March 20, 2017
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Feminists have generated a set of tools to make science less biased and more robust. Why don’t more scientists use it?
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, a mystery played out across news headlines: Men, it seemed, were dying of infection at twice the rate of women. To explain this alarming disparity, researchers looked to innate biological differences between the sexes — for instance, protective levels of sex hormones, or distinct male-female immune responses. Some even went so far as to test the possibility of treating infected men with estrogen injections.
This focus on biological sex differences turned out to be woefully inadequate, as a group of Harvard-affiliated researchers pointed out earlier this year. By analyzing more than a year of sex-disaggregated COVID-19 data, they showed that the gender gap was more fully explained by social factors like mask-wearing and distancing behaviors (less common among men) and testing rates (higher among pregnant women and health workers, who were largely female).
The researchers revealed medicine’s longstanding tendency to attribute differences in health outcomes to biological, rather than social, factors. In fact, men were dying at higher rates long before the pandemic, for reasons that had nothing to do with immunity or hormones. And even if sex differences did contribute to poor health, it was crucial to consider how those differences interacted with social and cultural disparities.
The 2022 paper is just one example of how feminist interventions can course-correct for bad science, advancing fields from epidemiology to evolutionary biology. It was written by members of the Gender Sci Lab, an interdisciplinary lab that employs feminist science, an approach that aims to identify and interrogate common assumptions about sex and gender with which many people — including scientists — unconsciously operate.
Yet most people who encountered these findings likely had no idea that feminism played a role in the research. In a way, that’s unsurprising. In my three years reporting the 2022 book “Vagina Obscura: An Anatomical Voyage,” I encountered a deep disconnect between how the majority of researchers view feminist science and the tools feminist scientists have to offer.
It isn’t hard to see why. Among mainstream scientists, the word feminist has often been viewed with disdain, hostility, and an implicit belief that feminist ideals are incompatible with true science — that the former is about ideology; the latter, objective authority.
What we lose when feminism is minimized is an understanding of how science actually works.
In reality, feminist science offers a powerful set of tools for examining the history, context, and power structures in which scientific questions are asked. By bringing marginalized perspectives to the table, it can generate new questions and methodologies that help scientists identify and correct for hidden bias. Think of it as a stake strapped to a growing tree: it provides scaffolding to help the tree get back on track when it starts to lean too far to one side.
“Feminist science on the ground doesn’t look different from other science,” says Heather Shattuck-Heidorn, an evolutionary biologist and co-founder of the GenderSci Lab (who read an early version of my book). “You have hypotheses that are supported or not supported, you run analyses, you test things, you operationalize variables.”
The difference lies upstream, in who is centered and what questions are valued. If more scientists understood this, we could improve science for everyone.
Unfortunately, this misunderstanding is deeply rooted. Just ask evolutionary biologist Patricia Gowaty, one of the first wave of researchers to become radicalized by the feminism movement of the 1960s and 1970s and take on the title of feminist scientist. In 2012, Gowaty performed a series of careful replication experiments with fruit flies that challenged the longstanding “Bateman’s Principle” of sexual selection.
Her findings helped show that this principle, which states that males tend to be more promiscuous than females due to the asymmetry between sperm and eggs, was more of a hypothesis — and a flawed one at that. Yet outside of gender studies departments, Gowaty’s work isn’t widely taught. Meanwhile, in hallowed halls like Oxford, Bateman’s Principle is still canon.
Part of the reason, writes author Lucy Cooke in her recent book “Bitch: On The Female of the Species,” is that Gowaty was effectively branded as an ideologically-driven feminist. “The F-word has a polarizing effect, so much so it can undermine solid science,” writes Cooke. Even scientists I interviewed for my book who were using these tools — for instance, the urologist mapping the human clitoris to reveal an “iceberg organ” or the bioengineer convincing her field that the uterus is a uniquely regenerative organ — balked at the idea of calling their work feminist.
But is that really a problem? As long as the science gets done, who cares what we call it?
Among mainstream scientists, the word feminist has often been viewed with disdain and hostility
I’d argue that it does matter. What we lose when feminism is minimized is an understanding of how science actually works. Striking out the word “feminist” perpetuates the outdated idea that scientists should (and can) be objective — that when they enter the lab, they somehow strip off the values, quirks, and preconceptions that plague the rest of us mortals. In reality, the language of objectivity has long served as a cloak for political ends, whether it’s race science being used to support eugenic policies, or pro-life lawyers marshalling studies to allegedly prove that life starts at conception.
