Why Bad Science Reporting is Dangerous

Three White children smile at the top of the graphic, and two Black children smile on the lower half. The title is overlaid: Bad science reporting is dangerous

You may have seen an article being reprinted on major news sites that describes the “evolutionary” and “scientific truth” about women being “bitchy.” It’s appeared in The Atlantic, CNN, Bloomberg Businessweek and elsewhere. It’s since made its way into our Science on Google+ community, and was subsequently removed because the discussion quickly devolved into gender stereotypes and emotional personal arguments that strayed off topic. I am reproducing my response and expanding my argument to show the dangers of bad science reporting. In particular, articles that use social science to validate gender stereotypes only serve to encourage the public to generalise on individual gender experiences. This is the antithesis of social science.

The social sciences use empirical evidence and social theory to show how culture, history and place shapes social experiences of gender. To put it another way, while it’s tempting to think that the way in which you experience gender has some innate and biological purpose, most gender experiences vary according to social class, ethnicity and other variables. My post will show why two contentious fields of social science – sociobiology and evolutionary psychology – appeal to journalists eager to stir up controversy. This is a lazy media route that misses out on the opportunity to advance the public’s understanding of social behaviour.

From Indirect Aggression to ‘Bitchiness’

One of our community members posted the link from Bloomberg into our community without any discussion of the science. Instead, they lifted a provocative quote about “bitchiness,” which set the tone for the discussion. First I’ll discuss the scientific study, and later I’ll return to the reactions in our community in order to reflect on the public consequences of weak science journalism.

The linked Bloomberg article that was posted to our community has drawn from a review paper published in the journal Philosophical Transactions. The paper, authored by Tracy Vaillancourt, presents no empirical evidence, but rather draws together various studies on indirect aggression amongst women. Indirect aggression is the use of non-physical tactics to undermine other people’s social standing. This includes spreading gossip, silencing others (“giving people the silent treatment”), using facial expressions and body language to make other people uncomfortable, and encouraging hostility or ostracising people from their friends. This is in opposition to direct aggression, which involves the use of physical force, direct verbal confrontations, and other overt coercion tactics in order to manage interpersonal conflict.

The article links indirect aggression to sexual competition. Vaillancourt argues that using self-promotion and putting down “sexual rivals” is a form of indirect aggression. She writes: “Females attack other females principally on appearance and sexual fidelity because males value these qualities in their partners.” If you’re nodding your head because this seems wise, familiar or it somehow rings true, I’m afraid you’ve fallen victim to Bad Science Reporting. One of the tenets of the social sciences is to take apart the taken-for-granted assumptions about behaviour, and to dig deeper. Why do certain ideas about society ring “true,” such as women being “bitchy,” while other types of behaviour seem a mystery?

The sociologist Peter Berger (later developed by Macionis and Plummer), shows that social science has two broad tasks:

  1. To help the public see _the general in the particular: That is, when people do something that seems odd to “us,” especially if they’re from another social group, this needs to be examined in terms of culture, place and history.
  2. Social science should also show the strange in the familiar: When something seems “natural” and commonplace, we need to put this behaviour into a broader social context.

In this case, why does “bitchiness” amongst women seem so taken for granted? Is this some universal truth – are all women like this – or is something else going on? The answer to these questions does not lie in some innate truth about gender. Instead, the answer is found in a journey through an history of science. Let’s start with the role of culture on indirect aggression.

Effect of Culture

In various places in the journal article, Vaillancourt notes that most of the conclusions of the studies she cites are not direct evidence of evolutionary processes. Rather, she notes these studies _may_ support hypotheses of evolutionary and biological drives. Moreover, almost all of the data draw on skewed samples of White, middle class educated young women in universities, or girls in schools. This is not evidence that _all women_ engage in indirect aggression as a result of sexual rivalry. What this shows is when White, middle-class university and school students are presented with skewed questions (see below) their answers conform to the socially acceptable ways of displaying indirect aggression.

These studies do not control for culture. The studies presume that all women engage in indirect aggression because they are competing for sexual attention of men. The questions used in these studies are highly flawed, including Vaillancourt’s previous research in this field. In these studies, the women are asked to rank their own bodies in terms of sexual attractiveness. They are then shown pictures of other women who fit the cultural stereotype of what’s attractive (thin, White), as well as pictures of women who don’t fit this stereotype. They are asked whether it’s okay for women to be promiscuous, and then to rank the pictures of the woman in terms of promiscuity. This is a problematic presumption. Research shows that looks and dress do not determine sexual partnerships. In fact, this is the type of reasoning that is used to legitimate rape.

The women are then asked questions such as, “Would you allow this attractive woman to stay at home alone with your partner?” These types of questions are leading questions. They implant an idea in the participants’ mind (sexual attractiveness = sexual competition) and the researchers then ask questions that will elicit a particular response. These questions are not a measure of sexual competition. This is as much a measure of trust in one’s partner, as it is a measure of social norms about what it means to be monogamous in a Western context. Is it okay for a woman in a monogamous relationship to hypothetically let her boyfriend stay at home with a woman she’s just been asked to judge as promiscuous? This research does not take into account cultural dynamics such as social ideals about what’s considered “attractive” and the pressure that society places on women to look and behave in certain ways.

