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The Battle Between Political Agendas and Science


Gwen A. Burda

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 21.6, November / December 1997

On June 6, 1997, in Boulder, Colorado, hailstones fell from the sky and a tornado touched down for the first time in Boulder’s history. But this was not the only first. In and around Boulder, people were preparing to gather at the University of Colorado’s Fiske Planetarium for the opening ceremonies of a conference titled ”Rational Feminism Explores the Gender Politics of Science.”

The conference, which had its opening ceremonies June 6 and proceedings all day June 7, was the first meeting of the new Rational Feminist Alliance of CSICOP. The Alliance was founded last year to explore issues arising from the irrational impulses of feminism.

The conference was also the first official event sponsored by the new Center for Inquiry-Rockies, a new regional center of CSICOP. (Cosponsors were the Rocky Mountain Skeptics, the UC Boulder anthropology department, and CSICOP.) This Center will be under the directorship of Bela Scheiber, founder of the Rocky Mountain Skeptics and a member of CSICOP’s Executive Council, and Carla Selby, proven skeptical activist. Scheiber and Selby also served as conference co-chairs. The Center for Inquiry-Rockies joins other regional centers in Los Angeles and Kansas City, as well as the CSICOP headquarters in Amherst, New York (Center for Inquiry-International), and a center in Moscow, Russia. The primary objective of the new Rockies center will be to actively promote critical thinking and rationality in the region through conferences, informal meetings, workshops, and interaction with the media.

Opening remarks were made by Barbara Vorheis, chair of the UC Boulder anthropology department, and Paul Kurtz, CSICOP founder and chairman, whose address was read in his absence. Kurtz applauded the efforts of the conference organizers for bringing the topic of gender politics and the relationship between feminism and science into an open forum for discussion. He expressed his agreement with the basic feminist critique of society, but also bemoaned the “frontal assault on science” of many radical feminists. Kurtz said we cannot lose sight of the “rigorous and objective standards” of the scientific methodology — standards that transcend gender — and that men and women must work together to extend the frontiers of knowledge.

The first session addressed “Misuses of Therapy.” Gina Green, a behavior analyst specializing in autism and other developmental disabilities and Director of Research at the New England Center for Children, spoke on the “disability politics” of facilitated communication (FC). FC is the controversial technique whereby a child with a severe communication disability is held at the hand or arm by a person called the “facilitator” and, with the facilitator, points to sequences of letters to spell out messages that are supposedly the child’s own.

Green said that, despite its utter failure in controlled tests and having been dubbed a “classic example of pseudoscience,” FC has succeeded as a “social movement.” Proponents of FC claim that autistic people don't actually have cognitive and communication deficits and are “trapped inside uncooperative bodies.” Those who are critical of FC are seen as “negative” and “narrow-minded” and as denying impaired persons their “right to communication.”

Debbie Nathan, a freelance journalist based in El Paso, Texas, and coauthor of Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, spoke on the cultural assumptions behind the phenomenon of false ritual sexual abuse accusations.

In our culture, said Nathan, it is assumed that children are innocent, pure, asexual; that sex is evil; that the worst thing that could happen to a child is to be defiled by sex; and that children don't have adult motivations, such as revenge, for false accusations. Thus, a child who is questioned about sex is incapable of lying about it. Nathan claims that empirical studies of childhood behavior have shown these assumptions about innocence and asexuality to be false. Also, sexual abuse is assumed to be much more horrific than physical abuse and emotional neglect, but the latter are, in fact, far more prevalent and have more devastating long-term effects. By focusing on the sexual abuse component, researchers often ignore other variables in abuse cases, such as emotional neglect, physical abuse, general family dysfunction, and poverty.

Nathan speculated that feminists have supported paranoid sexual-abuse social movements because such problems as wife beating and rape are harder to get attention and outrage for. They have linked themselves to these causes to get support for less popular women’s issues. Child sex abuse, said Nathan, “stands for an array of feminine complaints.”

