Here are the slides for my talk at the Philosophy of Science Association meeting this past weekend in Seattle: Why Baier? Feminism, Trust, and Power

Here’s the original abstract for this talk, written last fall.

Why Baier? Feminism, Trust, and Political Critiques of Science

Feminist philosophers of science continue to draw on ideas about trust and trustworthiness developed by feminist ethicist Annette Baier more than thirty years ago (Baier 1986). Why does Baier remain popular among feminist philosophers? In this paper, I suggest that Baier’s account of trust supports a characteristic kind of feminist critique of science. This feature of Baier’s account means that it is also relevant, as a descriptive theory, to contemporary empirical work on conservative attacks on environmental science.

Feminists have long recognized that science has the potential to be an invaluable tool for challenging sexism and dismantling patriarchal power structures. Thus many feminists are not interested in attacking science as such. However, feminists have also long recognized that science has often been used to defend sexism and prop up patriarchy (Harding 1991, Wylie and Nelson 2007). The feminist critique does not aim to destroy science, but instead to redirect it from oppressive to liberatory ends.

Baier’s account of trustworthiness distinguishes “competence” from “good will,” and requires both for trustworthiness. This means that patriarchal science can still be conducted competently — it can still produce knowledge using reliable methods. But, by being used in sexist and patriarchal ways, patriarchal science can be understood as bearing ill will towards women. Patriarchal science is therefore untrustworthy, even when scientists are epistemically competent. By contrast, on other influential accounts, epistemic trustworthiness depends exclusively on epistemic competence. These accounts do not fit as well with the complex feminist stance towards science.

Baier’s account also provides theoretical support for the “anti-reflexivity thesis,” developed by sociologist Aaron McCright and collaborators (McCright et al. 2013). McCright has found that political conservatives tend to display low trust in “impact science” — “science that identifies environmental and public health impacts of economic production” — but also high trust in “production science” associated with technological development. That is, conservatives do not distrust or reject science as such; they are not “anti-science.” Instead, they are anti-environmental regulation. Indeed, the loudest critics of EPA and other regulatory agencies often promote the benefits of practical scientific research and technological development.

Baier’s account allows us to recognize that conservative distrust of impact science is not necessarily based on ignorance or irrationality. Rather, conservatives might believe that impact scientists bear them (or entities with which they identify, such as the fossil fuels or chemical industry) ill will. This ill will would be grounds to find impact scientist untrustworthy, independent of whether impact scientists are epistemically competent.


Baier, Annette. 1986. “Trust and Antitrust.” Ethics 96 (2):231–60.

Harding, Sandra G. 1991. Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?: Thinking from Women’s Lives. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.

McCright, Aaron M, et al. 2013. “The Influence of Political Ideology on Trust in Science.” Environmental Research Letters 8 (4):044029.

Wylie, Alison and Lynn Hankinson Nelson. 2007. “Coming to Terms with the Values of Science.” In Harold Kindcaid, John Dupré, and Alison Wylie, eds., Value-Fre Science? Oxford: Oxford University Press.