Who cares?

I care. Every year, the seniors throw this dance for the underclassmen called The Spring Fling.

This is just a shortish bit in which I argue that, according to absolutely mainstream views on the nature of scientific discovery, people (transphobes, TERFs, whoever) should instead of declaring that science for all time establishes categories like “male” and “female” be much more open to a sophisticated and empirically informed understanding of how scientific categories develop. People who say that “it’s just science” and the like, when it comes to opposing trans rights, or making judgements about the ontological status of “trans” men and women, are wrong. If trenchant and astute arguments for overturning naive and unparsimonious “biological” categories exist then it behoves on those who disagree to take those arguments seriously, rather than dismissively.

[This post has been updated to include the above precis]

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The so-called “pessimistic meta-induction”, while flawed, has long been held up in philosophy of science as a challenge to scientific realism, where “scientific realism” is held to be the position that scientific descriptions of this or that taxonomic category (“atom”, “species”, “patient”) exhaustively describes the real things that are out there in the universe that science studies [1]. For the most part, as far as I’ve seen, the pessimistic meta-induction hasn’t directly been applied – as it should be – to increasingly frantic claims from “Gender Critical” feminists that one is either “male” or “female”, no matter their gender identification. Such people are sometimes alternatively termed “TERFs”. At other times they are just or common-or-garden transphobes – from any end of the political spectrum, feminist, left-wing, Third Way/Position, or whatever. Their claim is that “sex” as in “male/female” is a scientifically discovered and immutable taxonomic category of biology, into which every human being fits, one way or the other [2]. But basic epistemic humility demands that anybody who takes science seriously, including biological science, should also take the pessimistic meta-induction seriously. And so in this case they should be taking it seriously as it applies to “sex” and “gender”, which they don’t: they simply assert that “sex” and sometimes “gender” is an insuperable fact of science, where you are either “male/man” or “female/woman” and that is so because that’s what science tells you is so.

I therefore want to briefly argue that even if the pessimistic meta-induction doesn’t support scientific “anti-realism”, then even the best version of scientific realism (or just scientific taxonomy) advocated by TERFs etc. must account for the pessimistic meta-induction and therefore, contrary to general TERF practice, take seriously the idea that “male/female” as a taxonomic category is subject to revision where astute criticisms are raised, as they often have been.

—–

My view is that both sex and gender as taxonomic categories are limited in scope and explanatory power, useful for some but far from all biological, sociological, and political-scientific ways of explaining and shaping the world.

But I’m not defending that view here. What I’m doing instead is pointing out that insisting on “sex” qua “male/female” as an immutable category poisons the well of scientific discourse, because it falsely writes off legitimate ambiguities in the known science as irrelevant when it is, in fact, entirely relevant to question such a a dichotomy if scientists are to solve the problem of how to understand the existence and status of transgender, intersex, and more generally “queer” people [3].

The other thing I am not doing is getting involved in debates about the nature of “sex” in other organisms, such as organisms with more than two “sexes”, or those which respond to environmental pressures with physiological changes analogical to gender transition in humans. Such comparisons have sometimes been abutted to arguments for ontological claims about whether transgender people are “really” the sex or gender of their own identification. I don’t think this is helpful for the most part, except perhaps as a rhetorical move against the most ignorantly hardcore of essentialists who seem to think binary sex is the very fundament of the natural order, or as a fun joke in support of trans identity: ‘if a tree can change their gender why the fuck can’t I?!’.

One more thing I’m not up to here is saying that science doesn’t real. Science reals hard, sometimes with disastrous results, and often doing more for the world than I could ever hope to achieve. The pessimistic meta-induction qua support for scientific anti-realism is a logical extension – with extra premises – from the pessimistic meta-induction itself to a broader worry that extant scientific theories of all kinds are fungible, if only in exchange for better ones, and the “pessimism” is a pessimism about how perfect our contemporary scientific taxonomies are. I don’t have to make that move or endorse those extra premises in the logic, because pessimism about scientific taxonomies on the basis of the meta-induction can just be local concerns about whether this or that taxonomy is subject to revision, given astute criticisms.

In this way “sex” or “gender”, as specific and local concepts employed in a specific and local scientific discourse (the biology of sex and gender), may be revisable on the grounds of astute criticisms. They may even just be stand-ins: words with little meaning other than their instrumental utility to any one biologist or collective of biologists. What if I am a biologist writing what turns out to be an influential paper who says “sex” or “gender” for an otherwise unidentified and mostly not relevant quantity in my data that I am too tired to find a better name for? Personally, I think many such revisions and reasons for such revisions exist, so my target here are those people who continue to argue that “sex” and to a lesser extent “gender” are immutable categories simpliciter. These are people who themselves refuse to present good reasons for their own apodictic certainty that such taxonomies are both contemporaneously correct and eternally true, and ridicule their opponents, who question such a dogmatic stance, for their alleged scientific illiteracy.

