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Science is… neutral?

Keyword themes: positionality, composition form, language structure

This course is about how we construct/compose language (composition) and the means we choose to present these ideas to the world (rhetoric). We will, of course, look at engineering and STS (preferred to STEM) texts, but after teaching this course for five years, I have found some other important avenues that I also want to go down.

So let’s start by establishing a common understanding. I believe that we can never extract our selves from our work, we can never extract our humanness from what we create — as writers/students/engineers/scientists.

Academia at large (and plenty other professional fields) wants to remove the I, remove the self, privileging passive past tense. Scholar Alexis Pauline Gumbs says, “the passive voice is the language of the state. The status quo. The enforced state of being. The problem with the passive past tense is that it obscures the relationship between subjects and action, between what we do and how it impacts other people.The passive past tense is what you read in scientific journal articles, because it allows researchers to “take themselves out of the intimacy of their research towards the illusion of objectivity. Nothing is objective” (Gumbs 9).

So I invite you to consider your positionality. Positionality is concept that comes from Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins, and to summarize: it’s an acknowledgment of how our individual identifiers (race, gender, social class, physical ability, sexual orientation, etc) uniquely shape our persepctives and broadly shape who has access and power in society. 

Why am I bringing up positionality? I’m bringing it up as a sort of antidote to neutrality and objectivity. Last semester, I raised the topic of positionality with my engineering students and received some push back. According to some students in that class, engineers are not concerned with individual positionality because engineers are the ones who follow the instructions, they’re not the inventors, they’re ones behind the scenes, they collaborate to complete a project and the individual is sort of irrelevant.

That conversation definitely challenged my idea of how to proceed with this course. For five years I’ve heard whisper jokes about how there’s only a handful of femme presenting (women) people in the field and in your classes. I have to believe that having a similar or dominant perspective in an entire field impacts the way the field functions.

You might not agree with what the students said in my previous class, or it might be your beliefs exactly. My goal here isn’t to prove those students wrong, but rather to disrupt our understanding of neutrality and objectivity.

Our first reading assignment is Science Under The Scope, a graphic text by Sophie Wang. What Sophie manages to do in this fun and interrogative source, is put into question some of our beliefs around neutrality and how our fields impact the global community. I also chose this text as an example of a scholarly, deeply thoughtful work, that is composed (composition) in a non-traditional manner. You have this freedom too! Similarly to language, prescribed forms for texts (research articles) are another way to “enforce a state of being.” Let’s break the fuck out and envision a new/better way to share ideas. Reminder: for the Public Comment portion of this module, please write a short reflection about your positionality as an STS student and your reaction is to Sophie’s text. Thanks all!

Bibliography

Collins, Patricia Hill, and Hill Patricia Collins. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Perspectives on Gender). 2nd ed., Routledge, 1999.

Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. “The Problem With The Passive Past Tense.” Black Perspectives, 10 July 2018, www.aaihs.org/the-problem-with-the-passive-past-tense.

  • Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals (Emergent Strategy). AK Press, 2020.

Wang, Sophie. “Science Under the Scope: Full Series.” Free Rads, 25 Feb. 2021, freerads.org/science-scope-full.


17 Comments

  1. After learning about positionality, I believe this is what makes us all individuals. We are who we are because of how we live, where we live and when we live. As for me, I believe being a South Asian, there’s just a natural interest in STEM for me although this is not to say that people don’t study anything else; it’s just that it’s too common to study STEM. If I go by my physical ability, I am not really the most athletic person and definitely not the most active person in the world which also probably makes me interested in STEM. And as for what Sophie Wang said, my viewpoint on this is that science is knowledge and science is facts over fiction. Science itself can’t be persuasive but people studying science could be. Science talks in a language of zero emotion but people presenting the science can manipulate it.

