Bad science? Bad gender politics?

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?