Scientists, like feminists, like all of us, have agendas and values, blind spots and biases.
Ironically, hewing to the science-is-objective model makes science less objective, more impervious to critique, and more easily rerouted for nefarious ends. To straighten out the tree of science means first acknowledging that researchers never operate with a “view from nowhere,” to borrow philosopher Thomas Nagel’s phrase. Scientists, like feminists, like all of us, have agendas and values, blind spots and biases. We each see through our own, limited lens.
By turning the lens back on scientists themselves, feminist scientists make it possible to see these hidden biases and correct for them. In the case of Covid-19 sex differences, Shattuck-Heidorn and her co-authors pointed to science’s long history of using biology to explain perceived sex and race differences — a history steeped in Western imperialism and eugenics. An awareness of this dark past made the GenderSci Lab skeptical of any purely biological explanation, and pushed them to explore other hypotheses.
This is hardly the first time feminist science has corrected for misguided science. For decades, scientists described sperm as active agents that sought out the passive egg and penetrated it. Feminist anthropologist Emily Martin pointed out the sexist tropes that undergirded this narrative, and pushed researchers to discover equally active elements in the female body: For instance, chemical signals the egg released to attract sperm, and female fluids that allowed the sperm to become fertilization-ready in the first place.
Similarly, sexual development in the womb was long described as proceeding along one of two tracks: Either a snippet of the Y chromosome coded for so-called maleness, meaning testes and penis development. Or its absence led to the development of ovaries and a clitoris “by default,” as one 2017 textbook put it. In this view, the female was like factory settings on an iPhone, while the male was the version with bells and whistles.
Both ideas relied on the assumption that the female body was more passive, simpler, and the body’s default setting. Once those assumptions were laid bare, it became clear that female development had not been subjected to the same rigorous investigation that male development had. Feminist scientists, like geneticist Jennifer Graves, helped reveal that oversimplification, spurring the discovery of genetic elements that suppressed male pathways and led to ovarian development.
Yet biology students don’t typically learn the origins of this new knowledge. The names of feminist scientists don’t appear in most academic footnotes and citations. Instead, students learn that science is self-correcting — even if the correcting in this case is coming from outside the establishment. This means that the insights feminist scientists bring to their fields may become part of mainstream knowledge, but without any trace of how they came about.
Clearly, the larger power structures of science need to update their understanding of how feminist science can help expand human knowledge, and credit the ways in which it already has. But until then, there’s one thing that scientists who are intentionally addressing these biases can do: when possible, openly identify as feminist scientists. Erasing this term only continues the cycle of dismissal and marginalization of feminist scientists and their critical contributions to the field.
What is it about terms like feminist science that makes some scientists so uncomfortable? Perhaps it is that when you acknowledge that one can be both — that all researchers can, and indeed must, balance having deeply-held beliefs with looking critically at the world — the view-from-nowhere model starts to crumble. It’s time for science to look that possibility in the eye, and stop being so afraid of the F-word. Only by doing so can we begin to widen the lens and improve science for everyone.
Feminists have generated a set of tools to make science less biased and more robust. Why don’t more scientists use it?
Look back over the past two decades, and you'll see Vladimir Putin has always been the man revealed by the Ukraine invasion, an evil and sinister dictator. The Russian leader just managed to mask it, especially because so many chose to see him as a typically corrupt and greedy strongman who could be bribed or reasoned with.
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Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.
Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.
Then there is Mariupol, under siege and symbol of Putin’s cruelty. In the largest city on the Azov Sea, with a population of half a million people, Ukrainians make up slightly less than half of the city's population, and Mariupol's second-largest national ethnicity is Russians. As of 2001, when the last census was conducted, 89.5% of the city's population identified Russian as their mother tongue.
Between 2018 and 2019, I spent several months in Mariupol. It is a rugged but beautiful city dotted with Soviet-era architecture, featuring wide avenues and hillside parks, and an extensive industrial zone stretching along the shoreline. There was a vibrant youth culture and art scene, with students developing projects to turn their city into a regional cultural center with an international photography festival.
There were also many offices of international NGOs and human rights organizations, a consequence of the fact that Mariupol was the last major city before entering the occupied zone of Donbas. Many natives of the contested regions of Luhansk and Donetsk had moved there, taking jobs in restaurants and hospitals. I had fond memories of the welcoming from locals who were quicker to smile than in some other parts of Ukraine. All of this is gone.