Barbara Eisenstadt, psychologist, clinician, and international trainer in the fields of addiction, women’s treatment, and group therapy, spoke about our “culture of addiction.” She warned that society is programming people to become addicted and promoting addictive behavior. She believes this is politically based because of the money to be made in keeping people addicted and convincing them they need treatment for their addiction. Many psychologists are furthering this by labeling people and pathologizing all kinds of behavior.

Archaeologist Linda Cordell, professor of anthropology at UC Boulder and director of the University Museum, opened the second session, devoted to the “Misuse of Archaeology.” Cordell gave an example of the often subtle gender biases that can exist in archaeological research. She showed how research into gender roles in past cultures has actually revealed, in at least one case, certain gender biases and possible political agendas on the part of the archaeologists, men and women alike, doing the research.

Carla Selby’s talk was rooted in her personal experiences as a graduate student in anthropology in the late 1960s at UCLA, working under the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. Gimbutas advanced the notion of an ancient, all-encompassing, goddess-worshipping, matrifocal culture, extending throughout the entire continent of Europe from 40,000 years ago up to Greek and Roman times. Selby said that in the mid to late 1960s, Gimbutas’s myth of the all-encompassing goddess culture served as a powerful rationale for women’s empowerment and gave “the emerging feminist movement a mythological underpinning without peer.”

Speakers Bernard Ortiz de Montellano and Hazel Barnes. (Photo: Huntley Ingalls)

Speakers Bernard Ortiz de Montellano and Hazel Barnes. (Photo: Huntley Ingalls)

Speaking on multiculturalism in archaeology, Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, professor of anthropology at Wayne State University and author of Aztec Medicine, Health, and Nutrition, examined the theory accepted by many African-Americans, that black Nubian rulers of the twenty-fifth dynasty in Egypt came to the New World in 700 B.C. and were responsible for most of the great cultural achievements in Mesoamerica, including the calendar, mummification, pyramids, crops, and arithmetic.

This theory, claims Ortiz de Montellano, is being taught in schools, particularly in urban areas with high African-American populations, despite the fact that not one genuine African or Egyptian artifact has ever been found in the New World and that the arguments and evidence of its proponents are seriously flawed. Ortiz de Montellano sees the theory as politically motivated by the desire to establish a black presence of influence in the early history of the New World.

Conference speakers Carol Tavris, left, and Eugenie Scott. (Photo: Huntley Ingalls)

Conference speakers Carol Tavris, left, and Eugenie Scott. (Photo: Huntley Ingalls)

Carol Tavris, a social psychologist, CSICOP fellow, and author of the book The Mismeasure of Woman, delivered the keynote address with a unique combination of wit and incisiveness.

Tavris said that in the early days of the feminist movement, the politics of feminism was not at odds with science. In psychology, for example, feminists wanted to achieve equality for women in the profession and in society, and to correct the pervasive male bias that existed in the field — in its methods, theory, and findings. These goals served the aims of science.

Before long, however, science and feminist politics began to conflict and two trends emerged: cultural feminism, which claims that women are not just different from men, but better; and the rise of antiscientific attitudes and “subjective ways of knowing.”

The appeal of the “woman as superior” stereotype is understandable, said Tavris, for anyone who has experienced the “woman as inferior” stereotype. (She related the story of a female friend who entered college in 1970 in physiological psychology. On the first day of class, her male professor announced, “I will not teach this course with a pair of ovaries in the room,” and left.) But studies of actual men and women show that human qualities, bad and good, are evenly distributed across the sexes. She sees the antiscience trend as the result of a misunderstanding of the original feminist critique of science. From the fact that there were biases in science, many feminists jumped to the conclusion that science is altogether biased and must be thrown out wholesale as a way of obtaining knowledge.

According to Tavris, the grassroots feminist therapy movement, which began as a corrective to male biases in psychiatry and psychoanalysis, has become, in some quarters at least, a “vested interest with its own unmistakable female bias.” And in the name of feminist therapy, “the scientifically illiterate perpetrators” of satanic ritual abuse and recovered memory syndrome, for example, have become “just as tyrannical as any of the males they have overthrown.”

