Fact is a feminist issue

// 9 June 2010

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One of the reasons why I started blogging was because I was sick at screaming at newspapers’ science stories. Now of course there are a lot of great bloggers and writers tackling the issue of bad science reporting in the mainstream media, most notably of course Dr Ben Goldacre, but also fabulous writers such as Martin Robbins, Dr Petra Boynton and Vaughan Bell.

When reading a lot of scientific dissection of bad science, I’d get outraged but I’d also want to go further – WHY are these stories being written in the way they are? Why is so much scientific reporting in the mainstream press so piss-poor? A lot of the above writers list deadline-pressures, budget-slashes at national newspapers, lack of specialist journalists etc. But as journalists churn out health and science stories under undeniable pressure, they are all too often also resorting to and replicating tired and lazy stereotypes.

Regularly, science or medical articles rely on the readerships’ preconceived ideas about women and men and feed gender stereotypes that are straight out of the 1950s;

‘Girls ‘born with fear of spiders’, ‘Women are too shy to break through the glass ceiling, says female scientist’, ‘Hunter gatherer brains make men and women see things differently’, ‘Boys like blue, girls like pink – it’s in our genes’ (all genuine headlines). If I see one more headline claiming that women can’t read maps and men can’t multitask I’m going to scream.

These articles not only continue to feed the public’s poor understanding of science, they serve to add legitimacy to gender stereotypes. “I’m not being sexist; a scientist said so!”

Sexist science and medical stories do not in themselves cause discrimination but they help provide the wallpaper for patriarchy, entering public consciousness on an almost subconscious level, whispering ‘inequality is natural; scientific fact’.

Now, it is equally as ridiculous to suggest that there are no biological differences between men and women and indeed research into sex differences in things such as pain is crucially important in the development of pain relief. But it is the reporting of these studies that is so corrosive and the fact that this reporting rarely acknowledges the study design, i.e. the important elements within the study by which we can judge it.

But of course, not everyone has the time or inclination to research the source of every science story in the press. I would recommend a few tips for approaching scientific and medical press stories that tackle biological sex differences, a bad science and gender checklist if you will:

  • Does the story link to the original scientific study, is this study published in a peer-reviewed journal? (It has been known for science stories to be based on a student’s Masters thesis, or unfinished studies that are being presented at academic conferences and yet are reported as TRUE FACT)
  • Does the story mention that the study has only been carried out on animals and/or in vitro (i.e. in a Petri dish)? (Just because female iguanas behave in a certain way doesn’t mean I do)
  • What discipline are the researchers from? (Often huge leaps of logic about biological sex differences are made by anyone from a Masters student to an Organizational Psychologist)
  • Any mention of ‘hunter-gatherers’; is an automatic Fail. This has become a catch-all term for “its natural innit, we’ve been doing it for ages”. It is a term attached to claims that certain traits (hand-eye co-ordination, a liking for the colour pink) were cemented and untouched by 10,000 years of agricultural and pastoral society. Needless to say it is never an archeologist, palentologist, ethnographer, paleoanthropologist, or someone with some understanding of prehistoric societies who ever makes this claim.

But an even quicker method for the pub conversation you’re likely to have where someone says “But women aren’t any good at maths, it said so in the paper.” Simply ask your inebriated pal this; is it likely that just over half the world’s population has exactly the same character trait regardless of age, genetics, socio-economic status, culture, geography, education, environment? The answer will rarely be yes.

Comments From You

Dora Theo // Posted 9 June 2010 at 7:21 pm

This is such an excellent post and I’d like to thank you for it.

I loved that point about our traits being untouched by 10.000 years of agriculture. I’ve caught myself thinking this way and too many people I know will fall for such arguments over and over again. Thanks for opening my eyes to this, I’ll keep it in my mind for future arguments.

earwicga // Posted 9 June 2010 at 11:08 pm

Exactly! Everybody knows our character traits are dependent on our Star Sign ;)

Btw, just in case anybody hasn’t read it – in ‘Living Dolls’ Natasha Walter demolishes much of the current so called scientific studies on biological determinism and also the way they are reported in the MSM.

I’ve always wondered about peer-reviewed journals. How do we know how good they are?

Alicia // Posted 10 June 2010 at 12:40 am


I’m so glad you’ve written about this. The worst thing about arguing with someone about sexism is when scientific “facts” are used to back up some serious sexist stuff. While I understand that certain news stories “sell”, there needs to be an ethical standard in journalism to filter out or at least broach a potentially sexist issue sensitively, critically, and in a more balanced way. If not, a news paper/website is no better than a cheap tabloid paper.

sianmarie // Posted 10 June 2010 at 9:22 am

well said!

i would really recommend natasha walter’s breakdown of the biological determinism theories in the second part of living dolls. fantastic stuff. she talks to scientists who have been misrepresented, she talks to scientists who have done studies that contradict the ones that are reported, its fascinating and depressing stuff – depressing in that you know none of it is being reported.

what frustrates me is that theories which support ‘gender norms’ are portrayed as being revolutionary, bucking the PC-gone-mad trend. even the harvard professor who said women were innately bad at science was portrayed as a galileo figure, silenced by extremists even tho science upholding stereotypes is dull dull dull.

