from gender studies for your next reading foray, why not check that one out?

    At any rate (to bring this back to the original post) I think that most peoples’ response is exactly the same as yours – “I’m not willing to give up on truth because otherwise, how could I know X? How could I know my critique is better than another’s, or that my way of cooking the spaghetti is the best way or even how to get to the store around the corner?” Knowledge is one of the single most important needs that people have.

    Science is reassuring and well-esteemed because it offers to fill this need, and, by being specialized, abstract, and arcane, it offers to do so above and beyond what the average person feels capable of doing on their own. Gender studies, on the other hand, explains everyday life and thus lacks the sort of mysterious air that lends itself so well to reverence and awe. Though no less necessary, it just doesn’t have that untouchable air that inspires such (probably undeserved) reverence. But to get people to accept that idea, they have to also accept that science isn’t mysterious, it isn’t infallible, and there is probably no such thing as truth…and that none of those things actually matter as far as we live our lives day to day!

  39. #39 Zuska
    November 2, 2007

    I think saying there’s no such thing as truth just plays into the hands of folks like creationists. If there’s no such thing as truth, then why not give intelligent design equal time in the classroom? Evolutionary theory isn’t “true”, in your way of thinking, so maybe it’s just as reasonable to consider an alternative explanation.

    Science is not, or not always, abstract. Technology sure isn’t. I mean, when you build a bridge, you better hope you know some truths about how materials behave and what kinds of loads trusses can bear.

    If I kick my foot against a boulder, it’s going to hurt. I’m pretty confident that that’s a true statement. It is possible to actually learn things about the world around. Vaccines work. Sanitation systems prevent disease. These are things we have learned, and these things are not likely to be overturned by future discoveries. They are pretty solid truths, I would say.

  40. #40 Jp
    November 3, 2007

    Science is reassuring and well-esteemed because it offers to fill this need, and, by being specialized, abstract, and arcane, it offers to do so above and beyond what the average person feels capable of doing on their own. Gender studies, on the other hand, explains everyday life and thus lacks the sort of mysterious air that lends itself so well to reverence and awe.

    That’s funny, I’d say the opposite is true. The hard sciences may have reached a point now where they are beyond the ken the layperson (well, if the layperson doesn’t want to spend years studying more math and science) but they are all based, as Zuska illustrated, on basic principles that the layperson can (and often already does) grasp.
    I think the opposite is actually true of many of the social sciences. I don’t think it is true that “gender studies explains everyday life” at least, not in a way that everyone will agree is readily provable. To use Zuska’s example, we could all agree if a bridge is or isn’t working. But try proving to a room of 100 people that person x didn’t get a job because person y was discriminating based on gender. How do you prove that? Where is the hard, tangible evidence? I’m not saying it can’t be done, of course, I’m just arguing that it is the social sciences that are considered less intangible by the layperson, not the hard sciences, specialization aside.

  41. #41 Mrs Whatsit
    November 4, 2007

    This is a wonderful conversation and I really wanted to be a part of it, but in looking through the comments, everything I wanted to say was already represented in some comment or other. What you said about “un-knowing” what you know about gender really spoke to me because I have been thinking that myself recently.

    Speaking of commercials, have you seen the one for the playhouse with a girl of about 3 or 4 and the voice-over says things like, “Make all of her dreams come true” as the little girl is doing laundry and serving cupcakes? Makes me want to throw something at the TV every time I see it!

  42. #42 Zuska
    November 4, 2007

    Oh, Mrs. Whatsit, that’s an awful commercial! I’ve not seen it but just hearing about it makes me feel pukey. “Make all her dreams come true” indeed. Serve cupcakes my ass. Evil, evil, evil ad companies…

  43. #43 Alexis
    November 8, 2007

    Sorry I wandered away for a few days, but I wanted to have the discussion more if everyone hasn’t tired of it already.

    Zuska,
    I don’t feel that my opinions play into creationst’s hands. Being able to accept that what I believe will likely one day be disproved does not preclude finding certain beliefs more useful than others, which is what I’ve suggested as the alternative consideration.

    According to the model I’m suggesting, the reason creationism is not equal to evolutionary theory is that creationism doesn’t get us anywhere. If we use it as a model, it doesn’t help us design new, useful systems; it doesn’t make progress; it doesn’t explain other things we’ve been scratching our heads over. It’s an intellectual dead end and gives us nowhere further to go. If creationism were to be equally valid to evolutionary theory, it wouldn’t help us carry out daily tasks (like knowing the fact that the store is two blocks ahead and one block on the left allows us to purchase groceries), it wouldn’t help us narrow down on the cause for some disease (as knowing what gene X does might), it wouldn’t help us interact more smoothly with other people (as a familiarity with world literatures might).

    Knowledge is important because it gives us something. It gives us more control over our lives – it gives us a security in knowing what to expect, how to do things, and in providing us with new tools. To that end, truth is not the important part of knowledge…utility is.

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