This is a Perfect Example of What I’m Talking About

One of the major themes that I have running through this blog is that people in the Sciences and people in the Humanities fundamentally do not understand one another, one account of the fact that sciences are inherently apolitical whereas humanities are inherently political. Case in point, this facebook post by a friend of mine who also happens to be a transsexual Engineer:

My stats prof just said that the sex OR gender (he interchanged them) of a newborn is a binary outcome and that it is a success or failure event.

Now of course, this is problematic* because it erases the experiences of biologically intersexed and transgendered people (and also carries the nasty implication that having a child of one or the other sex constitutes a “failure”). But it’s also pretty clear to me that the statistics professor in question came about it honestly: the sex/gender distinction is something that you are pretty much never likely to hear about if you don’t study social sciences**, and the erasure of intersexed babies arises from a “simplifying assumption” (of precisely the sort that are common in just about all of the sciences). As for discussions of “success” or “failure,” these are morally neutral terms in statistics; you pick an outcome to look for (say in this case, having a male baby) and then see whether a particular trial succeeded or failed to attain this outcome.

But therein lies the problem. You see, no one minds any of this if you’re talking about non-Human situations. If you are doing statistical analysis of a series of coin tosses, and you assume a binary outcome of ‘heads’ or ‘tails,’ no one calls you a bigot because you erase the experiences of coins which land on their edge. Moreover, if you decide (without loss of generality) that you are going to be looking for ‘heads’ and count ‘tails’ as a failure, no one will ever accuse you of being “ouraphobic***” You can clearly see that when you are talking about a non-Human object, the exact same assumptions and simplifications which just got all up in everyone’s fries become perfectly acceptable (and indeed reasonable) things to do.

Understand, though, that I am not intending this as a critique of the methodology of the social sciences; rather, I am using it to illustrate the point that the methodology of “hard sciences” and the methodology of the social sciences are not, and cannot be interchangeable with one another, because there are political tripwires literally everywhere in the social sciences.


*Take a shot.

**And even then, it would need to be something like Cultural Anthropology, Sociology, or Women’s Studies

***”Fear of tails?” Is this correct usage? The Greek word for tail is ουρά, is it not?

About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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2 Responses to This is a Perfect Example of What I’m Talking About

  1. Lindsay says:

    I would definitely be taken aback by describing sex determination as a “success or failure” event, but probably a lot of this has to do with stats not being my field. The terminology is unfamiliar, and taken literally it is very insulting indeed.

    (I have less of a problem with him erasing intersexed and trans* people because that kind of simplifying assumption is familiar to me — assume a horse is spherical to make the calculations easier, the joke goes).

    “Ourophobic” made me laugh; your knowledge of Greek is enviable. I actually missed “all up in everyone’s fries” until I saw the tags! That’s a fun phrase, too.

  2. Pingback: The Myth of the Archetypical Human « voxcorvegis

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