Must’ve been ‘that time of the month’ for her to cast that vote

Apparently there is a study coming out in a peer-reviewed journal that questions whether women’s hormones play a part in their voting preferences.  A journalist at CNN decided to run a story about this.  You can read more about it here, here, and here. After causing outrage the story has been retracted.

The gist of it is this:

The article begins: “While the campaigns eagerly pursue female voters, there’s something that may raise the chances for both presidential candidates that’s totally out of their control: women’s ovulation cycles.

“You read that right. New research suggests that hormones may influence female voting choices differently, depending on whether a woman is single or in a committed relationship.”

“The most controversial part of the study is not only that hormonal cycles are linked to women’s preferences for candidates and voting behaviors, but also that single women who are ovulating are more likely to be socially liberal, and relationship-committed women are more likely to be socially conservative, said Paul Kellstedt, associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University.”

(As cited in The Washington Post)

I have three questions about this:

1. Should there be research into something of this nature?  Or is it as Muppetgirl puts it in a comment on stuff.co.nz

for research to have any meaning it needs to start from [a] reasonable premise

2. Do researchers have a duty to think about the consequences of their research and subsequent publications, or is any topic researchers’ fodder?

3. Do peer-reviewers and journals have any duties regarding what they publish?

-Stacey Broom

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5 thoughts on “Must’ve been ‘that time of the month’ for her to cast that vote

  1. 4. Does the popular press have any responsibility when it comes to how it reports academic research? There seems nothing inherently wrong or implausible about the suggestion that hormones may play a role in political views; in fact, there has been quite
    a lot
    of recent research and theorising about the role of neurological and hormonal factors in shaping our political allegiances, financial decisions, etc.

    But it would be pretty irresponsible to frame the story so as to suggest that women are uniquely incapable of thinking rationally about such matters (especially since, as far as I can tell, the study claimed nothing of the sort.)

  2. I would also suggest (at the risk of hogging the blog) that journal editors should maybe display a bit of street-smarts when publicising research that is, by its nature, very open to sensational coverage and misinterpretation. I can think of a few occasions recently when publicity and impact factor seem to have been elevated over the importance of accurate dissemination of information.

  3. Hi Colin,
    Thanks for commenting! I agree that the media should have a responsibility regarding how it reports on research. But I feel that the question needs to be asked, is everything research worthy? I’ve had a couple of conversations with a fellow student in light of your response and I really do wonder if perhaps not everything is in need of research. Let me be clear, this is now a general comment because I haven’t actually read the study I discuss above so I’m not exactly sure what its conclusions are. My issue is with the implications of research and whether researchers ought to give some consideration to them. Perhaps they could ask themselves, what is the world going to make of my findings? It could just be that everyone should simply understand that research is often just that, research (purely for the sake of it) but I think that’s unfair. Why should people just know that? And why should we do research simply for the sake of it? Now maybe if I read the study I might be convinced of the legitimacy of its aims, but then maybe I won’t. If hormones do play a role when women vote, why does that matter? Maybe someone could tell me. Because from where I’m sitting, it seems to give people more ammunition to use when trying to undermine the voices of women. And makes that phrase ‘It must be that time of the month’ carry just that little more weight, which is a big problem for women trying to exercise their right to have an opinion and have it taken seriously.
    -Stacey Broom

  4. Hi Stacey,

    It is a big and deep question that you ask! I’m no expert in this stuff, but I’ll try to set out my thoughts, such as they are.

    I think there may be at least three reasons why we should sometimes at least consider foregoing a particular piece of research:

    1. because we are already so sure that we know the answer that it just seems like a waste of time and resources;
    2. because the results, whatever they may be, are likely to be trivial;
    3. because we’re worried that the results may, in some way, prove harmful to some people, socially disruptive, or something of that nature.

    Both 1 and 2 seem like good reasons if we’re dealing with finite resources, or if there is some other cost involved in the ‘research’ – that it carries risks, or causes suffering to animals, for instance. Of course, we have to be a bit careful about assuming we know answers – plenty of assumptions have turned out to be completely wrong, and plenty of ‘trivial’ experiments have turned out to have pretty massive impacts. But when we’re budgeting scarce resources, it does seem valid to consider such things.

