Rationally speaking, is a presentation of New York City skeptics dedicated to promoting critical thinking, skeptical inquiry and science education. For more information, please visit us at NYC Skeptic's Doug. Welcome to, rationally speaking, the podcast, where we explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense. I'm your host, Massimo Kaloogian. With me, as always, is my co-host, Julia Gillard. Julia, what are we going to talk about today?
Mathinna today we have a guest in our studio with us. I'd like to welcome Victoria Pitts' Taylor, who is the professor of sociology and director of the Centre for the Study of Women and Society and Coordinator of Women's Studies at the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York. She's also a professor of sociology at Queens College, CUNY.
Victoria is the co-editor of the journal Women's Studies Quarterly and the author of many articles, chapters and books on social and cultural aspects of the body, medicine and health and wellness. Her most or her upcoming book is going to be for Duke University Press, and it's called The Brains, Body Neuroscience and the Politics of Embodiment, due out in late 2013. Victoria, welcome.
Hi, how are you? Good. Great to have you on the show. So how about I'm just starting off by telling us something about the book that is not out, in fact, not finished yet? No, it's not finished. To talk to others who have book already out. So this is an interesting you know, we're looking forward to something that's not even finished. Works in progress.
Right? Well, I've I've written several books on the body and body practices. And I came out of that work in from my training in sociology and my interest in women's studies.
And so so I wrote a couple of books on body practices from feminist perspectives and sociological perspectives that really look at how people use the body to create a sense of identity in the 20th, late 20th and 21st century.
But my work in body studies, as we call it, which is a sort of roughly interdisciplinary area that encompasses the sociology of the body and encompasses medical anthropology, sociology of medicine, feminist studies, queer theory in this area.
For a couple of decades, we've been writing a lot of books about the meanings of bodies and body practices without really looking at the biological body very much.
And so which seems odd as a biologist, isn't it incredible? Right.
But on the other hand, I think folks in my field would would speak to biologists and and query how much you really think about the symbolism and metaphor and layers of cultural meaning with which we saturate the body or the historical variations of bodies or the the various ways in which people invest cultural codes into bodies.
Would you and give you an example? Sure. So one of my projects was to edit a cultural encyclopedia of the body, which is a 600 page, two volume description of different body practices and different times and places. And so we had entries on hair. And here's a great example. So covering the hair is incredibly important in many cultures and religious contexts, and a veil could mean something in in one context. It means something completely different in another.
For example, veiling is often a religious signification to suggest piety.
And on the other hand, in Algeria, for a certain period of time in the 20th century, the veil signified nationalism as kind of the revolt against colonial French colonial.
So the same artifact or the same, how precisely can have very different, sometimes even opposite.
Exactly right. There's been a lot of really interesting work on hair. So the the Afro, the African-American afro, in the context of the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement, became a really interesting and contentious symbol of of black rebellion.
And it was even contentious and controversial within African-American communities themselves, because traditionally in the 19th century, in the early 20th century, black communities embraced white hairstyles or hairstyles that imitated white hair, the hair straightening products, for example, that would make the hair straight to get take out any color.
Kinkiness and the black power movement in the civil rights movement really envisioned that the black body as sort of naturally beautiful and the the the afro became a symbol of black pride.
So so my work in the body has for a very long time, looked at the incredibly rich layers of cultural, political and historical meaning invested in the body. And there's just a whole lot of interesting work at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century that does that kind of that kind of analysis. And yet that work has really ignored the biological body.
And there's a reason for that. We left the biological body to you.
We talk about the biology makes some sense. Precisely. So so body studies in my field, in the humanities and cultural studies and in the social sciences for a very long time meant the social investment in the body.
And we left the biological body to you, to you all said before, you know, when you were describing your example a minute ago, I was thinking, OK, as a biologist, I don't really have much to say about that, because as far as I'm concerned, you know, certainly human hair has is the product of evolution. And it may or may not be adaptive in particular forms. I don't know that these stories can be told about all sorts of stuff, but largely we don't really know.
And yes, there is definitely variation among human population, some of which is genetically based. And that's what the biologists will probably stop and say. Anything else beyond that that people do with it. It's in fact, cultural, and it's built on top of a basis of biology. I mean, after all, you do have to have a body and hair in order to do something with it. But other than than that, it seems like the job of the biology stops there.
But you're saying not necessarily.
Right. So we kind of had we had a detente or a sort of a Cold War. Are you the hard sciences could deal with the biological body and the social sciences and cultural studies could deal with the symbolic or cultural or semiotic or discursive body, if you will. And for a long time, we were satisfied with that.
But isn't that just what it means to have different fields? How is that a Cold War?
Well, because despite the fact that we really left the biological body to biologists, we were dissatisfied with what?
