Science vs “Science”


In my freshman year, I took a Introduction to Anthropology course, and I remember my professor telling us it was good to put charts in our ethnographies because they made them seem more “scientific,” which made it easier to get funding. He said this with a sort of impish grin. I think it was because he believed most funders didn’t understand what anthropology was all about, and so he begrudgingly added numbers and graphs to appease them, even though he didn’t consider them the most important part of the field. 

It was around that time that I started becoming more skeptical about a lot of the studies you read about, particularly in the social sciences, but also other scientific studies as well. Scientists espousing that women were genetically inclined to seek a life mate while men were genetically inclined to cheat struck me as bogus, for example.

It’s come up recently in my Facebook life (because really, that’s where all my philosophical and political discussions seem to take place these days) over various topics. Last spring, we were all shocked and horrified by Satoshi Kanazawa, from the London School of Economics, who wrote a racist and sexist blog post in Psychology Today called “Why Black Women are Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women” which was subsequently taken off the site. Kanazawa used what I would consider “fake science” to back up his questionable conclusions.


More recently, my Facebook friends got into a heated argument about an article about male circumcision. (Thanks, Alexis McKinnis, for pointing out the article.) It’s called Bad Science Doesn’t Justify Male Circumcision and it basically dumps on the “science” justifying male circumcision. The article touched on other reasons people circumcise their sons — fear of health problems, habit, cultural norms and practice. The argument that ensued amongst my friends revolved around the last of those, and one of my friends very aptly pointed out that, often, scientists are conducting their research within the context of their own worldviews. “Individual scientists often set out to prove what they believe, or what they’re paid to prove,” he wrote, “and they often bend the rules to make their own truths come to the forefront.”

Clearly, scientific research, or any research for that matter, is going to be at least partially influenced by the worldview of the person conducting it, so that has to be taken into account when you read about it. However, does that necessarily negate its value? Rather than disregarding ALL science, wouldn’t it be better to have a healthy skepticism, and an expectation that scientists (social or otherwise) continue to improve their practices in search of knowledge?

This week, I wrote about a study that was conducted by the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition and Prostitution Research and Education about prostitution and sex trafficking in Native Women in Minnesota. The researchers interviewed 105 Native women who were either prostitutes or victims of sex trafficking, and made some startling discoveries — including the frequency of abuse, rape, homelessness, physical and mental trauma, etc. In addition, the study found the majority of the women saw a connection between prostitution and colonization, and the majority also did not see legalization of prostitution as a solution.

There were a couple of comments on the article I wrote that criticized the research, calling it misleading, and saying that the sample size was too small or citing other statistics (about prostitution in general, not necessarily in Native women).

I think it’s always good to look at any study like this critically, but in my view the study was indeed groundbreaking, as it actually conducted interviews (as opposed to a less reputable study conducted by the Women’s Funding Network that was debunked earlier this year for being “junk science” because it was based on “guesses”.

Unlike the Women’s Funding Network research, the MIWSAC/ PRE research actually involved talking to prostitutes and victims of sex trafficking. And while the sample size only consists of 105 women, that says to me that more studies should probably be conducted to get a more clear picture.

Which brings me to global warming. While I guess I consider myself “neutral” on the prostitution issue in terms of my worldview (but would very much like to see further studies that expand on the findings of MIWSAC/PRE), I would fall more into the “lefty-tree-hugger” camp when it comes to environmental issues, making me more inclined to believe research that supports findings that global warming exists.

I get very angry when I hear Republican politicians try to say that global warming doesn’t exist. And while I recognize that I’m influenced by my own politics, it’s not like there was just one study about global warming. When almost the entire scientific community, including self-procalimed “skeptics” who were funded in part by the Koch brothers say it’s real, I think we should probably believe them. 

So I guess what I’m saying is that science isn’t bad or good in and of itself. It’s a work in progress. For us non-science people, it can be daunting to take it all in. It’s good to be skeptical, to ask questions. On the other hand, when an entire scientific community point out something that has proven again and again, the least we can do is listen to what they have to say.