Monday, May 10, 2010

Science says!

Any time you're using the construction "science says..." as a way of being debate-endingly authoritative, you're pretty much an idiot. Because there's no "word of science," it's not one thing. There's just a community of scientists. A lot of them disagree, some of them do crappy research, and a ton of them do research on something very limited that gets turned into a huge generality in the popular press. A study titled "Daily cycles of mating frequency and melatonin levels in female mice" almost inevitably turns into "WOMEN ARE HORNIER AT NIGHT, SCIENCE SAYS."

Which is why, even though I love Cracked dearly and have nothing but respect for their handsome and brilliant writing staff, I'm really annoyed by this:
6 Absurd Gender Stereotypes (That Science Says Are True)

So what does Science really say?

Women Can't Drive and Park For Shit
Actual research: "In one [test], volunteers had to swim through an underwater maze to find a hidden platform, while the second involved exploring radial arms projecting from a central junction to receive 'rewards'."

Men Are Freaking Slobs
Actual research: "Female subjects whose odour sensitivity was tested many times, were able to detect the cherry-almond smell of benzaldehyde and a few other odours at progressively much lower concentrations. Male subjects taking part in similar tests never improved their ability to identify odours with experience."

Women Are Wimps
Actual research: "Scientists tested analgesic drugs on mice unable to produce the GIRK2 protein. [...] male mutants had lower pain thresholds than normal male mice. Female mutants exhibited a tolerance comparable to that of their normal counterparts, however, suggesting that GIRK2 is responsible for sex differences in pain sensitivity."

Women Love to Talk (and Talk)
Actual research:"The volume of the superior temporal cortex, expressed as a proportion of total cerebral volume, was significantly larger in females compared with males (17.8% increase; P = .04). This was accounted for by 1 section of the superior temporal cortex, the planum temporale, which was 29.8% larger in females (P = .04). In addition, the cortical volume fraction of the Broca area in females was 20.4% larger than in males (P = .05)."

Women See Mauve, Men See Purple
Actual research: "The current study presents nucleotide sequence analyses and tests of neutrality for a 5.5-kb region of the X-linked long-wave “red” opsin gene (OPN1LW) in 236 individuals from ethnically diverse human populations. [...] Our results suggest that subtle changes in L-cone opsin wavelength absorption may have been adaptive during human evolution."

(Also, see xkcd's amateur but actually-relevant take on the subject.)

Women Are Lightweights
Actual research: The renowned scholars at No derivable link to published research.

Science doesn't say this shit. People get preconceptions from eighth-graders and sitcoms, selectively look for research that says something sort of relevant to the general topic, then feel free to say ridiculous shit and back it up with "it's not an opinion, it's a FACT because SCIENCE SAYS."

Let me put it this way: if you had absolutely no preconceptions about male and female driving, and you read the study about people swimming through underwater mazes, would you spontaneously cry out "Why, this must mean women can't drive!"?

If your logic doesn't work forwards... you're a sexist idiot and you also eat poop. I know that might sound harsh, but it's not me saying that, it's SCIENCE.*

*Pervocracy, H. (2010). Coprophagy, verbal reasoning, and appreciation of Gloria Steinem in the domestic guinea pig. The Massachusetts National American Northeast International Journal of Science, 531-8008.


  1. If your logic doesn't work forwards... you're a sexist idiot and you also eat poop.

    Yep. This is exactly why "evolutionary psychology" as currently practiced is a complete load of total horseshit. (BTW, found your blog via belledame of Fetch Me My Axe.)

  2. Ev Psych Bingo

    "Women like pink things, possibly because of berries in a forest."

  3. A big part of science misapplication may simply be that so many people underappreciate the amount of time it takes for the really solid conclusions to shake out from all the chaff. The scientific method is the best tool we have for investigating the world, but it can take a generation or more to get a really confident understanding of the core principles of a contentious field of research. But many people want to start drawing conclusions (or worse, setting legal policies) "based on the science" while the debate's still in relative infancy.

    Drawing broad conclusions from individual studies may just be an extreme form of the same principle.

  4. Every time I read something like "science says," I can't help but hear it in the voice of Magnus Pyke from that Thomas Dolby video.


  5. Thank you! I had a pretty similar reaction. Also, regarding female drivers - a lot of companies give women a small car insurance discount because they statistically get in fewer accidents than men. Sooo... Cracked is wrong or insurance companies are and I'm willing to bet insurance companies do more research considering their profits are on the line.

  6. artsynomad--

    Well, yeah, but that's just because women are more cautious drivers, not because we're better ones. It's 'cause we're to cowardly to drag race down busy streets at 80 mph.

    ...or, you know, too smart.

    Evolutionary psychology as practiced by amateur scientists makes me want to beat my head against a wall.

  7. It's not limited to gender studies, alas.

    I worked in a lab trying to understand the genetics of insulin-dependent diabetes. (The one that can't be considered a "lifestyle disease," so it's pretty apolitical as medical topics go.)

    One day we heard on the radio that insulin-dependent diabetes had been solved by a group at Stanford. We were, to put it mildly, surprised. Why hadn't we heard?

    Then we saw the paper. It didn't solve IDDM. It hardly even scratched the surface. But oh boy, it was linked to a *patent application*, so sexy! And you could squint at it and say, maybe this is going to be the solution. (Though as it turns out, it wasn't.)

    Science reporting occasionally rises to competence but most of it is frightfully bad. I can't read _Psychology Today_, I just want to throw things. Hard pointy things. At the authors and editors.