There’s a good article on Pure Pedantry. It illustrates why any amount of classy social statistics manipulation can be pointless without some social science understanding.
The Pure Pedantry post is about the claim that men and women have different numbers of sexual partners. The blogger sees this as inherently unlikely and refers to a mathematician David Gale who put that very point of view in the New York Times.
The obvious conclusion – that people lie about these things and they lie in ways that are not random but reflect social values about gender – convinces the blogger.
However, he updates the post with an explanation of how the seemingly irrational results could come from a confusion over the meaning of averages and medians in the statistics. This is all true, of course. However, it is irrelevant.
Whatever measurement you choose, the results are bull. They can only ever be bull, because there is no society on earth where ideas of maleness and femaleness are not socially constructed. So the results might tell you something about the meanings we attach to being a man or a woman but cannot say anything reliable about the actions of real men and women.
A thought experiment. Ask a thousand anonymous man and women about the number of sexual partners they have had. Ask another thousand anonymous men and women about the number of partners they believe is “normal”. You could probably guarantee that the results will broadly match, with the variation that men will report themselves at one or two above the mark and women will claim to be a mark or two beneath it.
Another thought experiment. Ask a thousand people some anonymous factual questions about their driving – “How many times have you ever driven over the speed limit?” “Do you ever drive when you are drunk?” and so on. The results would make you wonder how there are ever any accidents. Very few people would report themselves as driving in a potentially lethal way. Anonymity wouldn’t in itself make the results true, would it?
And it’s not just bragging or minimising. People don’t even tell themselves the truth. It’s the nature of society. Scientists aren’t immune from social values. A commenter on Pure Pedantry talks about girls with high numbers being “easy.” There is an entire lifetime of social conditioning in that phrase.
It’s a good post about how the choice of statistical methods can affect the interpretation of survey data. But there are some aspects of humanity that present far too much of a challenge to empirical observation to produce any meaningful results without some understanding of semiotics, cultural values, gender power relations, individual psychology and the whole rich world of social science knowledge.
I’m certainly not denying the validity of empirical data in the social sciences. The more the better. It’s just that we are nowhere near the point at which we can use people’s responses to questionnaires as evidence about their behaviour in the same direct way that we can use the number of bacteria on a slide as evidence for the presence of foot and mouth disease.