Critique of Evolutionary Psychology and Socio-Biology

Vaillancourt’s article draws on socio-biology and evolutionary psychology perspectives. Both of these fields have been heavily criticised within the social sciences, as they extrapolate present-day social phenomena and link it to evolution and biology without any biological or genetic evidence. These fields apply principles of Darwin’s theory of evolution to social behaviour. Darwin collected evidence of various animal species and has made a significant contribution to our understanding of evolutionary biology. Yet Darwin never studied human behaviour. In _On the Origin of the Species_, Darwin explored the evolution of different animal groups, including our human ancestors. Later, he explored categorisations of human beings in The Descent of Man, where he actually argued that all human beings belong to one species. Still, this was not a study of human behaviour per se, rather he focused on our physical and biological origins. When we draw such comparisons between Darwin’s work and universal human experiences, we are participating in Social Darwinism, a highly flawed and dangerous practice that encourages ideals of moral superiority.

Social Darwinism draws on the work of Herbert Spencer who proposed a hypothesis that Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” model could be applied to human behaviour. Spencer was driven by a particular view of capitalist society, which saw that some people were better suited to thrive in the modern economy. Unsurprisingly, these were people like himself: White, Western educated, upper class men.

The problem is that this branch of science was (and remains) heavily politicised. It grew from British imperialism and American colonialism. The aims were specifically to categorise human beings into different races, showing why White people were physically and morally superior to people of colour. This idea that Indigenous people were “uncivilised” and “sub-human” were used to legitimate the dispossession and colonialism of Indigenous and Black people around the world. Previously, religion was used to support these claims. Now people in power were using science.

Unlike Darwin, who studied the biology of animal species, supporters of Social Darwinism measured craniums and carried out various unethical experiments on poor, Indigenous, Black and enslaved minorities. Later oppressive regimes adopted this view to support eugenics and the imprisonment and slavery of minorities.

Social Darwinism branched out into other areas including sociology (as sociobiology) and psychology (as evolutionary psychology). These areas of study also emerged under a specific capitalist system, where women were marginalised from science. Important to the study at hand, Social Darwinism was eventually used to deny women the right to education and autonomy. Today, while these fields have evolved beyond direct denigration of minorities and women, they are still mired by this history. There was a lot of funding and propaganda invested into this realm of science in different parts around the world. This is why this branch of science has made a significant impact on history. This is why it echoes in the present day conversations we have – from philosophical debates about what means to be civil, to news reports about “bitchy” women. The aims are still about linking social behaviour to evolution, but to date there is no credible evidence showing that such a link exists.

You may think: well, aren’t human beings just another species of animals? Doesn’t it stand to reason that our behaviour is determined by our genetics and biology? Human beings are one of the most social species on this planet. This is why social institutions, like science and the media, shape our understanding of the world we live in. The very fact that journalists and the public buy into this type of argument is an outcome of our socialisation, not of some innate genetic truth.

It’s not that we shouldn’t study the link between gender and aggression – this is an important area. My critique is about the methods, theories and conclusions being drawn. Culture is not systematically examined in Vaillancourt’s study. Instead, she focuses on an argument about universal biology though there is no direct empirical evidence presented. Culture determines the socially acceptable norms for displaying aggression, not biology nor evolution. It is not socially acceptable for women to get into physical fights, though indirect aggression is tolerated. The article notes that indirect aggression is only _slightly_ more common amongst young white middle class girls at school as it is amongst young white middle class boys. Indirect aggression rises amongst young women while direct aggression rises amongst young men in adolescence. Indirect aggression levels out and is balanced amongst older adult men and women. This means that this type of behaviour is common in both men and women – so it is not just some feature of women’s innate psychology.

In other cultures, conflict is resolved in other ways, including through verbal confrontation amongst both genders and through community consultation. In other cultures, conflict within genders is not framed around sexual competition. It’s framed around other social norms, such as family honour, personal status within the local community, and other cultural ideals. The fact that conflict is variable around the world in different cultures demonstrates that the drivers of indirect aggression in the West is not universal.

The Effect of Bad Science Reporting

Within our community, the thread about the women’s supposed innate bitchiness quickly spiralled into personal opinions that had no basis in social science. The thread was removed because the comments strayed off topic into areas such as:

  • “Women… hold grudges for life” (not supported by scientific evidence);
  • The gender basis of parenting (there’s actually *no empirical basis* behind the idea that women are “naturally” better caregivers);
  • Marissa Mayer is attractive so she is being “attacked by feminists” (in fact, feminists have both supported and critiqued Mayer’s corporate policies. There is no such thing as “all feminists do/think/say this”);
  • The fact of the matter is that none of these arguments relate to the science behind the article, but in many way these personal opinions show the dangers of bad scientific reporting.