  2. After some thinking I believe that we can never truly view things objectively, we can pretend to view it, but we will never fully achieve it. The drawing of the tiny little omniscient robots floating above the earth (drawn by Sophie Wang) really helped cement the idea that we are the exact opposite of what they are. We will never be able to get rid of all of our life experiences in order to be fully objective when it comes to an experiment. All the tiny things that we have experienced shape even more tiny biases that we subconsciously follow. One example that I can think of is of a scientist trying to prove that monkeys like bananas, that scientist could have followed all the protocols to try and be completely objective but when they publish their findings they will subconsciously write in a biased way. All forms of STEM contain positionality, you can get extremely close to objectivity, but never all the way.

  3. Really nice graphic text by Sophie Wang. The way she connected Science with culture, politics and society is beautiful. Science is the perfect appetite for human curiosity. It helps us to understand the nature of reality. For me, it answers the ‘How’ but not ‘why’ question. I am agree with Sophie that there are less inventions are happening today then in the past. All of the stuff, I have learned in school was discovered in 19th century and prior. Part of it because “School” expects students to solve integration problems in 20 minutes and then grade them based on that. It brings their moral down. They start thinking that “maybe its not for me” or “I am not too smart for this”. Einstein took 10 years to come up with his general theory of relativity. Many freshman students do not take STEM major and if they do, they drop it later on. I do not think and believe that Engineers should limit themselves to just follow the instructions and complete projects. We would not had AC current if Nikola Tesla had thought the same way. I believe that there are still plenty inventions left to unveil the true nature of reality.

  4. After reading “Science Under The Scope” I was able to see that nothing is 100% neutral. Every single person holds their own opinions and ways of thinking, whether they admit to it or not. These can be a result of how a person was raised or where they are from. Different factors can indirectly lead a person to a certain outcome. For example, in Wang’s text, she mentions how both of her parents were successful in the field of science. This correlates to her love for the subject, because she described as “sort of an…inevitability in my life”. Various life experiences are what define the way a person thinks, not being fully objective yet a little bit more open. Lastly, positionality within STEM can be shown as a person’s “genuine interest” into an already populated field.

  5. Although it can be interpreted in many different ways, positionality is a very important aspect that defines each and every one of us. Regardless of how others may view our individual identities, it is imperative that we hold them close to us, as encountering individuality and diversity are some of the greatest thresholds of humanity. As for a scientific perspective, the goal of science is to be accurate while maintaining little to no biases. The fact is, however, every one of us has some bias rooted into us, whether intentional or not. Like Sophie Wang alluded to her graphic series, researchers from various different backgrounds need to be implemented in studies to make them more accurate. Studies done on only certain individuals are not beneficial to the collective society as a whole. Maintaining objective views are important in stem fields, but do not help portray the whole story.

  6. After looking at the graphic novel created by Sophie Wang, I have come to understand that positionally and perspective are both parallels to one another, but conflict with our own self-interests. Wang’s image of the two trains creates a clever visual representation to how our own personal experiences can impact our goals and ambitions. Science is purely factual and contains no sort of emotion, however, it is not without its flaws as the individuals who are a part of the scientific community possess positionally. As a Bangladeshi American, I aspire to become a civil engineer. That is the objective truth right? No. This aspiration is subject to change because of positionally. I may become a lawyer, a doctor, or architect, who knows? Frankly, positionally will alter our perspective on how we view the world around us and break the boundaries of objectivity and neutrality.

  7. Positionality means the differences of people based on position in a society. Because of positionality, there is discrimination in the society. People of higher position are always honored whereas the people of lower position are most of the time given less importance or even ignored. Positionality can be determined based on education, gender, financial status, race and many other ways. After going through “Science under the scope”, I feel that we have science to make our lives comfortable but it is has two sides positive and negative. Science is making our life easier and gives us various benefits and on the other hand, it is harming people and the environment. In most cases, the the benefitted people are not aware that some people are being harmed by it.

