Sorry Jordan.. feminism can’t be beaten by bad science

PUBLISHED: 09:00 06 October 2018 | UPDATED: 11:34 06 October 2018

TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 6  -   Profile of Dr. Jordan Peterson. The U of T prof at the centre of a media storm because of his public declaration that he will not use pronouns, such as

TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 6 - Profile of Dr. Jordan Peterson. The U of T prof at the centre of a media storm because of his public declaration that he will not use pronouns, such as "they," to recognize non-binary genders. (Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

2017 Toronto Star

Self-styled lifestyle guru Jordan Peterson is among those taken in by a new study suggesting gender equality leads to both men and women gravitating towards traditional gender roles. It’s bunkum, says CAROLINE CRIADO PEREZ

It is my regretful duty this week to inform you that reports of women’s biologically-wired cleaning urges have been greatly exaggerated. The reports have been largely powered by a University of Gothenburg study of 130,000 people from 22 countries who took an online English-language personality test.

Researchers found that in countries with more women in parliament and the workforce, and more sex equality in levels of education, women score higher on all factors (neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness) of the most used personality measure, the ‘five factor model’. This, they speculate, means that “as gender equality increases both men and women gravitate towards their traditional gender roles”.

According to self-styled lifestyle guru, Jordan Peterson, the study is a “final discrediting” of feminism. “GENDER DIFFERENCES IN PERSONALITY AND INTEREST ARE STRONGLY INFLUENCED BY BIOLOGY. Period. The End,” he thundered on Twitter.

As the kids say, huge if true.

The thing is, it isn’t. Let’s look at the most glaring flaws (there are too many to go through them all here).

First up, the study authors’ assumption that native English speakers will interpret questions in the same way as those who speak English as a second language. When neuroscientist Sophie Scott was conducting a separate study on attitudes to laughter, she encountered serious difficulties translating a question about someone laughing “nastily” from English into Chinese. “Some definitions of it might sound like it’s a more sexual connotation, which wasn’t what we meant at all,” she said.

Another question that caused cross-cultural complications was agreeing/disagreeing with the statement, “I often laughed uncontrollably”. For English participants this just cohered with people who thought they did/didn’t laugh a lot. But for Chinese participants it stood out on its own.

It turned out that in China it’s not a good thing to laugh uncontrollably. “So what had seemed to us like, ‘well here’s yet another question asking whether or not people laugh a lot’, actually meant something different in that culture,” Scott said.

When I asked Erik Mac Giolla, the lead author of the new, University of Gothenburg study, how they had accounted for cultural differences in the interpretation of personality traits, he replied, “We didn’t”.

Then there’s the major assumption that the number of female MPs in parliament has anything to do with the level of gender stereotyping that exists in a country. The study’s central contention is that it is somehow inexplicable that men and women might espouse more stereotypically gendered behaviours. But is it?

For a start, the study makes no accommodation of how gender stereotypes differ from country to country. But more than this, the central finding is in actual fact not that surprising at all.

When in 2014 the UN’s special rapporteur on sexual violence visited the UK, she said that there was “a more visible presence of sexist portrayals of women and girls”, and a “marketisation of women’s and girls’ bodies” that was more “in-your-face” than in other countries she’d visited. And yet our parliament is 33% female!

There have also been studies showing that the more women in an institution (for example, the US Democratic Party), the more aggressive the men in that institution become against women, rather suggesting that as women gain in formal power, informal gender stereotyping rises to put them back in their place.

But even if the test didn’t have these issues, it couldn’t show what it claims, namely that women being more neurotic, extroverted, open, agreeable and conscientious is somehow linked to a predisposition for “caretaking of offspring and the elderly”, or conversely that men scoring lower on all these traits is “associated with protecting family and building homesteads”. What has increased neuroticism to do with an innate desire to wipe bums? And how would being less extroverted or agreeable be helpful to men who want to go out to work to provide for the family?

I put it to you, dear reader, that it wouldn’t. In fact, I suspect that no matter what sex differences the study found, it would have claimed they proved gender stereotypes were innate. As Scott says, “you almost could not be more trite.”

The truth is, this study that has been widely reported as ‘proving’ gender stereotypes are merely objective reflections of innate sex differences, does nothing of the sort. It is riddled with unproven assumptions, and feminism, I’m afraid, gets to live another day. So perhaps, in order to prevent a “final discrediting” of science reporting, journalists could stop being so credulous and start engaging critically with university press releases – rather than simply regurgitating them?

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