Kicking off the third session, Elizabeth Loftus, professor of psychology and adjunct professor of law at the University of Washington, Seattle, spoke on the repressed/recovered memory controversy. Loftus, who has testified in numerous court cases as to the malleability of memory, described the general repressed/recovered memory scenario. Typically, a woman goes to a therapist with a set of symptoms. She is told by the therapist that everyone he or she has seen with those symptoms has had a history of sexual abuse, and “I wonder if you do too.” The therapist proceeds to “ferret out” the past abuse.

The victims of false “recovered” memories are many, said Loftus. Patients are diverted from their real problems and real solutions, families are torn apart, the reputation of the mental health field is hurt, and large sums of money are spent. Finally, false accusers trivialize the experiences of real victims and cause them greater suffering.


Bela Scheiber presented on therapeutic touch (TT), which he said grew out of the “human caring” movement among nurses in the 1970s. Nurses at that time felt they were being marginalized in the health care profession and becoming obsolete. They sought to create a profession with “its own truths.” In opposition to scientific medicine, which was cold and impersonal, the theory of human caring emerged as nursing’s own unique contribution to the health industry.

TT is the one element of the human caring paradigm that “presents itself as scientific,” said Scheiber. He warned that if TT is established as “scientific,” it will open the door for other forms of alternative medicine predicated on “energy fields” to gain public approval, and “causality can be thrown out.”

In the final session of the conference, Paul Shankman, associate professor of anthropology at UC Boulder, spoke about cultural relativism and its evolution from a powerful anthropological research tool, which asked researchers to temporarily suspend moral judgment in order to understand cultures on their own terms, to its “lapse into moral relativism and epistemological relativism.” If each culture has its own way of knowing and its own completely unique set of values that others cannot understand, cross-cultural understanding is rendered impossible, said Shankman. Also, extreme relativism overly romanticizes culture and assumes that all cultural practices deserve respect simply because they are “out there.”

“Used properly,” concluded Shankman, “relativism can lead to better understanding and possibly greater objectivity. Misused, it can lead to moral paralysis and an end to a rational approach to cultural differences and similarities.”

Eugenie Scott, physical anthropologist and director of National Center for Science Education, as well as a CSICOP fellow and Executive Council member, addressed the audience on the misuse of scientific evidence by creation scientists. An expert on the creation/evolution controversy, Scott said her concern is not with religious beliefs per se, but rather when people involve science to support their beliefs and misuse science in doing so. Then, scientists must speak out.

Creation scientists often use old, out-of-date scientific facts that "support” their theories, ignoring new evidence that has come since. And they use selective facts, taking them out of context. For creation scientists, concluded Scott, ideology is considered superior to evidence.

After dinner, Hazel Barnes addressed conference attendees. Barnes is a professor emerita of classics at UC Boulder and noted translator of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.

Barnes stated that, male or female, we are all human, and human and humanity are meaningful terms. In the midst of gender battles, we must remember our humanity — but not in the sense of a predetermined human nature, but in Sartre’s sense of “humanity making itself.” She also cautioned skeptical inquirers to remember to keep the “inquiry” part right, saying we want to “install reason where there is irrationality,” but not to reject truth because it is embedded in a context that we feel is not truth.

If one complaint could be made about the conference, it is that many of the topics (at least half) did not deal with the stated theme: “the gender politics of science.” There were talks on disability politics, multiculturalism, creation/evolution politics, and others, which, while important, fascinating, and thoroughly enjoyed by conference participants, were far off from the stated purpose. Anyone looking specifically to discuss gender politics in science may have been, at the very least, a bit confused. However, this did not seem to concern either participants or speakers. In fact, “complaints” were practically nonexistent. The first conference of the Rational Feminist Alliance of CSICOP was deemed by all to be a success, with many participants and speakers standing up at the final open forum session to testify to their satisfaction and their commitment to attend future conferences.

Gwen A. Burda

Gwen A. Burda is the former managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer.