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Old 01-06-2006, 04:14 PM
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Default Living and dying by the mined quote

Richard Dawkins, as someone who has complained once or twice about the shoddy and unprincipled tactics of some creationists, ought to be particularly careful not to emulate them. It's disappointing to find the following passage in his Unweaving the Rainbow.

Originally Posted by Dawkins p.191
The most ridiculous example of feminist bad science may be Sandra Harding's description of Newton's Principia as a 'rape manual'. What strikes me about this judgement is less its presumption than its parochial American chauvinism. How dare she elevate her narrowly contemporary North American politics over the unchanging laws of the universe and one of the greatest thinkers of all time (who happened, incidentally, to be male and rather unpleasant)?
Now, I've explained before why this is a complete misrepresentation of Harding (in a thread at IIDB). At that point I was just addressing the mined quote's occurrences on innumerable "Men are hard-done-by" and/or "Feminism is stupid" websites. But now the misquote has become enshrined by repetition; Dawkins himself seems to indicate that he's relying on Gross and Levitt's hatchet-job Higher Superstition for his information on Harding. What seems clear is that he did not actually read the quote he so passionately excoriates.

So, let's.

Originally Posted by Harding, The Science Question in Feminism, p.113
One phenomenon feminist historians have focused on is the rape and torture metaphors in the writings of Sir Francis Bacon and others (e.g., Machiavelli) enthusiastic about the new scientific method. Traditional historians and philosophers have said that these metaphors are irrelevant to the real meanings and referents of scientific concepts held by those who used them and by the public for whom they wrote. But when it comes to regarding nature as a machine, they have quite a different analysis: here, we are told, the metaphor provides the interpretations of Newton's mathematical laws: it direct inquirers to fruitful ways to apply his theory and suggests the appropriate methods of inquiry and the kind of metaphysics the new theory supports. But if we are to believe that mechanistic metaphors were a fundamental component of the explanations the new science provided, why should we beleive that the gender metaphors were not? A consistent analysis would lead to the conclusion that understanding nature as a woman indifferent to or even welcoming rape was equally fundamental to the interpretations of these new conceptions of nature and inquiry. Presumably these metaphors, too, had fruitful pragmatic, methodological, and metaphysical consequences for science. In that case, why is it not as illuminating and honest to refer to Newton's laws as "Newton's rape manual" as it is to call them "Newton's mechanics"?
In context, it is obvious that Harding is not simply "describing" the Mechanics as a "rape manual". She is using this as a provocative way of pointing out a missing argument: an argument to show that gendered metaphors were inert in subsequent scientific concepts, given that machine metaphors are conceded to have played a major role. If anything, the force of her point seems to hinge on its not being "illuminating and honest" to call the Principia a "rape manual" -- hence, by parity of reasoning, it is not illuminating and honest to simply assume the fecundity only of the machine metaphors.

Now, maybe that's an overwrought way of putting things. Maybe the challenge is easily met. Maybe Harding's description of traditional history of science is mistaken. Any of these things might be true. But none of that amounts to simply describing or dismissing or characterizing the Principia as a "rape manual". And notice that none of them has the rhetorical rush of the mined quote as a result.

Imagine how muddled and politicized those feminists are, that one of them could read the Principia and somehow come away from it thinking that it was a how-to guide for rapists! That's the force of mined quote, which in most of its many internet appearances includes nothing more than the words "rape manual" in quotation marks.

Does Harding even think that scientific concepts are gendered in the way she's considering in that passage? Again, figuring that out would mean actually reading what she writes. Most of The Science Question in Feminism is not concerned with that question; much of it focuses instead on practical and empirical matters about how science is (or was, prior to 1986) actually structured and constituted: whether women were underrepresented as researchers and in funding bodies, and how that might have an effect on the sort of projects that get studied. At one point Harding feels the need to explain that she doesn't think the prospect of inherently gendered scientific concepts is outright crazy.

Originally Posted by p.47
Let me emphasize that I do not intend to direct attention away from attempts to show how Newton's and Einstein's laws of nature might participate in gender symbolization. Improbable as such projects may sound, there is no reason to think them in principle incapable of success.
Notice how carefully she holds this idea at arm's length. This is not the work of someone who thinks that Newton's Principia is a rape manual. Nobody who so much as read the actual context of the quote could think so.

Quote-mining, and the repetition of undocumented claims without checking up on them, are not the province of creationists alone. Dawkins' outrage is cringe-making, premised as it is on such shoddy scholarship.
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