Junk Science Causes Indigestion

Debbie says:

Via Zuzu at Feministe, I find Echidne of the Snakes, the blogger I have clearly been looking for for a long time without knowing it.

Echidne is on a crusade against junk science, and she’s really good at it. The linked posts above, both from Echidne and from Zuzu, discuss the media attention to a thoroughly minor Swedish study.

According to this study, “Our main finding is that gender equality was generally correlated with poorer health for both men and women.” Echidne not only reviews the study’s methodology, she also links to several studies with dissimilar findings.

However, just as when Steven J. Gould wrote about race and skull size, the details of this particular study are not the central point. Gould wanted to show how scientists’ preconceptions affect their results (and, by way of example, that race has nothing to do with skull size). Echidne, Zuzu, and I all want to show that media folk pick studies for reasons other than scientific quality (and, by way of example, it’s highly likely that gender equality is not bad for your health).

Consider this: Hundreds of studies are published each month in the social science literature, and only a very few of these are ever publicized extensively. How do those lucky studies get picked? Some of them are obviously important in their findings, but many are selected because they might sell more newspapers or get more television watchers glued to their sets. And I’m beginning to suspect (heh) that there is an ideological point to deciding which studies are to be given more advertising. It will not be studies which suggest that feminism is a good thing.

This has two important consequences. The first one is that the general audience obtains a biased understanding of what the studies show in general. The second one is that people like me have to spend an awful lot of time criticizing and analyzing the mispopularization of studies. It doesn’t matter how well I do that, because it LOOKS like all the studies out there are proving points for the anti-feminist side. What is urgently needed is some sort of a way of getting a more representative sample of studies into the popular debate. But this is not something the anti-feminists want to do.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden is oft-quoted for saying, “I deeply resent the way this administration makes me feel like a nutbar conspiracy theorist.” Writing this, I’m deeply resenting the way the media makes me sympathize with the people who feel that “science can’t be trusted.”

The key scientific issues of our time–such as climate change and stem cell research–and the issues of our First World daily lives–such as appropriate nutrition and effective medication–take the brunt of this idiocy. Even with clear-cut rules like those Echidne provides in another post, these things are complex and scary.

Make sure that you ignore the overall statements at the beginning of the story initially. Read down to find which measures the study actually used and how those measures correlated with each other. Think about what this might mean. Then go back and read the overall arguments and assertions and see if they actually follow from the study’s mechanical findings.

We damn well don’t need all this junk science clogging up the headlines, the news shows, and the blogosphere to confuse us further.

science, junk science, feminism, gender equality, Steven Jay Gould, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Body Impolitic