Biology biologists. Precisely. Exactly. So so there's a great deal of critique coming out of feminist theory, but also out of science studies and a whole range of interdisciplinary fields in the social sciences and humanities that that didn't truly leave biologists alone.
What we did was we critiqued the production of meanings around the body in the sciences.
And so there's a tradition of science study, scholarship and a tradition of feminist studies of science, too, that looks at how cultural and symbolic and historical metaphors get worked into knowledge that supposedly neutral and objective about dividing.
So, in fact, it's not so much that we left biologists alone. We left biology alone.
But we were very critical, if I may speak for, you know, for a whole group of interdisciplinary folks.
We were very critical of of what the scientists were doing with with the biological body in the sense that the scientists did not have a very sophisticated reflexivity about its own cultural, social and historical investments.
So what's an example of something that scientists wouldn't necessarily recognize as being the influence of cultural biases of theirs that they think of as being objective and scientific, that you would dispute?
There's a really great recent example of this. There's so many examples coming out of feminist science studies. But one of my favorite recent examples is this, this study by Meg Upchurch and Simon Vaj Tova, who looked at the descriptions of neurons and glial cells in neurology textbooks.
And these are 20th century and late 20th century textbooks where they describe the neurons, unsurprisingly, as these very active cells that are involved in neurotransmission and the descriptions of glial cells are really as for most of the 20th century as this kind of unimportant like a housekeeper, cells that just sort of do the cleanup work and the kind of support work for the for the neurons.
And what they argue is that, in fact, it's not that the descriptions are very gendered and they're really modeled on a kind of domestic model of division of labor.
So this idea that, you know, sort of the important neurons are these kind of active neurons and the sort of sort of the importance of these active neurons and the sort of less important and not so interesting cells are these little housekeeper, domestic, you know, Mrs. Cleaver cells.
And what's so interesting is that, you know, recent recent discoveries about glial cells and their their role in supporting neurotransmission really change the description of of how important they are.
And they became in their words, they became more masculine. They became more active and important once they were sort of welcomed into the kind of themselves. Sorry.
Was the change in how important people see the glial cells role as being? Was that change due to new information being discovered about what they do in the brain, or was it due to recognizing? Oh, we were we were making a mental analogy inadvertently to female housekeepers and not why we didn't think they were important. Certainly the former, not the latter, certainly. The change comes about only because there are new discoveries that that really rethink the importance of the kinds of work that glial cells do, it's not so much that glial cells, you know, became something wholly different than they ever were, but but rather that the importance of the work that they do became became more salient.
So now, let me stop you there for a second. So let me play a little bit of devil's advocate there. So when I read that example in your chapter, I thought, OK, but that's that's a good example.
And I'm sure that one can find many others of sort of the sociology psychology of scientists. Right. So the fact that the people, especially early in the 20th century, most if not all neurobiologists were males, white males, and and therefore the fact that they developed certain metaphors that they reflect that probably reflected their own prejudices in terms of sort of social roles and so on and forth. It's interesting, I suppose, but it's not necessarily even that much surprising, probably, but it is interesting as a reflection of the sociology of science and of the psychology of the neuroscientists.
But the fact remains, as you point out, of course, that when were new empirical discoveries came about, about the way in which different cells in the brain work. That was what changed people's after scientist attitude about these things. In other words, the change came still from the inside. There was something wrong with the science. The change did come from the inside.
However, I think there are plenty of scholars of science and sociology of knowledge who would suggest that the that the that were guides new discoveries is closely linked to these kinds of assumptions.
And so so perhaps we might argue that that we wouldn't have been as content to put ourselves in the background if we didn't have such a kind of bifurcated view of of the division of labor. I don't I don't know that we can make that case.
I think that I think many of us watch Tova make a pretty interesting argument.
But I read an example not to suggest that that's how feminist thinking that's where feminist thinking ought to stop.
I raise it as an example to show on the one hand how important it is to look at the cultural and social investment in the in the body and how that affects scientific the production of scientific knowledge.
And on the other hand, I also raise an example of one of the limitations of that approach. So the limitations of that approach, of course, that if if feminists and other kinds of critical scholars in the humanities and social sciences are satisfied with looking at metaphors, we really prevent ourselves from actually considering the significance of something like neurotransmission.
And so so the conversation stops at the level of those sort of layers of meaning through which we perceive the world.
And we don't we haven't for for a couple of decades.
And feminist theory at least, really allowed ourselves to to wrestle with the ontology or the essence of the real itself.
So there is one way to put this, perhaps a little simplistic, is that we're really talking at again, at the level of differences between fields, in this case biology versus, let's say, feminist theory or science studies.
