Against the high cult of retreat

Depending on who you ask Naomi Weisstein is a perceptual neuroscientist, a rock n roll musician, a social critic, a comedian, or a fuck the patriarchy radical feminist.

You stick Weisstein’s name into Google Scholar and her most cited paper is ‘Psychology Constructs the Female’ – a searing critique of how 60s psychology pictured the female psyche – while her second most cited is a study published in Science on visual detection of line segments.

Although the topics are different, the papers are more alike than you’d first imagine.

Her article ‘Psychology Constructs the Female’ was originally published in 1968 and became an instant classic.

She looked at the then current theories of female psychology, and at the evidence that supported them, and shows that the theories are pitiful – largely based on personal opinion and idiosyncratic interpretations of weak or non-existent evidence.

Moreover, she shows that all known differences at the time could be accounted for by social context and what was expected of the participants, rather than their sex.

It’s a masterpiece of evidence-based scientific thinking when feminist psychology was, and to a large extent, still is, heavily influenced by postmodernism and poststructuralism – theories that suggest that there is no objective reality and science is just another social narrative that has female oppression built into its knowledge base.

Weisstein, who also had a huge impact on perceptual science, had little time for what she considered to be ‘fog’ and ‘paralysis’:

I’m still wearing my beanie hat, aren’t I? I don’t think I can take it off… Science (as opposed to the scientific establishment) will entertain hypothesis generated in any way: mystical, intuitive, experiential. It only asks us to make sure that our observations and replicable and our theories have some reasonable relation to other things we know to be true about the subject under study, that is to objective reality…

Whether or not there is objective reality is a 4000-year-old philosophical stalemate. The last I heard was that, like God, you cannot prove there is one and you cannot prove there is not one. It comes down to a religious and / or political choice. I believe that the current feminist rejection of universal truth is a political choice. Radical and confrontational as the feminist challenge to science may appear, it is in fact, a deeply conservative retreat…

Poststructuralist feminism is a high cult of retreat. Sometimes I think that, when the fashion passes, we will find many bodies, drowned in their own wordy words, like the Druids in the bogs.

A recent academic article looked back at Weisstein’s legacy and noted that she has been a powerful force in a feminist movement that typically rejects science as a useful approach.

But she was also a pioneer in simply being a high-flying female scientist when they were actively discouraged from getting involved.

Link to full text of ‘Psychology Constructs the Female’.

8 thoughts on “Against the high cult of retreat”

  1. The post illustrates nicely why activism and science should be kept seperate most of the time.

    I don’t know when current scientific method came into existence, nor when brain scans became widely used in neuroscience. But the studies I’ve seen from the 30s and40s share hardly any resemblance to current studies. What’s more, behavioral science seems notoriously difficult to interpret.

    I was reminded of a study that the media and commenters tore apart while interpreting. But they forgot that the study was simply a game of numbers. (Counting words).

  2. With such unpleasant scolds like Weisstein (and also pretty humorless for a self-described “comedian”), no wonder the majority of young women have now come to reject being labeled as a “feminist”!

    Camille Paglia & Christina Hoff Sommers seem to have a much more enlightened (and less self-absorbed) take on gender equality. They distinguish between “equity” feminists, who want for women what you want for everyone: fair treatment, no discrimination…. and “gender” feminists, like Steinem and Weisstein, who prefer to blame a “sex-gender system” and “patriarchal hegemony”.

    Or as Paglia puts it, “it’s so silly. It has no basis in American reality. No women have ever had more opportunities, more freedom, and more equality than contemporary American women. And at that moment the movement becomes more bitter and more angry. Why are they so angry?”

    1. “They”, Matt? Are you referring to two Steinem and Weisstein, or every woman on the planet? That is a lot of individuals he appears to speak for.

      Muslims probably have more opportunities than ever before, so they should just shut up and be happy, right?

  3. Feminism typically rejects science as a useful approach? That’s … quite some language to describe what feminism actually does, which is question the way science and the scientific method are often revered over other ways of learning and knowing.

    Also, the idea that objectivity is such a simple/stalemated concept that it’s not even worth thinking about is … a bit much? Last I checked, many of those “simple” or “stalemated” debates are debated a lot precisely because they are worthy debates to have.

    But good for Weisstein for doing the work she does.

  4. uh, what? I do not understand Mat’s comment… just because things are better doesn’t mean they’re fixed. Sorry feminists are such a buzzkill at your privilege party, it’s not really their job to entertain you.

    the thing I love most here is “Science (as opposed to the scientific establishment) will entertain hypothesis generated in any way: mystical, intuitive, experiential. It only asks us to make sure that our observations and replicable and our theories have some reasonable relation to other things we know to be true about the subject under study, that is to objective reality…” I think a lot of people miss the difference between the establishment and science (or lots of other things) itself.

    1. Come to think about it, Weisstein and the rest of the angry, attention-seeking “gender-oriented” feminists that Paglia describes, basically fit the classic symptoms of clinical Narcissism… with all the need for control, entitlement, grandiosity, specialness, and absence of any accountability or empathy that implies. And as typical with most narcissists, they also seem to be a pretty literal and hyper-defensive bunch (oh, and humorless too)! Which is probably to be expected, when it’s always “all about ME!” ;-p

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