How about some evidence-based feminism?

Contemporary, visible feminism doesn’t seem to get science. This is a trend which does nothing to progress women’s issues, in fact it hinders them.

The distrust towards science and scientific methods is most salient in women’s magazines and news-sites which run such headlines as What science gets wrong about female desire or Everything you’ve ever been told about fertility is wrong, offered up by self-identified feminist writers. Such pieces are usually a concoction of glib arguments taken from fake experts (those without adequate training in scientific areas) to promote specific feminist agendas.

In an article titled Five myths that need to be busted about women in 2013 published December 2012, the commentator Clementine Ford started her opine with a statement calling for an end to research conducted in the field of evolutionary biology – an area of inquiry which she described as “unfounded”. Another piece titled When you’re attracted to an alpha male discusses archetypes of romance novels while declaring that evolutionary psychology was nothing more than “mere speculation”.

Although these largely benign, light-on-evidence articles can easily be dismissed as fluff, they do reflect attitudes which should be raising eyebrows in 2013. Whilst headlines can be purposefully sensational, when the articles also contain sweeping statements that portray science as having a veiled plot against women, we should be giving pause. In July this year, one piece proffered that:

“Whereas once religion was used to control women and define their role and status in society, more and more, we are finding that science is being used in exactly the same fashion.”

Which lands us in conspiracy theory territory. The same writers that portray science as controlling women, are the same commentators who seemingly have no problem with cervical cancer vaccines or breakthroughs in areas of reproduction and fertility technology, or obstetric medicine that prevents mothers and newborns dying in childbirth.

A distrusting attitude to the scientific method is misguided. We need scientific research to inform our feminist advocacy. And we need more focus, not less, on psychological and medical research that helps women to lead healthier and happier lives.

Far from “controlling” women, fields such as evolutionary psychology help shed light on facets of our experience which are most important to us.  Combined with literacy in social and cognitive psychology, we are much better equipped to distinguish between the universals of human experience and those which are shaped and exaggerated by culture. A working knowledge in these areas is empowering. Ignorance is not.

Unlike the internal cultures of political movements, the very practices which define science (self-criticism, open debate, peer review and double-blind methods) foster humility and reduce the errors caused by bias. It is also important to remember that producing scientific knowledge is hard, it requires proficiency in statistical methods and ability to reason quantitatively. All scientists must offer up their work to be closely scrutinised by colleagues before getting published – these methods are in place specifically to reduce prejudices, not enhance them.

We would not want our doctors to be practising medicine that was not up-to-date. And we generally like our lawyers to be abreast of the latest developments in matters of case-law and legislation. Likewise, our policies and public discussions about women’s issues are not benefitted from old theories and ideas that need revision, no matter how well-intentioned they are.

While it may be healthy to criticise specific scientific studies, it is unhealthy and counterproductive to reject science or entire scientific disciplines as a whole. There are legitimate feminist scholars in neuroscience and psychology who have made careers out of questioning research data. And this is the most effective way to criticise – learning about the methodologies used in studies, then highlighting the potential flaws of such methodologies. But all of this requires education and training.

The use of anecdotes or personal experience over real statistics in public discussion is dangerous. Historically, this has been the common practise of those in the business of making faulty generalisations about entire groups of people. It is precisely for this reason that we must resist indulging in such tendencies, even if it comes from a place that is well-meaning. For feminism to continue to do its important work it must avoid continuing to scaffold itself on an anti-intellectual platform.

25 responses

  1. Pingback: It’s been a while. Meantime, here are some links. (Bullshit jobs, evolution & business, psych studies, atheist family values & evidence-based feminism) - Sex, Genes & Rock

  2. Can you explain which part of evolutionary psychology is *not* highly speculative? Honest question. I don’t see where it is founded enough to see theories evolving from it as anything but speculation.

  3. In fairness, it’s not like they’re assailing biochemistry or applied physics. They’re raising some doubts about a new science (evolutionary biology) and a study (evolutionary psychology) that has been questioned even by other scientists. So I can’t really see a strong case for the statement or implication that “feminism” disregards science.