We're really talking about the old nature nurture dichotomy, right? We're talking about a situation where, again, to simplify, historically, biologists have either discarded, discounted or left out the role of a culture of nurture. In this particular case, human beings, of course, mostly culture, although there is a physical environment, there is part of that nurturing as well. And on the other hand, you might you might say that scholars from the other side of the divide is sort of tried to to ignore the fact that, yes, there is a culture, but that culture is actually based on something else and that something else is a biology without a particular kind of biology.
You don't have culture to begin with, for instance, most obviously.
So you are trying to sort of go beyond these. This is nature nurture thing finally, because it would be a good idea.
I think a lot of people are now pushing that that dichotomy a lot. There's a lot of pressure on that. And there has been for some time. But it hasn't been quite clear in feminist theory quite how to move forward until maybe until recently.
But but you're exactly right.
So a great deal of the suspicion of the hard sciences from feminist perspectives has been driven by as a social construct in a sense that what's. Significant about the world and in the world is created by human hands, so to speak, are human minds and not by biology and thinking of that as distinct from biology. So a representational ist or symbolic view of culture that that.
Allows for historicity, historical variation, cultural variation. Why is this so important? I think it's obvious to feminists, but it's maybe important to point out for for everyone to think about why is this so significant?
Well, of course, in feminist theory and feminist scholarship, we've been considering the issue of gender difference and sex difference.
And the birth of feminist theory really comes about through struggling with trying to figure out the significance and the source, the ideology of our conceptions of gender.
What whereas gender come from. And feminist theorists have argued that gender is the creation of culture, sex is the biological body. But what really matters is what we make of it. And it's sort of the means that we create from it.
And that basic assumption is at the heart of a great deal of feminist thought.
But I might also add that of feminist thinkers share this, too, with anthropologists and cultural anthropologist, I should say, and sociologists and other folks in the social sciences whose bread and butter has really been to investigate what what cultures do to create the world and independently of biology.
Just to clarify, by by creating or shaping gender, you're talking about the, I don't know, cultural expectations of the way women behave versus men behave, the way women talk or carry themselves, which is why men do what women are supposed to like versus what men are supposed to like. Precisely.
So so that the standard way of thinking about this has been that sex is what you're born with and gender is what we make of it. So sex is really genitals and gender is behavior, attitudes, traits and roles which change over time and has different historical epochs.
And so this has been a contest really over nature nurture. It's been a contest over biological determinism. It's been a fight against the arguments that that the current gender roles that we have now are biologically shaped.
And so so there have been a lot of important political reasons why feminists have been reticent to take up the biological body.
But let me give you so let's stick with sex for a second, because that that ought to interest our topic. That's always a good topic. So the difference between sex and gender, as you know, there is a way of thinking in biology that has been actually around, as it turns out, for more than a century. But it has only taken up roots, especially in evolutionary biology and developmental biology over the last, let's say, 20 years, 20, 30 years, largely during my own career as a as a biologist.
And that that is to consider the concept of phenotypic plasticity, this idea that that the best way to think about the fact the nature and nurture interacts, the genes and environment interact, is that to think in terms of the genes or the genetic environment do pose certain limits and certain parameters to what a body in a behavior can be. There are certain kinds of behavior. I can't fly, for instance, on my own recognition on power. I'm sorry.
You know, it's really annoying, but it's, you know, it's just the way it is. And that is, in fact, the determination of my genes that is there. Is there something in the in the genetic environmental structure of a human being that makes it impossible for us to fly? So certain kinds of behaviors are not are not possible.
On the other hand, there is a large variety of behaviors in human beings in particular, but of course, also in other mammals that are made possible across a range. And that range depends, but it's not entirely constrained or limited by the genetic background. Right. So is that a reasonable way to think, for instance, about the difference between sex and gender, in which case, what would turn out to be the case is not that gender is culture and sex is biology, but that the two interact.
That is, the gender is not independent of the biology, but it has a certain degree of freedom. That degree of freedom depends on the plasticity that human gene genomes allow for that sort of thing. Now the plasticity can be very high in fat procedures. Certain behavioral traits can be so high that you are going to be hard pressed finding any genetic signature on that behavior. But nonetheless, it's a matter of quantity. It's a matter of, you know, there's a certain moderated you can do there, certain things you can do and certain things you cannot.
I have a complicated answer to that question. Well, that was a complicated question. Yes, that's fair enough.
So so first, where I was going with would that earlier comment I don't think we got to was was exactly where you're where you're headed, which is that the this nature nurture dichotomy is now being broken down, not just in the sciences, but also in the humanities and the social sciences.
And there's a kind of a convergence to some degree in in terms of our mutual interest in getting beyond this very limited way of thinking about this kind of gap between nature and nurture.
And so in the sciences, we have epigenetics, for example, that's.
