Science and Truth

The following was written as part of a discussion on the astrodl mailing list about how physics and astronomy might be different if the fields were and had been more open to women.

I think most working scientists agree that scientific truth is scientific truth, regardless of who discovers it or what the gender or beliefs are of the people who discover it. I also suspect most scientists agree that what topics we investigate and how we approach them are culturally conditioned and subject to the influence of many factors, including gender. But the results of those studies are not true because of the culture in which the studies are performed. They're true because they measure objective reality.

Practical applications of fuzzy logic have come more from Japan than the West because fuzzy logic fits in better with the Japanese world view than the Western. This doesn't mean fuzzy logic is more true in Japan than it is here. It doesn't mean Aristotelian logic is invalid in Japan. Both classical and fuzzy logic are well-formed, consistent mathematical systems. However, which one people choose to work with and study is culturally conditioned.

Similarly, when most scientific funding comes from the military, it really shouldn't be any surprise that the scientific community as a whole knows more about the properties of nerve gases than it does about benign gases. For a time, possibly still today though I haven't checked recently, much industrial manufacturing, especially in the electronics industry, used nerve gases as an atmosphere for exceptionally clean manufacturing. The electronics companies would have loved to use safer gases for dozens of reasons, but the only gases for which sufficient data was available were nerve gases. The military influence on science in America led to this dangerous situation, but none of that changes the known properties of the gases. If science were funded in some other way, we might know more about less-deadly gases; but all the gases, known and unknown, would still have the same properties.

Most scientists understand all this. The problem occurs when this information gets into the hands of non-scientists, even allegedly well-educated ones with Ph.Ds in sociology and English Lit, who make the unfounded leap that because what we as scientists choose to study and how we choose to study it is culturally conditioned, that somehow scientific truth is culturally conditioned. This is false. Scientific truth is scientific truth, regardless of whether we study it or not, or whether we know it or not. It is an objective, external reality.

Someone suggested that perhaps we might have avoided quantum mechanics if more women were present in physics. While it's certainly true that having more women in physics would have led to additional and different discoveries, I doubt quantum mechanics could have or should have been avoided. In fact I think that statement betrays a dangerous naivete about both quantum mechanics and how much difference cultural and gender differences can make. Quantum mechanics is true (probably as an approximation to a more complete theory), and changing the gender of the researchers won't change that fact. Might we know more about it or understand it better if many promising women hadn't been steered into other, more traditionally feminine fields? Probably. But having these women in physics would not change what we do know, especially in this areas that are extremely well-verified already. And even if it did change what we know, it would never change what is true.

Science is an attempt to understand objective, external reality. It probably shouldn't surprise us that professors in fields that probably don't have much in the way of an objective, external, non-culturally conditioned reality have trouble believing that physicists can work in such a world. But the fact is we do work in exactly that sort of world, whether the sociologists like it or not.

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Copyright 1997 Elliotte Rusty Harold
Last Modified May 21, 1997