Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth.

—Simone de Beauvoir (1970)

A decade ago, I was deeply engaged (if not quite fully content) in my work as a mathematical biophysicist. I believed wholeheartedly in the laws of physics, and in their place at the apex of  knowledge. Sometime in the mid-1970s—overnight, as it were—another kind of question took precedence, upsetting my entire intellectual hierarchy: How much of the nature of science is bound up with the idea of masculinity, and what would it mean for science if it were otherwise? A lifelong training had labeled that question patently absurd; but once I actually heard it, I could not, either as a woman or  as a scientist, any longer avoid it. More recently, after I was well into my work on gender and science, a former professor of mine asked me to tell him just what it was that I have learned about women. I tried to explain, “It’s not women I am learning about so much as men. Even more, it is science.” The difference is important, and the misunderstanding (not his alone), revealing.

The widespread assumption that a study of gender and science could only be a study of women still amazes me: if women are made rather than born, then surely the same is true of men. It is also true of science. Science is the name we give to a set of practices and a body of knowledge delineated by a community, not simply defined by the exigencies of logical proof and experimental verification. Similarly, masculine and feminine are categories defined by a culture, not by biological necessity. Women, men, and science are created, together, out of a complex dynamic of interwoven cognitive, emotional, and social forces—a dynamic that supports both the historic conjunction of science and masculinity, and the equally historic disjunction between science and femininity. My subject, therefore, is not women per se, or even women and science: it is the making of men, women, and science, or more precisely, how the making of men and women has affected the making of science.

Such a venture comes into being with the meeting of two apparently independent developments in recent scholarship: feminist theory and the social studies of science. The second has changed our thinking about the relation between science and society—without, however, considering the role of gender—and the first has changed our thinking about the relation between gender and society but has been only peripherally concerned with science. As productive as each of these developments has been in its own terms, each leaves critical gaps in our understanding that the other can help to fill. Furthermore, their conjunction enables us to identify the critical role of gender ideology in mediating between science and social forms.

The social studies of science address the task of locating the development of science in its social and political context. As T. S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions demonstrated more than two decades ago, scientific revolutions cannot be explained by the arrival of a better theory according to any simple scientific criteria. “Ordinarily,” Kuhn wrote, “it is only much later, after the new paradigm has been developed, accepted, and exploited, that apparently decisive arguments are made.” In the view that Kuhn puts forth, science remains progressive in the sense that the investment of scientific energy is productive: it produces, over time, theories with wider explanatory power than could have existed without that investment. But the change in direction that new theories dictate, the change in world view that they lead to, is not in itself simply determined by internal logic. Other factors—above and beyond empirical evidence and theoretical necessity—enter into the community’s choice of a “best theory.”

Kuhn’s work provided a welcome alternative to the view maintained by scientists themselves, and until then unchallenged by most historians: the view that science is autonomous and absolutely progressive—approximating ever more closely a full and accurate description of reality “as it is.”

Although Kuhn himself did not undertake to map out the influence of other, extrascientific factors affecting choice of scientific theories, other scholars did. A growing number of historians and sociologists of science, reading Kuhn’s work as support for the proposition that scientific neutrality reflects ideology more than actual history, have sought to identify the political and social forces affecting the growth of scientific knowledge.

The body of literature that has emerged from this effort has irrevocably changed the way many people—especially nonscientists—think about science. Kuhn’s argument, originally so provocative, has come to seem commonplace—even, to many, too cautious. The proposition that science is subject to the influence of special interests has been transformed, in some quarters, to relativism—the view that science is nothing but the expression of special interests. Yet, while our sensitivity to the influence of social and political forces has certainly grown, our understanding of their actual impact on the production of scientific theory has not.

Partly as a result of this failure, the impact of the social studies of science on the way most scientists think about their own work has been only marginal. Working scientists may agree that political pressures affect the uses, and even the focus, of scientific research; but they fail to see how such pressures can affect their results, the description of nature that emerges from their desks and laboratories. For the most part, they continue to share the view expressed by Stephen Weinberg: “The laws of nature are as impersonal and free of human values as the rules of arithmetic. We didn’t want it to come out that way, but it did.”

The net result is that discourse about science continues for the most part on two noncommunicating levels: one an increasingly radical critique that fails to account for the effectiveness of science, and the other a justification that draws confidence from that effectiveness to maintain a traditional, and essentially unchanged, philosophy of science. What is needed is a way of thinking and talking about science that can make sense of these two very different perspectives—that can credit the realities they each reflect and yet account for their differences in perception.

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This essay is excerpted from Reflections on Gender and Science by Evelyn Fox Keller. Copyright 1985 by Yale University. Published by Yale University Press and reproduced by permission.