Thursday, April 17, 2014

Where are the defenders of science when it comes to claims about gender by the postmodern left?

Every few days it seems, we hear the alarms being rung by the defenders of science, who, in the process of patrolling the borders of their discipline, announce that there has been a breach in their lines. But the warnings almost always concern threats from the right. It is creationists or Intelligent Design advocates that get all the attention and little is said about the multitudinous forms of left-wing political abuse of science that now run rampant.

It's not that violations of scientific integrity from the postmodern left are never mentioned. In fact, one of the best books I have read in recent years is Higher Superstitions: The Academic Left and It's Quarrels with Science, by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt. The authors of this cogent and extremely well written book (which I reviewed for the Lexington Herald-Leader a few years back when that newspaper actually had a book section).

There is also Alan Sokal's now legendary exposure of the postmodern journal Social Text, to which Sokal submitted a bogus and nonsensical article on science and hermeneutics (a legitimate term when properly used, but which is widely abused by postmodern scholars) pretending to be by a posmodernist scholar which was accepted. After its acceptance and publication, Sokal announced his hoax, after which Social Text, and its editor Stanley Fish were rightly ridiculed.

But since these two incidents, the Science Patrol has largely ignored the threats pointed out by Gross and Levitt, choosing to train their sights almost exclusively on threats they perceive coming from religion and the political right.

When was the last time you heard New Atheists (the most active faction of the Science Police) like P.Z. Myers, Jerry Coyne―or people like Gross and Levitt―call out feminists or "gender studies" scholars for their ludicrous, unproved, and many times unprovable claims about sexuality―claims for which they constantly claim scientific warrant?

For example, where are the scientific voices questioning the claims of gay rights advocates who now assert that there are multiple gender categories―fifty-one of them, by Facebook's count? Surely this claim falls within the wide definition now used by the Science Police of a scientific claim.

When I debated the issue of gay rights on "Kentucky Tonight" a couple of weeks ago, I asked Chris Hartman, the executive director of the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, if all of these gender categories were genetic. At first he refused to answer the question, but later came back and said they were.


Why do such claims get a pass from the defenders of Science? Surely its not because of political bias.



Art said...

... call out feminists or "gender studies" scholars for their ludicrous, unproved, and many times unprovable claims about sexuality―claims for which they constantly claim scientific warrant?

Call me hopelessly cynical, but I don't believe this. Specifically, I don't believe that Martin can point to any "scientific warrant" that is both unproven and pointed to by feminists or gender studies scholars.

Martin Cothran said...

You mean other than the ones Gross and Levitt point out in their book?

Art said...

You mean other than the ones Gross and Levitt point out in their book?

Such as? Gross and Levitt were critical of the anti-science posturing of the academic left. That's not what you are claiming.

But it's been more than 15 years. Is the full extent of your objection, Martin, some alleged scientific claims made by some alleged left-wing academics 15 or more years ago?

Of course, the most likely scenario here is that you are just making things up.

One Brow said...

I can't speak about Coyne, but anyone who reads Myers regularly will have read posts criticizing many different postmodernist ideas.

However, regarding gender, he does recognize that gender is constructed in many different ways. For example, some humans with an XY pair are are also fully androgen insensitive,
and have the bodily structures of females. They are neither typically male nor typically female. It's not post-modern to recognize this.

The cause of androgen insensitivity is often, but not always, genetic. So, I agree with you that the person who said gender is always genetic is wrong. It's almost never a matter of choice, but there are non-genetic factors at play.

Thomas M. Cothran said...

Post-structuralism, which as far as I know is still the dominant theoretical model in gender studies, takes a pretty hostile stance toward scientific explanations of human behavior. Post-structuralism is generally the kind of thing that drives people like Coyne and Myers nuts.

At its most charitable, post-structuralists will say that science can offer certain limited explanations of, say, gender; but that science plays a relatively small part in a good account of gender.

More often (again, in my experience) post-structuralists are anti-realists when it comes to science.

Just to give you a flavor gender studies, here is the reading list from a gender studies course from my alma mater: "Michelle Alexander, Hannah Arendt, Wendy Brown, Jacques Derrida, Paul Gilroy, Michael Hardt, Bonnie Honig, Chantal Mouffe, Antonio Negri, Michael Warner, Sheldon Wolin, and Iris Marion Young."

Another course description laments "the creation of scientific authority over sexuality."

One Brow said...


I will attempt to continue a discussion on a well-buried post from memory, so please let me know if I am out of bounds, or if you are just bored with the discussion. I was out-of-touch for a while.

As I recall, we were talking about whether things like chillagons or triangles, and you referred to a priori knowledge you would have if you encountered a (presumably complex) chillagon, specifically, the sum of the angles. This was a sub-topic of whether it is rational to say triangles exist.

The issue I have with this is that you will not only never encounter a chillagon, you will never encounter a triangle. Triangles are 2-dimensional and composed of 3 1-dimensional parts, but everything we actually encounter will be 4 dimensional.

What we can actually encounter may occasionally look very much like a triangle, but upon inspection, be off in measurable ways. For example, the sum of it's three angle-resemblances might actually be 179.8 degrees, or 180, or 180.5, but we would not be aware of this without measuring it.

As for the existence of universals generally, I'm currently agnostic. I see do reason to declare they definitely do or do not exist. I would say that declare the existence of triangles is, to me, as rational as declaring that vanilla is a better ice cream flavor than chocolate, and in much the same ways for much the same reasons.

Thomas M. Cothran said...


As I recall, the original question was whether it is rational to say that triangles have three sides. This was given as an example of an affirmation that was rational, but was not the province of empirical science, demonstrating the falsity of claiming that only empirical scientific claims can be rational.

This is distinct from the question of the existence of mathematical objects like triangles. The existence of ideal objects or universals is an interesting debate to have, so long as the original point is taken: viz., a claim need not be one of empirical science to be rational.

One Brow said...


Thank you for your response.

I'm trying to not repeat the tangents of the previous conversation. My understanding is that when you are saying "it is rational to say triangles have 3 sides (or total angle measure of 180 degrees)", this is meant as some sort of knowledge that you would have before experiencing the triangle (my understanding of what a priori means.

My reply that I have no position on universals means that I don't know that you will ever encounter a triangle. I don't know how to say it is rational to believe that a possibly non-existent thing will have a feature built (possibly not obviously) into its definition. It's rational to say that, to the degree an object resembles a triangle, that object will have three sides or an angle-sum of 180 degrees.