Are satellite measurements of climate parameters a masculinist attempt at fake objectivity that boils down to nothing other than pornography? Is glaciology just a form of “western science” that actively suppressing other ways of knowing because of its reliance on mathematical models and advanced technological equipment? Are glaciers offended when people cook with grease near them? Will fat turn into another glacier if left overnight? Is the world so chaotic and unpredictable that scientific investigation into glaciers is fundamentally impossible because of the supposed gendered nature of empirical research methods?
Sometimes you run across published papers that are so batshit that you cannot possibly fathom how they were published, passed peer-review or even funded. One such paper is the postmodernist piece “Glaciers, gender, and science” that was written by Mark Carey, M Jackson, Alessandro Antonello and Jaclyn Rushing and published in Progress in Human Geography in 2016. This post takes a closer look at this review paper with particular focus on its rampant abuse and misrepresentation of satellite measurements as a technique to monitor climate change.
Getting the role of ice in climate science wrong
The problems begin at the very start of the introduction. Here, Carey and colleagues (henceforth Carey et al.) charges into climate science and mischaracterize the role of ice and glaciers as means to understand and measure climate change:
Glaciers are icons of global climate change, with common representations stripping them of social and cultural contexts to portray ice as simplified climate change yardsticks and thermometers. In geophysicist Henry Pollack’s articulation, “Ice asks no questions, presents no arguments, reads no newspapers, listens to no debates. It is not burdened by ideology and carries no political baggage as it crosses the threshold from solid to liquid. It just melts” (Pollack, 2009: 114). This perspective appears consistently in public discourse, from media to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
This is, of course, completely untrue. Glaciers play a crucial role in climate science for a wealth of reasons. They offer a stunning visualization of the effects of warming that does not depend on mathematical models or political biases. If a glacier has been reduced by 40% over a certain period, then that is just a brute fact and no amount of political ideology or climate denialist misinformation can change that.
Water from glaciers also provide freshwater and electricity for many millions of people around the world and has important roles in agriculture. IPCC is aware of these issues and have entire rapports that focus on these very issues. One of the newest such reports is The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report from Working Group II called “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability” that can be found here with a shorter summary for policymakers that can be found here.
Indeed, Carey goes on to mention some of these factors later in the introduction, but only as a means to knock down the straw man he has erected in the very first three sentences of the paper. This hows that the Carey paper has an ignorant view of the way glaciers are seen and used in climate science research.
Abusing scientific language
As is common with many postmodernist assaults on science, they typically invent their own terms or radically alter the way technical terms are used in science for their own ideological goals (this technique is often referred to as the Troll’s truism). A great example occurs later in the introduction:
As a point of departure, we use “glaciology” in an encompassing sense that exceeds the immediate scientific meanings of the label, much as feminist critiques of geography, for example, have expanded what it is that “geography” might mean vis-à-vis geographic knowledge
Scientific terminology is designed to be unambiguous and clear because this facilitates testability and understanding. You do not get to redefine scientific terms to suit the ideological goals of your analysis before it has even begun. If Casey et al. want to talk about perceived problems with glaciology as a scientific field, they are going to have to play by the rules. It does not matter that some other ideologue has done it in the past as two wrongs do not make a right. Pseudoscience activists have abused scientific language for centuries, but that is in no way, shape or form an argument for why it is a legitimate way to go about things.
Glacier knowledge is about glaciers, not men
Casey et al. quickly spiral out of control in the next section of the paper which tries to give a rationale for “feminist glaciology”. In reality, this has nothing to do with feminism (see below) and the argument provided are so extremely weak to the point of absurdity:
Most existing glaciological research – and hence discourse and discussions about cryospheric change – stems from information produced by men, about men, with manly characteristics, and within masculinist discourses.
While it is true that most researchers who focus on glaciers are men, this does not mean that their research is somehow about men rather than glaciers? If you use satellites to measure glacier parameters, the results you get are numbers that refer to those glacier parameters. It is not research results about men themselves and the data does not have “manly characteristics” or part of a “masculinist discourse”. This excessive use of gendered claims also makes Casey et al. superficially committed to the gender binary, despite disavowing it several times in the paper.
Actually, satellite data is an incredibly accurate method
The next target for postmodernist “deconstruction” is the use of satellites for measuring glacier parameters. I kid you not, this is what is actually being claimed by the authors:
More recently, glaciology has also been central to earth systems science that often relies on remote sensing from satellite imagery to suggest broader claims of objectivity but is actually akin to the “god trick of seeing everything from nowhere” (Haraway, 1988: 581; also see Shapin, 1998).
