Saturday, September 17, 2005

Know thy Enemy - "Newton's Rape Manual"   posted by TangoMan @ 9/17/2005 01:52:00 AM

Sometimes, when the mood is just right, I reach for a little logically challenged writing to pick apart. This time I was in the mood for some post-modernist femininst gibberish. However, rather than savoring the insights I gleaned from reading Sandra Harding's The Science Question in Feminism I thought I'd share her remarkable grasp of logic with everyone:

One phenomenon feminist historians have focused on is the rape and torture metaphors in the writings of Sir Francis Bacon and others (e.g. Machiavelli) enthusiastic about the new scientific method. Traditional historians and philosophers have said that these metaphors are irrelevant to the real meanings and referents of scientific concepts held by those who used them and by the public for whom they wrote. But when it comes to regarding nature as a machine, they have quite a different analysis: here, we are told, the metaphor provides the interpretations of Newton's mathematical laws: it directs inquirers to fruitful ways to apply his theory and suggests the appropriate methods of inquiry and the kind of metaphyiscs the new theory supports. But if we are to believe that mechanistic metaphors were a fundamental component of the explanations the new science provided, why should we believe that the gender metaphors were not? A consistent analysis would lead to the conclusion that understanding nature as a woman indifferent to or even welcoming rape was equally fundamental to the interpretations of these new conceptions of nature and inquiry. Presumably these metaphors, too, had fruitful pragmatic, methodological, and metaphysical consequences for science. In that case, why is it not as illuminating and honest to refer to Newton's laws as "Newton's rape manual" as it is to call them "Newton's mechanics"?

Note the logical constructions, or as I would argue the contortions, Harding uses to build towards her conclusion. She begins with the equation that rape metaphors proposed by feminist scholars as being present in the writings of those who express support for the scientific method are equivalent to the metaphors that describe nature as a machine. It's important to note that her argument does not specify that the writings which supposedly incorporate the rape & torture metaphors themselves focused on the scientific method, simply that the authors who supported the scientific method may have used rape & torture metaphors elsewhere in their writings. These two situations are not equivalent but they are treated as such. Harding could have been clearer in her prose or, more importantly she could have provided examples of the rape & torture metaphors to buttress her case. She chose not to be clear and instead proceeded to construct an equivalence on a doubtful foundation. Note however, that the equivalence argument is crucial towards the next step in her reasoning.

Next she notes of the rejection of the rape and torture metaphor argument by other historians of science on the grounds that the argument is irrelevant to the meaning of scientific concepts and their applications. Perhaps she is arguing that the scientific method is synonymous with scientific concepts when in fact the two mean different things all together. She finds it troubling that these same historians will accept another metaphor as being pertinent to the question of scientific concepts but reject the muddled rape and torture metaphors which are proposed to be found somewhere in the writings of supporters of the scientific method. Harding feels the case, weak as it is, is prima facie evidence of sexist bias. She believes that all she need do is show that there is indeed sexist bias, and this finding will elevate her metaphor to parity with the nature/machine metaphor. Of course, a parity finding isn't conditional on the truth of the charge of bias. Even if bias was conceded, which it's not, her metaphor argument would then have to rise on its own merits. However, she simply invokes the flawed tactic of assuming bias as being present thus and thus believing she has sufficient cause to conclude that the rape & torture metaphor has enough merit be considered on par with the nature/machine metaphor.

She then proceeds towards her conclusion by next constructing a conditional argument where she claims that if we accept the nature/machine metaphor we must accept other metaphors as being similarly useful. Whether we should do so because she hints at sexist bias or for logical reasons she doesn't make clear. The entirety of her argument seems to be that if one metaphor is accepted then other metaphors should be as well. Obviously, what Harding is omitting from her case is the truth value of the conditional argument. Perhaps she's standing pat with her position that the charge of sexist bias is sufficient evidence of the truth value. However she hasn't argued that position. Perhaps it would help if we take a look at some examples of counterfactual conditionals to help shed some light on the truth value of her argument.

(1) If Bobby did not run over the dog, someone else did.
(2) If Bobby had not run over the dog, some else would have.

The first statement is certainly true, for the dog has indeed been run over. The second statement though is probably false. In the first we know that a condition exists, the dog has indeed been run over. In the second statement we do not know whether a dog has been run over. This is where Harding makes another of her logical errors. The nature/machine metaphor has instances of actually being advanced as a descriptive metaphor for scientific concepts. The rape & torture metaphors proposed to exist in the writings of authors who favored the scientific method have not been advanced as being descriptive of scientific concepts. Based on Harding argument it is illogical to infer that a.) the authors actually made the arguments; and b.) that the metaphors, if accruate, are descriptive of scientific concepts. Harding conspicuously neglected to make the positive case that would address the truth value of her claim.

Now it could also be the case that Harding is arguing along the lines we often see from Intelligent Designers. They often position their arguments in this form:

If irreducable complexity cannot be explained by the theory of evolution, then evolution is an invalid theory.

Then they point to something they believe cannot be explained. However, the inability to explain the phenomenon doesn't invalidate the theory. But when the fallacy is pointed out to them they resort to the position that because we accept the theory of evolution then we should accept the concept of irreducible complexity.

Harding, by arguing sexist bias and equivalence of the metaphors may be arguing that if we do not accept the rape & torture metaphor then we should not accept the nature/machine metaphor. However, since we do accept the nature/machine metaphor then we must accept the rape & torture metaphor. This is a logical contraposition and it doesn't, in the least, as with the Intelligent Designers, address the validity of her argument.

She never once makes the positive case for her claim that rape & torture metaphors are useful in describing Newton's Laws. She presumes that such metaphors, if they even exist, have "fruitful pragmatic, methodological, and metaphysical consequences for science." Therefore, she claims that feminists are justified in claiming that Newton's laws can be referred to as Newton's Rape Manual.

I'm not aware of any conservative feminist scholars - they all seem to be of a liberal bent. I consider this type of scholarship to be a clear case of ideologically motivated rejection, and distortion, of science and while Chris Mooney is on his publicity campaign for his book, The Republican War on Science he's promulgating the view that it's only those of a conservative inclination who distort science to fit their ideological ends. My body of writing is quite clear in demonstrating that I'm no apologist for Republicans and yet I find Chris's thesis to be objectionable in that it is clearly not an accurate representation of the entire problem, and actually misrepresents the scope of the issue.

See related: The Conflict within - The Left's Version of Creationism.