Modernity as a disillusionment of the public, being brought forth from the depths of superstition into the shining glean of scientific truth, would seem to be a common theme in discussions of twentieth century understanding of the world. With a reading public that is forever becoming more science literate and trusting of scientific fact, scientific authority would seem to be growing ever stronger in the twentieth century, aided by a world that grows ever more reliant on STEM field jobs. However, science, and the authoritative position which it would seem to currently hold, may be a bit more complicated than it looks at first glance. Since science is a cultural system, is reflective of society as a whole, and it is my assertion that science is not only immersed in its own version of a caste system, but also has its authority questioned by the societal caste system within which it inhabits. Because of this double layered caste system, scientific authority maintains different levels for different people at different times. I will be investigating what scientific authority means to women during the twentieth century. I plan to investigate what scientific authority meant across racial divides for women by looking at the work of two women who were writing in the same decade but of fundamentally different gendered experiences, Naomi Weisstein in 1977 and Mae King in 1975. The relationship which these women have with science can speak volumes about the relationships which different parts of a larger, literate public have to modern ideas about scientific authority.

My conceptualization of science being a caste system while working within a caste system, seems complicated, and as such, warrants an explanation. There is a hierarchy within science, outside of the academic and institutional hierarchy which exists in most fields of research and academic inquiry. The so-called “hard” and “soft” sciences have become ingrained in the popular notion of science, that there are subjects which are more prestigious and intellectually rigorous than others. Physics, chemistry, and biology dominate public consciousness, partially because of initiatives on the part of educators to emphasize their practical and logical superiority[1], and partially because subjectivity has become something to be weeded out in the sciences. The second level of the caste system of science exists within the public consciousness in the form of what aspects of science are taken as true and what aspects are still to be doubted by a public at large. The two examples which I can give to this exist within biology. Germ theory nearly completely permeated the public consciousness to the point where there is an industry surrounding the eradication of bacteria and germs from our lives, even though they are particles which we cannot see or even understand as a biologically illiterate public, while evolution is a concept which is still highly debated and controversial, despite the fact that many aspects of evolution are plainly apparent through observation. Scientific authority exists on different levels, with belief still playing a role in the way scientific “truth” is discussed.

Since I have brought up the idea of belief in science, it would be important to define what I mean when I discuss scientific authority. To me, scientific authority is the idea that science has taken precedence as a cultural system of truth over that of religion or any other cultural system. In the same way that some religious people tout their beliefs as fact which cannot be argued, the same holds true for science today, where some members of the scientific community hold that scientific “truth” and “fact” cannot be argued. However, since it is my assertion that science is simply another cultural system within which people find a concept of truth, belief is still very much an aspect of this system, and must be allowed. Thus, scientific authority lies in the conceptualization of a belief system, rather than in the actual system of truth which people derive from their beliefs.

Even within the context of what was once the seemingly progressive context of the twenty-first-century, the discussion of women in science is still fraught with controversy. Be it encouraging younger women to enter STEM fields or addressing the ever present specter of sexism in the workplace, gender remains an issue when it comes to modern science, and thus is an issue when it comes to exploring the question of scientific authority. Inserting women into the narrative of history of science in many other centuries seems to be an issue, since sources are an issue on many different levels. However, the twentieth century is proving to be different than other centuries in that not only are women being inserted into the narrative, but they are directly part of the questions surrounding science and the authority which it began to gain throughout the century. Naomi Weisstein in her 1977 piece, “How can a little girl like you teach a big class of men?” is an excellent example of women working to piece through this idea of authority within the scientific community and the way which it is inseminated into popular culture. This piece exemplifies both the levels of scientific authority within those practicing science, as well as ideas about the authority of the subject within the larger, curious public.

As I discussed earlier, there are tiers to the caste system within which science inhabits, with the first level being the caste system within the cultural system of science, or the hierarchy of subjects, as well as the hierarchy of people within the field. From Weisstein, we see the hierarchy of authority existing within the men who practice science, not only from the moment when she is told that women do not have a place in graduate school, but every step along the way towards entering the world of research psychology. From the account of Weisstein, the reader is introduced to the way which the creation scientific knowledge, the knowledge from which science gains its authority in popular culture, is owned, through her submission of a paper and the subsequent attempt to have the men in her field take the credit from her rather than publish the results of her paper under her name.[2] If science has authority during the twentieth century, than where it originates from is important, and from the discussions of Weisstein, it would seem there is a gray area about who is creating knowledge in publications, if this is the norm of the field. The discussion of Rosalind Franklin in Biopunk also speaks to this idea. Expanding from the caste system of the field into the caste system of culture, Weisstein ends her piece by pleading for the importance of allowing woman to participate in scientific discourse, because inquiry is fundamental to what makes us human.[3] If scientific inquiry really is such a vital part of modernity and humanity, than not allowing half of the human population (the feminine gender) to participate in that discourse robs them of their ability to participate in humanity. This question of who gets to participate in scientific discourse speaks directly to the question about what level of authority does science hold in twentieth century culture.

For Naomi Weisstein, the questions about who gets to participate in a scientific discourse, boil down the questions about gender in science. However, the caste system within society is reflected within the cultural system of science in more ways than class and gender, because race still plays a significant role in scientific discourse. While white women face a certain level of discrimination within the world of science, Mae King argues that to equate the fight of white women with the fight of black women within the caste system in the United States, would be to demand a sacrifice from those women that is too high of a price to pay for the systemic oppression which they face.[4] While women of color and white women share a gender, according to King, they do not share the same roles which that gender would seem to warrant. White women hold a place in the home, as a fragile creature which needs to be cared for, while that aspect of traditional “femininity” is not afforded to black women who, because of their caste, must work outside of the home in order to simply survive.[5] Definitions of authority in general change, when one inhabits a different caste. Women, King argues, are always answerable to the men in their castes, but black women are answerable to both black and white men since white men inhabit a higher caste.[6] When the very definition of authority changes, so does the way which scientific authority acts within that caste system.

The task which I set out when I began this paper was to investigate the different ways which scientific authority works at different levels, specifically for women. I think this idea of a scientific caste system, holds in the twentieth century, because we see that not only do people residing in different parts of the American caste experience science and authority in very different manners, but we also see the way which science itself reflects the cultures within which it resides. However, something which I mentioned earlier, about science as a cultural system and the importance of belief within any cultural system has stuck with me for the rest of the paper. Often, in a twenty-first-century world, people who discuss science, discuss the importance of truth, and fact, while dispelling the importance of belief in science. Often, phrases such as “facts are true whether you believe them or not” give to science the ultimate authority, because they have removed belief from the equation, and created facts which cannot be questioned. The more that I thought about the importance of science in a modern society, the more I find this notion troubling, because belief without question, seems dangerous. Science is a cultural system, a way of explaining the world, much in the same way religion is, and asking questions about the authority that it holds are important, because they allow us to question the concepts of belief and truth, which I fear we are no longer questioning.

[1] John Rudolph. Scientists in the Classroom: Cold War Reconstruction of American Science Education Palgrave (2002): 139

[2] Naomi Weissein. “How can a little girl like you teach a big class of men?” CWLU herstory project (1977)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Mae King. “Oppression and Power: The Unique Status of the Black Woman in the American Political System” Social Science Quarterly 56, No. 1 (1975): 128

[5] Ibid., 120

[6] Ibid., 117