Women in science, and science studies

I know that it is a little bit tone-deaf for a man such as myself to opine on topics like this, but I really would like to express myself and I hope it is not interpreted as mansplaining. I just finished reading an article on The Atlantic, provocatively titled “The Constellations are Sexist.” The article itself was more or less forgettable clickbait, but it raised a number of issues that made me want to formulate my thoughts and respond. The article, linked here, correctly points out misogynistic and sexist aspects of Greek mythology, the historical scientific establishment that excluded and minimized the accomplishments of female astronomers, and the macho culture of space exploration. Unfortunately, it does so in a superficial, flippant way that makes some sweeping claims, claims which were immediately pounced upon by all kinds of trolls, but also more legitimate members of the internet commentariat. With regard to the article itself, there are two main points that I want to bring up: first, my personal experience as a card-carrying member of the (male-dominated, and particularly white-male-dominated) scientific establishment, and second, my opinion on science studies and the humanistic critique of the scientific enterprise.

My personal experience as a scientist: I work as a scientist and collaborate every day with brilliant people—currently most of my collaborators happen to be women. I am grateful to be part of a culture that acknowledges and values contributions from both women and men. I can really only speak specifically about ecologists; I don’t know the situation in the physical sciences that well. It’s too bad that ecologists are not a more racially diverse group, but I hope that will change with time. However, I have personally experienced the darker side of the “collegiality” of academic culture: male scientists who exploit power dynamics, especially over women, for their own gain. Worse yet, supervisors often turned a blind eye to what these men were doing until things got too serious to ignore, and women’s voices often weren’t heard. I would also say that while the machismo culture of ecology is (luckily) not quite to the level of the Mercury astronauts in The Right Stuff, it certainly is something I’ve noticed, especially when it comes to outdoing one another in fieldwork, or even one-upmanship about putting in long hours at the office. So, I certainly have empathy for those who critique the scientific establishment as being harmful to women. In my perspective, things are slowly improving, but a lot of issues still need to be addressed.

However, talking about flaws in the way the scientific establishment treats women and other groups outside of the inner circle of power brings me to another point, the humanistic critique of the enterprise of science. I will issue a disclaimer that I haven’t read most of the primary literature in this field, but lately I have read some about it, and have been thinking about it from the perspective of a scientist. The author of the piece on the sexism of the constellations is very invested in this critique, constantly pointing out in that piece and in other pieces (see her website) that science isn’t necessarily objective, tied up as it is with power dynamics of the society that creates it. (She is especially interested in gender dynamics but that point could easily apply to other types of power dynamic.) I agree with this point, and I would say that a rigid view of science as always shining the harsh light of truth and objectivity upon nature is a false and probably harmful view. After all, who can reasonably deny that science and technology have expedited the gutting and destruction of the environment, and have been a vehicle for capitalists to make off with boatloads of money at the expense of marginalized groups? However, I think the obsession with critiquing the practice of science can go too far. For one thing, it can be, and has been, used as ammunition by people with a vested interest in undermining science, such as evolution and climate change deniers. For another thing, the obsession with critiquing downplays the wonderful accomplishments that women scientists have made and are making. For example, the article about sexism in the constellations only mentioned two female scientists/engineers. One was an 18th-19th-century female astronomer (now largely forgotten, but what casual science fan can name any 18th-century astronomers of any description?). The other was in a derisive footnote that a female “Mission Operations Manager” for NASA is nicknamed “MOM,” which I don’t really think smacks of misogyny. I generally see the validity of the postmodern critique, but when it is delivered in such an echo chamber, stripped of any dialogue with currently practicing scientists, women or men, it’s pretty useless.

I would like to end by saying that I deeply admire the women scientists I know, and that I think my field of ecology, and the sciences in general, would benefit from two things. First, white men need to relinquish some of their grip on the power structure to allow greater diversity in identities and modes of thinking. Second, there does need to be an improved dialogue with the humanities and with science studies. When we step outside our narrow focus and think about the paradigms within which we operate, it can really lead to great insights. As it stands now, a critique of science by the humanities can’t be effective unless scientists both are aware of it and know what can be done to improve the way science is done. That requires positive suggestions in addition to negative criticism. As I’ve said in previous entries on this blog, a little humility, open-mindedness, and compassion (not the most macho of traits) can go a long way!



Midwest livin’

I’ve been living in the Upper Midwest for a total of about a year now, off and on, including a few stints with Mary in South Bend/Mishawaka, Indiana, and now in East Lansing, Michigan. I can’t say I have fully experienced the place, since I’ve mostly made myself scarce by the time winter rolls around. However, I think I have been here long enough to have developed some impression of the character of this area. Of course, Michigan is probably most known for being the buckle of the Rust Belt, with cities blighted by abandoned factories, run-down houses, crumbling infrastructure, and decay. That’s sadly what happens when we hitch our fortunes to globalized capital. Lured by the short-term prosperity it brings, local governments abase themselves before corporations, allowing them to loot the public coffers with tax breaks. But the moment that shareholder profits would be maximized by offshoring all the manufacturing, the capitalists peace out. It is the capitalists’ responsibility and their duty to do that, in this broken system—their responsibility is to their shareholders, and that’s that. However, the government has been way too lax in its responsibility to the citizens who can no longer survive without steady employment, instead vilifying and shaming people who need to use the (dwindling) social safety net. As a government-funded postdoc, I’m pretty insulated from all that, but it is sad to see these forgotten citizens trying to get by when both the “free market” (sarcastic quotes) and the government have screwed them over.



The rail station in Niles, Michigan (built 1892)

While that’s a pretty bleak take on life in the Upper Midwest, I have also really been enjoying living in a different part of the USA than I am familiar with. Even though media and pop culture have been steadily homogenizing this country (linguistically and culturally), it is fun to notice little regional differences. For example, the other day I took the Amtrak train from East Lansing to Niles, Michigan (just across the state line from South Bend), where Mary picked me up. I sat in front of an old farmer couple. As we rolled by the fertile farmlands of southwest Michigan, patches of different truck crops whipped past the window, to me appearing like a green blur. The husband, however, identified each type of vegetable for his wife: “Those’re potatoes.” “Looks like an asparagus patch.” “Huh, that’s a lotta cukes.” “Don’t know what those are, probably green beans.” I was very edified by his descriptions of the different soil types in different parts of the state, with their different glaciation histories leading to different sand and organic matter content. We passed right by the athletic complex of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo (imagine a very nasal and flat Midwestern accent): “That’s Western Micheegan. Real good haakey team. Great haakey there.” Not something you’d hear much in North Carolina or Tennessee. They showed me the location of their hometown, Lapeer, in the time-honored Michigan method of pointing to its location on the outstretched palm, in this case around the base of the thumb. Call me a silly newbie, but I think that’s cute. When I arrived in Niles and met Mary, I enthused over the historic railroad station and said I wanted to go in and look around. A bystander interjected, “It’s nothing special.” I disagree, as you can see from the picture. And of course, I had to try some Faygo root beer the other day to fully consummate the Michigan experience. That definitely was nothing special, but I would still probably rather drink it than get sprayed by it at an Insane Clown Posse show.