This post was originally published at Restructure! Some tense and time markers have been updated.
Some anti-oppressive thinkers distrust powerful institutions, and end up distrusting the scientific institution and even scientific knowledge itself. However, scientific knowledge and scientific practise are not inherently oppressive. The oppressions that appear to come from science actually come from the upper-class white male domination of scientific disciplines.
Science is not the enemy; the practise of science is a productive method for understanding ourselves and our world. When some scientific studies overgeneralize and/or neglect certain groups of people, the problem is bad science, not science.
One of the serious problems with the lack of diversity in the practise within certain knowledge domains is that some important aspects of reality are not even considered, leading the researchers to overgeneralize and draw incorrect conclusions. This problem comes from the fact that scientific practise is a social activity, subject to the biases and prejudices of the scientists. In contrast, the scientific methods of gathering empirical data to refute hypotheses, and using statistical methods to determine statistical significance, are perfectly sound.
It is illogical to assume without reason that the results of a given scientific study (especially one that you do not particularly like) must be false. There is no contradiction between truth and justice. Anti-oppressive thinkers should not be afraid of science.
For example, in a Feministing post about using yoghurt to treat yeast infections, Courtney wrote:
There’s no question that the personal is the political, even when it comes to our most individuated health and wellness choices. But it’s got me wondering, is it “less feminist” to resort to store-bought cures or is this one of those things that we should lay off on politicizing?
Commenter FrumiousB responded:
Well, if you found it by Googling, it must be right. Since when is trusting random strangers to dispense medical advice a feminist action? Since when is using evidence based medicine resorting to the man? And how do you know yogurt doesn’t have any drug interactions? Next time you want medical advice off the internet, use Medline.
Of course, by searching Medline, one can find a scientific study that concludes that ingesting yoghurt that contains Lactobacillus acidophilus reduces vulvovaginal candidal (yeast) infections by threefold, which is an example how scientific knowledge can be empowering by giving women more choices. Of course, this does not mean that using store-bought cures is “less feminist”. Courtney received a lot of criticism for this line of reasoning from Feministing commenters, although there were also many anti-science supporters. In response to a commenter that advocated trusting folk remedies over “traditionally male-dominated western medicine”, commenter BluePencils wrote:
No, it’s not a feminist issue. It has nothing to do with the patriarchy. It has to do with anecdotal evidence versus the scientific method. I’ll go with the scientific method, thank you. Yes, there are natural remedies that work, of course there are. It’s just rare to be informed of any side effects and interactions, which leads to many people believing that if a treatment is “natural,” it doesn’t have any side effects. Which is ridiculous.
In addition to its anti-intellectual and self-oppressive properties, science-hating by some prominent feminist bloggers isolates women and feminists who love science. Commenter moley wrote:
Oh, and can we stop saying that science is one giant woman-hating shit show?
As a female scientist, I am fully aware that there have been extremely unethical practices in the past, and that we’ve yet to reach a point where there is equal attention paid to men and women’s health, but c’mon man. The venom with which you so flatly shoot down science is really frustrated. I’m a chick, and I love science. Not in a, “wow this is interesting” kind of way, but in a “I want to devote the rest of my life to this” kind of way.
So, please just be a little sensitive when you insult my first and true love. Yeah, it’s not perfect. I KNOW THAT, that’s why I’m trying to change it. Please don’t say its completely politicized. Have you been to medical research labs? Have you seen the GREAT work people are doing to cure things like breast and cervical cancer? It’s just insulting that you brush it off so easily.
Yeah the FDA sucks big time, but you demean the work I do with your comments.
Oh and probiotics work, just not at the low concentrations they put in the “active naturals” yogurts. Just get organic yogurt or take probiotic pills (they’re expensive but they work). Oh and just a warning: DO NOT take probiotics if you have compromised immunity.
Oh yeah, and douching doesn’t work, I agree.
Another commenter Kayt wrote:
As a female scientist with training in pharmacology, I can both understand and shake my head at the medicine-is-a-feminist-issue rant. No, paternalistic doctors are not good. But if you have a bad infection, you need to get rid of it.
