Feminist Science Criticism and Critical Thinking

By Nelson, Lynn | Transformations, January 31, 1991 | Go to article overview

Feminist Science Criticism and Critical Thinking


Nelson, Lynn, Transformations


Feminist Science Criticism and Critical Thinking

The description of a recent conference on critical thinking and science included the statement that "from a critical thinking perspective [science] is seen as both a promise and a threat" ("Critical Thinking: Focus on Science," at Montclair State College). No doubt the "promise" referred to would seem self evident, but I suspect the suggestion that science might constitute a threat to critical thinking would seem strange to many. Indeed, one might view scientific method as constituting the core and characterizing the spirit of critical thinking. I agree, to a point (and the source of that qualification will become clear), but I will argue here that many students do not have an adequate sense of the epistemology of science -- thus, they do not have an adequate model of critical thinking. Indeed, the model they do have of the epistemology of science works to undermine critical thinking.

I begin by sketching the views of science and mathematics that I have found to be common among students in the philosophy of science and logic courses which I teach, views that mystify science and its epistemology. I will then outline some strategies for encouraging a more sophisticated understanding of the relationship between our theories and the evidence we have for them, and relate this understanding to some current work in critical thinking. The strategies I will suggest make use of issues raised in and by feminist science criticism. There are, of course, other ways to foster some of the kinds of thinking in and about science I will advocate, but feminist science criticism is particularly useful in some specific ways. Feminist criticism reveals that values, gender, and politics are factors at work in scientific theorizing, not just in cases of bad science but in good science as well. The view of science underwriting my suggestions is empiricist, and it relies heavily on Quine's philosophy of science and recent feminist science criticism.

Discovering the one true theory a piece at a time

Many of our students view the sciences and mathematics as fundamentally autonomous, monolithic, and cumulative enterprises that are engaged in the project of discovering "the one, true theory" about how things are. Gaining scientific knowledge, on their view, is itself a rather passive affair: that is, however much scientists need to do by way of inventing and testing hypotheses, designing experiments, collecting data, and so on, so that the truth can "emerge", the "acquisition" of knowledge really involves just looking -- albeit, very careful and well prepared looking. The sources for these views are several.

First, insofar as students think of science as an activity at all, many are of the view that, if science is a process, it is, as Karl Popper puts things, "a process without a subject" (Popper, 1972). The common understanding of Popper's claim is that the directions of research, the distributions of knowledge and ignorance (the things we come to know about and those we do not) and, ultimately, the content of scientific knowledge are somehow determined inexorably by a logic of inquiry and the world, unless we make mistakes or tinker with the evidence. (In fairness to Popper, his view is somewhat more sophisticated.) Thus, in the end, although evidence may be, paraphrasing Thomas Kuhn, "that collected with difficulty" (Kuhn 1970), it is also, in some real sense, "self-announcing." And, in keeping with both a Kuhnian account and those developed in the post-positivist tradition of Carl Hempel and Ernst Nagel, the notion that science is a process without a subject draws on the view that science is an autonomous enterprise: a self-regulating activity, detached from common sense and, in Nagel's words, "from things men [sic] value" (Nagel 1961; Nelson 1990).

The rather passive epistemology I have outlined and the notion of basically autonomous sciences both underwrite and are reinforced by a particular view of the history of science: namely, that prior to the discovery of current theories, the history of science was, by and large, a series of blunders from which scientists have now (somehow) emerged to "see" the truth that was waiting for them all along, but about which their predecessors made mistakes. …

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