Do sex differences in brain structure explain why men outnumber women in STEM? Are baby girls born more caring than baby boys? In her 2022 James A. Moffett ’29 Lecture in Ethics, Cordelia Fine, Professor in the School of Historical & Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne, discussed how research on questions like these can be riddled with conflicts over whether disagreements over lines of inquiry, methods, and conclusions are primarily due to feminist bias, or gender bias.
On one side of the debate, some researchers and popularizers argue that feminist critics of research into sex differences in the brain simply wish to suppress inconvenient or politically uncomfortable truths. We must allow science to speak for itself, they say.
But science can't speak for itself, as Fine pointed out: “Facts about nature don't passively lie in wait for scientists to dig them up like turnips.” It’s impossible to do science without background theories and assumptions, and on the other side of this debate are feminist scholars, who have argued that unexamined gendered assumptions can inadvertently bias research in ways that perpetuate stereotypes and ultimately undermine support for gender equality.
Luckily, good-faith actors on both sides share a common goal: to weed out biases so that science can live up to its ideal of generating reliable information about the world, while also responsibly handling the risks of error. To these ends, Fine proposed, science should nurture an openness to multiple perspectives—not suppress what is considered flawed and harmful research, but criticize it, make constructive recommendations for how to improve it, and offer alternative frameworks and methods.
View the entire lecture here.