Wednesday, September 7, 2011

He Blinded Me With Stupidity

I get so annoyed with absolutely incompetent journalists who write about science. Some are so clearly ignorant I refuse to even call them science writers. I have a student right now who used to be a journalist, and says the problem is the writers often have absolutely no training at all in science. Yeah, I can buy that.

I’m a big fan of’s XX blog, which has several great writers following gender issues. But this article is so much an indication of scientific ignorance it dismays me. The article:

Women and Science: Are Career Preferences Really Created in the Womb?

I can’t access the original research, but the author is writing about – and seriously criticizing to the extent that he calls the experiment’s design "rotten" - a press release from Penn State titled:

Sex hormones impact career choices

The researchers did a quasi-experiment, comparing pre-existing groups: Women with congenital adrenal hyperplasia and their siblings who do not have CAH. CAH is a genetic condition that results in exposure to more androgen -- a type of male sex hormone -- than is normal in utero. They found differences in career choice between those with CAH and those who do not have CAH, with those with CAH preferring more male-dominated fields than those without CAH. They suggest a relationship between exposure to androgen and career choice. Fine. The researchers describe their findings this way:

"Our results provide strong support for hormonal influences on interest in occupations characterized by working with things versus people," said Adriene M. Beltz, graduate student in psychology, working with Sheri A. Berenbaum, professor of psychology and pediatrics, Penn State.

How does the journalist critiquing the science describe the study? Basically, like an idiot:

While the researchers attribute this tendency to what amounts to a chemical effect, it seems odd to totally exclude the possibility that gendered preferences for careers might just be the product of a society built on strongly gendered expectations.

Here’s my question, idiotic journalist: Where do the authors “totally exclude” social factors affecting career choice? Anywhere? No? Then you’re lying, or you’re an idiot.

Here’s the thing. Just because a researcher argues a causal link between one variable (hormones) and another (career choice), does not mean said researcher thinks the one (hormones) is the only one (thus, “totally exclud(ing)” others) that affects the other (career choice).

This seems the silliest, simplest analogy...but appropriate. Imagine, a researcher finds a causal link between smoking and cancer. Does that mean the researcher “totally excludes” other factors that might also cause cancer? Should we criticize a researcher investigating the effects of smoking on cancer for failing to investigate the effects of asbestos on cancer? Of course not. Suggesting hormones affect career choice in no way implies social factors have no effect on career choice. And it is idiotic to suggest that is the case. Anyone claiming to be a legitimate science journalist should be embarrassed by saying such a thing.

Posted at Reverse Sickology