A brief primer on “feminist glaciology” and the climate and feminist culture wars

Last week, something truly bizarre happened.

The internet had a meltdown over a paper on environmental humanities in a prestigious geography journal.

It seemed that those skeptical (and some that are actually not at all skeptical) of climate change, and those who find feminist research methodologies largely a “waste of time” and just “PC bullshit” found something that brings them together. Indeed, for an academic paper, even more so in the area of human geography/posthumanist research, perhaps nothing in recent memory has attracted so much wrath and ridicule both within and outside academic spheres. I’m of course talking about the “feminist glaciology” paper.

Now, I realize that climate skeptics and anti-feminists are groups that exist in the real world, and there may even be a large overlap in their ideologies. But in the case about the outrage about the feminist glaciology paper, these two groups found common ground to bitch about things like how such studies are federally funded, among other perspectives completely disregarding the merits of study based on the title and abstract only, creating culture wars very reminiscent of the 1990s Sokal Hoax. Nonetheless, this was a weirdly exciting time for me. This is perhaps the first time that the environmental humanities have achieved mainstream coverage.

On a more personal level, I was shocked, baffled and appalled by the way many have reacted to the paper, and those defending it and trying to explain it in context over social media. Just by tweeting about this paper, I have had people attack me and tell me to “go find [my] safe place”. It’s truly weird to see anti-feminists trolls take time out of their busy schedules to target environmental humanities scholars and their proponents, all of a sudden. It’s even more disappointing to see the resistance to feminist-oriented research and epistemologies that exist even amongst well-established academics.

On the other hand, the reaction to this paper is also very illustrative of the gaps that exist in the current academic environment that the field of environmental humanities and cultural studies have long tried to address, as well as the general nature of the Eurocentric heteropatriarchal academy and its resistance to feminist pedagogies.  Among people for whom the feminist orientation of the papers were not the source of their ridicule, the understanding of the basic claims of the paper seemed to be something difficult to grasp. I had a few Twitter conversations with folks who didn’t mind the feminist epistemology, but failed to see why such a paper is anything beyond mere intellectual masturbation on the part of the authors. Indeed, there is a critique of similar postmodern rhetoric for being simply the jargon-intensive fluff that scientists are wary of, but in the case of “feminist glaciology”, I found this was not the case. To me, it seems like a standard, high quality paper in feminist science studies that seeks to make the larger field aware of the intersectionalities in which they are implicated. I’m sure to those who are unfamiliar with the field, or even science studies in general, any suggestion to theorize the social context of scientific knowledge may sound like bullshit. I cannot help those with this prejudice in any way other than pointing out why this kind of research is important. As the first author of the paper, science historian Mark Carey himself said to Science:

“Professional research is published in journals for specialists in a given field. When removed from that context and described to nonspecialists, the research can be misunderstood and potentially misrepresented. What is surprising about the brouhaha is the high level of misinterpretations, mischaracterization, and misinformation that circulate about research and researchers—though this has, unfortunately, been happening to scientists for centuries, especially climate researchers in recent decades.”

In the case of feminist glaciology, this is no different, and is perhaps exacerbated by a lack of scientific literacy and awareness of the history and sociology of scientific practice.

I am writing this as an attempt to correct some of the biases against such pieces of scholarly work, as part of my larger project of situating science amidst its social, cultural AND historic context, and these things could not be more relevant that in the study of arctic glaciology. I’ll explain why.

Firstly, this is not the first work of its kind. Canadian anthropologist Julie Cruikshank has an ethnography of “human-ice interactions” in the context of Canadian arctic inhabitants, in particular the indigenous peoples of Northern Canada in her book Do Glaciers Listen?: Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters and Social Imagination. I don’t remember anyone raising hell about the state of the education system and tax dollars going into this research, so I was quite taken aback when I realized this was the case with feminist glaciology.

The biggest reason why feminist glaciology was not out of the ordinary or unusual for me and many others like with similar academic backgrounds is the steadfast acknowledgement that the development of the ecological and earth sciences as a field has almost always been a site of colonialism, and thereby rich with racial and gendered elements. Modern ecology as formulated by western academies owe a lot to the history of colonialism in the Americas, Oceania and Asia, and therefore is mired in racialized and gendered hierarchies and knowledge systems that are sometimes appropriated by or dismissed by the Western academy. I cannot stress this enough. This fact, is, or at least should be, completely transparent to those engaging with the natural sciences and their history. Thus the idea of a “feminist glaciology” is nothing at all to dismiss, if we are to look at the history and the factual context in which glaciology as a field has developed and continues to do so. In fact, not taking into consideration these elements of scientific knowledge production is what would create lousy science and arguably, bullshit.

Some facts to consider:

  1. The circumpolar people of the Arctic have a special environmental and cultural relationship with ice, snow and H2O(s) in many forms, and their livelihood and food acquisition is very much tied to these notions.
  2. When talking about gender and climate science, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that women around the world, whether they are living near glaciers or not, are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
  3. Feminist epistemology in science has been a relevant topic of conversation in the practice of science, and is gaining momentum because of the exposure of widespread discrimination and hostile work environment for women in the sciences, even in 2016.
  4. If you are not aware of the inherent and subconscious biases in terms of gender and race in your scientific research, your research is deeply incomplete. Papers like the one in question help address these shortcomings within contemporary scientific practice. You can either get with the program, or be rendered obsolete in a couple of years. Because it’s 2016, and a cis-het-white male view of science is far from comprehensive, even in the name of “objectivity” and “rationalism”. In other words, if you are ignoring the larger historical, sociocultural, economic and political context of your scientific work, you’re doing it wrong.

It’s time scientists owned the part their establishments have played in oppressive regimes around the world. Considering themselves as instruments of objectivity, inquiry and impartial judgement does not inoculate them against the biases and prejudices of society at large. Perhaps a deeper awareness of present scientific institutions and hierarchies will help students of science understand the continued follies of scientific positivism and ahistoricism, and we are no longer in an era where the scientific establishment can afford to keep operating in such a way.

The biggest takeaway from the entire #FeministGlaciology debacle is perhaps the extent to which working scientists and academics remain oblivious to the history and power relations of their own fields, and thereby risk perpetuating the same errors as their predecessors in producing not only biased and flawed results, but an exclusionary epistemology, and by extension work environment. In 2016, this will simply not do.





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