Putin is bombing the very people he has claimed to want to rescue.
According to the latest data from the local authorities, 80% of the port city has been destroyed by Russian bombs, artillery fire and missile attacks, with particularly egregious targeting of civilians, including a maternity hospital, a theater where more than 1,000 people had taken shelter and a school where some 400 others were hiding.
The official civilian death toll of Mariupol is estimated at more than 3,000. There are no language or ethnic-based statistics of the victims, but it’s likely the majority were Russian speakers.
So let’s be clear, Putin is bombing the very people he has claimed to want to rescue.
Putin’s Public Enemy No. 1, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, is a mother-tongue Russian speaker who’d made a successful acting and comedy career in Russian-language broadcasting, having extensively toured Russian cities for years.
Rescuers carry a person injured during a shelling by Russian troops of Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine.
Yes, the official language of Ukraine is Ukrainian, and a 2019 law aimed to ensure that it is used in public discourse, but no one has ever sought to abolish the Russian language in everyday life. In none of the cities that are now being bombed by the Russian army to supposedly liberate them has the Russian language been suppressed or have the Russian-speaking population been discriminated against.
Sociologist Mikhail Mishchenko explains that studies have found that the vast majority of Ukrainians don’t consider language a political issue. For reasons of history, culture and the similarities of the two languages, Ukraine is effectively a bilingual nation.
"The overwhelming majority of the population speaks both languages, Russian and Ukrainian,” Mishchenko explains. “Those who say they understand Russian poorly and have difficulty communicating in it are just over 4% percent. Approximately the same number of people say the same about Ukrainian.”
In general, there is no problem of communication and understanding. Often there will be conversations where one person speaks Ukrainian, and the other responds in Russian. Geographically, the Russian language is more dominant in the eastern and central parts of Ukraine, and Ukrainian in the west.
Like most central Ukrainians I am perfectly bilingual: for me, Ukrainian and Russian are both native languages that I have used since childhood in Kyiv. My generation grew up on Russian rock, post-Soviet cinema, and translations of foreign literature into Russian. I communicate in Russian with my sister, and with my mother and daughter in Ukrainian. I write professionally in three languages: Ukrainian, Russian and English, and can also speak Polish, French, and a bit Japanese. My mother taught me that the more languages I know the more human I am.
At the same time, I am not Russian — nor British or Polish. I am Ukrainian. Ours is a nation with a long history and culture of its own, which has always included a multi-ethnic population: Russians, Belarusians, Moldovans, Crimean Tatars, Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians, Poles, Jews, Greeks. We all, they all, have found our place on Ukrainian soil. We speak different languages, pray in different churches, we have different traditions, clothes, and cuisine.
My mother taught me that the more languages I know the more human I am.
Like in other countries, these differences have been the source of conflict in our past. But it is who we are and will always be, and real progress has been made over the past three decades to embrace our multitudes. Our Jewish, Russian-speaking president is the most visible proof of that — and is in fact part of what our soldiers are fighting for.
Many in Moscow were convinced that Russian troops would be welcomed in Ukraine as liberating heroes by Russian speakers. Instead, young soldiers are forced to shoot at people who scream in their native language.
Starving people ina street of Kharkiv in 1933, during the famine
Putin has tried to rally the troops by warning that in Ukraine a “genocide” of ethnic Russians is being carried out by a government that must be “de-nazified.”
These are, of course, words with specific definitions that carry the full weight of history. The Ukrainian people know what genocide is not from books. In my hometown of Kyiv, German soldiers massacred Jews en masse. My grandfather survived the Buchenwald concentration camp, liberated by the U.S. army. My great-grandmother, who died at the age of 95, survived the 1932-33 famine when the Red Army carried out the genocide of the Ukrainian middle class, and her sister disappeared in the camps of Siberia, convicted for defying rationing to try to feed her children during the famine.
On Tuesday, came a notable report of one of the latest civilian deaths in the besieged Russian-speaking city of Kharkiv: a 96-year-old had been killed when shelling hit his apartment building. The victim’s name was Boris Romanchenko; he had survived Buchenwald and two other Nazi concentration camps during World War II. As President Zelensky noted: Hitler didn’t manage to kill him, but Putin did.
Genocide has returned to Ukraine, from Kharkiv to Kherson to Mariupol, as Vladimir Putin had warned. But it is his own genocide against the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine.