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The Man in the White Lab Coat: The Gendering of the Modest Witness

July 21, 2010

This post spawned because I was digging through my hard drive and found a bunch of old articles and essays that I’d forgotten about. I thought this one was at least good enough that I’m not ashamed to let other people see it (unlike some of my other ones….. o.O ) But be warned, it was meant for a philosophy of science class I did, and the language use is geared towards that type of writing.

A child's drawing of a scientist.

In this essay I will attempt to give a thorough description of Haraway’s modest witness. I will show how it originated, and what this character allows in the practice of science that would not be acceptable otherwise. I will then follow Haraway’s argument that the modest witness is not representative for all practicing scientists and is in fact male gendered and biased. This gendering of the modest witness acts to degrade the unifying thread that the modest witness runs through science, and helps advance the concept of scientific disunity. I will then touch lightly on how the idea of scientific integrity and localized knowledge will still lend science considerable worth, while relying more heavily on the honesty of the individual practitioner.

There have been a large variety of fronts which have been used to attempt to identify and isolate what it is that lends science its apparent unity. Some have focused on what it is that is being researched. The topic of science is what brings it all together. Others have focused on how the scientists do their work. This model portrays an army of dedicated researchers, all following a code of conduct in order to produce good science. They follow the scientific method, and it is this method which connects all of science. These two formulations sound appealing, but unfortunately have been shown over the years to have very little strength. The topics under discussion and the methods employed to investigate them are extremely varied, even within the same small subset that is a scientific discipline. A third attempt at unity, the one attacked by Keller and Haraway and is the subject of this essay, is the abstract character known as “the scientist”. Haraway terms this character the “modest witness”, and he is the remaining abstraction that holds all of science together.

The modest witness, as portrayed by Haraway, is the role taken by each individual scientist. This is what allows a scientist to accurately portray the world, as it is not the individual scientist that matters at all. The modesty portrayed is the attempt of the scientist to remove himself from the equation, and turn his own eyes into the eyes of objectivity.

The modest witness character emerged at the same time as the development of science as we know it today. That is, science no longer belonging to the hobbyist, inventor or alchemist. This new science was no longer about the development of goods or tools, but about the objective identification of facts of nature. The production of knowledge; unbiased, factual, objective knowledge. This couldn’t be the case if working scientists were running through the streets yelling “Eureka!” as was previously fashionable, but rather they would seek no glory, nor even claim any part of the discovery as their own. This style of behaviour, of attempting to remove oneself as much as possible from the experiment, helped create the very foundations of modern science.

This style of being, modest and objective, lent itself to the creation of a number of techniques which could be used to enforce the realizations of the scientist. One of these techniques is the impersonal style of writing which is enforced on all scientific writing, and will be discussed further later in this essay. What is slightly more pressing is that in order for scientists to hold the authority that they seem to, we must believe that they really are having no effect on the things they observe. This is how the modesty expressed by Haraway is so important, the scientist’s desire to give up all of their claims to power and authority as objective observers of the world is exactly what gives them this power.

This is the virtue that guarantees that the modest witness is the legitimate and authorized ventriloquist for the object world, adding nothing from his mere opinions, from his biasing embodiment. And so he is endowed with the remarkable power to establish facts. He bears witness; he is objective; he guarantees the clarity and purity of objects. His subjectivity is his objectivity. His narratives have a magical power – they lose all trace of their history as stories, as products of partisan projects, as contestable representations, or as constructed documents in their potent capacity to define the facts. 1

And thus we, as typical citizens, are receiving accounts of the world from a trustworthy authority, without all the mess involved as if they were claiming unusual levels of authority. For this is exactly what science is often seen to be combating. The modest authority radiated by the scientific community is much more palatable than the sort of unquestioned, unproveable, and potentially unjustified authority espoused by other sects of society. Also combated here is the evils of relativism and subjectivity, for it should never be the case that an individual can tell you the way the world is, since their opinion is, surely, only as valid as your own. Thus, it is not the scientist who tells you how the world is, but the world speaking through the scientist. The removal of bias or perspective from observation allows the scientist, or scientists, to clearly see what is actually there. Haraway summarizes this when she says,

This separation of expert knowledge from mere opinion, as the legitimating knowledge for ways of life, without appeal to transcendent authority or to abstract certainty of any kind, is a founding gesture of what we call modernity. 2

But it is not enough that the scientists merely try really hard to become something, it must unquestionably be the case.

This is where the unimportance of the scientist originated, and is a flaw in the formulation of the modest witness. The scientists are thought to have become simply part of the instrument.

The world of subjects and objects was in place, and scientists were on the side of the objects. Acting as objects’ transparent spokesmen, the scientists had the most powerful allies. As men whose only visible train was their limpid modesty, they inhabited the culture of no-culture. Everybody else was left in the domain of culture and of society.3

And thus where the twin plagues of subjectivity and relativism were free to inflict the rest of humanity, the hard-working scientists were immune, as they were not acting humans at all, but machines reporting the results of other machines.

Keller pushes a similar concept, that of the abstract scientist. This character acted as the equalizer of all researchers, for

…once air pumps and telescopes became freely available as standardized instruments, neither the author of the text nor the original observer needed any longer to be identified. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the first-person narrator of the scientific text could be effectively replaced by the abstract “scientist” – then a newly coined word- who could speak for everyman but was no-man, in a double sense: not any particular man, and also a site for the not-man within each and every particular observer.4

And, because of this abstract no-one who speaks for all flesh-and-blood scientists, we end up not only with the removal of bias from the scientist, but the removal of the scientist from science. This had a double-benefit; it gave each individual the state of being unimportant such that their observations should have merit, but it also gave each scientist the authoritative powers of “the scientist”. Thus when it comes right down to it there is no individual researcher, it is either no-one, or the collected might of the scientific endeavour.

This disconnect placed between individual and scientist also allowed for the “objective” analysis of some rather peculiar things.

Enhancing their agency thereby, modest men were to be self-invisible, transparent, so that their report might not be polluted by the body. Only in that way could they warrant their descriptions of other bodies and minimize critical attention to their own. This is a crucial epistemological move in the grounding of several centuries of race, sex, and class discourses as objective scientific reports.5

And then, since it was no longer a member of one race/class/gender composition judging another, but an abstract entity merely observing, this was the justification for a wide variety of scientific “discoveries” about those “other” people. These discoveries were then used for a number of malicious ends, of course.

It may seem that Haraway and Keller are constructing something which is simply not true in order to push their own disunity thesis, but I feel this is not the case. The “scientist” can be seen in everyday experience, and the icon is enforced by practices that are carried out by the individual scientists. It is not uncommon practice for scientists to remain eternally unnamed. The credit for any significant, or especially insignificant, discovery is given to the sponsor or institution who funded the work. There is a reason for this, and it relies on the concept that the facts are simply out there waiting to be discovered. This is especially prevalent in mathematics, where a proof is rarely credited to its solver. The developer of a field or theory is given little recognition, as there is the overarching idea that “it would have happened eventually,” just that this particular researcher happened to stumble upon it first. There is a sense of inevitability about the majority of our theories, and so it is not considered improper to merely say “scientists discovered such and such.”

Indeed, marketing firms around the world are intimately aware of “the scientist.” Any time that an advertisement attempts to convey a strong sense of authority, you will see actors in white lab coats, probably holding a beaker or two. The only reason this marketing tool would even persist is because it is successful, people give the power of science to any one “scientist.”

It is not only the failings of the mass media or the general population that cause this illusion to persist, but rather it is to the benefit of each individual scientist to keep it in place. The language of scientific writing, especially as regards journal entries, is extremely rigid in form. No associative language is permitted, or anything which would convey the idea that the researcher was actually involved. Metaphors or interpretive language are banned. All of this is aimed at the goal of objectivity, with the aim of reproducibility. Any scientist should be able to read the text and know in-detail everything that happened, and if they were to undertake the experiment in their own lab half-way around the world, be able to write the exact same thing.

As Keller puts it,

One way in which this anteriority is exhibited is by an unwitting yet routine syntactical distancing of the authorial and subject pronoun (either singular or plural) from the represented object, be it nature, human beings, or society.6

And, as Haraway shows,

…those actually, physically, present at the demonstration could never be as numerous as those virtually present by means of demonstration through the literary device of the written report. Thus, the rhetoric of the modest witness, the “naked way of writing,” unadorned, factual, compelling, was crafted.7

Thus, through the uncreative use of language, the individual removes himself from his own work and his own observations.

As a small aside, I think that this concept explains the heavy discussions on the unity of language. Language and its unity are important for their power to convey ideas to new people. A language empty from style was the idea held by the empiricists as the singular method to convey objective fact. Thus language is discussed not for its own worth, but because of its power in solidifying ideas, and thus solidifying nature. If it can’t be recorded and expressed, it can’t be understood by others or used as evidence.

So if Haraway and Keller are not presenting an irresponsible account of the world, their attacks on the unity thesis will hold more weight.

I think it is easy to see how the existence of the modest witness would be a strong argument for the unity of science. All of science is held together by this ability to appeal to the collected works of the practice. Science is unified in that it is above its practitioners; it is justified by every instance of scientific research, and acts to justify the same.

The modest witness, while above each individual, is also supposed to be above the classification schemes of race and gender, for how can the modest witness be impartial if it has these obviously biasing characteristics? What Haraway manages to show is that the modest witness is not above these characteristics, and is in fact as gendered as the stereotypical man-in-a-white-lab coat. The reasons for the gendering of science are not obvious, however, and one must appeal to the birth of the witness to see it. The structure that science takes, and its way of dealing with issues is via typically male-associated methods.

The advent of modern science occurred in a strongly male-dominated society. The experiments were carried out by honourable gentlemen, and only men who held responsible (i.e. upper class) positions in society were qualified to count as witnesses. What this did was give these men a considerable amount of time to formulate the rules of how science should be practiced to their own liking. Thus,

Boyle’s “open laboratory” and its offspring evolved as a most peculiar “public space,” with elaborate constraints on who legitimately occupies it: “What in fact resulted was, so to speak, a public space with restricted access.”8

While women and people of varying socio-economic status may now be allowed to practice science as those constraints were, thankfully, lifted, the rules of what makes good science have not changed one bit.

One example of this made explicitly by Haraway is how to deal with problems of underdetermination. In these situations, the unofficial system of reconciliation is to attempt to convince the opposing party of your theory. This is not done on grounds of reason, or by appeals to evidence, as in any true situation of underdetermination any evidence for your theory is equally balanced by evidence for your opponent’s theory.

The action in science-in-the-making is all trials and feats of strength, amassing of allies, forging of worlds in the strength and number of coerced allies. All action is agonistic; the creative abstraction is both breathtaking and numbingly conventional. Trials of strength decide whether a representation holds or not. Period. To compete, one must have the force equivalent of a counterlaboratory capable of winning in these high-stakes trials of strength, or give up dreams of making the world.” 9

Haraway’s statements are reminiscent of Kuhn when he claims that theories are chosen on aesthetic grounds. Science advances through a series of intellectual battles, sometimes even full-blown wars. This isn’t how it looks in the histories, but this too can be seen to be the case. The most reputable scientist, or the “best” laboratory will make a decisive difference on the decision of which theory is to prevail simply by their choice to endorse it. This system of attackers and defenders is deeply engrained in modern science, and is something which is very typically a male way of operating. This is, of course, only one example of how a male-centered system persists in science. So while women can now fully participate in the scientific endeavour, they must do so in a highly structured way, which may not be their preferred way of operating.

It is fair to say that men and women sometimes think in different ways, and have different ways of doing business. Any attempt by a woman to do research solely in the interests of women is typically regarded as unscientific. The only true science is of the aim to advance science itself, nothing as petty as trying to help yourself.

