Asking Different Questions: Women and Science. Directed by Gwynne Basen and Erna Buffie. Montreal: National Film Board of Canada, 1996. 51 minutes.
Race - The Power of an Illusion (Episode One: The Difference between Us). Directed by Christine Herbes-Sommers. San Francisco: California Newsreel, 2003. 58 minutes.
The Condor and the Eagle. Directed by Sophie Guerra and Clément Guerra. Los Angeles: Good Docs, 2019. 82 minutes.
In the current moment, what counts as scientific truth or as truth more broadly has taken on new importance in everyday news and politics. The terms “fake news” and “alternative facts” became everyday terms during the Trump administration (2016-20). In 2021, the “truth” about everything from last year’s US presidential election to climate change to racism to evolution to gender to the pandemic appears to be on the table. Feminists (and other critical thinkers) have long challenged the ideas of singular truths and absolute neutrality, showing that all knowledge is produced within specific cultural and historical contexts, who speaks these truths matters, and what questions we ask impacts what we can know. How can these feminist insights be useful in navigating the political landscape today, which, at times, feels like you must choose between defending Western science or siding with right-wing political and cultural forces that claim science is biased? Luckily, feminist science studies scholars have been hard at work over the last several decades, not only critiquing science’s objectivity but creating new possibilities for contextualized knowledge production that responds to our real-world problems. These lessons can be brought together by teaching feminist critical science literacy—in our classrooms and in the streets.
Here I review three films that together provide the basis for teaching feminist critical science literacy. Asking Different Questions: Women and Science, challenges the idea of objectivity and links the kinds of questions that are asked (hence the title) to different worldviews. The filmmaker interviews feminist scientists who have been directly affected by both the male dominance in their fields and the kinds of scientific questions they have been trained to ask. Grappling with the lack of diversity and critiquing science as a practice and culture, these conversations reveal that simply increasing diversity without challenging dominant assumptions will not change the larger impact of science on our society. A feminist science approach, therefore, gives us examples of how to navigate these worlds and creates new ways of continuing to work on producing scientific knowledge.
After learning these critiques of science proper, students often ask how to produce scientific knowledge, and I have not seen another film that shows such concrete examples of people doing science differently.1 It creates space to imagine what science could be. Despite the dated video production quality, I find it useful in setting up questions about positionality and science. This film can work at the beginning or the end of a semester to help frame the course or bring together the key points. Regardless, I recommend teaching it with some of the more classic critiques of scientific objectivity or with environmental and reproductive justice movements and public health community-based participatory research.2
The second film is episode one of the three-part series Race - The Power of an Illusion. It is also an older film but still very relevant (unfortunately) and provides an interdisciplinary take on the science of race by situating it historically and socially and, at the same time, going through an experiment demonstrating the lack of genetic racial characteristics. The episode intersperses two sets of dialogues: one is a multiracial group of students undertaking the experiment and talking about their assumptions and the results, and the other consists of interviews with scientists and other scholars about the historical formation of the concept of race in biology, which fails to meet its own defining characteristics according to scientific methods. The film skillfully takes the viewer through typical arguments and counterarguments to conclude that race does not have a basis in biology but nonetheless is a very real factor in the health, educational, and work opportunities for individuals and whole communities. Some of the most compelling counterpoints to biological definitions of race come through the intertwined visual and narrative components. For example, in dispelling the idea that there are a small set of discrete skin colors, the film moves the viewer from the equator northward, showing that this trait changes gradually. I suggest accompanying the film with texts that explain further how our biologies (our bodies and biological outcomes) change due to how the concept of race (and also gender, class, etc.) structures our lives as well as with the film’s website, which includes additional information and commentary.3 More specifically, educators may want to explore how socially produced differences (e.g., gender, race, class) result in health disparities as well as non-health-related bodily differences.4
The final film, The Condor and the Eagle, follows the story of indigenous activists across the Americas as they fight at very local levels and come together to build a global movement and support each other’s struggles. The film focuses less on specific arguments about why Western science is problematic, but there are some clear examples of activist knowledges challenging these dominant narratives. For example, at one point activists in Ecuador show evidence that Texaco has not cleaned up from oil spills in their region, revealing that these industrialized ways of life are detrimental to the earth and its inhabitants. Another moment that may help Western audiences see from a different perspective is when Patricia Gualinga, a Kichwa activist from Sarayaku, Ecuador, tells Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a Lubicon Cree activist from Northern Alberta, Canada, that she cannot imagine how awful it must be to live in Canada where you cannot safely drink water directly from its source. Both scenes flip the dominant narrative that developed worlds are more advanced in terms of health and wellness and demonstrate a key critical science literacy point: there are multiple “sciences” or knowledge systems that we must take seriously to understand our world.5 They also show that indigenous activists and scholars have known for a long time that climate change is real and problematic.6 This is particularly important in regard to environmental justice, where one may feel like the only path is to “trust” scientists and defend science as “real.”
