Steven Pinker and Feminist Glaciology

Before reading further, glance back up: what does the second half of that title bring to mind?

No really, spend a few moments pondering what you think the term “feminist glaciology” means.

Almost done?

Enough shenanigans, it’s time to meet the real thing.

Through a review and synthesis of a multi-disciplinary and wide-ranging literature on human-ice relations, this paper proposes a feminist glaciology framework to analyze human-glacier dynamics, glacier narratives and discourse, and claims to credibility and authority of glaciological knowledge through the lens of feminist studies. […] Feminist glaciology asks how knowledge related to glaciers is produced, circulated, and gains credibility and authority across time and space.

Carey, Mark, et al. “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research.” Progress in Human Geography 40.6 (2016): pg. 2-3.

What feminist glaciology actually is, is the study of how knowledge is formed about glaciers, specifically in relation to gender but also with an eye on power relations. I doubt it was as PoMo as you were thinking, yet I bet many of you are suspicious. How can gender have an impact on scientific knowledge?

Before any interest was piqued as to the experimenter gender’s role in biasing other measures, there was a wave of interest in its impact on higher-level cognitive functioning. In particular, scientists were curious about how an experimenter’s gender could influence performance on intelligence testing. Early results suggested a variety of interactions. Studies in children revealed a significant effect of experiment gender on performance. Namely, female examiners appear to elicit higher full-scale intelligence quotient (IQ), verbal IQ, comprehension, similarities, and vocabulary scores on the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children for both boys and girls (…). These studies raise obvious concerns about the replicability of intelligence testing, but perhaps more alarming is the impact on the development of therapeutics to treat learning disabilities in children. Newer medications for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may show results that are too favorable, or not significant enough, as a result of experimenter gender influence. Again, this could be holding back or delaying the development of newer, safer therapeutics for use in treating these conditions because more and more studies are run to determine whether a particular compound’s effects are consistent. Worse still, it could halt investigations altogether if early results are unfavorable.

Chapman, Colin D., Christian Benedict, and Helgi B. Schiöth. “Experimenter gender and replicability in science.” Science advances 4.1 (2018): e1701427.

Quite easily, as it turns out! The review I just cited walks through many, many, many examples, ranging from men inflating the number of sex partners they had after a priming event, but only if the person handing out the tests was female, to rats having a heightened stress response around men. The gender of an experimenter can have a significant impact on experiments, which in turn distorts the scientific record. This might seem like more of a problem for the social than environment sciences, but Carey et al. also bring the citations.

Klein et al. (2014) report in their study of Tibetan herders’ understandings and observations of climate change, for example, that bias and inequality exist in those communities in Nagchu Prefecture. It was not possible to achieve gender balance in their interviews,
for instance, because women repeatedly refused to be interviewed, citing their own lack of knowledge and illustrating how dominant perceptions of ‘glaciology’ can emerge, which may in some cases suppress alternative knowledges. Women often do possess different knowledge about glaciers due to many issues, such as: spending more time than men attending to livestock near Andean glaciers (Dunbar and Medina Marcos, 2012); managing agriculture, terracing, and irrigation that includes the distribution of glacier runoff in highland Peruvian communities (Bolin, 2009); being responsible for mobility, storage, and shelter amidst changes to snowfall and other cryospheric changes on the Tibetan Plateau (Yeh et al., 2014); expressing water supplies in the Ganges River through spiritual frameworks that contradict hydrologic models (Drew, 2012); and responding to diminishing water supplies in Tajikistan mountains with more efficient water use practices, as opposed to men’s reactions to emigrate from their communities (Christmann and Aw-Hassan, 2015).

Carey (2016), pg. 7

The authors spend considerable time pointing out how societal attitudes bleed into glaciology, again colouring what we expect of glaciologists. This can have an indirect effect: a culture that praises “male” traits discourages women from entering glaciology, excluding smart women in favor of less-smart men and reducing the quality of the brain pool.

The first ice core from Camp Century in Greenland emerged from a drilling program begun in 1959, even before Willi Dansgaard introduced a method of isotope analysis for paleoclimates. Ice coring, in other words, began with a military purpose but eventually found a scientific function (Martin-Nielsen, 2013). […]

The military and geopolitical dimensions of glaciers persist today, albeit in different forms that illustrate the importance of feminist glaciology extending ‘beyond gender’ to other aspects of inequality, power-knowledge dynamics, and imperialism. In official US discourse, retreating glaciers are framed as threats to national security and international stability, and therefore knowledge of ice is essential to maintaining geopolitical power. Retreating glaciers rank with drought, flooding, sea level rise, and epidemics as critical threats to US national security.

Carey (2016), pg. 14

Their power analysis is on-point. Canada’s glaciers provide a substantial amount of fresh water to the US; would they use their military to seize control of them in the name of “national security,” and deprive Canadians of their own water? Would the US military engage in geo-engineering to protect North America’s glaciers, even if the science said it was risky and likely to backfire? These are serious questions that demand careful analysis.

There’s a lot more in there than what I’ve mentioned, including the use of glacier-inspired art for science outreach and climate activism, but I highly encourage you to read the paper for yourself. If only because that puts you one step ahead of Steven Pinker.

Many scholars in “science studies” devote their careers to recondite analyses of how the whole institution is just a pretext for oppression. An example is this scholarly contribution to the world’s most pressing challenge:

Glaciers, Gender, and Science: A Feminist Glaciology Framework for Global Environmental Change Research

Glaciers are key icons of climate change and global environmental change. However, the relationships among gender, science, and glaciers, particularly related to epistemological questions about the production of glaciological knowledge remain understudied. This paper thus proposes a feminist glaciology framework with four key components: (1) knowledge producers; (2) gendered science and knowledge; (3) systems of scientific domination; and (4) alternative representations of glaciers. Merging feminist postcolonial science studies and feminist political ecology, the feminist glaciology framework generates robust analysis of gender, power, and epistemologies in dynamic social»ecological systems, thereby leading to more just and equitable science and human-ice interactions.*

More insidious than the ferreting out of ever more cryptic forms of racism and sexism is a demonization campaign that impugns science (together with reason and other Enlightenment values) for crimes that are as old as civilization, including racism, slavery, conquest, and genocide.

Enlightenment Now. pg. 401

That’s it. That is every word Pinker used to critique feminist glaciology. He never goes deeper than the abstract, because he doesn’t think he needs to; the idea that gender could have an influence on knowledge gathering, which is stated right in the abstract and quoted by Pinker, is so ridiculous that he thinks it is self-refuting. The substantial body of science that shows experimental results are effected by gender? Doesn’t exist. The studies that Carey et al. cite to bolster their points? All those scientists are wrong, because they contradict Pinker’s personal beliefs. That bit about “the world’s most pressing challenge?” Pinker invented that, the authors say nothing of the sort.

… Oh whoops, there’s a footnote there.

* Carey et al. 2016. Similar examples may be found in the Twitter stream New Real PeerReview, @RealPeerReview.

Pinker’s a fan of New Real PeerReview?! Chrisiousity did an excellent pair of videos on them.

You may or may not have heard of this odd, secretive group twitter account that tries to convince Right-leaning people that social science is hooey- otherwise known as the world’s easiest job. If you care about things like facts, rationality, or skepticism (the real kind, not the bullshit kind) than you should keep a close eye on this shell game.

Steven Pinker is engaging in the crudest form of science denialism, outright ignoring science even when he capable of reading and understanding it, and is a fan of an anti-science Twitter account because it lines up with his personal beliefs. He is not a serious thinker.