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Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Picture a scientist

Alerted to this in my latest hardcopy Science Magazine issue.
Sweeping in scope yet intimately compelling, Picture a Scientist tells the stories of three female scholars, revealing the systemic and structural nature of gender discrimination and harassment in academic science. The film shows how intersections of sexism and racism shape experiences differently for white women and for women of color and how implicit bias both generates inequity and prevents us from noticing it. It reveals injustices ranging from subtle slights and salary gaps to bullying and physical assault. And it reminds us of the power of women’s collective action; the value of social science research in analyzing and responding to inequality; and the importance of allies and advocates, especially in university leadership...
Picture a Scientist is a world-class documentary from an experienced, award-winning crew that tells harrowing truths without sugarcoating, sensationalizing, or objectifying the film’s subjects. If I must have a quibble, it is that the film’s treatment of race is limited to black and white and its treatment of gender is too binary. Other axes of difference, such as disability, class, or sexual orientation, go largely unaddressed. Still, the film leaves openings to discuss these omissions and, more importantly, compels us to action. We might ask ourselves: What data could we gather on our own campuses? How do we become the accomplices of change-seeking colleagues? Can we muster the courage to share our own stories or hold someone accountable rather than looking the other way?

Picture a Scientist will be available to stream via select U.S. theaters from 12 to 26 June 2020. Invite campus leaders to attend the virtual premiere, and then host a screening and organizing session (2). This film could be the vehicle that moves us, as Clancy advocates, “away from a culture of compliance and towards a culture of change.”
Since the 1960s, feminists have asked: How could science claim to be objective when it largely excluded half the population from the ranks of its practitioners? How could science claim to be producing disinterested knowledge when so many of its theories embedded obvious social prejudices, not just about gender but also about race, class, and ethnicity? These questions were not necessarily hostile. Many of them were raised by female scientists who were interested in the natural or social world and believed in the power and value of scientific inquiry to explain it.

Sociologists of scientific knowledge stressed that science is a social activity, and this has been taken by many (for both better and worse) as undermining its claims to objectivity. The “social,” particularly to many scientists but also many philosophers, was synonymous with the personal, the subjective, the irrational, the arbitrary, and even the coerced. If the conclusions of scientists—who for the most part were European or North American men—were social constructions, then they had no more or less purchase on truth that the conclusions of other social groups. At least, a good deal of work in science studies seemed to imply that.

But feminist philosophers of science, most notably Sandra Harding and Helen Longino, turned that argument on its head, suggesting that objectivity could be reenvisaged as a social accomplishment, something that is collectively achieved.89 Harding mobilized the concept of standpoint epistemology—the idea that how we view matters depends to a great extent on our social position (or, colloquially, that where we stand depends on where we sit)—to argue that greater diversity could make science stronger. Our personal experiences—of wealth or poverty, privilege or disadvantage, maleness or femaleness, heteronormativity or queerness, disability or able-bodiedness—cannot but influence our perspectives on and interpretations of the world. Therefore, ceteris paribus, a more diverse group will bring to bear more perspectives on an issue than a less diverse one.

In her groundbreaking 1986 book, The Science Question in Feminism, Harding argued that the objectivity practiced by most scientific communities was weak, because of the characteristic homogeneity of those communities. The perspectives of women, people of color, the working classes, and many others were lacking, and the consequences were plain to see when one considered the obvious sexism, racism, and class bias of many past scientific theories...

Oreskes, Naomi. Why Trust Science? (University Center for Human Values Series) (pp. 49-51). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

John Stuart Mill is one of the heroes of thinking in bets. More than one hundred and fifty years after writing On Liberty, his thinking on social and political philosophy remains startlingly current. One of the frequent themes in On Liberty is the importance of diversity of opinion. Diversity and dissent are not only checks on fallibility, but the only means of testing the ultimate truth of an opinion: “The only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner.”

    There is a simple beauty in Mill’s insight. On our own, we have just one viewpoint. That’s our limitation as humans. But if we take a bunch of people with that limitation and put them together in a group, we get exposed to diverse opinions, can test alternative hypotheses, and move toward accuracy. It is almost impossible for us, on our own, to get the diversity of viewpoints provided by the combined manpower of a well-formed decision pod. To get a more objective view of the world, we need an environment that exposes us to alternate hypotheses and different perspectives. That doesn’t apply only to the world around us: to view ourselves in a more realistic way, we need other people to fill in our blind spots.

Duke, Annie. Thinking in Bets (pp. 137-138). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Another must-read book.

More to come...

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