I asked my parents for a microscope when I was 10 years old.
That precipitated a major discussion. They pondered whether a microscope was “appropriate” for a girl. It’s not that surprising that it was a source of contention. I grew up at a time when science and math were considered “too hard” for women. When I told people I wanted to be a doctor, they told me to be a nurse. Even when I got to college, I was one of a very few women majoring in biochemistry.
In the intervening decades I thought that we had laid to rest the notion that women weren’t capable of studying, researching and contributing to scientific and mathematical disciplines. Imagine my surprise to discover that an entire group of people were still claiming that science and math weren’t appropriate or necessary to make judgments about childbirth, vaccination, or other areas of health. I was even more startled to find that this group was made up nearly exclusively of women. They are the feminist anti-rationalists and they are a driving force in health pseudoscience (also known as “alternative” health).
Prominent feminist anti-rationalists include Ina May Gaskin, a self-proclaimed midwife who has no obstetrical or midwifery training; and Jenny McCarthy, who believes that a “mommy intuition” is more valuable than any scientific study.
The anti-rationalists reject science as “male” and claim it is unfairly regarded as authoritative merely because it is “male.” To the extent that science supports their beliefs, they are willing to brandish scientific papers as “proof” but explicitly reject rationalism when it does not comport with their personal beliefs, feelings, and opinions.
Anti-rationalists rely on mysterious forces and energy flows. They posit intentional biologic processes and ascribe power to mental processes such as belief and affirmation. They reject empiricism in favor of “intuition.”
Consider Gaskin, the doyenne of American homebirth midwifery.
… Pregnant and birthing mothers are elemental forces, in the same sense that gravity, thunderstorms, earthquakes, and hurricanes are elemental forces. In order to understand the laws of their energy flow, you have to love and respect them for their magnificence at the same time that you study them with the accuracy of a true scientist. A midwife or obstetrician needs to understand about how the energy of childbirth flows—to not know is to be like a physicist who doesn’t understand about gravity.
Jenny McCarthy, a minor celebrity and college dropout with no training in science, let alone immunology, represents herself as an expert on vaccinations and the purported “harms” that they cause. If McCarthy has no training in science, medicine, immunology, statistics, or just about anything else relevant to the study of vaccines, how can she claim to be an expert? Simple: she believes that “mommy intuition” is every bit as accurate, perhaps more accurate, than scientific evidence.
Just like those who told me as a child that science and math are “too hard” for girls, both Gaskin and McCarthy also believe that science is too hard for women and is part of the male patriarchy besides. They think female intuition is just as good.
Ultimately I got my microscope, even though my parents still had doubts about its appropriateness. I continued to study science and math, and I went to medical school despite the admonitions that women interested in medicine should only be nurses. All along I hoped that my daughter’s generation would not face the same archaic beliefs about women and science.
Things have changed to a certain extent. My daughter and her peers know that women can be anything they want to be and that science and math are not off limits. Yet the pervasive belief in pseudoscience, especially among women, is evidence that some things have not changed at all.
I am a skeptic because I am a feminist. I fervently believe that science is not merely for men, but for everyone.