I am not a science experiment

Sometimes I could just go doolally listening to folks trying to trump social and cultural ideas with their clearly “superior” scientific sensibilities. The latest hoo ha on my LFAT page was over how “sex” cannot be socially constructed, for it clearly is a scientific fact. I blogged previously about this nature/nurture debate, but perhaps I did not make it clear just how much tension there is in feminist and trans circles between the scientific method and a more sociological approach. 

I’ll come back to this in a minute, but first, a personal history lesson.

My undergraduate degree was in chemistry. I was a bright young thing planning to save the world by solving the problems of ozone depletion, greenhouse emissions and world hunger. I was a nerd who believed in “facts” and loved the solid truth that if you took this chemical and that chemical and applied that process you’d get the same outcome every time. And I was good at it, a high flyer.

Lots of complicated things happened to me when I was studying that set me on a different path. But the overriding thing I learned from “pure, hard science” is that it was not going to solve the world’s problems because it had become unnecessarily powerful. It was something that had become blindly worshiped and followed in a manner akin to religion, and as such it was becoming increasingly used to control and abuse people. The Daily Mail would inform us on a daily basis that science tells us women are inferior, everything gives you cancer and (back then) global warming is not happening. If science said it, well it must be so.

I came to psychotherapy, which is a beautiful amalgam of art and science, when I realised if I wanted to really make the world a better place I needed to understand people. My Rogerian form of therapy had the added advantage that it does not seek to control – it works alongside people and allows them to be their own experts. It is the antithesis of an expert, authoritarian, scientific position, allowing people to discover their own truths and accepting these as valid.

Sandy, what does this all have to do with gender? I hear you ask.

Well, on all sides of the gender debate I hear people both invoking and dismissing science – invoking the science that seems to support them, even if it is bad science, whilst dismissing science that seems to be inconvenient as “junk”. Meanwhile, there seems to be a fundamental lack of understanding that scientists do not live in a cultural vacuum where they can see the world more clearly than the rest of us – science is riddled with blatant assumptions and errors of conclusion. Therefore, the only honest scientific consensus we can come to about gender is “we just don’t know enough about it yet”. Humans use knowledge as a form of control; we are far too reluctant to admit our uncertainty.

Science is a strong ally but a frightening enemy. Trans people are caught in a difficult double bind. Science could prove my existence and legitimise me, but science could also discover a mechanism to prevent people like me from being born. Science could find a test to make it easier for trans people to access services, but what if there are different mechanisms for being trans, and the test worked only for some of us? What if some of us are trans as a result of biology, whereas some are trans as a result of environment – would some of us be left out in the cold, less legitimate? And indeed, if being trans was proven to be a choice, would that necessarily mean the choice should not be made? That becomes a moral, rather than a scientific question, but it is true that we can be tempted to prove we have no choice in our existence as response to people’s looking down upon transgender lives as inferior and artificial. As if any of us, in the year 2014, live fully “natural” lives.

I see these tensions play out on my page the whole time. Some folks get jumpy when I post a science article that may clash with their own self-understanding, others are frustrated when things like social construction are discussed, unable to understand that there can be a genuine scientific underpinning to concepts like gender and sex but that by their nature these ideas are socially constructed, as all science is socially constructed, because no human being can fully stand outside of their culture and be truly objective.

The facts and figures may not lie, but the choices of what to count and when, what to note and what to ignore, how to categorise and divide, and how to interpret findings are all influenced by our socially susceptible primate brains. And that is a scientific fact. Probably.

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