Gender and the Biological Sciences

Philosophy Of Science Final Exam Paper

Rob Ludlow
Phil 3332
March 20, 2002
In the pursuit of the philosophy of science I have come to realize that there are always at least two sides to an idea, and that everyone always has an opinion, and that there is always someone out there who wants to argue against your opinion. Among these debates there is one issue that I believe has been debated, or at least raised since the early days of science. I also believe that this debate will ring in the ears of philosophers of science for centuries to come. The question that has been cause of so much debate, and is often raised is whether science is largely rational or irrational. Do social and cultural influences play a part in science? Do individual’s beliefs and values cloud their judgments? What about the context of discovery and the context of justification?
While it is the goal of every “good” scientist, and science as a whole to be completely rational, I will defend in this paper that irrationality does play a part in science today. It is obvious that it is (and has been for quite some time) the goal of science to be completely objective, or in other words that cultural & social values and bias do not alter or effect the outcome of scientific practices. Unfortunately scientists are human, imperfect, and subject to influences which cause science as a whole to be effected by these influences. In laymen’s terms, one would expect an apple tree to produce apples. Similarly it would be expected that if scientists have bias (no matter how diminutive that bias might be), we would expect to see bias, subjectivity, and irrationality in the fruit they produce.
In support of my statements above I would like to refer to the writings of Kathleen Okruhlik, specifically her article “Gender and the Biological Sciences” from Biology and Society, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 20 (1994). In her article Ms. Okruhlik describes the role that gender bias (a form of irrationality) has played in science over the years. While I wish to make no attempt to argue the specifics of gender bias in science, I will proceed to apply some of her examples to my argument that there is, and will continue to be (at least to some degree) irrationality in science.
Throughout the article Okruhlik gives examples of how a largely male population in the scientific community has developed a predisposition which has effected the content and procedure of scientific study. The first, and probably the most clear, example she gives is that of the relationship between the egg and the sperm. Okruhlik believes that gender bias has changed the blind approach to scientific analysis to one where there is a degree of “peeking” involved. She states that it was (and possibly still is) the perception of the relationship of men and women that gave rise to the Sleeping Beauty / Prince Charming model of reproduction. This model showed that the egg (analogous to a woman) took a submissive and inactive role while the sperm (analogous to a man) fought it’s way through perils and danger to engage the egg and set the creation of life in motion. Okruhlik then shows that even with years of observations that “prove” evidence for alternative theories, these theories are for the most part disregarded. The question can then raised (unfortunately not directly addressed in the article) “Why would scientists knowingly submit to such obvious forms of bias?” The answer is simply, “They wouldn’t.” As stated above I believe that it is the goal of every good scientist to practice with complete objectivity and without any bias whatsoever. At an early age I was told that “Recognition is ¾ of the solution to a problem!” From what I can tell, unfortunately, the recognition of problems associated with subjectivity and irrationality never took place, therefore the scientists never “knowingly” participated in irrational science.
Another point Okruhlik makes, one that I believe is the strongest evidence of irrationality in science, is the effects of bias in the context of discovery and the context of justification. It has been generally accepted in the scientific community that it does not matter how an individual came up with a theory (the context of discovery). It was of no importance if the way an individual conceived of a theory was via a crystal ball, apple on the head, tea leaves, daemonic possession, what have you. What mattered was that through the scientific processes of prediction, experimentation, and so forth, any and all subjectivity or irrationality would be sifted out. The final result would be a superior theory that contained only pure science, void of all subjectivity, irrationality, or bias. Okruhlik’s argument to this is that if you put irrationality and subjectivity into the discovery of a theory or hypothesis, you’ll end up with the same (at least to some degree) during the process of justification. Below is a diagram that I borrowed from Okruhlik’s article that I think excellently portrays what I just described:

Imagine that each circle (node) is a point of decision where a scientist must choose between one theory or hypothesis and another. Let’s assume that every submitted theory or hypothesis along the path has been created by a group of individuals with certain bias which prohibits them from “discovering” alternate theories or hypothesis outside of the realm of their bias. Through the process of justification and finding the superior theory, we are still left with a theory that is subject to irrationality.
To clarify the point, and drive home the idea, allow me to apply this argument to something very personal to me, my love for dogs. If I held the deep belief that dogs are inherently better pets than cats, and that belief permeated every fiber of my being, then that bias would inevitably rear it’s head in the theories, predictions, and experiments that I undertake. For example, I would never dream of making a hypothesis that smarter people prefer cats over dogs. The reason I would, and could not make this hypothesis is because I have the underlying assumption that any intelligent person would know, and inevitably come to the conclusion that dogs are overall better pets! In a nutshell, if I only choose theories that agree with my assumptions and beliefs, then all existing theories have been effected by my bias, irrationality, and subjectivity; therefore it should be expected that after all is said and done, the final superior theory will still be subject to irrationality.
In conclusion, some may interpret these statements as a black eye in the face of science. The thought of science having any ties to irrationality may be enough to make some scientist foam at the mouth with anger. While many have become upset at articles such as the one written by Kathleen Okruhlik, I see it in a different light.
It is very important to understand that the nature of science is that of progression. If we look at the “irrationality” of science today compared to that of the days of Copernicus we will see that science has come a long way. For example, I don’t know when the first case of a controlled experiment was, but imagine what a step that was towards perfect rationality. There are two main reasons for this progression:
1. Scientists will begin to recognize the little irrationalities that are sneaking there way into science and find ways to compensate for them.
2. Changes in society and culture will also play a role in the changes in the rationality of science. As society and cultures become less bias and stereotypical (eg; gender bias) we will see a direct lessoning of the effect those irrationalities have on science.
In the long run science will come closer and closer to it’s goal of complete rationality. Will it ever fully achieve this goal? In my humble opinion, no. We should expect to always get closer and closer, but will never (as long as we possess feelings and emotions) reach complete and total subjectivity and rationality. Is this inherently a bad thing? Nope, it’s just life and what makes us human.