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Steinem on Science

Scientific Research and Prejudicial Beliefs
I am greatly disturbed by something I just saw on television, something I think is pertinent to the philosophy of the Bad Astronomy pages, even though it is not directly about astronomy.

John Stossel, a journalist for ABC news, was doing an hour long report on the differences between the sexes titled "Boys and Girls Are Different: Men Women and the Sex Difference". One of the major themes of the show was looking into whether the differences between men and women-- differences such as attitudes toward play, nurturing and the like-- were caused by societal pressure or were somehow biologically influenced; that is, something hardcoded into our very bodies. The report was very thoughtful about how society influences young children, and how it reinforces sex (i.e. men vs. women) roles. Then the report turned toward biologists and physiologists who actually study the brains of of men and women. One researcher found that seven out of eight brain structures she studied were actually different in men and women. An interesting result, if true.

Stossel talked to Gloria Steinem about these results. Steinem was a leader of the feminist movement in America in the 1970's, and remains an icon of feminism today. When he asked her whether she believed that biology, and not society, is the cause of any differences between the sexes, she replied, ``It's really the remnant of anti-American crazy thinking to do this kind of research. It's what's keeping us down, not what's helping us.''

I find this attitude profoundly disturbing. I may not be in a position to judge any sexism in my own attitudes, but my problem here is not about sexism. My problem with her reply is that she is saying outright that scientific research and conclusions drawn in a logical and systematic manner should not be regarded if they have the inconvenient property of disagreeing with our previously made conclusions. She feels that she has the answer (men's attitudes have kept women suppressed for millennia) and no amount of actual research into the problem will sway her.

This notion goes against every fiber of what I believe about the nature of truth. There are most definitely things in this world that can be investigated and understood using the techniques of the scientific method. Many of these conclusions are not subject to opinion, or prejudice, or popular vote. They simply are. I am not saying that biology is the major reason women and men have different roles in society; the conclusions drawn that I have seen are mostly preliminary. However, it is at best stupid to ignore the research being done, and at worst a danger to our way of life. How can we dare try to fix a problem, especially one so vast and vital as the role of sex, when we do not even understand how it comes about? We cannot ignore the scientific endeavors of researchers because they disagree with what we believe. On the contrary, we should investigate not only the research done, but our own beliefs to make sure that there are no shadows lurking in the corners of our own psyches.

We have many problems facing not just our society but our entire race: environmental issues, energy issues, political issues. I believe that many of these problems can and will be solved, but only if they are researched, discussed, and acted upon in a logical, coherent and scientific manner. If we continue to cling to our prejudices and superstitions, we not only open ourselves up to deception, but we may blind ourselves to the very solutions we so desperately need.

My special thanks to Bad Reader Mark Smith for providing the transcript of the quotation from the interview with Ms. Steinem!

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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