Calving, Cores, and Controversy

By Anna Reser 

In 1982, the New Yorker published a short story by science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin. “Sur” is an anonymized report of an extraordinary expedition to Antarctica, carried out by the narrator and a group of friends in 1909. The narrator notes that since they are all women the explorers have had no opportunity for scientific training and plan instead simply to see the wild ice continent and perhaps go a bit further toward the interior than others before them. Indeed, they reach the south pole in the winter of 1909, almost exactly two years before Roald Amundsen overtook Robert Falcon Scott to become the first to reach the pole. The author expresses her embarrassment at learning this and assures the reader that no one need ever find out that she and a band of women beat both men to the pole-- they left no trace of their expedition. 

“Sur” is one of the many works of fiction and art that Mark Carey, M. Jackson, Alessandro Antonello, and Jaclyn Rushing use in a recent paper called “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research.” The paper is an expansive literature review. In addition to fiction and art, Carey also cites the knowledge of indigenous people who live near and with glaciers, the work and perspective of women glaciologists, and climate scientists as important sites for developing new knowledges about glaciers that reside outside of the white male scientific establishment. Carey argues that these knowledges, combined with a research program informed by feminist, intersectional, and postcolonial theory and history, will produce new and more inclusive knowledge about glaciers and the unevenly distributed effects of climate change. The paper argues that the history of glaciology is tinged with masculinist discourses of heroic exploration and dangerous fieldwork, a manly tradition that still pervades the discipline. This type of analysis and its conclusions, as I’m sure you can imagine, is just our kind of thing. 

Predictably, the paper has been a bit of a dog whistle for anti-feminists of every stripe. It seems the most dust was initially kicked up by Fox News, which reported on the publication of the paper with a pointed aside about Carey’s funding coming from the National Science Foundation, implying that American taxpayers had been funding inappropriate research. Blogs and news websites picked up the story and a great deal of noise was made. Attacks on the paper usually begin by invoking the infamous Alan Sokal hoax, criticizing Carey and the other authors for impenetrable writing peppered with “liberal buzzwords” like “feminism” and “intersectionality.” Many critics sound the scientistic call for hard numbers and empirical data and invoke the specter of the “science wars” in accusing the authors of being anti-science and drawing a hard line between the sciences and the humanities. The paper’s examination of indigenous knowledge about glaciers, gleaned from living near the ice for generations, is met with thinly-veiled racist dismissal. 

I won’t unpack the paper in this essay, in part because “Feminist Glaciology” is paywalled and my hot take would simply join the others to which only people with library privileges can respond. But the critical response to the paper is full of useful clues as to why writing feminist history of science is still such a difficult task. We can begin by noting that Carey, as a well-funded white male tenured professor, will always be better positioned to make claims about the marginalization of women and people of color than those people themselves. The backlash that Carey and his co-authors face would undoubtedly be magnified if he were a woman or a person of color. This isn’t, of course, to say that Carey can’t or shouldn’t do this kind of research, but it’s worth remembering that this paper is largely a literature review in which Carey cites the ongoing work of a great variety of scholars, artists, and writers, many of whom are women-- none of whom have  received anything like the attention of “Feminist Glaciology.” 

Though I am loathe to agree with any of the ad-hominem attacks on the writing style of the paper, I do find it a bit clunky. But this is not because of its “jargon” or its critical-theoretical style--it’s just written to conform to the style of a geography journal and isn’t especially lyrical to this historian’s ear. As long as terms like “postmodern” and “postcolonial” are disparaged by scientists and the mainstream media as “buzzwords,” the important work that those terms enable can be easily dismissed. These terms are used by scholars to get under and around entrenched assumptions, such as the perceived objectivity of science. They are terms that humanists use to investigate human activity and science is no less human than any other form of inquiry. Part of the reason that debate and discussion can be shut down by accusations of jargon slinging is that most of the writing that develops and implements these powerful analytic tools is behind academic paywalls and are not accessible by the general public. 

One of the things that has drawn the most ire is the author’s inclusion of alternative research strategies developed in art and literature, especially works that rewrite the history and practices of traditional manly glaciology with its focus on drilling ice cores and heroic mountaineering. Like the observation that indigenous people might have knowledge about the ice unavailable to Western science, the notion of an artist or novelist contributing anything useful to glaciology seems to be not only unacceptable to critics of Carey’s work, but openly hostile to the scientific enterprise. Underpinning this hostility are assumptions about what constitutes scientific inquiry in a physical sense--just looking at ice, or writing about it, or painting it can’t be science because science penetrates and uncovers, conquers and subdues. The reason that the explorers in “Sur” are forgotten is that they left no physical trace of their expedition. 

For those of us who are knee deep in the literature on science and gender, there’s nothing particularly radical about Carey’s conclusions, and many of the frameworks he cites are older foundational works that have since been built upon--in some sense Carey’s analysis is actually just a little overripe. But the reaction to the paper indicates that very little of this work has filtered into the public consciousness. The kinds of knowledges produced by women and other marginalized people are consistently undermined by the scientific establishment itself and even more so in public. Part of the reason for this is that these knowledges don’t leave traces on the ice or in the historical record. And in an age of imminent and catastrophic climate change caused by a long human history of marking the environment, perhaps leaving no trace isn’t such a radical research program after all. 

Further Reading

Robert Macfarlane “Generation Anthropocene: How Humans Have Altered the Planet Forever,” The Guardian, April 1 2016.