The sky is falling because of feminist biology, Factual Feminist edition

The other day I explained why, despite her mocking tone,  the “Factual Feminist” (Christina Sommers) doesn’t have the factual basis to undermine commonly-used statistics on rape. Now she has a video out on “feminist science.” No, it’s not a joke from The Simpsons, she says:

A new feminist biology program at the University of Wisconsin is all too real… Is feminist biology likely to contribute to our knowledge and understanding of the world? The Factual Feminist is skeptical.

The program in question is really just a post-doctoral fellowship. It looks like a privately-endowed fund to hire one postdoc. This is not a major curriculum intervention. The first postdoc in the program is Caroline VanSickle, a biological anthropologist from the University of Michigan who does work on ancient female pelvic bones and their implications for birth stuff. She was quoted by the right-wing Campus Reform (a project of the Leadership Institute) this way:

“We aren’t doing science well if we ignore the ideas and research of people who aren’t male, white, straight, or rich,” VanSickle said in an email to Campus Reform. “Feminist science seeks to improve our understanding of the world by including people with different viewpoints. A more inclusive science means an opportunity to make new discoveries.”

I don’t know the evidence on whether the ideas of biologists who aren’t male, White straight, or rich are ignored in science today, but this sentiment seems unobjectionable to me – we aren’t doing science well if we ignore anyone’s (good) ideas. Who could object to “including people with different viewpoints”? But Sommers, for some reason misquoting her only source for the story, says,

She explained to Campus Reform that, quote, in order to do science well, she said, we can’t ignore the ideas and research of people who just don’t happen to be male. But wait a minute. Women are hardly ignored in biology. In fact, they have far surpassed men in earning biology degrees. What is more, women are flourishing, and winning Nobel Prizes in that field.

On the screen flashes a table showing women getting 61% of BA degrees in biology, 59% of MAs, and 54% of PhDs. If we’re talking about whether women are ignored in biology, I think it’s the PhDs that matter, so 54% is not quite “far surpassed.” More to the point, although women first surpassed men in receiving biology BA degrees in 1988 — a quarter of a century ago — they are currently only 23% of full professors in biology. I’m not arguing about whether this reflects job discrimination against female biologists. The point is that if only a small minority of the most influential biologists are women, and if there are common differences in how men and women do biology, then the views of the latter are going to be less well represented.

To show overblown this worry is, Sommers then flashes this image of all those women winning Nobel Prizes in “that field” (actually the prizes are for “Physiology and Medicine,” since there is no Nobel for biology):


Those women sure seem to be flourishing. And that’s every woman who ever won a Nobel in Physiology and Medicine — all 10 of them. Since the 1940s, when the first of these women flourished, men have been awarded 162 Nobels in that field — the other 94% of the prizes. The peak decade was in the 2000s, when women won 15% of the prizes (the most recent in 2009).

At Wisconsin, the single “feminist biology” postdoc will also develop an undergraduate course in gender and biology. This seems like a fine idea. Maybe it will encourage even more women to overrun the biological sciences. Call me naive, but we’re still not exactly drowning in female biologists.

After going on to pick on a few individual feminists, Sommers concludes that:

…feminist theory [has] been built on a foundation of paranoia about the patriarchy, half-truths, untruths, oversimplifications, and it’s immune to correction.

Raising the question: If feminism is rubber, and the Factual Feminist is glue, does what she say bounce of feminism and stick to her?

Full disclosure: My mother is a biologist. And a feminist. So you know I’m right. And objective.


Filed under In the news

14 responses to “The sky is falling because of feminist biology, Factual Feminist edition

  1. Great response! Thanks for your sanity, relativity and facts. The Hoff is on a mission of the unbelievable.


  2. vijay

    “we aren’t doing science well if we ignore anyone’s (good) ideas. Who could object to “including people with different viewpoints”? ”

    What about Transgendered biology, gay biology, African American Biology.

    What about a complete set of courses like “gender and physics”, “gender and digital circuits”, “sexuality and two phase flow”, “transgender and mass transfer”, “Queer gas dynamics”.

    I should correct myself. I wish I could get on this gravy train.


  3. It’s always worth a visit here to read your latest takedown and to see Vijay sputtering.


  4. Thank you for the post. Suggested, but not discussed, is what might be called a pipeline problem in research biology–and other sciences as well. Women who establish their credentials leak out at every stage of the career process. This is a problem that even attentive male scientists and administrators should pay attention to. (MIT has, by the way, for more than a decade. Here’s something of an update for a general audience. )

    Is this sort of stuff also part of the family inequality domain?


    • vijay

      Although tangential to the sneer of this blog, the above comment is important: women leave sciences, and the contributing reasons. The leaky pipeline is, in addition to the biological constraints of family raising, also attributable to the general decline in job prospects of students of life sciences. Women dominate the life sciences, which have a rather small career success prospect. It is easier to quit life sciences in middle age and move to administrative, software positions or child raising, woing to the high career turnover and small salaries.


  5. Professors are not representing and will never represent the average people. Professors are, or at least should be, the best of the best. Noble winners are the best of the best of the professors.

    As such, it’s good you are not arguing this reflects job discrimination.


    “In 2007, the University of Lund (one of the most prestigious) decided to introduce so-called gender certification for every single course. Meaning a course in for instance theoretical physics should include information about the implications and relevance regarding gender issues on things like quantum theory. One criteria for certification was whether the department in question was actively seeking an equal distribution of male and female teachers. However, the department of gender issues at the university turned out to have 89 percent female teachers!”

    Of course, extremist position should not be used as an argument against more mild version of the ideologies, but still…


    • vijay

      Since the distribution of cognitive ability is highly skewed, with significant parts of the population having no representation in the higher end of the spectrum (of distribution), groups have chosen to ask for representation based on the distribution of the population. This creates the need for “feminist biology” postdoc etc. However, this is actually more hurtful to the student than the professor who offered her the postdoc, because what kind of job she is going to get after this? Given that the average biology postdoc spends 5-7 years in temporary positions before getting any kind of permanent job, we are actually playing with the life of this postdoc.

      Professors like Dr.Cohen and commentators like transvestiterabbit see this as progress, but creating positions like this, and providing openings based on racial/sexual and gender-preference distributions, actually hurt those who are admitted; not the faculty and the leadership that chose to do so. In the industry we have seen this over the last 20 years.


  6. vijay

    In any case, I had time to read VanSickle’s work; “investigating changes in pelvis shape — and therefore childbirth anatomy — during the course of human evolution.”. That is classic biological anthropology, and has nothing to do with biology or feminism.

    A add-on line says “VanSickle will also teach gender and biology and develop a new course in the area.”

    I dont even know what that means.


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