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Urban legends

By Wendy McElroy
web posted November 18, 2002

Advocacy research refers to studies and reports produced by people with a vested interest in reaching a foregone conclusion. Politically correct feminism is notorious for its advocacy research and for the shoddy methodology that often accompanies political bias.

Theory is paraded as fact, anecdotal accounts as hard data. Those who raise contradicting evidence are slandered in ad hominem attacks.

Such "research" could be dismissed as worthless and irrelevant if it did not form the basis of so much public policy. Feminist smears could be written off as bad manners if it did not damage people's lives. As it stands, PC feminism and the urban legends it creates hurt innocent people. And that can never be ignored.

In 1994, Christina Hoff Sommers exposed the urban legends feminism has perpetrated on the North American public in her book Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women. Examples of feminist urban legends include:

-- 150,000 American women die of anorexia nervosa each year. Sommers went to the figure's source and found that 150,000 people have anorexia, with yearly deaths ranging around 100.

-- domestic violence soars by 40 percent on Super Bowl Sunday. When the source was tracked down, the "researcher" refused to verify the data, claiming that the study was not "for public consumption."

-- a March of Dimes study found that battery during pregnancy was the leading cause of birth defects. But the March of Dimes did no such study and was misquoted.

Such urban legends are used as scare tactics to support demands for laws and increased funding to benefit women. Meanwhile, anyone who challenges the PC findings of flawed or non-existent "studies" is likely to be slandered or worse. Three pioneering researchers on domestic violence -- Murray Straus, Richard Gelles and Suzanne Steinmetz -- encountered this PC gambit for silencing dissent.

In 1980, the three researchers conducted a now classic study, Behind Closed Doors: Violence in American Families, that indicated men and women initiate domestic violence at about the same rate, although men receive fewer injuries. As a result of this study and continuing research, Straus' career was injured by bitter personal attacks, including a false rumor that he was a wife-beater. As Gelles commented, almost every male researcher or writer who counters feminist urban legends is branded as a batterer.

Female researchers fare no better. Steinmetz's family -- including her children -- were threatened with physical violence and a conference at which she was to speak received a bomb threat.

To this day, most of the people I know who speak out with any effectiveness against PC feminism are slandered and targeted for intimidation.

Certainly, I receive my share of strange libels and threats. Yet it is essential that thug-like strategies not be allowed to silence valid research and dissenting opinion.

It is important for people to regain confidence in the objective research that is fundamental to establishing facts. Scare tactics have been so overused by PC advocates that a "Peter and the Wolf Syndrome" is starting to set in. Inaccurate and shoddy "research" has been used to sound alarm bells so often that a cynical public is starting to ignore valid data. Who can blame them for this reaction?

But honest research is possible, and the media must cease being complicit in ringing false alarms and spreading inaccuracies. Even cursory attention to common-sense guidelines would allow journalists and reporters to filter out the worst of the legends that pose as fact instead of passing them on to listeners as "news."

What are some of these common-sense guidelines? The media should ignore, or severely question, any report:

-- with highly emotive language;

-- with specific policy recommendations or funding demands;

-- with a "snapshot" approach rather than data over time;

-- with internal and unexplained anomalies or contradictions;

-- without collaborating empirical evidence;

-- without a statement of parameters, e.g. margin for error;

-- without disclosure of researchers' relevant affiliations;

-- which has an unrepresentative or small sampling;

-- which does not attempt to verify the accounts;

-- which stresses anecdotal accounts

-- which does not independently verify accounts from subjects

Moreover, the media should stop treating slander as though it was a counter-argument. When men who question feminist data are bashed as batterers, reporters should demand hard evidence for this criminal charge. When women who speak out are threatened and slandered, journalists should expose the feminist preference to destroy lives instead of dealing with arguments.

If the media took that first step, perhaps then the public would regain confidence in another essential aspect of public debate. The idea of an honest disagreement is possible between people who respect each other instead of the mud-slinging matches that pass for dialogue on "hardball" talk shows.

I learned that respectful disagreement was possible from Queen Silver, a woman who was my best friend and inspiration up until her death a few years ago. We disagreed on almost everything political. From Queen, I discovered that someone who diametrically opposes me on important issues could have a good heart and care every bit as much as I do about justice.

A generation has been raised to believe that shouting is debate, defamation of character is argument and valid research does not exist. This PC legacy must not be allowed to stand.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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