Science, Epistemology, and Difference

By M, Donna | Transformations, March 31, 1999 | Go to article overview

Science, Epistemology, and Difference


M, Donna, Transformations


Science, Epistemology, and Difference

Including diversity in the science and engineering curricula means more than including different kinds of information. It means introducing different perspectives and different ways of knowing, which also means introducing conflicting views, theories and practices. The disciplines are built around more than different types of knowledge. There are also different methodologies and epistemologies, different ways of knowing, different ways of collecting and weighing evidence, and different types of authority.

There is also more to difference than diversity. There is power. It is said that knowledge is power. In our society and around the world, different types of knowledge hold different amounts and types of power. Transformation of curricula in the sciences and engineering challenges types of knowledge and structures that hold social power in place.

The focus of this paper is on the epistemological discord between methods and knowledge in the sciences and feminist ways of knowing and experience. All of us process information and make decisions every day, and the outcomes depend on our experiences and backgrounds of gender, culture, and education. In a world of many inequalities, the diversity of kinds of knowledge and the ways in which we acquire this knowledge do not have the same value, prestige, or authority. As individuals, we feel the weight of others' judgment of what we know and how we know it. As participants in a curriculum project which initiates communication and exchange of knowledge across rigid boundaries, we face many challenges. Crossing the epistemological boundaries of academic and personal cultures and disciplines is difficult and often treacherous.

I want to illustrate some of the challenges we face by describing my personal experience as a woman and, eventually, a feminist in science. The concepts I will address are hierarchies of knowledge, science in a social context, the nature/nurture debate, the politics of knowledge, and the development of scientific methods and knowledge and how they were used to reinforce social differences.

Hierarchies of Knowledge

The hierarchies of knowledge were evident in my early years in school. While growing up, I faced the daily attitude among my peers and teachers that farmers, and rural people in general, were ignorant or simple-minded. In college, I learned that science students were smarter, and therefore better, than those in the social sciences and humanities. I learned that science was objective knowledge, based on facts. I learned that using the scientific method with rigorous experimental design and quantitative analysis was the supreme way of learning about the world.

In the 1960s and 1970s, I also learned about the importance of social justice. Equality, freedom, and justice were the ideals of the time. I grew up hearing about the Civil Rights Movement and then the Women's Liberation Movement. Through feminism, experiences and observations that resided in the margins of my consciousness and awareness were given names and clarity. I learned that subjective knowledge held truth also. I found that the social sciences and humanities could give us analyses and explanations of the world equally as important as those I learned in science. I learned that there were multiple ways of knowing.

Science in a Social Context

The sciences are a social product. For example, Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) was the founder of modern statistics, regression analysis, the disciplines of psychometry, anthropometry, and behavioral genetics .... and eugenics. I learned that Galton coined the term eugenics and envisioned a world where people would marry and have children based on their intellectual superiority. He wanted to guide the human race in its evolution. Galton had a dim view of women's intelligence, abilities, and evolutionary worth. In Great Britain, the practice of eugenics resulted in changes in immigration laws to keep out the "inferior," which included Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. …

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