Women in Science

by Siegfried Othmer | August 11th, 2005

When Larry Summers casually interjected his by-now famous comments into a discussion of women in science, he found out that the President of Harvard University cannot just shed his label and make off-the-cuff remarks without it gaining notice. Summers suggested that a shortage of native ability might be one of the reasons that women did not populate the upper reaches of the fields of mathematics and the hard sciences.

The flood of commentary that rippled forth from this discussion exposed an issue that was still festering in our society. It also brought back memories on the milestones of progress out of our own lives. Exemplar #1 was the fact that Sue was the only female physics student in her class at Cornell back in 1962. When Sue then turned out to be consistently the first or second in her class, behind only the son of a Cornell physics professor who had gotten physics along with his mother’s milk, her classmates had a choice of regarding her as competent in physics, or as a girl, but not both. In the classrooms and the laboratory courses, Sue had in their eyes become “one of the boys.”

And when Sue applied to the Department of Neurobiology for Graduate School, she was massively discouraged:

“Oh, you’re probably just going to get married along the way, and never complete your degree.”

“But I am married already.”

“Well, then, you’re probably just going to end up having a child and abandon your career.”

At the Annual Conference of Danforth Fellows in 1970 that I attended, a number of liberal arts graduates with fresh Ph.D.’s in English Literature, American History, etc., lamented that Ivy League schools such as Harvard would categorically not interview women at all for positions in those departments. And in the mid-seventies Sue’s sister Helen Cserr, a professor of physiology at Brown University, had to fight a lengthy (and ultimately successful) legal battle for tenure (Lamphire vs. Brown). By fortuitous accident, the tapes of her tenure hearing were preserved, so the outrages were still available to be heard in their full sexist expression. “Professor Cserr does not need tenure. She is married to a psychiatrist, so hers is a second income….”

It is also helpful to remember that at the time of the Brown versus Topeka Board of Education desegregation decision in 1954, women were applauding the progress in racial equity while they themselves were still confined to the gallery at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. If they were aware of the contradiction at the time, then they certainly kept it to themselves.

I have wondered for many years just how it is that certain kinds of prejudice can stir one’s conscience while others remain utterly invisible–invisible perhaps even to the affected class. And why was there so long a time when racial discrimination was thought to be ok, and did not strike people as being in conflict with the governing ethical principles, namely the universality of status as “children of God.” People felt ok about making such distinctions even in the face of certainty that God was not making them.

One way to approach this question is to ask: what are the prejudices that are still ok today, and perhaps still invisible? The obvious answer is that we are still ok with distinctions of class. There are others as well. We have an obvious height prejudice. CEOs average 3” greater height than the rest of us. We elect the taller of the Presidential candidates, unless they are named Al Gore or John Kerry. We tend to defer to the bigger and taller people in meetings, and to those graced with deeper, more resonant voices. We elect the more mature-looking face by a 70-30 margin. We obviously favor the more good-looking among us. Even mothers selectively neglect their more homely children. The pretty ones get strapped into their car seats with far more regularity. Even blacks favor the lighter-skinned among them, as do Mexicans. Much of this is rooted deeply in our biology, or in biology as modulated by culture, and we tend to accept the reality.

But when it comes to class distinctions that we make, one does not even feel the need to make apologies. If there is any doubt in that regard, then males reading this may simply want to ask themselves about how they form judgments on their daughter’s boyfriends or fiancé… Inevitably we form such opinions, and these opinions are very likely to wrap around issues of class membership. A lot of what traditionally has been seen as “culture” and “refinement” really means a finely honed skill at making subtle class distinctions. This ability is a virtue, not a liability, and certainly not an ethical flaw. This is not a matter about which one wishes to have blind spots.

Racial prejudice can then be understood, among other things, as an index to class membership, and that could always make it ok as long as class distinctions were ok. Thus Hitler’s early fulminations against Jews could be dismissed as being directed against the jobless and poor ones that were pouring in from the East, recognizable by their Hasidic beards and their black greatcoats. Surely he was not referring to the pillars of Berlin society that were then the dominant class residing in Berlin-Grunewald? How could German society even function without them? It was unthinkable. By linking race and class, Hitler anesthetized such ethical impulses as existed in that society for as long as such anesthesia was needed. Paradoxically, the propaganda that juxtaposed poor Jews and rats scurrying in gutters and eating the seed corn mobilized fear on the one hand, and on the other allowed distinctions to be made by those for whom the analogy just did not fit. And in our own time, the “ok-ness” of class distinctions means that the class warfare by the elites can continue unabated, almost unnoticed, and certainly unchallenged.