The reason why researchers use satellites is because they can provide highly accurate data from local, regional and global perspectives. It is because of these tools and the decades of data they have produces, that we can be reasonably confident in our conclusions about climate change. It is not “remote sensing” or a false claim to objectivity.
What are “alternative ways of knowing” about glaciers?
Another common trick in the postmodernist playbook is to trout out the “other ways of knowing” claim:
Crucially for feminist glaciology, feminist political ecology argues for the integration of alternative ways of knowing, beyond diverse women’s knowledges to include – more broadly – the unsettling of Eurocentric knowledges, the questioning of dominant assumptions, and the diversification of modes and methods of knowledge production through the incorporation of everyday lived experiences, storytelling, narrative, and visual methods
What “other ways of knowing” does Carey et al. propose? There are no such ways or methods presented in the paper and they certainly do not demonstrate that their “other ways of knowing” (whatever those might be) produces empirically verifiable facts about glaciers or their role in climate change.
Credibility of scientific fields are based on evidence
This is where the paper goes completely off the rails when it completely neglects the role of evidence in the credibility of scientific models:
The history of glaciology is not simply about the ubiquity of men and the absence and/or erasure of women. It is also about how scientific practices and results are gendered. Many natural science fields have historically been defined by, and their credibility built upon, manly attributes such as heroic (often nationalistic) exploration and triumphs over hostile, wild, and remote landscapes (Terrall, 1998).
No, the credibility of scientific models have been based on evidence. Although irrational ideologies such as nationalism has gotten in the way on some occasions, these have been defeated within the scientific community time and time again because the evidence was just not there. No matter how high regard Aristotle was held, he was disproved by Newton and Newton’s models were replaced by general relativity and quantum mechanics as science progressed. The credibility of these natural science fields did not have their credibility built on “gendered scientific results”. Basically, Carey et al. confuse the (trivial) fact that science is socially and culturally influenced with the anti-science delusion that scientific facts are “socially constructed”. This is another case of the technique called “Troll’s truism”.
The world is neither unpredictable nor chaotic
Besides dismissing natural sciences as merely masculinist socially constructed knowledge, Carey et al. descend even further into batshit territory. On their view, science cannot even in principle work because nature is chaotic and unpredictable:
Feminist science studies began critiquing the gendered dimensions of environmental knowledge several decades ago (Merchant, 1980; Plumwood, 1993; Haraway, 1988). These scholars and others since (e.g. Buck et al., 2014) have argued that the Baconian view of knowledge engendered a strong tendency in the environmental sciences to classify, measure, map, and, ideally, dominate and control nonhuman nature as if it were a knowable and predictable machine, rather than dynamic, chaotic, unpredictable, and coupled natural-human systems.
Yes, you read that correctly. Carey et al. thinks that science is gendered because it uses measurements to gain knowledge about the world and make predictions and that nature is fundamentally “chaotic” and “unpredictable”. As has been pointed out several times before, these postmodernist activists have no problem taking a plane to a postmodernist conference on the other side of the world to lecture about the supposed “socially constructed” nature of science without any problem, despite apparently genuinely believing that planes cannot work! Planes are run on Newtonian physics that requires nature to be both predictable and full of regularity.
New technologies and computer modelling is essential to glacier research
In an epic combination of arrogance and ignorance, Carey et al. thinks that things like new technologies and even computer modelling is just a masculinist discourse:
Such feminist critiques apply today to glaciology, climate sciences, and global environmental change research more broadly. Terry (2009: 6), for example, argues that climate discourse ‘is still a stereotypically ‘‘masculine’’ one, of new technologies, large-scale economic instruments, and complex computer modeling’, which for glaciers can render them static, essentialized, and passive (also see Moosa and Tuana, 2014).
Anyone with a tiny bit of knowledge of glaciers knows that new technologies have been crucial for gathering data about glaciers and the environment and complex computer modeling is required to effectively use and handle big datasets produces by climate research and for making predictions in a complex reality with a multitude of important influencing factors. This is not just some “stereotypically masculinist discourse”.
“Technoscientific control” of climate via geoengineering is not mainstream
Another case of depressing ignorance about climate change mitigation strategies is displayed by the authors when the topic changes to geoengineering:
Fleming (2010) finds a similar story of domination in the climate sciences, in which 20th-century scientists and engineers used cloud seeding and other geoengineering strategies to manipulate weather, steer storms, and make rain. Technoscientific control is a dominant trope in climate change discourse and knowledge, and it is by nature highly gendered (Israel and Sachs, 2013).
