Along with three co-authors, Mark Carey, a dean and professor of history at Robert D. Clark Honors college at the University of Oregon, recently published a dreadful postmodernist paper in Progress in Human Geography, “Glaciers, gender and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research.” (reference and link below). I wrote about it on this site last week, and have since read the whole thing twice. I still haven’t recovered.
At first I thought, with others, that the paper might be a hoax, but it wasn’t—it’s a real paper, just as opaque and crazy as Alan Sokal’s paper that caused such a furor when published in Social Text in 1996. But Sokal’s paper was an out-and-out hoax, designed to show just how insane the whole postmodern enterprise really was. And it did its job—mostly. But it didn’t eliminate this kind of nonsense in the humanities, because papers like that of Carey et al. are still being written, still being reviewed favorably and published, and still getting funding from the American taxpayers. Carey’s work, including this paper, was funded by a National Science Foundation grant to the tune of nearly $413,000 (see below).
The Carey et al. paper was written to try to to infuse the study of glaciers with a feminist perspective. But it suffers from a number of problems:
- It’s horribly written, in the kind of obscurantist, ideology-packed prose that we’re used to from postmodernism. And it says the same thing over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. These people need to learn how to write.
- While the paper does call attention to the underrepresentation of women in the earth sciences, and mentions one program designed to give young women experience in glaciology and polar ecology (admirable aims), that’s not its main point. Its main point is to show how a “feminist perspective” in glaciology will advance the field. It does not make this case (see below).
- It’s actually anti-science, for it repeatedly points out the problems with so-called objective Western science, namely its refusal to incorporate the voices of marginalized people, but, more important, to accept “other ways of knowing” about glaciers. It turns out that these “other ways of knowing” are simply subjective and emotional views incorporated in human narratives, art, and literature. These are not “ways of knowing” that will advance the field. Science is repeatedly denigrated, and, in fact, I’m surprised that this stuff was funded by the National Science Foundation. Has it become the National Science and Other Ways of Knowing Foundation?
- The paper is an exercise in confirmation bias, picking and choosing bits of the literature that confirm the authors’ preconceived views that science is a male-dominated, Western hegemony that tramples all over women and minorities. Reading the paper, you see that it’s a series of cherry-picked anecdotes that support this view. While it’s certainly true that minorities and women have been discriminated against in science, that is well known, and remedies are already being formulated. The paper itself adds nothing to that discourse but to apply it to glaciology, and in an anecdotal rather than systematic or statistical way. One could write exactly this kind of postmodern paper about any discipline in which women and minorities are underrepresented. But, as I said, the point of Carey et al. is not to re-plow this well-trodden ground, but to claim that the field of glaciology, and how we use our knowledge to effect change, will be drastically transformed using a feminist (and minority) perspective.
In the end, the paper, infused with anecdotes, confirmation bias, and calls for “other ways of knowing,” reminds me a lot of theology. It’s a maddening and useless piece of work, and it angers me that the money we taxpayers spent on it wasn’t diverted to something that actually adds to our knowledge. Here are a few highlights (?) of the paper and my take on them—quotes from the paper are indented:
The feminist lens is crucial given the historical marginalization of women, the importance of gender in glacier-related knowledges, and the ways in which systems of colonialism, imperialism, and patriarchy co-constituted gendered science. Additionally, the feminist perspective seeks to uncover and embrace marginalized knowledges and alternative narratives, which are increasingly needed for effective global environmental change research, including glaciology (Castree et al., 2014; Hulme, 2011).
. . . The tendency to exclude women and emphasize masculinity thus has far-reaching effects on science and knowledge, including glaciology and glacier-related knowledges.
We’ll see what the “other ways of knowing” add to glaciology in a minute.
The good stuff:
Carey et al. mention one program, “Girls on Ice,” that gives training about glaciers in Alaska and Washington State to help facilitate women’s entry into science and give them “life training.” That sounds useful, but the authors can’t resist this postmodern snipe:
While the program may perpetuate a male-female binary that feminist studies and queer theory have long sought to dismantle, Girls on Ice plays a key role in glaciology to provide female role models. . .