Most of us who are reading this blog grew up with clean communities and ready access to antibiotics, so we fail to fully appreciate that infectious disease can be very damaging, if not fatal. Many antibiotics are derived from microbes and other natural sources, and they are often more concentrated than the helpful organisms/compounds that you find in yogurt or garlic. As a result, the antibiotics that you purchase are often at least if not more effective than the less concentrated source product, and efficacy matters if your infection is extensive. If you want to speak out against medical condescension towards women, a sometimes poor attention to education by people in medical fields, or excessive corporatization of medicines, then I am with you. However, if you’re attacking the objective study and effective treatment of infectious disease as being inherently masculine, you risk alienating those who devote their time to finding effective treatments for everyone. In addition, I have heard the Western-medicine-and doctors-are- anti-feminist-argument from people who won’t vaccinate their kids, and that is a dangerous route to take. Obviously yeast infections aren’t usually as serious as many diseases, but once you start following an overgeneral line of reasoning, you really set yourself up for primitive conditions for women (and children and men)-which seems pretty anti-feminist to me.
Those who bash science seem unable to make a distinction between scientific methods and the patriarchy of the scientific community. It is healthy to criticize individual scientific studies because of specific flaws in reasoning due to the authors’ biases. It is healthy to criticize the social aspect of scientific activity that shuts out certain members of society and their associated ideas. However, it is very unhealthy and counterproductive to reject science as a whole and trust anecdotal evidence over properly-controlled studies. Using anecdotes over controlled studies, using personal experience over real statistics, is a common practise of bigots who make false generalizations about entire groups of people. Anti-intellectualism is not progressive. Anti-intellectualism and ignorance are the problem.
Over at Shameless, and inexplicably filed under “Geek Chic”, Thea blogged about a study of the relationship between women’s fertility and hip-swaying:
A Friday Funny (though this could also fall under the category of a Friday Cry-y): Women sway their hips the most when they’re least fertile, according to Queen’s University study.
Scientists at Queen’s are apparently blowing the minds of current zoology, claiming that women, contrary to a popular belief, make themselves less, not more, attractive when they’re “fertile.”
The study got 40 women (my goodness! 40 whole women!!) to wear clothes with special markers on them so that computers could track their movements, and then asked the women to walk up and down in a 6-metre area.
I keep on trying to come up with a clever critique of this study, but honestly I’m speechless. How and who came up with the idea for this study? Why is the degree of swayiness of my hips considered important? What is humanity supposed to do with this breakthrough information? And when are they gonna do a study on the boys, so I know when my man is most virile? Vomit!!
First of all, it is very annoying to people who have taken some basic statistics when somebody criticizes the sample size of a scientific study for being arbitrarily too small, as if scientific researchers are not trained in statistical methods and statistical significance. Secondly, it is generally oppressive to dismiss the interests of a small minority with “Who cares?”, as if what counts as “important” is decided by majority and popular opinion. Thirdly, geeks who love theory and factual details are already marginalized if their interests do not have immediate, practical applications, so requiring that the results of a scientific study should have an immediate, practical application to aid humanity to be considered “important” repels many “Geek Chics”, those to whom the post is meant to appeal.
Back to a post on Feministing, Miriam blogged about a telephone-survey study that found women on average eat more fruits and vegetables:
Studies like this, and the simple reporting that outlets like the NYTimes does upsets me for a few reasons. One, it is really that useful? Could we also do a telephone survey and find that brunettes show different trends in eating than blonds? How much does this research just reinforce our already concrete ideas about gender difference? Of course men eat more meat than women! It’s because they need more protein for all their manly activities.
Once again, a feminist blogger asks, “One, [is it] really that useful?” as if a study needs to have an immediate, practical application that is immediately obvious to the average person in order to be considered “important”. Secondly, she criticizes research on gender differences, as if finding that there exists a gender difference is equivalent to saying that the gender difference is an innate and biological sex difference. Thirdly, even the existence of biological sex differences — such as that most women menstruate and most men do not — is not necessarily justification for sexism.
Should we stop collecting data that can be used to track gender disparities and gender socialization? Should we be gender-blind and pretend that gender does not exist? Is the goal of feminism to move towards a society where gender and gendered people do not exist? Of course not. People should be more, not less, conscious about gender. The fact that many gender-conscious people are gender-conscious in the sexist way does not mean that gender-consciousness as a whole is a bad thing. Data and information are good.