In reality, geoengineering as a method to prevent climate change is an approach that is outside mainstream climate efforts that have largely focused on reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. This is because things like sulfur emissions in the atmosphere to cool the earth has to be maintained over long time periods that we know are incompatible with the history of societies. Here, Carey et al. are just grasping at straws.
There is no “western science”
The next trope that gets trotted out is the complains about “western science” and some more trash-talking about satellite measurements:
Much geographical fieldwork involves this masculinist reflexivity generating supposed objectivity through distance from and disinterest in the subject (Coddington, 2015; Sundberg, 2003). These conclusions transcend gendered dimensions of knowledge by acknowledging broader trends in Western sciences that have sought to place science at a god-like vantage from nowhere, ignoring both situated knowledges and the geography of science (Haraway, 1988; Shapin, 1998; Livingstone, 2003).
Satellite measurements is objective science, but not because of distance or disinterest. It is because they are highly accurate and can leverage a lot of power to record large datasets from diverse sources. This should be so easy to understand, but when ideology comes in the way, it can hamper the understanding of very basic things.
Contrary to Carey et al. there is no such thing as “western science”, just like there is no such thing as “polytheist geometry”, “eastern medicine” or “German physics”. The great thing with science is that researchers from different cultures, religions and backgrounds come to the same general conclusion (within measurement error) on well-defined scientific questions. You can measure some physical constant in New York and in Beijing and you will get comparable results. If you mix two chemicals and get a certain result in Belgium, you will get the same Result in Saudi Arabia under similar conditions. Science is universal. It is not “western” or “eastern”.
Failure to distinguish the science from the mass media hype
If there was any doubt that the postmodernist arguments presented in this paper is severely out of touch with reality, this has no vanished:
A recent feature in the New York Times follows researchers onto the Greenland ice sheet, for example, where they race against time and a precarious helicopter, survive the ‘frozen landscape’ of this hostile environment, and altruistically overcome death to get glacier runoff data. […] The article focuses very little on the scientific questions asked, or even the scientific implications of the study beyond broad claims about glacier shrinkage and sea level rise. It focuses instead on the processes of doing glaciological science, not the science itself.
In other words, Carey et al. failed to distinguish scientific research from sensationalist journalism in mass media portrayals of glacier research. Most people who have any background in science know that mass media often incorrectly portray research results, and sometimes feature vulgar mischaracterizations that spread outright misinformation to their readers. Instead of understanding this, they use this as an “argument” for why glacier research is somehow intrinsically “masculinist”. An obvious case of intellectually dishonest cherry-picking of media stories instead of reading actual climate research to fit their narrative.
Actually, scientists who are also women can do math and use advanced technology
These issues clearly demonstrate why this paper promotes pseudoscience, but where is the bigotry? The bigotry comes in with their harmful description of women and ethnic minorities who live near glaciers.
Current climate change discussions, for example, perpetuate power discrepancies through what Israel and Sachs (2013: 34–5) refer to as ‘the centrality of mathematical and technological science . . . structured by masculinist ideologies of domination and mastery’, thus determining who can or cannot participate in climate science and policy-making. Such institutional, cultural, and scientific practices also affect glaciological knowledge.
I do not know why this even has to be pointed out, but there are literally millions of researchers out there who are women that are proficient with the use of mathematical tools and technology. It is also unclear what kind of policies Carey wants to make that cannot be based on the best available tools and data that science can give us. Why base policy-decisions on less knowledge?
While it is true that there are lots of productive things that can be done to increase participating and interesting in traditionally male-dominated fields like glaciology, this kind of nonsense has nothing to do with feminism and undervaluing women’s capabilities like this is decidedly anti-feminist at its core.
Indigenous people are portrayed as believe batshit ideas about how grease “offends” glaciers
Besides insinuating that women cannot handle the mathematical tools and advanced satellite technology, the paper also has a very ignorant description of people who live near glaciers:
Additionally, whereas glaciologists may try to measure glaciers and understand ice physics by studying the glacial ice itself, indigenous accounts do not portray the ice as passive, to be measured and mastered in a stereotypically masculinist sense. ‘The glaciers these women speak of’, explains Cruikshank (2005: 51–3), ‘engage all the senses. [The glaciers] are willful, capricious, easily excited by human intemperance, but equally placated by quick-witted human responses. Proper behavior is deferential. I was warned, for instance, about firm taboos against ‘‘cooking with grease’’ near glaciers that are offended by such smells. . . . Cooked food, especially fat, might grow into a glacier overnight if improperly handled.’ The narratives Cruikshank collected show how humans and nature are intimately linked, and subsequently demonstrate the capacity of folk glaciologies to diversify the field of glaciology and subvert the hegemony of natural sciences.
