Phallocentric Fallacies: On Gender Bias in Science

In the media and in the science classroom, it is common to hear the lamenting of the lack of women in science at the highest level. This is made evident in the statistics, such as the 12.8% of the STEM workforce in the UK being women as of 2014. The world over and in the majority of scientific disciplines, women are conspicuously absence at the highest level. Most agree that this is not due to women’s inherent inability to do science or their lack of ambition to do anything but raise their children. Therefore the gender disparity at the leading edge of scientific research and innovation is often bemoaned as a shameless waste of talent. In such an example, Athene Donald explores the phenomenon of girls interested in physical sciences being subtly or unsubtly discouraged from taking A-Level Physics and being “lost” from the path to a career in physics or engineering. Donald argues that such a phenomenon is harmful to the economy, as to simply maintain the status quo in terms of science industries in the UK, we need 10,000 more STEM graduates than we had graduating as of 2012, according to the Royal Academy of Engineers.

I don’t deny that women aren’t needed to make up the numbers of competent STEM professionals if we hope to expand STEM industries. Furthermore, I agree with Donald that it reflect poorly on an intellectual culture if those who are academically able and motivated to pursue a field of interest are discouraged from doing so for reasons unrelated to their ability.

However, these arguments apply to encouraging anyone who has the merely inkling of interest in science to pursue it in the educational systems, so are not in principle incompatible with having the upper echelons of scientific institutions filled with men of a particularly narrow social slice if this is how the dice have fallen in terms of interest.

But I will argue that women, as well as everyone else who isn’t of the demographic which has been historically the definition of a scientist; the middle-class white European man, have more to offer science than just another pair of hands.Though science aims to be objective it is inescapably subjective as it is done by human beings with subjective experiences. We gain our subjective biases through how we experience our lives in our society, these background biases act as “blinkers” and inevitably limit our outlook on the ever elusive truth of reality. This narrowing is not out of stubbornness to see reason, as the perjorative use of “blinkers” entails, but means it is very difficult to see otherwise. As Elizabeth Anderson writes in Feminist Epistemology: An Interpretation and a Defence: There is no reason to think our presently cramped and stunted imaginations set the actual limits of the world, but they do set the limits of what we now take to be possible.”

Those who have very similar experiences due to their similar social backgrounds are likely to have similar “blinkers” and similarly narrow outlooks, which becomes the status quo. As Anderson writes: “A scientific community composed of inquirers who share the same background assumptions is unlikely to be aware of the roles these assumptions play in licensing inferences from observations to hypotheses, and even less likely to examine these assumptions critically.” In contrast, those who have different experience and interests through being socialised differently will have their own slightly different set of blinkers and fields of vision of reality slightly askew from the status quo.

Science done by those with very similar life experiences, such as coming from the same social class, same country, same educational background, same sex-class and so on can be very fruitful, I do not deny the achievements of the Enlightenment, but this can only go so far. The introduction of someone with different backgrounds, such as that of being a woman in a patriarchal society, into a field previously dominated by androcentricism, the centring of the male means that she brings with her a different set of subjective biases about the field, so her blinkers are slightly offset to those of her male colleagues and she may have an outlook subtly different, and may encompass a patch of reality the men have so far missed. By contrasting ideas developed by those with divergent outlooks, scientists in the field should then conduct experiments to work out which idea matches reality most closely, and therefore help edge science ever closer to the truth.With such similar subjective biases, a field can only go so far until old hypotheses become rehashed again and again until the empirical evidence relevant to them is exhausted. But using her subtly different outlook onto the world, the female scientist may be able to come up with an innovative hypothesis which after sufficient empirical corroboration may be a theory which comes closer to reality than male scientists with their own particular outlooks have until then been able to.

My focus here will be on the use of what Anderson describes as gender symbolism, “which occurs when we represent nonhuman or inanimate phenomena as masculine” or feminine” and model them after gender ideals or stereotypes.” I will use a historical example of this where gender ideals are mapped onto a biological phenomenon where in fact no sound evidence of it’s existence is found, a true phallocentric fallacy where the masculine is seen where it does not exist. The episode which sparked this articles comes from a particularly obscure branch (or hypha) of biology: fungal reproduction.

