Is Science Male?

2 Jan

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.


11 Responses to “Is Science Male?”

  1. Caroline January 2, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    Skeptixx, thanks for another great post. It sums up perfectly what I have felt for a long time. Honestly, when I read the quote by Ina May, I didn’t know whether to laugh or be horrified-it would be funny except that so many people take her nonsense seriously. As for JM, it seems as though she’s been appointed by the media as some kind of autism expert (even though her son condition may very well have been misdiagnosed) when in fact her “Warrior Mother” silliness is just another way to fleece parents by promoting unproven alternative therapies.

  2. daedalus2u January 2, 2012 at 6:30 pm #

    My own opinion is that feminism and anti-rationalism are incompatible.

    One cannot be a feminist and subscribe to any kind of hierarchy generating system that is not based in reality. “Women’s intuition” is no better and no different than male privilege. Making stuff up is making stuff up and is unacceptable no matter who does the making stuff up.

  3. ginger k January 2, 2012 at 9:16 pm #

    Even worse, I have had *feminists* accuse me of “selling out” to a male-dominated profession. At my undergrad institution, any lesbian not majoring in women’s studies, English, or economics was a traitor.

    These “feminists” are just as bad as educated women who accept pseudoscience.

  4. Flora January 3, 2012 at 2:59 am #

    THIS. I was so very lucky to have a feminist mother because I got my first microscope when I was 8 years old. Even so, when my grades weren’t so hot as a first year undergrad, my patriarchal uncle told me I should “just be a nurse instead.” Today I’ve got a graduate degree in science and I’m working on an MD.

    It scares me so much how much pseudoscience is marketed specifically to women. The Women’s Health building at the big teaching hospital in my city actually hosts not-officially-sanctioned-but-offically-advertised women’s health workshops for healing touch, finding your inner angels, learning to channel your intuition, etc. Women can be excellent scientists too, and as skeptical women we should be mad that we are being systematically condescended to with the promotion of woo. It reeks of paternalism far more to pat women on the head and just say “Trust your womanly instincts, sweetheart. You don’t need any of that fancy education or rational thinking.”

    • Cara January 12, 2012 at 1:13 pm #

      Heh. My grandfather thought I should be a stewardess so I could “see the world”.

      Back to my differential equations homework.

  5. ARTPatient January 4, 2012 at 6:15 am #

    What do you think of FINRRAGE ?

  6. ARTPatient January 4, 2012 at 6:27 am #

    Talking about nonsense – just check out the comment by some Shivam Rachana on an Australian article on IVF.

    “When I saw the planes going into the twin towers I felt the same way as I feel when I see images of a syringe penetrating the cell. The vunerable cell being forced to accept the sperm rather than the ova selecting the sperm most compatible to her which is what happens naturally. The feminine principle being raped. The basic power of the feminine ignored. What does it mean to be a sperm that has not been on the adventurous and challenging journey through the vagina, cervix uterus and the fallopian tube? What does it mean not to unite in secret in the warmth and safety of the fallopian tube and roll together into the abyss of the uterus?”

  7. Robert Carnegie January 5, 2012 at 11:01 pm #

    Looking at it backwards, health pseudoscience is a thriving industry that will sell you, for instance, carefully shaken pure water and call it medicine. The profit margin is wonderful. Men and women may be equally eager to exploit people by these means, but perhaps women are more successful, women selling to women in particular.

    For some reason, while trying to think of what to say, this kept coming back to me:

    “SEND THIS WARNING TO EVERYONE ON YOUR EMAIL LIST. If a man comes to your front door and says he is conducting a survey and asks you to show him your boobs, DO NOT show him your boobs. This is a scam. He only wants to see your boobs.”

    As presented, a bit longer, at – with an advert alongside, I’m afraid, for, “Mum Reveals Shocking Trick for Erasing Wrinkles! Doctors hate Her.” ‘Cos it’s sticking a finger up your bottom and only they[*] are allowed to do that, but I am only guessing. [*] And your husband on his birthday. (And he enjoys it more than you do, unless he’s a doctor too, then it’s work.)

    Also with a reversed-sexes version of the “conducting a survey” warning, but I’m not sure that works. I’m a man and I’d cheerfully show you anything you asked for. You being a doctor and all. Wait, where are you going? Oh, to get your microscope? Well, can you warm it up first, please?

  8. John D January 10, 2012 at 5:07 pm #

    Went to see my doctor Saturday and found a whole stack on “new age” health magazines displayed in the lobby. Who was on the cover? …. you guessed it… Deepak Chopra. People love this crap and our doctors just shrug and say “Whatever works for you is fine.”

    The thing is that mystical woo woo actually does make many people feel better. What’s a doc to do? If meditation and chakra and laying on hands keeps people from taking more pain meds then who are we to judge?

    (and the witchdoctor said to me “Ooo Eee Ooo Ah Ah, Ting Tang Walla Walla Bing Bang.”

  9. Biochemistry Den March 8, 2013 at 2:43 am #

    Thanks for your valuble article. I have few doughts on Clinical manifestations.


  1. Christy's Houseful of Chaos » Blog Archive » political legitimacy - April 13, 2013

    […] about this at the moment, but I’ve got two links to suggest. One is an article titled: Is Science Male?. The other is an article on the Science Based Medicine Blog. Neither are particularily […]

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