Miriam also criticized the tendency of newspaper articles to distort scientific research, and scientific researchers often complain about this as well. However, many of the commenters were hostile to the study itself and seem unable to distinguish between “women on average are less likely to eat asparagus than men” and “no women like asparagus”. Commenter Ithika responded to this absurdity:
Hm, I like asparagus, and yet I lack a penis. There must be something wrong with me.
What gives you that impression? That’s as absurd as looking at the global population, seeing that there are more women than men and concluding that there must be “something wrong” with men. That’s like saying men get less STD testing than women so women have more STD’s.
I realise your statement was somehow in jest, but I still don’t see what a contradictory anecdote has to do with the matter.
It is good that scientifically-illiterate statements are being criticized within anti-oppressive blog communities, but the general anti-science and anti-intellectual memes needs to stop. This anti-intellectualism may be a reflection of the general anti-intellectualism of contemporary North American [?] culture, but in any case, it is a significant hindrance to productive anti-oppression work.
Yep. When you see that men’s heart disease is studied more and understood better than women’s heart disease, the best response is not to stop doing heart disease research.
I think the anti-medicine = feminist meme comes in part from the feminist backlash against paternalistically controlling medicalised childbirth practices. Of course, it’s not a feminist act to die of a preventable pregnancy complication just to stick it to The Man, but a lot of discourse doesn’t seem to have gotten that far yet.
Interesting post. It’s been over a decade since my last statistics course, so I do have one question regarding this statement:
“First of all, it is very annoying to people who have taken some basic statistics when somebody criticizes the sample size of a scientific study for being arbitrarily too small, as if scientific researchers are not trained in statistical methods and statistical significance.”
When people criticize a study for having a small sample size, I read that as the critic having concerns about whether the findings of the study can be generalized to a larger population. For instance, in the case mentioned in the post, how accurately does a study of 40 women really show that “women sway their hips the most when they’re fertile,” a headline which seems to imply something about all women?
Doesn’t a larger sample size increase the likelihood of more accurate results?
It’s been a while since my last stats course too, and the original post is from almost 3 years ago. However, as I understand it, statistical significance depends on both sample size and effect size, so if there is a large effect, then the sample size does not have to be as large.
The issue of whether something applies to “all women” is more a matter of sampling bias or selection bias than sample size or statistical significance. However, increasing the sample size will not fix this bias if there is a problem with the sampling method, since the problem would be systematic.
Thanks for your response.
For me, my annoyance isn’t science itself, but rather, the way the media and political groups spin it. A study about sex differences often turns into headlines like “women love to talk; men hate talking,” reinforcing gender binaries when, say, the study actually shows that there’s far more overlap among men and women than difference.
Great post, though. I understand why some feminists see science as “the man,” but it’s a great point in noting how that attitude marginalizes female scientists.
It’s true that sample size and effect are both important. However, you still need a reasonable, unbiased sample size even if the effect is large. I would be hesitant about n=40, personally, in just about any context. I managed to hunt down the original paper, which is currently readable for free through December: http://www.springerlink.com/content/3g8l78060073n873/
In this case, women not using hormonal birth control (n=19) and women using HBC (n=23) did have some significant differences on some parts of the study, so we’re talking even smaller sample sizes.
Here is the entire abstract:
We investigated variations in gait between women at high and at low conception probability, and how men rated those variations. Women participated in a motion capture study where we recorded the kinematics of their walking patterns. Women who were not using hormonal contraception (n = 19) repeated the study during the late follicular stage and the luteal stage of their menstrual cycle. Using a discriminant function analysis, we found significant differences in walking behavior between naturally cycling women at their follicular and luteal phases, with 71% of the walks classified correctly. However, there was no difference between walks of women in their follicular stage and women using hormonal birth control (n = 23). We compared structural and kinematic characteristics of the women’s walking patterns that appeared to be characteristic of women in the specific conception risk groups, but found no significant differences. In a second study, 35 men rated the walks of women not using hormonal contraception as slightly more attractive during the luteal stage of the cycle compared to the late follicular stage. Thus, for women not using hormonal birth control, it would appear that some information regarding female fertility appears to be encoded in gait.
The original authors seem to draw much more cautious conclusions than the popular press articles, as they should. I think there may be something interesting there, but it is obviously a preliminary study.