As Nicolas P. Money writes in Mushroom, 19th century mycologists were very interested in the topic of fungal sexual reproduction, though the difficulties of studying the phenomena meant that, whist most specialists seemed to favour “the gentle fusion of colonies”, no experimental data nor a mechanism for this was proposed. However, during the First World War, Worthington G. Smith (1835-1917) proposed that he had observed through his microscope mushrooms producing sperm cells, which were ‘ejaculated’ onto the spores in the soil. Smith’s observations are flawed on two fronts. Firstly, he seems to have struggled to see these sperm cells, writing that “At first it requires long and patient  observation to make out the form of these bodies satisfactorily, but when the peculiar shape is once comprehended, there is little difficulty in correctly seeing their characteristic form.” It sounds rather like to see these cells, you must know what to look for, so you see what you know. But his most egregious mistake was to hydrate his samples with the shocking non-sterile “expressed juice of horse dung”, no doubt containing sperm-like amoeba. However, it is highly likely that due to his experience as a man in the patriarchal Victorian society Smith could only imagine sexual reproduction to occur by the forceful ejaculation of the active male sex cells onto the passive female sex cells, a clear projection of the gender symbolism of Victorian society onto the natural world. His blickers contributed to the poor quality of his science, as he did not or refused to acknowledge the contaminating effect of the horse dung on his samples so certain his results were correct.

In contrast, the young graduate Elsie Maud Wakefield (1886- 1972) appears to me to be the model of the “New Woman”, a graduate of the then all-women’s Somerville College, Oxford. Though information on her biography is sparse, as a woman in the late 19th century and early 20th century she would likely have been aware of ideas about human sexual relations being more mutualistic and equal than the Victorian ideals of male dominant courtship, such as those later expressed in the work of Marie Stopes. Whether she adhered to these political values or not, she would have been better able to imagine a non-phallocentric natural world which Smith could not. Therefore, her subjective ‘blinkers’ were different enough from those of Smith’s that she was able to conduct her experiments on fungal reproduction without the phallocentric assumptions of the active male sperm and passive female spores.

Wakefield conducted a series of experiments which demonstrated the necessity of the fusion of the mycelium, the fungal ‘roots’, to produce mushrooms in the Basidiomycete fungi, with no role for mobile sperm cells. But as Wakefield discovered, the nuclei of the two colonies don’t immediately fuse when the colonies fuse, instead the fused colony grows and forms mushrooms with the two, unfused nuclei inhabiting every cell. Nuclear fusion, the event which occurs in animals when sperm meets the egg, only occurs in the mushroom just before spores are produced. Neither colony engaged in sex takes on an ‘active masculine’ or ‘passive feminine’ role which the Victorian Smith expected to find in society and in nature, and so the phallocentric system of gender symbolism breaks down.

I do not claim that women are able to tap a magical reserve of female knowledge gained purely by virtue of having a female body. This sort of crude gender essentialism only aids in cementing differences. Instead, I argue that simply because no two people can ever occupy the same position in time and space, each person’s subjective experience of reality will be slightly different from that of others, and so will have different background assumptions and interests when entering science, including biases based on being socialised as a woman or a man. Instead a shuffling of subjective, gender biased perspectives is where real scientific innovation and the hope of objectivity can be found. As Anderson writes, “Each individual might be subject to perhaps ineradicable cognitive biases or partiality due to gender or other influences. But if the social relations of inquirers are well arranged, then each person’s biases can check and correct the others’.In this way, theoretical rationality and objectivity can be expressed by the whole community of inquirers even when no individual’s thought processes are perfectly impartial, objective, or sound.”

Book Review: On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss

on immunityI read Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation straight after finishing The Body Economic by David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, as I was on a bit of a public health kick, and this came as a contrast to the previous book. In juxtaposition to the work of the economist Stuckler and medic Basu, which takes a more data driven and emotionally removed approach to public health, Biss’s account of vaccination from historical, political and personal perspectives cuts to the essence of medicine as a discipline founded upon and often driven by emotion, inevitable for a discipline which deals with bodies and minds which feel.

Biss’s book can be described as a medical humanities work, but as she explores in the book, the dichotomy between a medical and a humanistic understanding is undermined by the topic of vaccination. The act of vaccination is both a profoundly personal one when the needle breaks my skin or my child’s skin, but a public act done at the behest of the government for the good of others and all. As Biss writes, “The natural body meets the body politic in the act of vaccination, where a single needle penetrates both.” Biss explores the tension between the body natural and politics by her choice of form of the work. On Immunity is a book-length personal essay on a subject matter which is typically given the impersonal treatment of Stuckler and Basu, the peer reviewed scientific article and the governmental report. As someone with a scientific interest in disease and healthcare, I have some hesitancy with science-related works drawing on the authors feelings, as this can often be irrelevant to the narrative and misrepresent the reality of the phenomena as understood by science, producing both bad writing and bad science.