  8. I agree with positionality in terms that our upbringing, nationality, the social class will dictate our position on a lot of topics and ideas. Coming from an Asian household I always knew I was going to be a STEM kid, either an engineer or a doctor. Society always made me believe that these professions were the most respected and most paid…so in a way, my upbringing led me to go into engineering. Although I love science, I wonder what field I would have chosen if it wasn’t for my surroundings. After reading the article “Science Under the Scope” I found it interesting how the author mentions that diversity makes better science and many things in science aren’t exactly neutral. I always looked at science objectively and that is because it is. We might have better ideas if science was more inclusive, and representation was seen in many communities

  9. When I decided I wanted to be an engineer and major in the engineering field, I never thought about the factors shared by Sophie Wang in her text. After reading her text “Science Under the Scope”, I could comprehend why not so many people dive into STEM or mostly engineering. Factors as racism, classism, sexism, etc. are keeping away very smart and creative people from chasing their dreams, their passion about the science world. For example, our society has created this bias or perspective that engineering is only for men because women are not strong as they are. However, this shouldn’t be reason to not let those women out there be what they want to be. In situation like this is where we see the lack equality. Women can do men’s job as well, without limits. I feel that because of this, when women major in STEM the society sees that as a great achievement.

  10. After reading “Science Under The Scop”, it became clear that ‘Science cannot be separated from society.’ Society is constantly changing and science dictates modern life. In order for a society to flourish, it must support science. Likewise, if society is to develop, science must thrive with the development of society. After reading this graphic novel, I thought about Korea where I was born. Korean society has grown rapidly since the Korean War. Whenever I go to Korea, I am surprised and quickly adapt to the new advanced science system. Everything is very convenient in Korea. I briefly learned STEM in Korea to catch up on this quickly. However, due to cramming training, we only followed the instructions to complete the project. So everything I learned wasn’t clear and I didn’t quite understand. Since I learned STEM a little, I still have a desire to learn about science and technology, and I will try to see and understand the world objectively.

  11. Sophie Wang’s stance on positionally, objectivity, and science as a whole is unlike anything I have ever read–her article was not only interactive but extremely informative.
    As a kid I always believed that science, and stem in general, was definite, there was always one straight path to a solution. Yet, this is simply not true and this is what Wang touches upon.
    Scientist often preach about objectivity when in reality, it is nearly impossible to come into a scientific situation and not carry some sort of bias along with you. As Wang put it, “we will never be tiny little omniscient robots floating above Earth . . .”
    Nevertheless, we can try over best to have strong objectivity– an idea in which we include a wide variety of representation to come up with best results. Even as we continue to strive towards strong objective, issues such as systemic racism and deeply rooted issues surrounding individuals makes reaching strong objectivity a daily struggle.
    As a first-generation student, many personal issues have made it extremely difficult for me to reach where I am today and theses problems will continue to be obstacles. Despite this, it is a goal of mine to continue working towards a career in stem and ultimately seeing a world where strong objectively exist.

  12. What I like about CUNY is that almost all professors – so far, the ones I’ve encountered – promote inclusion, diversity, shedding light on how inherently biased we are once we start thinking of anything as “normal”. What is “normal” is the conceivement of our society, our history that is so shaped by a few who have power to do so.

    I think Sophie Wang did an excellent job highlighting the biases, controversies, and fundamental problems in modern day science that we the new generation of scientists and engineers need to address. However, I must note that she also pointed out problems that doesn’t just affect science but how problems in science affects the whole world. Such as food distribution, unresolved pollution by consumer society, underfunded medical research for marginalized groups of people and list goes on. We must do better.

    In my opinion, an engineer shouldn’t be satisfied by being a follower, but should be courageous enough to be a leader, inventor, bringing out of box ideas to reality. And often times this requires questioning the world around us. Why things are, what they would be like under different circumstances, why do we think of “normal” things around us as normal, can they be different, better? I admit while I am in my thoughts, I often swerve into the realm of the eternal “What if?” questions.

