Making Gender Visible in the Construction of Scientific Knowledge

Making Gender Visible in the Construction of Scientific Knowledge
Helen Longino
February 17th, 1997

What follows is a summary of Dr. Longino’s talk. A videotape of the presentation is available. Please write to the Institute for details.

Helen Longino (University of Minnesota)

Certain properties of scientific theories qualify them as sources of credible evidence. These properties are not purely cognitive, however, but can serve as vehicles for the importation of gender ideologies into the content of models and theories.

Criteria used to chose among hypotheses include internal consistency, consistency with known bodies of knowledge, simplicity, and fruitfulness (Thomas Kuhn). Feminists suggest a different set of criteria: accuracy, novelty, ontological heterogeneity, mutuality, applicability to current human needs, decentralization of power. The first set appears to be related to the discovery of truth, the second with the achievement of socio-political goals.

This is a false dichotomy. Many of the traditional criteria reflect a social or philosophical context. The criterion of simplicity has led, for example, to a drive for homogeneity which has led to a neglect of differences between genders and racial groups in medical research.

Relying exclusively on the traditional criteria has three consequences: (1) It restricts interpretations of the world by excluding certain classes of explanation; (2) It blinds us to the fact that acceptance of this characterization of scientific knowledge can legitimate theories with a political valence; (3) It restricts participation in knowledge production by excluding those who favor different criteria.

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