Monday, August 13, 2007

We can handle the truth.

The way the world actually is almost always is apparent to us before we know why it it is the way it is. This is pretty inconvenient, especially when deciding what we ought to be doing with the world. Lots of immigrants score low on IQ tests, boys play more sports than girls, little girls flock towards princess-themed toys. Most liberals, asked to respond to these facts, would probably begin with, "Yeah, but..." This is because we know that people are able to shape the world around them, even the people around them, and it's pretty often that we do it badly. We condition women to hate their bodies and defer to men, we construct intelligence tests that are a more reliable measure of whiteness and class than intelligence. When we're not rigging our findings, we're rigging our methods of measurement.

Still, I have a lot of faith in my socio-political understanding of the world. I think that my feelings about equality and justice and race and gender and class are borne out by reality. This is sometimes true because the reality that controls how these things affect us is entirely human-created: why would we want to use a legal system that puts men and women on unequal footing? Other times, it's empirically true: women are perfectly capable of changing the oil in their cars.

I thought about this when I read Kate Harding's post about "zombie fat" being passed on from generation to generation. Harding found a news article about a study that showed a link between any history of high weight or obesity in a mother's lifetime and high-birthweight infants. She thought it was ridiculous: some sort of fat-phobic anti-fantasy about people being forever marked - even through generations - by ever having succumbed to fat. I get why she had this reaction, but I also think it's premature: there are influences outside of the genetic code that control the interitance of traits and development of organisms. From just the top of my head, a (vague!) explanation I can think of that might contribute to this finding is that if people see changes in their metabolism over their lifetimes, and decide to diet and lose the weight anyway, the fetus they're carrying will also be affected by the same metabolic system - so if you gain 10 pounds when you look at chocolate, that might have a similar effect on what's developing in your womb. Or perhaps the hormonal effects that adipose tissue can have on the body change something about the workings of a woman's reproductive system, maybe something affecting cellular metabolism in the egg or...

Anyway, my point is that it's not completely absurd to believe that this study's findings reflect reality. But having a degree in molecular biology, I am privy to some information Harding is not. I don't mean to pick on people who don't have all the specific knowledge that I do. I know I've had more than one situation in which I've ridiculed ideas that turned out to be true. What I want to get at is that in general, I am inclined to believe that studies published in peer-reviewed journals aren't complete bunk. I wouldn't have expected zombie fat to attack my children either, but hey, if it happens, it happens. I'm not especially well-trained in statistics, and I don't know much about health beyond a few maladies that mostly afflict cows. Knowing what I do, I'm probably going to do a better job of fitting weird news into my moral universe than criticizing the methodology of a paper. Give me information in an area of my expertise, and that changes. But unlike some, for me most things do not fall under that category.

I don't mean to skip over the fact that ideas will spread through the media, purportedly supported by science, that are in fact complete bunk. Most Feministe readers probably remember the out-and-out lies put forth in the book "The Female Brain," such as the idea that women speak 20,000 words per day to men's 7,000.

But suppose it were true. What would women talking almost three times as much as men mean to the feminist philosophy? Would it damage the notion that men and women are the same in every respect except reproductive? Yes, but that notion clearly isn't true anyway. Would it change the need for equal pay for equal work, mean that girls don't want to play baseball, or damage the moral equality between men and women? Not in the least.

One of my greatest feminist blogging pet peeves is seeing a study reported with some atrocious, stupid, or wrong-headed conclusion reacted to with "Why are we studying this anyway?" It's a nice pair with one of my greatest "I'm so un-PC" pet peeves: jerks who are sure they're telling liberals the truths liberal philosophy can't handle.

But of course they're not. The "dangerous ideas" link is full of daaaangerous questions that have answers as straightforward as any other question does, if you're willing to ignore the way they're loaded.
Are suicide terrorists well-educated, mentally healthy and morally driven?
Well, yes, often.
Were the events in the Bible fictitious -- not just the miracles, but those involving kings and empires?
Many of them, yes.
Did Native Americans engage in genocide and despoil the landscape?
Sure, depending on how you're going to define these terms.

The only reason that these questions are meant to get a rise out of the asked is because of what I was getting at in my first paragraph: the difference between the way things are and the way they ought to be. Is it ok to unnecessarily pollute because Native Americans also had an impact on their environment? Is terrorism cool because it's often committed by the well-educated?

Of course not. Making ethical decisions demands synthesis from the facts of the universe, not surrender to history.

Not everything we know fits well into a feminist philosophy. There are questions that are still hard to answer. Why does the gender pay gap persist after anti-discrimination laws have been passed? Is PMS a big deal?

The answers to these questions are complicated, and difficult to convey, and don't sound the same when you ask different feminists. A better picture of what's going on can only work to clarify feminist thinking on these issues, though. For example, I don't follow very closely the study of sexuality and the degree to which is innate. I think the answer has moral relevance - it's awfully cruel to insist people who are naturally gay that they can change their nature - but either way, it's okay if you're gay. Working out the ethical problem (I don't think it's a difficult one, but there are plenty of Americans who do) of whether homosexuality is morally acceptable is separate from working out whether or not it is innate. A 100% physical cause of homosexuality can as easily be considered a pathology as benign.

The worst-case-scenario is that we'll find something we didn't expect, like that women just aren't as good at math as men. Such a conclusion wouldn't mean that it's okay to rape or that there aren't plenty of talented female mathematicians and physicists. We've gotten good enough at asking the right questions and interpreting the answers to know that men and women (and anyone else on or off the gender continuum) have enough human potential that their gender doesn't need to dictate how they live their lives.

Finding the truth is a big hurdle, but deciding what to do with it is what's most consequential. We always have to be vigilant against bad, biased science promulgated by bad, biased media. It's out there all the time. But it's a mistake to confuse unexpected or inconvenient news for bad news or lies.

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