Sunday, 2 August 2009

How to get your project in the news around the world: say that women are a bit crap at something

[Hunter from Neverwhere. Female]

This is one of the worst articles on gender and brains I've seen in a long time. A piece was written by an AFP agency journalist, has been cut n’ pasted into news sites across the globe. As far as I can tell, its only appeared in The Telegraph in the UK, but has made it to Russia, India, Spain, Australia, Japan and Playboy (and many many more).

It is a terribly written article about a yet-unpublished paper on a study of 48 people by an A Level teacher.

Now, I'm not being dismissive about the researcher from Hammersmith and West London College, but this study has got more coverage than most research from the most eminent professors in the country.

The article gives the impression that men are better at judging distances than women and that this is because of our hunter-gatherer past. Men would hunt and therefore have to throw spears long distances, women would gather berries and whatnot at close quarters. (And yes before all the archaeologists and anthropologists start jumping up and down on me, I know this is simplistic rubbish too, but that’s another story).

Firstly, men being better at judging distances than women wasn’t really the finding of the ‘paper’ (i.e. what was contained in the abstract of the yet to be published paper). The article in fact contradicts itself internally:
Men were more accurate than women when the target was placed far away at a distance of 100cm.
And then
In a second study, volunteers were asked to carry out the same tasks using a stick rather than a laser pointer. This time women were significantly better than men at judging both distances.
Secondly, this is a study of just 48 people (24 men, 24 women) presumably from one locality (probably Hammersmith or West London) and unlikely to have been controlled for other factors (age, occupation, experience of archery etc). But I don't know, and nor does anyone else, because the paper hasn't been published.

Thirdly, in a study about spacial awareness, comparing abilities over 50cms to 1m is fair enough. To define it as hand-reach (near space) and beyond hand-reach (far space) is clear. But leap from 1 metre being called ‘far space’ to the distance over which a ‘hunter’ would throw a spear at a mammoth, is more than a little ridiculous.

Fourthly, as a psychology experiment on visomotor performance why is there an urge to link this randomly and in an ill-informed way to primitive human society and evolutionary biology?

But lastly, this is an experiment conducted at a further education college which is about to be published in the Journal of Psychology. My problem is not with Stancey, seriously well done (as long as you take from this experience the media manipulation of science and how best to give comment to a journalist).

My problem is with a media that doesn’t check its facts, that doesn’t do anything but cut n’ paste a poorly written article into their newspaper. Stancey is quoted as "Psychologist Helen Stancey, from Hammersmith and West London College". Googling Hammersmith and West London College you realise it is a further education college that runs A Levels, BTECs and the like.

So how does this happen? We live in a world of lazy gender stereotypes: women can’t read maps, men take risks, girls like pink etc. When ‘science’ journalists come across a crappy story about women not being able to judge distances (which cognitively signifies women not being able to drive/play sports/walk past a shoe shop…) because they ‘were gatherers’, it makes culturally sense to us. Not scientific sense, but it fits in with society’s general assumptions, stereotypes and bullshit common-sense.

This is why I think these kinds of reports are so damaging, they serve as the wallpaper of patriarchy. The constant mundane assumptions about male and female differences that support gender inequality.

And for the record, I’m a dab hand at archery.

2 comments:

James said...

I won a prize for archery at the Kingussie Highland Games when I was about eleven. Game on?

Annalee Newitz said...

Couldn't have said it better myself. This is typical of lazy science journalism, which tries to pique interest by extrapolating a grand lesson out of some tiny study.

My favorite flavor of this kind of bullshit is when a researcher will do a study of mice or voles and EVERY SINGLE story about the study will say, "And the fact that male voles fight over mates tells us a great deal about why men need to yell a lot." Actually, no, vole behavior does not shed light on how men behave when they watch telly.