Platonic Feminism and Social Epistemology of Science

Today's post was prompted by a fascinating podcast my alma mater put out on the current status of women in science. Women are under-represented in science relative to the proportion of the population that are women, and many report experiences of harassment and discrimination. This leads many to wonder about the causes and consequences of this under-representation, and it is largely to those questions that the panel discussion recorded for this podcast was addressed.

Cailin O'Connor: ``I am a principal author
on a paper Liam is writing and no way is
he stupid enough to put words in my mouth
in some misbegotten attempt to be cheeky.''
One of the women on the panel was Cailin O'Connor. She's a philosophy professor at Irvine who has worked on diversity in science before. One of the hats Cailin wears is that of a social epistemologist: somebody who studies how the social and institutional organisation of communities of inquirers affects the communities' ability to produce and disseminate knowledge. Since I myself identify as a social epistemologist* I was especially glad to hear her so well represent our field and the general consensus therein on this panel.

As Cailin notes, social epistemologists of science are generally think that diversity in science leads to better science. This by fairly conventional metrics of `better science'; basically more reliably getting us to true beliefs, and avoiding us getting stuck on false beliefs. If you want to hear the case for it you should listen to the podcast; Cailin even makes this point fairly near the start, so you won't have to listen long. For a condensed version of the argument, I briefly summarise it in section 5 of this paper; but I really recommend you listen to the podcast.

Ibn Rushd -- ``Sexists are boring.''
So far so good -- justice and expediency seem to be lining up in a nice way! But then reading this blog post from Eric Schliesser today gave me pause. Because I recognise now, what had somehow been obscure to me before,  that this is just a variant on what Schliesser there calls `Platonic Feminism' -- the very old argument to the effect that the various ways in which women are socialised out of, and actively prevented from, participating in high prestige political and economic roles make the community worse off than it could be if only we better tapped this source of knowledge and expertise.

Why does this worry me? Well it strikes me that if people have been making this argument for centuries that probably doesn't speak very well for the rhetorical effectiveness of the argument. I had personally been attracted by the apparent hard headed realism of it. Here is a case for gender equity that makes no appeal to the sense of justice in Man that is much proclaimed but always mysteriously absent when it is needed. Rather, it seems to be an argument to the effect that by standards that can be accepted by even rather, shall we say, unenlightened men (you wanna know more stuff right?), we'd do well to have more women in science. Since, world being as it is, more often than not it is men in positions of power, they seem like the folk one wants to convince; and this seems a good way to do it.

But maybe that just gets the psychology wrong. I recall reading somewhere that Bertrand Russell, reflecting on the lead up to first world war, said that the lesson it taught him was that people would sooner see their enemies miserable than prosper themselves; that the Great War was always evidently going to be a disaster for all involved, but that pointing this out had been frustrating ineffective as an argument against war. Maybe, then, the point generalises: people would in the end sooner see the out-group doing worse than suffer the indignity of a rising tide lifting all boats.

(Some miscellaneous remarks before signing off. First, folks interested in the discussion of women dropping out of the (scientific) labour force should check out this paper, especially section 5. The roots of that problem go deep. Second, at one point in the podcast Cailin mentions the `Beamy Theory of Brilliance' wherein the True Genius Philosopher just sort of turns their attention to a topic and thereby instantly illuminates it by means of their inherent genius -- as far as I know the origins of that term `Beamy' for this go to Michaela McSweeney -- no relation to the internet tendency... as far as I know...  Third, I really enjoy the argument the historian gives to the effect that the study of science would do well to move away from valorising Great Heroes and focus more on the wide variety of people it takes to make science work. We'll hear more about that later on this very blog, I suspect.)

*And, full disclosure, have even worked with Cailin on related matters -- look out for our Formal Methods in Social Epistemology symposium talk at the PSA!


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  2. Russell's quote you had in mind is from here: "But in fact, a great many men will cheerfully face impoverishment if they can thereby secure complete ruin for their rivals."

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