By virtue of the association of class distinctions with culture and refinement, it should be no surprise that class distinctions should have their fullest expression among the highest arts of a given culture. And in our current Western culture, that is the sciences and the creative arts. For present purposes, I am only interested in the science side of this issue. Is not the whole post-graduate educational process oriented toward the acculturation of new initiates into membership of a particularly exclusive class?

Cornell University once experimented with a “six-year Ph.D.” program, one in which they hoped to capture the best and brightest out of High School and spirit them quickly into productive professional life. The program did not even last six years. Ignominiously, the special housing unit in which the students were segregated had been set alight by one disgruntled student whose emotional development had not kept pace with his intellectual growth. Many of the students died, along with one of their professors who succumbed in a futile last rescue attempt. The program died with them, but it had already been dying. There was no opportunity in such a hothouse environment to transmit the “culture” of a particular discipline to the new candidate.

What we are seeing in the sciences is the most refined expression of cultural distinctions, i.e. of class membership, in a manner that not only meets social approval but is abetted in all possible ways, both from within and from without. Here is where prejudice is one of the highest virtues, and certainly not a liability. Only it is not called prejudice because it is so strongly based on the “facts” of science, or more correctly, on the currently operative “model” for a particular discipline. Every study committee member at the NIH and every journal editor and reviewer considers it his obligation to discern group membership among the authors, contributors, and grant writers.

This is why it is has become so difficult to do anything paradigm-breaking. At every turn the culture of science literally bristles with rejection of the foreign intruder. Every insider has already incorporated the necessity of maintaining the integrity of the particular scientific culture. So we have prejudice run rampant, and it is all the worse for being supported by a hard body of knowledge because it just makes these people insufferably sanctimonious. At any moment there are uncountable scientists who are “self-censoring” with respect to ideas they may have, or results they may have obtained along the way, because they fear the rejection by the arbiters of their own scientific culture. It is simply impossible to contemplate in this day and age a patent clerk getting published in the Zeitschrift fuer Physik. The paradigm-breaking stuff must be left to the socially maladjusted, to the tone-deaf, to those goaded onward by personal tragedy on the one hand or by personal demons on the other, and to the bumblebees that do not know they cannot fly.

Yet another crisis of the culture sharpens the issues: It is the rise of the hypothesis of Intelligent Design. One could just rejoice in the fact that proponents of Intelligent Design have obviously accepted the historical fact of evolution. When it comes to Intelligent Design we are just arguing about mechanisms, not the fact of evolution. Is it not remarkable how huge a cultural shift has just occurred within the creationist movement, one in which the entire argument against evolution has suddenly become dated and irrelevant? The advocates of intelligent design have just swept the field within their own movement. We can all just declare the war won, sheathe our weapons, and retire from the field of battle.

Alas, no; scientists feel burdened to make war on the hypothesis of Intelligent Design. In this discussion, I actually appreciate what Michael Shermer has said. He is the editor of Skeptic Magazine, and certainly not my favorite person. He wears the superiority of the perpetual skeptic, and one just wants to wipe that “one-up-manship” smile off his face. Correctly he indicates that the question of God’s existence is simply not one for science to resolve because science by definition operates on a naturalistic hypothesis. We are looking for laws of nature, not instances of miraculous intervention. The latter stand outside the framework of our hypotheses, and hence can never be either confirmed or disconfirmed.

Whereas it is correct to point out that proof of Intelligent Design can never be the outcome of a scientific investigation, Intelligent Design can also never be ruled out as a fact of our historical existence. The methods of science will simply remain oblique to the issue. That being the case, it is certainly appropriate to discuss in a high school classroom just what constitutes the boundary between scientific knowledge and everything else. Otherwise, the hegemony of the scientific worldview stands implicitly supported. The “conjecture” of Intelligent Design illuminates that boundary, but it cannot ever resolve it. Of course it can be discussed, but only as a cultural phenomenon, not as a scientific hypothesis. Intelligent Design is a narrative that goes along with the hypothesis of God. If God made the universe, why could He not tinker with it along the way?