Biss does none of this, as  the feelings, prejudices and social relations of all in society influence the decision to vaccine or to refuse vaccination, and therefore the herd immunity of the entire population, rich or poor.

Biss is a non-fiction writer and academic, and approaches the topic of immunity from the perspective of a new mother navigating the minefield of information and misinformation around vaccination to make the best decision for her child and her community, including those of different ethnic and socio-economic statuses to her. Biss acknowledges from the outset the great privileged involved in her ability to take this decision, as a white middle-class woman. She writes that, during the last US-wide smallpox epidemic of 1898, everyone in the black-section of Middlesboro, Kentucky who resisted vaccination was vaccinated at gunpoint, “the poor were enlisted in the protection of the privileged.” Historically, resisting vaccination was an act of political resistance for many racially and economically oppressed people to combat state control in which their bodies were used for the benefit of the privileged, and thus was seen as continuous with exploitative systems such as slavery.

This leads to the fundamental issue of vaccination, the compromise and tension between desire for autonomy in personal healthcare and the health of the community, as if the person can be separated from the public.This issue was present in the 19th century vaccination programs and continues today, and though the theme of autonomy continues the politics of the situation is flipped. Since Andrew Wakefield’s publication of his now redacted study linking MMR vaccines to an autism-like disorder, there has been a wave of vaccine refusal amongst overwhelmingly middle-class white parents in the UK and USA, a demographic which Biss lies within, and Biss does have considerable, maybe excessive, sympathy for vaccine refusers as they are her friends and has previously slipped into this thinking. For many middle-class vaccine refusers, vaccines are seen as not for their children, but rather for ‘risk groups’ such as those in poverty, and to pollute their children with what Jenny McCartney terms “the frickin’ mercury.” Vaccine refusal is a bid for autonomy for your family, a pioneer attitude to health. I suggest that this is the extension of the neoliberal idea of the individual extended to health, but this concept falls down when faced with infectious diseases which are diseases of communities, and therefore require a community-based effort to counter them.

Biss writes of vaccination as a way of understanding ourselves in relation to others simultaneous in medical and social terms, as she writes, “We are protected not so much by our own skin, but by what is beyond it. The boundaries between our bodies begin to dissolve here. […] Those of us who draw on collective immunity owe our health to our neighbors.” From this, I draw that vaccine refusal is a symptom of our alienated, individualistic neo-liberal politics, but to ensure health of everyone we must trust in others as our social and bodily boundaries begin to “dissolve” in the face of infectious disease.

 

 

 

Book Review: The Body Economic by David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu

the body economicThough I’m really a biologist, I have been nurturing an interest in medicine for a while now, especially public health and epidemiology, more as a social concern than an academic interest. I am also a socialist and a Labour Party member (though through gritted teeth at the moment). Therefore, Stuckler and Basu’s book on the public health consequences of austerity appealed to me from its place on a shelf in my public library both on political and medical grounds, and they fuse these disciplines well to formulate the rarest of things, an evidence based economic argument.

My government has been pursuing austerity measures since 2010 (though God knows how long this will continue with Brexit-related chaos). This means that the government’s spending in areas such as social security payments and public services have been reduced, with particular severe reductions in the number of disabled people receiving government welfare payments. The government claims that this was done in order to reduce the government’s deficit, so that foreign investors gain confidence in the British economy and invest in it, growing the economy. So, it is argued, for the good of the future economy, citizens must be inconvenienced in the present. However, things are not so simple as this. Stuckler and Basu present data supporting the economic arguments against austerity; that as government spending creates economic growth principally by paying people so they have more money to buy things, cutting government spending reduces growth. This line of argument is nothing new, but Stuckler and Basu go beyond this line of argument by calling into question the idea that economic growth should be the supreme value of a government, for which everything else must be sacrificed. Rather, we say “We’ll always have our health” for a reason.

Many on the left have an instinctual repulsion against austerity measures, not because they know the consequences to be detrimental, but rather because allocating resources towards rebuilding the economic system rather than helping people is seen as inherently inhumane. “People Before Profit” has been written on a thousand placards across the land. This argument can be criticized by conservatives as over-emotional and unrealistically short-term, the state must be cut back to ensure future prosperity. Aye, there’s the rub.

