I’m right because of SCIENCE!
Jessica Valenti over at Feministing had two posts on Monday about studies that told her exactly what she wanted to hear. Unfortunately for her, they’re both pretty flawed, and the conclusions Jessica is drawing from them are ridiculously overstated.
The first, from the Guttmacher Institute and the World Health Organization, claims that abortion rates are constant across all nations, regardless of abortion’s legality. Matt Yglesias and Megan McArdle have already done a good job debunking this, so I’ll just sum up by saying that there are too many outlying variables across countries to really make this conclusion on solid footing, and when you look at just one country over time, abortions tend to rise after legalization.
The second, from Rutgers University, claims that having a feminist partner makes for more fulfilling relationship with better sex. This study should in no way be touted as hard science. The sample size, while not tiny, is still probably still too small to support the conclusions the authors draw, and there doesn’t seem to be anything resembling a control group. Their method of data collection is an online survey, meaning every data point is self-reported without any sort of independent verification (see the brouhaha over the Generation Rescue phone survey to see why this a horrible way to conduct research). Furthermore, the variables they’re testing are empirically vague and completely subjective, which leads me to question why they even did this study in the first place (by empirically vague, I only mean that “I’m a feminist” is a much less objectively verifiable assertion than “I weigh 165 lbs”). Even if this study wasn’t as flawed as it is, it’s still only one study, making it slightly less than completely meaningless.
Of course, debunking these studies does nothing to delegitimize the pro-choice position, nor does it call the very enterprise of feminism into question. I’m left pondering, then, why Jessica chose to wholeheartedly endorse them without a whiff of critical thinking? Surely she doesn’t need scientific endorsement to be a pro-choice feminist? Aren’t these sorts of opinions based off of objective truth rather than determined by them?
I feel like I’m picking on Jessica a little bit, so let me just say that this sort of thing happens all the time. Not a week goes by where I don’t see a blogger trying to elevate their opinions to the level of scientific fact, using either bad studies or bad articles about good studies. As I noticed in one of my very first posts, it seems we’re so desperate for our arguments to be right that we look to science to bless them its authority. It’s absolutely ridiculous to think this way, though; different people can look at the same set of facts and come to wildly differing conclusions, that’s called politics. It’s only when you start to lie or willfully delude yourself about those facts that we have a problem.
Think of the possible conservative positions on global warming, for instance (excluding any sort of heterodox environmentalism). In this position, one could take a look at the facts and decide that any sort of drastic action to stem global warming was not worth the economic pain it would bring, and that our hope should lie in technological progress. I would disagree with this position, but at least it’s factually based and logically defensible. On the other hand, one could take a look at the facts, ignore them, cherry pick from bad studies, and conclude that global warming isn’t happening. This is a completely different thing altogether; here our hypothetical conservative is denying objective reality. The first position is a rational opinion based on the facts, the second is an attempt to change those facts to fit one’s opinion.
Abortion should be legal because women should be free from onerous and discriminatory state control over their bodies, among other reasons. Feminism is a force for good because it seeks to stop discrimination and violence against women, and to change the culture so that we’re all treated equally without regard for sex, among other reason.
Amazingly, I wrote that last paragraph without even putting on a lab coat.