——

Anyway…

The most famous formulation of the pessimistic meta-induction is probably Larry Laudan’s, although he probably owes some debt to Paul Feyerabend. I urge the reader unaware of these authors to go and do the reading themselves, because the logic is compelling [4]. From a historical point of view, and so with particular attention to case studies, Laudan (along with – in a very different manner – Feyerabend) builds a case for circumspection about the finality of any one scientific discovery.

Examples:

It was at one time “discovered” that electrons revolve around a nucleus of protons and neutrons. While this is still a widely held belief, it isn’t true. Instead, what is now generally believed is that electrons form a “cloud” of sorts around that nucleus, defined mathematically by a probability distribution of their possible location (with the associated difficulty of defining their precise location and velocity being helpfully provided by a deeper understanding of Quantum Mechanics).

It was, going further back, discovered by Isaac Newton that “gravity” (or “gravitation” for certain pedants) is a force which acts mysteriously at a distance, mathematically describable though not necessarily explainable by his famous equations. Einstein’s work on Special and General Relativity, however, implied that “gravity” was not a force at all, but rather an auxiliary, or accidental, function of the topology of space-time. Newton wasn’t wrong as such, insofar as his fallible descriptions of available data did an excellent job of describing the relationship between data points, but he still didn’t have the whole picture.

The three hundred years between quantum mechanics/Einstein and Newton suggests I should find an example from three hundred years before Newton. Well for an easy example we have to go further back than that. Averroes argued, quite reasonably, that parts of a whole could not be irreducibly small and what things are are therefore composed of parts of an irreducibly small size. Recent scholarship (which I personally disagree with, but whatever) has suggested that this is a misconception which has plagued (good!) physics for over a thousand years. Advocates of “Ontic Structural Realism” say that contemporary results in physics are best represented by the notion that relationships between parts are the really foundational objects of scientific discovery: for over a thousand years physicists have been trying to find the most basic particle when they should have been looking for something else, i.e. the relationship between parts, rather than the part itself.

—-

What does this mean for the TERF? Well, little more than that scientific definitions are mutable even in the hifalutin world of physics, frequently held up as the golden crown of science. I don’t imagine that this argument will persuade the childish employers of the “it’s just science” argument, which is why this article is backed up by the following editorial comment:

It is very tiring, very tiring indeed, to log on to twitter or have a Sunday dinner interrupted by a nonsense debate about the legitimacy of this or whose gender identity, only to find people assert that the debate is settled by what the disrupter learned in secondary school biology.

What naturalistic types tend to associate with scientific taxonomies (as described above) is often not how things are. The pessimistic meta-induction, if it applies to physics so well, should equally apply to biological science. That means that when queer studies professors offer either good or bad arguments those arguments should be taken at face value: as examples of at least potentially astute contra-indications to the idea that gender and sex have been fully explained by biological science in the form of what the disputant gleaned about biology in high school.

What’s more: many biological scientists are on the side of this view that I have presented. I am far from being a lone voice in the dark. If anything I wish I were: it’s fun to be on the outside shouting inwards at a blank crowd of what the 4chan alt. right types call “NPCs”. But come the fuck on, I just want you to know your shit before you start taking dumber shit online.

Here’s a couple of fun links from a sympathiser, sorry if you don’t have academic access:

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12108-018-9396-y

https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/e/9781315603308/chapters/10.4324/9781315603308-17

  1. Maybe “universe” is just such a category too: there are competing ideas in both physics and philosophy, for example, about whether such a thing exists. Perhaps there is a multiverse, perhaps there is just Spinoza’s mind of God, or maybe if you’re a real whacko you follow Max Tegmarck in asserting that all that exists is mathematics.
  2. Rather bafflingly, this has even been applied to intersex people, who by definition cannot be easily fit into “male” or “female”. 
  3. Such as me, I guess.
  4. An anecdote I particularly love is about Feyerabend’s fondness for the Malleus Malleficarum, best known in English as “The Hammer of Witches”, a book of which I am equally fond. First published in Germany in the 15th century, it is an aspiringly comprehensive account of everything known about witchcraft – and how to deal with witchcraft – to the Catholic Church of that period. Feyerabend was allegedly fond, in lectures, of opening it to a random page and explaining to his audience (students, for the most part) how it exemplified scientific and empirical methodology, even as it failed to reach what a 20th century audience would consider accurate or even justified conclusions. The point was that scientific and even basely empirical knowledge is circumstantially, institutionally, and historically constrained. This is often considered a trivial point, but close examination of the often very careful reasoning employed in the Malleus itself should give anybody who credulously reads the “Opinion” section of their preferred newspaper pause for thought.

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