Basu and Stuckler summarise studies (many of which they have been involved with) suggesting that, whilst economic recession often leads to better health outcomes for a population (largely due to lack of money leading to lower cigarette and alcohol consumption in most cases), a government responding to a recession of a similar magnitude in a similar situation with austerity (for example, in the US states which eschewed Roosevelt’s New Deal Policy) will have a lower life expectancy and a greater burden of disease than populations whose government responded to recession by stimulating the economy by spending more on public projects as seen in the comparable US states which embraced the New Deal. They detail many different examples of this situation occuring, from the high suicide rates in Russia following the collapse of communism and the adoption of radical austerity measures, or “Shock Treatment”, leaving whole villages and towns depleted of men compared to the “unshocked” Belarus. As a biologist interested in the ecology of disease, the fact of the book had to be the tracing of an unusually high number of West Nile Virus cases in Bakersfield, California in 2007 to the subprime mortgage crisis. This is because West Nile Virus is transmitted to human by the Culex mosquito, which lays its eggs in water. 2007 was a drought in Bakersfield, so there shouldn’t have been a low incidence of West Nile Virus, as the Culex population would be lower. However, as many homes were abandoned due to foreclosure after the homeowners could not keep up with their mortgage payments, the swimming pools of these houses were given over to nature, and to the mosquitos. The mosquito population boomed using the foreclosured swimming pools as nurseries, and more people got sick. From an epidemiological standpoint I find it fascinating that disease outbreaks can be traced to such unconventional sources as abandoned swimming pools. It shows how all environments are on a knife edge, and if altered due to ecological or economic reasons, disease can proliferate.

Therefore, Basu and Stuckler show simultaneously that austerity is bad for the economy and bad for health, but by doing so they turn on its head the principle behind austerity. I take from this book that governments proposing austerity as a way of economic recovery irregardless of the evidence provided by economists such as Basu and Stuckler are pursuing a harmful neoliberal ideology rather than good policy to the benefit of the citizens. I am lead to ask, what is a government for? My government seems to acting for what it thinks is the good of the economy, so places the well-being of its citizens in jeopardy by cutting welfare payments and chipping away at the NHS. This is utterly perverse, as to value the economy over the health of citizens is fundamentally undemocratic. A government that acts for the good of the people should do all it can it maximise their health and wellbeing in a financial, social and psychological sense based on sound evidence. A government that ignores such evidence in pursuit of ideology is fundamentally inhumane.

 

Innovation through Synthesis: the Methodology of Gregor Mendel

40_gregor_mendel_2

I wrote this essay for entry earlier this year for entry to the Galton Institute’s Mendel Essay Prize 2016, an essay competition open to British and Irish A-Level Students to write on Gregor Mendel and his legacy. I chose to write on what I identified to be Mendel’s principle contribution to biological thinking, a novel fusion of mathematical methods with biological subject matters, which in addition to furthering out understanding of inheritance and opening up the new field of genetics also provided a more rigourous mathematical framework which Biology has followed for much of the 20th century.

Abstract: Gregor Mendel is well known as the Moravian monk who in 1866 presented what became known as his Laws of Inheritance, later incorporated with Darwinian Natural Selection in the Modern Synthesis to form the basis of modern genetics. He is popularly seen as a model Baconian inductive scientist, however I will argue that Mendel’s true innovation was his synthesis of the two disciplines of combination theory and the study of inheritance. This allowed Mendel to describe a biological phenomenon using a mathematical model, a methodology adopted by that vast majority of 20th and 21st century scientists.

Scientific creativity is commonly seen as being either one of two apparently incompatible extremes. The first is that of logical creativity, whereby scientific discoveries are made and problems are solved through the use of logic and deductive and inductive reasoning. By this view, it is very likely that any particular theory would be postulated eventually, as all scientists use the same methods of reason and logic to reveal the same truths about the world. The other extreme is that of the creative genius, whereby the idiosyncratic cognitive patterns of a particular gifted individual allows, as William James writes, “the most abrupt cross-cuts and transitions from one idea to another”.1 Therefore, it is very unlikely that two geniuses will ever construct exactly the same theory, as each will have different ways of connecting ideas, whereas the laws of logic are always the same.

