Monday, January 26, 2015

One Of Those Days... On How to Critique Research And Bad Popularizations. Or the Factual Feminist! (Guess Who That is)

I spend quite a lot of time avoiding research.  That's because almost anyone can quickly type out some outrageous claim and put it out on the net where it spreads like the Ebola virus.  When the claim is wrong, you could just put out a quick message saying that it's wrong.

Which would be like soggy toast.  But to do the actual work, the work of learning where the stupid thing came from, which studies it utterly ignores, which definitions it uses incorrectly etc. requires research.  Research takes a lot of time.  And nobody pays me for this type of research.  It's just my inner firm librarian which won't let me press "publish" on about three long draft posts because I haven't yet achieved complete expertise in umpteen different fields.

That stinks.  It stinks especially hard when most propagandists don't care about research at all.  The usual way someone like David Brooks -- to pick an example -- does this is by starting with his desired conclusions, then going back to the one study he chose, then -- utterly astonished --- he finds that the particular study supports what he says, to a tee!  And therefore that must be what research has established.

I was thinking about this when I looked through my arsenal of possible skills.  That I know how to read social science research in general is a big plus.  But I cannot be an expert in every single field of research, however ageless goddesses are.  Yet writing criticisms of studies often does require that.  It's a bit like playing tennis as an amateur with fifteen professional opponents at the same time, all of whom have an axe to grind with the issues.

To take a recent example, writing about how sexual assaults are measured in statistics, how the survey samples are arrived at, what the numbers mean etc. requires some pretty hard-tack chewing and work.  The minute I put a post on any of those up on the blog I get comments from people who spend all their time on just that one issue.  Some of them are real experts, others are real propagandists or whatever you might call them.  Well, most seem to be the latter. 

All that really means is a clear need for a group blog where people with all the proper expertise can shoot out well-written posts on iffy research.  Those group blogs might even exist!  I don't have to try to support the globe up on just my shoulders!  I could deflate my arrogance balloons!

But not as long as Christina Hoff Sommers, perhaps the best-known feminist-hater in the US, can write a video blog called "The Factual Feminist."  That's very funny, of course, that name, both the "feminist" label and the "factual" label.*  When you combine all that is funny in the title you get a post where women are bashed 99% of the time.

The idea of a five-minute vlog appeals to me, however.  Imagine a vlog by me called The Goddess With All The Facts! I'd spend five minutes of air time to refute or elaborate on Hoff Sommer's arguments on, say, the "correct" rape statistics or on the question how many women might lie about being raped.

Except that you CANNOT do that.  You cannot fly glibly over a whole large field of research, and you cannot just state that as all studies have some problems (actually varying from pretty good studies to utter rubbish), let's just refuse to put any number on, say false rape reports.

Then there's the additional confusion in that Hoff Sommers vlog**:  Of confusing activity on behalf of rape victims with the processes which are used to assess whether rape happened and what the conclusion of those processes might be.  The two are different things.  And no, colleges are not run by rabid feminists, and no, the processes do not necessarily result in a judgement which always finds for the alleged victim.  Though it may well be the case that having the colleges process sexual assault cases isn't working terribly well for anyone.

All this is very sad for me.  My inner librarian has now donned a whip and wants me to spend the next five years sorting out the facts.  But what she doesn't get is that the work I'd do would be partly wasted.   We lack the kind of agora where people actually try to search common ground and more reliable statistics.*** And in any case, some totally different game about data would attract her interest next.
*If you haven't met Christina Hoff Sommers, the factual feminist, yet, here's some material for you:
Fun with Christina Hoff Sommers.  And a three-part series by me on her views about how much women deserve to earn.  Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
**There's also the very big question about how we define "rape culture."  I once wrote ten pages on that for my own notes.  If people cannot agree on what constitutes rape, how can we even start with the idea of a rape culture?  And what do we call societies which require four male witnesses for a rape (which suggests that very few rapists would ever get caught)?  But at the same time, what do we call the kinds of values which clearly exist among sub-groups of young men (and some older ones coughBillCosbycough)?  What is the role of pornography in defining what "sex" means nowadays?  The role of entitlement to sex from that?
***We need one of these, by the way.  I resent the idea that because I'm a feminist my thoughts are supposedly known in advance or that I'd somehow on purpose pick poor research to support.  The proof of the pudding is in the eating.