About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Rationally Speaking podcast: Victoria Pitts-Taylor on Feminism and Science

In this episode, Massimo and Julia discuss sociology and feminism, with special guest Victoria Pitts-Taylor, professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Victoria explains how feminists in sociology are dealing with results in neuroscience and evolutionary biology, especially regarding the question: How much inborn difference is there really between women and men?

Massimo and Julia challenge Victoria on some academic feminist views, and investigate how the fields of sociology and academic feminism reach their conclusions - what methods do they use, and how would we know if they were wrong?

Victoria's picks: "Feminist Perspectives on Disability" and "Misfits: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept."


  1. I write this comment immediately after listening to this podcast because I'm angry. Is this what feminism has to offer to the world? Confusion?

    Pitts-Taylor talks about 5 sexes. What does that actually mean? Sexes don't exist out there in the universe. It's not as if there's some giant rock where everyone's sex is written. Sex is a concept that biologists use to explain and predict how organisms (which itself is a concept) reproduce. Two of the same sex can't reproduce. Two of the opposite sexes can. That's all. So what does the five sexes have to do with that?

    This is just bad, bad, bad philosophy. Thinking about ideas is important, but only when done by good philosophers who organize and clarify those ideas. Five sexes? Give me a break.

    1. I think you are being a bit too harsh here. I don't remember the exact comment about five sexes, but she was simply referring to the fact that even biologists recognize genetic variants outside of the two canonical sexes (which is true, though they tend to be rare). Moreover, her important point was that gender is much more complicated and socially constructed than sex. Which also seems right to me. That said, you haven't heard the really crazy stuff that comes out from some feminist quarters...

    2. She was referring to the work of biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling. See: http://capone.mtsu.edu/phollowa/5sexes.html

      Fausto-Sterling later revisited this idea, noting how she had meant it to be provocative and tongue-in-cheek. http://www.neiu.edu/~lsfuller/5sexesrevisited.htm

      Why don't you take the time to go read the information she was talking about instead of dismissing it out of hand because it seems nonsensical to you?

  2. Hahaha Massimo that last line about the crazy stuff is very true. One example I'll give that you may or may not have seen before is from Sokal's "Fashionable Nonsense," a great book that I would recommend to anyone of an analytical philosophy/scientific bent that can't stand some of the drivel that comes out of many corners of the continental tradition:

    "The feminist 'philosopher' Luce Irigaray is another who gets whole-chapter treatment from Sokal and Bricmont. In a passage reminiscent of a notorious feminist description of Newton's Principia (a "rape manual"), Irigaray argues that E=mc2 is a "sexed equation". Why? Because "it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us" (my emphasis of what I am rapidly coming to learn is an 'in' word). Just as typical of this school of thought is Irigaray's thesis on fluid mechanics. Fluids, you see, have been unfairly neglected. "Masculine physics" privileges rigid, solid things. Her American expositor Katherine Hayles made the mistake of re-expressing Irigaray's thoughts in (comparatively) clear language. For once, we get a reasonably unobstructed look at the emperor and, yes, he has no clothes:

    The privileging of solid over fluid mechanics, and indeed the inability of science to deal with turbulent flow at all, she attributes to the association of fluidity with femininity. Whereas men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women have openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids... From this perspective it is no wonder that science has not been able to arrive at a successful model for turbulence. The problem of turbulent flow cannot be solved because the conceptions of fluids (and of women) have been formulated so as necessarily to leave unarticulated remainders.
    You do not have to be a physicist to smell out the daffy absurdity of this kind of argument (the tone of it has become all too familiar), but it helps to have Sokal and Bricmont on hand to tell us the real reason why turbulent flow is a hard problem: the Navier-Stokes equations are difficult to solve."

    Absolute garbage. Stuff like this, coupled with a ragingly anti-men feminist teacher I had back in high school turned me off to feminism a long time ago. Equal rights for all is paramount, but sometimes I think modern day feminists don't want that; they want their time on the top.

    1. >Stuff like this, coupled with a ragingly anti-men feminist teacher I had back in high school turned me off to feminism a long time ago.

      Careful; it's not clear that dismissing a set of ideas because (a) some proponents have wacky ideas and (b) one has had a bad social experience with some proponents, has any epistemic warrant.

      Name me any ideology you currently agree with, and I will find you somebody who also agrees with it, and is a crazy idiot. Unless we want to endorse epistemic luck, we've got to resist these tendencies to judgment of ideas based on merely social factors.

  3. I liked this interview a lot. Pitts-Taylor seems to me to be an honest broker. Like Cordelia Fine she is raising very important issues. I look forward to reading her book.

    But as a possible tonic to too much Continental relativism, I wonder if either Julia or Massimo are familiar with "The Social Construction of What?" by Ian Hacking. Owen Flanagan gives him a shoutout in his book "The Problem of the Soul" which is also a very interesting read.

    1. OneDay,

      yes, I'm familiar with Hacking's book. Superlative.

  4. WARNING: I haven't read her pick but I'm discussing the comment she made regarding disabilities.

    Seeing disability as a mere difference of capacities is a ludicrous proposition. Yes disabled persons should be treated as equally as possible, however to deny that there are these differences, to deny that a blinded person cannot do all the things a sighted one can do (such as driving) is ludicrous.
    We ought to try to improve as much as we can the life of persons with disabilities so that they can have a life as close as possible to a person that has no disabilities. But as usual with feminist theory they go one step further and fall off of a rational position.


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