But what’s the alternative to “perpetuating that binary,” which, after all, is really a pronounced bimodality with a low-frequency continuum between the male and female peaks? Should the program be “Girls, Transgender Women, and Genderfluid (But Mostly Female) People on Ice?” But I digress. . .
The dissing and deposing of science. Here are a few quotes:
Much geographical fieldwork involves this masculinist reflexivity generating supposed objectivity through distance from and disinterest in the subject (Coddington, 2015; Sundberg, 2003). These conclusions transcend gendered dimensions of knowledge by acknowledging broader trends in Western sciences that have sought to place science at a god-like vantage from nowhere, ignoring both situated knowledges and the geography of science (Haraway, 1988; Shapin, 1998; Livingstone, 2003).
. . . Castree et al. (2014: 765), for example, contend thatother forms of knowledge, discourse and understanding [beyond natural sciences] must be properly acknowledged, precisely because they both affect, and are affected by, science and technology. These forms range beyond the cognitive to encompass the moral, spiritual, aesthetic and affective.
These calls align with those of feminist political ecology and feminist postcolonial science studies that seek to unsettle dominant Western assumptions, narratives, and representations which tend to privilege the natural sciences and often emerge through the co-constituted processes of colonialism, patriarchy, and unequal power relations (Harding, 2009).
Yes, that’s the postmodern Sandra Harding, whose writing, along with that of Judith Butler, is just as bad as that in this paper. Note how poorly written that last sentence is. It reeks of obscurantism. But wait—there’s more (my emphasis)!:
These alternative representations from the visual and literary arts do more than simply offer cross-disciplinary perspectives on the cryosphere. Instead, they reveal entirely different approaches, interactions, relationships, perceptions, values, emotions, knowledges, and ways of knowing and interacting with dynamic environments. They decenter the natural sciences, disrupt masculinity, deconstruct embedded power structures, depart from homogenous and masculinist narratives about glaciers, and empower and incorporate different ways of seeing, interacting, and representing glaciers – all key goals of feminist glaciology.
But the natural sciences are not equipped to understand the complexities and potentialities of human societies, or to recognize the ways in which science and knowledge have historically been linked to imperial and hegemonic capitalist agendas. Feminist glaciology participates in this broader movement by suggesting richer conceptions of human-environment relations, and highlighting the disempowering and forestalling qualities of an unexamined and totalizing science.
In other words, “Hey, science, look over here—don’t forget us in the humanities!”
Granted, if you want to incorporate scientific findings into social policy, you need to know something about society. But the examples in this paper don’t tell us anything useful about that. What are those examples? Read on.
The “other ways of knowing.”
It turns out, after all the bloviating of Carey et al. about the need for marginalized perspectives in glaciology, that the “other ways of knowing” are completely lame. They involve art and literature, and don’t seem to advance glaciology— either technically or in its interactions with society. The authors give four examples of these “other ways of knowing”; get a load of them:
For instance, Scottish visual artist Katie Paterson’s 2007 work, Langjökull, Snæfellsjökull, Solheimajökull, depicts the impermanence of glaciers while broadening the notion of glaciers as repositories for climatic records and diverting what it means to ‘record’ and be a ‘record’ (Paterson, 2007). Paterson chronicled the ordinary sounds of the Langjökull, Snæfellsjökull, and Solheimajökull glaciers in Iceland, and then transferred the audio tracks to LP micro-groove vinyl ‘ice’ records – records created by casting and freezing the glaciers’ own meltwater. She then played the frozen records simultaneously on three turntables as they melted. The audio recordings (available [here]) fuse glacier sounds with the high whine of the ice record itself. After ten minutes, the actual ice LP record deteriorates and the sound melts away. Climatic data from ice core records are often imported into climate models, while rates of glacier retreat chronicling meters melted per year are usually taken directly at face value, with policy implications. Both the ice cores and ice loss measurements feed homogenizing global narratives of glaciers with somewhat restricted views of the cryosphere, lacking emotional and sensory interactions with the ice that occurs in Paterson’s artworks. Paterson and other artists thus intervene in such ‘truths’ by presenting purposefully imprecise social and scientific methodologies and works.
Well, that’s useful, isn’t it? Art it may be, but not glaciology.