Honestly, I have no problem with people critiquing sample sizes and methodology (although it is best to do this from the original paper when possible), or journalists (and scientists) drawing excessive conclusions from weak evidence. I love science, but there IS a lot of bad statistical work out there. It’s a huge problem in a lot of fields, and it’s not going to go away unless both other scientists and the public scrutinize those stats more. If 40 is indeed considered a great sample size for a social science study…well, I think that’s a problem in social science. Just because results are statistically significant (and I have seen plenty of studies published in my non-social science field which don’t even manage that) doesn’t mean they’re good. A poorly-designed, biased study can still produce small p-stats.
I really don’t think critiquing a study’s stats or questioning the motives behind a study (although it is, again, best to go to the original study rather than make assumptions from what has been filtered through the media) is anti-science. Quite the reverse. In fact, we spent half of my graduate stats course pulling apart poor statistical analysis in published papers.
Er, and in case I wasn’t clear enough: I think the media spun this study in a really unpleasant direction. While it’s unfair to blame scientists for media spin without going to the original paper, it actually looks like the paper wasn’t available when the press releases hit, and not everyone has access to journals. So it happens a lot.
Why is it a problem, if it is statistically significant?
Yes, but that has nothing to do with sample size.
Mel – the problem is that most people who criticize paper stats aren’t like us (or many of the other commenters / readers here). We know what type 1 & 2 errors are, and can have meaningful discussions about whether you need to apply the Bonferroni multiple comparison correction when the multiple variables are non-independent. Most people I’ve seen criticizing papers just say something about N, maybe something about ‘correlation is not causation’, and generally just use what little stats they know to prop up pre-existing biases.
As far as an N=40, it really does depend on the field. My field typically works with N=4-6, but dozens or hundreds of trials per individual and very stereotyped behaviors (fish suction feeding, frog jumping, isolated muscle mechanics, etc.) which show relatively low variability within a species (due to constraints of physics, muscle/bone properties, and simple neural control) and large differences between species. Studies with higher N just result in loss of life with no change to the final results. In fact, we’ve even got methods that have no N at all, at least not in any statistically understandable way, because we have to correct for the fact that species are not statistically independent – data from a chimp is going to be more like a human and data from a rhesus or a mouse or a fish – resulting is bizarre, iterative data-processing methods that don’t even return variables, but rather correlations between the evolutionary rates of your variables.
Honestly, while I’m not familiar with the statistical method of the paper in question, it doesn’t surprise me that the given N’s resulted in significant effects – walking has very little to do with the brain. You can make paralyzed animals (and humans) walk on a treadmill (with their weight supported, or without support if dosed with naloxone) with nothing more than a simple, rhythmic stimulus to the spinal cord, resulting in near-perfect replication of intact gait parameters, and you can even cause gait transitions (walk to run) by increasing the stimulus frequency or intensity (including galloping for quadrupeds). 95% of human walking can be described by 3 variables (when plotted, it makes a 3-D loop, with only 5% variation away from the loop), and the loop remains constant across speeds, loads, swinging arms vs not, and even walking backwards. Just about all of walking is controlled by some very simple spinal neuron circuits. Given that the system exhibits such low variability due to tight spinal control, I’m surprised they even needed the N they did.
High values of N might be needed for social sciences (lots of variability) or physics (tiny differences), but when you have a system with minimal variability but huge differences, you can have a lot lower N and still have good results. Not to mention purely descriptive work where there’s nothing to test statistically.
Terry Tao has an interesting post from 2008 on his (usually highly technical) mathematical blog writing about how given certain conditions, you get quite good reliability from samples that would intuitively sound small.
Sampling bias is usually a huge concern, since for ethical reasons you can of course almost never coercively recruit subjects to a study.
Fannie – I’ll try to address the hip-sway sample-size issue, because it’s fairly close to my own field. The hip-sway sample size is complicated, but boils down to two issues. First, sample size is limited not by participants, but by the cost and difficulty of gathering data by motion capture, which requires either purchasing or buying access to large dedicated facilities with a ton of high-power hardware, followed by a lot of tedious data processing by grad students. Second, there are specific ways (repeated measures tests) to use multiple trials in multiple conditions for the same individual, then partition the variance between what’s caused by inter-individual variation versus variable effects. In the final breakdown, you can say things like “all subjects had different hip sway magnitude, but each subject increased hip sway 3% over their own average in the following condition”. You can even see if the effect of the variable was greater for some individuals than others.