Nature can be seen and warranted; it is not itself the witness to itself. This narrative epistemological point is part of the apparatus for repeatedly placing “white” women and people of “color” in nature. Only as objects can they enter science; their only subjectivity in science is called bias and special interest, unless they become honorary honourable men.10

So while women are allowed to enter science, any attempt to change how it is practiced, or even choose what is examined based on their own interests, is disregarded as selfish and unscientific. That particular researcher is then, usually, discredited. What is happening here is that these individual scientists are not being represented by “the scientist.” The modest witness thus is more accurately the white-middle-class-male-modest witness. And if the thread of unity rests on this witness being characteristic for all of science, then the argument is destabilized. “The scientist” no longer gives the individual researcher the authority to create nature, and the individual is no longer able to hide behind this powerful mask. The modest witness lost all of his powers as a perspective-less observer.

What Haraway wants is not to throw away the value of science, but rather to

help a more corporeal, inflected, and optically dense, if less elegant, kind of modest witness to matters of fact to emerge in the worlds of technoscience.11

She wants to retain a theory of objectivity and the possibility of scientific knowledge, just without giving “the scientist” deity-like authority over matters of the world. She claims that

both the facts and the witnesses are constituted in the encounters that are techno-scientific practice. Both the subjects and the objects of techno-science are forged and branded in the crucible of specific, located practices, some of which are global in their location. In the intensity of the fire, the subjects and objects regularly melt into each other.12

The individuals are brought back into science, and they are required to responsibly and thoroughly inspect their perspective and their biases, rather than hide behind the mask and pretend they don’t exist. This seems limiting to the powers of science, but it is actually just the opposite. This move would open science to all of its practitioners, allowing for increased acceptance of a variety of methods and areas of interest.

Haraway gives an accurate description of how science actually operates, and her recommendation to change our collective view to accommodate the idea of located knowledge is a powerful one. It may not lend as much authority, but what good is authority in the face of inequality? Unless, of course, you are one of the select few currently enjoying your position of power, which would explain some of the resistance to this concept by the current scientific community.


1)       Haraway, Donna J. “Modest Witness: Feminist Diffractions in Science Studies” in The Disunity of Science: Boundaries, Contexts, and Power, (Galison, Peter and Stump, David J. Ed.). California: Stanford University Press, 1996. pg  429

2)       ibid., pg 430

3)       ibid., pg 431

4)       Keller, Evelyn Fox. “The Dilemma of Scientific Subjectivity in Postvital Culture” in The Disunity of Science: Boundaries, Contexts, and Power, (Galison, Peter and Stump, David J. Ed.). California: Stanford University Press, 1996. pg  419

5)       Haraway, Donna J., pg  435

6)       Keller, Evelyn Fox., pg  423

7)       Haraway, Donna J., pg  432

8)       ibid., pg 431

9)       ibid., pg 436

10)   Haraway, Donna J., pg 523

11)   Haraway, Donna J., pg  429

12)   ibid., pg 438

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 22, 2010 3:45 am

    Ha I wrote an essay on this as an undergrad once. Also mention some of the modest witness stuff in my thesis (re: hands on “experiments” for kids).

    You might find this article by Haraway (pdf) illuminating (worth reading alongside Susan Harding piece it inspired and Harding’s reaction to it, if you can find them). I’d also recommend reading the book which inspires Harway’s point.

    And on unity issue thisda bomb.

    • July 22, 2010 6:18 am

      Ha! I think there should be a blog event where everyone has to post an old undergraduate essay or lab report. Thanks for the links! I vaguely remember reading a exerpt from Shapin and Schaffer, but it maybe worth actually picking up the book.

      Also I’d never heard of the Gieryn book, looks pretty cool.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    September 7, 2019 11:01 am



  1. Epistemology and Testimony: Learning to Trust Beyond Your Own Experiences | CMBR

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