    Moreover, I’m grateful to anyone of any political stripe who questions the tendency of some scientific research to make broad extrapolations based on carefully controlled, artificially produced data.

    Case in point, a recently released study that makes claims about the differences in men’s and women’s brains based on brain scans. Sounds ironclad until you consider that a disciplined reading of both the data and the conditions under which it was produced would limit you to saying that when human beings are lying flat on their backs connected by electrodes to an electromagnetic scanner, doing simple mental problems in their head, the scanner registers patterns of electrical conductance in their brains. That is considerably different than a huge categorical statement about the “differences” in men’s and women’s brains. How can that claim even be considered provisionally valid until they’re able to measure brain activity in real conditions? And given that, how secure are these findings about “difference” or “male” and “female” brains? I think the science itself here obliges us to be skeptical and to ask more questions.

  4. Pingback: How a random search for a MoMA assistant curator led to an intercontinental social media dust-up | nickfarr.org

  5. In some ways, feminism was very evidence-based in the beginning. Mary Wollstonecraft, while not making it a cornerstone, still wrote this in the first paragraph of the first chapter of A Vindication of the Rights of Women:

    In the present state of society, it appears necessary to go back to
    first principles in search of the most simple truths, and to
    dispute with some prevailing prejudice every inch of ground. To
    clear my way, I must be allowed to ask some plain questions, and
    the answers will probably appear as unequivocal as the axioms on
    which reasoning is built; though, when entangled with various
    motives of action, they are formally contradicted, either by the
    words or conduct of men.

    There was a flurry of scientific (and “scientific”) study of women beginning around 1890, kicked off by the suffragettes, and that flurry only grew into an avalanche today. Women like Helen Woolley and Janet Shibely Hyde did masterful jobs of gathering and weighing evidence on feminist claims, and even the term “gender” was borrowed from the social sciences. If anything’s changed, it’s that feminism has become popular; rather than thinking themselves to the conclusion, others are just taking the conclusions of others and sharing them around, leading to a game of telephone that drains out all the evidence those conclusions were drawn from.

    Anway, I did a presentation on the topic you and your readers might get a kick out of. Check it out here.

    • And I critique Hornbeck’s pseudo-scientific presentation here:

      http://skeptischism.com/atheismneat/2014/02/05/evidence-free-feminism/

      Like Clementine Ford, Hornbeck rejects the entire field of evolutionary biology. In his talk, and in responses to questions posed by myself and my readers (who include professionals in medicine and biology), Hornbeck has displayed a gross ignorance of biology, genetics, sex selection, sexual reproduction, embryology, ontogeny, etc. He’s invented a simplistic, homemade statistical method to dismiss any research which conflicts with his a priori, postmodernist assumptions. Most astonishingly, Hornbeck denies that homo sapiens reproduce sexually, or even have male & female sexes.

      • I also recommend that any skeptics of my talk visit Cavanaugh’s blog. He and his group have presented the best counter-arguments I’m aware of, to date.

  6. Evolutionary biology and psychology have evolved thanks to advances in more “concrete” fields such as biochemistry. The scientific method is the scientific method, no matter what field you’re in. One has to be rigorous and be able to strictly control the variables, whether studying chemicals in a test tube or male and female brains. In the second case, it is more difficult, which is why we have studies in which subjects’ brains are scanned while they do mathematical computations while lying in the scanner. Hardly a real life situation, but it clearly illustrates neurological (i.e. biochemical) differences between men and women. If we differ in this highly controlled situation, we most likely differ in our brain functioning in other situations which have not yet been studied as extensively, because that would entail walking around all day with electrodes – and a lot of variables mixed in, which would be hard to isolate. Just because we do not have the means to study a phenomenon rigorously at this point does not mean it does not exist or cannot be speculated about. Think about the development astronomical knowledge, which took place over hundreds if not thousands of years – some of the early speculations turned out to be correct. If not, they were replaced with scientific knowledge, which explained a given phenomenon better. It is not science but the mass media, which often misrepresents the true scientific conclusions of a given study. This is a disservice. First, go read the original scientific publication, before criticizing a piece of “science news.” Lastly, a tongue-in-cheek question: what would be the point of “hard” scientific disciplines such as biochemistry, if we had no way of applying them to our everyday lives in the social sciences?