This method is actually the mainstay of my specific field, either for the same reason (it can takes weeks of work to process a single trial’s data) or other reasons (in terminal experiments, you want to minimize the number of animals used (and therefore euthanized) while maximizing statistical power).
I’ve not read the particular study cited, but I strongly suspect it actually is focused on a hormone called relaxin. It’s best known in pregnancy, causing the ligaments around the hip to become more pliable and therefore assisting in birth, but it’s present at lower levels in all human females due to the menstrual cycle (with a similar periodicity), and affects all ligaments in the body, not just the hips. It’s why they suggest women late in pregnancy avoid some exercises, as they’re more susceptible to joint injury thanks to this hormone. Obviously, this may also have effects on non-pregnant women, and may even prove useful in preventing injuries in female athletes – if your knee ligaments are weaker at a particular time of your cycle, it’s probably best to avoid high-impact sports at that time (especially since female athletes have a higher rate of ACL injury anyway due to the increased knee angle from wider hips).
Here’s the study: http://www.springerlink.com/content/3g8l78060073n873/
It doesn’t touch on hormones at all.
Pity, I suspect relaxin probably has more to do with this than any sort of sexual signaling, particularly with regards to elastic energy storage in the tendons and ligaments (particularly of the foot).
Thank you Mokele and Mel for your insight.
Agree with the vast majority of this post. However, I sympathize with the blogger over at Shameless. I share her frustration at what gets researched, especially in the field of evolutionary psychology – because for every paper on why women make better shoppers or why women marry older men or why women are attracted to bad boys, that’s time and space and effort that could go to research that *doesn’t* reinforce poisonous social stereotypes.
I know evo psych is a special case, in terms of its shaky methodology and obvious biases, but I think “why is this being researched?” is a legitimate criticism to make across all fields. That said, I know it can also be used to dismiss research in a facile way, and frequently targets much needed basic/exploratory research, so I’m not exactly advocating its constant usage, either.
That kind of evolutionary psychology research is a tiny, tiny proportion of what scientists are actually researching. It doesn’t look that way, because the media likes studies that confirm sexist stereotypes and publicizes such papers to troll people.
A tiny portion of science as a whole, or a tiny portion of evo psych? Because while I agree that there’s plenty of useful evolutionary psychology research out there, the inane gender-focused stuff is a significant portion of it. If you meant science as a whole, then yes, it’s just a tiny over-popularized corner.
But I guess my question is – are the problems with that kind of research unique to evolutionary psychology, or is it present in more subtle ways in other fields? I honestly don’t know.
A lot of the discussion in public discourse about “science” is actually about statistics. The Hip-sway thing is ridiculous. A lot of people can’t tell the difference between science and pseudo-science, feminists are no difference. One thing I do especially HATE about the feminist discourse is the way that many feminists rage against scientific findings that they feel do not support feminist beliefs. Restructure! kind of touched on this:
I don’t want to derail this conversation but the issue where I see this the most is the issue of healthy weight. Unfortunately, many feminists will not let doctors or medical researchers report their findings (Recent Study Findings in and article by STEPHANIE NANO, Associated Press – Thu Dec 2, 12:44 am ET) without a cry of “FAT SHAMING!”
Please don’t misunderstand, fat shaming is real and terrible and body policing is very bad for people and particularly women, but I don’t think that scientists are try to Fat Shame anyone. People may use these findings to Fat Shame but that doesn’t make the findings wrong, it makes the Fat-shame-ers wrong.
I really like this Post, Thanks Restructure! I am glad we can have these conversations.
Yeah. But there are even more controversial examples than that.
For example, all the studies I’ve seen on sexual satisfaction in FGM victims has found that the majority of victims of FGM actually do report experiencing orgasm on a regular or semi-regular basis, in numbers comparable to non-FGM women. This goes contrary to one of the typical talking points against FGM (and seems to go contrary to common sense) so it gets completely ignored and shouted down as misogynistic rather than actually looked at and addressed.
It’s not like this information suddenly makes FGM not a horrific and inexcusable violation of human rights that needs to be stopped.
