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.