Thursday, 18 September 2014

Being Skeptical of Gender

I have seen among sexists two broad approaches. One is an emotive, shouty, obviously obnoxious sort, which clings to little more than lame cliches and bible quotes for a thin facade of support, but which is generally content to just lurch around unsupported and angry. The other appears more calm and rational, and likes to use "facts" and "studies" (with heavy emphasis on the quotation marks of sarcasm) for support. I am dismissive of these, because that is little better than the way creationists and quacks like to abuse the occasional stray study that they can bend to their purposes.

A series of recent Facebook arguments exchanges of views have reminded me of how often I see the following pattern:
Dude comes somehow into discussion on gender matters, sides in favour of discrimination, claims that research backs him (usually him) up, may or may not provide links, and then acts as if everyone else is anti-science and illogical for not agreeing.

The ones who can't even provide links to the research they claim are pretty easily dismissed as noobish noobs. The ones who provide links are worth looking at, but not by a huge margin. There are two reasons I can think of to be dismissive towards even the study-linking sort of sexist:

1. We don't need no stinking research. As a serious skeptic, that's not a small thing for me to declare, but I got the idea from no lesser skeptic-of-note than Steve Novella, who has made a similar point a few times, usually in relation to race and racism. He has pointed out that we reject racism as an ethical judgement call, not because the science says 'be racist' or 'don't be racist; if we found clear evidence of one race being seriously different from another, would we decide that this justifies being mean to each other? Or is being good to each other regardless of a few fiddling differences better? It may reflect the appreciation for Star Trek that Dr Novella and I have in common, but we both seem to feel that neither pointy ear nor skin colour nor lumpy head should cause us to treat anyone differently. Similarly, I feel the same applies to reproductive organs. I'm sure you can find a study that says that testes make you smarter (or dumber), but I don't really care; I don't want to live in a society where that sort of broad generalisation is the beginning and the end of how individuals are considered. Generalisations have their practical uses, but they should be tools, not straitjackets.

(1.b. On a related but less important note, while the people pushing this kind of research usually like to paint themselves as neutral and "just following the evidence", it is pretty obvious that they're only ever following the evidence in one direction. I have yet to see such a person post a link opposed to what they believe and say, "Oops, looks like my preconceived notions were wrong, I recant". This is not the proper way to use science, it is cherry picking and starting from a conclusion. The same may be true in both directions, but I'm not sure. I was on the fence myself, saw evidence from both sides for a few years, and eventually found feminism more compellingly supported.)

2. I question the research. All of it. I certainly wouldn't say it's all rubbish, but we should be pretty skeptical of it by default. First, when these things are dragged out, they're usually lone studies, not clusters of mutually agreeing research. One paper proves very little. Second, there is reason to be cautious of false positives in even well-regarded research. This does not mean that all of science is junk; this caution is supposed to be there, it's part of the full scientific method. Until something has been checked to pieces, we shouldn't embrace it too tightly. And telling people they have to be second-class citizens because of the research is an exceptionally tight embrace. Even if you disagree with my point 1 (that the research shouldn't matter anyway), you'd better be damn fucking certain that you're not condemning people for a dumb reason like a dodgy study.

(2.b. I have my own little hypothesis about why there's such a glut of gender-related studies for sexists to cherry-pick from. It's because of lazy and/or nervous and/or inexperienced young researchers, grad students and the like. Splitting your sample into boys and girls is, culturally, such an easy, obvious way to get an independent variable for virtually any human study, even if there's no good a priori reason to look there. It's a variable that's seldom going to be reported wrong (by the researcher or the subject), it doesn't take a lot of creative thought to come up with it, supervisors probably don't feel too much pressure to advise against something so simple and doable (even if they don't expect the results will actually be useful; junior research is viewed more as a teaching tool than as "real" research, even if it subsequently gets published), and there's a fair enough chance that you can wring some small pattern out of whatever your dependent variable is (even if that pattern is false, see point 2 above). Then you can have a degree and start thinking about more serious research with more meaningful variables.

I could be wrong about that, but if any young student is looking for a more interesting hypothesis to test, feel free...)

My point is this: Being a good skeptic is not a matter of playing Simon's Research Paper Says. Evidence is good, science is great. But there's more to science than single studies. Scientific consensus is about big patterns revealed by many, many studies over time. This is where we got evolution and climate change and the relativities and a thousand other major theories. But those are factual claims, not subjective judgements about what we need to do to make the world work for us. They are descriptions of the status quo, not policy statements about how and why to either keep or remove the status quo. We can use science to help us make better policy choices, but we also have to think for ourselves.