The Scientist’s Toolkit: Check your prejudices.

2 02 2010

Some things make me sad. Some things make me angry. This particular article makes me both, but in all fairness, Aaron Sell’s anger is both more justified and more righteous.

For those of you who have missed the blog kerfuffle, Aaron Sell, a psychologist for the Centre for Evolutionary Psychology, recently published an article studying aggression and suggesting that individuals who perceive themselves to be stronger, or more attractive, are more likely to behave aggressively. This research was picked up and published by the Sunday Times as an article titled, “Blonde women born to be warrior princesses“.

It’s hard to know where to start with all the things that are wrong with this.  Sell’s research did not refer to blondes at all. Sell details, in his subsequent angry letter to the Times, how the journalist, John Harlow, told him he was writing a piece about blondes, and asked him whether blondes exhibited more anger. Sell pointed out that his work didn’t look at hair colour at all, but agreed to re-analyse the data on this basis. He found no link between hair colour, entitlement and aggressive behaviour, and told Harlow so. Harlow’s article subsequently appeared, not only claiming that “blondes are more aggressive and more determined to get their own way”, but attributing some completely outrageous and utterly fabricated quotes directly to Sell. “This is southern California – the natural habitat of the privileged blonde”?

I’d really like to believe that this was a one-off, but it’s hard to. It’s clear that Harlow had the story already written in his mind, and chose not to let the lack of actual facts get in his way. There’s been some online coverage of this egregious example of reporting (try here and here) and some discussion of the role of a responsible press in not totally fabricating stories and quotes from whole cloth in defiance of evidence (can you tell this bothers me?).  But I actually think the real lesson is slightly different.

Newspapers, on the whole, find it far more convenient to tell us what we already believe – changing people’s minds is time-consuming, difficult, and they don’t like it much. We’re all disposed to seek out and overvalue information that confirm the beliefs we already have  (confirmation bias) – some nifty studies have been done on the phenomenon. Harlow’s study panders shamelessly to our prejudices and our stereotypes. It’s a bit controversial, but not so much so that we can’t secretly, lazily, accept it as true because it ties in with some of our other social shortcuts. This is why we do science; because we can’t fully trust our brains to evaluate evidence effectively when we already have beliefs on a topic. We will always be inclined to seek out and accept the information that confirms what we already believe – it’s so much easier than re-evaluating those beliefs.

I don’t know about all of you, but when I’m reading the paper from now on, I’m going to very carefully evaluate any story reporting a study on how it plays to my prejudices. Because if it does, I need to be extra, extra careful before I accept any part of it. And since the Times has refused to print Aaron Sell’s letter, or alter or remove the original article, please help make it up to him by reading his excellent original research.