Gregor Mendel is popularly seen as the former; as a logical, deductive toiler. This concept of Mendel has it that, by carrying out many experimental crosses between plant strains, Mendel gained a large data set from which he logically coaxed out his Laws of Inheritance; making him a model Baconian inductive scientist.2 However, a closer reading of Mendel’s biography reveals that Mendel’s work was, as it is for all scientists, as much a product of his “standing on the shoulders of the giants” allowing him to “see further”, drawing on past scholarship in order to be creative. But crucially, Mendel’s creative innovation came through his ability to place one foot on the ‘shoulder’ of two different ‘giants’ and straddle the disciplines of mathematics and biology, and hence synthesis the two in an entirely novel and creative way.

Before Mendel, the study of inheritance was predominated by the idea of blending inheritance, whereby offspring inherited a combination all their parents’ traits, so would have an appearance midway between those of the parents. However, by the mid-19th century, other scientific disciplines had fallen in the path of an all-consuming “‘avalanche of numbers’”3. Therefore, it was arguably inevitable in this mathematically-fashionable context that another scientist would have applied some sort of mathematics principles to the problems of inheritance; indeed, both Hugo de Vries and Carl Correns did so independently, but not in so precise a manner as Mendel over thirty years earlier. The precision of Mendel’s Laws derived from his novel use of combination theory, which was taught to Mendel by its originator Andreas von Ettingshausen. Combination theory is a way of describing mathematically the arrangement of objects in a group in term of underlying laws, which Mendel readily understood and adopted.3 Therefore, Mendel’s innovation came in his ability to use his teacher’s tool to construct a mathematical model in the novel context of biological inheritance.

Though the destruction of Mendel’s experimental notes after his death means that the motivations for his experiments can only be guessed at, it is likely that Mendel approached the issue of inheritance with the hypothesis that the inheritance of particular traits was governed by underlying mathematical laws, derived from combination theory. In order to elucidate any laws present, Mendel had to use a deductive Newtonian, not Baconian, method: he first formulated a hypothesis and designed experiments to prove or disprove this hypothesis.4 The success of Mendel’s Newtonian methodology is shown by his ability to predict the ratio of pea pod colour in offspring produced by a monohybrid cross. Using modern terminology, Mendel’s experimental data shows that crossing together two heterozygous (Gg) green podded F1 plants produces F2 offspring with the phenotypic ratio of 3 green: 1 yellow, but with the genotypic ratio of 1 GG (green): 2Gg (green): 1gg (yellow), as the G (green) allele is dominant to the recessive g (yellow) allele. This F2 genotypic ratio can be determined using combination theory by simply multiplying out the F1 genotypes of Gg and Gg. Therefore, experimental observations confirm this mathematical model of the biological phenomenon of inheritance, permitting the adoption of this deductive, Newtonian methodology by much of 20th and 21st century natural science, to great success.

The Philosopher of Science Thomas Kuhn argued that scientific understanding consists of paradigms, or broad frameworks of theories. As experiments throw up anomalies in the current paradigm, the paradigm enters a period of crisis, leading a revolution after which a new paradigm is established.5 By synthesising the concepts of two different fields together, Mendel was able to creatively provide a revolutionary solution to the anomalies of blending theories of inheritance. Though Mendel lived in a period of interest in the application of mathematics, his ability to, as Robin Marantz Henig writes, “maintain […] two different mental constructs of the world simultaneously and apply […] the principles of one model to problems in the domain of the second”3 allowed Mendel to mathematically describe biological phenomena, a truly creative innovation not merely derived from inductive toil.

Mendel’s creativity does not fit neatly into either of the common conceptual extremes of scientific creativity. Mendel both carried out the “abrupt cross-cuts” of the genius in using combination theory to solve biological problems and underwent inductive toil to gather empirical evidence. Therefore, Mendel’s example suggests that scientific creativity cannot be achieved by one of these two extremes; rather only by combining logical problem solving with the “seething cauldron of ideas”1 of the mind of a genius can truly innovative and revolution science occur.

1William James in: Simonton, D.K. 2004. Creativity in Science: Chance, Logic, Genius and Zeitgeist. Cambridge, UK. Cambridge University Press.
2O’Hear, A. 1989. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. UK. Clarendon Press.
3Henig, R.M. 2001. A Monk and Two Peas: The Story of Gregor Mendel and the Discovery of Genetics. London, UK. Phoenix.
4 Schwarzbach E., Smýkal P., Dostál O., Jarkovská M., Valová S. 2014. Gregor J. Mendel – genetics founding father. Czech J. Genet. Plant Breed. 50 pp. 43–51.
5Kuhn, T.S. 1996. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd Edition. London, UK, University of Chicago Press