of medical studies published from 1990 to 2003 in three prestigious
journals – the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA
and Lancet – has called the validity of approximately one-third
of them into severe question.
If a relatively
(like medicine) has such difficulty with accuracy, then the results
offered by the so-called "soft"
sciences (like sociology) should be approached with a high degree
of skepticism. This is especially necessary since public policy
and laws are often formed by such studies.
"feminist" issues of rape or domestic violence. Studies that address
these areas are often released in combination with policy recommendations.
Indeed, they sometimes appear to be little more than a springboard
from which advocates can launch a campaign for more law.
In turn, the
laws that result often provide for more research. The Violence Against
Women Act or VAWA – now up for re-authorization before Congress
– is an example. VAWA includes provisions for more tax-funded research,
for precisely the sort of research that created it in the first
And, so, a
re-enforcing cycle is established: studies lead to laws that lead
to similar tax-funded studies, which call for more law.
The cycle should
This does not
mean that the law should be separated from the reality checks provided
by solid data. Quite the contrary. It means that the current self-sustaining
cycle tends to discourage contrary evidence and critical thinking
about the data on which the laws rest.
This is not
a mere academic matter. Inaccurate studies become entrenched in
laws that govern our daily lives. Using VAWA as an example again,
the Act incorrectly assumes that women, and not men, are the victims
of domestic violence, and it has been influential in denying men
access to shelters. This denial often extends to the older male
children of women who seek assistance.
In the best
of circumstances, research is unreliable outside strictly defined
limitations; even within those limits, research generally provides
only an indication rather than a proof.
of studies declines sharply when you move from the hard sciences
to the soft ones.
science" refers to certain natural sciences, like physics and
chemistry. These disciplines pursue accuracy and objectivity through
observing and measuring objects or phenomena in order to produce
results that can be independently replicated. In other words, hard
science uses the scientific
science" refers to the social sciences, which include psychology,
sociology, political science and other explorations of the human
condition. Because human nature is not as easily observed or measured
as objects, complex social interactions rarely offer replicable
There are just
too many unpredictable and unknown factors, too few research controls.
It must rely more heavily upon interpretation of data. In short,
the soft sciences produce less reliable results.
– that is, the filtering of data through a researcher’s assumptions,
goals and beliefs – is not unique to the soft sciences. It merely
runs rampant there due to lack of controls. Nevertheless, all research
is vulnerable to being skewed and deliberately so.
On July 11,
Press reported, “Allegations of misconduct by U.S. researchers
reached record highs last year as the Department of Health and Human
Services received 274 complaints – 50 percent higher than 2003
and the most since 1989 when the federal government established
a program to deal with scientific misconduct.”
a researcher to bias a study, survey or report?
There are many
answers, from laziness to concealing incompetence and seeking prestige.
In the hard sciences, the most common answer is probably “funding.”
community is still reeling from recent revelations about Eric T.
Poehlman, a leading researcher on aging and obesity. Poehlman simply
the data on 17 applications for federal grants that totaled
near $3 million. His "findings," published in prestigious medical
journals, helped to define how medicine approaches the effects of
menopause on women’s health.
The soft sciences
share all these research vulnerabilities. But, because they are
less constrained by research controls, the most common answer there
to what motives bias may well be “political belief.”
statement will surprise few people. For example, "feminist research"
is notorious for arriving at feminist conclusions through research
that includes clear political assumptions.
It may surprise
people, however, to hear that I don’t think political agendas are
inevitable within the soft sciences. Even on controversial subjects
like rape, it is possible to find interesting studies in which researchers
sincerely pursue solid data.
But you have
to go back a few decades. In his book from the ’70s, Men
Who Rape: The Psychology of the Offender, Nicholas Groth
offered a theory that sounds almost jarring to today’s ears. He
wrote, “One of the most basic observations one can make regarding
men who rape is that not all such offenders are alike.” That is,
a drunken boyfriend who rapes because he does not hear the “no”
being uttered should not be placed in the same research category
as a back alley rapist who leaves his victim physically crippled
A rape researcher
could not make that statement today on a college campus. He would
be fired, bludgeoned into silence, or his funding would be yanked.
There is now only one acceptable view of rape; it is an act of power.
There is only one research category of rapist: the oppressor.
I believe the
cycle of studies leading to laws leading to studies should be broken
not because I am against solid research but because I am for it.
Bring skepticism and common sense to all data you hear; withhold
your tax dollars.
McElroy [send her mail] is the editor
of ifeminists.com and a research fellow
for The Independent Institute in Oakland,
Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the
new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century
(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).