Inspired Part 3: Are Numerical Measurements Intention in Disguise?

I want to share some more thoughts which occurred to me while reading John Tresch’s The Romantic Machine recently. I wish to elaborate more on what I missed in the book: intent(ion(ality)) on the machine users’ part. Tresch asserted that he didn’t aim at writing “a story about good intentions gone wrong, or about the sinister underpinnings of seemingly liberatory projects” (25). This is certainly legitimate, but I was wondering: Why not? Doing so would be perfectly in line with my concern for researchers’ hidden agendas, how far these fertilize or corrupt science, and to what extent they make it more or less easy for politics to adapt scientific results for their own purposes—as I pointed out in my paper on “Making Normal Sexuality” and tried to explain with a little more detail in a recent post.

The complex of “making up people” with science and technology as well as the transfer of these labels between science, politics and society keeps buzzing around my head. You might have noticed that I am writing not as much on the neurosciences as The Semipermeable Membrane’s subtitle suggests, and this is the case for at least two reasons: 1) Grad school is so demanding that there is simply no time for excessive reading and writing besides coursework—which usually does not deal with sex/gender as neuroscientific experimental category—and 2) I am realizing more and more that associating constructed brain activities with individual features like sex/gender or handedness is only one instance of a much larger attempt to put human identities in numbers.

Are numerization, scaling and standardization so popular because they simplify the adaption of scientific standards in politics and society? Meaning: Is quantification the means to conceal intentional norm setting, brought into the lab either by non-scientific agents (e.g., policy makers interested in the nature of racial diversity) or ideas derived from elsewhere (e.g., Alfred Kinsey trying to justify some of his non-scientific attitudes/habits with the help of his science)? Or are numbers maybe the highest common denominator in transdisciplinary exchange, the best guarantee scientists can get to make their results appealing to a bunch of people who speak a totally different language (in politics, law, economy, …)?

Travels of (numerical) research results and their interpretation between several domains occur in various forms and directions: On the one hand, Kinsey tried to redeem non-heterosexuality scientifically before it was politically redeemed—and failed. (Why?) Verma at al.’s recent and prejudice-enforcing study on hard-wired sex/gender differences in human brains, on the other hand, seems to be a reification of social norms in line with contemporary politics. In other contexts, it’s not so clear where the measures and standards originate, and how they travel between spheres, i.e., with what intention they are sent on their journey, and by whom or from where.

This, again, makes handedness as one in many scientific investigational categories so interesting: It had been socially despised before it was politically redeemed, and only after that the continuous scientific measure followed in the form of the Edinburgh Handedness Inventory—at least I believe that this is the right sequence. (Please correct me if you need more about it. Otherwise I might research it for my dissertation.)

We could theoretically measure sex/gender on more or less continuous scales as well: hormones, genes, gonads, … But we don’t. The “fair sex,” i.e., the group of human females, has been discriminated against for a looong time, and science has been justifying social/political repression through proving female inferiority on several levels for almost the same amount of time. But why don’t we measure femininity before we admit female subjects to neuroscientific studies, and who could be interested in doing or not doing so?

I am almost1 impatiently looking forward to the NeuroGenderings III Conference in Lausanne this May: There is a lot going on with regard to constructive critique of the neurosciences, not only bashing. If you would like to learn more about that, join us in Switzerland!

1Only “almost,” because I will learn so much more until then that will help me to engage with even more stimulating ideas there!

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