I recently mentioned, in passing, to a friend of mine that there were feminist science deniers. For both my friend and myself, this is troubling because we both self-identify as being strongly pro-science and as feminists. We could see the possibly disastrous results if people were only exposed to feminist science denialists. Indeed, I’ve seen comments from certain individuals in our movement — whose names I shall not mention — which led me to believe that they had rejected feminism precisely because they had only been exposed to this one particular strand and had not taken the time to learn that there were other varieties of feminist scholarship. My friend asked me for an example and I offered a paper that I half-remembered seeing a few years prior, which had claimed that the ideal gas law was sexist.
When I got home, I googled that paper. And it was even laughably worse than I remembered. For those brave souls who would venture to read it, the title is Gender in the Substance of Chemistry. The author is Agnes Kovacs, currently a faculty member at the Central European University in the Department of Cognitive Science. It introduces a view called “feminist thermodynamics” which also turns out to entirely mathematically intractable. Had she been successful, she would have instantly won a Nobel Prize. Instead, her attempt is woefully inadequate. And several of her comments look like more of a parody of good feminist critiques of science than a serious attempt at scholarship.
Forwarding the paper to several of my friends, the majority of whom are adamant feminists with knowledge of either science or philosophy, every single one found the paper to be completely absurd. Some asked whether this paper was a joke and whether it had been actually published. Ed Brayton commented to me that, “Andrew Sullivan gives away poseur awards and that is certainly deserving of one.” Asked what a “poseur award” was, he responded, “Awards given to really bad academic writing like that — pretentious, jargon-laden and, in the end, just meaningless twaddle.” I would like to be a little more charitable to Kovacs than all of that. The paper does contain a fair bit of jargon, but it’s not jargon which would be incomprehensible to her philosophical colleagues. And at least some of the discussion of the ideal gas law is fairly good science, though it appears to be a summary of a chapter from a textbook.
What does the paper say? Take a look at the abstract (emphasis mine):
This two-part paper is about the possibility of analyzing the content of chemistry from a gender perspective. The first part provides an example of what such an analysis would look like. The second part is an outline of the theoretical perspective that makes the analysis possible. The example is the model of the ideal gas, the cornerstone of the theory of matter in chemical thermodynamics. I argue that this model is built on fundamental philosophical assumptions (Platonic idealism, hierarchy among states of matter, atomism/individualism, and the negligence of interrelationships among parts and of their embodiment) that have been problematized by feminist scholarship. The same patterns are evident in the treatment of ideal and real solutions in chemical thermodynamics. I argue that it is possible to imagine a theory that utilizes different philosophical ideas and which therefore would be more compatible with feminist values.
We might well imagine an alternative theory which starts out theorizing interrelationships among molecules, derives quantitative relationships between the physical properties that determine the possibility of such interaction, and finally, constructs the state of gases at low pressure as an exceptional and atypical case where the effect of interactions vanishes. In this alternative theory, it is the free motion of the gas molecules that would require explanation and which would be treated as an addendum causing complications in the mathematical apparatus. In the theory we now have, real gases seem complicated because some of their characteristics (intermolecular forces and the non-zero volume of the molecules) are not part of the original model, and not the other way round.
The problem with this view is that no physicist knows how to do anything even remotely like this.
Creating feminist chemistry or feminist chemical thermodynamics in detail would be a scientific project which I cannot pursue here, but my analysis provides some ground for an outline of the philosophical principles this theory would utilize. Such a theory would take interaction and embodiment as basic features of all forms of matter. Because these do in fact characterize all known substances, it would be impossible to devalue any particular form of matter on the basis of its non-compliance with the ideal type. In other words, there could be no hierarchy postulated among them.