Sunday, August 28, 2005

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

By which, of course, I mean too little knowledge is what gets you into trouble.

As has been wisely noted, there has been a fairly surprising reaction to Lisa Lloyd's book on attempts at evolutionary explanations of the female orgasm. Lloyd makes the case that the female organism was less likely selected for than a developmental byproduct of the selection for male orgasm. The surprising reaction, to which Lloyd herself responds at Philosophy of Biology, is from certain feminists claiming that somehow this argument means Lloyd thinks female orgasm is utterly valueless. Which, or course, means she's all for the subjugation of women.

Dude, there is no possible world in which Lisa Lloyd would make either of these claims. Trust me.

Since Lloyd does a fine job responding to these ill-founded concerns (and Pharyngula does, too), it's worth exploring just how the baseless accusations of anti-feminism get going. For which exploration, turn to the analysis at Big Monkey, Helpy Chalk:

The core problem is that most college educated feminists get little or no scientific training. They are not trained in scientific reasoning, or the basics of the dominant scientific theories. They can even become dismissive of science, abetted by a superficial reading of the great feminist philosophers of science...

The lack of science training is compounded by the fact that, by necessity, much of feminist scholarship is conducted in an unmasking mode. The first step in fighting the patriarchy is to recognize it, and this requires showing the true face of a lot of things that are taken for granted.

I would venture to add that it's not just feminists who are graduating colleges and universities innocent of scientific training. I suspect it's most graduates who haven't majored or minored in a science that fall into this category. (Except, of course, the nerds. I loves me some nerds!)

What do students know about science? Well, there are theories and such. And maybe somehow theories are different from facts, so if something is a theory, you can say it's just a theory. And, even though science also has a strong association with facts in people's minds, scientists get into these arguments. How can they be arguing? You have the facts or you don't.

So, the scientifically deficient student seems to bounce between thinking science is offering a perfectly established, complete picture of just how things are, and thinking scientists don't know a damn thing. What such a student is completely lacking is any understanding of how scientific knowledge is produced. Once you have a better understanding of that piece of science, you have a much better idea how wicked-hard getting absolute truth can be, but how committed scientists can do really well with what they've got.

Clearly, every college graduate would be better off graduating with at least the equivalent of a minor in a particular science. And just as clearly, I have no idea how to convince the folks with the power (most of whom seem to be in the B-School) to make the necessary changes. But, I think there's another reasonable place to lay blame and push for changes:

Every science teacher (especially in middle school and high school) who tries to convince his/her students that only really smart students could possibly understand anything scientific needs to be rounded up and administered a resounding dope-slap. Is it any wonder that people dodge science classes in college with this kind of early encouragement? Given our societal dumbening about matters scientific, we've got no room for science teachers who can't teach science to their students (which, really, is what's going on when a teacher says, "If you're not smart enough to understand this on your own, i can't help you.").

There are, of course, plenty of college-educated feminists who not only understand science, but are busy doing it. Somehow, they're not the ones approached to write book reviews for the Guardian or the San Francisco Chronicle. Probably something should be done about that, too.


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