So. Inferior by Angela Saini is a whirlwind tour through science – highlighting the infuriating….lets call it sexism…that has pervaded and continues to pervade science. But also how that can problems for women’s health. It’s wonderful. It’s infuriating. I muttered more than once under my breath something about ‘patriarchy.’
What I most enjoyed about Saini’s writing was that she starts by taking this well established (and often, to me, obviously sexist) position, underpinned by some study. To be honest, sometimes these studies seemed…somewhat bullshit (a laymen’s term). REGARDLESS, what she then does is just take it right the fuck apart. Most often from newer (and to me, better work) but also just from first principles.
I think one of my favourite lines was on the chapter about sex difference in the brain.
“The problem with this question of difference and similarity is that we’re all different and we’re all similar’ says Daphna Joel. “When people want to study sex in the brain, they immediately translate this to studying sex differences. But already here they make many assumptions, and the first is that there are two population of brains, male and female. This is an assumption that needs to be shown scientifically, or proven. They say ‘This is solid ground and from here I continue.’ I question the solid ground.” p 121-122.
And what happens over and over again is showing that many scientists, in many fields, have made those assumptions and don’t back down from them. My favourite ones were those men who basically said they wouldn’t answer more questions (!)
To call it well written would be an insult. It’s brilliant. It’s a compulsive read – which in other circumstances could be trying to other authors given the range of subjects covered, papers mentioned, people interviewed. The narrative is so beautifully crafted that its easily one of the most accessible and fascinating non-fiction books I’ve read in a long time.
More than that though, it has made me extraordinarilyy angry at the persistence of Victorian (or even more bronze age) bullshit ideas. I saw echoes of the early 20th century awful people from my PhD in some of the terrible studies and positions that are still held by academics today. It’s the inability to let go of your unconscious bias (though given a few, I’m going to say its somewhat conscious bias) and let it infiltrate under the banner of science.
Anyway, I can’t believe I took so long to read this. I mean, I’m totally pissed off now, but in a good way. I need to go read some more books like this.