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Feminism Against Science


By Professor Steven Goldberg

IN 1935, when Margaret Mead published her Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, the prevailing view was that the basic differences between masculine and feminine behavior was owing to physiological differences. In attempting to correct a view that was nearly as exaggerated as the absurdly environmental explanation of sex differences that infuses the social sciences today, Miss Mead exaggerated the degree to which one of the societies she studied (the Tchambuli) associated what we would call the masculine with women and the feminine with men.

Few social scientists bought this view. For example, Jesse Bernard, who would have very much liked to be able to accept Miss Mead's conclusions, pointed out that, if the reader ignored the adjectives, the Tchambuli did not seem very different from other societies. "Effete" headhunters and "comradely" women feeding their children are still male headhunters and women feeding their children, and it is only the adjectives provided by Margaret Mead that even begin to suggest otherwise.

In response to such criticism, Miss Mead wrote a famous letter to The American Anthropologist in which she pointed out that:

Nowhere do I suggest that I have found any material which disproves the existence of sex differences. . . . This study was not concerned with whether there are or are not actual and universal differences between the sexes, either quantitative or qualitative.

Over the course of fifty years Miss Mead repeated her denial a hundred times, in response to one or another claim that she had found a society that reversed sex roles; in a review of my The Inevitability of Patriarchy, she wrote:

It is true, as Professor Goldberg points out, that all the claims so glibly made about societies ruled by women are non-sense. We have no reason to believe that they ever existed. . . . Men have always been the leaders in public affairs and the final authorities at home.

Finally, eight years ago I published--in the American Sociological Association's journal of book reviews, perhaps the most-read journal in sociology--a letter making all of the above points.

Now, one would think that all this would be sufficient to preclude even the most ardent environmentalist's invoking Margaret Mead's study as evidence of sex-role reversibility. And yet, a couple of years ago I went to Barnes and Noble and located 38 introductory sociology books published in the few preceding years. Of these 38, 36 began their sex-roles chapters with a discussion of Miss Mead's work on the Tchambuli and how it demonstrates the environmental nature of male and female behavior.

It is not clear how many of these 36 knowingly misrepresented the facts and how many were incompetent as much as dishonest (uninformed cribbing from other textbooks is near-standard procedure in introductory-textbook writing). But it is clear why the textbooks misrepresent the evidence. They, like the discipline whose work they represent, have an ideological commitment to denying that masculine and feminine behaviors and emotions are rooted in male and female physiologies and that all social systems conform to the limits imposed by this reality.

My point here is merely that no case can be made for Miss Mead's having even claimed to have demonstrated that the Tchambuli refute that explanation. Yet 36 of 38 introductory sociology textbooks state it as truth.

Ideology for Truth

ONE MIGHT think that this sort of substitution of ideology for truth, while rampant in the social sciences, could not possibly threaten the physical sciences. One would, as Margarita Levin demonstrates so stunningly in a recent American Scholar, be wrong.

Mrs. Levin gives examples of accepted scientific findings whose putative male biases are seen by feminists as requiring "reconceptualization":

["Feminist scientists"] see male dominance at work in, for instance, the "master molecule" theory of DNA functioning; in the notion of forces "acting on" objects; in the description of evolution as the result of a "struggle" to survive; in the view that scarcity of resources results in "competition" between animals--in short in any theory positing what they deem destructive, violent, uni-directional, or hier-archical. . . . The idea of dominance is directly linked to the notion of scientific objectivity, which . . . is understood as "distancing oneself" from nature.

Let us ignore the fact that, as Mrs. Levin points out, there is an equal number of scientific models that can be viewed as feminine: symbiosis, feedback, catalysis, mutual attraction, and the like. Much more destructive to the feminist objection is the fact that these, like all successful scientific conceptions, are held because they accurately explain nature; they demonstrate their correctness by making correct predictions. In other words, they work.

Because it is their success that validates accepted scientific explanations, it would not matter even if it were true that (as one feminist claims) our acceptance of the concept of inertial motion is rooted in capitalism's need for the movement of money, or if it were true (as another claims) that the replacement of a Ptolemaic system by a Copernican system was a victory of the masculine over the feminine (because the Ptolemaic earth-centered system is "feminine"). Mrs. Levin asks the question that in one sentence trumps all the volumes of the feminist critics: "Do they think we have a choice?"

