Bad science? Bad gender politics?

// 3 February 2009

I love reading Ben Goldacre‘s Bad Science columns. Though I may be one of the arts graduates he scoffs at from time to time, my PhD does involve quantitative data analysis so I’m not entirely scientifically illiterate.

So I was really excited about reading his new book, with its debunking of medical myths, its explanation of the peer review process, and of course the occasional bit of traditional gender politics.

Wait. Really? Traditional gender politics? From a Guardian columnist? Well, yes, and I was surprised and disappointed. Every so often, there’s a passing comment that made me think, “Hang on, he’s written this book for men to read.”

Take for example –

“…those new building blocks are converted into muscle, and bone, and tongue, and bile, and sweat, and bogey, and hair, and skin, and sperm, and brain, and everything that makes you you…”

Speaking for myself, I have no sperm, neither mine nor anyone else’s. Adding in that gender-specific noun in the midst of a sweeping list of universal characteristics is jarring. But through goodwill and residual affection for Dr Goldacre, I read on.

He suggests buying a microscope kit and recommends “looking at your sperm: it’s quite a soulful moment”.

Nope, still got none of that stuff. I will have to forego that particular meaningful experience.

When talking about the power of placebo, he mentions examples of “mothers enduring biblical pain to avoid dropping a boiling kettle on their baby, or people lifting cars off their girlfriend” – “people”? Or “men”? Or is it the same thing? Indeed, he makes other references to “your girlfriend” – I’d like to think he was using that as an inclusive term for all in relationships with women, but I suspect lesbians aren’t included, and heterosexual women certainly aren’t.

That’s not to say I think any of this was deliberate. On the contrary, he writes of the disappointing under-representation of young women in the sciences, and lauds the work of the Barbie Liberation Organisation, and decries the horrific infant and maternal mortality rates around the world and throughout history, and criticises the “paternalistic” attitudes to medicine, and he’s careful to interchange the pronouns “he” and “she” when creating hypothetical situations for doctors. That’s why the slips into bad gender politics are so obvious that it’s like being hit over the head with a hammer.

Have you read it? What do you think?

Comments From You

susannaaaa // Posted 3 February 2009 at 8:56 pm

Oh, I am so, so glad someone else noticed this! I found it very jarring, especially those mentions of “my” sperm.

maggie // Posted 3 February 2009 at 9:15 pm

I love the badscience column as well and was so looking forward to reading the book. I got it for Christmas (amongst other things) and have enjoyed reading it. His approach to the subject is fun and educational and often an eye opener. However, I too have been taken aback by the obvious slant towards male readers – and no he’s not including lesbians when he writes about ‘your girlfriend’.

Another example is from the chapter titled

‘Why Clever People Believe Stupid Things’

‘This phenomenon is even demonstrated in patterns of smoking cessation amongst doctors: you’d imagine, since they are rational actors, that all doctors would simultaneously have seen sense and stopped smoking once they’d read the studies… These are men of applied science, after all…’

mmm…by Clever People does he mean men?

Leigh // Posted 3 February 2009 at 11:50 pm

Sigh. Maybe he wanted to keep it personal and informal. Maybe he assumed his readership would be able to stretch their imaginations to any gender positions. Really though, he should have thought through his language more.

Rorschach // Posted 3 February 2009 at 11:56 pm

I would imagine that attempting to extract an ovum and put it under a microscope would a) be somewhat impractical for most peopel to do in their own home and b) less exciting from a laymans point of view as it doesn’t “swim” about.

Holly // Posted 4 February 2009 at 12:33 am

Regarding the sperm comments, I certainly didn’t feel that Dr Goldacre was addressing all readers as men. The first one is just a list of human biological tissues and I don’t find the inclusion of sperm jarring. Mentioning sperm *and* eggs in a list that’s emphasising the variety of bodily bits made from proteins and whatnot seems like unnecessary attention paid to sex cells. “Gametes” would have been a usefully gender-neutral and inclusive term, but it’s the kind of jargony technical word that alienates non-scientists and wouldn’t be appropriate for the kind of clear, accessible writing Dr Goldacre does.

As for looking at sperm under a microscope, well, it’s just a fascinating cell type to look at! Changing “your sperm” to just “sperm” would be more inclusive for the readership, but I felt that the point was about examing one’s own personal contribution to the next generation, that little smudge that can astoundingly make new humans. That’s why it’s a soulful moment. I’m sure Dr Goldacre would urge those of us with ovaries to examine our eggs under a microscope, but they’re not exactly easy to obtain.

