How to blind yourself and others to good research

Via Twitter, this gem about ideologically-driven research:

I want to highlight two parts. First, the opening act:

The criteria of valid knowledge associated with quantitative research are ones that turn women, whey they are the focus of research, into objects. This means that women are again subjected to exploitation, in that knowledge and experience are extracted from them with nothing in return, even when the research is conducted by women (Mies 1993).

Because of the many things people have in common with other people, we can find out some kinds of information about people generally by doing research involving specific people. And because people are part of the natural world, many things about them can be described with numbers. Those numbers cannot capture everything interesting, important, or even relevant about human beings, but like carbon dioxide parts per million, sometimes putting numbers to the various features of the natural world can tell us interesting and useful things. If you want to call this treating women (and people generally) as objects, fine, but you thereby imply a complete separation between humans and the rest of the natural world. Humans are special, but it does not make sense as a blanket rule in social and physical science.

If you think of quantitative data gathering as particular women being treated as objects and thereby out of bounds, what is your alternative proposal for medical research? There are certain kinds of research that are unethical, of course, but beyond those cases the overwhelming majority of medical research works this way, and women (as well as men) have certainly benefited from medical research. Does this passage imply compensated participation in research is acceptable, i.e. not exploitative? Or at least informed consent? These are standard practices. What if research participants recognize the potential benefit to people other than themselves and participate for altruistic motives, even if they don’t know the specific purpose of a particular study and aren’t compensated? Are we saying only compensated participation is acceptable?

But this is all a warm-up for the really astounding main event:

The emphasis on controlling variables further exacerbates this last problem, and indeed the very idea of control is viewed as a masculine approach.

This is really egregious. Is the objection to trying to determine causal and probabilistic relationships among variables by the technique of holding some other factors constant? That seems absurd to write out, something nobody could posit even in jest. The only explanation that makes sense is that the mysterious, unnamed academics who with the passive voice view “the very idea of control” “as a masculine approach” simply have no understanding of the processes under discussion, and think because some forms of control are objectionable the word itself must entail them in all other contexts. (Perhaps some self-controldiscipline in studying statistical methods is in order.) If this is the case, we are dealing with an entire academic subfield premised on a complete misunderstanding of what words and numbers are and do. This is a group within the academy that literally and completely has no idea what the others are talking about, but commands pontificating about it anyway. Not only is using any resources for this purpose wasteful, it actually takes us farther away from reality.

Making sure women get a fair shake is a noble (and uncontroversial) goal. Tying the improvement of the female condition to dubious, even mystical research practices does not help the goal. Fortunately, almost all scholars, including the scholarly women I know, don’t follow this approach.


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