And that's articulating this incredibly complex relationship between the environment and the phenotype and in in feminist theory and in social theory more generally, we have this new materialist movement, which we could describe as an interest in rethinking the biological body, getting closer to biology, thinking about new ways of considering biology that are not biologically determinist or fixed or simplistic.
So there has been an assumption that biology or understandings of biology are incredibly simplistic. And now there's a new acknowledgment, which is what I'm interested in among feminist theorists and cultural studies, scholars and people in humanities, that that the sciences these days are incredibly complex and are addressing a very dynamic kind of biological body that's in constant engagement with the environment. So we're exploring this, these very features that you're pointing out. How can we apply this to gender and sex?
I don't think it's a very simple answer. I'm tempted to just to to to stop and say that there clearly is sex difference. And that's something that's hard for feminists to admit.
But we all acknowledge it. We have to improve their behavior. Or you don't just mean in. Right.
You no, I even mean in body. So in fact, I even still Sterling, for example, wrote this famous book called The Five Sexes, where she looks at the sort of chromosomal variation between males and females and finds that it's not so simple.
It's not just X, X and X Y, that there are all of these much more finer differences in chromosomal variation that can determine sex.
And beyond that, we've now seen 20 or 30 years of queer activist movement that has reminded us of the presence and vibrancy of intersex communities and transsexual communities.
And so so even even the very basic distinction between male and female is under heavy contestation right now in culture and in what exactly that means.
But saying it's black and white, though, or saying it's not black and white is different from saying that there are no physical differences between precisely that spectrum. So no one is saying that latter thing, right? No, no, no, no, no. I didn't ask that. I think I think I think it's worth I think it's worth asking. But but but I but I think it would be a terrible shame to deny physicality.
And so but the question really is then what is the significance and not just the cultural, but it's also the biological significance of X, X and X Y.
And there are arguments, as you know, you had Cordelia find on this program.
So she talked a lot about brain organization theory, which argues that the distinction between X, X and X Y becomes not just a matter of distinguishing distinct reproductive organs, but it affects brain organisation and the second trimester of pregnancy.
And so we end up with these biologically male, biologically female brains.
Now, I think there's an arsenal of critique of this of this research now.
Bye by Cordelia Fine, by Rebecca Jordan Young by not by Mr. Sterling and by a lot of folks who really look at the very limited way in which the researchers have considered sex difference and gender difference and the relation between the two.
And so they have made a lot of assumptions that we might call hetero normative. In other words, they've measured differences between men and women, assuming that there are only two groups to begin with, and also assuming that certain attributes are genuinely feminine and other attributes are generally masculine and so on. And they're there. They're better people to talk to about the details of this research.
But but I think it's too quick and fast and easy to say that our our current knowledge about gender difference can simply be mapped onto our new understanding of phenotypic complexity. I think the new science of epigenetics and the new understanding of the brain plasticity is going to actually press us to reconsider the complexity of gender in the brain, make us consider maybe some more more diversity than we were ready to acknowledge. I think I think that's that's a fair point.
But I still need to go back to what Judy was saying a minute ago, which is what the science is discovering. Both the concept of genome interactions, the epigenetics that they're bringing in is that there is a lot more variation and there is a lot more complexity than people thought. That's fair. Not only fair to say, but that's actually typical of science in general. The more we dig into things, the more we find out that things are actually complicated, particularly so in biology.
So that is interesting. I think it's not necessarily surprising, but it is definitely interesting. And it does have obviously consequences, including the consequences for, you know, for our the way in which we see gender roles, differences between sexes and so forth.
That said, it seems from a purely biological perspective, it does remain the fact that, yes, there is more variation than just the X Y, but it does use the word heteronormativity, which is interesting because it depends on which way you deploy that word. So if you're deploying that word in terms of actual normatively meaning, things ought to be one way or another, then I think I'm going to find myself on your side of the debate and clearly say, no, wait a minute, we're talking about human behaviors and human beings can or should be able to do whatever the heck they want nonetheless, within the limits of allowing other people sort of the same.
Nonetheless, if by normatively you actually start using the term sort of as a biologist, we use it. So as is a normal distribution, you know, these are distribution or in the case of sex is the some bimodal distribution. There's there are two peaks and there is a lot of variation, but there still are two peaks. And so if you use a word, no material in that sense, which is actually a descriptive sense, it's really not a normal activities and it's a descriptive as normal as in this is the statistical distribution of this particular attribute, then it seems to me that.
Progress will be made more by acknowledging that there is such a thing as a whatever distribution, the science, the best distribution of the traits that the science is able to describe a knowledge that there is that and then denying that that is actually any normative in terms of how people should behave, rather than denying that the what the science is suggesting.
