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RS77 - Victoria Pitts-Taylor on Feminism and Science

Release date: December 30 2012

In this episode, Massimo and Julia discuss sociology and feminism, with special guest Victoria Pitts-Taylor, professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Victoria explains how feminists in sociology are dealing with results in neuroscience and evolutionary biology, especially regarding the question: How much inborn difference is there really between women and men? Massimo and Julia challenge Victoria on some academic feminist views, and investigate how the fields of sociology and academic feminism reach their conclusions -- what methods do they use, and how would we know if they were wrong?

Victoria's picks: "Feminist Perspectives on Disability"  and "Misfits: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept"

Reader Comments (8)

Great episode! And yes, please make an episode on the sociology of science happen!

January 1, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterislandletters

What a great episode. I'd love to hear an episode on sociology of science and a second episode on this topic. Thanks!

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Guada

Very good episode.

In modern society, I understand, and support, the aspiration of women to get equality in all aspects of life with men.
Even though we recognise that men and women are different, in their biology in the first place, and in their behaviour – the research is trying to identify which part of the difference in behaviour is nature and which part is nurture.
Does it really matter? Whether nurture is more influential than nature, does it help the case for equality?
It probably does if we omit a fundamental point: women can give life, while men can not.
In modern society, women have a choice to give life, or not to give life (there are exception I agree). Men do not have that choice.
This is something that no research or discussion will change, but it is a fundamental difference between men and women which I believe has a very strong influence in the current state of social equality.

If a woman makes the choice to give life, she will become a mother – no questions or doubts about it.
But who is the father? How to be sure?
A man will become a father only if the mother introduces him as the father to his children and to his social environment. Without this symbolic recognition, he will not be a father. Again, it is a choice for women to make, not men.
We must recognise that in most of the cases, this process is quite natural, and is accepted.
But still, there is the underlying power of choice that a men do not have.

So, we are in front of an unsolvable inequality in nature. If we get perfect equality in society, what is then the role of men? What do they bring to the table?
Isn’t there inequality in society because of this fundamental unbalance in nature?
Isn’t it because men are afraid, afraid to lose the sense they make of their role?

Historically, and even in recent conflicts, aren’t the women being oppressed because they have this unalienable power to give life?

And I wonder if equality in society would be faster achieved if we were putting this into discussion. Maybe underlying the facts that yes, women have the power to give life, men do not. Yes, the women have the choice to introduce a man as a father to his children and to society, men do not. Yes, women are socially equals to men. But yes, men still have a role to play, as men, as fathers. What is that role? if we are equals in society, and inferior in nature - what is the value added by men?

I understand the fight of women, and I support it in principle. But it is a fight. The question is, what is left to men once the fight is over?
That is the question that I wish feminists would ask and answer, because I believe it would change a fight into a dialogue.

At the end of the day, men and women, we need each other; and more than that, we love each other… isn’t it?

If you have references about the above, please share - Thanks

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterybkseraph

Massimo mentioned in passing that it is very hard to develop a theory other than quantum chromodynamics to explain the behavior of the nucleus and other hadrons.

I'm not a physicist, so I invite anyone who has a good understanding of gravitational physics to correct me, but I understand that General Relativity has a Background Dependent cousin, which instead of having the one Einstein Field Equation, has four equations that are analogous to Maxwell's equations.

A physicist one showed it to me to answer a question that I had about frame drag, and I found the demonstration of the analogy between gravity and Electromagnetism compelling, and the explanation of frame drag followed naturally from the analogy, in a way that I found quite beautiful.

He said that the two conceptions made exactly the same predictions, but I didn't think to ask if they made the same predictions about the effect of gravitational fields on clocks. If so, I don't see how you could say the Maxwell-analogy is background dependent, but I've lost touch with him, and don't know the answer.

But, as I understand it, Quantum mechanics is background dependent, and a lot of the problem with quantum gravity is combining the background independent theory with a background dependent theory. I've sometimes wondered if it might be easier to work with the uglier theory of the gravitational field, but I honestly don't know enough about the matter to speak intelligently.

Any gravitational physicists reading this?

If so, are there really two completely different descriptions of the gravitational field? Is one background dependent, and the other background independent? Has anyone tried combining the alternative version with quantum mechanics. If so, what went wrong?

January 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLen

Just got around to listening to this podcast. Very interesting. One thing that caught my attention: Dr Pitts-Taylor alluded to a particular type of cell in the brain that was described with a house-keeping analogy and ignored in the research for a long time. People did not understand the importance of this type of cell for a long time, perhaps mislead by the analogy.

In physics, I see similar issues where important concepts are ignored because people assume the topic is either understood, or unimportant, due to an analogy. For example, the uncertainty principle is typically described in physics text books and courses as due to a limitation of measurement: you can't measure a particles position with unlimited accuracy without imparting momentum to it by the measurement process. However, the uncertainty is an intrinsic property of nature and not dependent on limitations in the measurement techniques. I think the uncertainty principle, and quantum mechanics in general, has been ignored in the research because physicists don't appreciate how poorly the way nature implements it is actually understood. There are many convenient analogies that lead people to believe that they do understand quantum mechanics.

January 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWarren Huelsnitz

Good podcast but I have a problem with the logic of an argument made by Dr Pitts-Taylor towards the beginning.
I understood the facts presented as: (a) in the 70s, neuro-biologists found out that certain neurons and cells in the brain played different roles, neurons having a more "active" function and cells more of a "house cleaning" role, and (b) because of their preconceptions, the same scientists used (implicitly or explicitly) the metaphors of "masculine" and "feminine" for these different roles. Dr Pitts-Taylor then says that many scholars of science suggest that new discoveries are closely guided by the assumptions made by the scientists and that perhaps the neuro-scientists wouldn't have been as content to put the cells in this background role if they had not held such a prejudiced view of gender roles.
Even if we accept, as I would, that assumptions (or prejudices) might guide new discoveries, it does not follow that the absence of this particular prejudice (regarding gender roles) would have made any difference in the outcome. Would a scientist free of these preconceptions have concluded differently, regarding the similarity of the cells' role to housecleaning? Or, if she came to the same conclusion regarding this role, would she have been more likely to keep them nonetheless in the focus of her research? And if we answer yes to the last question, is it because, say, scientists free of gender prejudices are more likely to think that housecleaning is important?

In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I think, the answer to these three questions is no!

April 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJacques
Males and Females definitely exhibit genetic differences, but we can also observe a great number of variations in both gender and biological sex.
January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
What Dr Pitts-Taylor has shown me is that the feminist perspective often suffers from post-hoc hypothesizing and quite biased interpretations. Like the story of what neuro-biologists ignored in the brain in 1970s. That ideas in science are significantly influenced by gender biases. But in the example used, that glial cells have a housekeeping function. First off all it implies that housekeeping in the brain is somehow less important and second, that the scientific theory would have changed any different if the preconceived notions of the scientists were different. Which does not adhere to Occam's razor or does it seem a more reasonable explanation.

I also want to say that how she claimed science changes is really a false dichotomy, namely, either a paradigm is overturned or stays the same. But this ignores what happens a lot, namely that paradigms are refined, that gaps in a theory are filled, that a theory changes a bit but the fundamental core stays the same. This notion of Kuhn is quite dichotomous and is indeed internalized most often by feminist theorists and cultural relativists(and no that does not mean it is bad or good).

These kind of critical points are not considered and it saddens me that it is often ignored.
August 30, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEmiel

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