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Bad Science…how we hate you

This weekend my roommate showed me an awesome documentary called The Joy of Stat.  It’s narrated by the Swedish professor Hans Rosling, who is hilarious and poignant.  If you don’t mind some math puns, I recommend it for everyone.  It’s only about an hour long, and it’s got a lot of cool stuff in it.

The part of the documentary that stood out most for me, though, wasn’t one of the fun graphics or the catchy soundtrack; it was one of the introductory statements that Professor Rosling made probably four or five minutes in.  He said something to the effect of “statistics can tell us if what we think about the world is true.”  Apologies to all if that’s a little less eloquent than his actual statements.

This isn’t a world-shattering revelation to me; this same roommate who showed me this video is working on his PhD in cognitive psychology.  Another good friend is finishing his PhD in criminology, and I have a whole bevvy of friends in medical school right now.  I appreciate the power of good science to show us what is real, beyond our own experience and assumptions.

As usual, something Holly wrote last week is making me think about this a lot more.  This ability to detect the truth - the way things actually are, and not the way mainstream culture thinks of them - is one of the most powerful tools in the activist’s toolkit.  Science itself doesn’t favor social movements over the status quo, or democrats over republicans, or justice over injustice.  It does, though, give us a flashlight to look at the consequences of our actions collectively, and to let us know if the beliefs we hold as a culture and as a society are actually true.

Science isn’t a thing, of course; it’s a process.  Good science, science done with understanding of its own limitations, with rigorous and well-accepted methodologies, and replicable results can change public opinion about major social issues (although it often takes a while to make it happen).  Science is the credibility of social change movements.  It is the lever that gives us the ability to challenge the status quo when moral arguments alone don’t.

Granted, most of this only applies to GOOD science - there are a lot of ways to make really BAD science, as Holly indicated above, and as we can see in examples like this and this and this.  There are many, many more that I could link to here, but I won’t.  Many researchers either don’t know how to do science correctly, or they intentionally skirt the edges because they have a suspicion that if they really measured reality, their results wouldn’t turn out the way they want them to.

Why does so much bad science get published, though?  Why does so much science that conforms to our pre-determined notion of power structures that already exist get media attention, and little criticism?  Most of the population doesn’t really understand HOW to do good science (I don’t, really - I ask scientists about that).  We read headlines in newspapers, on websites, or see news on TV about studies and reports from journalists who also don’t (generally) know all that more about science than we do, and it’s hard to tell what studies are good and what studies are bad.  We end up getting confused about what’s real, when there isn’t really an argument.  This leads to all sorts of bad policies based on a lot of lousy science.

Good science is like a trump suit in cards - in terms of its actual findings and measurement of reality, a really vigorous study with excellent methodology and scrupulous writing beats any number of bad studies with non-replicable results, poor methodology, and wildly sweeping generalizations that the data doesn’t support.  This doesn’t usually extend past the scientific community, though, and the mainstream culture doesn’t have much of a sense of this.

The study that Holly was bringing down is important for us here because it deals with rape.  As I’ve said before, whenever we talk about gender in this country, we’re not really talking about bodies and beings, we’re talking about all the other meaning we’ve packed into gender as a proxy variable.  Talking about rape in conjunction with this, and using lousy science, can lead most of us in bad directions.  The Slate article actually tackles a couple of them:

Thornhill and Palmer, Malamuth, and the many other investigators studying rape through an evolutionary lens, take great pains to point out that “adaptive” does not mean “justifiable,” but rather only mechanistically viable. Yet dilettante followers may still be inclined to detect a misogyny in these investigations that simply is not there. As University of Michigan psychologist William McKibbin and his colleagues write in a 2008 piece for the Review of General Psychology, “No sensible person would argue that a scientist researching the causes of cancer is thereby justifying or promoting cancer. Yet some people argue that investigating rape from an evolutionary perspective justifies or legitimizes rape.”

The unfortunate demonization of this brand of inquiry is rooted in the fallacy of biological determinism (according to which men are programmed by their genes to rape and have no free will to do otherwise) and the naturalistic fallacy (that because rape is natural it must be acceptable).

If we could be sure that this would be the situation, that this study was done using rigorous methods and wasn’t generalized beyond its findings; that there wouldn’t be an implied justification of rape or victim-blaming of women who are survivors as a result of this study’s publication, then maybe I’d be on board with the authors.  But that doesn’t happen.  What we get instead is the media report of another study (using dubious methods) that purports to tell us that the standard gender roles we have already had slammed into us from a thousand different directions are true, and another reason to twist the knife on survivors: didn’t you know?  Women are evolutionarily adapted to not get raped!  So you are just a broken fool for getting victimized!  Don’t mention anything about the GOOD science we have about how rape is perpetrated; pretend that all we know about the crime is based on evolutionary biology that hasn’t ever ever ever changed and never will.

Aside from this problem here, bad science is a long-term enemy of fighting rape culture.  Bad science almost always reinforced the gender binary, the patriarchy, and undercuts credibility from legit scientists who are learning new things about the patterns of rape and how it actually happens each year.  We are learning that is it not perpetrated by many, many men each genetically pre-disposed into raping at least once in his lifetime.  We are seeing, repeatedly, that rapists, a small group of men, are premeditating assaults and hold very specific, very misogynist and anachronistic views about women right now.  We need our science, our good science, to help punch holes through the bad science that clogs the way forward.  The more information we have about rape and how it actually happens, the more progress we can make towards ending it. 

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Posted by Dave

Dave has volunteered with BARCC since 2007 and works in higher education administration. He also facilitates a men's pro-feminist group, is a STARZ member of Socializing for Justice, a Yelp Elite '10 member, and sits on the advisory council of the Boston Medical Center's domestic violence prevention board. He got involved with BARCC to further his understanding of feminism and gender justice, and also to get the chance to show his speaking skills far and wide. He lives in Allston, where the music is.

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