Let's put this into a concrete example. It doesn't sound so abstract for your listeners. So one way of thinking about this problem is to think about gender difference in the brain. So do men and women think differently? Right.
So lots of cognitive tests have established, you know, in some degree or another that men perform differently on social intelligence tasks than women, that women seem to have more empathy than men and that seem to be able to understand another person's thoughts or what they're thinking or feeling better. So. So what does that mean? Well, there are there are many ways to think about this, given what we've already said.
On the one hand, we could simply argue as brain organisation theory does, that male and females are different. They're different because of evolutionary imperatives, and that this difference is really established very, very early on before birth and it just unfolds over time. I think that's a very hard argument to sustain. If you actually look at the kind of inter excuse me, intersex diversity in social intelligence among men and women. So it may be true that we can find differences between men and women, but there are also incredible differences among men, incredible differences among women and so on.
Now, having said that, the the research on brain plasticity suggests that experience has an incredibly important role in shaping brain structures.
So, for example, styles of thought, we could think of styles of thought as something that's a kind of neurophysiological habit that develops over time.
And given the brain's plasticity, but also given the gendered character of our social world, it wouldn't really be that surprising that not only do men and women have different social intelligence in terms of how they perform on tasks, but also that they might even have different brain structures because of that. So one of the questions is why?
Is it because they're sort of destined to do to be this way, given the release of hormones during the second trimester as far as prenatal, or is it because of gender socialization and training that encourages certain kinds of emotion, work on the part of women and discourages certain kinds of emotion, work on the part of men? This is a very complicated question. Yes. And I actually find it very annoying, quite frankly, even when when scientists and especially when when the general media talk about these issues, as you know, there are biological difference that the word that is often used is their biological differences between men and women.
And they just mean there are differences between men and women. Correct. Because that's what it means. Right? I mean, as you were just pointing out, basically, OK, so even if we do agree that there are certain differences in whatever brain structure in this case or behaviour between men and women. Yes. Well, of course, there are differences. The question is what what does difference? Where did those differences come from? And the fact that you have a different brain as an adult tells you very little about difference, anything at all about where those differences come from?
Are they the difference because you use different parts of the brain, different differentially throughout your development? Or is it because, in fact, there are genetic differences, however?
And that, by the way, is the kind of question that is really, really difficult to answer for human beings.
You can do that much better with mice because it's also different, difficult to answer using something like brain imaging technology, which can't tell you anything about the cause of a structural, but just take a bunch of babies and take them away from their families.
And then with half of them, you know, in a Skinner box.
Yeah, that's a fantastic idea. That's a fantastic idea. I just never get the prove it. No, no, no. But let me ask one question.
Well, let me just point out something that you said, and I'll just draw it out a little bit for our listeners.
So people, when they say that differences are biological, they often mean to say that their innate and they're not the same thing.
And so this is this is a really considerable logical fallacy.
So we can even if we can establish that, you know, through FMRI scans that there are differences between men and women, in particular brain structures, saying their biological is not the same thing as saying they're innate, they can be biological without being innate, of course.
Now, the problem that I often have with these discussions is that given that it is very difficult and arguably next to impossible, if we start talking, taking on models of the kind of ethical issues that that Julia was talking about, I mean, human beings are really difficult to my idea.
I don't know what. Human beings are very difficult, experimental subjects for these four gene environment interaction studies, which is why when I was doing these things, I was working on plants. They're much easier. They don't scream. There's no blood, nothing. You can clone them. You can do that. You can grow up fast in a matter of weeks or months as opposed to human beings, decades, that sort of stuff. And that's without even getting to the ethical issues.
So it is very difficult, if not next to impossible to do actual, really well controlled gene environment interaction studies, which are the only ones are going to tell you, you know, what's actually going on in terms of dynamics between genes and environments. That's that we do know that there are genetic influences, of course, on on human structure and, you know, phenotypes in general. And we do know that there is a lot of environmental influences we just don't know how to combine with.
There's no no no particular good way of looking at how the two actually interact throughout development.
Now, that said, um, sometimes I get a little worried by the attitude that I see from some people about sort of rejecting apriority that there might, in fact, be some differences between, whatever you name it, genders in this case. Because, first of all, that's an empirical question.
And so it seems to me that as a philosopher or as a sociologist or as somebody who's interested in, you know, I don't know, human rights, you don't necessarily want to hang your arguments on an empirical question that, you know, tomorrow may be settled in the wrong way, quote unquote, from from what you're thinking. And then what? Then what are you going to do about it? Number one. Number two.
So what if it turns out that there is there are, in fact, some to some degree of differences? I mean, it's not like often as you pointed out a minute ago, this debate is actually it's cast in terms of determinism, but the environment can be just as deterministic, asks Skinner as the Geets. Because you can I mean, the scenario that was envisaged in Brave New World was all based about on environmental determinism, not genetic one by the environment being deterministic.
