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Q&A: Author of ‘feminist geology’ study reflects on sudden place

A glacier cave located on the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina.

Martin St-Amant/Creative Commons

Q&A: Author of 'feminist glaciology' study reflects on sudden appearance in culture wars

Last week, science historian Mark Carey of the University of Oregon, Eugene, found himself thrust into the limelight as the latest target of conservative-leaning bloggers questioning federally funded research. In 2013, Carey received a 5-year National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Grant, one of three NSF grants he has held. He is a prolific scientist, with more than 30 articles and book chapters, as well as three books under his belt. But one article he co-authored—published in January in Progress in Human Geography—included a hot-button word guaranteed to draw some bloggers’ ire. The article, “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research,” has become the latest talking point in an ongoing controversy about NSF-funded research.

ScienceInsider talked with Carey about defining a feminist glaciology framework, how social and humanities research can help inform scientific knowledge, and how he feels about this unexpected extra attention.

Science historian Mark Carey urges the inclusion of women's viewpoints in discussions of icy landscapes.

Science historian Mark Carey urges the inclusion of women's viewpoints in discussions of icy landscapes.

Dustin Whitaker

Q: Were you aware about the brouhaha over your paper? How do you feel about it?

A: Professional research is published in journals for specialists in a given field. When removed from that context and described to nonspecialists, the research can be misunderstood and potentially misrepresented. What is surprising about the brouhaha is the high level of misinterpretations, mischaracterization, and misinformation that circulate about research and researchers—though this has, unfortunately, been happening to scientists for centuries, especially climate researchers in recent decades.

The good news is that people are talking about glaciers! But there’s much more to the story than just the glaciers. People and societies impose their values on glaciers when they discuss, debate, and study them—which is what we mean when we say that ice is not just ice. Glaciers become the platform to express people’s own views about politics, economics, cultural values, and social relations (such as gender relations). The attention during the last week proves our point clearly: that glaciers are, in fact, highly politicized sites of contestation. Glaciers don’t have a gender. But the rhetoric about ice tells us a great deal about what people think of science and gender.

Q: Were you aware that “feminist glaciology” might draw strong reactions? Was that the hope?

A: We chose the title “feminist glaciology” to provoke discussion about who is producing knowledge about glaciers and what the implications of that existing knowledge are, including whose voices are left out and what types of scientific questions are asked (and which ones might thus be ignored). We also wanted to present a variety of different sociocultural forms of glacier knowledge that go beyond science, to generate discussion. Our goal was to ask questions about the role of gender in science and knowledge—to start a conversation, not conclude the discussion.

Q: What is your primary interest, as a researcher? What other research projects are you involved in at this time?

A: I am a historian of science [and] environmental historian studying the history of glaciology as a scientific discipline, as well as how glaciers have affected societies around the world. People tend to think of glaciers as being far away, slow moving, and largely unimportant. But they actually affect millions of people worldwide by providing water for agriculture and hydroelectricity, creating icebergs that affect international shipping, influencing sea levels, and storing climate records in ice layers, among others.

I study how glaciers affect nearby societies, especially when they unleash glacial lake outburst floods and avalanches, but also through hydrologic impacts as shrinking glaciers increase seasonal runoff variability. I also examine how scientists have studied glaciers over time, whether [they are studying] 75 years of draining and damming glacial lakes in Peru, or the history of drilling ice cores at Greenland’s Camp Century military base during the Cold War. I frequently collaborate and co-author with glaciologists, climatologists, and hydrologists, as well as anthropologists, engineers, and geographers. 

[I also co-founded and am co-director of the] Transdisciplinary Andean Research Network. We study not only how glacier retreat alters the amount of water flowing out of glaciers (the natural sciences piece), but also how that water is allocated downstream among diverse populations that range from indigenous residents to hydroelectric companies (the social science aspects).

Q: In your paper, you mention the importance of including viewpoints from female scientists as well as indigenous women who may have a different viewpoint on landscapes than men. Are there any concrete examples of how feminist geography has actually altered or even improved understanding of landscapes or the environment?

A: If one goal of glacier research is to help the people living in places like the Alps and Alaska adapt to shrinking glaciers—and the associated floods, landslides, and seasonal variation in water flows for irrigation and hydroelectricity generation—then it is important to study more than the physical properties of ice. Social scientists like myself work to understand those complex societies, their politics and economies, their cultures, and, yes, their gender relations because patriarchy and sexism marginalize certain segments of the population, just as racism marginalizes indigenous, Latino, and other peoples.

Our paper argues that social science and humanities research can contribute to the development of appropriate strategies for specific and diverse societies to adapt to change. A woman’s experience securing postdisaster aid, rebuilding a home, and raising a family after a glacial lake outburst flood has destroyed her community is different than those of men. And for glaciologist Erin Pettit, the founder of the Girls on Ice program for young women to study glaciology, there is something productive and empowering that happens when high school girls learn science and conduct field research in an environment without boys.

Q: Is the idea of including a feminist science framework on the upswing?

A: When we mention that women are less represented in scientific fields studying glaciers, this is not surprising but is something we, as a scientific and professional community, need to address. There has been an increase in women studying glaciers since the 1980s, following the civil rights and equal rights movements that ushered more women and underrepresented groups into science careers. But according to geologist Christina Hulbe, women are still not participating in equal numbers or on equal footing with men in glacier-related sciences, especially at the more senior level.

There is a large and ever-growing community of researchers in science and technology studies who have been analyzing science through the lens of gender since the 1980s. The research is partly about men versus women in science but more deeply about issues of credibility and legitimacy in science: Who is able to make credible statements about the natural world, given the larger societal structures of inequality? What qualifies as legitimate science? In our current era that increasingly recognizes the importance of indigenous and other local knowledge, there has been more pluralizing of environmental knowledge, which has helped draw more researchers to the study of gender and science.

Q: The idea of man versus nature does seem inherent in a lot of geo-stories. And of course, man versus ice is in a way the ultimate extreme version of that story, from Earnest Shackleton to Into Thin Air to Chasing Ice. How does that man versus nature framework affect our understanding of glaciers or the natural landscape?

A: In the 19th century, glaciologist John Tyndall prevailed in early scientific debates about glacier motion—in part because Tyndall was a more prestigious and accomplished mountaineer than his scientific rival James Forbes. Historian Bruce Hevly concludes that manly mountaineering feats influenced the credibility of Tyndall’s science. [Ed. Note: This was called the “Great Glacier Controversy”: Forbes had contended that glaciers “flow” and can behave plastically; Tyndall contended that they move by thawing and refreezing. Both were somewhat right.]

A century later, when the first all-women scientific expedition went to Antarctica from Ohio State University in 1969, journalists worried that they would be “lonely” or suffer a run in with a “mad seal.” At the same time, men were portrayed as risking death to unlock the continent’s “awesome secrets.” 

Our paper suggests that these broader societal classifications have historically influenced the reception of science [conducted by women]—with men’s science more valued. We then ask whether these kinds of societal values about gender still influence science and scientists’ credibility. Do we still privilege the heroic, risk-taking, conquest-oriented scientific projects (like data gathering in remote parts of Antarctica) over more “mundane” projects that don’t involve adventure and risk into wild nature? Note that we are talking about how broader sociocultural values influence the reception and perception of science, not about individual scientists and whether their science is valuable or solid, which is not the point.