Unit 2: Interpreting Science

Introduction

We often assume that science is objective and that facts are concrete. Yet the discovery of new phenomena and new interpretations of known facts constantly reshape our accepted scientific truths. Moreover, historical and social contexts influence not only what scientists choose to study but also their disposition toward those objects of study. In other words, scientists bring their own backgrounds, experiences, and subjective perspectives to their research, wittingly or not. Over time, cultural bias can impact the work of individual scientists, resulting in issues such as gender inequity and scientific racism. Cultural bias can also impact how the public reacts to scientific advancement and rethinking, resulting in public controversies over issues that scientists may no longer consider to be controversial.

The selections in this unit ask us to question the way that science has categorized, labeled, and explained human, nonhuman, and celestial bodies. The four readings included here question the supposed objectivity of science by asking:

  1. Can (or should) science always be objective?
  2. How has human reproduction been explained in biology using language that diminishes the experiences of women?
  3. How have the stains of racism and white supremacy infiltrated scientific understanding?
  4. Why is the public often resistant to changes in established scientific “facts”?
  5. What role do metaphors play in science writing?
  6. How is it that metaphors help us extend knowledge by mapping what we know onto what we don’t via language?
  7. What are the benefits and costs of using metaphors in science writing?
  8. Have you encountered gender and/or racial bias in your own science education?
  9. Has your personal opinion ever clouded your willingness to accept a scientific claim?

Readings

“The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles”

Martin, Emily. “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society, vol. 16, no. 3, Spring 1991, pp. 485-501.

Anthropologist Emily Martin wrote this peer-reviewed linguistic analysis of biological research during the 1990s’ “science wars,” when long-held beliefs in the objectivity and realism of scientific knowledge came under attack as social constructs. Contributing to this debate, Martin demonstrates how biased gender stereotypes have been imported into the purportedly objective language of reproductive biology, with far-reaching social implications.

Must be logged into UO library account to access article. 

“Unnatural Selection: How Racism Warps Scientific Truths”

Beck, Abacki. “Unnatural Selection: How Racism Warps Scientific Truths.” Bitch Media, 5 Oct. 2017.

In this article, social activist Abacki Beck critiques the assumption that scientific truths are “largely unbiased, nonpartisan, and universal” by examining how science is “wrought with violent, racist histories assumed as truth and presented as for the good of humanity.” Bitch Media is an online media organization whose mission is “to provide and encourage an engaged, thoughtful feminist response to mainstream media and popular culture.”

“Pluto, Perception & Planetary Politics”

Jewitt, David, and Luu, Jane X. “Pluto, Perception & Planetary Politics.” Daedalus, vol. 136, no.1, Winter 2007, pp. 132-36.

In this peer-reviewed article, astronomers David Jewitt and Jane X. Luu explore reasons behind the unexpected public outcry over Pluto’s loss of planetary status in 2006. The controversy sheds light not only on the public’s perception of science but also on the role of politics and public relations in science.

Must be logged into UO library account to access article. 

“Natural Enemies: Metaphor or Misconception?”

Chew, Matthew K., and Manfred D. Laubichler. “Natural Enemies: Metaphor or Misconception?” Science, vol. 301, no. 5629, 2003, pp. 52–53.

Is the prevalence of metaphors in science writing helpful or harmful? In this peer-reviewed article published in Science, biologists Manfred D. Laubichler and Matthew K. Chew examine the benefits and costs of metaphorical language within science writing, particularly within the natural sciences where objectivity is presumed.

Must be logged into UO library account to access article.

License

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The Culture of Science by University of Oregon Composition Program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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