What’s In a Name? Situated Neuroscience and the Philosophy of Feminist Biology

The beauty of science is that it is a constantly churning, constantly evolving process. It is the discovery of knowledge, upon which more knowledge can be layered. The best part about this process is that it forces us to consider perspectives which we may not have before, in order to gain understanding of the material world. Take the principle that the world is round. In a time when the flatness of the Earth was considered to be fact, Plato, Pythagoras, and Aristotle were among the first to even try and think otherwise. Advancements in Greek astronomy and Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world in the 1500s later disproved the flatness “fact”, but it was the context provided by those early iconoclasts, Plato, Pythagoras, and Aristotle, that was the necessary step in this process. Without their knowledge keys, the door to spherical Earth science would not have otherwise opened.

Today, considering other perspectives seems to be a fundamental principle of innovative science. The scientific method has shown us time and time again that what we thought were basic facts can be disproved and those, can be disproved further. Modern technology has even allowed us to explore far beyond what is visible to the naked eye: discoveries made with new inventions such as microscopes, telescopes, CRISPR, and even MRI machines have forced us to accept that yes, anything is indeed possible. So in a time where such thorough investigations capable of disproving what we think are “facts” are so accessible, what does keeping an open mind even mean? What other perspectives do we need to consider? The answer is still the same as it was in 300 B.C.E.: it is not just accepting what we find in our experiments, but understanding the context within which they occur in the first place.

This is where situated knowledges comes in – the belief that there is no single view on knowledge but that all knowledge is created within a context which will provide different views. The term was initially coined in 1988 by Dr. Donna Haraway, a professor at U.C. Santa Cruz, in her paper ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.’ Haraway posited that objectivity was often a masquerade of neutrality that wasn’t actually all that neutral – it, in fact, had a male, white, and heterosexual position. For truly neutral science, we had to think beyond our biases to even start formulating questions that expand from this context.

Dr. Gillian Einstein, the Principle Investigator of the Einstein Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience, Gender, and Health at the University of Toronto believes that a situated perspective is an extremely important one for neuroscience. She adopted the term ‘Situated Neuroscience’ as the underlying philosophy for her lab and her research. “There’s no such thing as an objective brain or an objective nervous system,” she says. “The nervous system changes, it learns, it is plastic, and that depends on context. So you can’t just study it as if it were a brain in a vat of formaldehyde isolated from the rest of the body and the rest of the world.”

How can we practice situated science?

“One thing we can do is acknowledge our own biases,” Dr. Einstein affirms. “We can also work on a question that is meaningful to the people who will be affected by it. In human studies you can ask [your participants]: Is this question interesting to you? Does it matter to you?” When she first started studying the neurobiology of pain in Somali women in Toronto who have female genital cutting (FGC), this was one of the first things she did. “You can also do this with animal work,” she continues. “You can certainly try to link what you are studying [in animals] to a human problem in a way that makes the exploration important to the population.”

Dr. Einstein also believes that the inclusion of this kind of thinking in science requires a paradigm shift. “You may think that you’re glomming up your report by including a lot of ‘experience’ information, but you are not. Readers will know important things about the particular group you’re studying,” she says. She urges researchers who do not have enough data to analyze their data by combining women and men, controlling for sex but then, to also separately study the sex for which they have the largest numbers. “At least that way, you could say something about the sex you’re studying,” she reasons. “For example, when we’re looking at male rodents we should admit that we’re looking at male rodents and not generalize it to all rodents. I did a study on dentate granule cells in the rat hippocampus, and all I could say about that study fairly is that it was about dentate granule cells in white rats of a certain age and sex under certain conditions.” This enables the reader to know who has been studied and not assume that the data are generalizable across all conditions. Because, they are not. Dr. Einstein also believes this is applicable when citing studies in literature reviews. “I’ve noticed that when people include literature reviews in their papers on sex differences, they’ll cite existing papers but will never say whether the literature was carried out in males, females, or both,” she says. “ And that’s really important. It makes a stronger argument for why you should be doing what you’re doing. Because if you find that they’ve controlled for sex in the studies you’re citing, you could argue that it is still necessary to compare males and females.”

Does this mean we need feminist science?

While the inclusion of more female participants and animals in studies is definitely a step forward in the right direction, Dr. Einstein believes that there is more to the concept of a ‘feminist science.’ “A lot of people confuse feminist science with studying females or bringing more female scientists to the pipeline,” she explains. “Those things are important, but to me feminist science is a whole different way of looking at the scientific question. It is first and foremost an acknowledgment of only partial knowledge, and an acknowledgement of why we have the ideas we have,” she continues. “And I think we need that. Because as everybody’s learning, biology is far more complex than anybody’s ever thought it was, and we need to lay out the complexity, not hide it.”

Part of acknowledging the complexity of biology is to acknowledge the context within which it exists, she believes. And addressing that context may require different tools than what we, as scientists, are traditionally equipped with. In her project on the neurobiology of FGC, Dr. Einstein wanted to measure pressure-pain thresholds. Apart from studying the physiology of FGC and giving standard pain questionnaires, she also wanted to conduct a semi-structured interview. However, she found that the Somali women in her advisory group did not structure their answers according to her questions. They had other things they wanted to talk about. “I then thought about whether I was doing a violence to their experience by forcing their experiences into categories,” she explains. “So I started doing qualitative interviewing, and it’s since become one of the tools in my work.” She explains that the methodology she used for her study is what she calls ‘Very Mixed Methods.’ “The idea is that you conduct theoretically objective measures, and then you incorporate subjective measures, as well as physiological methods,” she elaborates, stating her belief that scientists should do justice to both the quantitative and the qualitative aspects of their questions. “Put them up next to each other and see how they align,” she says, “And don’t subordinate one to another.”

So how does the Einstein Lab practice this situated, feminist science? “Well, first of all I try to ask questions that matter to the people I’m studying,” Dr. Einstein says. “I think about my prejudices. I really try to be open to information that does not match my prejudices.” She goes on to explain how this applies to a project the lab is currently carrying out, on women who have undergone bilateral salpingo-oophorectomies. The researchers in her lab investigate how dramatic estrogen depletion in these women affects their memory. “I was so convinced that we were going to see obvious hippocampal problems in women with oophorectomies,” she states. “I kept pushing and pushing that as my hypothesis. But, while we see it, it takes detailed methods to show those changes. You know what it doesn’t take detailed methods to show? Frontal cortical problems. It took me a long time to wrap my head around that,” she admits. “You’re supposed to keep an open mind as a scientist. You have to be willing to shift your hypothesis or accept data that don’t agree with your hypothesis.” Dr. Einstein pushes for this philosophy in her lab, where she constantly encourages her lab members to keep an open mind and challenge their prejudices. Most importantly, researchers in her lab always acknowledge why the studies they’re running are important to their participants – after all, it is their context that lays the groundwork for the science to follow. Ultimately, the addition of this meaningful layer to the existing body of science research adds another dimension to our own understanding.

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