The answers that feminist critical science literacy brings us will hopefully not simply fall back into strengthening Western sciences, which have contributed much to the destruction of the world’s environments. The Condor and the Eagle shows how local and indigenous protests and organizing can be understood as a direct confrontation to the idea that scientific neutrality and objectivity are the ways to save our future. Along with claiming indigenous rights, the film makes a claim for indigenous ways of knowing which includes relationships with, respect for, and sometimes the language of “rights” for the earth or nature. At the same time, care must be taken to not romanticize the idea of indigenous knowers being closer to nature, supposedly wholly “outside” modern cultures, or as being monolithic in their thinking and knowing. This epistemological tension can be further explored through the film’s website, which has many resources geared toward engaging students and the general public in the fight for environmental justice.
These films together provide students with a strong set of resources to challenge dominant ideologies about concepts like race, capitalism, and climate change without stopping short of engaging directly with scientific truths. Once we understand science as a culturally situated institution of knowledge production, all of us become responsible for the kinds of values that inform our society’s scientific truths. My goal when teaching critical science literacy is ultimately to get students to feel both responsible for and capable of participating in scientific knowledge production, whether that be at the lab bench, in activist groups, by producing zines, or having challenging conversations with family and friends.7 These films may help educators who are not trained scientists confidently teach critical science literacy and those educators trained as scientists competently teach feminist studies ideas.
1 Deboleena Roy addresses this question: Deboleena Roy, “Feminist Theory in Science: Working toward a Practical Transformation,” Hypatia 19, no. 1 (2004): 255-79; “Asking Different Questions: Feminist Practices for the Natural Sciences,” Hypatia 23, no. 4 (2008): 134-57; “Feminist Approaches to Inquiry in the Natural Sciences: Practices for the Lab,” in The Handbook of Feminist Research: Theory and Praxis, 2nd ed., ed. Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber (Los Angeles: SAGE, 2012), 313-30.
2 See, e.g., Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 13, no. 3 (1988):575-99; Meredith Minkler and Nina Wallerstein, eds., Community-Based Participatory Research for Health: From Process to Outcomes (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2011).
3 See, e.g., Clarence C. Gravlee, “How Race Becomes Biology: Embodiment of Social Inequality,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 139, no. 1 (2009): 47-57; Ruth Hubbard, “The Political Nature of ‘Human Nature,’” in Theoretical Perspectives on Sexual Difference, ed. Deborah L. Rhode (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 63-73. Additionally, due to the pandemic at least one recent discussion of the film is now available to view online.
4 A good example is the seven-part series Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick (San Francisco: California Newsreel, 2008). I suggest pairing it with lessons on disability studies critiques of medical models of medicine, especially regarding the category of obesity, which appears uncritically as a marker of illness in the film.
5 Sandra Harding, “After Absolute Neutrality: Expanding ‘Science,’” in Feminist Science Studies: A New Generation, ed. Maralee Mayberry, Banu Subramaniam, and Lisa H. Weasel (New York: Routledge, 2001), 291-304.
6 For an example of making the case for the capability and need for local knowers in environmental decision making, see Elizabeth Burleson and Diana Pei Wu, “Non-state Actor Access and Influence in International Legal and Policy Negotiations,” Fordham Environmental Law Review 21, no. 1 (2010): 193-208.
7 Karen Barad, “Scientific Literacy → Agential Literacy = (Learning + Doing) Science Responsibly,” in Feminist Science Studies: A New Generation, ed. Maralee Mayberry, Banu Subramaniam, and Lisa H. Weasel (New York: Routledge, 2001), 226-46; Sara Giordano, “Feminists Increasing Public Understandings of Science: A Feminist Approach to Developing Critical Science Literacy Skills,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 38, no. 1 (2017): 100-23. Regarding some of the concerns I raised about indigenous knowledges and knowers, see Marc Higgins and Sara Tolbert, “A Syllabus for Response-able Inheritance in Science Education,” Parallax 24, no. 3 (2018): 273-94.