It's Scientific!

So, this post began as a comment at Feministe in response to a post in which Sara argues that we shouldn't resist scientific findings that offend our sensibilities, because fact just is what it is, and our ethics don't rely exclusively on science anyway. As in, it doesn't really matter if men are scientifically proven to be smarter than women, because that's still no excuse for discriminating against women.

Which I agree with, to a point. The way we treat each other shouldn't be entirely dependent on what scientists can tell us about the way different human beings are wired. But the point at which I disagree starts right about here:

We've gotten good enough at asking the right questions and interpreting the answers to know that men and women (and anyone else on or off the gender continuum) have enough human potential that their gender doesn't need to dictate how they live their lives.
I don't even know what to say about that beyond, O RLY? If a study came out tomorrow saying "Yes, it's true, women really suck at business!" you think that would have no effect on hiring decisions, the stay-at-home-mom debate, the stock of women-owned companies, and the general level of respect accorded to women in this culture -- just off the top of my head? Because as a culture, we're already so enlightened?

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before I go into why I don't buy her argument, I need to acknowledge that, frankly, I'm pretty angry at Sara right now. [Note: after I posted this at my own blog earlier today, Sara graciously responded in comments both there and at Feministe. I'm not angry anymore, but I'm leaving this in for context.] Because, in the course of that post, she also took what I believe is a really unfair swipe at me. She completely misrepresented something I wrote, snarked on an argument I didn't even make, and then was kind enough to toss me this bone: "I don't mean to pick on people who don't have all the specific knowledge that I do." You see, it's my lack of a degree in molecular biology that makes me so foolish. And hey, that can't be helped!

So, yeah, I'm not exactly going into this post with a positive attitude. But the reason I made it a post instead of a comment is that A) it got really fucking long, and B) it grew beyond a mere defense of what I actually said, and my poor, weak, humanities-trained critical faculties. I started out just talking to her, but then... well, read for yourself.

Sara, you know what's funny? I actually agree with a big part of your point here. But for some nutty reason, I got all hung up on the fact that you nakedly condescended to me in a high-traffic public space, more than a month after we already had this conversation on my blog.

So hung up, in fact, that I'm not going to take the high road and just e-mail you about it.

Here's how you framed my interpretation of the "zombie fat" study:
... Harding found a news article about a study that showed a link between any history of high weight or obesity in a mother’s lifetime and high-birthweight infants. She thought it was ridiculous: some sort of fat-phobic anti-fantasy about people being forever marked - even through generations - by ever having succumbed to fat.
This is so disingenuous, I don't even know where to begin. You make it sound as if I believe the connection they found between fat women and fat babies is "some sort of fat-phobic anti-fantasy." As I already said in comments -- and which was perfectly clear in my original post -- I don't dispute the study's findings, which were that fat women have fat babies, even if they lose weight prior to a pregnancy. This neither shocks nor offends me.

The point we're arguing about is their speculation regarding the reason why losing weight doesn't substantially reduce the likelihood of having a fat baby -- i.e., a question that there's obviously no existing factual answer to, or they wouldn't be speculating.

You think zombie fat is plausible. I don't. I've already acknowledged that it's possible and publicly offered to buy you dinner if we find out down the line that zombie fat is the real deal. But right now, you, I, and the researchers are all just guessing, so I'm going to stand by my assertion that I don't think they've come up with a very good guess.

For the record, no, I don't think genetics are the only cause of fat. I do think that, when we're talking about fat mothers having fat babies, heritability of fat is a highly plausible explanation. Much more plausible, to my mind, than zombie fat. That's all I ever said. Granted, I said it in an incredibly snarky way, and if I'm proven wrong, I'll look pretty silly for that. But since my whole point is that I don't think their explanation is especially likely, I'm obviously not too worried about that. If I'd said it was impossible, you'd have every right to keep telling me why I'm wrong. But I never did.

To expand on where I'm coming from, my opinion is largely influenced by the way they arrived at the conclusions that led to the speculation. They looked at women who were fat prior to having one baby, lost weight, then had another baby. Given what I know about weight loss, I'm guessing there was less than a 5-year gap between the weight loss and the subsequent pregnancies, and those women probably gained the weight back eventually. If they didn't, then I might be more interested in the zombie fat conclusion; but assuming they did -- which, given the statistics on weight loss, is a pretty safe assumption -- then I see absolutely nothing to indicate that these women were not categorically Fat Women, even if they temporarily lost weight. Which means all this study really proved is that Fat Women have Fat Babies. Which, again... duh.