Glaciers are not offended by people cooking with grease near them and fat cannot grow into a glacier overnight. Although you might be able to find some people who live near glaciers who believe this (just like you can find some people on wall street who believes in astrology or homeopathy), this paper portrays indigenous people as trapped in religious mythology without the capability of rational thought. This is both incorrect and unfair and neglects the diversity among people living near glaciers across the world. In essence, Carey et al. have merely hijacking some indigenous narratives to undermine scientific knowledge.
What does it mean for “glaciers are offended by grease” to be valid?
The goal is neither to force glaciologists to believe that glaciers listen nor to make indigenous peoples put their full faith in scientists’ mathematical equations and computer-generated models (devoid of meaning, spirituality, and reciprocal human-nature relationships). Rather, the goal is to understand that environmental knowledge is always based in systems of power discrepancies and unequal social relations, and overcoming these disparities requires accepting that multiple knowledges exist and are valid within their own contexts.
At the very least, Carey et al. admits that his goal is not to force glacier researchers to import specific mythologies into the accumulated scientific knowledge. However, he wants to have us believe that knowledge about the environment is always (!) based on “systems of power discrepancies and unequal social relations” and that “multiple knowledges exist and are valid within their own contexts”. One wonders if their postmodernist ideology is not itself based on these discrepancies and social relations and what it even means for “glaciers are offended by grease” to be valid. How do you know? There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing cultural anthropology research into communities live near glaciers, but we should not pretend that “glaciers are offended by grease” is a valid description of reality in any way.
Are satellites a form of male gaze and are satellite images pornographic?
There are so many batshit claims and ideas in this postmodernist glaciology review paper that it is hard to select which of them is the worse. Here is one that might shock even the most seasoned veteran in the science wars:
Burko also paints glaciers from an aerial, top down perspective, one that appropriates a gaze generally associated with scientific credibility and accuracy. Such a gaze has been troubled by feminist researchers who argue that the ‘conquering gaze’ makes an implicit claim on who has the power to see and not be seen
Burko’s aerial paintings additionally interact with common representations of glaciers through images constructed with GIS and satellite technologies. Garb (1994) applies a feminist science studies lens to consider this ‘distant-view’ as masculine, reminiscent of detached, voyeuristic, ‘pornographic’ images.
In other words, the claim is that satellite research is really just a form of “male gaze” and that their data constitute porn. This is probably among the worst offenders, because there is nothing pornographic about satellite data and satellites are not related to any “male gaze”, since satellite do not have genders.
The intellectual responsibility of funding agencies and journals
How as this “research” (and I use the term loosely) funded? The review paper tells us:
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This work is based upon work supported by the US National Science Foundation under grant #1253779. Thanks to the Geography Colloquium Series at Ohio State University for valuable input on this project.
So this the work that went into researching and writing this paper was supported by the U. S. National Science Foundation. Let us see how big grant this was. We use the grant ID number and go to the NSF website and here is what we find. So far, over 400k USD has been awarded for this grant. Although only partly used for this review paper, it is baffling how the National Science Foundation has so little quality control for their grants.
This paper was published in the journal Progress in Human Geography. With its 5.2 impact factor, it is the second most highly ranked journal in the field of geography. How did it get published? Why did peer-review fail to weed out this low quality paper?
Many questions remain, but funding agencies and journals have an intellectually responsibility to keep this low quality (and at times batshit) paper out. Some people have even gone so far as to suggest that this is a hoax paper written by someone who do not actually believe it, but wanted to trick people into accepting it as legitimate (in much the same spirit as the Sokal hoax). However, the first author has defended the paper in an interview on the website of the journal Science that can be read here.
In the end, there is very little doubt that this kind of “postmodernist glaciology” is a thinly veiled form of pseudoscientific bigotry. It arrogantly declare science to be corrupt, that measuring climate parameters with satellites is a form of masculinist pornography, and condescendingly talk about women in science and indigenous people living near glaciers. The paper does have a few things going for it. It highlights the underrepresentation of women and programs designed to encourage women to take part in glaciology (and the problem is even worse than the paper suggests due to sexism and sexual assaults during field trips), but all the pseudoscientific nonsense about climate research, “western science” and satellite measurement makes the paper look like a farcical hoax.