There was:

  • A question which starts with the words “fifteen individuals who attend a weightwatchers’ clinic are each to be assigned at random to one of the treatments A, B, C to reduce their weights”, and goes on to list “differing amounts of weight” that they need to lose.
  • A question that starts “a surgeon wishes to compare two possible surgical techniques for curing a specific heart defect…” and goes on to list 24 patients, together with “sex: M/F” and “age”.

Why am I highlighting this?

Well, actually, there’s a few reasons.

Firstly, diets don’t work. So the first example grates on me. Secondly, both questions are about changes to the human body. One of them merits the sex of the individuals being known. The other one apparently doesn’t.

Are we meant to assume that weight loss will occur (assuming it does occur, for which, see my first point) at the same rate for men and women? At this point, I’m not getting into discussing the gender binary, because we’re dealing with statistics, and one of the things that statistics does is identify trends. The problem occurs when people start to take trends to be indicative of not only the whole population, but for each individual within that population.

So, if we can assume for the moment that people socially identified as male tend to have a different bodily structure to those socially identified as female, surely it would make just as much sense for the weightwatchers trial to be stratified by sex as it was for the heart defect trial.

In which case, I’m surprised that the question didn’t make that clear. Yes, I know that in the real world there are many factors that ought to be accounted for, of which sex is only one. And the questions that we do are, of necessity, very generalised, as they exist mainly as a way for us to show that we understand the concept. But this is a strange omission, as it is the only question, out of four, which does not in some way mention the sex of the person(s) in question.

Are we, then, meant to assume that there is no need to specify the sex of the people dieting? And why?

I know what I think. I think that the underlying assumption is that dieting is for women. And I know that I don’t like this assumption. In fact, I think that when I hand this homework in, it will have a note to the effect that the sex of the participants was not included, and that this could have made a difference.

Once upon a time, I used to believe my teachers when they spoke of the objectivity in science. Now, more and more, I feel that belief slipping away*. And these aren’t even real studies.

*It’s the small things as much as anything. One of my tutors has a habit of referring to all of the people in our questions as “he”, even when on the sheets they are explicitly gendered female. I’ve also noticed that women in our examples sheets tend to do things like diving and gymnastics, whilst men drive cars. This frustrates me, because when we’re in a parallel universe in which a car is doing a totally constant speed, and the speedometer does not lie, surely we can mix things up a bit and get rid of some patriarchal assumptions whilst we’re there!