What Do Women Want? It Depends on the Scientist of the Month.

February 16, 2014

be a skeptical consumer of science

Scientists Are Not Soothsayers or Truth Sayers

I love behavioral science, I love how many people it can help, and I am grateful to have been trained as a behavioral scientist.  I want to start there, because for the rest of this post I am going to trash on the way behavioral science is presented in our culture.  Our culture confuses knowledge with wisdom.  In this knowledge-heavy culture, we have started turning to the scientists as keepers of knowledge about our souls.  This habit of seeing scientists as experts on our souls makes for a culture that is completely FUBARed.

Here is a current favorite example of this bad habit.  UCLA is publicizing a recent study that has found women show fluctuations in their attractions to masculine characteristics over their menstrual cycle.  The headline reads “What do women want? It depends on the time of the month.”  We are reassured:

“Women sometimes get a bad rap for being fickle, but the changes they experience are not arbitrary,” said Martie Haselton, a professor of psychology and communication studies at UCLA and the paper’s senior author. “Women experience intricately patterned preference shifts even though they might not serve any function in the present.”

I am going to give three reasons why this study description should make you skeptical.  In truth there are at least three dozen reasons why you should be skeptical.

1.  Be skeptical of how scientific studies are summarized in the media.

Who said women are fickle?  I didn’t.  Did you?   And why are changes in some women’s attractions over the month getting a bad rap.  And who said fluctuations in desire is appropriately described as fickle???  That’s a can of worms that I shall leave closed for now.

We are told that “women” get a bad rap for being fickle, and are then reassured that the bad rap is false.  Hooray – the changes in attraction over the month are “not arbitrary”! Rejoice!   But what the heck does “arbitrary” mean?  That word is just a judgment from someone playing expert over another person.

People, we live in a cause and effect universe. (At least our perceptions live there.  Let’s leave quantum physics aside for now.)  In this universe, using the word “arbitrary” in a scientific context is usually just a word meaning, “I think I can understand everything and I don’t understand that pattern yet so I am declaring that there is no pattern.  I decree that your behaviors are arbitrary.”

2. Be skeptical of someone scientifically validating your experiences.

In this UCLA article, no one is claiming to have said the changes were arbitrary.  We are only reassured that “the changes they experience are not arbitrary.” That word “arbitrary” only serves to prime our minds to believe we need a scientific explanation for our experiences in order for our experiences to be valid.  In this case, it’s “fickle” for a woman to have fluctuations in attraction without a scientific explanation.  But don’t worry, “women”!  Scientists have saved the day!  You may now accept your fluctuating desires as scientifically validated!  Well, your desires are scientifically validated so long as these desires are for masculine characteristics that shift predictably with your menstrual cycle.

3.  Be skeptical of how scientists hide the true variation that exists in the humans around us.

I don’t know you, but I am guessing that you have some pretty varied personalities in your family.  What if I came along with my measuring stick and measured every single person in your extended family on their musical preferences?  I could then publish a study declaring that your family has a bad rap for being fickle in your changing desires for music but I can disprove this misunderstanding with science.

For my family the headline might read, “The Ulman family gets a bad rap for being fickle in their musical tastes, but their tastes aren’t arbitrary.  They listen to electronic dance music with a predictable pattern linked to the winter music festival schedule.”

I could scientifically validate this finding as true because my sister and I like EDM, but this study would hardly capture my father’s tastes for Barbara Streisand.

This UCLA study is doing this same error when describing “women” as if such a varied group can be described so easily.  Who the heck are these “women” who are all so similar to each other? I know women who are attracted to feminine characteristics, or who are asexual, or who are attracted to folks who identify as neither male or female.  I know some women who don’t have a uterus.  And I know a lot of women who have had shifting attractions over time.

Martie Haselton seems to have selected studies that only look at women with similar bodies and similar desires.  My guess is that she was limited in the data she could consider.  I bet if we looked at the original studies we would see that many women were disqualified to participate, thus narrowing group variation.  Haselton’s study actually found considerable variation even with these biased samples, as acknowledged when the article says ‘The strength of women’s preference shift proved to be statistically significant, although “small” to “medium” in size, relative to most findings in the field.”

Be skeptical of studies that are summarized in ways that suppresses true group variation.  The scientific research might even be sound, but by the time it reaches our eyes and ears the findings have become greatly skewed.

Be Skeptical of the Science of You

I am not critiquing this scientist. Dr. Haselton is not being sinister in her actions. She is just doing her job, and probably doing it well. But that does not mean we should not still be skeptical of the story that is being painted for us.

I am not anti-science.  I love science.  I am critiquing how science is misunderstood in our culture, particularly as scientific findings are described in the media. You are actually thinking like a scientist when you develop the habit of being skeptical of the numbers being presented to you.  Question them, question the assumptions behind them, and don’t confuse numbers on a page with a truth about you.

Always remember that scientists know numbers.  They don’t know you.  It doesn’t matter if you find yourself sexually attracted to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches once every 3-7 years.  There is no study to explain why that might be, but it is valid because it happens to you.

Looking to scientists for validation in WHY you are can slow down your journey in learning WHO you are.

You are the Only Expert on You

We live in a culture that has told you and me that we can learn about ourselves by looking outside of ourselves.  This myth has profoundly impaired our ability to do the hard work of learning who we are by looking inward – with curiosity and without judgment.  Some of us can barely stand to sit still for one minute and look inwards.  This difficulty looking inward does not come from what is there to find. This difficulty looking inward comes from living in a culture that has told you comparison is a method of learning about yourself.  Comparison turned inward becomes judgment.  And there is plenty in there to judge if you think judging is the thing to be done.  When we judge what is inside we can become overwhelmed and so we have developed the habit of looking outside of ourselves to learn who we are.

Making matters worse, if you have lost the ability to look inward with curiosity instead of judgment, then you have been disconnected from your emotions.  You might therefore live only in your reason mind, trying to Figure-Things-Out rather than stay open and curious about what patterns might arise in your mind and in your life.  You have succumbed to our cultural demands to hold reason on a pedestal, while avoiding emotions like that one relative who is always saying just the wrong thing at the wrong time.  This over-attachment to reason and discomfort with emotions makes for a very wonky internal compass.

Without this compass, we look outward to try and Figure-Things-Out.  We seek reassurance that we are “normal.”  And in a culture that confuses knowledge with wisdom, we have started turning to the scientists as people who can tell us if we are okay as we are. 

The truth is that you are okay right now AND you are a ball of contradictions and hopes and dreams and fears and desires at the same time.  You have a complicated story that gets minimized each time you try to tell it coherently to one person at one time.  That’s what it is to be human. We are complicated beings.  People who have developed a habit of looking inwards with curiosity (not judgment!) learn to grow comfort around this paradoxical truth.  And they learn to love the mystery of the journey, largely by celebrating the fluctuations along the path.

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One Response to “What Do Women Want? It Depends on the Scientist of the Month.”

  1. Reblogged this on A Real Retreat and commented:
    Yes.

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