Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Failure of Science Education and the Slander of Lisa Lloyd

Via Pharyngula Lisa Lloyd has a post up at Philosophy of Biology responding to some of the more bizarre misinterpretations of her book that have appeared on the web and in major newspapers like the Guardian and the SF Chronicle.

What all these responses have in common is that they are all feminists who assume that Lloyd's work must be some sort of misogynist attack on the female orgasm. It is extremely difficult to imagine how someone could look at a book that is a critique of sexism in evolutionary research and think it is an attack on the orgasm. Nevertheless this is the most common reaction people have to it.

(I know, I have written that Lloyd has not completely distanced herself from the androcentric assumptions of the people she critiques. But saying she hasn't carried her critique through to the end is very different than missing the whole point of the critique. Nothing I said amounts to "And we all think Dr. Elisabeth Lloyd is something of an Uncle Tom for women.")

I'm glad Lloyd has replied to this crew. I have been meaning to blog on this myself, but I mean to blog on so many things. The question the weird reaction to Lloyd raises is "how can so many people misinterpret her so badly?" Lloyd provides an explanation, but I think it is unnecessarily complex. Lloyd's explanation is this:

1. These critics assume "that orgasm *needs* to be an adaptation in order to be culturally important."

2. This is, of course, completely false.

3. People only believe 1 because of the legacy of the way Freud was rejected in the sexology literature. Masters and Johnson elevated the clitoral orgasm, and debunked Freud's shit about how only vaginal orgasms are healthy. But since Freud thought the vaginal orgasm was adaptive, the only way to emphasize the importance of the clitoral orgasm is if that too is adaptive.

Parts (1) and (2) are clearly true, but point (3) assumes that there is more going on in the minds of Lloyd's extreme critics than actually is. Here's a much simpler explanation:

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.

This is a big deal. I was just talking to a colleague from Global Studies who said that no one in her department, and probably no one in Sociology here at SLU, does quantitative methods. She added "I was an English major, I didn't take a single math course in college." I fear many SLU students can wind up doing the same thing. Our mandatory first year program does a great job of teaching writing and presentation skills, but there is no equivalent program for teaching scientific reasoning.

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.

But I think a lot of students of feminism walk away believing that unmasking is all there is. Or, perhaps, that once an accusation of sexism is in place, it cannot be removed. In any case, I've seen plenty of feminist communities fall into a rut where everyone is trying to out denounce the others, and to be more ideologically pure than the others. (This also happens in environmentalist circles, and on the other side of the political spectrum, in fundamentalist Christian circles that emphasize the fallen nature of modern society.) Since too many feminists are ignorant of science, and are stuck in a denouncing mode, it becomes hard to recognize one’s allies in the sciences.

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