  7. Adjusting American law enforcement protocol, according to faulty and problematic statistics, can have negative effects, on the innocent, and throw into chaos, the meaning of the equal protection clause of the American constitution.

  8. “Put out the lantern of Diogenes for here by God in the plain light of day is an honest feminist!” :-) [Paraphrase of a review of Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers – highly recommended.]

    But it is nice, and really quite encouraging, to see a “feminist” – quoted to suggest the term covers a lot of ground, some more problematic than not – who isn’t quite as dogmatic and doctrinaire as many who sail under those colours. Apropos of which, something from a book – Stephen Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature – I expect you’ve read but highly recommended if not, and relative to some of your recent tweets:

    But there is something odd in these stories about negative messages, hidden barriers, and gender prejudices. The way of science is to lay out every hypothesis that could account for a phenomenon and to eliminate all but the correct one. Scientists prize the ability to think up alternative explanations, and proponents of a hypothesis are expected to refute even the unlikely ones. Nonetheless, discussions of the leaky pipeline in science [reasons why the percentage of women in STEM fields decreases with level] rarely even mention an alternative theory of barriers and bias. One of the rare exceptions was a sidebar in a 2000 story in Science, which quoted from a presentation at the National Academy of Engineering by the social scientist Patti Hausman:

    The question of why more women don’t choose careers in engineering has a rather obvious answer: Because they don’t want to. Wherever you go, you will find females far less likely than males to see what is so fascinating about ohms, carburetors, or quarks. Reinventing the curriculum will not make me more interested in learning how my dishwasher works. [pg 352]

    Further, something else from another woman scientist:

    As the economist Jennifer Roback points out, “Once we observe that people sacrifice money income for other pleasurable things we can infer next to nothing by comparing the income of one person with another’s.” [pg 357]

    While you might understandably have a few reservations about the “feminism” of Daphne Patai, it seems there is still more than a little justification for the argument – presented in her jointly authored Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women’s Studies – that “the isolationist attitude that dominates many of the [Women’s Studies] programs, along with a virulent anti-science, anti-intellectual sentiment driving many of the professors, staff and students” (1) is all too pervasive within much of the latest wave of “feminism”. With any number of problematic consequences.


    1) “_http://www.feministcritics.org/blog/2009/07/27/professing-feminism-noh/”;

  9. I don’t usually take up arms with Clementine Ford (I find her sanctimonious and bombastic), but she certainly has a point with regard to both EB and EP. These fields have had a while now to come up with some serious research, but continue to fumble about with dubious research practices and ‘just-so’ stories that most high schoolers could dissect in an afternoon. The rejection of empirical evidence across the board of disciplines is at epidemic proportions right now, not just in feminist circles.

  10. Pingback: Bad Feminism | Claire Lehmann

  11. My goodness, but I would love to send you a free e-copy of my upcoming book once it’s available. I think you’d find that it explains the otherwise irrational behaviours of pop feminists rather rationally. There is a logical reason for their illogical rejection of science or any truth or fact that contradicts their ideological worldview.

    The unified concept of gender narcissism is a bit like the concept of heliocentricity. So simple to understand, yet it explains so much. A powerful Occam’s Razor appeal, if you will.

  12. Uh, psychology and sociology are not sciences. They are no where need as empirically sound as biology. Most of it is conducting highly opinionated surveys and looking for a statistical curve. That is not even, remotely in the same territory as saying that gravity on earth has a draw of. 9.8 m/sec. Shame on you for covering this up.

  13. Pingback: Amanda Hess finds that Women Have Control Over Their Lives. Pop-Feminists Everywhere Confused. | Claire Lehmann

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