Re: Patriarchy: Re: What Matriarchy?

Bryant (
16 Aug 1996 10:53:40 -0600

In article <4uvo6p$>, Susan <> wrote:

>>things, and many social scientists and humanities folks and others view
>>"science" as a body of theories. Neither view is downright wrong, but they
>>lead to different conclusions about the role of science in society.
>True enough. And I also believe that many scientists find comfort in the
>scientific approach, which is analogous to the kind of comfort
>others find in believing in space beings or ghosts.

I cannot speak for others, but I've found considerably less comfort in
the scientific outlook than I did in the warm, reassuring,
purpose-to-life worldview I held in my teens. On the other hand, I don't
think that earlier worldview was very accurate.

>why they find it comforting-- I suspect for scientists, it is because it
>is controllable, in that there is nothing that ultimately can't be known,

Um, I'd be surprised to hear a scientist claim that everything is knowable.

>Most scientists I know don't generally think
>about the fact that science itself of based on assumptions

They certainly should. Assumptions aren't terrible, they're useful. And
you can only identify your likely errors if you're aware of your assumptions.

>focussing on its conclusions which are in a whole different realm. When
>pushed, they readily admit that this is so, but they are uncomfortable
>about it, and generally seem to want to dismiss it as unimportant. But
>to social scientists, it is very important, hence the tension.

This is an interesting point. I've long seen the tension between social
and life sciences (I don't know about sociologists' qualms with chemistry or
physics) as being a result of social scientists seeing life scientists'
theories as having dangerous social implications ("genetic determinism"
being one).

>>(Incidentally, few scientists indeed talk in terms of "proven" or not
>>proven.) There are varying degrees of confidence in a hypothesis or
>>theory, depending in large part on how many different directions it's
>>been attacked from and 'survived.' You surrender the surity of religious
>>Truth at the lab door.
>Yes, well, I would differ with you on that point. I think that this is
>the "party line" (sorry, I have been inundated with the Republican
>convention of late!), and that most scientists believe it in theory. But
>in actual practice and everyday conversation, they frequently talk as
>though most of current scientific knowledge _is_ in fact proven.

Gosh, what can I say. In my department, you can't say squat without
having a grad student question your assumptions, ask the experimental
setting in which something you mentioned was shown, and whether it
applies in the context you're discussing. I guess that kind of thing varies.

>example, how often do scientists say "our best evidence suggests that the
>structure of DNA..." as opposed to "we now know that the structure of

Oh! Nice example. Touche. But the first sentence is certainly implied in
the lazy vernacular of the second; there's just a very high degree of
confidence in our understanding of the chemical structure of
deoxyribosenucleic acid.

>Not wanting to get between you and Gale (I am often motivated by pure
>self-interest!), or wanting to interpret Gale's motivations and
>assumptions, I would say that "standards of evidence" are of course part
>of the scientific worldview. As you imply, you are aware that you are
>operating in a scientific mode, and thus evidence becomes important. But
>for one thing, evidence is not necessarily always pertinent in other
>world views.

Sure, right. And that's fine. My trouble started, I think, when I
suggested that demanding evidence and testing predictions allows one to
better approximate the nature of an object/subject of study than other
ways of knowing. There are limits, as we have both said, to what can be
studied in this way. Morality will never be a scientific venture, I suspect.

>And for another, "evidence" often comes in the form of
>individual experience, which is very frustrating for scientists.

I find that kind of anecdotal evidence "suspect," not "frustraiting." I
may have the impression that hispanic males are very aggressive fellows,
but when I ran 120-odd subjects through the wringer and got their
fighting history and all, I found that there are no racial differences to
aggressiveness in UNM's students except one: blacks are less prone to
pick fights.

>>Myth can offer insight into emotional experience and cultural outlook, of
>>course. But are myths as powerfully predictive as theories?
>Depends on the context of the question (am I getting repetitive?). There
>is growing evidence that the roles of egg and sperm in conception are
>somewhat different than the mythic roles they are often given-- that
>rather than being active and energetic (terms like "arrows" or "bullets",
>etc are often used), sperm are actually fairly poor swimmers, and
>wouldn't get far without help from currents produced in the vagina.

Yes, scientists have shown that female orgasm "upsucks" sperm. Sperm
motility is still a predictor of success in sperm competition, however.
Your assumptions above (that scientists call sperm "bullets" and the
like) sound to me (no offense intended) more like something out of a
Women's Study text than a biology text or biology dept. conversation.

>the egg, rather than sitting and passively waiting to be penetrated, in
>fact undergoes chemical changes that both entice and then facilitate the
>sperm to enter and produce conception.

Agreed. And ten years ago, your point about "passive egg/active sperm"
assumptions were true in biology depts. A prof I've worked with here at
UNM, Randy Thornhill, was literally laughed at when he first suggested
the concept of cryptic female choice mechanisms. But the crude male
biases (including Gould's, which Randy and I touched on in our Psychology
Today article on female orgasm) are falling away. Just as academic
feminists are becoming nearly paranoid, seeing male bias absolutely
everywhere, a generation of scientists is coming of age which finds ol'
boy sexism truly objectionable.

>>All I claimed was that *if* you accept that predictive value is
>>an indicator of how well a system of ideas approximates reality,
>>scienctific ideas better approximate reality than, for example, a literal
>>interpretation of Genesis.
>Agreed in part. But much of the theory in science is not really about
>prediction, but about explanation, and that's where the two become
>different ways of explaining the same thing.

A good hypothesis explains and predicts. They're not alternatives.

>scientific explanations have certain implications for society, so they
>aren't entirely neutral.

This is where I see the real difficulties between social and life
sciences. Life scientists worry about describing stuff, while social
scientists fret about how that information might be abused.

But the methodological issues are real, too. (A friend got a paper back
in cultural anthro 360 on which the TA had written: "What is a T test?
What's statistical significance? Why the lingo?")

>Do thank them for me! It's nice to know that there are some people out
>there who pay attention to this sort of stuff, and don't just
>automatically dismiss it as a feminist whine!

I think (hope) that most folks recognize the very real problems sexism
has caused for the academy. Slowed progress, for one thing. I think
some scientists (even female ones) are getting exasperated with academic
feminism because it sees bias *everywhere* (I mentioned the one about why
fluid dynamics was studied after solids), and because now many feminists
are encouraging female students to avoid the sciences (which don't
conform to "women's way of knowing.")...