So science and religion remain independent magisteria, despite the earthquake in the creationist community. It is therefore ok to campaign against the inclusion of Intelligent Design as a verifiable scientific hypothesis within a scientific curriculum, but one should raise no objection to the hypothesis per se from the standpoint of science itself. It is on this latter issue that a certain hegemonic impulse manifests within the scientific enterprise, one that should be resisted. And one gets the impression that science as a sociological entity or subculture seeks a comparable level of intellectual hegemony to what was accorded religion in an earlier age. The hypothesis of God seems to bother some scientists, and they are not as neutral on the issue as scientific rigor would insist upon when they are speaking as scientists.

If truth be told, a number of scientists were upset when the Big Bang hypothesis took over from the steady-state universe simply because it would give implicit support to the idea of an act of creation. The very name “Big Bang” was intended as a pejorative by one such critic, Fred Hoyle. The Journal Nature even ran an editorial in the late eighties titled “Down with the Big Bang,” by John Maddox, then editor of Nature. He called the theory “philosophically unacceptable” because it gave implicit aid and comfort to the creationists. And in the early days of Darwinism there were certainly scientists who saw the theory as a way of ridding the society of its religious superstitions. This had the effect of sharpening the adversarial relationship between religion and science, to the detriment of both. In an effort to show a united front, scientists neglected some of the very real issues posed by Darwin’s theory for many years. One of these was the emergence of complexity out of a concatenation of developmental steps, each of which had to contribute positively to the survival probability and adaptation of the species. Another was speciation, the issue of why there has been such a proliferation of species.

The only reason for bringing this matter up here is that in this cultural divide the hegemonic impulses of science as a worldview are exposed. Science has marginalized its critics both within and without. In this regard it parallels our current politics and our economics. We should remember that biology (in general) and evolution (in particular) are not kind to monolithic cultures.

Curiously, in its aggrandizement the enterprise of science has assumed many of the trappings of the paradigm of religion that it seeks to replace. “Is it published?” is the functional equivalent of, “Is it supported by Scripture?” We have our scientific priesthood, and the increasingly unchallengeable codification of our body of knowledge. Finally, there is the emotional attachment that people exhibit to particular worldviews. Laws of nature do not get people to mount the ramparts in their defense. Something else must be at work. So whenever heat enters the discussion around neurofeedback, which it does often enough, it cannot be about science as science.

We must understand these conflicts as part of the culture wars within the health disciplines, each recruiting science on its behalf as the objective arbiter. Alas, when science starts to be used as a weapon then it suffers in its role as a pathway to knowledge. And in support of the culture wars, science acquires even more of the trappings of religious icons. Particular research methods become mandated as steps on the pathway to truth. They are enshrined as inviolate. This is no longer science per se, but science as a particular kind of religious doctrine.

With Galileo’s house arrest very much in mind, we still carry with us the image of a science beleaguered by a narrow religious authoritarianism. But that is hardly the case any more. Science has become the dominant paradigm and the victim role no longer suits. The larger enterprise of science, harnessed as it is to a predatory cultural elite, has become hegemonic and over-bearing. The excesses were neither the essence of religion then, nor are they the essence of science now. They are instead the features of a dominant paradigm recruited in the service of the levers of power within the society. Science is not more benign now for having suffered its own prior traumas. We may be seeing here another kind of cycle of the abused ultimately becoming the abuser.

So we return, finally, to the issue of women in science that started us off. Here we have another instance of the scientific enterprise being unaware of its own biases. There are no more institutional mechanisms for effective self-criticism within science than there were in the Church. Issues such as animal rights, conflict of interest, and the investigation of scientific fraud have to be raised from the outside. In some sense, the enterprise of science has been just as deluded by a sense of inherent incorruptibility as the edifice of religious institutions has been. And most injurious to its own self-image, science has become just as hostile to alien and novel ideas as any religion. To be an outsider to such an enterprise of self-adulation and self-preservation for a brief time is not a deficiency.

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