Friday, February 5, 2010

science talk.

today i want to talk about a peculiar discourse. i have only encountered it in finland, and the strangest thing is that even people equipped with some pretty astute minds fall prey to this particular stupidity.

let me start from an analogy. you walk into a bar and join a table of random people talking vividly. you ask what they're going on about:

-what you all talking about?
-well, about the plausibility of m-theory.
-uh, what's that about?
-we're just debating whether it really is necessary to add the 11th dimension or not.
-um, i'm not following... what's the m-theory?
-oh, do you know quantum mechanics?
-i've heard of it.
-have you studied physics?
-in high school.
-oh, well, our topic is a little complicated, really...
-no, no, explain.
-it's about relativity, not really all that easy to put in simple terms... let's just leave it at that.

the point being, hardly any lay(wo)man would feel insulted if they did not understand a group of physicists discussing a theory. nor would they think it was rude if they were reluctant in explaining it to them because the process, quite honestly, takes a significant amount of time and effort.

moreover, the same applies to any field of science: if you barely know the basics, it is considered natural that you may not understand the highly theoretical questions and discussions. the same applies to scientific papers and books: take a scientific journal of a foreign field and i bet you have a hard time understanding what the abstracts are about, let alone the articles.

there's a particular field of research that is an exception to the rule in finland, namely gender studies. for some reason it is incredibly common to dismiss the entire field because theoretical discussions seem incomprehensible for lay(wo)men. moreover, nowhere else will you find students and researchers claiming that another field is "useless babble" because they find the theory complicated.

it is often claimed that gender studies should be graspable because it deals with topics that are part of our everyday lives. well, as far as i can tell existing is pretty everyday, but i dare you to show me a person not trained in philosophy who understands theoretical discussions on ontology. my material body follows me every day, but i, again, dare you to read theoretical postulations on cell biology and understand them without prior training in the field. and yes, gravity affects me all the time, but immersion into the fundamentals behind planck's constant does require some basic knowledge. i read several works of fiction a year, but still i do not expect to understand a complicated literary analysis of any given novel without expertise. to me, that's the beauty of theoretical work: i goes deeper into the realms of our world than ordinary speech.

for some reason the finnish discourse on gender studies seems to ignore some fundamentals of scientific research. for example, a popular claim is that there's plenty of shoddy research in gender studies. well show me a field of research where there isn't, please. yet another is that there are extremely bad theories just begging to be destroyed. well, i'm glad we did not toss psychology with freud's notoriously circular theory because somehow i think we can use a field of analysis that deals with human behavior. not to mention that this particular theory actually hurt numerous individuals when applied.

the most typical attack directs towards the jargon used, and, yes, i dare you to show me a field of research where jargon is not quintessential once the discussion is elevated from the most basic level.

what i mean is that science is an ongoing communicative process where ideas are presented, evaluated, accepted or rejected and novel ideas are developed further. some fields use empirical tests, but most do not. theory guides everything and they are presented and rejected as they come along. most ideas and topics within a field are hardly self-explanatory or common-sensical, because they are raised from the internal discourse.

the bashing gender studies is subjected to repeatedly would not bother me if it wasn't so intellectually cheap. i am well aware of the many problematic aspects of gender theories and theorists. it may come down to the official finnish name: 'women's studies' does rub many egalitarian finns the wrong way – especially in this age of conservative backlash. i dunno.

generally speaking, nowhere else does it seem to come as a presupposition that theoretical works should come simply translatable to lay(wo)men terms but with theories of gender. you don't hear people demanding that departments of psychology should be shut down because they just cannot understand the latest contributions in psychological review. moreover, nowhere else do you hear people who have not spent one moment inside the walls of a university claim that they actually know whether something is theoretically solid or not.

i find it all quite sad, really. what do you think?


Sugar Kane said...

Yeah, I - a complete outsider in the circles of academia - find this phenomenon very peculiar, too. To me, there'r some similarity to people feeling somehow insulted, when they fail to "understand" a piece of art whether that's literature, film, painting, clothing...

Most seem to react by mocking the art or artist, and claim it's some sort of foolery, not Art - because "Aaah don't geddit". I think visual arts and fashion, which are so close to us all in the everyday sense, get this a lot. "Now where would anyone ever want to wear such rags, not me, even though i LOOOOOVE fashion", "I could draw better and sell it cheaper!" etc. It's a sort of understandable self-defence reaction, when you'd otherwise have to admit that there are things not even meant to be easilly grasped, but it is a bit silly anyway.

But WHY would this non-approach be so popular when it comes to gender studies and people from other academic fields, well I just don't get it.

stellagee said...

sugar kane, yup, it is above all very strange.

i mean most people are quite content with the fact that they don't get quantum physics or molecular biology or theoretical philosophy. they don't think it's a sign of the fields failing in some respect, but just consider it a failure on their own part to educate themselves on the matters.

i do not think gender studies are, as a whole, representative of quality research because there is a lot of jargon for jargon's sake and lots and lots of shoddy research. although i can say that i know quite a bit of gender theories, there are still theorists whose ideas i cannot grasp from their own writing. shit, there's tons of stuff anyways i do not get when i read it. but the demands posited on anyone in the field are incomparable to anyone else doing science.

the popularity of the approach could always come down to gender studies being multi-disciplinary and still quite recent – perhaps the need to scrutinize comes down to novelty and overlaps with familiar fields of research.

sari said...

hyva postaus.

kasvatustieteet on myos ala josta jokaisella on asiantuntijan mielipide (otannalla n=1) koska kaikkihan on kaynyt koulussa vuosikausia!!!11

harvinaisen arsyttavaa kuten hyvin ilmaisit, varsinkin silloin kun koittaa kertoa etta joku asia ei YLEISESTI ole niin kuin joku HENKILOKOHTAISESTI on sen aikoinaan tokaluokalla kokenut. huoh.
koitan nykyaan valttaa maallikojen kanssa keskustelua opinnoistani koska se on kuin seinille puhuisi.

stellagee said...

sari, kiitos! ja joo, voin vain kuvitella, miten kasvatustieteet mutuistetaan hyvin helposti. omasta kokemuksesta yleistäminen tuntuu olevan kahvipöytätieteilyn tyypillisin muoto, mutta jostain kumman syystä harva siltikään väittää auringon kiertävän maata. ehkä ihmiskunnan kyvyssä oppia, ettei kaikki ehkä ole ihan just niin kuin itsestä just tällä hetkellä tuntuu, on edes jotain potentiaalia? sitä odotellessa...

tämän postauksen inspiroinut keskustelu sai muuten luonnollisen kulminaationsa väitteessä, joka meni about näin: "jos ette pysty nyt selittämään lyhyesti tuota teresa de lauretiksen kappaletta, niin se on vain merkki siitä, että sukupuolen tutkimuksessa käytetty kieli on tahallaan valittu sellaiseksi, ettei sitä voi ymmärtää kuin pieni joukko. näin varmistetaan, että keskustelu pysyy pienessä piirissä."

ts. motiivimme ovat salaliittoa muistuttavat... kuten ihan kaikkien tieteilijöiden teoreettiset keskustelut. mun teki mieli vastata, että "kyllä, tahallaan puhutaan vaikeasti, ettette te vain saisi tietää, että naistutkijat ovat vastuussa sekä 9/11-tapahtumista että sarah palinin hampaiden säännöllisestä valkaisusta ja suunnittelemme jättimäisen juustokimpaleen laukaisemista maata kiertävälle radalle todistaaksemme, että kuu onkin juustoa."