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’.