Jilly // Posted 10 June 2010 at 10:26 am

Yes I agree completely. Unfortunately the media onyl tends to report the studies which appear to support gender stereotypes – which really makes me mad!

For the record – I have no problems with spiders and can read maps better than any many of my acquaintance.

Lindsay Williams // Posted 10 June 2010 at 2:24 pm

I am so thankful that you have pointed out the inherent flaw in the “we learnt it as hunter-gatherers!” argument that is continually trotted out in these pathetic men vs. women scientific studies. As an archaeologist I have constantly had to tell people that yes, we have come rather a long way since the Palaeolithic, and that just because our ancestors 10,000 years ago hunted large game and gathered berries, it doesn’t mean that men need to be naturally aggressive or women attracted to pink things. It makes my blood boil!

EmilyBites // Posted 10 June 2010 at 2:49 pm

This is such an important point, so thanks for making it Naomi.

People so often say to me, ‘But look around you, men and woman ARE different!’

Yes, they may indeed be behaving differently, but why are they? They look, behave and think differently because they’ve been socialised that way! We simply don’t know what the innate differences are between men and women, beyond the simple biological ones, because we are all products of a deliberately constructed and constantly reinforced male-female binary.

I would be fascinated to find out what the differences are (if any!) between the sexes in terms of ability, behaviour etc., but the differences between woman A and woman B can be far greater than the differences between man A and woman A! People get so hung up on a person’s sex.

Rose // Posted 10 June 2010 at 3:24 pm

I just went on a road trip with my (male) partner navigating. Bloody nightmare! I just had to blank out his misdirecting noise and follow the sign posts.

Living dolls is an awesome but heavily depressing book.

One thing that really angers me is the ‘oldest profession’ comments about prostitution. It’s not as old as hunter, gatherer, cook, child carer, medic, farmer… indeed, it suggests both trade based lifestyle and relative urban environment! Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure rape was around long before all that, but prostitution?

I read an article awhile ago blaming male infertility on their sperm being ‘too strong’, under the title ‘super sperm’. It claimed that the main problem was not defective sperm, or sperm not reaching the egg – but that the poor egg couldn’t handle the power of the sperm, and was therefore dying.

The ‘sperm and egg’ story generally though, has been dumbed down and explained in a really biased/misleading way. You know, the idea of passive, taskless egg being energetically and actively penetrated by ‘best of the best’ sperm that had gone charging at it!

Feminist Avatar // Posted 10 June 2010 at 7:29 pm

There is some really nice research on sperm-egg metaphors in scientific work (aka promiting the active man, passive woman dichotomy)- and at least one study that shows eggs in fact release a hormone to attract the sperm, so not so passive after all.

The women like pink thing drives me particularly nuts as a historian- as women were only associated with pink in the TWENTIETH century. Before that (at least for a couple of hundred years) it was associated with boys in Britain- as red was manly and aggressive, and pink was similar but not as extreme, so suitable for boys. And, in other cultures- like Thailand- pink is very ‘manly’.

On the question of peer-reviewed journals, the fact they survive in the current market is at least some marker of how good they are. And, while there are some journals that are more prestigious (because they are more widely read), it doesn’t mean the research is more accurate or ‘truthful’ than that in other peer-reviewed journals.

But, more seriously, the key word here is ‘peer’- if everybody else in your field is misogynistic or doesn’t question your premises, then your work is valid. What the peer-review process does is make sure that you are meeting certain scientific standards that are agreed by your discipline. And, really that is all science is- a bunch of rules that at this historical moment we (society) have agreed are the way to determine ‘fact’. Those rules are inevitably flawed, because we are only human!

Shea // Posted 10 June 2010 at 9:50 pm

I agree with this article 100% and the comments above. But I think what is worse is that the articles and discourse around sex determined traits/ genetic determinism is that we are creating a sexist paradigm for the research to take place in.

There are as pointed out good areas for research in sex difference to pian tolerance, suspectability to dementia and neurological conditions, but these exist in culture which has these sex myths in its subconcious. Scientist are subjective, (Science too by extension) is it possible that we are missing vital discoveries because we are so blinkered we can only interpret the results according to the tired old cliches?

Its something to think about.

@ Rose – try anything by Natalie Angier she’s great at exposing the “passive egg” type biological falsehoods.

Amy // Posted 10 June 2010 at 10:17 pm

I always find the bit about “hunter-gatherers” to be so ridiculous, mostly because there are still quite a few people out there in the world (and in my country) who still actively engage in hunting and gathering for survival. And I’m willing to bet money that all of the trite assumptions about women liking pink etc. does not apply to these people, e.g. since there are no red berries to be found in the kalahari desert.

