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Stereotype-Confirming Science

“Women ‘choosier’ over partners” reports the BBC. What’s more, “Men look for beauty, while women go for wealth when it comes to assessing future partners, researchers say.” Shocking stuff. Kay Steiger points out that these conclusions are based on . . . a study of “the behaviour of 46 people taking part in a speed-dating session.” That’s pathetic.

But it’s also emblematic of what’s wrong with so much research in this vein. Even the flimsiest of experimental results will get pursued and widely publicized if it just so happens to have the virtue of re-enforcing our traditional stereotypes about gender behavior, and then get swiftly pronounced as providing confirmation for “evolutionary theories in psychology.” Now, there are so many stereotypes about gender difference that it’s almost a mathematical certainty that some of them are grounded in reality. But the way proper science normally works is that it turns out to confound many of our expectations (heavy objects fall at the same speed as light ones; time changes when you speed up) while also explaining why it is that things seem to be the way they are (air resistance; you need to move really, really fast to notice it). So much research in this vein, however, is just incredibly sketchy and obviously designed to confirm what’s already conventional wisdom.

At any rate, unlike a lot of my political fellow travelers I don’t think this kind of inquiry into the evolutionary basis of human behavior and the potential to discover meaningful, innate differences in the average distribution of mental traits between men and women to be inherently wrongheaded or absurd, but I think people need to be much more careful about this stuff. To have an entire research program that seems dedicated to upholding old-timey folk wisdom is odd and an awful lot of the specific empirical research turns out to be incredibly hollow. I’d highly recommend David Buller’s Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature for more in this vein.

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