Don’t take this the wrong way but wrt FGM but citations please! I would be interested in following this up but don’t really know where to start. Even an appropriate list of authors would be fine. :)
Hanny Lightfoot-Klein is generally a good start. She did a lot of pioneering work living in Sudan interviewing and getting to know women who had undergone FGM. She has written quite a lot on the subject.
I also found this paper quite interesting:
“Pleasure and orgasm in women with Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C)”, Catania, et al.
I cannot emphasize enough, of course, that I think FGM is a horrible, extremely violating and damaging practice, and that it needs to end. Retaining the ability to orgasm and experience sexual pleasure doesn’t make it any less of a violation. And of course, certainly not all women do retain that ability (depending on a variety of factors).
It does seem that a healthier and more helpful attitude would be to participate in science by actually reading and critiquing research, rather than dismissing it wholesale. Any human institution is going to be flawed due to biases, so the more eyes there are on it from more varied walks of life, the better. This goes for science, it goes for feminism (transphobia/racism/etc. anyone?), it goes for everything.
I’m not trying to say that women are obligated to do any of this, of course. But deciding to dismiss science just keeps it more white and male, and that’s not really helpful to anyone.
And regarding sample size:
It’s not just about the number of samples, but also about how representative they are. Selection biases of many kinds are a common (and difficult) problem with many kinds of research on humans, for example. Although it doesn’t sound like that was the specific critique being made.
I thought I already said that upthread. :)
Ah, indeed you did. That’s what I get for skimming the comments.
*egg on face*
In fact, I would argue that not only is science not the oppressor, that we would be a LOT worse off socially (we already KNOW we would be worse off physically) if it weren’t for science and its form of reasoned thought. The ideas behind the dawn of science and reason (and there have been a lot more women involved in the scientific community than are normally known or discussed) are pretty much the same ones that allowed women to speak out against their “traditional” social standings. We all know that religion certainly wasn’t going to help.
The more science learns about our biology the less the oppression of women (or even simply privilege of the white male) makes any sort of logical sense whatsoever, and the less supportable it is… Even when science is studying the differences the differences it finds DO not support the marginalization of women. No one can argue that women and men are the same thing… our physical biology, hormones, etc. are different… And saying that we have differences is an entirely different thing than saying there are grounds for saying that either one is more valuable in a certain position, particularly as individuals.
Science is not an oppressor it is a leveler… what we need in this world is less condemnation of science (usually based on not understanding what it is and does) and more women in science! We are good at it! We kick ass at it, in fact! And once the gender distribution has equalised a little bit (which it will) there won’t even be the impetus to the less unreasonable claim that science is anti-feminist because it has fewer women than men (which is really just a product of overall gender biases and not science itself).
Be careful there. Being a woman or a man doesn’t necessarily mean you have specific biology (sex organs) or hormone levels either.
It seems to me that some of the frustration in the examples comes from prior knowledge of how research is going to go down in mass media coverage, yet this is not often explicitly said. Excuse me if I’m mistaken, I’ve not read many feminists that I could say were anti-science. I agree that there is sometimes hostility towards the research itself, which would suggest a confusion between scientific method and the institution. As for criticising the existence of a study, perhaps that’s only appropriate for some poorly thought out evo-psych type studies, which really do not need to be happening. And as Restructure! mentioned upthread, the perception of the volume of such studies doesn’t usually fit the reality – another thing we have journalists to thank for.
Brilliant! That last comment you quote (from Ithika) is mine! I remember vaguely the post though it was a while ago. I’ve since given up reading Feministing because of just this kind of anti-scientific thinking. Too many posts which laid into scientists on the basis of some third-hand report in a newspaper. I wrote to the Feministing editors to see about getting them to cite original papers (or at least be explicit that the actual science was unknown) when they covered science issues but they weren’t interested. (Came here via skepchick.org by the way.)
Loved this post!
Twisty at I Blame the Patriarchy has a couple of blog posts on the same subject: Science at I Blame the Patriachy 1
Science at I Blame the Patriarchy 2
Good overview article that came at a perfect time for me. Lately I’ve been having a small crisis, having considered myself a skeptic (which I associate with science), and yet developing a stronger mistrust of certain institutions. And considering myself a feminist at the same time. This redeeming of science (as science, not as the institutions currently controlling it), with the acknowledgement of the need for change and improvement, has been helpful in my path to reconciliation between/within these positions.