University of Calgary

Evelyn Fox Keller brings whiff of U.S. feminist and science wars to campus for a day

UToday HomeApril 10, 2013

By Frank W. Stahnisch

Evelyn Fox Keller, MIT Professor Emerita of the History and Philosophy of Science (second from right), met with grad students and faculty members (from right) Jesse Hendrikse, Cooper Langford and Frank Stahnisch as she discussed research paradigms in climate science, biomedicine, and the development of the field of history and philosophy of science.Evelyn Fox Keller, MIT Professor Emerita of the History and Philosophy of Science (second from right), met with grad students and faculty members (from right) Jesse Hendrikse, Cooper Langford and Frank Stahnisch as she discussed research paradigms in climate science, biomedicine, and the development of the field of history and philosophy of science. Photo courtesy Frank W. StahnischThe campus visit by Evelyn Fox Keller proved to be a time warp in many respects as she met with researchers and students at the University of Calgary on April 1.

Professor Emerita of the History and Philosophy of Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Keller came to Calgary as a visiting professor through the SSHRC-funded Strategic Knowledge Cluster Program.

Early in the morning she visited Ariel Ducey’s sociology class on technoscience and biomedicalization. Just to puzzle all students and attendees, Keller remarked that she did “not belong” to any recognized academic discipline but rather considered herself to be a “public provocateur.”

Indeed, she has had an immense impact on global scholarship with ground-breaking books such as A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock (1983), an early case study that helped establish the field of science and technology studies in the United States; Reflections on Gender and Science (1985), which made her one of the founding figures of the feminist movement in North American academia; and The Century of the Gene (2000), that made her one of the foremost historians and philosophers of the modern life sciences.

When Keller spoke, there was a noticeable silence as she recalled her first career in theoretical physics and molecular biology at Harvard University, about which she said: “One could not have been lonelier as a woman in a physics department in the 1950s and 1960s in the Unites States.

“I was a complete outsider in the classroom and my professors told me that a woman could not think scientifically – how much the world of science has changed since then, where women now have all of the very same opportunities as men!”

In an afternoon meeting with faculty members and graduate students from the departments of philosophy and communication and culture, Keller was interested to hear about local research projects and academic collaborations.

Her lecture to a packed TFDL Gallery Hall, entitled Paradigm Shifts and Revolutions in Contemporary Biology, addressed the publication 50 years ago of the highly influential book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,by Thomas Kuhn. She was outspoken about the timeliness and continued impact on the scientific and scholarly community of this monograph. Again, Keller surprised her audience by calling herself a “post-Kuhnian” in recognition of the huge progress made in the science and technology studies during the last half-century.

Nevertheless, she expressed her surprise that it was unfortunate the “big picture approaches” have become outdated in the field of research scholarship. She emphasized that there was a need for such research and that this research often takes a long time to develop, as in Kuhn’s groundbreaking study – for the purposes of academic synthesis and the need for structure and depth in student education.

Fox’s perspectives on the evolutionary trajectories of science and research led to dynamic exchanges of thought from disciplines as diverse as biology, sociology, medicine and communication and culture. Her responses — as always at major conferences and in public debates — were provocative and intellectually poignant.

 

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