    If resources aren’t an issue, then sure, let the 10-year-old kid do the same experiments we all tried as kids. Where’s the harm in it?

    3 bothers me a bit more. If my moral or political convictions rely upon selectively ignoring certain bits of empirical evidence, doesn’t that suggest that those convictions need a bit more work?

    If, say, my support for abortion choice rested on certain beliefs about the capacities of embryos and fetuses, it doesn’t follow that I should want to ban anyone from researching into fetal sentience. If fetuses can feel pain earlier than we currently think, then that’s a factor that I should be able to weigh on my ethical calculus. Either

    a. I should be able to defend my position in the light of the new evidence – maybe by explaining that fetal sentience was never the only/main reason for my position anyway, or that sentience isn’t generally regarded as a sufficient criterion for a right to life. Or
    b. I should be prepared to change it in light of the new evidence.

    What I shouldn’t be able to do is prevent other people from asking questions just because they threaten my existing convictions.

    I think, though, that your objection is a bit more sophisticated, combining elements of 2 and 3. If a piece of research threatens to harm some people, while promising nothing of value, then maybe that gives us a good consequentialist reason not to conduct it. As you put it, “If hormones do play a role when women vote, why does that matter?”

    In all honesty, I’m not sure I know the answer to that. But one possibility may be that we are better enabled to act as rationally as possible when we’re made aware of he non-rational factors impacting upon our decisions. If I’m made aware that I’m a harsher exam marker first thing in the morning than later in the day – when I’ve had my coffee! – then that’s a piece of information I can use to be a fairer marker. When Samantha Brennan proves to academics that they are (often perfectly innocently) acting so as to discriminate against their female colleagues in small but cumulatively significant ways, that too is a piece of evidence they can use to inform and improve their behaviour. (Whether they do so or not is up to them, but they can’t hide behind ignorance of what’s going on.)

    And if we – men as well as women – are shown that our hormones influence important decisions like voting or investing, then maybe that knowledge can allow us better to align our decisions with our higher order values/enlightened self-interest. I don’t think the research is arguing that the hormonal influences are irresistible, after all, and we may better placed to resist them if we’re aware of their presence. (Much in the way that subliminal advertising is generally considered more pernicious than the more overt variety.)

    As I said, I’m no expert, and I’d welcome any responses that help me sharpen my thinking here. (Also, sorry this turned out so long. Really, I have a cheek trying to get students to stick to word limits!)

  5. Hi Colin,

    I think I agree with your options for why we might forego research, and I agree that my complaint about this study would be because of 2 and 3. However, I don’t agree that the analogies you gave were really analogous to the problem with this study. Regarding your first analogy, if you’re a harsh marker without coffee then that’s fine, either have your coffee or do the marking at a later date. Elections are only held once every however many years; a significant percentage of half of the world’s population probably shouldn’t be expected to not vote if they have their period at the time. Regarding your second analogy, this is a piece of information that could be used to enact change, but what would be the change expected from this study?

    The difference is that we’re talking about half of the global population (I don’t know the statistics on how many women vote, but let’s assume it’s half of the voting population). Women who are conscientious enough to give thought to the candidate they’re going to vote for and why, probably aren’t going to change that decision because they’ve got their period. I’d be willing to bet many women probably realise how having their period affects their moods but it’s my contention that moods brought on by monthly cycles are not going to radically change a person’s fundamental decision making skills (extreme examples (I’m sure there are some) aside). If the study had applied its conclusions to something like that then perhaps it wouldn’t have caused such outrage. And before you say it, no research need not necessarily be palatable to be carried out (but it’s possible that palatability should be a consideration).

    Here’s what I think is a better question/analogy, do you think it would be wise for researchers to carry out a study that has the aim of showing that a particular race is superior to another race in terms of, say, intelligence? Researchers would not be so naive as to not appreciate the magnitude of the conclusion of this sort of study. And this might only affect a few hundred million people or so, which is bad enough.

    When you know that your research has the potential to negatively affect 3 BILLION people, I’d say that should probably, at the very least, give you pause. As it is, women have a tough time being heard and being seen as rational individuals with their own valuable thoughts – conducting research into a topic that can further undermine that seems to me to be quite wrong.

    Emotions do not negate rationality.

    -Stacey

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