Well, that you can control the environment, you know. So if the environment has certain effects, let's say education, for instance. Right. Is going to have certain reliable effects. If you educate people or you don't educate people one way or the other, you're going to get certain outcomes in terms of behavior, then you can have just as much determinism, meaning that, OK, I know that environment is going to cause this particular type of behavior preferentially.
And in fact, it's in some sense it's even more dangerous because the environment is very easy to manipulate.
Well, a great example of this is from the 1970s when John Money and his colleagues were arguing that that gender differences, that gender differences are entirely socially constructed, but also that sex difference made no made no impact on a person's identity or sense of desire.
So what they really were arguing was that the body wasn't so important that it was actually what was in the mind and what was inculcated in the culture. And this ended up in a kind of disastrous program for intersex infants, where Money and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins began a program of treatment for intersex infants that essentially assigned them a gender and assumed that they would ultimately be perfectly comfortable in that gender because culture and society can really shape your gender.
It really is what your body says is kind of irrelevant and it's kind of the next best thing to my friend.
Actually, it's precisely from the environmental perspective. So this is absolutely right and it didn't turn out so well. So so I encourage readers to look to look up John Money and and intersex surgeries and think about this a little bit more clearly, because I think the lessons have been chastening for such constructionists about this question. Now, there's another feminist scholar who wrote back in 1994 this this book called Valhall Bodies. She's her name is Elizabeth Gross. She's an Australian scholar who's now based in the U.S. And she made this argument 25 years ago, much the astonishment of the feminist community that sex difference is real, that sex difference actually exists.
That is, it means its meaning is sort of wide open for discussion.
But she was interested in looking at Darwin. She was looking at sexual selection and natural selection and doing this kind of interesting and creative rereading of Darwin, a project she's continued for the last 20 years and made this really interesting claim that would be unsurprising to many outsiders.
But within feminist theory, it was quite surprising to to to read a feminist scholar who was arguing passionately for the significance of sex in the body. Now, what she wasn't doing was saying, you know, sex is not normative. Sex means this sex. Determines your orientation. She wasn't making those claims at all.
Instead, she sort of opened up biology to thinking about in creative and if I may say kind of queer ways, what what sexual difference might mean in both in non-human species and and among humans.
I mean here. Do you mean term like how it might affect people's behavior and I think conception. Thank you for clarifying that, because now we have Julia, because now we have to worry about what we mean when we say mean.
But but where I was going with this earlier conversation was that that in addition to this, to the biological sciences getting more interested in complexity and plasticity, feminist theory is getting more interested in thinking about biology as being significant, as meaning something.
And I don't mean sort of as having a social constructionist kind of interpretation, but but as being significant, whatever it is that we make of it, that that biology itself, the flesh itself is has meaning. But what's so important about this project is that feminists are arguing now that we have to take biology seriously without the burden of some of the simplistic hetero normative frameworks we've been using to look at sex difference like brain organisation theory, which is actually Rebecca Jordan, Young has argued, is really plainly unscientific and unethical.
But in fact, the methodology is so, so tied to an ideology of sex difference that it really actually can't find a more interesting and complex story about what that sex difference might mean.
Well, let's separate the two aspects there, as in something can be scientifically incorrect and then something can be unethical. And of course, something can be books. Now, it seems to me that like Cordelia Fine, for instance, does in her latest book that we're discussing this on this podcast, the best the most convincing critique of bad science is scientific. That is, you're going to go in as a biologist and you and you say not my friend.
You think that that's what these experiments show. But in fact, here's the methodological problems. Here is the interpretation problems, is the data analysis problems and so on and so forth.
So let me specify for Rebecca Jordan Young. She argues that that that brain organisation, your theory research is unethical, not because it's politically problematic, but because it's it's unsound and that because the deck is stacked.
Right. OK, yeah, that's fine.
But as I said, you know, so I hear what you're saying. What I'm hearing from you, Masimo, is that you're worried that political questions can censor, in a sense inquiry. And I agree with you. And I think this, in fact, has been the case in much feminist thinking for four decades now.
It has been to some degree taboo to talk about sex differences being, quote unquote, real, and to even talk about biology as being significant.
And this is something that urgently needs correction and feminist thinking. But I also want to make the case that this offers a really wonderful interdisciplinary opportunity to kind of bring feminist insights to biology.
Yeah, absolutely. That we don't think time and I was I really wanted to talk a little bit more about methodology.
So when we were talking earlier about what meaning is invested in different practices with the body and what meaning is invested in in gender, or I guess I should say, I am so interested in these questions of meaning, but I find them really hard to pin down and sort of a precise, testable way.
