Wednesday, January 04, 2006

I Use My Gut for Social Science

Via the Women's Media Center I discovered this excellent piece from the SF Chron exposing the consistent use of shoddy social science for the "mommy wars" pieces showing up in the NYTimes pages as of late. It is disturbing to grapple with the reality that backlash, trend stories on women are vomited onto the pages with very little empirical evidence backing up their claims. Yet, if the broad claims, made by writers such as Maureen Dowd bemoaning that smart women can't get dates, fit "conventional wisdom" they make front pages, even though they have little solid empirical support.

These two paragraphs particularly struck me:

And, most famously, in 1986 Newsweek ran a story titled, "If You're a Single Woman, Here Are Your Chances of Getting Married." The story relied on data from an unpublished Harvard-Yale marriage study and reported that a 40-year-old woman had a better chance of getting killed by a terrorist than getting married.

"No one would have published a political story about the Bush administration or the war on terror with this kind of data," says Rivers, who dismissed Dowd's writings as another "scare story."

Last night I argued with a former student who declared "it's a well-known fact that graduate programs in science have lower standards for admitting or highering women." I asked him for empirical evidence supporting this sweeping claim. His response: "No one has the guts to do these studies and find out the truth." I suggested that this was likely false (especially since it would really put a jam in the machinery of feminist complaints of deep sexism within science and engineering fields). He ended the conversation by suggesting that his experience with the "unqualified" women in science was sufficient evidence for his conclusion.

Since when are the experiences of a sample size of 1 good evidence for making general claims? The power of science, which is partly why the Bush Administration wants to limit its authority, is that it deeply challenges conventional wisdom or peoples' personal experiences.