Here’s another example.
In addition to glacier artwork, there is also a growing body of literature that expands understandings of the cryosphere and grapples with core issues in feminist geography.Uzma Aslam Khan’s (2010) short story ‘Ice, Mating’, for example, explores religious, nationalistic, and colonial themes in Pakistan, while also featuring intense sexual symbolism of glaciers acting upon a landscape. Khan writes: ‘It was Farhana who told me that Pakistan has more glaciers than anywhere outside the poles. And I’ve seen them! I’ve even seen them fuck!’ (Khan, 2010: 102, emphasis in original). This fictional story draws from local understandings of Karakoram geomorphology, their cultures of glaciers and mountains, the gendered nature of landscape perceptions, and the legacies of colonialism. In Khan’s story, glacier knowledge, while highly sexualized, is acquired through locals’ interactions with the surrounding glaciers rather than through classic Western channels of knowledge dissemination through reports and academic articles. Khan subverts traditional roles of who acts upon whom, complicating patriarchal assumptions that, as with society, nature must have rulers and the ruled (Keller, 1983).
Pay attention to the notion above that glaciers “fuck”; for, as we’ll see, the sexual metaphor is not nearly so wonderful when applied to men.
The American science fiction and fantasy author Ursula K. LeGuin has also explored ice and glaciers in several works. Her novel The Left Hand of Darkness (LeGuin, 1969) upends notions of gender while re-imagining masculine polar exploration. The novel sends two fugitives on an 81-day journey across the Gobrin Glacier on the fictional planet of Winter. In a frozen world without warfare, LeGuin imagines a place without men and women, where there are no fixed or different sexes. In her 1982 short story Sur, LeGuin portrays a group of South American women who reach the South Pole two years before the all-male Amundsen and Scott parties. But these women leave no record of their activities in Antarctica, and upon their return tell nobody of their feat. Such a radical, postcolonial, feminist narrative about polar exploration serves to underscore the history still perpetuated today, a history imbued with masculinity and heroic men (Bloom, 2008).
Note that last sentence, which shows that the authors will glean anything to buttress their confirmation bias. This is like theology!
Below is my favorite example of how the authors claim that “folk knowledge” can advance glaciology (my emphasis):
. . . whereas glaciologists may try to measure glaciers and understand ice physics by studying the glacial ice itself, indigenous accounts do not portray the ice as passive, to be measured and mastered in a stereotypically masculinist sense. ‘The glaciers these women speak of’, explains Cruikshank (2005: 51–3), ‘engage all the senses. [The glaciers] are willful, capricious, easily excited by human intemperance, but equally placated by quick-witted human responses. Proper behavior is deferential. I was warned, for instance, about firm taboos against “cooking with grease” near glaciers that are offended by such smells.…Cooked food, especially fat, might grow into a glacier overnight if improperly handled.’ The narratives Cruikshank collected show how humans and nature are intimately linked, and subsequently demonstrate the capacity of folk glaciologies to diversify the field of glaciology and subvert the hegemony of natural sciences.
And here is how the authors denigrate those skeptics who dismiss the effect of cooking grease on glacial advance:
Such knowledge diversification, however, can meet resistance, as folk glaciologies challenge existing power dynamics and cultures of control within glaciology. For instance, in response to Cruikshank’s detailed and highly acclaimed research, geographer Cole Harris suggested instead that Cruikshank attributed too much weight to ‘Native’ stories and non-scientific understandings of glaciers. He questioned the relevance of indigenous narratives about sentient glaciers in today’s modern world by explaining how he consulted a colleague, ‘an expert on snow’, about why glaciers advanced rapidly (surged). The expert ‘spoke of ground water, friction, and the laws of physics. Is it possible, I [Harris] asked, that they surge because they don’t like the smell of grease? He looked at me blankly, slowly shook his head, and retreated into his office’ (Harris, 2005: 105).
And that’s pretty much it: the “other ways of knowing” whereby “marginalized voices” can advance glaciology. Read the paper for yourself if you don’t believe me.
