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Science helps set the record straight? Not when it’s written by the Daily Mirror

May 26th, 2009

Dr Petra

Today’s Mirror has a classic example of really, really bad science reporting in action. In their piece Science helps put the record straight between the battle of the sexes they accumulate a bizarre collection of ‘scientific evidence’ to support some well-rehearsed sex stereotypes.

Before we marvel at the science behind this story, let’s just do a quick tally of the areas where women and men were put to the test:
Driving – winners, men
Car repairs – winners, women
Infidelity – winners, men
Dieting – winners, women
Work – winners, women
Fighting infection – winners, women
DIY – winners, women
Shopping – winners, women
Multi tasking – winners, men
Telling jokes – winners, men

Would you Adam and Eve it? Women are the winners in the battle of the sexes. So I should be pleased, right?

Wrong.

Aside from the very random areas for competition, the supporting “science” is just nonsensical.

The Mirror claims women are better at fighting infection based on the recent ‘man flu’ research. So presumably the paper hadn’t noticed how this research had been critiqued by Ben Goldacre in The Guardian this weekend, and by the NHS’s site Behind the Headlines just last week.

The misuse of science also contradicts itself. By misusing (and misunderstanding) evolutionary theory we’re told women are poor navigators when it comes to driving, but are excellent at finding their way around shops.

Several of the studies mention rely on ‘caveman days’ to explain modern behaviour. So women’s ability to find nuts and berries when men went off hunting helps with our ability to shop. While women’s inability to tell jokes is explained by men needing humour as cavemen (a trogladyte walked into a bar and said….)

Some of the claims are stacked up by references to academics or universities, but in other places it’s down to our friend PR-reviewed phindings. Men can multi task according to a study by Right Guard deodorant, although they can’t build furniture according to research from Ikea, and they’re not very good at car repairs as evidenced by a study from Castrol oil makers.

It seems the piece used a fairly quick google rummage to find supporting “evidence” and obviously took a ‘lite’ stance to the piece. Clearly the science they’d been reading to stack up the story hadn’t led them to any of the recent work that questions the very concept of two genders. Queer Theory, anyone? (While you’re thinking about that, wanna know your gender aptitude? Take Kate Bornstein’s test!)

It’s fine to report fake studies if you’re clear on this. What’s not fine is to use science in the headline and keep banging on about studies and the like, all the while mixing in what seems to be (highly selective) academic research. At best it does science a disservice, at worst there’s the worry someone might actually believe this rubbish.

Hard to tell whether this piece was written in a hurry or was put together by writers who either have no clue how to interpret or locate scientific research, or who are simply too lazy to look for any real science to back up their arguments.

That’s the sadness of this piece. While most studies on gender differences tend to find there are as many differences within the sexes as between them, all the areas described do have an underpinning of evidence. Shame nobody thought to check for this before going to press.

What a pity there wasn’t a category for ‘bad science reporting’ in this piece. Where instead of a male/female divide we might have a lazy journalist versus the rest of us. In which case the journalists would definitely be the winner. And we’d all be losers.

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