“Gender-Bending” Chemicals, Science-for-Hire, and Philosophy

Northern Green Frog (Rana clamitans melanota) 1000

Northern Green Frog

In 2011, I was a first-year philosophy graduate student at the University of Minnesota. I was taking a philosophy of biology course focused on the topic of evolutionary developmental biology, or evo-devo. As I was trying to think of a good term paper topic, I came across the story of Tyrone Hayes, a UC Berkeley biologist. In the late 1990s, Hayes was looking at the effects of the herbicide, atrazine, on frog development in partnership with the herbicide’s manufacturer, Syngenta. After Hayes’ early research suggested that atrazine might affect frog development at very low levels, Syngenta allegedly tried to bury the study, and began a very long smear campaign.

As an aspiring philosopher of science, I thought the case was perfect for a dissertation.

I spent the next four years slumped over a laptop working on the philosophy of endocrine disruption.

Endocrines, or hormones, are molecules that act as messengers between the tissues and organs of living things. Hormones have roles to play in key life processes including development, metabolism, and reproduction. Although scientists have recognized since the early twentieth century that substances from outside the body can negatively impact the function of endocrine systems, modern endocrine disruption research began in the early 1990s with the work of Theo Colborn and her colleagues.

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Image from Time Magazine’s profile of Colborn, October 2007

In the 1980s and 1990s, a wide range of reproductive, behavioral, and developmental abnormalities in wildlife were cropping up in the scientific literature and in the reports of amateur naturalists. These phenomena, which included unusually large salmon thyroids and unusually small alligator penises, did not seem to be explained by the presence of any then-recognized toxins. Colburn hypothesized that manmade chemicals that were not known to be toxic at the time might have been interfering with the endocrine systems of wildlife. Colburn thought that these same chemicals were also likely to be acting on humans. She claimed that traditional toxicological tests were missing a large class of chemicals that  posed serious health risks to humans and the environment.

The publication of Colburn’s book, Our Stole Future, sparked 25 years of intense research and controversy.   Although governments and NGOs have implemented endocrine disruptor screening and testing programs, and issued reports on the impacts of endocrine disruptors, the goals and standards of these programs and the findings of these reports have been contested at every turn. Many traditional toxicologists have been resistant to making the methodological revisions recommended by Colburn and her allies. Emerging endocrinological approaches to toxicology have suggested that even the revised test methods may fail to detect a wide range of endocrine disruption effects. For every report that concludes that endocrine disrupting chemicals pose significant health risks, chemical manufacturers have commissioned scientists to craft rebuttals. Meta-analysis of endocrine disruption literature has found that funding source can be a strong predictor of study outcome; chemical safety research funded by chemical manufacturers is generally less likely to find evidence of endocrine disrupting effects.

Adding to the controversies, feminists (including myself) have highlighted the ways in which endocrine disruption researchers often characterize the harmful effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals by using gendered language like “feminization” and “demasculinization.”

Endocrine disruption political rhetoric and media coverage often displays ethically problematic and scientifically suspect attitudes about sex and gender. Here, a person who does not conform to heteronormative social standards is represented as a harbinger of a toxic environment.

Endocrine disruption political rhetoric and media coverage often displays ethically problematic and scientifically suspect attitudes about sex and gender. Here, a person who does not conform to heteronormative social standards is represented as a harbinger of a toxic environment.

When these research findings are presented to the public through popular media and political rhetoric, they are often framed in terms of heteronormative views of sexuality and gender. According to these views, human and animal members of clearly defined binary sexual groups have unique and non-overlapping sexual morphologies, behaviors, and reproductive roles. Deviations from these heteronorms are often characterized as worrisome or undesirable.

In this way, language used by endocrine disruption researchers may be contributing to the reinforcement of scientifically suspect ideas about sex and gender and the maintenance of ethically problematic societal gender norms.

One view of science, prominent among mid-twentieth century philosophers of science, holds that scientific reasoning ought to be free from the influence of social, moral, and political values. Science is in the business of describing the way that the world is, while social, moral, and political values are about the way the world ought to be. Thus, according to “the value-free ideal,” any influence of these values on scientific reasoning and practice represents a distortion of science.

Most philosophers of science no longer accept the value-free ideal. As early as 1953, Richard Rudner argued that ethical values are necessary for setting standards of evidence for accepting or rejecting a scientific hypothesis. In the late twentieth century, feminist scientists and science studies scholars articulated the ways in which sexist assumptions shaped research in biology and social sciences and recommended interventions based on feminist values. In Science as Social Knowledge, Helen Longino argued that social beliefs and values are an indispensable part of scientific reasoning, since these beliefs and values help to provide the background assumptions necessary to conduct research.

The endocrine disruption case highlights some of the questions that philosophers are beginning to address in the new era of “value-laden” philosophy of science. What are appropriate and inappropriate roles for values in science? How can we recognize when financial conflicts of interest are biasing scientific reasoning and practice? How can we recognize when social beliefs are causing science to be misinterpreted? Should scientists consider the social implications of their language choices? What are the social responsibilities of scientists?

It is an exciting time to be a philosopher of science. If this blog post piqued your interest, you might consider signing up for a philosophy of science course.

Also, keep your ears open, because there is a rumor that a certain philosopher of science might be coming to Drury soon to talk about clones.

Works Cited

Colborn, T., Dumanoski, D., & Myers, J. P. (1996). Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence and Survival?–a Scientific Detective Story.

Longino, H. E. (1990). Science as social knowledge: Values and objectivity in scientific inquiry. Princeton University Press.

Rudner, R. (1953). The scientist qua scientist makes value judgments. Philosophy of science, 20(1), 1-6.