(new to this site, so hi!)

Nico // Posted 11 June 2010 at 11:09 am

I also feel strongly about this sort of reporting. A few months ago I read an article in the Times that said a study had found women were naturally better at ironing (and a bunch of other domestic tasks) than men. It was ridiculous.

sianmarie // Posted 11 June 2010 at 12:22 pm

amy – totally agree. plus the women like pink experiment was done with no real controls, didn’t take into account socialization and ignored the fact that all over the world, fruits are many different colours. might as well say women like green because they ‘gathered fruit like apples’ or oranges, or bananas…

but i gets reported without question!

makomk // Posted 11 June 2010 at 9:10 pm

The trouble is, fact is not a feminist issue in practice. Take a look at all the feminist advocacy on the issue of sex trafficking by groups like the Poppy Project. Their research is absolutely awful from a scientific viewpoint – thanks to a combination of dubious measuring methods and not actually measuring what they claim to, they’ve managed to come up with really shocking figures for stuff like the number of prostitutes who are victims of sex trafficking that have no basis in fact. (They also assumed that any prostitute who’s racially non-white British was illegally trafficked into the country, which is problematic in itself.)

Of course, that doesn’t matter – both the press and the feminist activist groups go for shocking over scientifically accurate. What’s more, when researchers who’d actually tried to measure how common sex trafficking is criticised the Poppy Project’s methods, they got a nice response basically accusing them of intentionally supporting violence against women. (Said response is linked from this Guardian piece. In particular, see the second-from-last bulletpoint. You’ll also notice that there’s no link to the original criticisms by the researchers – according to Dr Petra, the Poppy Project successfully pressured the Guardian into removing the link.)

This isn’t limited to one issue, either. For example, methods of counting domestic violence that are considered perfectly good when used to measure violence against women suddenly become questionable when they show violence against men solely because of the belief that it can’t be real violence when it’s against men. (No, I am not exaggerating – take a look at the criticisms of the Conflict Tactics Scale sometime.) Instead, sources such as crime statistics which are normally rejected for their known undercounting become the gold standard solely because they show a better ratio of male to female victims. (What’s more, there are some fairly obvious reasons why they would undercount male victims more, based on well-known feminist issues!)

Then there’s stuff like the widely-repeated dodgy figures on rape convictions, which Harriet Harman actually had to be reprimanded by the parliamentary statistics watchdog over.

Holly Combe // Posted 12 June 2010 at 5:12 pm

@Makomk. I’ll keep this brief, as I think your comment is at risk of derailing the discussion into one about the Poppy Project or directing the discussion towards a focus you would prefer, rather than Naomi’s original claim that the mainstream media misquotes research in order to “add legitimacy to gender stereotypes”.

I don’t think Naomi’s assertion that “fact is a feminist issue” somehow implies that feminist research or feminist writing about research is immune from bias/cherry picking/misreporting. I don’t think she meant “fact is a feminist issue because feminist research results can always be taken as Fact”. My interpretation was that she was saying fact is a feminist issue because the authoritative sounding “facts” the general public are fed by the mainstream media come about because of much of the media’s vested interest in traditional ideas about gender. Personally, I would also argue that the very idea that some authority has the “facts” about who we are and what apparently makes us that way is most certainly a feminist issue. I’d say this still very much applies in the context being addressed (gender stereotypes) regardless of whether or not we can trust the Poppy Project, the Conflict Tactics Scale, reports on Lovett and Kelly’s research into attrition or crime statistics in general.

makomk // Posted 12 June 2010 at 7:49 pm

Holly Combe: I’d not really disagree with Naomi’s claim in that regard, actually – in fact, it’s often surprising how little attention seems to be paid to this issue. What I am saying is that this attitude to facts and to science goes way beyond propping up gender stereotypes: organized feminist groups not only often think in the same way, they benefit from the fact that the media does too and from people’s tendency to go along with it unquestioningly. (Well, at least from a short-term, narrow perspective. Whether it’s a good thing in the longer term is a more difficult question entirely. Personally, this seems a much more interesting topic than the Poppy Project!)

More broadly, one could say the media squashes scientific evidence into nice preconceived narratives. Sometimes it’s about traditional gender roles and gender difference, sometimes it’s feminist (in fact, for certain issues it usually is), and sometimes it’s something else entirely. Ideally, I’m hoping for the end of this approach, not just a more convenient narrative within it.

Quiet Riot Girl // Posted 13 June 2010 at 12:10 pm

Brilliant post, thanks. It is very timely as yesterday I saw the article saying ‘scientists have discovered that gender is socially constructed’ as if fifty years of sociology/cultural and gender studies had never happened! Scientists and science journalists need to respect the expertise of people from other disciplines, which are just as relevant in studying humans as science is.

Gordon Campbell // Posted 15 June 2010 at 11:33 am

Language Log (especially Mark Libermans’s posts) is good at demolishing dodgy science and science reporting about differences between men and women: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2208

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