A recent poll suggests that women are far less likely to support commercial fracking than men. For a while, the same divide was detected in relation to Scottish independence. The common factor is that you can learn a lot from people’s attitudes to gender by how they try to explain these divides.
A common starting point is that women are less likely to take risks (quick and cheap Google examples 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Then lots of people make fools of themselves by adding to the explanation: women prefer security/ a ‘safety blanket’ because their role is to nurture, earth mothers are closer to the environment, men are buccaneers, men are more ‘rational’ when they consider risk, and so on.
Or, perhaps they are misreported. I don’t know.
For example, it is now being reported in the Times that Professor Averil MacDonald (‘the new champion of the shale gas industry’) says: ‘Vast numbers of women are opposed to fracking because they “don’t understand” and follow their gut instinct rather than the facts’ (the same interpretation can be found in the Guardian, Daily Mail, and Independent).
The message that I think MacDonald was presenting is this: people are less likely to support fracking if they didn’t study particular sciences at school; and, women are less likely to have studied those sciences at school. Maybe, at its core, is a good point about challenging the barriers to women studying, and choosing a career in, certain science subjects (i.e. these findings might give us a window of opportunity to discuss such barriers).
Turned into a newspaper headline it becomes this: “Fracking? Women ‘don’t understand the science’”.
Beyond this point, there are four other things worthy of discussion:
- You can’t separate your values from your empirical studies and scientific explanations
Some people like to present themselves as objective truth-seeking scientists, but they are kidding themselves or trying to kid other people. Scientific study is infused with our values, from what is worthy of our study, to how to study it, and what counts as good research, evidence, and explanation. Normally, you just see the end without considering all the assumptions that people make at the beginning. Or, people engage in inductive science, then struggle with post-hoc explanation (‘umm, like, women are different, eh?’).
- You can’t separate politics from explanation
Part of the problem with gender-based conclusions is that people jump to explanations based on the too-broad category ‘women’ (or ‘men’) without considering the political implications of treating one gender as one group of people. Maybe it gets you somewhere initially, as a way of efficiently identifying correlations, but it gets you nowhere if you then try and come up with one overarching explanation for what is going on. It’s quite bad science and it’s very bad politics, contributing to unsubstantiated stereotypes. The overall correlation also distracts us from more detailed explanations based on gender and a wide range of other factors, which contributes to a further political problem: it reinforces the argument that somehow the difference between a positive or negative political choice boils down to the attitudes of women.
- People go beyond their expertise
It is common for people to develop an undeserved general reputation for expertise, built on specific expertise in one discipline or field. It’s always worth being particularly skeptical when people with a background in natural science pronounce on social behaviour, or indeed when political scientists try to explain psychology or how gravity works. Just as you wouldn’t ask me to give a lecture on the combustion engine, don’t rely primarily on STEM professors to explain the outcomes of surveys.
- All people combine ‘rational’ and gut-level shortcuts
If you read something like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, you won’t find him saying that only women make gut, intuitive, or emotional decisions. We’re all at it. In fact, in my forthcoming Palgrave ‘Pivot’ book The Politics of Evidence-based Policymaking* I use that basic insight to explain policymaking: Policymakers cannot consider all evidence relevant to policy problems. They use two shortcuts: ‘rational’ ways to establish the best evidence, and ‘irrational’ decision-making, drawing on emotions and beliefs to act quickly.
*Yes, I wrote this post largely to advertise my next publication.