I’d quite like to have a look at some of those wee swimmy fellas under a ‘scope, but I’d have to have to ask someone more suitably equipped than I to make a deposit on my microscope slide. I wonder if Dr Goldacre would volunteer?

Anne Onne // Posted 4 February 2009 at 12:37 am

I haven’t read it, though I might.

I actually find the subtle use of male-as-default language more problematic than outright and obvious ‘this book is for doodz’ sexism. I mean, presenting a whole book as if it’s obviously just for men is problematic on many levels, but I can accept that everything is targeted at specific buyers to an extent, though I resent that 80% of stuff has a target audience of ‘ average white heterosexual guy’. I mean, if you title your book ‘The manly man’s guide to dating’ or whatever, and then write as if everyone reading it is male, it would be understandable.

But this? It takes a book targeted at supposedly everyone, and then through language, alienates those not male by implying that maleness is the norm. It’s worse because it never starts off saying ‘this is for guys’, and then proceeds to talk as if only men read it. It contributes to a society that spends most of its language only recognising and addressing some people.

Since you day he tries to vary his gendered pronouns, and addresses some gender situations (though by now this is standard in much writing, even ‘style guides’ suggest it is essential to write like this,and that this is not new), I’m inclined to believe that he has some awareness of gender issues. That said, he clearly misses out on a lot. It’s pretty good evidence for how basically well-meaning and not actively hateful people can still do/say something problematic by doing nothing more than reinforcing the status quo. He’s not actively insulting women, but through literally erasing them in examples which are supposed to be neutral, he reinforces the way society sees men as the default. And implies that only men read science books, by addressing phrases where the reader inserts themself (such as ‘your girlfriend’) as if they are always male.

I’m sure it’s a good book in many ways, but it’s important to point out why these things are problematic, because too often this is just brushed over, when it is the little things that allow the bigger things to happen. A society where the minutiae of language and literature assume male is default allow for male to be taken as default in other situations.

Milly // Posted 4 February 2009 at 9:33 am

Oh what a shame, I do love Bad Science. =(

Sabre // Posted 4 February 2009 at 11:18 am

No excuses, it would have been perfectly easy to say people instead of men, partner instead of girlfriend etc. Sounds like Ben Goldacre tried to be inclusive but couldn’t help slipping back into reinforcing traditional ideas of only men being interested in science and medicine. At a time when there are more female medicine graduates than male, this is a bit stupid.

Still might take a look at some sperm though.

Mephit // Posted 4 February 2009 at 12:49 pm

I found those parts rather grating as well, although otherwise I found it a fascinating and enjoyable read.

Carrie // Posted 4 February 2009 at 12:51 pm

That’s how I felt too, Mephit – really enjoyed reading the book, which is why I was so disappointed to be jolted out of my happy reading reverie every so often! Having said that, pleased that so many people seem to have read it – maybe it’ll get a second print run and Dr Goldacre will tweak some of the language, as he’s always very upfront about welcoming feedback and challenges.

Laura M // Posted 4 February 2009 at 1:00 pm

I guessed what this would be about when I saw the subject line :) Yeah, I noticed the same things when I read it. Not that it raised much more than a “meh”, but I did think “ah, guess his image of a reader didn’t include me then”.

Though if I ever get another microscope, I will definitely watch m’boy’s sperm.

Naomi Mc // Posted 8 February 2009 at 9:00 pm

I agree, its marginally annoying but got a ‘meh’ from me. I think its a (yes, typical) oversight but not malicious.

I’ll forgive him a lot for the work he did on Westminster’s Science and Technology Committee Inquiry into abortion time limits. The man is not a misogynist.

Carrie // Posted 8 February 2009 at 9:03 pm

Hi Naomi – no, absolutely, I don’t think it was deliberate or motivated by deep-rooted misogyny (and as I say he’s clearly aware of the problems of gendered language by the care he takes in other places).

Adam // Posted 9 February 2009 at 6:37 pm

I noticed a higher-than-average number of grammatical and punctuation errors that should have been caught during proof-reading, so it seems the whole thing was rushed to press, warts and all.

Speaking as a boy, I know there’s plenty of residual sexism in my head, which sometimes pops out in speech and writing. I welcome being called out on it and hope that I will be judged on my efforts to correct and in future avoid such errors, not on the fact I make them.

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