Friday, April 11, 2008

How to Think About Science: Eveyln Fox Keller

Evelyn Fox Keller is an emeritus professor of the History and the Philosophy of Science at MIT. She originally trained as a theoretical physicist, receiving her PhD from Harvard in 1963. Her interests shifted, though, towards mathematical biology and the young field of molecular biology. In the mid-1970s she began to talk and write about her painful experiences as graduate student and the relationship between gender and science. This article about her in The Guardian has more about her background.

On the CBC Radio show "How to Think about Science" Evelyn Fox Keller talks about her career, how language and gender roles shape how science is done, and "science studies".

Science, according to its first practitioners, was a masculine pursuit. Francis Bacon writing in the early 17th century invited “the sons of knowledge” to pass through “the outer courts of nature” and on into “her inner chambers.” Science was male, nature female. And, according to Evelyn Fox Keller, this was no mere figure of speech – it had a shaping influence through the centuries on how science was imagined and how it was done. Evelyn Fox is emeritus professor of the philosophy and history of science at MIT, and a keen observer of the ways in which models and metaphors condition our understandings. In recent years she has been particular critical of the ways in which simplistic models of the all-powerful gene mislead public understanding of genetics and developmental biology. And her proposal with regard to what she calls “gene talk” is the same one she made in her pioneering Reflections on Gender and Science in the 1980’s: “change the terms of the discussion.” Evelyn Fox Keller shares some of her story and some of her thoughts on how gender, language, model and metaphor have coloured the practice of science.
I find her discussion of the role of language on public perception of what a "gene" is particularly interesting. Listen to the program (requires RealPlayer).

Evelyn Fox Keller's books mentioned on the show:

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