Science & objectivity

Many of us were raised in contexts that valued science above all other ways of understanding the world. Science was above religion, above social “sciences”, above local knowledges.  This was largely due to the fact that it was seen as more objective than any other form of knowledge. It was only recently that I started to question this assumption: why is science the “best” way to understand? And is it really objective and value-neutral. I just read a fascinating article that demonstrates exactly why science is not as neutral as some of us may think. The article is The decline of the one-size-fits-all paradigm, or, how reproductive scientists try to cope with postmodernity by Nelly Oudshoorn.

She begins by pointing out that the field of andrology (medical study of the reproductive functions of men) is barely known, whereas its sister gynaecology is one of the striking examples of the institutional and discursive process of othering in the biomedical sciences. Before the 18th C, the male and female body were seen as the same, except that the female body was a ‘male turned inside herself’ and basically a lesser version of the male body. Then in the 18th C, biomedical discourse began to conceptualize the female body as the Other, a body essentially different from the male body. 

Biomedical discourse showed a clear shift in focus on similarities to differences. This shift seems to have been caused by epistemological and socio-political changes rather than by scientific progress. New liberal claims led to new ideals about social relationships between men and women in which complementarity was emphasized. This was meant to keep women out of competition with men, designing separate spheres for men and women.

This is an extremely important point, as it shows how medical discourses don’t just “naturally” come out of nowhere, but are created and influenced by social, political and economic contexts and discourses.

Following this shift, the female body became the medical object par excellence, emphasizing women’s unique sexual character (Foucalt).

The search for the cause of women’s otherness (a search created BECAUSE women had begun to be seen as the Other) eventually led to setting women’s bodies apart in a medical specialism: gynaecology. Women became a special group/type of patient. As Foucalt has highlighted in his work, when such a “special” group is created, entire discourses, justified by science, come to be created.

The quest for universal contraceptives is the ultimate consequence of the process of othering. Instead of seeing the diversity among women, it was assumed that they were all the same and thus a universal contraceptive could be invented.

Although the pill was developed as universal, it nevertheless contained a specific user: a woman, medicalized enough to take medication regularly, who is used to gynecological examinations and regular visits to the physician, and who does not have to hide contraception from her partner. This portrait of the ideal user is highly culturally specific.

Moreover, it was women of colour who were used in the Pill experiments. The choice to test hormones on women of colour could only be made because scientists did not recognize any fundamental differences between women. Again, science reflecting society.

In the 1970s, scientists concluded that they had failed to create a universal contraceptive.  This admission came with the collapse of the dreams of modernity – again, science mirroring society. Crisis in modernity eroded the belief in one technological fix to improve the human condition, although I would argue that this way of thinking has now resurged.

What is also interesting is that when looking to control population growth, scientists chose to focus on women rather than men. Today, around 20% of contraceptive-using couples rely on male methods, even though female methods such as the Pill have a large amount of side effects (seriously, who wants weight gain, bad skin and mood swings?).

Rather ironically, reproductive biologists have argued that, in terms of population control, it would have been more efficient to choose men as the major target for controlling fertility because men have a much longer fertile life than women.

Yet somehow it always was and still is about women. Could that be science reflecting sexism? Maybe 🙂