Feminists Increasing Public Understandings of Science: A Feminist Approach to Developing Critical Science Literacy Skills
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Feminists Increasing Public Understandings of Science
A Feminist Approach to Developing Critical Science Literacy Skills


Creating a more scientifically literate public in the United States has been a national goal for at least several decades. However, how this should be done has continued to be an area for intense research. There have only been small improvements despite the sustained goal of "science for all."1 What is often missing as a question for analysis is: why should we increase science literacy?2 In mainstream discourse the implicit reason appears to be nationalistic in that we do not want to fall behind other countries. The logic continues that a scientifically advanced and literate public signals "progress" and "development." In contrast, most feminist scholars begin with the assumption that the how and why are always connected. As such, feminists have argued for increasing scientific literacy to further social justice goals through situated, ethically engaged science education.3 However, there have been few concrete examples of how to incorporate scientific literacy in feminist education. In this essay, I provide examples of how linking feminist pedagogy with feminist science studies can be implemented in the classroom.

understanding science is politically important

Calls to create a more scientific literate public regularly circulate in public conversations about education reform. These calls often rely on nationalism, for example in such ideas as "Americans are falling behind in math and science." These calls also rely on the assumption that science is objective and unbiased and can provide the truth that should be used to make political decisions such as those around climate change or reproductive rights. Scientific experts are regularly brought into legislative sessions to provide evidence for or against abortion. During debates about climate change those opposing political [End Page 100] changes to "protect the environment" label the climate scientists "politically biased," while pro-environmentalists lament the rejection of scientific evidence and the mistrust for scientific truth. However, instead of focusing on how to convince conservative forces to trust science through better science literacy, perhaps a more critical evaluation of science's claim to epistemic privilege should be conducted. That is, instead of calls for science literacy to produce more "buy-in" of science, I argue for the political need for increased critical science literacy. That is a science literacy that provides students with the skills not only to evaluate individual scientific claims critically but also, more broadly, to ask questions about which knowledges are most important for understanding their world and their responsibility in the production of such knowledges. When I speak of science in this paper, I am referring to the kind of knowledge that comes out of the academic disciplines of science. Yet as part of understanding how scientific knowledge is produced it becomes clear that scientific knowledge is not generated in vacuums in laboratories. Part of the literacy I describe is about situating science within our political worlds.

Feminists regularly weigh in on public scientific claims, sometimes refuting them and at other times invoking the power of science. How should we engage science and how do we learn to engage science critically and responsibly? How do we respond to explicit and implicit political claims based in science? Here I offer three examples of political moments when feminist responses could arguably have been strengthened by engaging feminist understandings of science. For example, when former Harvard president Larry Summers asserted that women's natural aptitude is at least partly responsible for the demographic homogeneity we see in the sciences, Banu Subramaniam argued there was a noticeable lack of community response from feminist science studies scholars.4 I would expand this argument to include not only feminist science studies scholars in arguing that feminists more broadly should have felt confident in arguing against the scientific claims mobilized by Summers. There was indeed excellent feminist response and critique. However, what was missing was a focus not only on biased science studies to which Summers was referring but on a long history of the links between scientific knowledge production more broadly and the exclusion of women. Therefore we arguably missed an opportunity to change the conversation from one of simply inclusion and one man...