And so I guess, like, let's take the example that you first brought up of the the way that scientists had sort of the theory was anyway, that they had invested like gendered meaning in glial cells. And what was the neurotransmitters? Yeah, the neurons.
And that that had influenced the, you know, the degree to which they like, I don't know, investigated how important each of those two things might have been in the brain. How would you. It seems plausible. It's a good story. How would you test whether that is true or not? Even test? I'm not even asking for a randomised controlled trial here too much. But but how how would you gather reliable evidence about whether or not that was, in fact the case?
Well, that wasn't my study, but let's see if I can do a thought experiment. I think I think this is you know, it's obviously a hermeneutic problem, but it's an interpreter petition.
It's a problem of interpretation. So this is going to be a little bit more art than science.
But but I think if I were rethinking this study with your question in mind, I would try to consider how the information about glial cells was or was not taken up in a timely fashion or was suppressed or ignored and try to figure out what the. Mechanisms were by which neurons became so much more significant. Now there are other methodologies that you could use, like actor network theory or is written letters, work or other. What is that? So. So science studies scholars, including Bruno Latour and some others have been looking at the practice of science.
So the practice of making the significance of objects in in the laboratory. And so what they're doing is tracing all of the different components to the extent that it's possible.
And I said this is sort of hermeneutic and ethnographic rather than quantitative, but trying to figure out how it is that a story and understanding a narrative in science gets built through something like looking at multiple actors.
So funding mechanisms, instruments, conceptual frameworks and how scientific paradigms are put in sort of Thomas Kuhn's language, how scientific paradigms get sustained or overturned through the kind of institutional and conceptual and technological developments.
But meaning is all sort of an internal you know, I have associations with gender when I'm thinking about glial cells or something, but it's never it's hard to imagine how it could ever be made explicit and and sort of on the record anywhere. What meaning I have invested in things.
Well, here's a better here's a more straightforward example, which we could go back to the sex difference research or the brain organization theory research.
We could look at what kinds of assumptions are being used in designing the methodologies of brain organization theory, research.
So, for example, do we begin with assuming that there are only male and female subjects?
That's a very, very basic one. Are there to be include do we include a kind of diversity of subjects, including intersex subjects when we look at sexual orientation? Are we looking at an array of sexual orientation? How are we making those determinations and are we coding that as masculine and feminine behavior? So there are many, many examples that Cordelia Fine gives in that Rebecca Jordan young give of decisions that are made along the way that put people into categories of both male and female, but also masculine and feminine.
And those decisions are really saturated with cultural assumptions. Now, let's do a let's reverse our question, and that's how we do it differently.
How might we instead of testing, instead of testing whether the science, the current science is sexist or hetero normative, why don't we think about what would it look like if the science was not was explicitly and consciously and reflexively not sexist and hetero normative? Well, one thing it might do is take seriously the diversity that we already know is out there in the world.
So the diversity of human behavior, the diversity of sexuality, the diversity of social movements, of queer movements, of of pleasures and desires that anthropologists, sociologists and anyone watching contemporary television can tell you is already out there in the world.
If we let a really complex idea of sexuality and gender in a saturate scientific research, I think we would see a lot of different kinds of more creative studies.
Yes, the only thing that I would add to that is that it's very difficult to do sort of counterfactual, essential, essentially scientific research for obvious reasons, because, you know, for instance, in the in the area of sociology of science, which we should probably devote a whole other episode to, but in the areas of shortage of science, there's this interesting idea of the idea of a radical and the determination of theories by the data that is that there is always many, many more interpretations available and therefore it becomes an issue of how is it a particular scientific theory is picked, becomes more of a social issue and negotiating between different scientists with different sort of views of how the theory should work and so forth, as opposed to being determined by nature itself.
Right now, the question is there's a famous example of that, of somebody who has actually done tried to do the work of saying, well, what would a particular discipline look like if it had been done differently? That's Ian Pickering's book on the construction of quarks, right. Where he tries to imagine an entire fundamental physics done without the concept of quarks.
And it's an interesting exercise and it takes a hell of a lot of work and by the way, a hell of a lot of knowledge of physics, you know, fundamental physics.
But my and my understanding and, you know, I'm not a physicist, nor am I a philosopher of physics. I'm a philosopher of biology. But my understanding is that that work has, in fact, been picked apart because it's very difficult to do. That is both the physicist and philosopher of physics and come in and say, you know, nice ride. But as it turns out, at least in this particular case, it's hard enough to come up with one.
Sensible theory that fits the data. You don't have it radical and a determination, you may have some determination. There's always some degree of dimension, but it's certainly not radical. And if it's not radical, that leaves less room for the sociology and the psychology of science to plan. Now, that's an empirical question, because there may be other areas, I'm sure some areas of biology, especially human biology, there's a hell of a lot more determination than in fundamental physics.
