Narrative Theory, Historical Ethics, Sound Reasoning Through Pseudo-Science, and Testing Implicit Bias: a day at the WISEMS

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Richard Spiegel is a Cluster MA student at McGill University.

Read Cindy Stelmackowich's blog on the event HERE

As an historian of early modern astronomy whose research does not directly engage with the subject of women in science, the Woman in Science, Engineering and Medicine Symposium (WISEMS) held at McGill’s Redpath Museum on October 12-13 offered thought provoking, informative and inspiring introduction to some of the most important issues on the topic from three temporal perspectives.

The talks given by the speakers plied me with too much information to scribble down, but some of the prominent themes that punctuated the day sparked insights into my own historical work. Arianne Marelli (McGill; Harvard), for example, gave an excellent example of the systematic effacement of women’s achievements in the history of science and medecine. She told the story of Helen Taussig’s (1898-1986) ‘blue baby operation,’ a seminal advancement for the field of pediatric congenital heart disease. Marelli explained that after Taussig devised the operation and it was found to be a success, the credit was awarded to Dr. Alfred Blalock, despite that the idea for the operation belonged to Taussig, and that the operation was performed by Vivian Thomas, Blalock’s African-American assistant. This regrettable sort of historical erasure is far more common than we realize in the history of science. Unfortunately, however, it is difficult to determine exactly how common the historical marginalization of women (among other groups) in science is. This problem, I think, raises more general questions that have not yet been adequately answered in numerous historical disciplines (Linda Nochlin’s stirring question of why there have been no great women artists comes to mind), and it cuts to the heart of much philosophical work that has been done on the narrative structure of historical discourse in general. Following from this latter point I am reminded of Paul Ricouer who holds that narrative composition, being the function of metaphor applied to time, is fundamentally artificial. Ricouer’s point makes salient that the process of selecting events for an historical narrative is more a process of deselection or omission than one of inclusion. Speaking to the prolific absence of women in the history of science—we simply do not know what we are not told. And the sort of discrimination that made women’s scientific contributions invisible has created indelible scars in the historical record. Turning to my own research I am reminded of the astronomical work of Elizabeth Hevelius (1647-1693), a Prussian astronomer from the late seventeenth century. Hevelius’s work normally features, if at all, as a footnote to the much more extensive historical attention given to her husband, Johannes Hevelius.  Elizabeth Hevelius, Taussig, and Thomas all share an unjust exile to the historical periphery. Marelli’s talk spoke to the important work that waits to be done in order to restore the contributions of many marginalized individuals, a category, as Thomas’s example reminds us, that is not limited to women, to our understanding of the history of science, engineering, and medicine.

Peter Campbell (Queen’s University) explored the issue of female roles models in science from a different theoretical tack. Campbell asked how we should look to historical examples of women in science as role models without having to sacrifice a thoroughly critical approach to, what Campbell called, the “distastefulness of old worldviews.” This was, to be sure, a difficult question to face as one of the recurring issues that arose throughout the day was the relative scarcity of positive female role models in science, and especially of women in positions of power and authority within the sciences. Pushing against the idealization of exemplary women in the history of science, Campbell explained, does not mean that we should blanketly apply the prominent and problematic views of an entire period time to our understanding of individual female scientists. Instead, we need to explore how the specific views of women scientists related to the prominent scientific discourses of their times, and we need to look at their beliefs as dynamic and susceptible to change and revision over time. Looking to Carrie Derick, the first female to be appointed a professor in Canada and the honoree of the symposium, Campbell highlighted that historical context and precision must qualify our judgments, and that the ‘distastefulness of old worldviews’ must be taken hand-in-hand with the exemplary achievements made through those worldviews.

Although the symposium was, throughout, well attended, the audience swelled considerably for Julie Payette’s talk following the first session. Payette, born and educated in Quebec and a former astronaut, delivered an inspiring talk in which she gave a quasi-scientific account of how gender, among other differential qualities, place individuals different distances from conventional expectations of who can fill what sorts of professional roles. These expectations, Payette explained, are sometimes compounded and reinforced by material realities. Speaking from her personal experience, Payette used the sizing of flight suits and space suits, which favor masculine proportions, as an example to this effect. Directed mostly at the young people in the crowd, however, Payette’s message was broad, realistic and hopeful, saying that individuals—male, female or otherwise—who do not satisfy normative expectations for any reason should identify what sorts of expectations exist for the work they wish to do, and they should strike a balance between making compromises to fit the mold and working hard to break the mold. Although Payette used what was admittedly a pseudo-scientific form of reasoning to demonstrate her point, the importance of finding a balance between fitting in and changing expectations of what it means to fit in was an insight that rightly spoke to aspiring scientists as well as a much broader audience in the auditorium.  

The obverse of Payette’s point was addressed by a number of the other speakers. Notably, Suzanne Fortier (president of NSERC) urged us all to remember that everyone has the potential to harbor and act on biased beliefs. It is all of our own duty, therefore, to try to understand our biases by exploring them in the hope that we can recognize them and prevent ourselves from acting them out in the future. Although not to be taken too seriously, for those interested in heeding Madame Fortier’s advice this very moment, Harvard offers a free, online, implicit gender bias test. Give it a shot! You can test yourself here.