    I would like to talk a little about my positionality in the society and the stem community which is historically male dominant. As a 30-year-old white male I understand that I’m shielded from systematic racism and discrimination. It is an unearned privilege in Eurocentric patriarchal society. I’m lucky enough to attend school and pursue higher education in NYC. However, as a person who grew up in Hungary and went through a lengthy immigration procedure, I do remember my roots. I’ll be the first in my family to obtain a bachelor’s degree. I consider myself a feminist (which surprisingly a lot of people do not know what it means), I believe in gender equality, equal access, and I believe that the social stratification in our patriarchal system is inherently wrong (and it affects greatly the STEM community). I know that as an individual I don’t have much power to change engrained practices and traditions that are so prevalent in the STEM community, but I have the power of choice to be part and use my unearned platform to advance ideas and be part of a positive change.

  13. Sophie Wang’s “Science Under the Scope” dives into Wang’s stance on positionality in science– her illustrations and interactive writing structure make learning informative as well as fun.
    Growing up I always believed that science, and stem in general, was definite. There was only one straight path to a solution and everything was a fact. However, as Thomas Kuhn put it, “what was seen as objective ‘truth’ in one age is often seen as objective ‘falsehood’ in a later age.” Nothing is certain, not even in science.
    But along with this, Wang focuses on objectivity–the idea of not letting our individual biases and emotions impact our research. However, this is nearly impossible. We each have subconscious thoughts that will in some way influence our decision-making–regardless of us knowing it. We cannot be “omniscient robots floating above the Earth. . .” because of our past, relationships, environment, etc…
    So what is the solution? Strong objectivity! We need to include the perspective of the marginalized to ensure the best results and better science altogether.
    Despite this, the marginalized often face issues such as systemic racism and deeply rooted personal issues that make it difficult for them to join the scientific community. But it is an issue we should continue to fix.
    As a first-generation student, there have been many obstacles that have made it difficult for me to overcome but at the end of the day, we must all work towards the common goal of inclusivity and strong objectivity.

  14. Sophie Wang’s stance about positionality demonstrates the different views we have on personas.
    As someone who is religious, science and religion have always been compared on the creation of life. The article does give points on no matter where we are, science is EVERYWHERE! Wang does address some fundamental situations on how science does affect human life, such as the abundance of pollution.
    Now relating to society, as a person who wants to be in the STEM major, it can be difficult because of the stress but also the image that you have to uphold. There is a social stigma which shows that women are not really into becoming STEM major because of it being a male dominant major. Hopefully as time progresses, this view from society may change.

  15. After reading “Science Under The Scope” by Sophie Wang, it can be concluded that science itself is neutral, but the people who make use of it, can be biased and subjective. Sophie Wang made a great allegory with the mining cave and the miners. Being scientists the miners and science or knowledge the gold or silver that is being mined. We have to think who is digging, where is digging, and who is benefited and who is harmed. For us is hard to be objective since we have ideals and emotions, but science does not. So, what I understood was that we have to see what are the subjective ideas of every one so that we can come to an agreement when we find something objective for every one. At least that is what I think.

  16. After studying about positionality, I believe it is position and velocity which differentiates everyone as individuals. Discrimination exists in community because of positionality. Positionality can be defined in a number of different ways, including education, gender, socioeconomic status, race, and other factors.

  17. Reading “Science Under the Scope: Full Series,” Sophie Wang allowed me to think about how I can apply my passion as a musician to my development as a STS student. Learning about her path and how she was able to tie science with politics, I began to wonder how I would be able to connect music with engineering. Like Sophie, I didn’t see any correlation between these two fields and it seems impossible to join them. However, Sophie’s story is inspirational and maybe I just need to keep my mind open to new possibilities and to always see how music and engineering could work then I might find my answers. She teaches the importance of objectivity, how the ways of science tends to detach oneself from the research but can never truly obtain such a state, therefor the results aren’t truly neutral. This influences how society gets programmed and eventually effects us all!

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