WOMEN IN LAB COATS


S ince its manly beginnings with Galileo, Newton, and Descartes, the scientific method has emphasized detached observation, objectivity, and logical deduction. Scientists are taught to follow rigid conventions in collecting and analyzing data and in presenting their arguments; to do otherwise would lead to a loss of credibility. Yet some say that science, historically an overwhelmingly male pursuit, is inhibited by its obsession with objectivity and logic, and that a more intuitive approach might yield far greater rewards in the lab and in the world.


Objectivity and rationality are certainly not the sole domain of men. Yet as women enter the sciences in greater numbers, they are bringing new approaches to the process of scientific inquiry. Evelyn Fox Keller is a Harvard-trained theoretical physicist and. molecular biologist whose most recent endeavor has been examining how science has fared as an overwhelmingly male culture. Last year, In Technology Review (Jan. 1993) writer Beth Horning examines Keller’s life and writing. Horning emphasizes that Keller in no way discounts the achievements of science. Rather, she appeals to scientists to expand the range of thinking styles they employ, in order to achieve the “reclamation, from within science, of science as a human instead of a masculine project.” Keller does not imply that the objective method is inherently bad. On the contrary, she finds objectivity essential, but suggests that science might also benefit from encouraging subjectivity, feeling, intuition, and other traits that traditionally have been ascribed to women.


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Consider this: Scientists can spend thousands of hours, sometimes even lifetimes, thinking about a scientific puzzle, yet many conceptual break-through have actually occurred when they were taking a walk, falling asleep, or daydream-ing. How might scientists incorporate activities that prompt free, intuitive thinking into their daily grind? Ten years ago, in her 1983 biography of geneticist Barbara McClintock, Keller describes how McClintock’s colleagues dismissed her ideas about gene movement until her work showed genes in corn jumping from one chromosomal site to another. McClintock said she had a “feeling for the organism” and a willingness to “listen to the organism”: “1 actually felt as if I was right down there and [the chromosomes] were my friends.” This woman, who was criticized and ostracized for her unorthodox thinking, capped her career with a Nobel Prize at age 81.



It’s not just science that may benefit from a wider range of approaches, but technology as well. Beginning with the invention of plastics and continuing through the creation of several generations of unthinkable weaponry, technocrats have re- searched and developed our world into a place teeming with environmental and military nightmares. Dr. Linda Jean Shepherd in her book Lifting the Veil: The Feminine Face of Science (Shambala, 1993) describes how the detached, clinical approach in military research is revealed in the euphemistic technospeak of the predominantly male practitioners. The hideous intent of weaponry is disguised behind such terms as “collateral damage” and “surgically clean strikes.” Shepherd chronicles the experience of psychologist Carol Cohn, who spent a year at a university center for defense, technology, and arms control. She became “caught up in the pleasure of belonging to an elite group, proud of her ability to speak this ‘racy, sexy, snappy’ new language.” Although she strove to keep the true intent of the technology in mind, Cohn found that the language “made it impossible to ask questions of ethics or values.” As more women begin to wield test tubes and take the podium in lecture halls, we may see a gradual shift in the scientific method. The feminization of science could put a new and more human spin on research and technology.

------Mary Morse

Source: Utne Reader, May/June 1993



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