Bad scientific reporting involves journalists reproducing information from press releases – often verbatim (also known as “churnalism”). This may mean that the reporter hasn’t actually read or critically engaged with the original science. In some cases, journalists will interview the scientist and grab juicy sound-bites that they use to twist the scientific findings. They use the science to disguise a personal opinion piece validating the writer’s personal view of the world, which is what’s happened with this study in The Atlantic’s reporting. Bloomberg at least considers the “controversy” stirred up by the study, but it still describes the study as matter of fact: “basically [it’s] the scientific explanation for Tina Fey’s movie Mean Girls.”

This superficial and uncritical reporting encourages the public to treat science in the same taken-for-granted manner. By presenting a distorted view of science, and linking this to evolution and biology, the public takes this as evidence that the behaviour they see is universal. It isn’t. In fact, scientific evidence actually shows that all human experiences are actually culturally driven and socially determined. The media’s misuse of science leads people to think that what they observe in their own lives can be taken at face value. This is why a scientific paper about indirect aggression, which actually has a flawed methodology and erroneous conclusions, gets reported as gospel truth about the bitchiness of women. Instead of questioning the validity and reliability of the study – and instead of exploring the gaps and contributions of science – journalists use science to stir up emotional responses.

Articles such as this are poorly reported in the media to illicit the types of personal judgements we see in the deleted thread within our community. They appeal to gender stereotypes that are completely unsupported by social science evidence. It invites people to draw examples from their own life, to critique others (“I’ve seen this happen to people I know, but I don’t do this”). It reproduces the view that all women behave in a certain way for one particular reason (biology), when in fact, indirect aggression has many social causes and manifests differently in different societies. Indirect aggression becomes “bitchiness” rather than a concept to examine the cultural forces that shape social conflict. The journal article itself presents no new evidence, rather it represents a minority view within the social sciences that ignores cultural and social dynamics. The evidence it draws on is flawed. Why was it published in the first place? As noted, evolutionary psychology and sociobiology are minority fields that highly contentious. They have a place, but only where studies address culture, rather than making sweeping generalisations about humanity.

Bad science reporting flourishes for the historical and cultural reasons I’ve discussed. It’s because journalists who are not trained in science are reporting on subjects in which they have no critical experience. In some cases, they are reporting on reports (press releases). In other cases, they are reporting on the controversy caused by bad science reporting, albeit still leaving the science unexamined. Journalists will also report selectively, focusing on an angle they think will get people arguing, or they will twist findings and quote the research out of context. There are some stellar journalists out there, but there are also many lazy reporters who are happy to present stereotypes and misinformation as fact.

Bad science reporting is divorced from the history of how bad science reporting can become distorted. It ignores how science has been misused to legitimate oppression, where it is used to maintain social inequality, sexism, racism and other social injustices. Bad science reporting reproduces a weak understanding of science amongst the public. Bad science reporting leaves methods, theories, and conclusions unexamined. Bad science reporting ignores the ethics, social ramifications and intellectual damage that bad science reporting can have on society. Worst of all, bad science reporting tells you that everything you think you know about the world is true. It says that the current and next generations should just expect more of the same.

Bad science reporting lulls the public into a false sense that the world is the way it is because of evolution – as if evolution is some finished project and we are the result of some biological ideal. As a side note, this is not the scientific meaning of evolution in any case, as evolution is an ongoing process. This is not what bad science reporting will have you believe. Instead, it leaves the public thinking that things don’t have to change or can’t change because this is just the way our biology compels us to behave. Now you know better.

Bad science reporting is bad for you. It’s insidious because it undermines social progress. The only place for bad science reporting in our community is for our members to question and critique from an _informed position_. If the topic is outside your expertise, we have a growing community (currently 165,500 people and counting). Our members include qualified scientists whom you can ask about the validity and reliability of a news report. Post the article with your questions to our Science Outreach category and use our #AskAScientist hashtag.

If you see a news article quoting science, especially when it draws on evolution or biology, stop to think about how history and culture may have shaped both the findings and the reporting. Whatever you do, don’t participate in bad science reporting. Demand more, ask questions, seek out real scientists for answers, and above all, never, ever accept the idea that all women do this and all men do that. This is in itself a cultural and historical argument.

Our community exists to improve the quality of science on Google+ and we aim to strengthen public engagement with science. This is why our Moderators urge posts to include links to original science and for members to include a discussion of science ideas, rather than simply throwing links to news sites, blogs and other websites.

Above all, we urge our members not use science to validate stereotypes and personal opinions. Instead, use science to make the strange familiar and to see the general in the particular.

I’ve put together a check list to help our community members look out for possible signs of bad science reporting.

A child is reading a newspaper. The title reads: Am I reading bad science reporting?


  • This post was first published on Science on Google+.
  • For a general introduction on the strange and the familiar/general on the particular, see Macionis and Plummer (pages 4-5).
  • Photo credits: Images created by me using photos sourced from Morguefile.