Feminist science denialism?

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.
Sure, it is possible to imagine. That doesn’t mean that it’s possible to actually¬†do.
The author claims that the formulation of the ideal gas law from kinetic theory rested in patriarchal assumptions, and that the theory could have just as easily been formulated for dense gases (which, she claims, would not have been rooted in patriarchal assumptions). She states:

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.

An alternative account could claim that the reason the ideal gas law was formulated the way it was, and not the way that Agnes Kovacs suggests, was because it was actually mathematically tractable. Her proposed alternative couldn’t be considered serious by physicists of any gender because we don’t actually know how to do the computation (without having to invoke computer simulations). In fact, solving the problem as she poses it (developing a theory that starts with interactions) would solve one of the deepest mysteries in physics. It’s an example of a many-body problem; it would be highly non-linear and heavily non-equilibrium. It would a vast understatement to say that this would be hard. On the one hand, perhaps physicists are simply stuck doing sexist mathematics. On the other hand, perhaps physicists aren’t sexist since they are trying so hard to solve the problem she poses.
The $1 million dollar question: Does she solve this problem for us? In her conclusion, she writes:
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.
So, no, unfortunately, she doesn’t solve that problem. I guess she won’t be receiving a Nobel Prize.
Another assumption which she finds problematic about the way in which the ideal gas law is derived from kinetic theory is the treatment of all atoms in a given sample of gas as the same. If such an assumption were made about people, she claims, it would be extremely problematic. Doesn’t this mean that the theory is based on unfair value judgements arising from privilege?
Actually, no, it does not. The reason that it is problematic to assume that people are homogeneous is because there are important differences between people and ignoring these differences harms people. This is false for the atoms in a gas on two counts. First, the atoms in a gas are not harmed if one unfairly treats some portion of them. It’s difficult to see what it could possibly mean to be privileged over one portion of gas atoms and not over another. Second, the ideal gas law is formulated for considering a sample of gas of a single species. In such a sample, the atoms are actually homogeneous; there is no empirically detectable difference between them. In fact, whether or not gas atoms of a single species are distinguishable makes a difference for how we do statistical mechanics. Had we tried to formulate a theory where the gas atoms were distinguishable, it would be empirically false.
There are real issues concerning science which feminists should be worried about. The statistics on the treatment and employment of women in the sciences, particularly the physical sciences, are extremely troubling. To a large extent, science is still an old-boys-club. The sciences which deal with the empirical study of human beings can be problematic; if it is only upper class, white, men who are employed as anthropologists, for example, we should expect that the results which are obtained are hopelessly biased. I would even be willing to entertain the idea that there are various social biases which influenced the sort of physical models that some practitioners in the physical sciences have employed.
But these difficult issues become eclipsed when papers like Gender in the Substance of Science are published.

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