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Feminist Objectivity in Science

As science is considered an objective endeavour, it is important to define how science is objective, whilst recognising the influences of values in observation. The relativist makes the claim that science fails to be objective as observation is theory-laden, yet this does not follow from a feminist negativist objectivity, through a distinction between observation and theorisation.

Remedios Varo’s The Creation of the Birds

For science to be objective, observation must be decoupled from theorisation. In testing theories, one ascertains observations and predictions regarding what happens under specific contexts, and data is put forth for public scrutiny, which may ensure its objectivity, thus relating ideas to reality through shared senses within the scientific community. Relativism adopts this relation, but argues that observation is influenced by what is already considered belief, such that reports are not unconditionally true, and only true paradigmatically, on the grounds that observation depends upon perception which is flexible and shaped by beliefs. Thus emerges the objection that observation, and therefore science, is not objective: if observation relies on perception, which is affected by beliefs, including theories, then testing theories through observation involves circular reasoning, which thus makes it the case that observation fails to make science objective. However, to suggest that science is objective is not to say that assumptions do not influence observation whatsoever: what one sees is in part the result of what one has learned; nor is perception totally malleable- one cannot see anything they desire, and observation has a relatively constrained role, with no role in producing or interpreting data. Observation provides a relatively stable set of sensory responses largely unaffected by explicit belief- it is not infallible, but generally stable within everyday experience, and normal conditions, and reliable enough to make hypotheses objectively falsifiable. Thus, one may distinguish between observational and theoretical-terms, as observational-terms describe states of affairs without any reference to the relevant theoretical scheme- ‘the object is small’- and theoretical-terms describe states of affairs with such references- ‘the particle is a quark’. However, the distinction is mistaken, and need not be confused with the viable distinction between the types of scientific activity: theorising, where one seeks to ‘articulate an interesting generalisation or body of generalisations covering the behaviour of all systems of some type’, and observing, where one seeks to ‘produce a true description of the state of a particular physical system at some moment of time’. Whereas theorising produces general statements, observing produces singular statements, and this does not generate any dichotomy between observational and theoretical-terms, and thus any objective account of theorising in science need not be plagued by the faults of observation. Hence, even if observation is flawed, theorisation need not be, and science comes to be objective through meta-analytic scientific communities.

Taking this decoupling, objectivity must be able to minimise the effects of theory-laden observation in theorisation. Rather than science being objective, perhaps it may be better described as an attempt to be as objective as possible, or be as least subjective as possible, and that objectivity is not a positive virtue, but rather the absence of vice. Koskinen thus reserves the status of objectivity to those observations which avert epistemic risks, such as holding mistaken beliefs, or making errors in reasoning, and only those which relate to the failings of scientists as human beings are relevant to objectivity. This maintains the negativist status of objectivity, whilst explaining why objectivity does not imply certainty, and its variation with context (Daston & Galison). Thus, if objectivity constitutes ‘faithfulness to facts’, scientific claims are objective insofar as they faithfully describe facts about the world. This is dependent upon a realism which suggests that facts exist in the world, and it is the task of the scientist to discover, analyse and systematise these facts. Thus, science is objective to the degree to which it succeeds in discovering and generalising facts, abstracting from the perspective of the individual scientist, and this is seemingly true, but objectivity does not desire trust, but reliance, as trust is something that may be betrayed, and only individuals can betray, whereas objectivity refers to institutions, and therefore scientific institutions are objective insofar as one has reasons to rely upon them (Konisken). If objectivity constitutes an ‘absence of normative commitments and value-freedom’, scientific claims are objective insofar as they are not influenced by external paradigmatic commitments. This is dependent upon an empiricism which suggests that if science is the pursuit of producing empirical knowledge, and if value-judgements cannot be empirically settled, science should be freed from value-judgements, but this is implausible- value-judgements exist and influence observation regardless. If objectivity constitutes the ‘absence of personal bias’, whereby objectivity is a form of intersubjectivity, and science is objective insofar as biases are absent from reasoning, or may be eliminated in social processes. This accepts the possibility that all science is necessarily perspectival; that one cannot draw inferences without assumptions, and; that all scientists are somewhat biased, but argues that objective science is independent of scientists’ values- they are the result of a process where individual biases are filtered out and replaced by agreed-upon evidence. This is the basis upon which science distinguishes itself from other institutions and activities, e.g. arts, and scientific knowledge from social construction, yet this too is trust-oriented, rather than reliance-oriented. If objectivity is ‘anchored in scientific communities and their practices’, objectivity is evaluated upon the basis of collations of studies, and their methods and practices. This adopts a meta-analytic perspective for assessing the reliability of science, and constructs objectivity from a ‘feminist perspective’: ‘as an open interchange of mutual criticism, or as being anchored in the ‘situatedness’ of our scientific practices and the knowledge we gain’. Through the filtering out function, and the meta-analytic perspective, science may be objective.

