Zombie Feynman vs The Special Girl Powers

If there is one lesson from SexyGate (the kerfuffle following Sheril Kirshenbaum’s inclusion on a “sexy scientist” list[1]), it is that actions have consequences, long-range, important, and potentially ironic consequences, for which you shall be held responsible. Consequences like drawing the attention of the hedonistic proletariat to the “sexy scientist” list and giving many the excuse to consider the potentially related[2] question: “Is science sexist?”

There were a number of thought-provoking answers. Alexandra Jellicoe’s article was advertised as both unusual and interesting, but was neither. While most commentators examined sexism in the institutions we use to do science, Jellicoe spent her non-raging-lesbian-feminist thunder[3] on the fundamental process of science.

Jellicoe suggests that there is a “male intelligence” that is logical and a “female intelligence” that is intuitive. Her complaint is that the process of science does not respect her special girl powers:

‘Do you think that women are more intuitively than logically intelligent and do you think that as scientific research has been designed to only include this logical, evidence based approach, it alienates women?’ – Alexandra Jellicoe

Far from being unusual, we males have been using this argument for years to keep females out of our scientific institutions and other bastions of masculine elitism. “I’m sorry dear, your girl brain is not equipped for the rational, logical world of science. Go have some babies.” In practice, this is the same argument that Jenny McCarthy used to attack vaccinations on the basis that her “Mommy Sense” trumped rigorous scientific research. This is the same argument used by homeopaths and acupuncturists to claim that the “logical, evidence based approach” of science is not capable of testing their personalized, holistic methods.

Science is a philosophical approach to the evaluation of ideas that is designed to overcome the weaknesses and biases of human senses and cognition. As Zombie Feynman said:

from Unscientific (xkcd.com #397) by Randall Munroe (Creative Commons 2.5)

Jellicoe’s theory demonstrates no weaknesses in the scientific method as an evaluator of ideas, but, instead, suggests that science should be sexist, because “female intelligence” is incompatible with the scientific method. Disgraced former Harvard president Lawrence Summers made a more subtle argument than this.

Does science ask researchers not to use their intuition? No. Does it ask colleagues to accept our intuitions without supporting evidence? No. I use my intuition every day to make decisions about experimental priorities and to develop interesting research questions. That does not mean that my colleagues should accept my intuitions simply because I am sure I am right[4]? The need to experimentally test ideas can be tedious and frustrating, especially as the time between the conception of the idea and the testing evidence can stretch into years, but the scientific method, warts and all, is still the best method we have available.

Personally, I’m pretty sure scientific institutions are sexist in a wide variety of ways. I’m pretty sure that science benefits from a diversity of ideas, styles, and approaches. I’m pretty sure the automatic impulse to hire/favor people like ourselves strangles creative enterprises like scientific research. I’m also pretty sure that the scientific method was not designed to save us males from the hegemony of your special girl powers.


  1. The intended note expanded during writing to a philosophical rambling that deserved its own post. You can find the mental effluvia here in “Musing on SexyGate, an opportunity missed?”.
  2. It is not completely clear why being sexually objectified by the public is relevant to the question of sexism within a profession, other than that it may have reminded individuals of instances where they were objectified by colleagues.
  3. There is also a fair bit in there to convince us that Jellicoe was (a) once a tomboy, (b) not raging, (c) not a lesbian, and (d) likes manly men. Before asking what is so wrong about people thinking she is a lesbian, this segment may have been included just to reduce her literary agent’s blood pressure.
  4. Obviously, not me specifically, as my pathetic, shriveled man intuition is not worth squat.

Author: Josh Witten


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