We don't, of course. We believe in inertial motion because we find that, ceteris paribus, objects in space keep moving along at an unchanging speed and that inertial motion is our best explanation of why. We believe that the earth goes around the sun not because this is the macho way of seeing things, but because the earth does (speaking a bit loosely) go around the sun.

Moreover, motives for and functions of a claim are irrelevant to the truthfulness of the claim. Thus, the failure of "feminist science" (and "feminist models") is not that it serves psychological, political, and social impulses and purposes. The failure of "feminist science" is that it does nothing more than this; it does not explain anything. If it did, or if it demonstrated a logical flaw or failure of prediction in models invoking inertial motion or heliocentrism or anything else--if it were capable of doing anything that cast doubt on any scientific conclusion--then it would be worth taking seriously. Failing utterly to achieve this, "feminist scientists" attempt to cast doubt on accepted scientific explanations through endless discussions of "male paradigms." Such discussions tend to be potpourris of irrelevant facts and misconceptions that have nothing to do with any empirical question; they fool only the nonscientist, who sees impressive-looking scientific references and incorrectly assumes that these necessarily indicate that the person invoking them knows what he or she is talking about.

It is not merely wish and ideology, however, that lead feminist science to such muddled thought; there is a tradition, embodied in semiotics, hermeneutics, and certain forms of phenomenology that feminist science is reflecting (or perverting, depending on one's assessment of the tradition). This tradition tends to deny that there is such a thing as truth and to see perceived truths as merely shared cultural meanings that could, with proper redefinition, be converted to their opposites. It tends to deny underlying realities that set limits on what may be perceived as truth.

Whatever the virtues of this tradition in the humanities, its fallaciousness in the sciences is, or should be, too obvious to mention. Science leaves far less room for differing views of truth: someone who believes that gravity is such that when he lets go of a bowling ball it will float gently upward is simply incorrect, and someone who believes it will fall to earth is correct. This is validated by correct prediction and by the painful, swollen foot that accompanies the incorrect prediction.

If Wishes Were Horses

ALL OF THIS is as true of social science as of the physical and natural sciences. But it is that former that first, most completely, and most nakedly exhibited the contemporary tendency for ideological wish to replace scientific curiosity. In a few major areas of the social sciences this tendency has gone so far that there is but the barest pretense of scientific objectivity. Truth is measured not by concordance of explanation and reality, but of one social scientist's ideology and that of another. Unlike the blind leading the blind, who are at least trying to follow the right path, the majority of practitioners in some of the subdisciplines of the social sciences do not in the slightest care about truth when wish is to be served. If the majority agree on nonsense, then nonsense is truth.

Consider, for example, the fact that, among all the thousands of societies on which we have any sort of evidence, there have never been any Amazonian or matriarchal societies. The hierarchies of all societies have always been dominated by males. Virtually anyone with a scintilla of scientific curiosity responds to this empirical fact by asking, "Why?"

An answer that can be powerfully defended sees psychophysiological differences between the sexes as determinative to male and female behavior and to the unvarying social realities that reflect this behavior. Feminist attempts to explain the universality of patriarchy, unwilling to entertain the possibility that psychophysiological factors are determinative, invariably display certain features.

They are unparsimonious, claiming, for example, that patriarchy is a result of capitalism, an "explanation" that requires different causal factors to explain patriarchy in the thousands of societies--primitive, socialist, and the like--that are not capitalist.