One more point. It’s apparently okay to sexualize glaciers when women do it. But Ceiling Cat forbid when men stick their coring apparatuses (i.e., surrogate penises) into glaciers to acquire their supposedly objective knowledge:
Structures of power and domination also stimulated the first large-scale ice core drilling projects – these archetypal masculinist projects to literally penetrate glaciers and extract for measurement and exploitation the ice in Greenland and Antarctica.
Oh dear–those men with their Big Drills, penetrating the glaciers, are horrible! I’m sure, though, that Carey et al. also mean “figuratively penetrate”. And then the cores (metaphorical semen?), which have yielded immensely valuable scientific data, are devalued as tools of Western and postcolonial hegemony:
These ice cores were born in the contest for scientific authority and geostrategic control of the polar regions, manifesting the centrality of power, conquest, and national security in the history of glaciological knowledge.
. . . Both the ice cores and ice loss measurements feed homogenizing global narratives of glaciers with somewhat restricted views of the cryosphere, lacking emotional and sensory interactions with the ice that occurs in Paterson’s artworks. . . These interactions and acquaintances with the ice diverge from the more masculinist domination of the glaciers in polar colonial science, ice core extraction, and quantification.
I could go on and on, but I have neither the time nor the will to continue “unpacking” this dreadful paper. If you think I’m exaggerating, read it for yourself—it’s free. And it’s even worse than I have shown above. For example, read the stuff on Arctic exploration, like this:
The scientific leaders of the Canadian Polar Continental Shelf Project (1958–70), for example, attempted to frame the Arctic as an ‘experimental space’ rather than an ‘expeditionary space’, as the basis of the credibility of both their scientific work and Canada’s territorial aspirations. Yet, their deployment of ‘a precarious authority of experiment’ fared poorly in the course of difficult Arctic field work; they could not escape the ‘Boy Scout attitude to Arctic fieldwork’ and the ‘epistemic baggage of the exploratory tradition and adventurous observation’. Though these attempted reframings of Arctic work did not preclude latent masculinities, they did suggest tensions with more explicit masculinities (Powell, 2007).
Carey and his co-authors were rightly slammed for publishing this paper, and in an interview by Carolyn Gramling, a staff writer for Science, Carey has just tried to justify his work. Read the interview: “Q&A: Author of ‘feminist glaciology’ study reflects on sudden appearance in culture wars” (free access). Not only does it make clear that the paper was dead serious, but Carey says all the kerfuffle about and criticism of the paper came from people misunderstanding it. Gramling throws softball questions at Carey—it’s a lame interview in which she doesn’t challenge the paper at all:
Q [Gramling]: Were you aware about the brouhaha over your paper? How do you feel about it?
A [Carey]: Professional research is published in journals for specialists in a given field. When removed from that context and described to nonspecialists, the research can be misunderstood and potentially misrepresented. What is surprising about the brouhaha is the high level of misinterpretations, mischaracterization, and misinformation that circulate about research and researchers—though this has, unfortunately, been happening to scientists for centuries, especially climate researchers in recent decades.
The good news is that people are talking about glaciers! But there’s much more to the story than just the glaciers. People and societies impose their values on glaciers when they discuss, debate, and study them—which is what we mean when we say that ice is not just ice. Glaciers become the platform to express people’s own views about politics, economics, cultural values, and social relations (such as gender relations). The attention during the last week proves our point clearly: that glaciers are, in fact, highly politicized sites of contestation. Glaciers don’t have a gender. But the rhetoric about ice tells us a great deal about what people think of science and gender.
That’s just like theology: Carey argues that the pushback against this paper simply confirms its thesis. It’s clear that he will brook no dissent, for that simply arises from misunderstanding. And that’s like theology, too—Sophisticated Theology™.
I’d love to see Alan Sokal write a mock “defense” of his famous Social Text paper along the lines of Carey’s exculpatory interview. You can pretty much defend any piece of postmodernist tripe by saying that it was “misunderstood;” and in fact I think Sokal has raised exactly this point somewhere in his writing.
In the meantime, all ye scientists who have trouble getting funding, read and weep about Carey’s NSF award:
Carey, M., M. Jackson, A. Antonello, and J. Rushing. 2016. Glaciers, gender and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research. Progress in Human Geography, Published online before print January 10, 2016, doi:10.1177/0309132515623368