Despite there appearing to be an incompatibility between feminism and science, a negativist feminist account provides the means by which science may remain an objective endeavour. Feminism ‘minimally involves a commitment to egalitarian values, particular[ly] in regard to women’, whereas science constitutes the pursuit of objective empirical knowledge; however, ‘feminist’ is more so referring to a plurality of marginalised positions. The first half of the Twentieth Century was dominated by the perspective that science ought to be apolitical and value-free, as objectivity relies on a state of being value-free, whereas in the second half there emerged a shift in understandings of science, encouraging the questioning of value-free objectivity. Feminist objectivity maintains the motivation to retain some notion of objectivity, as science completely ideologically-oriented produces Nazism, and value-free science appears to subvert ideology. Feminism takes science to be distorted by sexist values, and thus leads to bad science, whereas rejecting these values prodcues better science, such that feminist objectivity ought to be adopted. This does not succumb to circular reasoning, but teleological argument, as science is better at fulfilling its function when adopting feminist values- non-feminist science produces phrenomenology, and thus poor science, whereas feminist science produces advances in reproductive biology, and thus produces better science. The ‘claim that science is value-free was never intended to eliminate all values from science’- cognitive values: ‘empirical adequacy, truth, explanatory power, predictive success’ are deemed legitimate in science, whereas non-cognitive values, those expressing social, cultural and political preferences, appear to challenge scientific objectivity. Thus remains three senses of ‘value-free’ (Lacey): autonomous- science is independent of any particular set of non-cognitive values; neutral- science does not presuppose values or possess value implications, and; impartial- judgements regarding science’s merits are based only in cognitive values. Science is never fully autonomous, as for example, the allocation of resources infers choices about funding- non-cognitive policy decisions, guided by values. The main conflicts concern neutrality and impartiality, as neutrality is concerned with two ideas: a dependence upon a fact-value distinction, and; if hypotheses are not value-neutral, one cannot impartially evaluate them. Neutrality appears necessary for impartiality, and thus, the challenge for objectivity is to demonstrate that science may be based on value assumptions and hold value implications, whilst nonetheless being impartial. Contextual empiricism (Longino) suggests that as empirical evidence can never fully determine which theory one ought to accept, contextual values play a role in such determinations, and therefore, ‘evidence is only evidence for a theory relative to the contextual values against which the evaluation of the theory occurs’. Therefore, science is not neutral, but presupposes certain values amongst the assumptions by which theories are evaluated, and the social nature of science provides the capacity for ‘transformative criticism’ through adherence to social norms. These norms include venues: ‘publicly recognised forums for the criticism of evidence, of methods, and of assumptions and reasoning’; uptake: ‘uptake of criticism [and the] community must not merely tolerate dissent, but its beliefs and theories must change over time in response to the critical discourse taking place within it’; public standards: ‘publicly recognised standards by reference to which theories, hypotheses, and observational practices are evaluated and by appeal to which criticism is made relevant to the goals of the inquiring community’, and; tempered equality: ‘communities must be characterised by equality of intellectual authority’. These norms promote impartiality, and therefore objectivity, but science is not neutral as it is informed by values that shape the context within which evidential relevance is determined, through a community-oriented meta-analytic account.

Through recognising that observation is a separate process to theorisiation, taking objectivity to be the product of scientific communities and their practices, and thus a feminist negativist account of objectivity, that collates perspectives, experiences and positions, science may remain an objective, although not neutral, endeavour independent of the faults of observation.


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