The Language We Use => The Questions We Ask

Joining in on the chorus of responses to Julia’s post, I would add that I felt Schiebinger’s most compelling argument was that the language we use to talk about topics in science tends to direct future lines of questioning and research around that topic. She points, for example, to scientists’ tendency to invoke “narratives of courtship and marriage” (149) when discussing biological reproduction as a causal factor in the decision to “understand reproduction in bacteria, such as E. coli, through the lens of sex rather than other possible optics.” (149). In this case, as in the case of the ‘damsel in distress’ trope being applied to the roles of the sperm and egg in fertilization, and in countless other examples, the propagation of a particular narrative played a huge role in deciding the path of future scientific research.

Schiebinger’s argument was something of an eye-opener for me, because I’ll admit that I’ve tended to fall into the camp of people who would argue that the words, analogies, and metaphors we invoke bear little impact beyond the text they appear in. I think my skepticism stemmed from the fact that most writings I’ve encountered on the topic simply insist that language does indeed matter, then fail to provide any concrete evidence. Meanwhile, Schiebinger’s concrete anecdotes greatly strengthened her rhetoric, and clearly demonstrated that tropes and narratives within texts can seriously impact the future works of their readers. Her argument reminded me of Michelle Ellsworth presentation last Friday on her project “Preparation for the Obsolescence of the Y Chromosome,” which was borne several years ago out of Ellsworth’s interest in new research that seemed to suggest the gradual degradation of the male chromosome. That hypothesis, from what I gathered during the Q&A, has since been debunked. Still, the veracity of the research is irrelevant to Ellsworth’s project, which has since matured into a thoughtful, experimental exploration of gender, technology, and the future of both. What matters was that the research was published at all, that it made its way in front of Ellsworth’s attention, and that it inspired a line of questioning and introspection that she might otherwise never have considered.

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