And so it's an open question.
But that is why I'm particular attracted by the approaches like people of people like fine.
And I was going to sort of close because we're pretty close to closing time, but I'm five minutes away.
Yeah, by managing mentioning Helen Genome Research. Yes, she's a great person as she is.
And so I do recommend I recommend it, I think already a couple of her books on these podcasts on and off for for different reasons. But her one of her points is that the best safeguard toward the kind of bias you were talking about earlier in sort of early 20th century neurobiology, for instance, is simply to bring in more scientific perspectives into the scientific process. That is bring in, you know, let let let let's have women and minorities in different ethnic groups and so on and so forth, become scientists, do the science, because that's the thing that allows those people to say, first of all, those people are more alert to possible biases from a from coming from other quarters.
But they also have the technical know how to actually say, look, this is not the way you're going to do that.
Well, in the case, I think it's appropriate to mention then a doubling of Roy's work. So she is a neuroscientist who has made this argument in particular about neuroscientists. So there are people now who are bringing up or continuing this tradition started by Longino and Sandra Harding and Evelyn Fox Keller are back in the 1980s who are who are really pushing this kind of feminist empiricists approach, right?
Yeah, well, we are negative seven minutes ever, but it was a negative seven minutes well spent. Absolutely.
We are wrapping up the section of the podcast now, but we will move on now to the rationally speaking PEX.
I'd like to take this moment to remind our listeners that if you're a fan of the rationally speaking podcast, you'll definitely enjoy this year's Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, which will be held in New York, New York the weekend of April 5th through 7th, 2013. Go to NextG now to get your tickets there on sale in addition to Masimo. And you'll also find a lineup of great speakers, including the SGU, Simon Singh, Michael Shermer and our keynote speaker, physicist Leonard Mladenov, author of The Drunkard's Walk Nexxus story.
That's an easy asphaug. Go get your tickets now.
Every episode, we pick a suggestion from our listeners that has taken our rational fans. This time we ask our guest, Victoria, for her suggestion Victoria.
Well, lately I've been reading some work in disability studies, and I'm really interested in disability studies because it is a place where all of the hot issues that I care about are really being debated for a very serious level. For example, to what extent are bodies socially constructed and to what extent are they a biologically determined? Well, Disability Studies has argued for decades that disability is something that is is a social construction. Disability is a way of thinking about bodies that privilege some over others.
So, for example, it's a way of looking at the built environment and the choices that we make in terms of building the society that we have that disadvantage, some people who have maybe different capacities than others. So this has been a really important argument to produce disability rights movement. And at the same time, there are there are new writers in disability studies who are thinking more seriously about the biological body and the thinking about pain, thinking about capacity and incapacity and the seriousness of that.
And so to some degree, there is a sense that the politicisation of disability as an identity category or as as a norm or a contested norm has to some degree elided the fact that the very fleshy experience of disability. And so lately I've been reading a new piece by Rosemary Gartland Thompson, who published an article in Hypatia called The Misfits. It was published in 2011. Maybe I'll just read a sentence or two from it. So she describes she wants to rethink disability as as a matter of Miss Fitting.
So fitting in. Miss Fitting, she says, denote an encounter in which two things come together in either harmony or disjunction. When the shape and substance of these two things correspond in their union, they fit. And a misfit, conversely, describes an incongruent relationship between two things a square peg in a round hole. The problem with mosfet then and here's not an either of the two things, but rather in their juxtaposition, the awkward attempt to fit them together.
When the spatial and temporal context shifts, so does the fit with its meanings and consequences. And so what she's really trying to do here is trying to identify a very physical experience of disability that involves mis fitting.
So, say, having a wheelchair that doesn't fit in an aisle in a grocery store is a very physical and materially real experience.
But but it also involves that a set of social decisions about the built environment. So in other words, this is a this is an account disability that doesn't choose nature or nurture. It looks instead at the relationality of disability as a as a matter of a constant relation between the body and the world.
Great, thanks. And we'll post a link. I don't know if the full article is available. And it's great. We'll post a link to that up on the podcast website. That wraps it up for this episode of Russian Speaking.
Victoria, it has been a pleasure having you on the show today. It's been great. Thanks so much.
This concludes another episode of rationally speaking. Join us next time for more explorations on the borderlands between reason and nonsense.
The rationally speaking podcast is presented by New York City skeptics for program notes, links, and to get involved in an online conversation about this and other episodes, please visit rationally speaking podcast Dog. This podcast is produced by Benny Polin and recorded in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York. Our theme, Truth by Todd Rundgren, is used by permission. Thank you for listening.