So. That's my opinion. I've acknowledged that other opinions are valid and other explanations are possible, because that's the only intellectually honest position to take. But I really don't see why I should feel obligated to act as if I believe it is likely that the fat these women lost affected their subsequent pregnancies. And I can't emphasize enough that that assertion is what I was and am reacting to: the idea that if you lose weight, that fat that is now gone continues to affect you. Is that theoretically possible, given the little-understood hormonal properties of body fat? Sure. But I don't personally think that's a better explanation for these findings than an inherited predisposition to fatness. If they find more evidence to support the zombie fat theory, I'll reconsider. But in the absence of that, I see no reason whatsoever to take a stronger position than, "Sure, it's possible."

Now, on to the part where I do agree with you... You're absolutely right that the way we treat other human beings should remain constant, regardless of what science tells us about why some people are the way they are. And I would never say science shouldn't explore questions that might yield answers I don't like.

But it's dangerously naive to think that as a culture, we'll just take any given findings like a bunch of mature adults and treat each other well anyway -- not to mention dangerously naive to assume that any findings arrived at under the banner of "science" represent objective facts. While there would be no reason to hate gay people even if being gay were a choice, or to pass over a qualified woman for a job even if it were proven that, on average, men are better than women at math, there's also absolutely no reason for gay people and women to roll over and say, "Well, Almighty Science contradicts my lived experience, so I guess that's that." Science is one part of the puzzle we're all trying to work out; lived experience is another; and there are many, many other parts. From your post, I think we agree on that point.

But what your post leaves out is the fact that in the culture we've got -- as opposed to the one we want -- evidence like that would not be dismissed as a scientific curiosity that has no effect on our collective ethical system; it would absolutely be used to justify further discrimination against already oppressed populations.

So if there are any legitimate questions about how the scientists arrived at that evidence, what their biases were, who funded the research, etc. -- and there are always legitimate questions of that nature -- it makes all the sense in the world to question such findings instead of simply saying, "Hey, it's science! Must be true!" The ethical implications are not separate from the science, before or after any given study is performed. And I absolutely believe it's our duty as feminists to scrutinize the hell out of any research that suggests women are intrinsically inferior to men -- and our duty as humanists to do the same to any research with a conclusion that can be used to justify bigotry.

If such scrutiny reveals that the methodology was perfect, the researchers and their financial backers are pure as the driven snow, and the conclusions are indeed airtight, then yes, of course we need to accept a difficult truth. But how often does that happen? Until we arrive at that point of certainty, which we almost never do, I believe we're obligated to keep questioning any findings that can be used to classify some groups of human beings as intrinsically better than others. As often and as loudly as possible.

Scientific research has uncovered a handful of seemingly universal truths that have stood the test of time (so far), but much more often, it uncovers partial truths that might help us put another piece of the puzzle in place but really don't, by themselves, bring us noticeably closer to The Big Picture. Evolution, gravity, relativity, etc., aren't your everyday scientific findings. Your everyday scientific findings are usually wide open to interpretation, no matter how scrupulously the researchers adhered to the scientific method.

And I personally believe that's because The Big Picture isn't just scientific -- it's social, political, economic, spiritual, you name it. You seem to be saying the same basic thing, but I don't believe you go far enough. Because the truth about why people behave the way they do, how women are different from men, why bodies are different, why we're attracted to different people, how intelligent we are, how naturally compassionate we are -- none of it can be measured fully and accurately by science. There's no way to control for all the confounding variables of being human.

That doesn't mean we should stop trying to learn about what makes us tick, coming at it from every possible angle. It does, however, mean that when science produces a conclusion that offends our sensibilities, it is perfectly reasonable to question how the researchers arrived at that conclusion; our sensibilities often reflect a whole lot of other Big Picture truths, and science doesn't automatically trump those. Given the long, long history of "scientific" conclusions that ultimately reflect little more than the hopes, fears, and best guesses of a particular population at a particular time, there's no logical reason to believe that because a conclusion was arrived at via OMG SCIENCE, it represents objective truth.

Make no mistake: I have tremendous respect for science. I'm fascinated and awed by what scientists do. I just don't think it's the be-all and end-all when it comes to answers about the human condition. I don't think math or literature or history or economics or religion are, either; I think they all play a part. That interconnectedness might be the most important thing I learned in the process of getting my two humanities degrees -- followed closely by learning to think critically about texts and consider the flawed human beings behind them.

And of course, I'm just another flawed human being producing texts here. I might be wrong about a lot of things. But so might scientists. So might everyone. That doesn't mean any of us should stop trying to find capital-T Truth, using the best methods we have -- but it does mean we should all be humble in that search, thoughtful about the contexts in which we arrive at particular conclusions, and cognizant that The Big Picture is indeed fucking big -- and it includes a whole lot of truths that can't ever be demonstrated in a lab.

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