They beg the question by giving causal primacy to the socialization of boys and girls. This "explanation" fails to ask the central question: Why does every society's socialization associate dominance behavior with males? To give socialization causal primacy is like saying that men grow facial hair because we tell little boys and girls that facial hair is unfeminine. They attempt to deny the universality of the male dominance tendency and patriarchy by demonstrating that some other behavior or institution is not universally differentiated. This is akin to denying that males are taller on average by demonstrating that the sexes do not differ in knowledge of history. They confuse economic cause with economic function. To see economic factors as the cause of male dominance behavior is like seeing McDonald's need for profits as the cause of the human need to eat. They spend much of their time attacking straw-man arguments that play no role in the explanation we are discussing--for example, sociological explanations of why males and females evolved the way they did. The issue is no how male and female physiologies evolved, but the role of the male and female physiologies that did evolve in determining the differentiated psychologies and behaviors of males and females and the institutions that reflect these. They make the mistake of treating the social environment as an independent variable, thereby failing to explain why the social environment always conforms to limits set by, and takes a direction concordant with, the physiological (i.e., never does environment act as sufficient counterpose to enable a society to avoid male domination of hierarchies). This is easy to explain if one sees the environment as given its limits and direction by the psychophysiological natures of males and females.

Much Talk, No Science

MUCH feminist social science is not even bad reasoning about empirical questions, but empty or confused discussion that substitutes terminology for explanation. One would be hard put to find another group that talked so much about science without ever doing any science. There are, of course, many women scientists who do science: but these women never make the arguments made by the "feminist scientists" and acknowledge, in private, to being more than a little embarrassed by them.

The strongest impulse of the serious scientist is to eradicate the ignorance that the unanswered question represents. The models that the scientist uses serve this impulse. Because "feminist scientists" feel more strongly the need for a picture of reality concordant with their wishes than a need for a picture concordant with reality, they are incapable of understanding the serious scientist. The history of science is replete with examples of scientists who were impelled by emotional impulse to find one thing, but who were forced by logic and evidence to find another. Where the ideologue is content with the inappropriate model or false explanation as long as it satisfies psychological and political desire, the serious scientist cannot live with the awful gnawing of the explanation that doesn't work.

But it is the success of the answers to specific empirical questions, and not the difference of motivation between the scientist and the ideologue, that is crucial to science. For science recognizes that even the most serious of scientists is, like everyone else, vulnerable to nonscientific impulses. This is why science has at its core the mechanism for exposing the relevant manifestations of such impulses.

Moreover, it might be the case that, if the majority of scientists were women, the selection of empirical realities to be studied would be different. But even if this is true, it has nothing to do with the corrections of analyses of that which is selected for study.

If "feminist science" develops a "feminist model" that helps us to answer some empirical question, or demonstrates the scientific inadequacy of accepted explanations, then it will be, as it should be, taken seriously. It will not need the adjective; it will be science. But as long as "feminist science" is nothing more than a failure to explanations--explanations that make successful predictions, the test that separates the adults from the children in science--it will be, correctly, dismissed from serious discussion.

To this point, "feminist science" has provided nothing more than endless, embarrassingly self-congratulatory discussion of terminology--discussion that neither can explain why traditional terminology permits explanations capable of making accurate predictions nor can itself make accurate predictions. When its explanations manage to avoid refutation by a cursory logical glance, they invoke bogus empirical evidence whose misrepresentation can be exposed by spending ninety seconds with the source invoked. (I have checked well over a hundred claims--never made by the ethnographer who actually studied the society in question--that a specific ethnography describes a nonpatriarchal society; it has never taken over ninety seconds with the invoked ethnography to demonstrate the ludicrousness of the claim. I have never found anyone willing to attempt to back up such a claim once it became clear that I had checked the ethnography that had been invoked.)

In any case, no one possessed by even the shadow of a scientific impulse cares in the slightest whether an interesting hypothesis is provided by a man or a woman or a goldfish. What matters is not who makes the claim, but the claim itself and its accord with nature; for the explanation of nature is the only justification for the existence of the claim.

Those who follow another imperative while pretending to care about discovering nature's secrets--those whose dishonesty and incompetence have muddled the process that has proved infinitely the best for discovering those secrets--subordinate truth to an a priori image of how they would like truth to be. This is indefensible for the scientist, or, indeed, for anyone who cares about finding out what is true. It replaces curiosity with narcissism and rationalizes the narcissism with a claim of humane purpose.

All this is obvious. Nonetheless, there is an astonishing number of scientists who publicly acquiesce in a position that they know should have long ago been laughed out of the university, while telling you in private that they know what they support is jejune nonsense, but that they do so in the service of the good. We used to call this lying.

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